Strange Days, Strange Places: My Life As A Japanese Street-Racer Wannabe

Thomas Kreutzer
by Thomas Kreutzer

For those of you with a love of geography but without the resources to actually set foot in the country, let me tell you about Japan. It is a nation famously made up of thousands of islands but, in reality there are just 4 main islands where most of the people live – 5 if you count Okinawa. The largest island is called Honshu, it is the banana shaped one in the middle should you be looking for a map right now, and Honshu is home to most of the great cities of Japan. Tokyo, Kawasaki and Yokohoma blend seamlessly into one another to form one giant zone of dense urban sprawl across the “Kanto” region in the East, while Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe mirror that sprawl, albeit with less size but more attitude, in the West. This Western region is known as “Kansai.” I’ll take you to to Japan’s flyover land. The land, where one would fly over guardrails.

strange days strange places my life as a japanese street racer wannabe

If you know some Japanese or are an astute reader, you will notice that there is a similarity to the words Kanto and Kansai – namely the root “kan.” While there are many “kans” in Japanese, the one used here happens to mean “barrier.” Also, if you hadn’t guessed it yet, “To” in the case cited above means “East” and “Sai” means “West,” So, the names of these two regions, then, are literally what they describe – places to the East and West of a natural barrier, a great rugged mountain range, that runs across the center of island of Honshu.

As lovers of cars, you should be nodding your head now. Where there are mountain ranges there are mountain passes, and where there are mountain passes, there are long winding roads. Given the natural perfectionist bent of the average Japanese construction worker and the sweetheart deals the Japanese government often makes with local construction and paving companies, you can only imagine those roads; they go places and do things that no road ever should. Isolated ribbons of silky smooth pavement punch through mountains in a gross display of Japanese tunneling prowess. They span ravines hundreds of feet deep on soaring trestles made of high quality Nippon cement reinforced by steel rebar that is created by the descendants of steel makers that forged the first samurai sword. The roads cling to mountainsides that would give goats bunions and they mimic the bends of rivers so rugged that white water kayakers get wet just thinking about them.

The Uji river, Ujigawa in Japanese, is just such a place. The river begins in the high mountains above Ujitawara and runs onto the plains south of Kyoto. It then meanders east, eventually merging with the Yodo river. With the combined stream taking on the larger Yodogawa’s name, the waters turn south and flow through the city of Osaka before finally emptying into Osaka bay.

At the point where the river comes down from the mountains and finally reaches the flat Kansai region sits the town of Uji. Facing the plane with its back to the mountains historic Uji, along with its strategically important bridge, was the site of many Samurai battles in feudal Japan. Today, Uji is known for producing only the finest tea quality green teas, its considerable page-time in the ancient Japanese tome “The Tale of Genji,” the Byodoin temple (a world heritage site) and, of course, beautiful women – one of whom is married to yours truly.

Slightly upstream from the city, the Amagase dam spans a deep gorge and tames the once wild river. Behind it lies a deep green lake that stretches for miles back into the mountain range. Perched precariously above this lake, on a narrow shoulder carved from the living rock that makes up the sheer walls of canyon, sits Route 3 or the road known locally as the “Ujigawa line.”

Those stripes are more than just paint. They have a sandy texture that lifts them above the level of the pavement and unsettles your suspension.

In 1999, it was by a complicated and unhappy set of circumstances that I found myself in Uji. Perhaps it was divine intervention, I can’t be sure, but whatever the cause I found myself in this special place at a unique time; a time when the greatest Japanese performance cars of the 1980s and ’90s were selling used at rock bottom prices. Naturally, I indulged myself.

The Japanese anime series “Initial D” gives a pretty good view of the Japanese street racing scene back then. Local heroes in small highly modified cars gathered along the route wherever the road widened just enough to park. At one end of the road, close to the dam, was a small parking lot that served a local picnic area. By day the small lot was home to tourists who came to eat bento boxes and look at the breathtaking views.

