Driving to Gunma, open-air baths, and the Wangan
One of the greatest things about the Japan trip was being able to experience new things. However it’s also great to do the same things you do back at home and for me, one of them is driving. Day 2 of the car hire adventure takes me to an even greater adventure and this would more than likely be the highlight of the entire trip. So hit the jump to read on about my trip to Gunma, an open-air bath, and driving around on the Wangan.
The day started off pretty early with us leaving the hotel at around 9am. Although once we got out of the hotel we had a little problem. Looking at the GPS it was showing our position, but incorrectly. Looking at it we could easily see that we were off by at least 15m. So say we were driving down the main street, it shows us as driving through buildings. Luckily the car hire wasn’t that far so we went back and within 10 minutes they fixed it up for us.
So plotting our course, into the GPS we were off our way to Gunma. Of course along the way I missed a couple of turns due to the GPS being stupid at gauging distances and that nearly all turn off streets in Japan look almost the same, we eventually made it to the expressways. I figured that once we get on the expressways we’d be cruising out of Tokyo easily. How very wrong was I. A lot of traffic banked up on the expressways and all because of roadworks. Constant amounts of roadworks just happening around. The worse part would be that when a two lane road becomes one lane, then that lane merges onto another expressway as an entrance. It’s at this point I also noticed how different the Japanese drive compared to those in Australia. When changing lanes/merging, Japanese tend to stick right to you and they’ll eventually let you in. Back home most people back off a bit to let someone merge in or don’t let you merge at all.
Cruising along after an hour we finally reached the main expressway that will lead us through Saitama and onwards to Gunma. Here I could once again try out some spirited driving and since I am more comfortable with the car, I could take it that little bit further. This also gave me a bigger chance to compare this to my Pulsar, and the differences were that much more greater. Sitting in the car I was much more comfortable, not that my car isn’t comfortable, but I don’t get that destroyed back sensation after sitting in for so long. When taking the car to speeds that most people would never goto, normally you can feel it everywhere and it feels that the car is tearing apart. Here it simply just glides. Putting my foot down, I get the power that I want. Shifting doesn’t feel as mechanical and I could quick shift really easily. Certainly this was an easy car to drive. Some cases that’s a good thing and sometimes bad. All in all this was very fun for me, though I wasn’t unsure about my passengers. Luckily we had burnt a MP3 CD the night before.
Going along the expressway we also came across a number of tolls. Though this would be more tolls than heading towards Mt Fuji. We hit up probably at least 3 tolls before taking a break to eat breakfast at one of the many rest stops. Tolls varied in price depending on how far you traveled. The cheapest was at the start with ¥700 (about AUD $7.30), another being about ¥2,750 (about AUD $28.94), and the highest to date is ¥3,000 (about AUD $31.50). Mid you this was at the conversion rate at the time. Even the cheapest toll was pretty damn expensive compared to ones in Australia as the highest I’ve ever paid was about AUS $8. I can’t seem to figure out how the tolls are so expensive, but then it’s a good way to curve people from driving that’s for sure. Not that it matters since there are a hell of a lot of cars on the road. So word of advice, be prepared to fork out the money for the tolls if you ever do a car hire.
It was around 11:30am when we finally arrived at the expressway exit for Gunma, or more specifically the exit to head up to Mt Haruna. For those don’t know, Mt Haruna is the actual place that Mt Akina is based on in Initial D. Though once we were off the expressway, looking at the fuel gauge we were pretty close to empty. Thankfully we found a petrol station on the way to Mt Haruna. I’ve seen in animes and in real life how there are service attendants who’ll do everything for you so you won’t ever have to get out of the car. This was one of them. Although we had a communication problem at the start but then I realised they were asking how we were going to pay. Telling them cash they went ahead to fill up our tank, cleaned our windows, and asked if our ashtray needed cleaning. Once everything was done we had to reverse out since another car was in front, and they even guided us in reversing. Seriously, service like that is awesome. Wish they had it back home.
Still following the route set by the GPS, we were heading to a hotel that I had researched up in hopes to find an onsen to bathe in. Certainly quite a number of cars about, but going up the main road I looked in the rear view mirror and saw a car that looked awfully familiar. Yep, it was an AE86 Trueno. From the looks of it, definitely modified, but it didn’t have a Fujiwara Tofu sticker on the side. We arrived at the hotel thanks to the GPS but found that the services were for only hotel guests. Fair enough, but the hotel staff guided us to some public baths with a map they supplied us. The general area that we were in was known as Ikaho, which is famous for onsens. Though since I’m the driver, I decided we head up Mt Haruna first as I was itching to drive up the mountain.
Heading uphill it was clear sailings. I had one car in front of me but they let me pass and from that point on I took it a little easy as I wanted to get to know the road. But still on they way up, I could tell that this was definitely Mt Akina. I’ve probably played the arcade game to death and know every single corner. The depiction is uncannaby accurate and that is what blew me away. After every turn I knew there was another corner at this rough distance, this road should be a straight, or how sharp a certain corner is. Though there isn’t any gutters to do the gutter trick as seen in the anime, but even if there was, I wouldn’t try it. It was also at this point I’m glad that I went with an RX-8 as opposed to my friend who thought we should get something more economical and luxurious.
