Category Archives: Roads and roadside

Iida: A twitch at the curtains

That summer feeling
Is gonna fly
Always try and keep the feeling inside
Need a crystal ball to see her in the morning
And magic eyes to read between the lines

Teenage Fanclub, Sparky’s Dream, 1995

Geologically, Iida is a place where the bedrock of life’s banalities lies much closer to the earthen surface of works and days than it does in the painted face of the big smoke, which makes her a more honest, death-embracing locus, but she was not somewhere I could hold on to for very long. I treat Iida nonetheless as my furusato hometown, though no parents, siblings, or relatives wait for me there, and truth be told I’m a neglectful lover, rarely returning now. It was with a touch of trepidation, therefore, that I accepted an invitation from Old Bill, fellow Withnail & I obsessive, connoisseur like me of quality knobs (this one a Bakelite beauty from Sato Parts),

electronics tinkerer extraordinaire,

self-styled “Dipso Dad”, now husband to long-suffering Shinako and father to the adorable Lynne (aka 凛, Rin, “dignified”) and Hannah (aka 花, Hana, “flower”) to visit for a sultry September weekend.

We set off on a road tripette in Bill’s lesbian-beloved Subaru Forester, with Lynne, buried in a book, on the back seat. This being rural Japan—and Nagano Prefecture in particular, I can’t help but feel—we were soon in the realm of aerial roadways to heaven

and tunnels

and bridges

to absolutely nowhere at all.

There’s something of a cheap optical illusion and something crassly Freudian about the tunnel and the bridge. Unoriginally, I want to scrawl under the photos in a “steady, painstaking, artificial script”, “Ceci n’est pas une rue”, and be rewarded for my efforts years later with an explicatory and adulatory essay by some soixante-huitard philosopher replete with talk of unraveled calligrams and negations multiplying themselves. To me, at least, the bridge is violent, the hillside vulnerable; the tunnel, its mirror image, is patient, the river ready to be bridged. As they are near neighbors, separated by only a few dales and folds, the bridge and the tunnel could perhaps get it together on an Internet dating site for large ferroconcrete structures.

To return to the mundane: all three form part of what one day, my son, my daughter, will be the San’en Nanshin Expressway, a 100km link between Iida in the interior and Hamamatsu on the coast. The project was given the green light back in 1983; the aerial interchange and the bridge have been in a state of Viagric erection since 1994; only a dozen or so kilometers have so far been completed; much of the rest is scheduled for completion in 2016 or after; and a few crucial sections have no schedule for construction at all, which means they are unlikely to be completed until the mid-2020s, fully four decades after the project left the drawing board of some faceless committee. As a friend loves to say, in Japan we take the long view. The expressway traverses terrain that is about as hostile to the dreams of road-builders as any on the planet, as hereabouts the Japan Median Tectonic Line meets the Fossa Magna, with the trickiest sections costing around $30mn a kilometer and the bill for the whole expressway set to come in somewhere north of $2bn. The leisurely construction schedule testifies both to the unimportance of the road—denizens of Iida can already access Nagoya in two hours and Tokyo in four—and pinched budgets for megaprojects such as this.

The road’s boosters, which encompass the whole of “official Japan” from the Ministry of Concrete—sorry, I’ll read that again, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport—on down, make claims for it alternately nebulous and suffused with the finicky precision of the bureaucrat: of the Iida portion, completion will mean that 88% of outlying towns and villages will be able to reach the city center by car in the event of rainfall of 100mm or more (which must occur, ooh, half a dozen times a year), up from 71% currently! And for this you want me to pay $2bn? Opposition to the road is inchoate, disorganized, confined to the odd squawk of a taxpayer on obscure bulletin boards. Make no mistake, my son, my daughter: the men from the ministry (no women there) will have their way, the bulldozers and pile-drivers and excavators will prevail, bridge will meet tunnel (and maybe fall in love), the San’en Nanshin Expressway will be built.

Our destination was the hundred-soul hamlet of Shimoguri, fancifully known as “the Tyrol of Japan”, the last stutter of civilization in the Southern Alps before boars and eagles and bears take the place of humans at the apex of the food chain, seen fragmentarily here looking north toward the 3,000m peaks of the Akaishi Mountains. 

One blogger, something of an authority on out-of-the-way crannies, calls Shimoguri “the backwoods at the back of beyond” (僻地の中の僻地), and once, before the arrival of the roads—the good roads—in the late 1960s, it might have been. Now it is scarcely an hour from the center of Iida and indeed, courtesy of a 2005 municipal amalgamation, lies within its precincts. So the city stretches its claws out into the country. Nor is it, as he claims, “Japan’s last hidden spot” (日本の最後の秘境), if such a chimera exists: tourists far outnumbered locals when we were there. Still, it’s an otherworldly place, accessible only up and down and around a vertiginous single-track lane 10km long, with fields of cabbage and potato and buckwheat so steep—up to 38 degrees steep—that they have to be tilled from above to stop the soil slipping irrecoverably down the slopes.

We traipsed out through a sad stand of plantation pines, shot through with the slenderest bolts of amber and rapacity, dead to birdsong and itself, for the money shot—our rapacity—of Shimoguri in the glaresquint sunlight.

Architecturally no gem, largely rebuilt after the tarmac was laid, Shimoguri looks best from afar, though it does have some top sheds, the plank-knots a Braille from tree to forester.

Humanity has been fossicking around these valleys for millennia, the archaeological record shows, the earliest modern trace an inscription on a temple bell from 1460. But Shimoguri, school-less since 1980, is locked in a bloody bout with custom and its trainer, time, a bout it is all but bound to lose this coming century.

On the way back, we detoured to the feted baby village of Shimojo. I’d told Shinako we would.
“I hear the birthrate’s really high there.”
“Yeah, but there aren’t any jobs, so everyone has to commute into Iida.”
Guess I wasn’t the only hard-boiled straight-talker in town.

Overheated hacks prone to hyperbole have showered garlands on Shimojo, calling it “the miracle village” (奇跡の村), “a model municipality” (モデル自治体), and “the village where Japan’s future can be seen” (日本の未来が見える村). It’s attracted praise from across the ideological spectrum, from the Japan Communist Party to the right-leaning Nikkei BP, and even won a hat-tip from The Economist in its latest special feature on Japan in November 2010. What’s all the fuss about? Simply this: as the nation’s birthrate cratered to an all-time low of 1.26 in 2005, Shimojo’s was rising, to 2.04 on average between 2003 and 2006, tantalizingly close to the replacement rate and as high as anywhere on mainland Japan. (And yes, the corollary is that not a single municipality on the mainland then had a birthrate above the replacement rate).

Shimojo’s path to celebrity status begins back in 1992, with the election as mayor of one Kihei Ito, a gas station owner, who professed himself appalled by the sloth and inefficiency he uncovered in the village administration. To instill in the flaccid pen-pushers the rigors of the private-sector ethos, so the party line goes, he packed them off to wait on customers at a home improvement center in Iida, humiliating them with their dismal sales performance in comparison with regular employees. To cut spending, the bureaucracy was allowed to wither on the vine through natural attrition, ultimately reducing the number of officials per 1,000 head of population to half the national average and the bill for their salaries by a third from the peak. To free the village from the vicious debt cycle of subsidies (補助) paid for through the issuance of muni bonds (地方債) paid for in turn by tax grants from the state (交付税), Shimojo forewent 1990s luxuries such as the installation of a full underground sewage system, opting instead for much cheaper septic tanks. In a bid to further prune expenditures, one that carries the firm smack of Soviet collectivism, Mayor Ito had his villagers do their own road repairs and build their own roads, especially the farmer’s tracks that lattice the paddies, with the council providing only the cost of materials.

All this thrift was to transform the village’s finances. Bear with me on a brief geeky foray into the intricacies: in 2009, there were 1,749 municipalities across the nation, and lacking a lucrative tax base of the sort provided by, say, the headquarters of a major corporation, Shimojo remains dependent on tax grants from the state, ranking a lowly 1,489 nationally in its fiscal strength index (財政力指数), a measure of a local authority’s own revenue raising ability. But by recurring expense ratio (経常収支比率, very roughly fiscal resources allocated to recurring expenses divided by recurring fiscal resources), a metric of a local authority’s fiscal flexibility, Shimojo ranked seventh nationwide, and by bond expense ratio (実質公債費比率, very roughly muni bond servicing costs divided by general fiscal resources), Shimojo ranked an astounding fourth, behind only three central Tokyo wards.

With the money saved, Mayor Ito set about on phase two of his grand scheme, the audacious “village population doubling plan” (村民倍増計画), which to any Japanese of a certain age would carry overtones of the 1960 “income doubling plan” (所得倍増計画) of Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda, achieved in a mere seven years. Step one was to build cumbersomely named “housing to promote the permanent residence of young people” (若者定住促進住宅). The first three-storey, twelve-unit block went up in 1997, but by Mayor Ito’s account, he slipped up in accepting a state subsidy of half the cost of construction, a subsidy that came with all sorts of inconvenient notions of justice and fairness attached: the right to live in the apartments was decided by lottery and a number of them had to be set aside for low-income families. Well, that was sure to bring in all sorts of undesirables! The good mayor was careful to build the next nine blocks with the village’s money alone, so he could attract only “quality young people” (質のいい若者), ones willing to participate in extra-curricular activities such as the volunteer fire-brigade and village events in that deliciously voluntary-compulsory way I long ago pinpointed as a defining national characteristic.

