It Was Time For A Vacation-

Well, as close as I can get to one that is. A good many months ago, my friend Ron called and said, “he was getting the band back together”… Well, it was more like a marching band than it was anything else. It seemed that when we helped put on a crazy-big one-day event for Toyota out in Las Vegas four years ago, we had really made a good impression. So much so that Toyota had called again and ask if Ron and his company The Driving Connection could do something similar for them again… Only catch was that this time, the event wouldn’t be in Vegas but at Fuji Speedway in the south of Japan and Ron was going to have to ship 160+ of us over there (again, think marching band). Well lucky for me that Ron rang me up and before he could finish his sentence as to weather I’d be interested in going, I jumped at the chance.

My job was going to be to give special guest of Toyota hot-laps around the famous Japanese speed plant in some kind of Toyota product. That and I would get to hang out with some great people that I hadn’t seen in a long time. How could I pass up an offer like that?

Now I have never been to any part of Asia and it has been a long time since I’ve taken that long of a plane ride and oh my gosh, is that a long one; Charlotte to Chicago and then on to Tokyo. Altogether, about 16-hours in the air…. I’m not sure how many movies I watched but I burned through a good many of them in between naps, mealtimes and more naps.

When I got off the plane it was time to get through customs and I remembered this as being a bit of a process not to mention now I couldn’t read all of the signs so that was a little disconcerting. As I was slowly walking down the airport terminal, one of the Pilot’s from my plane asked, “So what do you race?” The question caught me by surprise until I remembered that I had my Simpson helmet bag strapped to my suitcase. I laughed and asked what an airline pilot knew about a black-bag that just said Simpson on it. Turned out my plane was piloted by a Baja 1000 driver… lol… who knew? Quickly he rolled through his cellphone pics to show me images of his new Trophy Truck that he would be driving this year.

So as we walked and chatted about his truck and what I was doing in Japan, he graciously guided me to where “the shorter lines” were and instructed me on what to say and not say when talking to the customs agents. This information proved to be helpful as I spoke to a very-stern Agent who was very inquisitive as to where I was staying, for how long and with whom… That is until I showed him my helmet and gave him a business card with my website address on it! Turns out even Customs Agents like racing… 😉

I got in around dinner time (Japan time), made it threw Customs and onto the right bus that took me to our “rally point” hotel for the night. Once I checked into my shoebox-sized room, I knew where “The Boys” would be. Sure enough, the Sky Bar was already jump’n with some of the best Drivers/hardest partiers I know. The good news the following day would just be a bus-ride day and “get acquainted” meeting so that meant “boys could be boys” and man did we have some fun!

The bus ride down to the track the next day was over 3-hours, which included a stop at a roadside rest/food stop. That’s was really when I got a sense of what I’d be in for during my stay as I walked from vendor to vendor trying desperately to find something to eat/drink that looked familiar… I ended up settling on a donut and a bottle of what I thought was plain water…. Yeah, not so much… Turned out to be some tart-tasting “Gatorade-like” drink that I managed to deal with. The long ride also gave me a chance to get familiar with the two guys that would be my “partners in crime” for the next week or so, Jared Thompson and one Alex Schutte, both had been longtime friends with each other and during our first conversations I knew were going have a good time hanging out together.

We all were taken straight to the track where we were briefed as to how our time at “work” would be organized. From there we were back on the buses to our respective hotels, the main hotel for a largest portion of the staff was rumored to be very nice but isolated out in the countryside. Ours on the other hand was not so elaborate but was located in a town called Gotenba. Bad news was our rooms were very modest in size and not too deluxe in accommodations; good news the town of Gotenba had a good many restaurants and a few other things to see and do.

