Driving the length of Japan in vintage and classic cars
In 2017 I filmed a classic car rally from Fukuoka to Lake Toya, this is our story.
The Samurai Challenge Rally; three weeks, 51 crews from 15 nations in a wonderful variety of vintage and pre-1974 classic cars (plus a handful of specials and the odd hire car) took on a fabulous, 4,660km route, following the Spring flowering of the cherry blossom as they drove north from Fukuoka to Lake Toya.
DAY 2 (OUR 1ST DAYS DRIVING)
Following a road safety blessing from a local Shinto priest 49 of the 51 cars made it across the start line. The 1931 Bentley of Engelbertus Kersten and Franklin Soree and the 1971 Mogan Plus 8 of Lloyd and Tracy Reddington were held back for a while by electrical gremlins. The latter problem was traced to corrosion in the ignition system, possibly caused by the local humidity - the cars have been cooped up in shipping crates for quite some time. Dean and Kendal Golding found mould in the boot of their 1969 Rolls-Royce Corniche, so the idea certainly holds water.
The rally escaped from Fukuoka on one of Japan's amazing three-layer urban freeways, heading out towards the first regularity section of the event. For readers unfamiliar with regularities, they are sections of often challenging road on which crews must maintain a precise average speed, specified at the start of the section, with a penalty awarded for every second late (or early) at the finish. Competitive navigators aim to 'clean' every section with no penalties at all - entire rallies may be won or lost by a couple of seconds - so accurate timekeeping is vital (average-speed displays are not permitted). Crews generally rely on sophisticated stopwatches, so 1937 Buick Coupe driver Paddy Walker raised a few eyebrows when at the start of the first regularity he presented co-driver Hugh Dennis, with a Salter clockwork oven timer that led them to collect seven minutes of penalties. What a comedian!
Comedian Hugh Dennis had his work cut out timing regularity sections with an oven timer.
Those without spannering duties started Day 3 of the Samurai Challenge with a leisurely exploration of Mount Aso's vast caldera and visited a local nursery school, built after last year's earthquake. The rally donated cherry trees for the school yard. and the excited children enjoyed rides in the rally cars, making enough noise to put the volcano to shame!
The day's rally competition focused on the Autopolis circuit. Xavier del Marmol took things a little easier, having been obliged to replace his Buick's head gasket after yesterday's performance, and the fastest vintage machine this morning was the 1937 Alvis Speed 25 of Martinus and Josephina Aaldering; the quickest classic was the 1968 Porsche 912 of former F1 boss Alastair Caldwell, in spite of a 10 second penalty for running without co-driver Laurel Smith. Nevertheless the highlight of the Autopolis visit was Clerk of the Course Peter Rushforth's hurried departure - having failed to secure his vehicle's boot, his suitcase fell out and burst open, scattering a variety of smalls on the circuit. Propelled by a powerful (if not divine) wind, Peter's underpants actually posted quicker times than many of the competitors.
Ex-Mclaren team boss, Alastair Caldwell, posted the fastest time at Autopolis, despite a 10 second penalty for running without his co-driver.
A thoroughly entertaining day saw the rally cross the Straits of Shimonoseki and head east on the 246km drive to Hiroshima. The morning's only regularity section was the longest and most challenging so far, the ever-smiling Fritz Kozka survived an excursion into a ditch - one advantage of doing a rally in a modern Nissan.
After putting his hire car in a ditch Fritz was not so disappointed at having to leave his classic at home.
That evening everyone except Chris Lunn and the rally mechanics boarded a boat to the enchanted island of Miwajima. Chris has broken a half-shaft on his 1929 Bentley and it will take two days to fix; he and co-driver Chris Myers will catch up with the rally as soon as the car is back on the road.
Shinto gate at MiwaJima Island
The day started very quietly, with an early morning pilgrimage to Hiroshima's Peace Park, a sombre monument to the devastation and catastrophic loss of life that followed the use of the world's first atomic weapon on 6th August 1945. The personal testimonies of those who survived the attack are terribly moving, and the visit was a highly emotional experience.
Paper cranes left in tribute to the dead at the Hiroshima Peace Park.