Notwithstanding the onerous free-time obligations, the mayor’s offer was for many too good to refuse—spanking new 63 square meter (680 square feet) two-bedroom apartments with two parking spaces for Y35,000 ($450) a month, half what one would cost in neighboring Iida, and the applications flooded in. There was more pro-natalist largesse on the way, too: a 20% cut in kindergarten fees, a children’s library with some 7,000 volumes, and free healthcare at any hospital in Japan up to the last year of junior high school. “It’s great,” one young mother of two told the reporter from Akahata (“Red Flag”), the Japan Communist Party rag, in 2005, “We can take the kids to hospital even if they’ve just got the sniffles”, a comment sure to strike unintended fear into the hearts of the opponents of unmetered medicine everywhere. The population of the village, which had peaked in 1950 at around 6,500 and fallen to a low of 3,859 in 1990, began to inch higher, reaching 4,241 in 2006. Mayor Ito had done it! Earnest delegations poured in from every corner of the land—250 alone in the three years to 2009—to study the “miracle village”. It’s impossible to know precisely what lessons they took away, but the national birthrate began to crawl like a toddler higher off the 2005 low, and Shimojo in its own infant way may be fractionally responsible.

We parked up outside one of the breeder blocks, a nondescript dun-colored slab with no trace of the rustic that could have fallen off the drawing-board of any architectural practice in Japan after an hour of slipshod draughtsmanship. While there were no real live children around—perhaps they were at hospital with the sniffles—there were at least traces of them, in the shape of plastic toys in bright made-in-China primary colors stacked under stairwells. A lightly modded Chevy Astro van spoke of the presence of members of the Yankee subcult, renowned for their proclivity to procreate early and frequently (and often in the van), in contradistinction to most of the rest of the nation, which procreates, if at all, little and late. In retrospect, knowing what I do now of the Shimojo story, the block had the stench of the factory farm about it, the odor of the illiberal conceits that lie behind all such crudely gerrymandered attempts to manipulate populations up or down, and, in Mayor Ito’s welcome mat laid out only at the squeaky clean feet of “quality young people”, just the faintest trace of eugenics.

Of late though, some of the sheen seems to have come off the mayor’s great experiment. The population is on the slide again, down to 4,105 as of November 1, and the village website lets on that a few of its apartments are vacant and available to “married men” (妻帯者, itself a superbly gendered expression, combining characters for “wife”, “bind”, and “person”). Sexual minorities, of course, need not apply, though they would no doubt return the insult, had they the grotesque misfortune to be born in Shimojo, by fleeing at the earliest opportunity. It’s not hard to discern what lies behind the flagging of the baby revolution: the village has in essence been filching the youth of Iida, which itself finds it has fewer and fewer of them, due to a demographic profile that’s been described as “waistless” (寸胴型)—missing the middle—and only so many of them will accept the trade-off between cheap accommodation and soporific, stultifying, and claustrophobic village life under Mayor Ito’s paternalist eye.

What worlds can we see in Shimojo’s grain of sand? Three, I think. The first is that the village was lucky to have the autonomy to do what it did. The great Heisei merger boom slashed the number of villages nationwide from 568 in 1999 to 184 today, of which a staggering fifth (35) are in Nagano, even though it accounts for less than 2% of the population, testimony maybe to a stubbornly independent local streak. The second is that there exists across swathes of primarily rural but also urban Japan both a dyed-in-the-bone conservatism, here to be seen in the disrespect paid to the bureaucratic clerisy, and—ignoring the contradictions for a moment—an almost Tea Partyesque resistance to state (federal, in a US context) “interference”. The third is that however valiantly Mayor Ito and his village have fought against population decline, its forces are destined to overwhelm them, not merely because they are 4,000 pitted against 128 million, but because all the fevered construction of an environment purportedly friendly to childrearing misses the larger point, which is that until hiring is more equal in every regard, workplace regimens are redesigned from the ground up around the needs of working mothers, and women’s careers are not deep-sixed by childbirth, there will be no baby-strike solution in sight. Not something an old duffer oyaji like Mayor Ito could be expected to comprehend.

En route home, we passed Iida City Hospital.
“That’s where I’m going to die.” From others’ mouths this would have come with the tonally different melancholies of the honorable exile, the ambiguous émigré, the despicable expatriate.
“No, no,” I strove to reassure him. “I’m sure a clean swift stroke will get you in your bed.”
A little later, I gestured sweepingly at a clatter of drive-ins, superstores, and car dealers on the main suburban drag.
“You know, I don’t remember this in the slightest.”
“Perhaps there really is a God after all.”

We headed back to Bill’s own Iida satellite village, Toyo’oka (population 6,797), whose much-mocked (by me) motto is “early to bed, early to rise, breakfast”. Perhaps it sounds better in Japanese: hayane, hayaoki, asagohan. Ah, no. There are few distractions to ruffle the determinedly diurnal lifestyle to which the motto exhorts the populace: a beer or two and banter to warm up the evening at a snakku bar, some late-night slapstick on TV, or perhaps a midnight loiter on the aluminum bench by the ashtray at one of the two 24/7 convenience stores.

I delved into the statistics of disruption: there were 16 traffic accidents reported in Toyo’oka in 2009, one roughly every three weeks, most of which will have been no more than fender-benders. There were 23 crimes reported in Toyo’oka in 2009, some of which at least will have been of the order of radishes pilfered from a field, 33.73 incidents per 10,000 people, ranking the village 1,534th out of 1,749 municipalities (lower is safer) in a fierce contest for uncriminality in which several municipalities went entirely crime-free.

Nevertheless, Toyo’oka has a permanently staffed police substation (豊丘村警察官駐在所), to which I believe three constables are assigned, giving each one roughly one crime every six weeks to investigate. The average annual pay of a Japanese police officer was Y7.7mn (almost exactly US$100,000 at the current rate) in 2007, so with overheads it is fair to assume that it costs very roughly $500,000 a year to investigate the two crimes a month that plague Toyo’oka.

There are a quarter of a million stalwart women and (mostly) men in the thin blue line keeping us from anarchy across the nation, one for every 500 people, so the vipers’ nest of vice and sin that is Iida (population 104,668) has perhaps 200 officers (and an annual wage bill of around US$20mn). As far as I can tell, ten crimes were logged in the Iida police blotter in November this year: five thefts of bags, purses, or cash from cars, two burglaries in which cash was stolen, a theft of a moped, a theft of a pair of gloves from an office, and a theft of a grating from a “facility”. Small wonder, then, that out in the provinces more than 10 hopefuls vie for every police officer post.

The terrible tranquility engendered by the lust for order makes the Ina valley a wonderfully untroubling and untroubled place to raise The Mikan Sisters.  

But as with everything, there is a quid pro quo. A wag once described the then faded-to-scruffy English seaside resort of Brighton as a place that “always looks as if it is about to help police with their enquiries”. Well, behind the privet hedge, Iida is the hand twitching the net curtains at the window with the neighborhood watch sticker, ready to turn in the hoodlum likes of Brighton to the authorities at the first hint of trouble.

Bill does his best to puncture the boredom of smugness with tacks of wit. He took a dubious phrase from a previous post of mine, “chapatsu slappers” (women of easy virtue with dyed brown hair), shortened and Japanesed it to “chappa surappa”, and taught it to his daughters, who now with glee will point to some hapless stiletto-heeled, bustiered, and chestnut-locked lass and shout in unison in their perfectly modulated Japanese, “Are wa chappa surappa?” Is that a tart? No one understands, though, and the tranquility seeps back to stifle once more.

You know what the fellow said—in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

With its mizuhiki cord craftwork and its puppet festival, Iida is not short of cuckoo clocks of its own. While the relationship between crime (presence or absence thereof) and culture (presence or absence thereof) is no doubt not as easily mappable as the words Orson Welles put into the mouth of Harry Lime in The Third Man imply, it’s fair to say that the cafés of Iida do not hum to the sound of aspiring scriptwriters crafting screenplays on their laptops, that the bars of Iida do not throng with bien-pensant wannabes deep in debate over polymorphous perversity (“No, no! Gender is a performative construct!”), the role of crocodiles in the Mesozoic ecosystem, or the proof of the Poincaré conjecture, fair to say that the air of Iida is not febrile with intellectual ferment.

We girded ourselves with barrel-bottom sake for “a brief nocturnal sample of the delights of Iida’s nearly extinct nightlife.” I was keen to renew my acquaintance with Cock,

a subterranean izakaya pub offering “multinational home cooking”, whose matchbox I treasure, much frequented by the in-crowd long ago, but we found its space had been usurped in 2006 by a hip-hop emporium, Club Rulez, so there was to be no Cock for us in Iida that night.