In no time we arrived at the starting point of the course. A prime time to take some photos though I’m sure all the passerbys knew what a bunch of guys with a sports car are doing in a place like this. As you can see from the photo, evidence of other car enthusiasts having come to Mt Haruna as there are burnout marks on the road. Hopping back in the car, we headed onwards to Lake Haruna. Arriving there it was definitely a beautiful site and something you probably don’t see often.
Seeing a huge lake at the top of a mountain range is something to marvel at. One of the things I like about just driving to places is once you arrive at your destination, it’s just sitting there and admiring the scenery. It was a good time to relax and think about a lot of things, though in the meantime, my friends wondered off to check out some of the souvenir stores. I also took the opportunity to check out some of the stores, but I think the store owners also knew why we were up in Mt Haruna. Pretty obvious since we were foreigners all in a sports car. Through various browsing most items looked the same as any other stores, but one item caught my eye. A box in the shape of a Trueno with Initial D on it containing some kind of candy. It actually had almond caramel chews inside.
Anyway it was time to head back down the mountain in search for an onsen. But at this point I let my co-driver take the wheel this time to give him the chance to drive down Mt Haruna. Although he’s not used to driving on mountain roads like myself, I could see that he was enjoying every single bit of this. Luckily for him there weren’t a lot of cars in front of him, but he took it pretty easy. I sat in the passenger seat to take photos:
Having a look at the map supplied to us, we seen an open-air bath pretty close to the end of the Mt Haruna route. My friend pulled over into a carpark for me to take over since he’s still not confident in driving in populated areas. Within 5 minutes we were at the place marked on the map and we had a look around and saw various signs pointing out to the onsen.
At last we found the place. Please excuse the blurry photo above, not sure how that came about. As usual, we came unprepared for occasions like this, but at least you can buy towels here for only ¥300, and the entrance fee is only ¥400 IIRC. This would be the second time I’ve come to an onsen, or more specifically an open-air bath. It’s also the 2nd time I’ll see Roobar’s scarred body, lol.
Just like a lot of things in Japan, there is set of rules that you have to abide by at the onsen. The first part is that you must wash yourself before entering the bath itself. What most people do is scoop a bucket of hot water from the bath and use themselves to wash that. I however went the tougher route and used straight cold water from the tap. It certainly was insane to do, but once you dip in the hot water, it’s like heaven. Try it if you’re ever at an onsen.
So sitting there in the onsen was a real treat as it was a good time to sit and relax. There are two sides that you can choose: hot, or moderately warm. The hot was was definitely my favourite and I really wished I could’ve just sat in it for an hour or two. Of course that’s not usually a good idea but it’s a good way to waste time. Still one thing about being at the onsen was that all the people left when we sat in the baths and talked. It was pretty much me and my three friends by ourselves for about 10 minutes. I guess talking in the onsen is taboo like talking on the train or something. But at least it gave me the opportunity to ninja a photo.
Eventually we got out of the onsen and dried ourselves off. Heading back to the car to drive back up Mt Haruna as I wanted to drive the downhill at least once. On the way up I came across pretty much no traffic once again and drove spirited once again. Arriving back at the start line in no time, I waited a bit for some of the traffic to pass and went on ahead, with my friend recording as we went:
Uphill was definitely a treat and just like Mt Haruna, the accurateness was remarkably correct. I could visualize every single turn, every single corner that was coming up. Yes I’ve wasted that much time and money on Initial D to actually remember the courses. Reaching the top I stopped by at the small carpark that was there. No one around, but looking at the ground you can obviously see previous car enthusiasts have left their marks. Having just a short break it was time to head back down the mountain and to head back to Tokyo since an impending rainfall was approaching. My co-driver didn’t want to drive this course so he left all the fun to me.
The trip back to Tokyo was quite an endearing one. Coming down the expressway from Gunma was no problem as I had plenty more spirited driving, but once we got through Saitama and were back in Tokyo that’s when we knew we were back. Traffic jams. Once again lining up to line up, but this time in a car. As I mentioned before how two lanes become one and that lane becomes an entrance to another expressway. Yep, that once again. But we did come across the Shuto expressway and once I got on it, boy was that fun. If we got back to the hotel much earlier I probably would’ve joined Danny Choo for his filming in Shibuya. Eventually we got back to the hotel and since it has been a while since we ate, it was time for dinner. Not wanting to go out too far we tried out one of the restaurants that was part of the hotel: Japanese Restaurant Hanasanshou.
As you may have read before, I have eaten in a number of fancy places for this Japan trip, and this is certainly another one of those. The placemat looked so pretty it felt like a shame to even use it. I ordered myself a tempura course set and this was certainly delicious. Probably more so after so much driving.
Though in most cases, the fun normally stops here. But that night was special. That night was probably one of my most anticipated events that I wanted to do since planning the trip. The car had to be returned the next morning and it’s such a waste to leave it there overnight. So staying up the whole night until 1:10am, I dragged my co-driver from his laptop, got in the car and headed out to the Wangan.Though my co-driver didn’t really want to drive, I just tagged him along in case I felt tired and let him drive for a bit. But with so much excitement in me I couldn’t sleep. I had the GPS switched on but with no destination set as I wanted to just randomly drive around and see if I could find my own way.
