From the daily grind of commuting to work in Tokyo, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, to the rising costs of driving and owning a car in a city that favors public transportation, sometimes it’s almost therapeutic to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Car enthusiasts in Tokyo simply get out and drive.
That’s what this series is all about – exploring the vast expanse of Japan’s epic driving roads. Japan may be a relatively small island country, about the size of California, but its mountainous landscape means there’s no short supply of brilliant bits of tarmac. This is the country that gave the world drifting after all.
From experience, the best roads are a 3-hour drive north of the capital city. For this drive, Lexus very kindly let me borrow their new RC F Track Edition which has a retail price starting at $96,800. Powered by a 5.0-litre naturally aspirated V8, it produces 481 old school horsepower and 394 ft-lbs of torque.
The Track Edition drops 121 pounds over the standard 2020 Lexus RC F resulting in a total mass of 3,781 pounds. That’s still enough to get this unashamedly old-fashioned sport coupe from 0-60 mph in less than 4 seconds.
Leaving behind the neon-lit concrete jungle and heading northbound, the RC F is one of the best motorway cruisers I’ve been in. The appearance of the Track Edition with its carbon fiber bodywork and Fast and Furious looking rear wing might suggest it being a hard and aggressive ride; but on the contrary, it has one of the best seats in the business and a rather forgiving ride. Stick in in Drive and enjoy the view out the windscreen as the scenery becomes less urban and more natural.
The road in question today is known as the “Merchen Highway” and is a 26-mile stretch of road in the Nagano Prefecture north-west of Tokyo. It also happens to be one of the best roads I’ve been on in Japan. No, it’s one of the best roads I’ve been on, full stop. I haven’t stopped thinking about this road and I’m trying to find any excuse I can to go back. It was intoxicating.
I only stumbled upon this road after late night sessions of searching for interesting looking squiggly lines on Google Maps.
I knew the roads around Tochigi, Gunma, and Nagano Prefectures were great places to start as a lot of Initial D was inspired by roads in these areas. I noticed the road that I’d later find out was the Merchen Highway or Local Route 299. It didn’t look that impressive from Google Maps street view. Sure, it had plenty of tight and technical looking corners but that didn’t prepare me for the gravity of its brilliance.
This is a proper driving road. As you climb towards the peak of the Merchen Highway, you immediately get the sense this is going to be a good run. Being in the middle of the Nagano countryside, there’s literally no one around. The road intersects through a few small villages, but there’s never enough cars on this road to break your groove. There is a ski field but by the time that’s in operation, the roads are too icy for any kind of spirited driving.
It starts off easy, a rather easy drive to get to grips with the car and the area. It’s much like any other mountain road or touge in Japan. A couple of tight corners taking the RC F by surprise but nothing it couldn’t deal with. I’ll admit, the RC F wasn’t exactly the best car for a road like this. I wasn’t expecting it to be this challenging. However, the more I drove on this road, the better it got.
I went on a Friday afternoon and the number of other cars on the road at this time didn’t get into double digits. This is the sort of road you could spend hours doing multiple laps on, constantly improving the way you take on various sections and as you get more comfortable with the limits of both your car and the road.
As I progressed onward, the road got noticeably more squiggly and more fun. The scenery got more beautiful, and it just seemed to go on forever. There was a point where I wondered if this would ever end and hoping it wouldn’t.
Unlike some of the toll roads on some of Japan’s more famous driving roads where the toll fees go towards the maintenance of the roads, the surface of the Merchen Highway was imperfect. It was a constant reminder that this was a public road and not a smooth racetrack. This was when I was happy to be in the RC F with its smooth and forgiving suspension set.
Once you’ve reached the peak, the road suddenly changes from being a hill climb stage to a forest rally stage. The road noodles down towards the other side onto the town of Chino through woods that look like they’ve come straight out of Gran Turismo. The road gets more technical and narrows, something like an Alpine A110, Mazda MX-5, or a capable hot hatch would be perfect here.
Perhaps a V8 rear-wheel drive Lexus was a bit overkill, but it was a great way of testing the car’s grip. The RC F handled the road surprisingly better than I had thought, but I couldn’t help but ponder how much more fun this road would be in a smaller, lighter car.
What I loved most about this road was how it was a mix of all the best roads in Japan in one 26-mile bit of road.
You have the easy start through the small villages, then the twisty ascent up the mountain road before plateauing on a flat stretch of road going through the highlands. It’s like five different stages in one road. As you descend down towards the other side it’s a rally-esque forest stage going through towering pine trees and wooden cabins. There’s a bit of a North American woods vibe in this part. It’s a breathtaking bit of road, and every now and then you’ll go around a corner and won’t be able to help but go “wow” at the scenery. It’s brilliant.
An afternoon spent on this road was enough to get me addicted. I need to come back. After filling the RC F up on the other side of the Merchen Highway, it was time to head home towards Tokyo. Everything just came together to make this an unforgettable driving experience – a captivating V8 soundtrack from the RC F, constantly changing views out the window, pretty much non-existent traffic, and a twisting and challenging road. What a truly great afternoon out of the city.
There aren’t many roads that stick in my mind, especially one this far out of the city, but the Merchen is one that needs to be driven again. I need to spend a whole day here, maybe more. What’s even better is not too far from the Chino side of the Merchen Highway is another epic road – the Venus Line.
Japan is constantly impressing me with some of the best roads in the world.
Ken Saito is a Guest Writer specializing in Automobiles who resides in Japan. With a B.A. majoring in Media Studies with minors in Asian Studies and History from Victoria University in New Zealand, Ken has contributed to motoring websites like DriveLive New Zealand, CarsOfTokyo (Japan), Jalopnik (USA) and Petrolicious (USA), as well as magazines like Lords Magazine (France) and Automobile (USA).
Ken may be one of the few people to have been ‘canyon carving’ in a Cadillac SUV against a Ferrari F40…