After a contemplative morning we set off on the 298km drive to Matsue. The route climbed into the mountains via Iwami Ginzan, a fascinating 16th Century silver mine and World Heritage Site. Shortly after this, and quite unconnected to the incident in which Marion van Gemert mistakenly directed husband Jan to drive their Ford Mustang into a bemused local's garden, the crews of Cars 27, 28 and 29 were startled by the appearance of an ancient Japanese woman dressed in white, who leapt into the road with an old pram and a bucket, gesticulating wildly. Fortunately the cars were only travelling at 20km/h, and everyone escaped unscathed, albeit slightly spooked.
Crews enjoyed a thoroughly entertaining drive on fabulously empty, twisty roads through spectacular scenery, including the remarkable dunes of the Sanin Kaigan National Park, where we visited the nearby sand museum to see some amazing sculptures.
US themed sand sculpture
A road closure forced a re-route, and we were advised that roads covered in wet leaves would be extra slippery. Indeed Jan Woien and Jan Erik Hansen slithered off the black stuff and holed the fuel tank of their 1935 Alvis, simultaneously slipping from first to eighth place overall, but they ingeniously rigged up a couple of jerrycans instead and carried on regardless.
Car 20, the Lips/Schrijver/Griffiths Mercedes 220B, needs a new 6-volt battery; this will have to wait until we arrive in Kyoto tomorrow so the car was transported to the hotel by a truly remarkable Japanese tow truck.
The most dramatic incident of the day befell Car 25, the 1956 Jaguar XK140 of Rob van Ravensteijn and Ellen and Willem Vermeulen, which broke down in a tunnel. Japanese law forbids towing on the expressway by anyone other than the police or the JAFA roadside rescue service, so rally mechanics Simon Ayris and Gary Packard watched in awe as the car was surrounded by flashing lights and swiftly extracted by extremely helpful police officers; happily it took only a short time to diagnose and fix a minor fuel pump problem, but driver Rob made the most of the drama by turning up to dinner this evening wearing a high-visibility vest over his kimono.
En route to Kyoto we visited the traditional village of Miyama, driving slowly - or 'nicely', as a Japanese policeman might say - between its charming thatched houses.
The lunchtime 'out' control opened early, as we had an afternoon appointment at Kyoto's impressive Heian shrine, on the far side of a particularly challenging regularity section. On a very narrow and wonderfully twisty road, local drivers waited patiently for the rally cars to pass and were thanked with rally t-shirts; everyone did very well to arrive on time at the shrine, which kindly stayed open for 30 minutes longer than usual in order to grant the rally another blessing.
All the crews assembled at 6pm - including Chris Lunn and Chris Myers, whose vintage Bentley is still under repair - in order to be taxied to the 300-year old Ichikiri Tea House, the most exclusive Geisha restaurant in Japan. Admittance here is strictly by invitation only - you cannot even book a table in advance.
A rest day in Kyoto led to a good deal of car fettling, although this former capital has many more cultural attractions to offer. Co-drivers Maggie Gray, Antoinette Claessens and Gabriele Jaeger-Kozka accepted a very special invitation to visit studios specializing in kimono design and painting and obi (sash) weaving, courtesy of Mr Yamada, who with Megumi Mesauda has kindly opened a number of exclusive doors for us including those of the Heian shrine yesterday; they were delighted and impressed by the exquisite craftsmanship they witnessed.
Crews embarked on the second leg of the Samurai Challenge today with a short 74km drive to the beautiful city of Nara. We were delighted to welcome Scott Greenhalgh, the second-leg co-driver in Paddy Walker's 1937 Buick, and to welcome back Chris Lunn and Christopher Myers, whose 1929 Bentley now has a new driveshaft.
We made our way to the beautiful Nara Park, famous for its tame deer. Never less than peckish, these charming creatures immediately ate Car 22 driver Phillip Haslam's map and tried to make a meal of Rally Director Liz Wenman's roadbook; happily Liz managed to win the ensuing wrestling match, and can now add deer wrangling to her CV.