So what do you do on your first full night in Japan? You go have a nice fish dinner, sample some local adult-beverages and go to a Karaoke bar of course! Now finding a bar with such activities was the easy part, finding one that allowed us “Gaijin” into their establishment was a bit harder. Fortunately persistence paid off and we found a suitable place for us to “give it a go”. As anyone who knows me can attest, I normally would be the last one to partake in such foolishness but considering how much the Locals get into this, we had to give it a try. Luckily for me, all three of us sang (if that’s what you call it) together so the embarrassment was divided equally…

The next day was a sightseeing day as there were some other activities going on at the track that kept us from being on-site so we jumped back on bus for a short ride up the road to an old village that had been restored/maintained for a very, very long time (1700’s I think??). Outside the village were different vendors selling souvenirs and snacks, we even found one old guy selling “fish sticks”.. trust me when I tell you, these fish-sticks did not come out of a yellow Gorton’s box!

From there we headed over to a shrine built in honor of all the Japanese soldiers that have defended the country over the years. This shrine (who’s name I unfortunately can’t remember was on top of small “hill” that was reachable by climbing 500-steps. No big deal right?

On the way up and down to the mountain-village, we had spotted the Auto Paradise Gotenba Karting Track. Not a big deal normally but after a day of doing “touristy stuff” it was time to get back to something we knew. We got there just as the guys were wrapping-up for the day and to be honest, they weren’t all that happy to see us. With a little persuading and some picture-phone sharing of what we did “back home”, the track owner gave us the OK. The track was super fun, pretty fast and the karts were good quality. The best part was the sweet helmets with bubble-shields and white-cloth driving gloves.The next couple of days I spent at the speedway. The first day was mostly spent doing slow rental-car-laps so we could all learn the track. The next day we were there at first light and it was all business. Our Participants showed up, we all jumped in our cars and spent the day giving rides around this amazing racetrack in some really fun cars; we had the Lexus LFA’s, the new RCF’s and a cool Toyota 4-door sedan, called a Mark X. All of the participants were from every country imaginable and in small groups of 4-cars, we chased each other around at speeds fast enough to get most of them screaming (sometimes the men more than the ladies). The cars were great, the LFA was as cool as you’d expect (even though I was sitting on the “wrong side”) and the track was really fun, super smooth and very challenging.

At days-end, all cars were returned in one piece (at least for us USA drivers, don’t ask about the “local guys” 😉 after a quick “breakdown” of our area and group photo, we were back in the bus headed to the hotel. The experience of driving the cars at speed on that track was one I’ll remember for a long time and we all appreciated the hospitality afforded us by our hosts.

Back at our hotel, we were then on our own and it was time for some serious site seeing. Alex, Jared and our “fourth”, Matt Bell jumped on a Bullet (Shinkansen) train in the AM bound for downtown-Tokyo. After our 175mph train ride, we managed to find our way to our new hotel. It was a swanky skyscraper type that a friend of Alex’s had arranged that was very nice and right in the heart of the city. We spent the next two days and nights running all over Tokyo trying to see and experience as much as we could. We came across a street that was lined with shops enabling girls to dress up in their favorite Anime character. We found “The Crossing” intersection made famous in the Tokyo Drift movie, we saw the old Emperor’s Palace (from the outside) and at night found some crazy nightspots in Roppongi. All and all, a great time running with “the boys”.

On our last night there we were in the Subway trying to figure out just which train to get on next so we could get back to our hotel, when a little girl walking by saw the confused looks on our faces. Without hesitation and in pretty good English she not only gave us directions but also went some 20-minutes out of her way to deliver us right to the front door of our hotel. The kindness that I experienced on this trip will stay with me always. We American’s could learn a lot from their society in many different ways…

After saying good-bye to my traveling-companions the next thing on my list was to jump back on a southbound Shinkasen so I could work myself all the way to Iwakuni, which is down in the southern-most side of the country. Thanks to arrangements put together by my friend Matt Predmore of Quickstyle Motorsports, a super-cool guy by the name of “Mello”, who drifted in the D1 Street Legal division and would guide me around for the next few days, met me at the small train station.

Finding “the white guy” at the train station wasn’t to hard for Mello and after a brief introduction we climbed up into his Flatbed truck and headed over to a cool local drift track called Hadashi Tengoku (roughly translates to “barefoot heaven”). This track has long been a training-spot for many drivers down here. It’s small, smooth and fun with a good-many elevation changes keeping it a very interesting place to drive.

