Whether it was the “Fast and the Furious” movies, the automotive Japanese anime “Initial D” or the neighbor down the street with the modified Nissan Skyline with underglow that got you into cars, Japan was the birthplace of the tuner lifestyle.
From the Japan-only editions of vehicles — of which Americans only got basic versions — to the JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) aftermarket parts, Japan was always the paradise us tuners dreamed of traveling to see.
I recently had my second opportunity to see that beautiful country for nine days and, during that time, I had the drive of a lifetime with a company my boyfriend, Stan Guintchev, found that specialized in JDM and exotic car rentals and tours. It was called Fun2Drive.
We went on the Ultimate Hakone Drive guided tour in a 1973 Nissan Skyline GT-R KPGC110 RWD replica and 2001 Nissan Skyline R34 AWD. Both were right-hand drive.
The 1973 GT-R was a replica. Only 197 real “Kenmeri” Skylines were made because of the 1970s gasoline crisis. The ones that are out there are very expensive: One sold at RM Sotheby’s auction in 2015 for $176,000.
We were told the car we were driving was an exact replica and the only difference was the chassis number.
Stan, me and two of our friends from the U.S. traveled two hours via bullet train from Tokyo to the Odawara station, and then hopped in a cab for the 45-minute drive to the meeting place.
Before we had the chance to even sit in the cars, we were given a thorough explanation of what to expect, a map of what roads we would be driving and toll booths (even the professional drivers must pay them) and consequences of any damages or inappropriate behavior.
Within the binder of insurance information were several pictures of “retired” cars totaled by their renters. Painful to see, but necessary due to the nature of our drive. The roads were almost entirely split one-lane roads with sections that had little to no wiggle room on either side.
Along with us in the convoy were two other gentlemen: One from California, who drove a 1991 Honda NSX, and the other from Canada who drove a 2001 Mazda RX-7. Our tour guide, Yoshi, drove a Subaru Legacy in the lead. He communicated with the other cars via walkie-talkie.
The tour is five hours long and covered approximately 65 kilometers (40 miles) of windy mountain roads on Hakone Mountain. We varied in elevation from 169 meters to almost as high as 1000 meters.
Included segments of the tour had been featured in some of the races of “Initial D” and are the choice roads for the Motorhead Hill Climb race events where professional drivers — such as Toyo Tires Glion Trust Racing drift and D1 Grand Prix driver Masato Kawabata and Nobuteru Taniguchi, a three-time GT300 champion — push themselves to the limits.
As we would learn, evidence of that hard driving has left its mark on the asphalt.
We would rotate drivers between the Skylines so everyone had a chance behind the wheel. The tour was split up into four sections with stops for driver change opportunities.
We were told half of the routes were more difficult, while the other two were a bit less technical. We assigned drivers for each section and were on our way.
I started off first in the driver seat of the 1973 Skyline that had no power steering or ABS. It had 160 horseppwer with a 1,989 cc DOHC 24-valve S20 inline six-cylinder engine and triple side-draft carburetors.
The car checked off a few firsts for me: Driving a car that from the right-hand side with no power steering and no ABS. I was a little intimidated.
However, the tour guide was ready with instructions on how we should expect to drive and we were given directions and traffic information during the trip, which made things much more comfortable.
The lack of power steering took a few turns to get used to, but once I understood how to anticipate the small delay in its turning capabilities, leading into a turn became much easier.
Never having experience with a RHD car, I thought I’d have more trouble with the transition, but there were no hiccups in switching sides. The gears were still in the same places as a LHD car, which made it much easier to imagine my next shift.
The interior and seats were true to its classic nature, with exposed wires under the dash (don’t mind those, it’s normal) and all.
Body roll was minimal and, considering it was 45 years old, it performed very well. Overall, the Skyline felt very mechanical, but solid and stable through turns. Throttle response was fantastic and I could feel a good amount of low-end torque, which was perfect for those uphill climbs, and the disk brakes all around did the job.
Our first stop was at a very scenic viewpoint of Mount Fuji where we lined up for pictures and then continued our way, where we paid one of the tolls. It only cost a few hundred yen — about $2-$3 in American dollars.
Each section of the drive was about the same as far as travel time. We were given a lunch break during the second stop. It was my favorite because we could sit and watch some of the locals gawk over the cars from our table.
After finishing my udon noodles, we switched drivers and continued. When my boyfriend was behind the wheel, I really got the chance to check out the scenery and get a better feel for the car.
Before we switched to the R24, Yoshi showed us some screenshots of “Initial D” and photos of pro drivers burning rubber on the very roads we were about to drive.
Why did we choose to rent the R34? It’s still not legal here in the states until 2020, so we had to jump at the chance to drive something we can’t get at home.
The initial impression upon stepping into the much newer car was a pure appreciation of modern technology. The overall appearance was much more appealing and comfortable, with an LCD multifunctional display on the center of the dashboard displaying readings of engine and vehicle statistics.
Under the hood was the best part: A 2.6 liter twin-turbo 280 horsepower RB26 matched with a 6-speed manual transmission.
Along the road, Mount Fuji could be seen with its beautiful snowcapped peak. There is quite possibly nothing more magical than driving a Nissan Skyline GT-R on some of the windiest roads I’ve ever been on with those views always waiting around the next bend.
Now, let’s talk about our new-found appreciation for power steering! After driving the ’73, the newer Skyline felt like driving an absolute dream. Regardless of the comparison, the R34 was still a very well-balanced machine when it came power-to-weight ratios and the performance of the stock suspension.
This made the latter half of the drive much more enjoyable as we made our way through the final stretches of the tour, stopping only once more for a final driver swap.
As the sun set, we stopped for a quick fuel fill up (which we paid for separately) and headed back to the storefront. We all took a second to take in what we had just done, and each of us had a look of pure automotive satisfaction.
A photo of our lineup at the Mount Fuji viewpoint was handed to each of us, then we packed into Yoshi’s Legacy to be dropped off at the nearest bus station for a ride back to Odawara Station. Silently, we all sat on the bus reminiscing on the experience with smiles on our faces.
Whether you are a tuner car specific enthusiast or an automotive enthusiast in general, this experience is made for you. There are rental options that aren’t Japanese-made, such as the Porsche 911 Turbo, Lotus Elise, Ferrari Gallardo and many more.
Booking should be done a few months in advanced as tours fill quickly. The team at Fun2Drive spoke very good English and were very responsive to our emails before our arrival. There are also directions on best ways to travel to their location to make it to your scheduled tour on time.
Check out more details on Fun2Drive at the company’s website.