World’s greatest road trips: Japan’s Hakone Skyline will take your breath away

Jun 26, 2019
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About 108 kilometres (or 1hr 40 mins drive time) from Shibuya in Tokyo lies one of the world’s most thrilling stretches of road.

It’s called the Hakone Skyline, and if you’re a bona fide car or bike enthusiast who likes to a have a bit of a crack on a twisty road, then drop everything and put this at the top of your bucket list. Do it now and thank me later.

Because there are no cops, well that’s what the local bikers told us. At least, no one has ever seen them up there. But there’s a price to pay, not a big one, mind.

You see, the Hakone Skyline is a toll road and the price of entry is currently 360 Yen in, or 600 Yen if you enter from the opposite direction. Either way, it’s the best $4-$6 you’ll ever spend.

In fact, so good is this drive, it wouldn’t matter what they were asking, just pay it and then get down on your knees and say a prayer of thanks that roads like this still exist in this ‘nanna-fied’ world of ours.

You can hire all types of go-fast Japanese hardware for the drive but we were in Japan for the 10th Anniversary of Lexus‘ F-Line cars (that’s the GS F and RC F), and the opportunity to be reunited with one of my favourite performance sedans came up so I found myself partnered-up with a Lexus GS F (with an RC F in-tow) and couldn’t have been happier.

Lexus’s high-performance luxury sedan is the last of a breed in that it makes do with a naturally aspirated 5.0-litre V8. No turbos, no supercharger and no plug-in hybrid systems to lean on. It’s old school and it works brilliantly.

British luxury carmaker Rolls-Royce used to omit the acceleration and top speed in the owner’s manual of 6.75-Litre V8-powered Silver Shadow model, instead choosing to simply state it was ‘adequate’. And that’s exactly how I would describe the GS F’s output.

But, if you must know, it makes 351kW and 530Nm of torque, and while rival models like the latest BMW M5 Competition and Mercedes-AMG E63 S (460kW/750Nm, 450kW/850Nm) offer crushing levels of grunt, the GS F can be driven at the limit without intimidating less proficient drivers.

Read more: Everything Lexus

Not that the Lexus is slow, mind. It still claims 0-100km/h in 4.6 seconds and a top speed of 270km/h, but it’s the instantaneous throttle response and delicious V8 growl above 4000rpm that provide much of the driver satisfaction with this car.

More on that later, but first we had to escape the confines of Tokyo before heading south-west to Hakone, and given the 10 million people in that city, I kind of expected our exit from this modern metropolis to be a bit of a nightmare.

Japan, like Australia, is a right-hand drive market, so that makes it easy from the outset and while there’s no shortage of traffic, there’s no chaos and things flow a lot smoother than say in Sydney or Melbourne. The traffic signal system seems to be better synchronised and drivers are 10 times more courteous than the ‘take no prisoner’ attitude back home. No one dares use their horn. It’s just something that’s not done there.

The film crew we were with were shooting tracking scenes in the middle of the high density area of Shibuya and we may have held traffic up on one or two occasions, yet there wasn’t a single horn blown. It’s a wonderful experience compared to the car wars we encounter each day in Australia.

Still it didn’t take long before we were already in the countryside though, we weren’t heading directly to the Hakone Skyline, but stopping at Fuji Speedway to get our passes for that weekend’s Super GT race where Lexus was running its LC500 Super GT and RC F GT3 entries.

The heat and humidity this time of the year in Japan can be brutal, regularly reaching 40-degrees Celsius along with very high humidity. We had pushed through until 2:00pm and all we could find in the way of sustenance was an open-air food market with fried chicken and dumplings. Unfortunately old mate (Paul the shooter) had taken the keys to the GS F, which meant we had to eat in the searing sun. Suffice to say, it wasn’t the most pleasant culinary experience you could hope for but at least the food remained hot.

Noticeable for their absence were police cars, especially on the freeways out of the city. We didn’t see a single unit all day, in fact all weekend. Not surprising, really, given the general good behaviour of drivers in Japan.

I’d been to Fuji Speedway once before with Lamborghini, but the weather was shocking with torrential rain all weekend, so the heat and a dry track more than made up for it.

The Super GT cars are an awesome sight complete with a more sophisticated aero pack than a full-blown German DTM car, with which it shares more than a few common components like the transmission, impact structures and transmission. Even the chassis is a common design to both racing series.