At night, the lot was home to a completely different breed. It was there that the vast majority of cars would gather, their hoods open, while sullen young men in black t-shirts bearing nonsensical English phrases shuffled about or stood in small groups, their hands in their pockets and cheap bad smelling cigarettes hanging from their bottom lips. These were the “hashiriya” or runners, and I stopped there from time to time to try and engage them in conversation. As a foreigner, however, I would forever be on outside the group. In some cultures we might be united by our love of cars and speed, but here I was an unknown – at best an oddity, at worst a threat – and so I was to be avoided.

The cars were always the same. My father would have said they were products of “asshole engineering,” cheap rides cobbled together with a mish-mash of parts and modified in ways that looked less than scientifically proven. They were for the most part Silivias and Levins well past their prime. Occasionally an older RX7 FC or Mk III Supra could be found among them and every so often a later model RX7 FD or a MK IV Supra might make an appearance. Rarest of them all were the vaunted Nissan Skylines, always R32s and always from lower trim levels, never the legendary GTR.

The cars swirled around the lot like angry bees, coming and going in small groups to make high speed passes in close, single file order over the pass to the turnaround and then back again. Upon their return, the drivers would climb from the cars, fish out their stinky cigarettes and once again assume the posture of affected boredom.

A glory shot of my Supra in its prime. Note the American flag by the license plate should you doubt my veracity.

My own car, a 1986 MKIII Supra, mounted the JDM 2.0 liter twin turbo and was unmodified. Sitting on stock tires and rims at normal ride height, the car did well enough on the pass but, hamstrung by an automatic transmission and my own survival instinct, the car was not, by any means, comparable to the heavily modified vehicles the kids were driving. Most nights I would make a run or two over the pass and then park in fairly wide turn-out at the end of the longest straightaway and watch as the cars roared by.

Occasionally I would see an accident but they were always minor. The big crashes happened in the dead of night, long after the lightweights like myself had gone home. It didn’t take a forensic team to tell what had happened in most cases. It was always the same when I stumbled upon the scene the next morning, deep skid marks, sometimes hundreds of feet long ending in puddles of various colored fluids at a scarred rock wall or at a giant dent in one of the heavy steel guardrails put there to protect foolish young men from themselves. People were killed there, I know, but Japan isn’t the kind of place where people file lawsuits when someone does something stupid to themselves. So long as the police chose to allow it, the racing went on.

Japanese warning signs have a flair for the dramatic. Can you guess what this sign says?

For those of us that lived, the new millennium is getting old and that time seems more removed every day. For the most part we are embarrassed that we actually partied like it is 1999, despite the fact it was, and we are ashamed that we worried about something as banal as Y2K when it seems like each week in the current millennium brings some newer, more dire prophecy. Yet to this day, when my wife and I take the kids to visit her parents in Uji, I feel like I am going home and I am never there long before the Ujigawa line calls out to me. Without fail, I trump up some errand or other that that leads me back up into those mountains, back out onto those glorious roads and back into the days of my reckless, short sighted youth, gone now forever, but not forgotten.

Shhhh! Don’t tell my wife I posted this!

Thomas M Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, he talks mostly about himself.

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5 of 31 comments
  • Bertel Schmitt Bertel Schmitt on Feb 15, 2013

    Note: Lack of a poll means the writer is safely on board ....

  • Wheeler Wheeler on Feb 16, 2013

    Can't help but notice the recently replaced sections of guard rail. I wouldn't want to negotiate those turns on a foggy winter's night. Not to speak of surviving a breakdown. If that road could talk it'd have some wild stories to tell...

    • See 2 previous
    • Pete Zaitcev Pete Zaitcev on Feb 22, 2013

      @Thomas Kreutzer Coincidentially, The Fourth Stage gives the topic a good review. It includes a discussion on various ditches, covered and uncovered, and the trick of maximum weight transfer. They even include someone flipping a Miata by trying this maneuver off the cuff. I have to admit I have ever seen cars do this inside corner lift when set up specifically to do it by adding rear swaybar thickness. Naturally they would only lift the inside rear, which would not help anyone to negotiate the Japanese ditch.