Japan, June 2014: Day Twenty

I can honestly say today has been my favourite day of the trip. Waking on time and with a spring in my step, Emma and I navigated the busiest station in the world – at rush hour – and took the Chuo line out of the city.

Our destination was Kokubunji; a small, sleepy suburb to the far west of the city. I am pretty sure nobody has ever visited Kokubunji on vacation, but it’s actually a really cool little place. We decided to grab breakfast at the station in a cafe called Deli & Roux: vie de France. Oooh la la! It was a bakery buffet!

After breakfast pizza and ampan, we left the station in search of our destination… The Toyota Rental Shop. As we like a bit of a road trip (5500 miles around America last time) I planned a short trip to the mountains in an effort to escape the city and fulfil a childhood (20-something) dream.

Sticking two fingers up at the Hybrid Vehicle culture of the Tokyoites, I ordered the flat-four reincarnation of one of my favourite cars – the 86. The ’80s version of the eight-six (or hachi-roku) is an iconic car both in Japan and abroad, so I’ve been looking forward to driving the new one. After filling forms and getting the staff to program our destination into the Japanese only sat nav, we were off on the open road – and immediately into Tokyo’s heavy traffic.

It took us the best part of an hour to clear the 20-odd kilometres of city, but we made it to the expressway and it felt good to have a break from public transport. We stopped at the first services we came across; firstly to use the toilet, secondly to gain some composure after the stress of driving in Japan!

The services are amazing. Immaculate toilets, an amazing array of food and rubbish for sale as well as free tea and water if you want it. Back on the road, we arrived at the toll booth and handed over £15 for the privilege of using the expressway. It had taken us nearly three hours to get to Gunma prefecture, but the time had flown by.

Rather than just going to our hotel and checking in, I decided to head towards the reason we are in Gunma – Mt. Haruna; much to the annoyance of our sat nav lady. She persisted to tell us to turn around and we were too frightened to touch the sat nav in case we lost our hotel directions – after a while we were able to tune out the tone of her voice and just enjoy the scenery.

Mt. Haruna is the setting for my favourite cartoon, Initial D. Although the mountain is renamed in the story to Mt. Akina – hence the name of my blog – all the scenes in the manga comics and anime cartoons are based on real locations. We drove to the top of the mountain and took a few photos in the parking area before moving onto the small town that sits on the shore of the lake at it’s peak. Whilst driving to the town, we passed over the Melody Road. They have cut fine grooves in the asphalt, so when you drive over the surface at 50kph the tyres and the surface combine to play a tune – “Quiet Road”. We’ll get a video of it tomorrow as it’s quite brilliant.

At Lake Haruna, we parked up and looked around a museum that explained how the lake was formed and the wildlife you can expect to see. We drove further around the coast and found a row of shops. All the shops are owned and run by elderly ladies and they were extremely friendly. We sat with one as she made us shiitake tea and sold us Initial D cookies. It was all very surreal, but awesome all the same.

We grabbed a coffee in a cafe overlooking the lake before leaving to take a few more photos and making our way down the mountain to the hotel. It’s the biggest room we’ve had for a while and as we’re here a few days, it’s most welcome. We headed into town (Shibukawa) and had dinner at a cafe/restaurant which also appears in Initial D. I know it’s geeky, but I don’t care. The food was awesome and we drove back to the hotel for foot massages (they have machines in the lobby) and free coffee.

We’re planning tomorrow’s activities now and having a little drink to celebrate our day.