Trip to Hakone Pt.2

mood: Good

So after finishing up the historical portion of this Hakone trip, it was time to move onto some driving. Hakone has some of the windiest, most wicked touges in all of Japan, and I needed to drive them myself. Touges in Hakone are world famous and can be found in countless video games, animes, and movies. If you've ever played a racing game at the arcade or on your playstation, chances are you drove on a digital version of Hakone touge without realizing it.

While there is many touges within the Hakone area, two are especially famous. The first, is Skyline. Skyline is a touge at the very top of the ridge of the mountain range to the west of Ashinoko lake. It is a special toll road that offers a surreal top-of-the-world experience with amazing views at every angle. The second, is Mikuni touge, connecting from the bottom of Skyline touge and working downhill towards near Sekisho. Mikuni is considered by many the most hardcore touge in all of Japan (those people need to go to Gunma's Irohazaka). Just at the entrance of Skyline touge, as well, is an especially famous stretch of road found in the Initial D series which is often frequented by local drifters.

To help illustrate, click on the map above for a blown up view of the area. You can see both Skyline and Mikuni touges to the west.

On the way to Skyline, I took another less traveled touge as a shortcut. This road was quite narrow and very high up with a sheer drop to the valley below.

This is a quick vid of the touge going up to Skyline then a bit of the Skyline touge itself. If you're wondering to yourself while watching the video, "Gee, why is Miki freaking out so much, it doesn't seem like he's driving very fast or crazy..." then you sir or madam would be correct. She is just acting like a sissy.

It's realllly high up though. I had to take a breather so I could snap a quick shot of my car.

At the end of the shortcut there was this tunnel that emptied out to the entrance of Skyline touge.


This is the sign for Skyline. If you look on the street in the background, you'll see many tire tracks from drifters tearing up the road. The opposite direction from where I'm looking is sort of the start of the drifting course people frequent.

Luckily for me, parked at the entrance was another R32 like mine, same color and everything, just hanging out. I took the opportunity to park next to him for a picture. This sign though is especially awesome. Drifters, or people who drive these roads in illegal ways are called roringu-zoku (rolling gangs), and this sign is explaining that they're actively fighting against these hooligans to try and stop the manly driving.

If you only learn one kanji in the Japanese language, it should be this one. This is the kanji for touge. The kanji is made up of three simpler kanji. The left section is the kanji for mountain (yama). The upper-right section is the kanji for uphill (ue / nobori). The bottom-right section is the kanji for downhill (shita / kudari). Makes sense right?

Oh dang is that two sexy Skylines parked on Hakone Skyline touge with a clear view of Mt.Fuji in the background? Yea I think it is.

This is the tollgate entrance to Hakone touge.

As you can see, the road has the feeling of really being on the top of a mountain. its skinny because it's the top of the ridge with nothing but open sky above you and large drops on both sides.

I stopped real quick for another shot of Fuji.

At the highest point on Skyline touge there is a parking area with a small restaurant where we stopped for some noodles.

Mmm mmm delicious.

Next to the restaurant there is another hill going to the highest point on the mountain ridge. It's pretty steep, but the climb is worth it because you can see for miles and miles... shocked smile

This is slightly left to the other picture. That lake below is Ashinoko lake and Hakone.

We were pretty tired so we popped a seat and rested for awhile. This high up it's almost completely silent. The only thing you can hear is a gentle wind over the grass.

The view of Fuji for this height is breathtaking.

This is the toll exit of Skyline and entrance of Mikuni touge.

In the middle of Mikuni touge there is a famous parking area which, from what I heard, was a famous stop on an old road that ran through here a long time ago. This rock has been maintained and repainted since old times as a traditional sign identifying the road. The sign also states that this current point has an elevation of about 3,000ft.

Next up! Owakudani (see MAP above). As I'm sure I've mentioned many times, Japan is a very volcanically active. As a result, throughout Japan there are many areas where sulfuric gases find their way out from the Earth's depths. Way back when, people didn't really understand what these were and often refered to them as Hells, or parts of Hell. Others, weren't as morbidly refered to. Owakudani is one of the nicer ones. To get to Owakudani you must drive to a large parking lot and hike a mountain path through a dead forest (the released sulfur gases killed them all) to this spot.

Owakudani is special because of all the natural boiling water pits heated by natural sulfuric gas. There is a famous legend attached to these water pits as well. It is said that if you venture to the top of Owakudani, and eat an egg boiled in the sulfuric pits, you will gain 7 years on your life.

This small shop sells these eggs which are boiled in the pit in the picture above.

