Dark, the sun is down and we're speeding North exiting the edge of Tokyo. Joel snoozes in the passenger seat. We've just landed from a 10 hour flight from Vancouver, 10 minutes after standing we're sitting again in a rental car on a 14 hour road trip. Ebisu ho! As we blend from the city into the country, an intersection comes alive, not with light, but noise. Engines rev, loudly and with beautiful rhythm. Joel stirs quickly as he is awakened by his first Bosozoku experience. He's now sure he's in Japan.
Honestly, I hadn't heard of team Tetsujin before. It took the entire trip for me to understand the scale of their huge presence. Afro, and Joey, both BC residents are sponsored RC, radio controlled, drift drivers. Sponsored by Team Tetsujin, they were invited to Japan for a grand adventure. Afro and Joey invited Sunny, James, and Joel.
Joel has always wanted to, but never visited, Japan. He invited me to be his cultural liaison for his first visit. I don't need to think twice, Japan is always a good time. So here we found ourselves, Joel and I crammed in a Toyota Vitz and set into driving on the wrong side of the road for 14 hours from Nagoya to Ebisu. It was his first time, and here we were doing an epic road trip within 10 minutes of landing. Frog meets boiling water.
It's safe to say that this article could be just about that 14 hour drive. The bosozoku wails waking the sleeping ears, the Dekotora lights waking the sleeping eyes, the 7-11 $1 coffee's waking the sleeping tongue, the 100 octane pumps waking the sleeping nostrils, and winding roads waking the sleeping body.
"Turn unto towards" is a hilarious but grinding phrase. It turns out Apple can't speak Japanese; I now know why the iPhone failed in Japan. This phrase was hilarious at first, but after 14 hours, you want to throw your phone into a nearby rice patty. Navigation is difficult in Japan as the road structure is untraditional. This is sometimes quite frustrating, but also offered us a immense sense of accidental adventure. Like ending up on a mysterious Touge, following the clearance lights of a truck who was keeping an amazing pace on all the hairpins!
Why a rental car, why not the train? I agree, the train is faster, but the rental car offered us more freedom, more shelter and actually cost far less over the 3 week journey. A unique challenge we took on to save money, was avoiding all use of 'Hi-Roads'.
If you've never visited Japan, it'll be a surprise to learn that all Highways have a toll system. Meaning, if you want to get somewhere in a direct and quick manner, it's going to be expensive. The tolls are not reasonable to a foreigner, one of our accidental trips along the highway through Tokyo cost us almost $80.
Our challenge was to focus on the 'Low-roads' which was a much more difficult path of travel, and far more rewarding. Japan is a very windy, the roads are developed from mostly old walking paths, as is the city structures. Often roads are barely wide enough for our little Vitz, even though, they are two way roads!
This low-road challenge gave us the greatest view of Japan as a whole. We wandered from huge cities to little outposts, climbing up and down the mountains on both busy and quiet paths, each inch being a new surprise. Tress arches over the cliffs besides us as we disappeared in an out of unlit tunnels punched through mountains. Peaking into a small town for an ice coffee stop and back into the throttle to blindly crest into a gorgeous view of a smokey green valley clashing with the setting sun. Don't let me forget to tell you about the Levy roads.....
On our drive to Ebisu, I needed a break for a moment. I'd say, overall of this 4000km trip, I did about 80%? of the driving. This is not a bad, but a good thing. I love driving. But we were about 8 hours towards Ebisu, and I needed a snack and a stretch.
Two things you can count on in Japan:
1. Convenience stores being convenient. They're everywhere, always well stocked, clean, welcoming, and full of yummy, healthy and affordable snacks!!! I know that's a lot of commas, but they're needed.
2. Car culture is abundant. Housing is expensive, and crowded, so home is just a place to sleep. Cars are a place to live, an expression of you, a freedom of movement. The general population is much more proud of their wheels in Japan, so you'll find a lot of people just 'into' cars.