On arriving, Mello introduced me around to the many drivers that were sliding on this random-day. Among those that I met was Kazuki Hayashi, he was a great person to meet as he is respected by everyone and acknowledged as one of the top-drivers in the area. He also just happened to have a couple of s-chassis that were in need of someone to drive them. I told him that I’d be happy to help him with that…

At the track this day he had his D-max s15 that he uses for D1 and FD-Japan events. Its sr package is pretty warmed-up and naturally, the car is very well sorted. Like most guys, I have a soft spot for these cars as the s15 has long been on my wish list of cars to own and I just couldn’t wait to go for a ride. While the car was great, riding with and watching Hayashi-san run tandem with his friends was really cool. His aggressive yet controlled style was great to see from the passenger seat and I could see why he’s been on so many Podiums’ over the years.

Like most people that are into Drifting, I first saw professional drifting by watching the old Japanese Option videos so getting a chance to go visit the part of the world and drive some of the tracks where the sport was invented was something I’ve wanted to do for many years. As it tuned out, Hayashi-san had and blue s14 that looked a lot like my streetcar I have back in NC. It had all the right suspension-mods done to it and its stock sr20 had enough “bolt-on’s” to make it a fun little package.

That night, Mello took me to an amazing Korean BBQ joint, just around the corner from my hotel. We had a great time filling up on thinly-sliced beef, chicken and some other stuff that he wouldn’t /shouldn’t tell me what it was. I figured if he was eat’n it, then so was I…

The next morning, we were up early and on our way back to the track. Doing a great job of packing light for this trip, I only brought my helmet & gloves with me to Japan for driving-gear. Since my gig for Toyota was just “warmly” driving streetcars, there wasn’t any need to bring anything else but “walking” shoes. Now we were on our way to a full day of driving and what I had just wouldn’t do. Unfortunately it was early enough in the morning that no shoe stores were open so we found a store that was kind-of like a Japanese version of Tractor Supply. We searched and searched and the best thing we could find were a traditional Japanese Craftsman Working Shoe or as I now call them “Professional Driving Shoes”. Let me tell you, I was a big hit at the track in these sporty-kicks!

At the track, we had our morning coffee and Hayashi-san made sure I was comfortable in his practice car. Naturally this was a JDM car so for me, everything was on the wrong side. The steering wheel, pedals and even the shifter were ok since I had already been driving cars like this the week before but to have the e-brake over on the left was going to be a first for me.

As an added surprise, a group of American’s showed up at the track to take part in the day’s activities. As it turned out, they were an awesome group, some of them living here serving in our Armed Forces and others, like me, just here for a visit. I wish I had more time to spend with them as we had some good laughs throughout the day and some hilarious pictures taken at the end. Luckily for me Ben had his camera gear with him so most of the pictures and video I have to remember this day are thanks to Mr. Mich. Meeting them all (Ben, Charlie, Eric, Megan, Brenda and Doug) made the day just that much more enjoyable, plus it gave my brain a chance to hear/speak some English so I didn’t “melt a circuit board”…

After an easy start to the morning, it was time to get out on track so with a few laps with me in the passenger-seat, Hayashi-san made a few passes to make sure the car was good to go. Once satisfied, he pulled over and we traded seats. I didn’t expect him to ride with me since we had just met and he really didn’t know if I knew what I was doing but it was cool that he was interested… or maybe he was just making sure I wasn’t going to kill his car… hard to say really…

After a half-dozen laps, I pulled in and we talked about the track and the car, at least as much as we could anyway since neither of us spoke each other’s language. As we stood there making hand/body gestures and engine noises trying to describe to each other what I was doing/wanted to do out on the track was when a group of local guys walked up and asked Kazuki, who the new guy was? At the time I didn’t know but thes e were some of the top-drivers here at this track including Yama-chan, Yohey Usagawa and D1 competitor Teruyoshi Iwai.

After some formal introductions we all got back out on the track and had a great morning. The vibe at this track was awesome and everyone was as nice to this newcomer as they could possible be. Later in the morning Iwai-san asked if he could ride with me a few laps. Naturally I was honored by this request and so went the rest of the morning, I would drive some laps, Hayashi-san riding with me would give me a few pointers, I’d go out to run some more and then Iwai-san would come for a ride and give me his thoughts. I had never had this kind of “drift coaching” before and was really cool especially coming from drivers with such immense experience… And then all of a sudden, the Red Flag came out… It was time for lunch!

