Life, as they say, is full of surprises. But how many of them are genuine? Every now and then something pops up that’ll genuinely catch you off guard. That’s the case with my recent drive on the Akagi touge, or officially known as the Joumo-Sanzan Panorama Highway, in the 2018 Honda Civic Type R. And it’s where I lived out the legal, daytime version of everyone’s Initial Dfantasies.
As it seems to be a trend with these drives I do getting there was no easy task. What should’ve been a trip taking less than three hours eventually ended up taking over four hours due to the traffic. I hadn’t even arrived at the road and I wasn’t feeling hopeful.
But things started to appear better the closer I got to the mountains, leaving civilisation and all its problems behind. The best thing about all of this was after driving on the infamous Mount Akina touge (Mount Haruna in Initial D) and Irohazaka Road, both of which had plenty of local and tourist traffic on them, the Akagi touge was surprisingly empty.
It wasn’t a case where I had the entire road to myself, but other cars were definitely few and far in between. Especially compared to the hoards of tourist buses on Irohazaka.
At the bottom of the road was a parking area which was used as the finish point on the downhill races in Initial D. Of course, being a Friday afternoon, there weren’t any drifting or races happening out here. Instead just a few pensioners in their hatchbacks and SUVs having a drink by the vending machines.
It was my first time in this part of Japan. Really, this series is an unapologetic excuse to explore parts of Japan I usually wouldn’t. I decided to do a “practice” drive up the Akagi touge first before putting the 306 horsepower Type R to the test. The descent up looked promising.
A glance at the Honda’s sat-nav map showed more hairpins than a Claire’s store. At the peak of this road was another parking area, which was the starting point for the downhill stints in the anime. Staying true to the source material, I made a U-turn here and began the drive back to the start/finish point, sorry I mean parking area, at the bottom.
The views weren’t bad from the peak. On one side was a small glimpse at the Lake Akagi crater lake while on the other side was the spaghetti (should that be ramen noodle) of tarmac that covered the hillside. Being at a high elevation, the trees were still bare unlike the ones in Tokyo which were appropriately green considering it was late spring. Also unlike Tokyo, which was borderline unbearable, Gunma prefecture had a much more pleasant temperature.
Usually I’m more of an uphill driving kind of guy, but in this case going downhill was considerably more fun, though the Type R didn’t seem to mind either way. The handling and body control downhill were confidence inspiring. It didn’t put a foot wrong at all.
Uphill, the 2.0-litre turbo four had more than enough grunt to pull it up the mountain pass and it just went around corners like it was on rails. No matter how silly I was driving it didn’t so much think about understeering into the guard rail.
Say what you will about the way it looks, the Type R is an accomplished hot hatch. The balance of the chassis and the punchiness of the engine, plus that fantastic manual gearbox, make it a very compelling package.
Sure, a more powerful Ford Focus RS might beat it to the top but that’s not the point. I was having as much fun, if not more, than I did in the 720S on the Venus Line—and I was in a Civic.
A large chunk of that fun was down to going through the gears myself with a clutch pedal and gear stick on a twisty road like this. Finding the right gear for the right corner made it all the more fun and engaging. I can’t remember the last time I had this much fun in a hatchback.
The Type R was a truly enjoyable car to drive on these sorts of roads. The one thing it achieve was it made me want to try an older Type R even more. An older Integra or Civic Type R would be even more perfect for this road.
After several laps up and down Akagi I wanted to check out the surrounding touges nearby, which meant driving down towards the lake where the roads forked. Before heading over to the roads I noticed a few cars driving around by the lake and the parked up at another parking spot. As soon as I saw the other FK8 Type R I had to pull up and see it.
It turned out to be three guys visiting from Hong Kong who had rented a Civic Type R, Subaru WRX STI, and an FD RX-7 to live out their own Initial D fantasies. They were spending five days in Japan driving around in three quintessential Japanese performance cars. That’s called living your best life.
After here they were off to the Irohazaka road so after taking a photo of the two FK8s together we went off in our separate ways. It’s these sort of moments I love about visiting roads like this and the ones near Lake Miyagase—the people who come here are here because they enjoy driving.
The first of the “bonus” touges was on Route 251 on the East of Lake Akagi. Technically it’s a continuation of the Joumo-Sanzan Panorama Highway. This was a faster, emptier, sprint style road which literally went nowhere.
Well, it did go somewhere but it was so long and the last remaining daylight was going I didn’t end up finding out where it went. It was an incredible road though. I’m not sure if it was because it was a Friday afternoon or the time of day but there were only two other cars around. If I had more time I would’ve loved to have done a couple more laps up and down this road. It had some great straight sections and third gear corners.
There was an abandoned building on this road which made for a cool and eerie photo spot. After getting a couple of shots it was back up the road to the lake. It’s not uncommon to find lots of these small abandoned towns scattered around the countryside in Japan. During the boom of the Bubble Economy in the 1980s and early ‘90s, these tourist towns popped up everywhere with the promise of bringing consumption-happy visitors. Many didn’t last.
By the lake there were restaurants, pedal boats, and coffee shops. They were all empty. There were cars driving around but strangely no people walking around town. The only visitors here were the guys driving through for the roads. I’m sure in the winter it’d be quite a popular ski destination but in the summer they should market it as a driving destination.
The second road I had hoped to go to was a dud. It was on Route 16 via Route 70, it appeared as even more squiggles on the Civic’s sat-nav map. But perhaps due to the weather or road works, it was closed half way up.
But when life gives you lemons you make Type R lemonade. Since there was even less traffic on this road than the others, by which I mean there was no chance of any cars coming up this road because they’re smart enough to know it’s closed, I took this chance to get some pics on the road.
As the sun started to set I went down to the shrine by the lake for some last photos. I couldn’t have asked for a better car to explore this part of Japan. It’s only three hours from Tokyo, if the traffic isn’t hell, but it feels like a whole world away.
This place had it all; great roads, beautiful views, and hardly any other people around. It’s not exactly the best place to break down but unless you come here in an old French car you’ll be fine. It was one of the better driving days I’ve had.
One last surprise on the way out was a white Toyota GT86 that came out and was just blasting down the Akagi touge back. At that moment it just felt like proper Initial D. I couldn’t have asked for a better moment here.
If you can only visit one road from Initial D, make it this one. Sure, the Akina touge is the most well-known one, but therein lies the problem. Everyone else wants to go and drive on there. As a sightseeing experience that’s the one to do. But for sheer driving pleasure the Akagi touge has been one of my favourite roads in Japan. The Civic Type R was also the perfect car to find a road was great as this one.
As a final bonus I stopped by Daikoku PA to check out what was there that night. There was a lovely EK9 Civic Type R, so I had to get an old and new pic. Next to the EK9, the new one looked like a crossover. Finally, once I got back to Tokyo I met up with a friend who had a Honda S600, the car all sporty Hondas can trace their roots back to. We had come back full circle. For now, I’ll keep thinking of an excuse to go back on Akagi soon.
Shout out to my friend Trevor who helped out with some of the photos. Check him out on his site here.