With these two factors in mind, it's not a surprise that when we pulled over in the middle of the dark morning, that there was an open 7-11 just across the street from a drifting specific racing circuit. I almost didn't notice at first, in the darkness the huge ORC signs posted. PITORC just happened to be across the street.
Ever play a game and accidentally achieve a quest you were planning on doing later? That happened to us, as one of our side quests for the trip was to drive on a Melody Road. Not sure what that is? Well, Japan has 30 different roads, with grooves cut into them, much like the grooves on North American roads to warn you of lane drift. These Japanese ones are designed to create music when driven over!! :) Route 122 towards Nikko offered this experience to Joel and I, purely by navigational mistake. lol
In previous trips I'd been to Tsukuba, and Nikko. Both timeless classics of racing circuits. Although Nikko is my favorite, Ebisu is a heaven to drifters must dip their toes in. A mecca is you will, so this pilgrimage was a required trip in my religion of slide. We arrived. What I didn't mention earlier, this 14 trip was a quiet race. Joel and I had opted for our own Rental car. The rest of the guys were hanging with Team Tetsujin owner, Atsushi Mizunaga. He was shuttling them from Nagoya to Ebisu via high roads. A 7 hour route via High roads, versus our 14 hour route via low roads. I can't remember who won?
Ebisu is interesting. It feels repurposed. It feels like it was a mash up of ideas some good, some bad, patched together through small projects. A rough idea, lacking some core guidance has created a mashup of a variety of 7 tracks and 2 skid pads, scattered and molded into the hill side guided by budget and attention span.
For those of you who are not familiar with Ebisu, you should be. A new problem I've come across lately, is a lack of knowledge of the history of drifting. It's strange to meet people who think Vaughn Gitten invented drifting. Ebisu is a required visit to pay your respects to the evolution of drift culture. Here we were standing at the literal tiger gates, finally facing the mecca of drift.
A few dollars squeezed us past the gate keepers and into the event: A two day, two round, D1 Grand Prix event. Rounds 5 and 6 were being held on the Minami (South) course. This course is famous for it's Minami Jump; the only D1GP course featuring a literal jump drift as part of the judged run. There's no better way to see the track for the first time, then to see the worlds best drivers attacking the Minami Jump.
The pits were cramped but like the rest of Japan, well organized and quality crammed within quantity. I was especially star struck, when bumping shoulds with big name drift legends in the crowds mulling about the pit lane. Taniguchi, Nomuken, Tarzan, Ueno, Hibino, were a few busy with tasks regarding their programs. While Joel was a bit more photogenic than me, I did take one photo with my favorite driver, Katsuhiro Ueo.
I stopped, motioned for a picture, snap snap, then ran away. I wasn't about to punch him, and yell at him for all the money and youth I've blown on Corollas. It's his fault, but I won't let him know that.
Peering into the Drift Tengoku booth was a surreal moment for me. 'Tengoku' translates to 'Heaven'. A print and video magazine, that for many years (decades?) has been documenting the amateur and professional drifting culture throughout Japan. I love it's unbiased content for any drifting budget. I scored a free towel and now covet it.
I can't seem to go to a country anymore without running into someone who I know. Aaron Lee, a fellow Canadian and Corolla enthusiast lived near by and arrived to say hello. His hello was to me, and my Alexi from NoriYaro who I hadn't seen in many years. I caught him doing the live feed for D1 and being a general man of media. Joel and I would later that night, go with him to wander around Koriyama and suck up some sloppy noodles and Tenga cups.....lol
okay, so that's day 1. Yes, day 1 of a 3 week trip. That was day 1.....
I'm not sure where to take the story from here. You can keep reading if you'd wish, but it's about to get jumbled and crazy. For those who are visual, you're welcome to jump straight into the album of the trip. 6 pages of the best photos I could muster over the 3 week period. They are randomly organized on purpose. You'll find that Album here:
SPEEDHERO X PLATFORM GARAGE X TEAM TETSUJIN - JAPAN TOUR '17
For those of you interested in the context of these photos, let's keep typing!