What's cool about these boiled eggs is that during the process of cooking in the sulfuric pit, the shells turn jet black. Hence, the name of these eggs is kuro-tamago (black egg).

They taste the same as any normal boiled egg though (and by that, I mean delicious!) and added 7 years to my lifespan.

So here we found ourselves at the top of Owakudani without any more time. I finished up eating my eggs and ran back down the path to my car to return back to Yokohama.

Having social responsibilities like work and school puts a real damper in my touring and sightseeing Japan. It was fun though, and I'll surely return to do more.
Mason on 09.26.08 @ 04:44 PM PST [link]

Trip to Hakone Pt.1

mood: Ambitious

After my trip to Fuji Speedway I began to gain a level of confidence in my ability to navigate the unecessarily complex road system in Japan. See, roads don't have names in Japan like they do in the rest of the world. Rather, only main roads are assigned numbers which may or may not bisect other roads with the same number. For smaller roads, there is no hope for directions and often the roads become so narrow that in order to pass in a car, you must fold in your mirrors (for those of you who imported super JDM electronic folding mirrors yet didn't understand the need, now you do).

Alas, I'm getting off on a tangent here. The point is, most everyone has navigation in their cars and if you don't, you are reserved to use a map book where you must match the shape of the roads in comparison to main roads with numbers to the roads on your map. Getting used to moving about can be quite a tiresome task, only made worse by the horridly unregulated illegal parking and the high, seemingly suicidal, scooter population shooting in and around traffic (I shit you not, every 500 meters a car or truck will literally just stop in the middle of the lane with their emergencies on, forcing everyone to dart to the opposite lane).

Well fiddlesticks I continued my tangent. Anyway, after the trip I decided to be more adventurous and decided to spread outside of Tokyo and Yokohama. Asking around to my various Japanese friends, I found out that a must-see spot was Hakone.

Hakone is a famous resort town tucked around a lake with a mountain range on the west side. Rich with onsens (hot springs), historical points of interests, and of course some of the most beautiful drives in Japan, Hakone is a popular choice with practically everyone. To make it even better, it's rather close to Tokyo by car, bus, and train. If you look on the map above, you can see Tokyo in regards to Hakone. Hakone is just a stones throw south-east of Mt.Fuji. Between Hakone and Yokohama lies the historically famous town of Odawara (my first stop of this trip).

Click on the above picture to get a super blown up view of the same map (Do it, I'll be refering to it a lot). One of the downsides to driving to Hakone is there is so many things to see and do. I spent two days in Hakone on this trip and barely scratched the surface. Of course I plan to return many times to see all that Hakone has to offer.

Anyway, on to the drive. Much of this area southwest of Yokohama is very lush and pretty. The drive took about 3 hours, much of which was a delight to cruise.

I'm not sure about you, but myself, I'm a big fan of Japanese history. A cool thing about Japan is there is so many historical places to check out packed close together (Japan is about the same size of California).

And among the many historical things I like to visit, castles rank at the top. When I was a kid I always wanted to visit castles in Europe and even collected books about castles (hey I was a nerd, shutup). This was my 2nd visit to a castle in Japan (my first being in Kofu west of Tokyo) and this one had a pretty interesting museum inside. Unfortunately they restricted my Americaness and didn't let me snap shots of all the real samurai armor suits, swords, and various historical gears. One really cool thing inside was a katana sword that was in such perfect condition, considering it was over 200 years old, that it was given the prestigious title of an official Japanese kokuhou (historical country treasure).

On the top of the castle they have a souvenir shop (go figure) with a balcony you can walk out onto. From the balcony you can view the city of Odawara all the way out to the Pacific Ocean.

After finishing a quick tour of Odawara castle, we continued on route 1 west towards Hakone through misty woods. I was half expecting a Ninja battle to break out before me because it was so movie-style picturesque.

We approached Hakone from the northeast entering a famous nature viewing spot (view 1 on the above map). It was very beautiful and very wide-open, much different from the feeling of being closed-in in Tokyo. Also, Miki is sporting a fantastic DRFT hoodie she picked up from Fuji Speedway.

Most of the things to do and see in Hakone line the east side of Ashinoko lake (see map above). Along the east side of the lake there is one main road which leads north to south. Entering the main part of town you are welcomed by this large Tori (what they call that red gate thing). Feels super asian when you see these sorts of landmarks.

Apparently haircuts in Japan are unusually expensive, oh wait they are. I'd apologize for my being lazy and having hippy locks of hair but for me to visit a hair salon and get a men's haircut in Tokyo can run between $50-$100. Don't worry though, shortly after this picture I located a poor person $10 haircut establishment that butchers my hair on a monthly basis.

