Words and Photography: Jonny Smith
Land of the Rising Sun.
Japan, where do I to start? A country I have so many words for but just can't seem to find them. One that's fascinated me for such a long, long time and been at the top of my 'need to visit' list forever.
Looking back now, I kind of wish I'd visited sooner, but then I remember the reasons why I wasn't able to. Other adventures around the world took up my time and money, but finally, I was at a point where I could go. Returning back from the US last year, catching up with friends, from either online, H2Oi in Ocean City or Staggered Show, I decided to skip a few regular yearly trips and book this trip to Japan. Like my trips over the years to Europe and the US, they've always been a mixture of cars and tourism, this being Japan, this would be no exception! So with the dates for all three Matsuri's at Ebisu announced, I knew which dates to book around for Spring Matsuri.
Admittedly, booking this trip was a lot more daunting than solo trips before. The language barrier for most is the most daunting, but after some actual fun learning, and some general understanding it really isn't that difficult. I love how vague and simple it can be. With more research, many 'Googles', speaking to a few people who've been before and gaining quite a lot of information over years from Alexi of Noriyaro, I was booked and finally on a dream come true trip. Not before long I was at Heathrow, flying 12 hours east and eventually landing in Japan!
To not bore you people brought here by the title, I'll be doing a more tourist/cars of Tokyo post at a later date, so to keep this short for now. From the second I boarded the Monorail from the Airport to Hamamatsucho Station, a quick subway ride up to Akihabara, bags dropped off at the hotel and an afternoon walk around, I knew I had made the perfect choice to finally visit. Expectations were filled and massively exceeded! I'd worried on the days leading up, I'd put Japan on a pedestal. Glad I was proven wrong.
A wild Ferrari 328 Doesn't get much better than this.
After a fair few days of tourism, the weekend approached and it was time to set my sights on traveling north to Fukushima and Ebisu. So late on Thursday night, after another action-packed day of sightseeing, I packed my bag, charged the camera gear and got set for a very early Friday morning.
My 6am alarm sounded and out towards the station I headed. A few hot vending machine Boss coffee's, subway ride north to Ueno Station and catching the Shinkansen north to Fukushima I was well on my way. Gliding through the outer suburbs of Tokyo and into the beautiful Japanese countryside.
For the 2 days, I had sorted myself a hire car. Ebisu is not the easiest place to get to, taxies are around and available and people are willing to offer lifts, but it does restrict you quite a lot. Having a car to travel around Ebisu is also a huge bonus. If you want to do it the way I did, it can even double up as your hotel for the night...
Picking up my hire car wasn't a problem. Just across the road from Fukushima Station is the Toyota Rent-A-Car. Receiving my requested Prius, Waze set, I started my ascent up the green mountains towards Ebisu. A pretty quick 30 mins, I arrived at around 10 am.
Upon realizing the queues were actually for the Zoo, I paid my entry fee, gained my map and looked about how to get around and work out the route to the track I wanted to visit first.
The Ebisu Complex
Up in the mountains of the Fukushima Prefecture is Ebisu Circuit. Paired with a Zoo it's a very unique setting. Driving through the main areas, passing the few lion, tiger and bird enclosures, it makes the entire experience just a little weird. Nothing I think you can get anywhere else. 7 tracks make up Ebisu Circuit and each being so different from one another. Some tight a twisty tracks replicating the mountain passes where drifting made a name for itself, to huge high-speed tracks and a good amount of skid pad areas for practice. Kumakubo really knew what he was doing when he set his sights on this land and set to work designing and building this amazing place.
Minami - South Course
First of I headed for the track I'm sure all of you are familiar with. The famous Minami or Stadium track. The track that really tests drivers skill of all calibers. The track that started the journey back in 2000 for D1GP, which it has since used every single year. Lastly, as I'm sure you all know, it's the track with the famous left-handed jump.
To start with it was pretty quiet out on track along with the grandstands. Perfect for me, I got the opportunity to stand anywhere I wished. Amazing to think as this place is packed full for D1 weekends!
After a while, the track and grandstands started to fill up somewhat, with a few groups going out together, others latching onto random car in front to tandem or people out alone practicing. The atmosphere started to get more lively.
Slowly but surely some of the drivers started to push harder and harder throughout the course and especially over the left-handed jump. Push too hard though and you'll likely find yourself with a slam into the wall, to little and you'll either straighten up or take a very shallow line. Get it just right, moving close to the wall you'll then power through towards for the next big double-apex left-hander, using the resistance of being sideways and a few pulls on the handbrake to slow down enough to not run wide into the tires and another wall. It's then back on the power to transition into the right-hander which is were the D1 track finishes. Some people carry on and drift the unfamiliar top half of the track, whereas others use it to cool down, compose themselves, ready to attack the track once again.
It sure is fun as heck to watch people battle this unique course, and I'm sure it's fun to drive or even be a passenger. Something I didn't get to experience here but did somewhere else!
Higashi - East Course
Next, I made contact with the few people I'd arranged to meet over the two days and made my way over to another favorite course, Higashi. If you've watched a lot of Noriyaro's videos over the years or live streams of past Matsuris this is a track you may recognize yourself.