While we all were burning off tires, my new friend Mello had run off to the store to grab a bunch of food for our group-lunch. Located near one of the spectator areas was a large metal box with a grate on top. By the time we walked over, Mello had the coals burning and the feast was on. It was such a cool thing! We all just gathered around the fire and using chop-sticks, you just pulled the meat off of the grill whenever you found a piece that was cooked to you liking and everyone that was at the track joined in, all were welcome… This went on for about an hour and then, it was over and time to get on the track!

The rest of the day went like the morning with my line and the left-handed e-brake getting more and more familiar, the speeds getting faster and the fun flowing from every corner. The little s14 ran great all day and thanks to the tracks smooth surface, we only had to mount another set of tires for the last hour of the day.

At the day’s end there were plenty of “High-5’s” to go around, we took some fun group-pictures, packed everything up and headed of to dinner. This again led me to my next surprise. I jumped into Iwai-san’s A86 and he told me we were going to “a chicken shack”… Yeah, not so much. When we pulled into the parking lot of Irori Sanzoku, up in the hills above Iwakuni, I was again, blown away! It is so much more an experience than a restaurant, it reminds me of a place in Disneyland or Vegas. It’s like its own little village full of shops, sub-restaurants, kitchens, status, ponds and theme park all rolled into one.

As described, they do have chicken but it’s like half a chicken on a wooden-stake. The temperature was cool but we sat outside. This turned out to be ok because we sat at a traditional low-dinner table that had a heavy quilt attached to it and a heater of some kind underneath. The ambiance was outstanding, the food was great and though I couldn’t understand much of what was being said, we all had a good laugh recounting the day’s adventures with hand movements, facial expressions and engine/tire noises…

From there, Mello and I headed out where he had one more surprise to show me. It was now well into the night and a light mist filled the air. As we drove closer to Iwakuni something large in the distance caught my eye. Growing larger as we got closer was the Kintai Bridge that spans the Nishiki River. I had heard about this place but I didn’t think I’d get to see it. This amazing 5-span wooden bridge was built using traditional methods and designs. This new version that was built in 1952 after the original was cleared out by a typhoon in 1950. It was rebuilt to the original-specs of the bridge that was first raised in 1673. This late at night with almost no one around and the mist lightly falling from the sky, made for a truly amazing end to and amazing day.

Next stop on my agenda was more sight seeing. Just up the railway from Iwakuni is the small town of Miyajimaguchi. From here I took a ferryboat over to the island called Itsukshima or more popularly known as Miyajima (Shrine Island). This small mountainous island reminded me a little of Catalina Island off the coast of Long Beach, CA. in that it’s very “touristy”, a small town at the port and lots of trails to climb that take you some amazing Temples, Shrines and views of the adjoining islands and nearby Hiroshima.

If you’ve got the time and the stamina, I strongly encourage anyone to take in this fascinating place. After a couple of hours of hiking, a short gondola ride and more hiking up some narrow-paths, I made it to the summit of Mount Misen, nearly 1800ft. above the town. The views were well worth the effort and I’d make the trek again in a second. Once back down the mountain, I cruised the town making friends with some “resident deer” that roam freely around the island, found a good coffee house and did some fun people-watching. Another good day for sure.

The next day I was back on the Shinkansen bound for Tokyo once again. This time though I was on my own so it seemed a bit more intimidating than it was when I had “the boys” with me a week or so ago. I stopped off in Kyoto for a couple of hours. Didn’t get to see much as my schedule was tight but I would like to return and see more of it on my next visit.

Eventually I made it into Tokyo for my last night in country. I manage to reach out to my old friend John K. that I hadn’t seen since college. Back in the day, we spent many hours hanging out at my work or the gym just trying to figure things out… Turns out he has been living here for many years now and had an office really close to The Crossing in Shibuya. It’s funny how over the years we change in many ways, yet in others, we’re the same as we’ve always been. Well my friend John still makes me laugh just talking to him, still has more energy than any 5-people and still completely sucks at directions!