The next stop on the Hakone tour is a place called Sekisho. Back in the Edo period when samurais and the like were still all the rage and people still traveled by horse and by foot, places like Sekisho were very important. Japan has two main city centers, Osaka/Kyoto, and Edo(Tokyo). In the Edo period there were 5 main routes that connected Kyoto and Edo. One of the most used was the Tokaido route(Learn about the 5 routes here). On that road, there were 53 checkpoints travels had to go through to be able to move from Kyoto to Edo. At that time, travel between Edo and Kyoto was very tightly regulated and travelers had to hold passes and special papers to move through each checkpoint (excluding of course the samurai class who could move freely between checkpoints). People who tried to circumvent the checkpoints were often caught and the punishment was death. Sekisho, was the last checkpoint on the Tokaido road between Kyoto and Edo and therefore was very important/famous. in 2007 the Japanese Gov't finished restoring Sekisho and opened it to the public for historical education...

Wow, that's a lot of history right there.

This is approaching Sekisho checkpoint from the Edo(Tokyo) side.

This is a small map depicting the layout of the checkpoint.

Some interior shots of the checkpoint.

In the main hall of the checkpoint, they setup statues of the people who used to work and live in Sekisho. These men were officials responsible for reading the names of travelers passing through and checking the authenticity of the passing papers before allowing them to continue onto Edo. All the statues are a flat grey throughout Sekisho because the historians didn't have exact data on the color of clothing back then and didn't want to misrespresent what they looked like.

In the adjoined room, officials and military presented racks of rifles, naginatas (Japanese lance), and katanas to impress upon would-be criminals and smugglers the military might they had at their disposal. It was kind of a measure for putting fear into peoples hearts to stop them from trying to illegally pass the checkpoint. While that might not be that scary/impressive to you and me, you gotta understand rifles back then were the hottest new thing on the block.

Also, it was common people would try to smuggle things in womens' hair so they had old ladies at the ready to search young ladies and put a stop to it. The statue looks so sad and the old lady looks so mean, haha. wink

Here is a bathroom used back in the day. They'd heat up water in pots over the fire then fill the tub with the hot water for people to then bathe in.

I think this guy is cooking.

While checkpoints served a purpose of discouraging illegal passage, their main reason for existing was to offer a place for travelers to rest along the road. The road is somewhere like 350 miles long and wasn't exactly well paved and had to be traveled by foot/horse. It took a long time to travel and was very tiring. In the above picture you can see some samurai relaxing and eating.

grey horses.

Sekisho is placed right next to Ashinoko lake with a tall hill on the opposite side. On the top of that hill Sekisho had a watchtower where soldiers painstakingly watched for people trying to illegally pass the checkpoint over the lake or over the mountains.

Here's that watchtower...

Sneaky looking soldiers.

What the heck!?? There's a pirate ship on Ashinoko lake! Yup, one of the attractions at Hakone is a real-life copy of a pirate ship you can ride on for a fee. Needless to say, if these watchtower soldiers saw this they're probably soil themselves with surprise.

This is looking down on Sekisho from the watchtower.

It was fun, but it's time to move to something else. We exited the Kyoto-side gate of Sekisho in search of some food (History makes me famished).

Closeby there was a small shop specializing in dango. Dango is a Japanese treat made from rice (what isn't made from rice here?) that's like mochi made into balls and put onto a stick then dipped into a kind of sweet sauce. It looked pretty gross but I was feeling the need for adventure so I gave it a try. Now, today, I love dango and eat it whenever I get a chance (Learn about DANGO!).

Farther down the road a bit they had another small museum talking about the role of samurai and the ruling class in the Edo period. At the front door they had a guard in full Edo era garb. He was kind of a racist dick though, as you can see him completely ignoring me.

Next up, we moved a slight bit north (look at emperor's house on the MAP above). Above Sekisho there is a massive traditional Japanese garden with a mansion at the center of it. This mansion was once the former summer home of emperor Showa (not 100% sure) the emperor prior to the current (Heisei). Now, the mansion is a tourist spot and people are free to look through the mansion.

It's pretty big and has a nice view of Fuji and Ashinoko lake.

Here's how it looked a long time ago, I'm guessing early 1900s.

Earthquakes hit japan weekly, sometimes hard. Sucks for this guy.

After viewing the mansion I went to the main center of town where the port is for the pirate ship. Inside the town center there are many souvenir shops, restaurants, and small attractions. I wanted to get a closer look at the pirate ship so I walked to the docks. Unfortunately, what I found was the only other foreigners in Hakone acting a fool riding some panda devices and taking pictures. What the hell. To make it even worse, they placed those tires there so dumb people won't ride the panda cars into the lake.