Speaking of battles, the rally leader board has changed again; the Aalderings still lead in their Alvis Speed 25, and have very slightly extended the gap to the second-placed Triumph Stag of Philip Garratt and Kieron Brown. However, Phillip and Yvonne Halslam have now moved into third place in their Jaguar XK120, ahead of Gerry Crown and Matt Bryson in their Leyland P76 and Alastair Caldwell and Laurel Smith in their Porsche 912.
The route was as lovely as ever, passing through quaint rural villages on roads lined with cherry blossom as we made it to Mount Koya, the traditional centre of Shingon Buddhism and a World Heritage site renowned for its ancient temples and remarkable cemetery, where bizarre headstones reflect the occupations of the deceased. Only in Japan!
Competitors spent the afternoon exploring this astonishing mountain retreat before retiring to the several temples in which they would spend the night. It hardly needs saying that a monk's life is not for everyone; some members of our party were surprised to discover that the temple food is exclusively vegan, that the doors are locked at 8.30pm and - shock, horror - that alcohol is not permitted.
One of our monk hosts showing his appreciation for the Steinhauser's 1937 Bentley Derby Open Tourer
Happily for some, the teetotal rule is not universal. Alastair Caldwell and Laurel Smith made rather a hash of one of the morning regularities and were also delayed behind a slow-moving truck, dropping them down to eight overall, but have found beer and sake with which to drown their sorrows.
Day 11 of the Samurai Challenge started very early, with 6am prayers at Koyasan accompanied by incense, fire, brimstone and lots of smoke. It's easy to see why so many temples have burned down over the centuries, and why people with asthma might be reluctant to join the religious community. Nevertheless many of the competitors lining up at the morning's 'out' control expressed their appreciation and enjoyment of a very special experience.
The 1967 Ford Mustang of Hans Middleberg and Jurgen Grolman looked a bit wobbly as it arrived to our lunch stop, with deranged front wheels, quickly re-aligned by RPS mechanic Simon Ayris. Meanwhile the Ravensteijn/Vermeulen Jaguar XK140 is being delayed by fuel flow interruptions caused by the high ethanol content of the local petrol, which is boiling in the carburettors and drawing dirt through the system. The 1932 Alvis Speed 20 of Jose and Maria Romao de Sousa had a battery drain issue, so they fitted a fresh one and left the other to be recharged by the rally mechanics, while electrical gremlins have also attacked Dean and Kendal Golding's 1969 Rolls-Royce Corniche, one side window is stuck fully open and the other only remains half-closed thanks to wedges made of chocolate wrappers. It's hardly a Rolls-Royce solution but better than nothing, as it is pretty cold up here in the mountains.
This afternoon competition kicked off with a test at the excellent Festika kart circuit, where with up to eight cars on track simultaneously everyone had great fun, overtaking, undertaking and occasionally getting in the way; Norwegians Jan Woien and Jan Erik Hansen significantly shortened the life of all four tyres on their Alvis, Gerry Crown turned a peculiar shade of green, having given up the big Leyland's driving seat to navigator Matt Bryson (who refused to take a 10 second penalty for going solo) and Johannes Lips resorted to the old racing driver's excuse that his times would have been spectacular had it not been for the guy in front. For all that, it should be noted that nobody even got close to marshal/mechanic Kevin Blackmore, who was loaned a kart and lapped the circuit in 58 seconds flat.
Continuing along the old Nakasendo mountain road, the rally reached the beautifully preserved waystation town of Tsumago, generally closed to traffic in order to protect its historic atmosphere, before parking up at the hotel surrounded by 2,000 spectacular cherry trees. Here Paddy Walker and Scott Greenhalgh insisted they saw a bear in the woods this afternoon, to the consternation of the marshals who man time controls alone; they were hardly reassured to learn that it was "only a small one" but might have been less worried had they noticed Paddy and Scott giggling as they headed for the lift. Actually there might be quite a lot of giggling tonight, as the hotel brews its own beer...
The nearby volcano vented as we left Tsumago this morning, perhaps wishing us well, or possibly warning Clerk of the Course Peter Rushforth that Day 13 would not be his luckiest. Indeed roadworks and heavy traffic forced the cancellation of all but one of the day's scheduled regularity sections - we even had snow to contend with on our run down from the mountains, which did at least allow Dr John to indulge his love of snowballing, something he rarely enjoys in his day job in Delhi.