Day 2 was much the same of the first, more D1GP. This was round #6 and drivers who had survived the previous day had a second chance to compete for top prize! Day 2 is also essentially the end of Joel and I's plan. We knew we had to be to Ebisu by a certain time, but that was about it.
We mulled about D1GP again for a second day, absorbing the surreal. From the drivers attending to their cars, from the food to the fans. This was the beginning of something I'd forgotten about Japan. The great blue balling. For me inparticular Japan has some amazing beauty, and like all other things it's not only in great quality, but great quantity. A barrage of attractive people bumping into you from all angles, almost all the time. More on that later.
After another day of amazing sites at D1GP Ebisu, Joel and I rolled down further into Fukushima to begin the solo part of our adventure. By this I mean, this was our first break away from Team Tetsujin, to explore on our own schedule. Aaron Lee offered to host us for an evening at his home; a housing complex for foreigners who teach other languages locally. It was neat, as we crammed into his little abode, we were attacked by his rude but cute Japanese cat. In the morning, we were greeted by Aarons, rule bending, two Honda Beats.
This was my first opportunity to push my agenda on Joel. Our breakfast was a required stop at Mister Donut to consume some much craved Lions mane. A donut so gooey and chewy that I've craved it since my last visit in 2014.
As a bit of an insight, Joel's nick name is Hedonman. A man who's sole motivations are hedonistic. I wore a similar, but slightly different nick name. Processed Man.
I'll admit it; one of the reasons I love Japan so much is I love processed food, more so than naturally grown or even home cooked. Japan is a place that embraces processed food like no other. It's good quality ingredients combined for a delicious taste, then packaged in extremely mindful packaging. I fucking love processed foods, and my opportunity to force my processed desires on Joel was heavenly. We ate the fuck out of those little Lions Manes.
Aaron lit the fire. Japan's interesting as the quality of everyday goods is far superior to that of North America. Even the dollar stores are high quality goods. Life in Japan in general is far more clean, organized and higher quality than North America. So when Aaron took us to a few of the local Used-good shops in the area, it was lit, and we were stoked.
Bumbling around without direction is the best way to discover the world. It's the greatest impression of a country and a culture is just to see things without direction or focus. Our rental car offered us this opportunity, we wandered around chunks of Koriyama discovering random car shops and interesting used goods shops. This is where we introduced Joel to his first Up Garage.
You should know what Up Garage is, but if you don't that's okay. :) North America has pawn shops, Japan has pawn shops too, but with purpose and focus. Up Garage is a pawn chain focused solely on performance and custom automotive and motorcycle parts. This means, you can wander into an UpGarage and find a cool set of wheels for your car, maybe a rad widebody, or a turbo. It's a great way to not only upgrade your car at used prices, but to quickly unload your dormant parts resting around your garage. People love it, I love it, Joel now loves it.
While this was all and good, we needed to co-ordinate with Team Tetsujin again, meet up with the boys down in Nagoya way to go hop around some shops in Tokyo and do some sight seeing. Another 10 hour road trip ahead of us! I love driving, especially around Japan in a fuel efficient little bubble. Putt Putt!
We met up with Atsushi and his gang for some RC drift, and a shop crawl around the city. He and his team are well connected in the drifting community so it was really nice to be welcomed into being annoying tourists bumbling around shops. They knew we were coming and welcomed us in.
Our first stop was at an RC track in North Tokyo (?) I think. You see, we wandered down to Kawasaki, which is near the core of Tokyo. Here we stayed at the Haida airport Inn for the evening. The next day Joel and the team wandered down to Akihabara to sight see. I pulled the car out of the carousel parking and buzzed over to have a nice noodle date with a local lovely. Don't fret, it was just noodles and chat. :)
After noodles I got a panicked text from Joel. He wasn't feeling well and needed a rescue. I bombed down to Akihabara. This was an interesting drive, through Tokyo, by myself, in my own set of wheels. Just cruising. It was a feeling I enjoyed, and felt very much like I was home. I skirted over to the tourist area, 'created' a parking spot, and waited for Joel. We returned to the hotel for a much needed rest.