We dined on butter and batter with an old mutual friend in an almost chic restaurant whose other patrons, without exception, were Japanese men with Filipina consorts. The talk was of shrinking pay packets and shrinking enrolments, old bangers bought on the never-never, and diminished expectations—harsher winds blowing in the heartland.
(to be continued)


Kiyosato: High plains drifter

Hey, I can hear it, the Eros of Mozart
The romantic breeze is the violin
Wait for the Eros of Mozart to touch you
When it pulls the strings of your heart
A gorgeous September
Pink no Mozart, Seiko Matsuda (1984)

I got an inkling of the pastel troubles in store when I left the Chuo Expressway at the Sutama interchange in the northernmost Yamanashi city of Hokuto, an artificial 2004-2006 amalgam of eight towns and villages provoked by ruinous local government finances, and turned right up Rte 141, only to find that the very first roadside structure was an abandoned gas station,

which fell in combat so recently it remains on the latest maps, followed in immediate succession by an abandoned ramen noodle and gyoza potsticker place, fronted by a Merry Land ice-cream stand,

next to which reposed an abandoned yakiniku grilled meat eatery, Tomato.

A couple of hundred yards further up, a sweetly smiling blue-and-white concrete cow with a mysterious pastel-pink door in her chest lured me, Alice-like, down a sideroad to an abandoned karaoke parlor, Moon River 69, its name an unholy collision between Hank Mancini and Sonic Youth,

which jutted out over a nameless sun-dappled stream and moldered on next to an abandoned high-Bubble wedding hall.

Another couple of hundred yards further up, and right on cue, came the abandoned pachinko parlor.

All that was missing from this concatenation of desolation was an abandoned convenience store—but there’d be a few of them to be found over the next couple of days, I wagered.

Back in the eighties, there were three summer retreats (避暑地, “escape-heat-land”) of choice for sweltering plains-dwellers: Karuizawa in Nagano, which has thrived thanks to its bullet-train link to Tokyo, Nasu in Tochigi, which has survived thanks to the luster thrown off by the presence of an Imperial villa, and Kiyosato, which is in its last death throes.

A wreath for your dreams, I muttered to myself on entering town. Odd and crumbling edifices not to be found in the lowlands, such as a rotting mock-up of a Wild West wagon that might have once served as a putting-course ticket-booth, were strewn across the sides of Rte 141, but the first truly Olympian ruin was One Happy Park, a cyclorama of despair.

A man with a brush-cutter scythed tidily away at weeds that pushed up with irrepressible life through the cracks in the paving. It must have been sweaty work, as he was clad in boots, gloves, a face-mask, and a neck-flap hat, for late-summer insects do not take kindly to having their late-summer abodes destroyed, and after a while the reaper rested.

“When was this place built?”
“It must’ve been on the border of the Showa and Heisei eras, I suppose.”
“So that would be around 1989,” I ventured, but he had no concept of the Western calendar and merely shrugged.
“And when did it close down?”
“I guess it was about four years ago the last shop shut.”

I wondered about the precision of his recall—there was a dormant crêperie (who can forget the eighties crêpe boom) that appeared to form part of the complex and which bore a sign “Since 1979”—but even if the pastel palette of the fake windows above the gift shops dates us to the early rather than the late eighties, the miserable brevity of One Happy Park’s life is testament to the spectacular ephemerality of the Kiyosato boom and bust.

I strolled along the rusting colonnade, admiring the signs.

Oh yes, Petit (pronounced “puchi”) Road—we were all so high and mightily French back in the eighties, weren’t we? It was “puchi” this and “puchi” that and “puchi” the other. Impressionable and affected youth went so far as to append an honorific prefix to the name of the honorable country—“Ofuransu”. Japan, you see, was going to become a lifestyle superpower, just like France. Crêpes, it was rumored, if ingested frequently enough and in sufficient quantity, would turn your very blood and bones French—and you would then have no compunctions about loafing around at the beach for the whole of August. A wistful backward glance at One Happy Land is enough to show just how that dream turned out.

It struck me that One Happy Land would make the perfect stage for a performance of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, rescored with glutinous idol melodies of the eighties, starring Seiko Matsuda as Brünnhilde, Hiromi Go as Siegfried, and Onyanko Club as the Rhinemaidens. I could already hear a parade of what I dub Seiko Matsuda’s “no” hits streaming through the mind’s speakers: “Tengoku no Kiss” (A Heavenly Kiss), “Tenshi no Wink” (An Angel’s Wink), “Boy no Kisestsu” (A Season for Boys), and my favorite, “Pink no Mozart”, to name but a few. A more fitting backdrop could scarcely be imagined, as it was the legions of Seiko-worshipping burikko airheads with their Seiko-chan haircuts that decamped to Kiyosato in droves to stay at meruhentic pensions and plunder cute goodies by the designer bagful that were responsible for the boom, the irony being that the career of Seiko Matsuda, known as the “Everlasting Idol” (and also, curiously, as the “King of Idols”) has outlasted that of the town to which her idolatrous fans—now, like her, pushing fifty—once thronged.

The main street of Kiyosato forms a hind dogleg with the station at its knee. Up the foot arch, an old hotel was held together with string and hope and glue.

I parked up at the top end of town in the municipal car park, which had space for a couple of hundred vehicles; I was the second car in at three in the afternoon (and I suspect the other one belonged to the car park attendant). Yes, it’s a weekday, I told myself, yes, high season is only a memory, but even so… Strolling back into town, I crossed the tracks of the Koumi line, the cause of at least some of the travails of Kiyosato.

A lovely little line, to be sure, the Koumi, with all sorts of records (including nine of the ten highest stations on the Japan Railways network) to get train geek tickers beating faster, but despite all the fanfare that attended its 2007 debut of a hybrid train, not a line that can deliver swarms of pleasure-seekers to resorts at any speed, and in a nation that pays everlasting homage to the deities of convenience, it chugs and ambles and puffs its way across the mountains with inconsiderate leisure; indeed, its neck would have been on the chopper years ago if, post-privatization, East Japan Railways had really been run, to the delight of its shareholders but to the misery of the rural elderly, as a profit-maximizing private-sector enterprise, as the line loses roughly Y200 for every Y100 it takes in.

Just over the crossing, the One Happy family took me to its bosom again, this time with a plaza rather than a park.

Freeze-thaw in spring and autumn, the deep freeze of winter, and the deep heat of summer are exacting a swift and brutal toll on gimcrack and neglected Bubble-era construction. Never have I seen so many uri bukken property-for-sale and kashi tempo store-for-lease signs clustered together; this one, desperately delusional in its bid to flog off one of the shops in the One Happy Plaza complex, Norwegian Blue dead and far beyond the most heroic cardiopulmonary resuscitation efforts, is framed by a backdrop of local milk bottles.

Architecturally, the predominant Kiyosato style might be described as Rococo fairy-tale whimsy; in the case of the enigmatically named and very defunct Green Prab, with a dash of salty Victorian seaside thrown in for good measure.

This trio—jolly tree ogre, toadstool, and cheery snail—have become, in death, the symbol of the whimsical mayfly life of Kiyosato. That fly agaric, the toadstool that inspired the design, is both poisonous and psychoactive and hence a humbling metaphor for toxic Bubble-era hallucinations, of which Kiyosato is one of the most delirious, was an irony not lost on this observer.

As the mountain shadows deepened, I strolled the length of the main street, crossing paths only with a couple in early retirement, struggling with words for each other. Half of everything was definitively shuttered; some businesses, in the shame of defeat, carried somber signs protesting that they were readying to open or that this was their weekly day off, but returning later or the next day, the same signs were still in place. Could Kiyosato really once have been known as the “Harajuku of the highlands”, after the impeccably coiffed Tokyo fashion mecca?

At the junction of Rte 141 and the Kiyosato turn-off, the world had ground to a halt: inky shadows consumed a pachinko parlor, gone nigh on a decade by my reckoning, brush reclaimed a karaoke joint clad in white clapboard, restaurants and museums and hotels of every hue lay felled like giants slain by a horde of Jacks.

Writing in the commendably eccentric Wonder Japan magazine of one hotel, the Sunpark Hotel Kiyosato, whose ruination is most advanced and whose entranceway is pictured above, author and haikyoist Toru Kurihara relates how Kiyosato, like some Impressionist painting or Italian sports car, was enmeshed in the net of the Bubble:

Other tourist spots had genuine tourist assets—hot springs, historical buildings, giant waterfalls—but the attraction of Kiyosato was largely status. The very act of going there was the objective: young women would snap up armfuls of gifts as proof of their visit and brag of their trip while doling them out to friends and family.
“I went to Kiyosato at the weekend!”
“Wow, cool! I wanna go too!”
Just to be able to utter these words imbued a sense of superiority—the trip’s mission was accomplished.
But then there came a time when no one felt jealous any longer.
“I went to Kiyosato at the weekend!”
“Eh? To do what?!?”
Naturally the objective couldn’t be attained if there was no sense of superiority to be gained. There was no lingering sense of comfort and ease you get from a hot-spring resort, no sense of being moved by a giant waterfall. Western food that you could get in Tokyo—it didn’t even taste good, it was just pricey. And then there were the trashy souvenirs you bought at the shop of some has-been celebrity or over-the-hill idol, for which you had no use when you got home. Asked if you wanted to go there again, the answer was naturally “no”.
So disappeared the crowds of people so thick they made walking hard, and the shuttered streets that make the town so quiet now tell of how the illusory values of the Bubble have vanished and things have returned to their normal state, just the way they were before. Sun Hotel Kiyosato embodies the waxing and waning of that era.