From first squeezing the Prius through the narrow tunnel under the main straight and entering the pits you see that not all the cars here at set up for drifting but to hit every corner facing forward. Higashi is usually used for grip and motorbike events so Matsuri is one of the only times you get to drift here. With long fast open corners and a very long straight, it's crazy fast track in all.
With its popularity with grip events, you get a lot of grip people here. It's not just drifting for the two days! With this, the contrast of grip and drift on track together is a rare and refreshingly fun sight to witness.
Standing on the main pit straight right up against the barrier you really get a sense of speed as people sanpatsu down towards the first corner, some only being a few cm's away from where you're standing.
One of the cars that took my attention from the moment I saw it on the track was this crazy 'missile' 86. With what can only be described as a very interesting bonnet the owner took this car to the limit every time with the scream of the 4A-GE blessing my ears. Here's a link to his Instagram @kuma86kuma
This is a man having the time of his life.
Hey, It's the Beercan Skyline!
As I mentioned, this is the main track most people would know from watching Noriyaro videos over the years. Seeing Alexi slide the infamous Beercan Skyline around was great along with being able to meet Alexi himself. Luckily, during the Thursday and early Friday morning, the issues Alexi had at last year's Autumn Matsuri had been sorted, the car was running and able to hit the track.
Running nice and close to the 'safety' barrier.
The occasional red flag does appear every now and then. Off would go the course car to tow a stuck car free or the wizards of Ebisu would sweep some dirt off the track with their wonderful brooms.
Just before we left Higashi to move onto another track, Alexi said to go get a passenger wrist band... You can guess I was pretty excited. Cheers for the photo Alexi!
Kita - North Course
After hanging around with a few of the fellow foreigners who I had gotten to know and Alexi, we moved on up the steep hills to North Course. With a packed out pits area, you get the feeling a lot of people really like this track. With a long uphill accent into a very fast first corner, one favored for some fast backward entries, it certainly looks entertaining. Carrying on into a tight twisty and technical back end it's quite a short track but its intensity makes that up.
The first corner looks quite tight to start with but opens up meaning you can attack it hard and carry a lot of speed through! It's also a perfect place to stand and watch the action.
A very fast sanpatsu against the Pit Wall then throwing their cars into turn 1.
These shots are where I have to give a big shoutout to Steve (@Navarim) Thank you for capturing this great moment of me in the passenger seat having the time of my life. The chance to ride in the #beercanskyline was not just a highlight of the event, but the entire trip altogether. Thank You Alexi for the opportunity, and also the lending of the spare helmet. With so much to cover for Spring Matsuri, I'll talk more about Alexi, the Beercan and Noriyaro another time! In the meantime check out his Youtube and Twitch
After some good times watching people go crazy into Turn 1 at North, we headed down, across and up again. Did I say this place was on a mountain? Towards Touge Course. A fantastic tight, narrow and twisty course replicating the mountain roads where roots of drifting began in the middle of the night. It's an easy way to go bear spotting without getting into trouble.
Just at the entrance of Touge is the Team Orange Drift H/Q. The home for Suenaga and Kohashi for D1 in this year's championship.
Just outside was one of the S14's which guessing by the sunstrip is being used/been used in D1 Street League, now known as D1 Lights. The more restricted and more grassroots drifting series in Japan.
From this area, you get a great viewing point showcasing an absolutely amazing view of Higashi from high above. This definitely wasn't a view I was expecting, and another that shows the crazy changes in altitude for the place. Seriously, Kumakubo really did have an eye for detail when designing this place!!
We had a bit of fun watching Alexi and a few others slide around the first corner and up the hill to the second, unfortunately, that's all we could really see. I think next time I'll have to get a ride along here with someone to really see how crazy it is.
Maxed out angle is a good look.
Watching the owner of this Lexus slide it around turn one and up the hill disappearing around the corner was fun. On returning to the 'pits' area we caught a glimpse inside the car and his innovative cooling system. Moving the cluster to the middle and installing 2 fans in front of himself. You see all kinds of things here.
Before the day fully came to an end I took a trip back down the incredibly steep hill towards Minami, but stopping just shy to have a look at School Course; A flat, short tight little course it has just about everything you'd need to practice. It's a course that really has you working the steering wheel throughout. With loads of different combinations, it's a bit unique too. You could attack it with speed, staying on the outside on the open bends, or swing in a little and try the really tight inner section. There's a few walls to hit as well, either on purpose, or not.
Amazingly I've managed to lose the photos of my rough hour here trying all sorts of interesting viewing points, at one point on the steep bank in some bushes. I did return once the sun has set. Not that you'll be able to see much from those photos... My bad.
Day One Complete.
I headed back to Higashi, Alexi's preferred spot for the weekend. Met back up with the rest of the guys, we all hung around for a while watching the sun slowly make it's decent over the top of the mountain.
For each of the 3 Matsuri's every year, the place stays open for a full 36 hours. Not all the tracks are open throughout the night, but a few being Minami, School and North stay running through the darkness. Something I'd never witnessed before.
With that happening, we made arrangements for dinner at the on-site cafe and decided what we would do during the night. North Course to start!
Into the Darkness we drove...