There is a road in Japan that plays music as you drive over it. It’s a road that passes by one of the most photographed yet seldom-seen natural wonders of the world.
Further down that road hundreds of people queue for hours to take an Instagram selfie in absolute solitude. Beyond that is a place where 70,000 people sing John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home Country Road’ together, like an impromptu Guinness World Record karaoke.
That all may sound like an acid trip, but this is what passes for reality in Japan, a country that is both exotic and intoxicating.
WhichCar flew to Japan to drive a new Land Rover Discovery variant, one with all the on- and off-road capabilities of a ‘normal’ Discovery large 4WD, with added touches to commemorate the Rugby World Cup taking place in Japan at the time.
Land Rover has been a Worldwide partner of rugby for more than two decades. The company feels that rugby’s passion for life, its commitment to diversity and community, and its core values of integrity and teamwork are all qualities that resonate with the Land Rover brand.
In my mind, rugby has an honesty too that is sometimes lacking in other football codes and which rewards hard work. Two other qualities that every Land Rover vehicle expounds.
This trip through Japan adds another chapter to my Land Rover experiences. I’ve driven Land Rovers and Range Rovers on dirt highways across and around the middle of Australia, through muddy bogs in the Welsh countryside, even through a gutted Boeing 747 whose interior had been transformed into a 4WD playground for a day.
But none of this prepares me for this unique trip through Japanese culture from Tokyo to Mount Fuji and back in time for the Rugby World Cup Final in Yokohama.
As road trips go, this one in a Land Rover Discovery appears to be jinxed from the beginning. By me. Arriving in Narita International Airport a week out from the final, I only had myself to blame for the All Blacks’ shock semi-final loss to England. I’d bragged to my family back in New Zealand about how I was going to watch the ABs win a World Cup.
Anyone who knows a Kiwi knows that rugby is more than that nation’s pastime; it’s a religion worshipped by hundreds of thousands every weekend. The sport regularly makes newspaper front pages in New Zealand. Its finest proponents are deified, and scandals inevitably result in ex-communication. Or worse, emigration to Australia.
So to boast about my good fortune was to tempt the rugby gods, and they unleashed their wrath in the form of pint-sized ex-Australian coach Eddie Jones. The now coach of England devised a strategy that saw New Zealand’s attacking backline neutered and its thundering forwards hobbled.
And so it was that New Zealand, the overwhelming favourite going into the tournament, was bundled out in the semi-final. Which meant I was going to Japan to watch England play South Africa. Well, at least it wasn’t Australia.
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I fly into Narita airport to join the mass of humanity that is Tokyo. This teeming metropolis is home to 38 million people, and the two-hour drive from Narita to downtown Tokyo is an endless parade of congested high-rise apartments, heady corporate buildings and raised motorways.
The next day I board a Rugby World Cup 2019 Limited Edition Land Rover Discovery SD6 HSE and headed for Mount Fuji, the world’s most recognisable mountain.
Mount Fuji is far from the tallest - its 3776m peak doesn’t even make the top 100 - but this active volcano’s white-topped cone and the complete absence of any other mountains nearby make it impossible to miss.
Our first stop on the journey is a lake-side Shinto shrine just outside the town of Hakone. The shrine itself is hidden a few hundred metres away in a dense cedar forest, and there’s an unmistakable feeling of mysticism in the air walking on its hallowed grounds.
The shrine was first built on the summit of Mount Hakone in the 700s before being relocated to its current location in 1667. These days it’s popular with visitors, although most are drawn here by a huge red lakeside gate - or Torii in Japanese - which is the spot for thousands of selfies every day.
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Anyone who’s ever been to Japan knows they are an unfailingly polite nation. Kindness and consideration are at the core of Japanese ethics - it has to be for civility to survive in a country where 127 million people live in an area 1.5 times the size of Victoria.
So it’s no surprise that an orderly queue had formed leading out to the Torii, hundreds of people wait patiently to walk out alone under the Torii and take the ultimate selfie with the lake as a backdrop.
I didn’t have the time or patience to wait my turn, so leaving the Instagram influencers to their vigil, I head around the lake and up onto the Hakone-Ashinoko Skyline proper.
This serpentine mountain road is iconic with car nerds and will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever watched the Fast and the Furious. But, just in case you miss its importance to the world’s drifting fanatics, the thick black carpet of drift marks on most corners is a dead giveaway.
The Hakone Skyline is 90km south-west of Tokyo, almost at the foot of Mount Fuji. It’s a tollroad with one unique feature, apart from the spectacular views of Mt Fuji and also Ashinoko Lake. The road plays music as you drive over it.
The Japanese call these Melody Roads, and the country has more than 30. Different depth and width grooves are cut into the road in such a way that they emit musical notes when your tyres roll over them at 40km/h.