Though being in Hamamatsucho/Daimon we were relatively close to the Rainbow Bridge and by follwing a few signs I managed to find my way there. But the thing about that was it was the underside of the Rainbow Bridge, not the top section. Following it through I came across the bridge and was now in Odaiba and pretty close to Tokyo Big Sight. However I turned the other way and ended up heading to the shipping yards by accident. Unsure of where I was going I kept on driving, even finding out that I was driving in the wrong lane near one of the major roads. Thankfully no other cars about as I’m sure the lane I was in was a bus lane. Eventually seeing some signs pointing to familiar areas, I followed through and found myself back roughly where I started.
I again found the turn off I had entered for the Rainbow Bridge, but as I mentioned before that Japanese roads and traffic lights can be very confusing, and this had brought me trouble. As I was indicating to turn right onto the road, a police car had pulled up on the side. Seeing the lights go green I and a good amount of space to drive on I proceeded to do so. But guess what. Sirens. Yep, I got pulled over by the police car that was next to us. Pulling over to the side the officers pulled up as well and ran out of the car to speak to us. Honetsly I had never seen police get out of their cars that fast for someone who just broke a traffic rule.
Now in this kind of situation it seemed kind of bad. Being a foreigner in a hire car and getting pulled over by police at around 1:50am. Still I kept calm and knew that there was no point in attempting to speak Japanese. Thankfully the police realised we were foreigners and I had my passport on me to verify my identity. When they spoke to us I could see that they were asking us where we were going but I simply acted as if I didn’t understand. From the looks on their faces they seemed to have never came across foreigners driving in Japan before. So they got me out of the car whilst my friend remained in the car and they did a full check of the car, including my bag, which contained only my camera. Seeing that everything was in order and that we weren’t terrorists the officer let me back in the car and tried to explain what I dd was wrong. I apologised for what I did and we were back on our way.
Time was roughly 2:20am and despite it being so early in the morning, there was certainly a lot of traffic. Speed limits on all expressways is 80km/h. Let me just say, NO ONE was at the speed limit. Understandable as 80 km/h is kind of ridiculous and seems that there are no police cars on the expressways, or any speed cameras. So off I went full spirited driving at it’s best. I wasn’t sure what part of the Wangan I was on but I could recognise many parts of it from the Wangan Midnight game. Although the game is a bit different, a lot of it is based on the actual expressways. Driving along I came across the exit for the C1 and off I went. The C1 is an expressway circuit that goes around Tokyo much like the Yamanote JR line. The C1 has both an outer circuit and an inner circuit and the one I was on was the outer circuit. This is where the fun really begins.
The C1 has a lot of twist and turns and various off ramps that lead to particular sections of Tokyo, but one can stay on the C1 complete and do full loops. Getting used to the road I accidently took an exit and ended back up on one of the expressways BUT this was leading me back to the Rainbow Bridge. Following the signs I found myself crossing the Rainbow Bridge once again but this time on the top side. It certainly was something to behold when driving as you look across and see the city skyline. Once over the Rainbow Bridge I found myself once again back on the Wangan and on the same section that I was on before entering the C1. At this point I realised that I just found a complete circuit and decided to go again.
The first time I had to get used to the road, this time I took it a bit further. This time my friend was wide awake and watching me drive through. Getting close to the exit to head back to the Rainbow Bridge, I saw two cars driving through VERY fast. They were hashiriyas, or in other words street racers. I had a feeling I would at least come across a few around this time and as I approached the Rainbow Bridge once again, I saw live flares on the ground. This is to indicate where the start or finish line would be. I would’ve loved to catchup to them but I’m not that silly.
So once again I headed for another round on the circuit I discovered, and I can honestly say this was the BEST moment for me the entire trip. The Mt Akagai run was fun, but I had to worry about the passengers with me and that mountain roads aren’t exactly smooth. Here on the Tokyo expressways it was a whole new world. Everything was much more smoother, much more faster, and with driving the RX-8 it was a dream come true. I couldn’t help but laugh whilst driving as it was that much fun for me, and it’s sad that I won’t get to experience something like this again for a long long time.
The time was about 4:05am and it was time to head back to the hotel. I would’ve stayed out a little longer but with only a 1/4 tank of fuel left I wasn’t going to risk it. Got back to the hotel and since my co-driver and I were hungry we wanted food. Unfortunately the only thing open was McDonalds. I’d regret eating McDonalds and sure enough later in the day I did. So heading back to the hotel I decided to get a few hours of sleep before heading back to return the car at 9am.
So that’s the end of the car hire adventure. At this point of the trip I really did feel that my fun had ended and it was a matter of counting down the days till I head back to Australia. I also felt rather lost now that the car had been returned as I had so much fun over the past two days of driving, but I know for sure that I would definitely do it again, and perhaps with a different car. Perhaps a Nissan 350Z next time? Oh and just to note, for the entire day of Gunma and Wangan driving, I did a total of 14 hours of driving.