Had it not been for his co-workers, I don’t think I would have ever found my way to his office but luckily I got vectored-in and found my way to him. We had a great couple of hours hanging out and grabbing a bite at a truly JDM restaurant. So JDM that the menu didn’t have any pictures and all the words were in Kanji (characters). Without John there, I don’t think I would have gotten much to eat as no one it seemed spoke English.

I must say while I do appreciate cooked-fish (no sushi for me), I was really looking for some beef at dinner and this was not the place for that. Once again I ate light, tried some stuff that I didn’t know what it was and left still a little bit hungry… I needed to lose a couple more pounds anyway…

After dinner we walked around a bit more and John brought me to my hotel that one of his co-workers had arrange for me. It seems that Japan is really serious about no drunk driving and to that point, the population just doesn’t do it (nearly as much as some other cultures) so because many Japanese do like to drink, these “Capsule Hotels” have risen in popularity mostly for men. My boy John that that this would be a great “experience” for me since this was my last night here.

After helping me with the front desk to get everything paid for and squared away, John headed off to find his train and head home. I was then left to sort through this whole “capsule thing”… It’s funny, with my lifestyle, I stay in hotel rooms nearly if not more than I do my own house. I’d say I’m pretty well acclimated to all kinds of accommodations but this deal…. This was something new. I guess I’m really used to having privacy and this is something you just don’t have with this set-up. Not only are the “capsules” stacked in the wall like a series of clothes-driers at a Laundromat, the dressing room is “locker style” like at a workout gym and the bathroom is an open area like back in school.

I’m not gun’a lie, had I not been on a train and walking all day leading up to this. Then knowing I was going to be taking a 16-hour plane ride the next day, I don’t think I’d worried to much about cleaning-up at this place. In the end and with massive reservations I might add, I “did as it’s done” and sat there nearly shoulder to shoulder with someone I didn’t know, showered up and took care of business. Experience-check, won’t be doing that again…

Once that experience was complete it was time for bed. Again, luckily I was traveling-light as there wasn‘t any place to store my suitcase, backpack or helmet bag, so into my capsule it all went. Now the capsule is only just big enough for one person to lie down, they weren’t designed to have stuff in there with you so needless to say, I didn’t do a lot of tossing and turning that night. In the morning, amongst the snoring of my capsule-mates, I was up at dawn and on my way to the airport via the downtown bus.

Before my trip, I didn’t know that Tokyo was in fact, the largest city in the world with some 33M people living in it. I really got a sense for this when I got on the downtown bus and it took nearly an hour through constant city highways to reach the Narita Airport. This city truly is massive and I’d think it takes a special mindset to live here. By contrast the countryside’s of Japan are pretty sparse but their culture does like to consolidate space.

Back on my plane heading home, I was fortunate to be upgraded to Business Class so I had a ton more room and for the long flight, it was considerably more relaxing. Sitting next to the window, it was interesting how we manage to stay in sunlight for the majority of the trip so I felt good once I landed. After a few days at home I realized that I had been there just long enough to acclimate myself to their 14-hours ahead of us here in North Carolina and so now that I was home, it took me a good week to get my body back onto this time zone. A few hours from coast to coast here in the US is easy but going halfway around the globe, that’s real jet lag…

Sitting here a month after I got back, I think back to the amazing place that is Japan. I feel so incredibly fortunate to work in an industry that gives me the opportunity to see such places and have such great experiences. I really appreciate the folks that decided to include me on this “work trip” and it was great working with people that have been my friends for so many years. It also reminds me how great Motorsports is that you can meet a complete stranger who you don’t even share a common language and within a few hours feel like you’ve known them forever and be willing to take them under your wing and guide them through challenging circumstances. As anyone in the business will tell you, Motorsports is a tough business and one filled with many valleys but it also has such amazing peaks, at time you feel like you’re on top of Mt. Fuji…

Happy New Year Everyone!

PS: Should you want to see more pics from my amazing trip, Click Here