If you don’t believe me, watch it below. In case you’re wondering what the song is, its the Evangelion Anime theme song, which you can also hear here played by more conventional instruments.
After Melody Road we reach Mikuni Pass, one of the most beautiful locations along the road, and one that affords the perfect view of Mount Fuji.
I’d heard from many friends and colleagues that Mount Fuji isn’t an easy mountain to see; clouds and haze often shroud the iconic white-topped cone from view. But atmospheric conditions on the day we arrived could not have been more ideal. A very comfortable 25 degrees and literally not a cloud in the sky.
After Mikuni Pass, the Hakone Skyline gets serious. This is not a road suited to high-riding, highly-competent SUVs like the Land Rover Discovery, although the big Brit acquits itself quite well, staying relatively flat through the turns and using its responsive turbodiesel engine to good effect between them.
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The Hakone Skyline has dozens upon dozens of turns in its short 5km length tailor-made for popular Japanese sports cars like the Mazda RX-7, Nissan R33 GT-R and Mitsubishi EVO6, and even classics like the Datsun 240Z - all four of which pull up just as we’re about to depart, hot engines ticking noisily after obviously enjoying a spirited run up the mountain.
One of the drivers, it turns out is an Aussie, and he tells me this convoy is a kind of tagalong tour where you rent the car of your choice and a tour guide leads you on some of the best roads in the area.
The next stop on this journey is Lake Saiko, which - surprise surprise - affords yet more stunning views of Mount Fuji. Being greedy, I wished the light breeze wasn’t blowing and the water’s surface was calm enough to fully reflect the mountain in photos, when in fact I should have just been happy to get such a clear day anyway!
As the sun slowly sets I head for the overnight stop at a campsite with a difference. Hoshinoya Fuji resort is not what Aussies would call camping, because there are no tents, and we’re not exactly roughing it.
Instead, two dozen concrete bunkers sit on the hillside, each luxuriously outfitted with a big bed, lounge and kitchen area - and a big balcony - all angled to give the occupant an uninterrupted view of Mount Fuji.
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It’s a fitting end to a day that has been all about the mountain. The importance of Fujiyama - Lord Fuji - to Japan is underscored by the many myths and legends that surround it. None more than the one about its creation, which was said to have happened in a day in 86BC - according to a local farmer who was the sole witness as the earth shook and rumbled.
Geologists put Fuji’s birth closer to 8500BC, although they acknowledge that an eruption did occur in 86BC. The farmer named the ‘new’ mountain the Undying Mountain (Fujiyama), and its immortality is synonymous with the nation.
My night ends with a delicious four-course venison menu at Honshinoya Fuji resort, before falling exhausted into bed. The next day is a rather more direct drive back to Tokyo because there’s a little rugby match planned that I’m keen to witness, despite the absent All Blacks.
The Discovery eats up the 120km back to Tokyo without fuss, this big and capable SUV lording it over the much smaller Kei cars that dominate Tokyo roads. These diminutive machines two-thirds the size of regular cars were hugely popular in the 20th century because owners received considerable tax breaks. In 2014 much of the tax advantages were reduced, but they still make up 40 percent of all new car sales domestically.
In the land of little cars, the Discovery is king, and there’s no better tourer for serenely covering the distance to our journey’s end in Tokyo. The Disco’s twin-turbodiesel V6 makes the drive effortless, using its 700Nm of torque to push through the air 20-30km/h above the motorway’s mandated speed limit - which we’ve been advised by locals is safe and acceptable.
And indeed much of the other traffic seems to be keeping the same pace, so my licence feels safe.
After close to 300km over two days, my respect for the Discovery has not waned. Its credentials as a premium SUV which cossets occupants in a cocoon of calm and quiet are secure. And I was actually quietly impressed with how adroitly and nimbly it handled the tight turns of the Hakone Skyline despite its 2.2-tonne girth and obvious size.
Land Rover’s ability to turn out a vehicle capable of such competence and refinement on-road, and its proven ability to go just about anywhere off the road, make this one of the world’s most unique machines. In a world producing more than 70 million new cars every year, that’s saying something.
Although the trip officially ends for the Discovery at the hotel, my journey has one more chapter to go. And it’ll end in two more surprises. First, the English team that so humbled the mighty All Blacks a week earlier are in turn humbled by an overwhelmingly competent South Africa, who take home their third Rugby World Cup. I did not see that coming.
And second, I also didn’t expect to take part in a 70,000-strong karaoke rendition of a John Denver classic. We all know the Japanese people’s penchant for karaoke, so much so that it’s almost a cliche or stereotype these days. Doesn’t mean it’s not true. So when the call for karaoke comes over the ground’s PA system and massive tv screens, the entire crowd joins in. Me included.
The song’s message is a fitting way to end this one of a kind journey in a Land Rover Discovery through such an exotic land. “Take me home, country road, to the place I belong…”