This being statistics-drenched Japan, it was easy enough to dredge up the data in which to drape the decay: by 1998 visitor numbers in the Yatsugatake area, the jewel in the crown of which was once Kiyosato, were down 60% from their peak just a decade earlier in 1988 (the year Seiko Matsuda notched up the last of her twenty-four consecutive number ones), and have continued to slide, albeit at a gentler pace, dropping to 5.1mn in 2009 from 5.9mn in 2002. Most shocking of late, though, has been the collapse in overnighters, to 550,000 in 2009 from 935,000 in 2002, a slump of 40%, as purse-strings have been pulled ever tighter.   

As darkness fell, the fey apparitions of the Bubble took on more ghastly demeanors: the lamp-lit milk-pot was a distended bladder, full to bursting, ready to spray noxious liquid on passersby

and the exoskeletal church, an innocuous pastel-pink by day, was now a monstrous robot arthropod programmed to kill and primed to attack.

Later, though, I was to learn of some sunnier microclimates in the otherworldly biosphere of Kiyosato…
(to be continued)

In praise of… The worst hotel in the world

It was getting late that Sunday evening, and I was in sore need of a bed. The lights had been defiantly out at the place I had been hoping to stay, so I set wearily off down the truck-choked and traffic-light-infested Rte 254 in southwest Gunma, past empty coin-op laundries and soulless convenience stores, detouring into the decrepit center of the old silk-mill city of Tomioka in fruitless search of lodging before pitching up on the outskirts of charmless, anonymous Fujioka, a place best known for its expressway junction, where to my delight that neon-starved night the Business Hotel Fujioka was putting out just enough illumination to capture a traveler’s tired eye, and I swung into the almost deserted parking lot, half of which had returned to grass, with mounting anticipation.

Of the mah-jongg club Tenho (“Heavenly Hand”) and the yakiniku grilled meat restaurant Yacchan to which the eager arrows of the signs pointed there proved to be no trace. The proprietor sat slumped in a stupor on a slate-grey vinyl sofa, transfixed by the television, in a cavernous lobby of such transcendental aesthetic horror that I was spellbound at once, sent into a trance of rapture by the ocean of aquamarine linoleum and vast wall-embedded canvases of flower-filled fields and mysterious mountainscapes.

I opened with my usual patter about not having a reservation but wondering if a room was available; unsurprisingly, one was, although it took a little pantomime of perusal of a dusty ledger to confirm this. Board, breakfast, and evening meal, all for Y4,725 (about $60)—cheaper than even the cheapest budget chain hotels.

“You can eat over the road,” he said, gesturing at a noodle joint called Hime Ramen (“Princess Ramen”).
“Isn’t there anywhere else?”
“No.” That seemed implausible in a city of nearly 70,000 people. “Besides, they don’t just do ramen. They’ve got all sorts of good stuff. Here, I’ll show you to your room.”
He led me on the aquamarine linoleum, now a river, down a short musty corridor of concentration-camp gloom to the last cell on the right.

From having observed down the years how hoteliers like to fill their rooms, I realized I was the first guest that night. A fragment of Larkin came to me with a jolt.

“This was Mr Bleaney’s room. He stayed
The whole time he was at the Bodies, till
They moved him.”

The room was an airless cube. A lone blue plastic hanger dangled on one of a row of hooks while a shoehorn swung like a hanged convict by the door. Some madman, perhaps the proprietor himself, had chosen to embed a picture of a Mediterranean harbor filled with gin-palace superyachts in the wall above the coin-op television.

Perhaps the same madman had painted the fluffy white clouds in the style of Tiepolo on the ceiling.

More Larkin surfaced, and I dared not draw back the drapes.

Flowered curtains, thin and frayed,
Fall to within five inches of the sill,
Whose window shows a strip of building land,
Tussocky, littered.

There was no washbasin and no toilet, no shower and no bath.

“Bathroom’s down the hall,” he said, gesticulating. “Better use it tonight. It’s not open in the mornings.”

Across the road at Princess Ramen a raucously drunken party was in full swing.

I was ushered into a backroom across wine-red linoleum, sticky to the sole, which in well-trodden spots had been worn away to the concrete below. It occurred to me that I had stumbled on an ecosystem every bit as imperiled as a tract of montane rainforest in Costa Rica: the last vestiges of a working-class culture that some might call slovenly and others carefree, whose denizens are itinerant salespeople, suitcases forever in hand, forklift drivers in pallid green overalls, and factory girls in hairnets, a culture that is being chopped down by the buzz-saws of deindustrialization, globalization, and digitization just as remorselessly as it is anywhere in the well-off world.

Flashing an angelic milk-white smile, a young and strangely androgynous waiter, scion of the ramen family, brought a beer. For the first time in my life I was flummoxed in the act of gender identification. I was seized with the sense that I was overlooking something obvious, such that if a companion had been with me, he or she would have laughed at my incomprehension. Peanuts arrived in a bowl bearing the insignia “Dinnerware Adam & Eve”, which at first I misread as “Dinner with Adam & Eve”. What would have been served, I wondered, and who would have been on the guest list. The menu prodded the peruser to three dishes, two of which were katsudon pork cutlets on rice, one man-sized, said the menu, and a smaller one for the ladies. In keeping with the spirit of androgyny I ordered the smaller.

Out the front, the football was blaring away but the backroom television was tuned to a program commemorating the six-month anniversary of the earthquake, at the heart of which was the tale of a solitary sailor in the port of Kesennuma whose ship was forced by tsunami tides to trace an infinite loop around the harbor for hour upon hour on a Viking inferno of a jet-black night sea ablaze with debris kindled by spilt diesel. Sleep would not easily be bought tonight, I knew, as the partiers out front cackled and jabbered on.

Back across the road, the proprietor was in a conspiratorial huddle with a policeman standing by a cop car, devil-red lights whirling in stony silence. Yet again up stole the guilty wash of nebulous criminality that has dogged me as long as I can recall, a secular sibling of the doctrine of original sin that might have been instilled by a pedophile priest but—to my recollection—wasn’t.

“Everything okay?”
A couple of nods and grunts.

A single gunmetal-grey door divided the hotel and the bowling alley. A solo bowler occupied a middle lane of the aquamarine paradise, the clanging of tumbling pins rattling off the vault and walls.

Turning to go back through the door, I ran face-to-face into a torn poster, terrifying in its wholesome antiquity.

In the room, I lay on the bed looking up at the fluffy white clouds and struggling to remember the last verses of Larkin’s Mr Bleaney, but “one hired box” was all that came to mind. Through the tissue-thin walls a latecomer in the next room coughed gutturally and hacked up phlegm, which he must, I imagined, have spat from the window, as there was no washbasin and no toilet and men around here are not known to swallow their sputum.

To distract myself, I constructed a narrative for the hotel in my head: it had been built at the very fag-end of the seventies just as the first expressway crept toward Fujioka and the city boomed in anticipation. And here it had remained, trapped in a glow of seventies amber, as the expressways crept past, north and northwest, on to other, more glamorous destinations, and the dreams of the city wilted.

Fitful sleep on polycotton sheets atop a lumpy mattress with a saggy pillow was punctuated by dreams of ledges and precipices and chasms, but it was morning soon enough and I stumbled bleary out to breakfast.

A rouged-up bleach-blonde woman (“you’ve got to keep yourself beautiful”) doing a passable imitation of a burly drag queen doing a passable imitation of a rouged-up bleach-blonde woman (“just tell yourself you’ve got gorgeous lips”) sat slouched in front of the television, stubbing her fag out and snapping to something like attention on my approach. She might have been in her mid-forties, about my age.

In the deserted dining-room, a half-formed meal for one—me—sat on a flowery tablecloth overlaid with thick plastic sheets, replete with all the melancholy of a condemned prisoner. An emaciated half-moon slice of the sorriest factory ham lay uncomfortably on a bed of grated cabbage (I knew how it felt) next to what once had been scrambled eggs—a scrambled egg—but were now hardening, graying, chilling pellets fit only for fish food. Three bowls were flanked around, one of slimy kamaboko fish paste confections, one of gunky natto fermented soybeans, and one of the cheapest daikon radish pickles, almost as pink as candy-floss and packed, no doubt, with as much artificial coloring. There were no condiments and no chopsticks, no paper napkins and no toothpicks, at least not within reach. The art of this meal, I decided, would be to eat as much as I could to save loss of face but not so much as to gag. Into which circle of hell had I plunged, I wondered, and for what misdeeds.

Fag-ash Lil loitered.

“Help yourself to rice. I’ll get the miso soup.” She retreated into the Stygian depths of the kitchen. The insides of the rice-cooker were rimed with scorch marks and dusted with flakes of papery rice like dead, sunburned skin. And voila, the meal was complete.

“Your Japanese is really good.”
“I studied it at university,” I lied.
“You must be smart, huh? Japanese is really difficult.”
You seem to be making a reasonable fist of it, I wanted so much to say.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’m researching the Shimo Nita War”, I lied.
“The Shimo Nita War? There was a war in Shimo Nita? Just down the road? How come you know about it and I don’t?”
“It was a very small war. About 148 years ago.” Not bad off the top of my head—it was 147 years ago.
“Where have you come from, anyway?”
“England,” I lied.
“England? They speak English there, don’t they?”
“Yes.” There was a limit to dissimulation.