The Aaldering/Aaldering Alvis, the Haslam/Haslam Jaguar and the Halter/Engelhardt Ford still occupy the first three places of the leader board, but as predicted the Woien/Hansen Alvis has continued to edge its way back into contention, moving up from sixth place into fifth. David and Julia Harrison, in their purple Porsche 356A (aka Molly) have clawed their way up from 21st to 10th place overall, and we have been highly impressed by the performance of rally novices Shaun and Eleanor Dixon, who have very quickly picked up the principles of rally timing and now lie 17th overall in their 1965 Mercedes-Benz 230 SL.
This morning saw rally crews engage in the most intense competition - to get the best picture of Mount Fuji. This is hardly surprising as this active stratovolcano - commonly known as 'Fuji-san' - is Japan's most iconic symbol. Energetic pilgrims have been scaling to its sacred 3,776m summit for centuries (it last erupted in 1707-08) and we were not at all surprised to hear that our indefatigable Miss Fixit, Megumi climbed it two years ago - nor (this being Japan) that there is a drinks vending machine at the top. The rally didn't get quite that far, but the views from its slopes are stunning.
After a leisurely lunch break, a timed test at the kart track alongside the internationally renowned Fuji F1 circuit was hugely entertaining; several cars appeared to be shrouded in a red mist as they vaporised yet more rubber. Alastair Caldwell was last here as McLaren F1 team manager at the dramatic, rain-sodden Japanese Grand Prix of 1976, and we can at least say that he took more care of his tyres than James Hunt. Later in the day he paid a visit to the F1 circuit to see how it has changed over the years, officials were happy to let him in when he told them who he was.
Day 15 - Rest Day
Having enjoyed a very active and thoroughly fascinating rest day in Tokyo, the rally set off early this morning - at 08.01 - to avoid the worst of the city traffic. Deputy Clerk of the Course John Bayliss' superb roadbook once again proved its worth, as all but one car followed the correct route out of the incredibly busy metropolis. The exception was the 1937 Buick Coupe of Paddy Walker, whose freshly-installed co-driver Richard Cunningham attempted to follow tomorrow's directions instead, and consequently didn't get very far. This was actually a stroke of luck, as Richard had also left the Time Card behind at the hotel, so they returned to Rally HQ and started again on the right day. We'll put it down to jet-lag, this time, although it should be noted that the other new co-drivers who joined us in Tokyo - Sophie Evans (Fiat Moretti), Lexton Moy (Datsun 240Z) and Maurie Smith (Jensen Interceptor) - all seemed to know what day it was. Once clear of the city we were graciously welcomed with tea, coffee, biscuits and sweets at the Wakui Museum of Rolls-Royce and Bentley motor cars.
We enjoyed lunch at the wonderful Hara Museum of modern art. Here, sadly, Jan Woien and Jan Erik Hansen admitted that their Alvis was not running well enough to continue their charge up the leaderboard, so they have reluctantly decided to drop out of the competition and join the touring class instead. Dean and Kendal Golding's Rolls-Royce Corniche has also been struggling, this time with overheating problems; they were nursed to the lunch halt by Rally Round mechanics and stocked up on fresh water for twisty afternoon climb to our overnight halt at Nikko, a ski resort on the shore of Lake Chuzenji, next to Mount Nantai. There is still some winter snow on the mountains and at 1,300m it feels quite cold. Nevertheless a few poor souls must forgo the immediate warmth of the hotel for the car park, as there is inevitably a bit of fettling to be done. Most notably, clever Mr Okada has found some new wheel bearings for the Lips/Schrijver/Griffiths Mercedes 220 B.
We encountered monkeys - real not brass - on the road, although Gerd and Birgit Buhler were more concerned with a bearing seizure on their 1979 Mercedes-Benz 450 SLC, which took most of the day to fix even with the assistance of RPS boss Simon Ayris. It seems their hopes of climbing up the leader board have been thwarted once again.