Anyway, after finishing up some souvenir shopping, it was time to move onto what I really wanted to do in Hakone, drive. Hakone has a couple of the most famous touges (winding mountain roads) in all of Japan. The touges in Hakone can be found in countless video games, animes, etc.

So, stay tuned for part 2 of the Hakone trip to check it out! crazy angry, grr razz wink
Mason on 09.26.08 @ 03:12 PM PST [link]

JGTC Finals at Fuji Speedway

mood: Excited

blush So with life here in Tokyo ever becoming more and more busy, I find myself completely forgetting about my internet duties. Yes, I have yet to make a post for what seems (or probably is) 6 months or more but rest assured I have not forgotten about you all. Many things have happend and I have actually collected pictures for various posts, but just haven't gotten around to writing them.

So, I decided to catch up. Starting from this one I'll load up all the main missing posts and I promise to make more frequent posts of my last year here in Japan.

Back in May the finals for the JGTC (Japanese GT Championship) was rolling around and with great luck my girlfriend, Miki, got us a pair of tickets to go see it. Miki's father, unknown to her, happend to be a rather high-ranking executive working for Yokohama tires. Yokohama tires is a brand fond in any Japanese car enthusiast's mind and getting a chance to meet someone who was making a living being an executive for it was pretty exciting. He was incredibly nice (thank god, I've heard some horror stories about Japanese fathers meeting foreigner boyfriends of their daughters :crysmile and when he found out that I had such a passion for cars, we had a great conversation over dinner about the tire industry. Since then he's been so nice as to offer me tickets to events Yokohama sponsors.

The JGTC is a form of racing in Japan where they use production cars as a base and create mind-bogglingly fast GT machines which they then compete with throughout famous tracks in Japan. The finals of this series take place at the ever world-famous Fuji Speedway. The event started at around 9am or 10am so in order for us to arrive in time, we had to leave at 3am the morning of. Fuji Speedway is located near the base of Mt.Fuji in Shizuoka prefacture about 100km southwest of Tokyo. Since I live in Yokohama (I moved, I'll talk about that later), it's about a 3-4 hour drive west on local roads. In the above picture you can see me parked in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere on my way to Fuji.

We arrived at about 6am, a teeenie bit ahead of schedule. Having never really been to Fuji Speedway before, we decided to explore the grounds. We opened the envelope from her dad and the tickets we had seemed rather normal enough at first glance but...

As it turns out, Miki's dad is a lot more important to Yokohama then we originally thought. The tickets he gave us not only let us park on the paddock alongside the race cars, but also both saved us parking fee and a long walk from the commoners' parking area. Aside from parking privileges, the tickets also were pretty much all-access VIP passes to anywhere in the event! big grin

After we wandered Fuji Speedway for awhile we returned to the car for a much needed nap before the racing events started. As you can see from above, Fuji Speedway is really close to Mt.Fuji.

As you can see I was pretty tired from the no sleep and the long drive...

And Miki was so tired she turned into the cookie monster.

Here is a shot of a back section of the course. Also, to your right you can see part of the VUP parking area. Had they been VIP like certain people, they wouldn't have had to park is such a loser area.

Here is part of the paddock for the race teams' trucks and support vehicles. To your left is the garages and starting grid of the course.

Walking on top of that building you saw to the left on the previous picture gives you a good view of the starting grid and the grandstands. This area was mostly populated by media getting ready to take shots of the GT cars.

Looking to your immediate left shows the higher view of the paddock with rows of racing team semis and support vehicles.

Between the trucks and the garages, various teams setup amazingly elaborate lounge areas for their workers and drivers. Some were complete mobile cafes/restaurants exclusively used by their respective VIP members and sponsors.

Another back shot of one of Fuji's hairpin turns. Again, we can see VUP parking lots in the distance. If you park in a VUP lot, not only do you have to pay, but you have to take a shuttle bus to the track since the walk is so far. Dang, that sure does sound unpleasant.

I don't know why I'm showing this. I'm obligated to tell you Bridgestone sucks and if you buy their tires they'll surely explode sealing the doom of you and your loved ones as you crash and die in your car. But, all that aside, I wish I could afford to have that many extra sets of the same super expensive wheels just lying around in case I needed them.

Meet Mr.G (not his real name, but a fitting title for his occupational status). Mr.G got a phone call from a Mr.Miki's Yokohama Exec Father telling him to give his daughter +1 a personal tour of Yokohama's operations. Mr.G is the manager and overlord of Yokohama's team in the JGTC and is beyond awesome/cool for taking the time to show us around.