She retreated into the kitchen again. I mixed the ham and eggs deep into the rice and wolfed it down. The gloopy fermented soybeans, which should have come as light relief in a meal of this caliber, were leathery and long past their sell-by date. She returned to hover.

This had me baffled for a moment.
“No, England.”
“Oh, England.”
“Yes, England.” A question hung pregnant in the air.
“Are cigarettes expensive there?”
“Ooh, very. About a thousand yen a packet. It’s the taxes, you see.”
“Hmm, really?” She nodded sagely, satisfied with this short account of the depravity of foreign lands, and retreated once again across the Styx as I longed for the waters of Lethe.

The Business Hotel Fujioka is not, of course, the worst hotel in the world, nor even the worst hotel in the developed world, although by some chalk it’s the worst developed-world hotel at which I’ve ever stayed (and one of the most wonderful). Such judgments are wholly subjective, anyway, and what is heavenly to one will be hellish to another.

Nevertheless I ask you to raise a shot glass of methylated spirit or lighter fluid, if you please, ladies and gentlemen, to the glories of the Business Hotel Fujioka and to the people who make it tick, in a toast to its demise, for it will all be gone to grass before a generation is out, and the world will know its like no more.

Back home, I looked up the last Larkin verses and shivered, as always, at the tortured conditional of the syntactic climax:

But if he stood and watched the frigid wind
Tousling the clouds, lay on the fusty bed
Telling himself that this was home, and grinned,
And shivered, without shaking off the dread 

That how we live measures our own nature,
And at his age having no more to show
Than one hired box should make him pretty sure
He warranted no better, I don’t know

Holiday in Fukushima: Drift, baby, drift

When hunting for destinations for a holiday in Fukushima, I reached not for a Rough Guide or a Lonely Planet (my 1994 edition of which anyway devotes just a couple of its eight hundred pages to the delights of the prefecture) but for an altogether more outré publication, Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s 1998 bilingual bestiary of the bizarre, Roadside Japan, described by the author himself as “a heaping helping of crass, dumb, and vile nonsense”, a book that celebrates every stupendous banality of modern existence, from the idle menace of swan pedalos to the tragicomic absurdity of abandoned restaurants capped with giant concrete Buddhas, and which has served as a wellspring of inspiration these last few years. What did Doctor Tsuzuki prescribe for Fukushima? Only three sites, as it turned out—Godzilla’s egg (which we’ll come to later), the treasures of the ogre hag of Adachigahara (which sadly we won’t), and Tohoku Safari Park, which on first blush sounded unpromising:

You can nose your Honda as close as you dare to a yawning lion, feed giraffes from your car window, get bison slobber all over your windshield, it’s a thrill a minute here!

Yes, been there, done that, remain in therapy from the assault of a troupe of chimps on the vinyl roof (well, it was the seventies) of our slice of ripped-off bargain-basement Detroit iron at a certain British safari park when I was six, something I am still subtly paying for in the shape of an ever so slightly diminished inheritance. No bison was going to slobber all over my Honda’s windshield, thank you very much. But Tsuzuki mentions in passing that the park had an “Erotica House—something for the kiddies and something for the grown-ups”, and this called for further investigation.

No trace of the Erotica House was to be found at the website of the safari park—my, how prudish we have grown in our dotage, Japan—and it turns out that in 2006 the president of the park, Tokio Kumakubo, then aged 74, briefly ended up in the clinker for displaying pornographic photos of un-mosaicked couplings in his Erotica House. This wasn’t Kumakubo’s first brush with the law: back in the sixties he had become one of the largest real estate brokers in Tohoku but his operations fell apart in 1973 when he was suspected of tax evasion. Somehow he navigated his way through bankruptcy while holding on to large tracts of land, on which he built a couple of successful safari parks, and was reputed at one time to own a hundred racehorses.

In the course of unearthing all this, I learned that Kubota had indulged his son, Nobushige (41), by building him a network of motor-racing tracks, Ebisu Circuit, on lower hillside land to the east of Tohoku Safari Park, that these circuits were regarded as the spiritual home of that made-in-Japan motorsport, drift racing, that Nobushige was a pro drift racer and the Lord of Ebisu, where he is known as “The Controller”, and that the weekend I would be in town the circuit was scheduled to hold a Drift Matsuri festival. Sold!


Pulling up in front of the safari park entrance, it was instantly apparent that something was awry.


Although it should have been one of the holidaymaking peaks of the year, the ghastly seventies hulk of the Safari Hotel had been crudely mothballed, a stub of two by four jammed down behind the round handles of its glass reception doors.

Mold was creeping up the long-closed shutters of a used tire vendor.


Across the road was a spartan dosshouse nap room, bedding heaped in corners, available free of charge to circiut drivers too impecunious or obsessed to pay for accommodation.

At the admission gate I forked over a very reasonable Y1,500 ($20) spectator fee, for which I was rewarded with a complementary pair of black driver’s gloves emblazoned with “Drift Tengoku” (Drift Heaven) in pink—drift is nothing if not colorful—and a sheaf of bilingual maps, guides, and warnings, the sternest admonition being a chillingly ultimate disclaimer of responsibility: “No matter what happens (for example, death, wound, damage) during Drift Heaven Week, we can’t take responsibility or be liable for anything”.

Roars, screeches, and bellows, not of the lions, bears, and tigers of the safari park but rather of the Soarers, the Chasers, and the other big beasts of drift, drew me in.

Someone—I forget who—once wrote that you could live in Japan a long time before realizing that the head of state was the emperor. I’m not sure that’s true, but you could certainly live out your life in Japan—even as a Japanese—without being aware that the subculture of drift-racing existed, never see it on the nightly news (broadcasts are relegated to an obscure satellite channel), never read of it in the daily papers, never hear of it in morning coffee conversations with coworkers. That’s I think because it has its (eighties) roots in highly illegal touge mountain-pass racing on public highways and is hence condemned to be forever part of the ura, the hidden Janus face of society, rather than the omote face presented to the world, no matter how much it has been made respectable and spread around the globe in recent years.

Nothing quite prepares the drift novitiate for the unearthly banshee wails and tortured turbo whinnies of a drift car driven at the limit, and within moments I was hooked. Drift struck me immediately as everything modern omote Japan so fastidiously tries not to be: stinky, grimy, raucous, unrefined, unfettered, and very definitely high-testosterone—no soshokukei herbivore men need apply here. And as Jeremy Clarkson, presenter of the BBC carlife show Top Gear, might say, I absolutely bloody love it. This well-watched video, Ebisu: The Soul of Drift, captures the poetic, almost balletic, rhythms and cadences of drift far better than any still photo could.

And yet, for someone primed like me to look for signs of trouble, they were everywhere. The pit blocks were at best half-full of wannabe racers. What cars there were, were of a certain vintage, like this R32 Skyline from the distant early nineties, easily tuneable rear-wheel drive monsters of power that the Japanese auto industry doesn’t much deign to churn out any more.

The merest handful of spectators, including this couple out on a date (at whose instigation, I wonder), were scattered across the creaking, peeling stands.

The circuit’s maintenance and support vehicles were without exception of extreme antiquity. An old woman loitered at the door of her customerless restauant, watching the action. The VIP room had been furnished with worn and lumpy sofas that might have been yanked off the street in the glorious sodai gomi days of yore, when people junked their almost new yet already unwanted furniture by the roadside. Could it be possible, I mused: in the land of its birth, was drift adrift?

Much to my surprise, a knot of foreigners were lounging around the pit walls. I approached one, a US Air Force dude who’d driven down from the Misawa Air Base in far northern Aomori and who’d missed the last festival because of a tour of duty in Iraq. He’d been here four days and nights straight—no time to sleep, he said—but had smacked into a wall and done some damage to his ride, which is why, at the chaotic lower echelons of drift, bruised is best.

“The great thing about drift, man, is you get to mix with the pros, people like Naoto Suenaga.”

“It’s not like NASCAR and Dale Earnhardt Junior, ya know.”

I assured him I was sure it wasn’t.

After a couple of entertaining hours, I wended my happy way north, but was left with a headful of nagging questions. Was drift one of the holy places where the races meet? It seemed so, from the conviviality with which pro Suenaga chatted with his foreign admirers. Was drift in peril in its homeland? So hard to tell, what with the circuit only about 65km west-northwest of Fukushima Daiichi and the dislocation and disorientation of the March 11 disasters so fresh. Or was drift only ever a minority passion? And why was I so smitten?

I vowed to return to Ebisu Circuit in August, when it hosted rounds six and seven of the D1 Grand Prix professional drifting series, and in the meantime mugged up a little on the history of drift, which I’ll recount here first through half-a-dozen key words.

Hashiriya (走り屋, hooners): Drifters that once upon a time raced illegally over mountain passes or in wharfside warehouse districts. The originators of drift, hashiriya at first raced on grip principles until a quiet drift boom built up in the mid-eighties. Street drifting as practiced by the hashiriya peaked in the mid-nineties and went into decline as drift moved, not without police pressure, onto circuits and into the world of omote.