However, rallying is an unpredictable sport, and we are pleased to report Simon's RPS colleague Gary Pickard has worked his mechanical magic on the ailing Alvis Speed 20 of Jan Woien and Jan Erik Hansen. Having reluctantly withdrawn from the competition yesterday the Norwegians have now rejoined the fray, and as they are still in fifth place overall - less than six minutes behind the leading Alvis Speed 25 of Martinus and Josephina Aaldering - they have every chance of finishing in the top three. Of course for that to happen one or more of the leading crews would have to make a mistake, but anything is possible. In their Porsche 912, Alastair Caldwell and Laurel Smith were running well on today's second regularity - one of the best so far - but suffered a puncture just two kilometres from the end of the section. Despite having to stop and change a rear wheel they dropped only five minutes - no mean achievement.
Competitive or not, everyone enjoyed a stunning drive on the twisty mountain roads to Ouchijukuo, a preserved 17th Century waypoint on the old Aizu-Nishi Kaido trade route, where the historic atmosphere was palpable. This was followed by lunch at the fascinating former Samurai Residence and museum at Aizu and a tour of Tsuruga Castle, a Samurai stronghold originally built in the late 14th Century.
Everyone was up early for the ferry from Niigata to Sado Island, and the cars made a truly impressive sight as they assembled at the port. The two-and-a-half hour crossing was beautifully calm, and several participants enjoyed a traditional European rally breakfast of chips and Magnum ice creams. A quick onboard survey revealed very few problems with the cars. Overall rally leaders Martinus and Josephina Aaldering had a puncture yesterday but have already had the tyre repaired. Meanwhile Keith and Norah Ashworth have been running for several days with only 1st, 2nd and 5th gears in their 1955 Jaguar XK140, and navigator Matt Bryson admitted that the 1974 Leyland P76 has a faulty intercom - driver Gerry Crown can hear his route instructions, but he can't hear Gerry. Matt says he has no plans to get it repaired!
Crowds of waving children lined the road as we disembarked on Sado - "an unbelievable welcome," said Norah Ashworth. Measuring just 60km north to south and 30km east to west, the mountainous island is extremely pretty, fringed with fishing villages and dotted with traditional wooden houses, many of them constructed from ships' timbers. The sweeping roads are open and generally wider than those on the mainland, making overtaking easy; in numerous places they are cut through rock tunnels and arches, reminiscent of the hills above Monte Carlo.
A terrific day of rallying on Sado Island. Warmed by sunshine and cooled by a light sea breeze, crews enjoyed wide, open, empty roads through spectacular scenery and were challenged by four tricky regularity sections as Clerk of the Course Peter Rushforth and Deputy CoC John Bayliss drew on their 90 years of experience to put everyone to the test.
The second regularity, for example, finished at a tiny triangular road junction where the time control manned by Liz Wenman and Heidi Winterbourne was tucked out of immediate sight. In spite of a roadbook warning that crews should concentrate more on tulips than on timing, many were caught out - some drove past then realised their mistake, screeched to a halt and reversed back, some raced by too quickly to stop, some went the wrong way and four were penalised for a wrong approach. Most were amused - 1933 Lagonda M45 crew Martin and Anne Egli grinned even as they realised that their timing had been spot on as they drove straight past the control. Others were somewhat embarrassed by their navigational failings - "We're not doing well on this at all," confessed Jonathon Lyons and Leandro Albuquerque as they accepted a wrong-approach penalty in their 1983 Mercedes 500 SL, although the day actually saw them move up from 21st to 20th place overall.
The morning's activity produced many more tales of triumph and disaster. Stopping to answer a call of nature, Engelbertus Kersten dropped his 1931 Bentley 8 Litre into a sharp-edged roadside drainage channel - a fortunate mistake as it turned out, as subsequent inspection revealed a serious problem that needed fixing, saving him and co-driver Franklin Soree a lot of trouble in the long run. Martin and Anne Egli also fell foul of one of these ditches and had to be pulled out, but never stopped smiling. The reward for everyone's effort this morning came after lunch, when we were treated to a sensational private performance by the world-famous Kodo Drummers. They received a standing ovation and many rallyists declared it the highlight of the event so far. It really was magnificent.