After he gave us a tour of Yokohama's permanent garage in the back of the paddock, he took us into the garages and staging area for all the JGTC teams. I've never seen a real GT car up close and getting the chance to see so many was quite unbelievable.

Each team was busying about frantically finishing last touches on their machines. Our first stop was this FD, which is probably the most hardcore FD I've seen in my entire life. The entire body is pretty much dry carbon and light enough that you could play catch with it.

We continued on and I scoped out this famous ARTA NSX. This car was famous even to me in the states and I was surprised to see it in person.

Miki and I began to realize how special these tickets were when we turned around and saw that we were the only people walking the staging area. As we moved garage to garage Mr.G was approached by famous drivers and team managers, all coming to pay their respects with hearty handshakes and dutiful bows.

Ooh...oh dang. Oh man. crying angry, grr Around this time I began to see the first of the new Nissan GTRs dominating Tokyo streets, but, this was one of the few and rare fully tuned GT racecars made from the new GTR.

The brakes on this beast were so big they could practically stop the earth's rotation. To top it, they looked to be made from some carbon-composite material...

Moving on into the interior, I was visually assaulted with more custom carbon pieces they I'd ever imagined possible. Call me a JDM fanboy if you like, but my love for carbon fiber is unmatched. After seeing this I practically puked joy-filled blood and passed out.

Here's where I puked blood and passed out. No matter what the naysayers may be blabbering, the new GTR flings fecal matter all over the competition.

Here we are looking at Eclipse's garage. Eclipse is sponsored by Advan (Yokohama's sports brand), so Mr.G made the team manager take a picture with us.

Awe inspiring. I've never seen a track like this before in California...

This is Orido checking out the track before he hopes into his GT IS350. You may remember Orido from such things as being a D1 judge, famous D1 driver, or all around hardcore man who lives life by the seat of his pants. Oh, theres also a Takata NSX behind him.

Here he is getting ready to man-up.

Artistic picture? no? well I thought it was neat.

While teams put in some practice laps, Miki and I thought we'd peruse the various events going on for the common folk.

The Advan booth seemed as popular as could be.

They had a mini car show going on as well. This is Orido's personal Supra. Later in the day he used this for a drift exhibition. Good man.

This AE86 was on display. His engine was pretty zesty.

Now it was time to settle in and watch the pre-race exhibition. At this point, our tickets endeavored to impress further. We went to look for our seats and we couldn't find them. Distressed, we went to ask a worker and they motioned us over to a private elevator with a guard. The guard reviewed our passes and opened the elevator for us which took us to Yokohama's exclusive use sky-box. The sky-box was fully outfit with multiple LCD screens with race info and much appreciated air conditioning.

This was the view from our seats.

mm hmm.

There's Orido getting ready to drift it up.

On the opposite side of the sky-box there was a sort of balcony with a view overlooking the mini car show and various company exhibits. After we finished watching the pre-race event, we left the sky-box to another VIP room in another building. This room was called the Platinum room and was like a dining hall for sponsors with free lunch and drinks.

Very complex bentos with a colorful spread were presented. Very nice.

Sitting and relaxing in the A/C.

After all the GT cars were staged on the starting grid and getting ready to begin racing, all the press was allowed to enter the track to take some opportune pictures of the cars and drivers. We decided to give it a stroll and see if we could meet anyone famous.

Hey what do you know I found Orido. Very friendly and was nice enough to snap a quick photo with me and Miki.

That's the drift king Tsuchiya on the left of the car being interviewed by some TV channel. He didn't want to talk to me...

Feces. Everywhere.

He's very famous.

There's that dang sexy blue GTR again. mmmmm.

And they're off! This race was 500km total. Needless to say it took awhile.

Here we are several hours later at the finish. You can see the media crowding around the winners.

Here they are at the winners' circle triumphantly sporting their trophies and spraying champagne on each other.

After several interviews with the winners and some winding down, people began to lineup for the bus to the VUP parking. This is our view from our sky-box balcony of the strife the commoners were faced with.

Most everyone had left by 8pm or so and we decided to move towards the car to head home ourselves. On our walk back to the paddock we took notice of the exceedingly overflowing trash cans. Wow. sad

Time to head home...

Overall is was a blast of a trip and I never thought I'd get a chance to experience a JGTC race. It was entertaining as all heck and the tickets Miki's dad got us (and the personal tour too) were just icing on the cake. I really appreciated it and couldn't be happier!
Mason on 09.26.08 @ 12:50 PM PST [link]