Performance is staggering. Up to 522kW from the Toyota R14G turbocharged in-line four-cylinder engine in a car that tips the scales at just over 1,000kg. Cornering speeds are eye-popping, as we would see on race day when they regularly drove around the outside of the GT3 entries (on corners) that also compete in the same series.

It’s highly competitive too with all the major Japanese manufacturers lining up on the grid with high-calibre drivers, like Heikki Kovalainen, Kamui Kobayashi and even 2009 F1 world champion Jensen Button who pilots a Honda NSX Super GT.

It’s also a spectacular event with a host of weird and wonderful cars on display, many of which were quite rare like the 1990 Mercedes-Benz 560 SEC AMG 6.0-litre ‘Wide body’ – one of only 50 ever built.

The Mercedes-Maybach S650 Cabriolet also caught our attention – mainly because it’s one of only 300 globally and priced back in 2016 at 300,000 euros.

There was also a matte black LFA (real paint of course) and rumoured to be Akio Toyoda’s own car, which was later seen racing a Red Bull air race plane down the 1.4km-long Fuji straight.

That said, as far as I was concerned, I was the here for the Hakone Skyline and in my favourite Lexus’ bar the LFA, and was itching to get going.

The GS F might sound like an odd choice to attack one of the world’s most exhilarating pieces of mountain road. After all, with a kerb weight of 1856kg and four-doors to boot, it’s a lot to have to throw around.

But, it’s a very well-balanced car with a near-perfect power-to-weight ratio (at least for this reviewer), meaning on the Hakone Skyline, you can drive it flat-out nearly all the time and it doesn’t ever disappoint.

Actually, the road up to the Hakone toll both may as well be called the Junior Skyline, because it’s just as thrilling, only a little tighter and narrower (and dangerously mossy in parts), but just as spectacular for the fast-flowing corners and a sticky hot-mix road surface.

However, you do need to be on your game if you want to have a real go, and to be honest you can get a tad queasy even behind the wheel – it’s that intense. At times, if you’re really on the pace it can almost seem like too much of a good thing. Well, almost.

But, there’s no mistaking the real-deal Hakone Skyline. There’s a huge sign above the toll booths just so there’s no confusion, and the entry price is clearly marked – 360 Yen ($4.43 Australian) – a ridiculously small amount to pay for what constitutes a huge amount of joy.

The attendants don’t speak English but like everyone in Japan they are wonderfully polite. Pay your toll and its game on as you drop the right pedal and launch the car into the first turn – a sweeping right-hander followed by a tight left and on and on it goes – until you get tired or end up chasing down a high-performance sports bike.

Not a single car or bike seems to take the slightest notice of the ‘40’ signs painted on the bitumen – every user we encountered over three days was just going flat out – all the time. However, at least one rule is mandatory – stick to the proper side of the road and don’t ever stray onto the other side given the endless succession of blind corners.

For those needing a rest from simply too much of a good thing, there are plenty of panoramic vantage points along the Skyline with safe entry and exit points.

Officially, the Hakone Skyline is a 5km stretch of tarmac with 58 turns and a difference in elevation of 169 metres, though it feels a lot longer than that especially if you go all the way to the Hakone Turnpike, where you’ll often find hordes of motorcyclists resting up for the return charge.

The GS F is incredibly well-equipped to handle this majestic road with predictable handling and surprising agility for such a large sedan. We called out those same characteristics back in 2016 when the car was launched at the Jarama Circuit, near Madrid in Spain.

First and foremost it’s still a luxury sedan, but as a full-strength F-Line model its armed with adaptive variable suspension five drive modes from Eco to Sports +, the latter being optimum setting for these parts. There’s no individual suspension button with which to toggle through the modes, but each setting changes the Sachs Performance Damper stiffness, though never could you call the ride too firm even in the most aggressive setting.

There’s a torque vectoring differential too, which allows you to get on the throttle early on exits, but it’s the sheer all-round grip from all four corners that makes this car a proper treat on a road like this.

Even going close to ten-tenths, rarely did we notice the stability or traction control lights lit. It really is a solid performer that rewards with level of confidence few cars can match.

The Hakone Skyline is an addictive bit of road that seems more of a Mecca for enthusiasts than more famous stretches like the Stelvio Pass. It’s no less thrilling and much less travelled – even on weekends.

And when you do want to stop there are spectacular views to be had of Mount Fuji and Lake Ashinoka, though you’d better get there early or you’ll miss it for the clouds that seem to roll in around 10:00 am right on cue.

Have you ever driven in Japan? Would you like to do this road trip?

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