Everyone was sorry to leave Sado Island this morning - it has given us two fabulous days of rallying as well as some unforgettable experiences. Indeed 1937 Buick Coupe driver Paddy Walker was so enamoured with the place that that he took to two wheels and cycled 137km around the island.
Despite of a flurry of excitement when 1931 Bentley navigator Franklin Soree claimed to have spotted a killer whale shadowing the ferry to the mainland, day 20 was not expected to be a particularly challenging one, with only one circuit test and two regularities on the 145km route from the port of Niigata to our overnight halt at Tsuruoka. However, rallying is not a predictable sport and by the end of the day the leaderboard had changed dramatically. Martinus and Josephina Aaldering still lead in their Alvis Speed 25, but Phillip and Yvonne Haslam have had a torrid time in their Jaguar XK120, falling all the way from 2nd to 23rd overall. Their place has been taken by Marco Halter and Claudia Engelhardt in the Ford Falcon, with Colin Winkelman and Lexton Moy third in the Datsun 240Z. Engelbertus Kersten and Franklin Soree have moved up into 4th place in their Bentley 8 Litre, while Gerry Crown and Matt Bryson have edged their Leyland P76 back into 5th. Who knows what the next three days will bring?
Woolly hats were needed on the 190km drive to Aomori, as the route took into snow-covered mountain territory. We were blessed with bright sunshine and spectacular views of Mount Choki and Lake Tazawa, a water-filled volcanic caldera that at 423 metres is Japan's deepest lake.
The local prefecture kindly presented each crew with a gift bag containing a preserved rose and rose-flavoured biscuits, although their best wishes came too late for the Shooters, whose 1935 Ford lost all but two gears and then suffered brake failure on a mountain descent; the car was towed to the hotel by Rally Round mechanic Richard Last, but the crew have decided to abandon it in favour of a hired Nissan Note.
After a second regularity section the overall rally standings remained unchanged; Martinus and Josephina Aaldering still hold the lead in their Alvis Speed 25, four minutes and 20 seconds ahead of Marco Halter and Claudia Engelhardt in the Ford Falcon, with Colin Winkelman and Lexton Moy third in the Datsun 240Z. We are now in the Akita region, home of the eponymous and famously faithful dog breed, and the local owners' club brought two very fine specimens to see us at the hotel in Towadako.
We predicted that anything could happen today. But once again proving that classic rallying is an unpredictable sport, nothing did. Nobody got lost, nobody got stuck in a ditch, nobody ran out of petrol and nobody broke down - indeed Phillip and Yvonne Haslam have rejoined us, albeit in a hire car.
A delightful regularity section and the rally's final track test took crews to a very cheerful lunch halt at Aomori, from where we would sail (on two ships) to Hokkaido, the second-largest, northernmost and least developed of Japan's major islands. At Aomori we were welcomed by a band and a host of enthusiastic children. we were blessed with beautiful sunshine and calm seas for the four-and-a-half-hour crossing to the port city of Hakkodate, which was followed by a short drive to the rally hotel.
Day 23 - The Finish Line
Rally Round founder Liz with 2nd in command Heidi and our Japanese superstar Megumi, ready with the finish line champagne.
After 23 days of thrilling competition, including today’s 160km drive through the picturesque Onuma Park, the crews have now crossed the finish line at the awesomely beautiful Lake Toya. We extend hearty congratulations to every single one of them, especially Martinus and Josephina Aaldering of the Netherlands, who drove their 1937 Alvis Speed 25 to overall victory by a margin of four minutes and 46 seconds.
In second place were Swiss-German crew Marco Halter and Claudia Engelhardt in their 1963 Ford Falcon, one minute and 40 seconds ahead of the 1971 Datsun 240Z of Americans Colin Winkelman and Lexton Moy (not forgetting previous co-drivers Luca Fiore and Adam Karger).
A full list of the Samurai Challenge award winners is on the Rally Round website including individual circuit awards and the Sado Island Cup. You can also find details of yet more thrilling events in Europe, India, Bhutan, Africa and South America. The adventure continues! www.rallyround.co.uk/the-samurai-challenge/