Mountaintop vistas and an absence of patrol cars make for a slice of motoring heaven.
Though it’s a major producer of cars, Japan has never been regarded as a driver’s country. Many people here live comfortably without one — relying instead on public transport. There are some rewards of ownership, however, if you venture out of the congested cities. Among these are the privately run scenic toll roads. Practical public road construction follows the path of least resistance — on easy to build, cheap property. Not so with scenic roads.
Take the Ashinoko Skyline, southwest of Tokyo. A civil engineer’s nightmare, it starts and ends in the middle of nowhere — built high up on the west side of a ridge of the Hakone mountains. Traversing it from its southern end, however, instantly reveals its appeal — a stunning view of Mount Fuji accompanies you the whole way. Being Japan, it is short and expensive — ¥600 to drive a little more than 10 km (more like an amusement park ride than a toll road).
For all their quirkiness, these private scenic roads are magnets for all types of driving enthusiasts. Although they are plastered with warning signs about speeding, police do not patrol them and they can be automotive free for alls. It is not uncommon to see Ferraris and Lamborghinis piloted by the newly rich, pushed politely to their limits on sinuous challenging passages. A regular driver on Japan’s unofficial autobahn is manga artist Satoshi Ikezawa, who made his fortune writing “Circuit no Okami,” a massively popular manga whose theme was, of course, these same speedsters. If an ambulance rushes past you, chances are it is going to pick a biker out of a bush after he lost control of his road-racing replica trying to imitate world champion Valentino Rossi. Though most stick to public roads, you can also encounter young guys in souped-up Japanese sports cars who are more into show (drifting through corners) than speed.
At the opposite extreme are snail-pace rent-by-the-day taxis operated by raconteurs who provide continuous historical commentary to their tourist passengers on the vistas before them — while holding up traffic. Remnants of the “drive date” phenomenon can also be sighted. During the economic bubble of the 1990s, it was widely considered that a guy couldn’t date, hence marry, without a car — how-to books on driving dates lined bookshelves; women talked of what model car their boyfriend drove. What is left of that in the stagnant economy is the occasional couple, invariably in his newly purchased wheels, overdressed and awkwardly going through the motions. The senior car tour is a new addition, with the first wave of baby boomers retired and restless. Couples or groups of retirees are increasing and can be spotted taking group snapshots at designated spots of interest.
These well-manicured roads that dot the country range from the boring to the breathtaking. Southern Nagano’s Venus Line is one of the best. Starting From the Suwa Exit 2 hours from either Tokyo or Nagoya on the Chuo Highway, rising into the hills, it breaks into some of the best driver-seat vistas in Japan. Much of the road is over treeless ridge tops with clear views of the southern Japanese Alps. As with other scenic drives, it delivers you to some interesting facilities, such as Utsukushigahara Museum, a sprawling mountaintop outdoor sculpture garden containing more than 400 works. Best of all, toll fees were recently done away with.
Way down south on the Satsuma Peninsula in Kagoshima Prefecture, Kyushu, you can find the seldom congested, serpentine Ibusuki Skyline (cost: ¥930) between Kagoshima and Ei that rides mountain ridges parallel to the coast along Kagoshima Bay, providing sublime glimpses of the active volcano on Sakurajima billowing in the distance. The Hakone Turnpike cannot be left out. It starts outside Odawara City in Kanagawa Prefecture and dramatically climbs the Hakone mountains, ending not far from the south entrance to the Ashinoko Skyline. Known for its stunning fall foliage, it recently got a sponsor, was spruced up and is now named the Toyo Tire Hakone Turnpike (cost: ¥700). Just after World War II, the infant Japanese automobile industry was producing crude, small cars with tiny engines. In those days crossing the Hakone mountains was the acid test for some car-makers. The rest area at its hilltop terminus provides panoramic views of Mount Fuji and its environs. Breaking into sweeping four-lane corners at several points, you often run into car magazine crews on photo shoots. The vast majority of magazine shots of performance cars careening around corners are captured at a handful of photogenic locations on these private roads. The Fuji Subaru Line (cost: ¥2,000) in Yamanashi Prefecture offers a different experience than most. Forget about driving pleasure, this road goes straight up to the fifth stage on Mount Fuji — but you will have to share it with innumerable lumbering tourist buses. It simply offers a way to get halfway up Japan’s iconic peak and appreciate the views without donning hiking boots.
The management of many of these roads has recently changed hands. Most were built by large corporations in better times. Business models were based on overly optimistic usage rates and overstaffed management systems that need the same restructuring as most of the tourism industry. Luckily for fans of these motorways, they don’t get closed down like failing hotels. It looks like they will just get better.
Bob Sliwa is an authority on automotive design and branding who has written for many domestic and foreign publications.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.