Broadly defined, my online Japanese drift lexicon tells me, hashiriya includes a subtribe, the “maximum speedsters” (最高速系, saikosokukei), who liked to race on Tokyo’s extraordinary network of elevated expressways and who themselves could be divided into sects: the “bayshore kids” (湾岸系, wangankei), who preferred the flatter, straighter Tokyo Bay expressways and the “roulette tribes” (ルーレット族, roulettezoku), who preferred the central elevated ring road. One rouletteer cheekily quipped to a TV reporter full of omote outrage in a late nineties newsclip I unearthed that the Tokyo expressways are like a racing circuit with a Y700 admission fee—which is exactly why they have featured in so many a video game. 

These subtribes are not to be confused with a bewildering assortment of other mostly dormant or extinct speedster sects from bygone eras, many two-wheeled: the “thunder tribes” (カミナリ族, kaminarizoku), the “Mach tribes” (マッハ族, Machzoku), and the “thriller tribes” (スリラー族 thrillerzoku), bikers of the sixties who gathered spontaneously in parks and plazas, the din of their exhausts, mufflers removed for enhanced performance, reminiscent of rolling thunder; the “circuit tribes” (サーキット族, circuitzoku) and the “750 tribes” (ナナハン族, nanahanzoku), Saturday night station-front racers of beefy Honda 750 bikes who were mostly tolerated by the police, even on occasion trained in safe riding skills by them; the notorious “violent running tribes” (暴走族, bosozoku) biker delinquents of the eighties, keener on brawling and militarist paraphernalia than racing; and the “rolling tribes” (ローリング族、rollingzoku) of the eighties and nineties, who aped the style of pro superbike racers, tore over mountain roads in the depths of night, and died in droves on corners and off cliffs.

Dorikin (ドリキン, drift king) – The nickname of the man widely credited as the godfather of drift, Keiichi Tsuchiya (55), who first rose to fame for his drifting techniques and six straight victories in the 1984 Fuji Speedway freshman races and who briefly in 1987 lost his Japan Automobile Federation racing license for a hair-raising video, The Touge

filmed on the treacherous and now bypassed old road over the Usui Pass between Nagano and Gunma prefectures—all this in a country where it is a reputedly a crime to leave tire marks on the white lines on the road. Also known as the “drift dude” (ドリフト野郎, drift yaro), Tsuchiya is these days the retired elder statesman of drift.

Dorisha (ドリ車, drift car) – This is what you drift in, your wheels, your ride—better get yourself a fly one. A portmanteau word combining the first two of the four Japanese syllables in “drift” and the pseudo-Chinese reading of “car”.

Hachiroku (ハチロク, eighty six) – The Toyota Levin/Trueno Sprinter AE86 featured in The Touge video above. Known affectionately as the “the little hachi that could”, the AE86 was the first great drift car and is still widely adored and drifted today, even though production ended in 1987. Slumming it in the Tokyo ’burbs in the late nineties, I often wondered why these dowdy and already dated coupes were going for anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 at the second-hand dealers—guess I know now.   

D1 machine (D1マシン) – At the far end of the spectrum from the (originally) cheap, cheerful, lightweight and modestly powered hachiroku, these are the mean machines that duke it out in D1. We’ll encounter some later.

A series of landmarks punctuated the gradual emergence of drift from the shadowy ura valleys to the sunlit omote uplands. In 1995, Initial D, a manga about young hashiriya, started serialization in Weekly Young magazine, spawning an anime of the same name that ran intermittently from 1998-2006, (mostly shown when hoon-fearing folk were safely tucked up in bed—27:20 to 27:50 in one case on the magnificent only-in-Japan 48-hour clock), and a 2005 Hong Kong movie. In 1997, a monthly magazine in praise of all things drift, Drift Tengoku, began publication. In October 2000, the first races in the All Japan Professional Drift Championship, which would soon morph into D1, were held at Ebisu Circuit. By now, drift was going global: Formula Drift started in the US in 2004 and the first Red Bull Drifting World Championship was held in 2008.

Hollywood at long last sat up and took lucrative notice of the drift explosion in 2006, with the third in the Fast and the Furious film franchise, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, a fine example of a favorite subgenre, so-bad-they’re-good films (ostensibly) about Japan. Here’s a blurry fanboy video montage, music courtesy of the Teriyaki Boyz:

I wonder if you know
How they live in Tokyo
If you see me then you mean it
Then you know you have to go
Fast and furious (drift, drift, drift)
Fast and furious (drift, drift, drift)

I wonder if you know, how they live in Tokyo? Not quite like that, to be sure. The movie is unabashedly a teenboy’s wet dream, something made amply clear about five minutes in, when a tanned blonde highschool babe offers up her body to the winner of a grudge-match roadrace. The sheer wet dreaminess of it all is quickly and cheerfully acknowledged in the dialogue: as our hero motors into an implausible multistory car park filled with tattooed Asian hotties in microskirts bent over throbbing engine bays, his buddy hands him a conveniently at-hand box of tissues. After a split second of incomprehension: “That’s for when you blow your wad, man.” How thoughtful!

Our teen hero, Sean, supposedly 17 years old, is played by Lucas Black, already 24 back then (and already able to pass for forty), which made him the oldest teen swinger in Tokyo town—and the most ridiculous one ever to try and ease himself behind a Tokyo high school desk, albeit at a most fantastical high school where something akin to sushi but more elaborate, rather than curry rice, is served for lunch.

As we’re in the Tokyo ’hood and all, we have to get with the local lingo, and until very late in the action, where Sean develops overnight a stunning competence in Japanese, the movie is fixated on two words: gaijin, foreigner, which goes through many mutations, the most favored being a heavily accented first syllable and a long drawn-out second—GUYjean—and yakuza, gangster, which is pronounced as if “bazooka” had had its “b” replaced with a “y” and the “z” and the “k” swapped—yaKOOza. I braced myself for what was surely to come, and yes, there it was, halfway in, uttered by Sean’s gone-native and fount-of-local-wisdom father: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”. Let that be a lesson to all you drifters out there. But don’t worry too much if you’re a foreigner, as Sean’s drift guru Han has some words of Nietzschean wisdom to impart: “Outsider, insider, doesn’t really matter, all that matters is knowing what you really want and going after it”. Austrian house-painter Adolf Hitler would have been hugely consoled.

Due to the utter dearth of thoroughbred Japanese actors and actresses able to get by in English, everyone in the movie under 40 of any importance, aside from Sean (white) and his pal Twinkie (black) is a hero of hyphenation: Sean’s guru, Korean-American actor Sung Kang; the love interest, Peruvian-Australian actress Nathalie Kelly; the villain, Japanese-Korean-American actor Brian Tee, and the villain’s sidekick, Argentina-born Korean-Australian actor Leonardo Nam, which gives the movie the air of having been filmed not in the monoculture of Tokyo but in polyglot Los Angles—as indeed much of it was…  

So I found myself one sweltering and thunderous August Saturday pounding up the Tohoku Expressway in search of drift. The first surprise was the Ebisu Circuit car park: aside from the odd souped-up econobox that no go-faster sticker or low-profile tire should ever grace, the spectators’ vehicles were eminently sensible and would not have looked out of place in the lot of a suburban supermarket.

Stalls that lined the path to the main circuit offered insights into the culture of drift.

The T-shirt hanging left-center assigns ateji, phonetically equivalent Chinese characters, to the four Japanese syllables of “drift”—怒輪, “dori”, “angry wheels”, 風徒, “futo”, “follow the wind”, making the foreign indigenous. On its left, the towel is adorned with the expression togekotai (峠攻隊, mountain-pass attack force), in conscious echo of the tokkotai (特攻隊) special attack forces of World War II, known to the rest of the world as kamikaze pilots.

A stall offering one of the strangest of all offshoots of the phenomenon of drift: rajidori, radio-controlled miniature drift cars, which once had to have their wheels encased in PVC tubing to make them slippery enough to drift but now come equipped with their own tiny low-grip drift tires.

Crea (vocals) and Mia (rap) of duo 80’s☆Doll, selected in last year as official D1 artists, were hawking their debut album, Lip Service, a lively mix of eighties disco music and current club sounds (says their website).

A kimono-clad lovely was doling out free samples of Beast Eye, a homegrown alternative to Red Bull. A fair few of the womenfolk, who made up maybe a quarter of the crowd, had donned kimono for the occasion, which lent the proceedings a matsuri feel, as did the customary and coronary-inducing choice of festival fare: kara’age fried chicken, American dogs (deep-fried sausages on sticks), and fried yaki soba noodles.

Over the tannoys, the MCs chattered away about a shank of beef that was roasting on a giant spit and would later be carved up for all who stayed for the evening fireworks.

No mention was made of the home of the cow that had been slaughtered to fill the bellies of the worshippers of drift; let’s hope it wasn’t a local, radioactive one.

The setting was certainly stunning: this view of the stands looks east, over the central Fukushima valley and out toward Fukushima Daiichi beyond the pale blue hills in the distance.