On all my previous trips to Japan, were in the spring. This was late summer, and I had no idea how aggressive the humidity got at this time of year! It was brutal, even Australia wasn't this hard to breath. This resulted in a great discouragement of our car-sleep plans. Hotels were now simply for the their quiet AC.
While Joel rested I poked around the area absorbing moisture, culture and canned coffee. All of these in excess.
The morning offered us more canned coffee, and a new, grand adventure. We got lost. Our goal was to Follow Team Tetsujin. Easy, except they didn't know we didn't have an ETC pass. ETC is the electric troll card. So, as Atsusuhi wanders into the ETC gate, we're panicking as we know it's going to be expensive to follow them. They pass easily through the gate, as we get caught counting change. We are then completely separated from Team Tetsujin for 30 minutes, with no address and driving aimlessly on a toll roll. What's crazy, is that we end up in Odaiba, a famous D1GP island off of Tokyo, then back into tokyo, only to finally, and accidentally catch the team Tetsujin van at a random toll booth. Had I not made a mistake at 26 minutes (video below) then we wouldn't have ever caught them again at 29 minutes.
This was a crazy, and random adventure on our way to the first RC track of the day. Team Tetsujin none the wiser of our expensive and ultimately lucky random adventure.
We ended up near Yokota air base.
RC drifting is fun for a bit, but our tour continues otherwise to some shops. We stop at Fat Five Racing, which is Daigo Saito's personal work shop. We also stopped in to see Shino Kouba at 4 Heads racing, and following that up we stopped at Weld Racing before dipping into another nearby RC race track.
A favorite part of seeing these shops was the contrast between the old and the new. A accidental theme of this trip was seeing some of the historic Japanese drifting culture locations. Fat five was a product of the new school, Four heads, that of the old school, and Weld racing was somewhere in the middle. Each had their own unique style that correlated with their perspective era.
An interesting side into this accidental theme was passing by Yokota Air Base. This is an important site in drifting history. Yokota is an American airbase Near Tokyo, where in the late 90's many American soldiers took up street drifting. I'd always wanted to see this base, as it's where the origins of American drift culture began. A small few of these soldiers brought back drifting with them to the US in the early 2000's. You may even recognize famous Formula D driver Robbie Nishida, Famous D1 driver of team Hey Man, Shinji Minowa and I think even more in this old video option.
One thing I'd like to comment on is the size of the shops we visited. Most are only a few bays large. What you would think is a huge industrial complex pumping out and storing goods to be shipped internationally, are actually tiny little work spaces with almost no parking for their employees. Work is completed quickly, and done right the first time, then pushed out of the shop and new stuff is brought in. There's no storage of cars, or things sitting around, it gets done, and they move on.
That night we bombed down to a very famous spot: Daikuko Futo. In the Yokohama bay, is an highway interchange. This interchange exists on a man-made island. These are pretty common in Japan, especially in industrial areas. Someone had the great idea of putting a parking area in the middle of the interchange. Here you are, in the middle of a huge swirl of 5 stories of highway, winding and weaving around each other where one high T's into another. In the middle is just a parking lot, with some vending machines and a McDonalds.
Why's this place so special? Because it's located on a man-made industrial island, there are no house nearby, this means idiots can be loud in the middle of the night without worry of the law pointing out their stupidity. Car groups gather many nights of the week just to hang out in a place their accepted. All types hop on the high road to come over to Daikoku Futo. This parking area (truck stop) is a refuge for the truckers, but accidentally more so, for the automotive deviants. We slept in the car this evening, with not much success.
Let's call that the end of Chapter 1 for now. The power died and I lost 4 hours of writing. :/