The brief was simple: spend the last weekend of March with the new Aston Martin DBS Superleggera Volante to get some photos with cherry blossoms. This weekend was predicted to be the peak of the cherry blossoms in the Tokyo area for the year. A bright blue convertible Aston Martin and some pretty trees – what could possibly go wrong?
Well, it turns out several things could. The first day I picked up the DBS, I was planning to get straight on to it and take it to the famous cherry blossom locations for some photos, but the weather had other plans with strong winds blowing petals off the trees and all over the Aston’s Bridge of Weir leather interior. Scrap that idea, I’ll try again the next day.
It turns out not only was it wet the whole day, but the wind from the day before had pretty much blown most of the cherry blossoms out. Never mind, there was still Sunday. Surely Sunday would be a fun day. The weather app on my phone showed a cloudy forecast in the afternoon, right after the freak snowstorm that battered through the capital in the morning. It was the first time Tokyo experienced snowfall this heavy off-season in 32 years. Typical.
This was a perfect excuse to leave the city for one last drive to arguably Japan’s most famous driving road – the Hakone Turnpike.
Hopefully the weather out there was better than the weather in the city. For many this is driving Mecca in Japan. It’s the road made famous from countless automotive videos and photos. It’s where Japan’s leading motoring media take the latest press car to review and where Initial D fanatics pay homage to the cult manga. The accessibility from Japan’s capital makes it an easy choice for many to take their cars on a day trip drive to one of the best roads in the country.
A 90-minute drive south of Tokyo, the Hakone Turnpike has established itself as an integral part of Japan’s car culture. It’s a place where drivers from all across the Kanto area of Japan come together to put their cars through their paces. If you want to drive on this road for yourself, it’s an easy drive from Tokyo, taking on the infamous Tomei Expressway until you get off on the Odawara by-pass. Be careful here as its notorious for undercover police cars ready to ticket unsuspecting cars.
Once you’ve reached the entrance of the Turnpike, it’s a flat ¥730 toll fee (there’ll be a lot of tolls along the way too). While most of the other roads I’ve covered here don’t have tolls, the Turnpike administrators say the fee goes towards road maintenance. Once you get on, you’ll notice the tarmac is noticeably higher quality than most touges or mountain passes in Japan. The tarmac is so smooth you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a race track. But it isn’t.
While it’s technically a private toll road, the police can still surprise you if they feel like it. I know because this has happened to me once, much to the surprise of many locals here. I’m that idiot who got a speeding ticket on the Hakone Turnpike. My tip for this would be to do one ‘scouting’ lap up and down to make sure there aren’t any hidden policemen. If it’s your first time, it’s worth doing one slow lap to get used to the road and take in the breathtaking sights.
At the peak there’s a rest area complete with a cafe and restaurant as well as a panoramic view of Lake Ashi and Mount Fuji on a clear day if you’re lucky. I was less lucky. While at the bottom of the Turnpike was cloudy, the top was foggy with some leftover snow from the night before.
Now, you might think driving a car like the DBS Volante up one of Japan’s best known roads isn’t the best fit, and you’d be right. The DBS is very much more of a cruiser than a point and shoot sports car. It does have some ‘sporting’ capabilities, a 5.2L twin-turbo V12 with 730hp and 900NM of torque will do that to a car, but the 1800kg mass and the Volante’s more relaxed characteristic make this an interesting car to try and canyon carve in.
That said, the noise with the top down is dramatic if nothing else.
You might expect this road to be a touge full of sharp, twisty hairpins, where you’d rarely exceed second gear; but instead, this is a rather fast uphill climb with plenty of fast sweeping bends to push your car to its limits and long straightaways. You’ll find a variety of cars driving up and down the Turnpike on any given day, even weekdays.
On weekends, however, that’s where you’ll see most of the action. It’s not unusual to see people driving on here in their specially modified Porsches and Honda Type Rs at the break of dawn.
The variety of cars reflects the variations of the road. Some sections are best for light weight handling focused cars, whereas others big power and speed reign supreme. The scenery is just as diverse with the first section going through a forest stage, during this time there were cherry blossoms scattered around this part.
Past the sweeping bridges and past the first main rest area of the Turnpike, you’ll reach the main portion of where the cherry blossoms are. An avenue of pink trees as you continue your climb to the peak.
The canopy of trees make way for a more mountainous setting, to the left you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean as you head high up the pass. On a less foggy, less miserable day, you’re surrounded by lush green hills on either side. About three-quarters up the 14 kilometre road the trees and hills clear way for clouds as you overlook the mountain you’ve just driven over. Close to the peak are a couple more drive off areas for you to stop, admire the view, and snap some photos.
Once you’ve reached the peak, you can have a break at the cafe or restaurant there to take a breather, collect your thoughts and think about how to attack that road again. Here you’ll find the iconic panoramic view of Mount Fuji, if you’re lucky. At the end of the road, there’s a t-junction where both sides lead to equally fun driving opportunities, but more on that another time.
Driving back down the Turnpike is either as much fun or less fun depending on your preference. In the DBS, downhill was a much slower pace than uphill. I was impressed by the relative rigidity the DBS Volante had over its predecessor. I’ve driven a Vanquish Volante on these same roads but found it to be much more wobbly and less composed than the Superleggera Volante.
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…