No surprise that prominent among the sponsors were three tire brands, Toyo Tires, Dunlop, and Goodyear: drift is so brutal to tires that many pro drift racers change theirs after every bout, which lasts all of a couple of minutes. 

My guess was that the grand prix had mustered an attendance of three or four thousand, around the number that gathered back in October 2000 for the very first D1 races: drift then was perhaps neither thriving nor dying, but idling, ticking over. Still, there was enough money left in the pot to afford an LED ad truck, to remind you where you were in case you forgot.

Back on the circuit, the D1 machines screamed on, leaving layered acrid veils of burnt rubber through which others had to drift.

There exists a drift technique, “smoky curtain driving” (煙幕走行, enmaku soko), designed to exploit the haze and rob drivers behind of their sight, although it wasn’t being deliberately practiced here.

A short sharp squall breezed down from up in the mountains, and the nimble drift cars, at both sides of the limit of adhesion in the dry, were reduced to lumbering dinosaurs in the wet, gingerly tiptoeing into corners at half their normal speed and even then often spinning out to shunt the walls of tires and giant polystyrene blocks. 

The track dried out soon enough and my attention turned to the scoring, which operates on an all-must-have-prizes principle. Drivers start out with 100 points and have them deducted for not following the prescribed line around the four corners on which they are judged, for wobbles, for sloth, for shallow angles, and for lifting off the throttle. Nobody scores fewer than around 95 points (with usual local precision, scores are pushed out to two decimal places, so 96.78 would represent an average score) unless they spin or lose their drift and return to the prosaic world of grip.  

It dawned on me that not only was drift scored like figure skating, it resembled it in a host of other ways. All other motorsports are akin to speed skating, where time is not only of the essence, it is the essence. In drift, though, while speed is key, it is not an absolute god whose word is law. Drift, like figure skating, has single and pair events, and outside of regular competition, synchronized drifting with multiple cars. Drift, like figure skating, is about skill, transition, execution, choreography, and interpretation (the five components of the International Skating Union non-technical judging system). Drifters even practice figures of eight, and pirouettes around a single cone.

My attention wandered back to the crowd. D1 spectatorship was not just an escape for lonely young men but a day out for the whole orange family.

Go Team Orange! (Whoever said Japan was suffering from a collapsing birth rate?)

A pair of portly, bonneted, and very well provisioned women left too many questions unanswered.

Was that a brace of young mullets I saw before me? The father’s baseball cap bore the forbidding Rabelaisian legend: “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives”. Amen to that—and the halves of the global fruit can be sliced at so many angles.

Unimaginatively, I dubbed this willowy trio the Vuitton boys, after the Vuitton clutch bag one of them slung nonchalantly from his shoulder and the Vuitton wallet one of them carelessly left sticking out of his back pocket. Wonder how long they’d last at a NASCAR race?


Up in the stands stood the pink Crocs tribe, the leader sporting a pair of those monstrous crimes against footwear in the most shocking of shades.

For some, the heat and the smoke and the excitement, not to mention the family feuds, had all become a bit too much, underscoring the uncanny local ability to sleep through unholy levels of noise.

Finally I found a fence-free sweet spot, on the last corner before the finish line, from which to snap the drifters slip sliding away. You know the nearer your destination…

One of the incidental fascinations of drift is its physics, the subject of a droll 2006 paper with a Keatsian title, On the Dynamics of Automobile Drifting, by Mujahid Abdulrahim of the University of Florida for the US Society of Automotive Engineers.

Drifting is…an important part of any memorable movie scene involving a police chase. Despite the performance advantages of low-sideslip driving, it is well known that villains are more appropriately apprehended with much tire squealing and smoke.

Abdulrahim kindly explains from his lofty physicist’s perch that drift “challenges drivers to navigate a course in a sustained sideslip by exploiting coupled nonlinearities in the tire force response”, a thought unlikely to be uppermost in the mind of the average drifter approaching the apex of a bend. Here are some random shots of passing sideslippers captioned with soundbites on the physics of drift.

Takahiro Imamura (39) in a Mazda RX7 FC3S (1986-1991)

Through the complex relationship between slips and forces, equilibrium is achieved in general with front tires in counter-steer and rear tires spinning.

Robbie Nishida (33) in a Toyota Cresta JZX90 (1992-1996)

The coupling between longitudinal slip and lateral force is of particular importance for drifting, considering this is the primary means by which moment stabilization can be achieved at large sideslip.

Tatsuya Kataoka (32) in a Toyota Trueno AE86 (1983-1987)

The rear tires in a typical drift maneuver operate in the nonlinear plateau regime while the front tires operate nearer the linear range at small slip angles.

Ryoji Jinushi (37) in a Toyota Soarer JZZ30 (1991-2000)

The sideforce generated at large sideslip is generally less than the maximum sideforce, thus drifts cannot maintain high levels of lateral acceleration. Drifting produces unstable conditions such as positive cornering stiffness gradients and large restoring/upsetting yaw moments.

Yoshikazu Kawakami (36) in a Nissan Silvia S14 (1995-2000)

Thus, the challenge of drift racing is manipulating the vehicle controls to achieve small yaw moments in order to maintain a large-amplitude sideslip attitude.

None of these cars, at their battered and beaten cores, was less than a decade old, and a couple might have been on the road a quarter of a century. These were low-ranked drivers, to be sure, with scarcely a point between them all season, but the drivers on the leader-board were largely at the reins of steeds no more modern. Almost without exception the drivers are on the far side of thirty, with some, such as number four ranked Ken Nomura (48), pushing the half century mark. Drift, I concluded, was getting gouty, putting on a middle-aged gut—much like the land that gave birth to it.

Despite our physicist’s talk of longitudinal and lateral tractive forces, the dominant force that drift both does battle with and tries to harness is inertia, as does any attempt to pilot round a corner at moderate velocity a modern vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine, which would much rather go straight on. A motorsport called drift with inertia at its heart: could there be a better mirror-metaphor to hold up to contemporary society?

Aside from half-Japanese US army brat (and I mean that in the kindest way) Robbie Nishida, pictured above, there was only one foreign driver on the circuit that day, Italian Federico Sceriffo, whose Subaru Impreza’s business end looks like this.

Neither of them had accrued any points in the season thus far, and much as it pains me to say, I suspect neither—nor any GUYjean—has much of a chance of climbing the rankings, unless drift gets itself organized under an international governing body, as it should—why, if figure skating is, it could be an Olympic sport one day.

Among the 38 (naturally all-male) drivers, only one was at the wheel of a foreign marque: Takahiro Ueno in a BMW 320i, the traitorous filler in this colorful sandwich.

And as far as I could tell, your tourist-correspondent in the world of drift was the only roundeye in the spectator stands.

Of my two trips to Ebisu, I preferred the former, with its overwhelming shock of the new. At the D1 Grand Prix, there was not even an overpriced beer to be had, thanks be no doubt to the Fukushima constabulary. The patter of the MCs was drenched in excruciatingly formal Japanese and winners were welcomed to the podium with a tremulous titter of applause. A friend known for his delicate turn of phrase forecast that Ebisu would be chockablock with “chapatsu slappers” (translation: women of easy virtue with dyed brown hair) but there was scarcely a bottle brunette to be found. Drift at the top has been professionalized, commercialized, sanitized, and suburbanized, stripped by the dominant culture of the “sub” of its subculture. Nothing wrong with that in many ways—even drifters have to eat, after all. But in the long and winding road from ura to omote, something fierce and vital has been sacrificed along the way: the barking, howling, snarling beast of drift has finally been tamed.

In praise of…The airplane to heaven

I came across the airplane to heaven on the second day in a row I had tried and failed to get to Battleship Island. There are two ways onto the island: the official front-door and the very unofficial back-door. Being more interested in the haikyo ruins boom the island has stoked and the campaign to have it made a World Heritage Site than the ruins themselves, spectacular though by all accounts they are, I wanted to take the front door, but the rainy season was thwarting me: in safety-first Japan, tourist boats only put out for the island when the sea is millpond still.

Although weather reports warned the waves would be too rough for the voyage, I set off south on sodden, snarled-up roads to Nagasaki and the 10:30 meeting point, frantically calling the endlessly engaged mobile of my contact at the tourism bureau along the way. “Guess he’s letting everyone know the trip’s off”, I thought to myself, but pressed on regardless, angst mounting that the odds of arriving by the appointed hour were anyway growing slender.

Halfway to Nagasaki and with the sands of time almost gone, I called off the chase. “Relax, you’re on holiday.” Bathed in relief, I decided now was the moment for random stuff to happen. And within a few minutes, it did.

A stooped old man scythed away with a strimmer at swathes of grass on the banks of the field.

“That’s a wonderful old plane you’ve got there.”

“Oh, that’s not mine. It belongs to an elderly neighbor.”

“How long’s it been here?”

“Ooh, about 15 years, maybe 20. Truth is, the old man bought it and had it put here so it would carry him to heaven when he dies. But now he’s worried that the plane will fall apart before he does, while he’s still alive.”

He used a lovely expression—me ga kuroi uchi ni, while his eyes are still black—that I’d never heard before.

I took a walk around the plane, poised to soar above the waters of Omura Bay. The rear port door had dropped off and lay in the mud where it had fallen, exposing the rank  interior to the elements.

“He should get that door fixed up and stop the rot inside.”

“He’s 82.”

“I see.”

“But he does get someone to clean the cockpit windows, so he’ll be able to see where he’s going when he takes off.”

“Some American once came to see the plane all the way from Kumamoto.” He made it sound as remote as the antipodes. “Said he’d learned to fly on the same type of plane. Wanted to buy it off the old man. But the old man wasn’t having any of it. Sent him away with a flea in his ear.”

At least, I think that’s how the story went; I still have trouble keeping up with the mumbles of the aged, and the further from Tokyo, the tougher it is.

“They say it was made in Britain. Is that right?” He didn’t know where I was from but took me as an expert in all matters foreign.

“I don’t know, to be honest, but I bet I know someone who does.”

Back home, I set my network of sleuths to work and had an answer within a week. This DH.104 “Dove” rolled out of the de Havilland factory in Hatfield, north of London, in January 1957, reaching Japan a month later, where it was flown by Nippon Helicopter and Aeroplane, the earliest ancestor of ANA, and later by Nihon Yuran Koku (Japan Sightseeing Airlines), who nicknamed it “Neptune” and—I think—flew it on routes around the Izu archipelago south of Tokyo, before being scrapped in 1968 after just 11 years of service and put out to pasture on display at Nagasaki Aquarium, remaining there for three decades until the aquarium closed in 1998, when it was acquired by its present owner as his passage to paradise. Of the 542 Doves produced, this is one of two left in Japan, with the other one reportedly in a sorry state, too.

So if you’re ever on the road between Sasebo and Nagasaki, keep an eye out on the bayshore side for this old bird in a little village called Nagaura. You can’t miss her. And if she’s gone, well, you’ll know that the last grain has fallen in the hourglass of her unsung pilot and that he’s taken wing—the wings of a Dove—on the last flight of his life, aboard the airplane to heaven.

[With many thanks to sleuths A.E. and S.O.]

In praise of…The ghost highway

Leaving Osaka and heading for Kyushu, the driver is presented with the option of two highways running broadly parallel: the Sanyo Expressway, which hugs the populous Pacific coast, and the Chugoku Expressway, which barrels across the low rolling mountains of the middle of this westernmost region of Honshu. Ever eager to take the road that seems less travelled, I opted for the Chugoku.

Once past Kobe, 40km outside of Osaka, the traffic melted away, and I settled back to enjoy the ride into the sunset. On and on the road unspooled, up and up the kilometers from Osaka mounted, sparser and sparser the traffic became. Why on earth was this road built, I wondered to myself. Some 300km out of Osaka, the Chugoku veers south to clip the north of Hiroshima City, the lunges west again beyond the Hiroshima North junction through a parade of tunnels. It began then to dawn with faint foreboding that I was essentially the only thing heading west, and at 7.10pm that Saturday evening, with dusk descending, I started counting off the minutes that elapsed before passing, or being passed by, other road users. Five minutes went by, then 10: I passed a pair of cars. Reset the stopwatch: five, 10, 15, 20, 25 minutes… At 7.46pm I passed another pair of cars, and then two more before, at 8pm, I turned off for Yamaguchi City, 475km out of Osaka, to find a place to stay for the night. In 50 minutes, I had covered about 80km…and met with just six westbound vehicles.

Returning from Kyushu, I decided to photo-document the otherworldly desolation of the Hiroshima-Yamaguchi stretch of the Chugoku, dropping in at every parking area and service area and pulling on to the hard shoulder every 10km or so for a snapshot of the state of the road, as long as the light held out, for the Chugoku is no ordinary road to nowhere, built to keep local construction companies afloat, but a full-bore four-lane expressway, at 540km the second longest in the whole of Japan, linking its second most populated city, Osaka (prefectural population of nearly 9mn) with its second most populated island, Kyushu (population of over 13mn). 

 465km out of Osaka

 The Nioroshi Toge parking area, which also serves as the 455km point

445km out of Osaka (444km, to be pedantic—the 444km marker is just visible in the central reservation)

435km out of Osaka

The Kano service area: both of its gas stations closed in 2005 and no traces of them remain. Service areas are supposed to offer 24hr shops and restaurants, but those at Kano are no longer open at night, leaving only vending machines and toilets.

425km out of Osaka

415km out of Osaka

The Asakura parking area

405km out of Osaka

The Fukaya parking area, completely deserted

395km out of Osaka, and my quest for complete emptiness shattered by three passing cars

385km out of Osaka

The Yoshiwa service area

Abandoned gas station at the Yoshiwa service area, closed in March 2009. The westbound gas station closed in November 2008. There is now no fuel available on the Chugoku for some 150km, between Mito (487km from Osaka) and Asa (340km from Osaka). In all ignorance, I ask: is there anywhere else in the developed world where highway gas stations are being closed down?

375km out of Osaka, now engulfed in darkness but still bereft of roadway companions in either direction. Having already driven some 800km that Sunday and needing to find accommodation for the night, I gave up on documenting the silences and absences of the Chugoku after 100km of desertion, case proven.

So what accounts for the Chugoku’s voids? To answer that question, we have to rewind to the 1960s and the dawn of Japan’s motorization, when the powers that were decided, reasonably enough, that an expressway would be needed between Osaka and Kyushu—and then proceeded to put it in the wrong place. The Chugoku was built in stages between 1970 and 1983, when it was fully opened, but for roughly 400km it runs through hill and dale and small farming settlements, the biggest centers of population it passes through being Tsuyama in northern Okayama (around 100,000 people) and Miyoshi in northern Hiroshima (around 60,000 people). Like nascent expressway planners the world over, I sense, the road builders failed to realize that most traffic on their creations would be local.

Planning then began for the Sanyo Expressway, linking Kobe and Yamaguchi, but this time right through the center of cities such as Himeji (over 500,000 people), Okayama (over 700,000 people), Fukuyama (nearly 500,000 people), and Hiroshima (nearly 1.2mn people). Construction work began in 1982 and the expressway, in all its 450km or so of glory, was completed in 1997. Traffic immediately drifted south from the Chugoku to the Sanyo, the Chugoku not helped by its relative age, which means a dearth of tunnels, an abundance of tight corners, and a ridiculous 80km/h (50mph) speed limit along most of its length, falling as low as 50km/h (30mph) at one point, which must surely be the lowest mandated speed limit in the world for a full-scale highway—thankfully, it’s gleefully ignored and unenforced.

What does the future hold for the Chugoku? Greater loneliness is the only conceivable answer. Traffic on much of it is currently falling by around 2% a year, I guesstimate, caused by ageing and depopulation in the rural communities it largely serves: the population of Tsuyama is projected to slide 18% from 2005 to 2035 and of Miyoshi 29%, to say nothing of the smaller towns and villages along the way, where population declines will be still more dramatic. The San’in expressway on the Sea of Japan side of Chugoku is due to be completed sometime this decade, as long as the money holds out, draining still more traffic from the Chugoku. I suspect that by mid-century, all things being equal, large stretches of the expressway will finally be judged unviable and left to rot.

In the meantime, though, let’s raise a toast to the joys of the Chugoku, over 400km of delightful motoring through pine glades, across ponds, and past picturesque farmhouses, with nary another motorist in sight. One word of warning, though: the highway patrol cops are very active for at least the first 100km out of Osaka, so stick to within 20km/h of the speed limit, as you wouldn’t want to get caught by the fuzz on the ghost highway.

Postscript for traffic nerds and the curious: I did some digging around to see if I could quantify just how empty the Chugoku was. Fortunately, it’s not that difficult, as Wikipedia Japan carries the results of an FY3/06 census by the Ministry of Transport for almost all of Japan’s highways, and we can I think safely assume that, barring the odd typo, the information will have been inputted honestly.

At its most congested, just out of Osaka, the Chugoku carries about 105,000 vehicles per 24hr spell, making it just about as packed as any highway in Japan. At its least congested, on the Okayama-Hiroshima border, slightly to the east of the stretch I chose to document, it carries fewer than 5,000 vehicles a day, less than 1/20th of the volume; between Hiroshima North and Yamaguchi the volume is 10,000-13,000 vehicles a day, which still, at 10,000, divided by two (for westbound and eastbound traffic) and then divided by 24hrs, is only about 200 vehicles an hour, or 3.5 every minute, averaged out across the day, which means many fewer in the off-peak periods. Even the Akita Expressway carries more traffic for most of its length than the Chugoku’s least trafficked parts do.

The ghost highway prize will eventually go, I suspect, to the Doto Expressway in Hokkaido, which will link Chitose south of Sapporo and Kushiro in the east, some 260km away; it is due for completion in 2013 or thereabouts, so the volume numbers we have at the moment are tentative, but about 1,500 vehicles per day on average over large stretches seems like a reasonable assumption. One every half a minute in each direction, far fewer at night.

FWIW, I got my traffic decline projection from the same source—traffic on the Chugoku fell by 2.4% from FY3/02 to FY3/03, while on the Meishin between Nagoya and Osaka it fell 1.2% and on the Tomei between Tokyo and Nagoya it fell 0.5%. That might have been amid the tail-end of a mild recession, but there’s no real reason to think those percentage declines are not much larger now.