In the influential Initial D manga series, races always start at 10pm on Saturday nights. Since April, snow had been replaced by fresh tyre marks scored through hairpin bends, and as half past nine approached my Silvia and I set out, our destination the summit of the nearby touge, my aim to look for the local hashiriya.
I ascend the first section alone, see no-one, hear nothing, and start to retrace my steps, braking early and taking no risks on the dark road. Almost back to the valley bottom, three cars pass me going up. Cars moving with a sense of purpose, low to the ground, travelling in convoy. Without a second thought, I swing into a lay-by, turn around and set off back up the hill in pursuit.
The other drivers have disappeared as suddenly as they came, leaving the road dark and empty again. Can I really catch them? I push harder and harder, running second gear out to the redline, pushing the nose faster into bends until it runs wide on the damp tarmac, my mind straining to recall the curves ahead before they reach the headlamps’ range, trying everything to hold on to momentum against the unremitting gradient.
There ! At last, ahead in the darkness, four round red lights burn brightly - the instantly recognisable signature of a Skyline R32. They blaze briefly into tight corners, then sweep out of sight until the next straight. Minutes later I realise that my frantic pace has eased to a comfortable rhythm as I follow the driving of people who know the road.
Shortly after the summit tunnel, the group parks up just short of a barrier closing the road beyond. I pull in nervously behind them. 15 minutes ago and 1000 m down, I hadn’t stopped to consider how these guys might feel about my tagging along with them, now I get out and saunter nervously over, summoning my sparse Japanese for a basic self introduction.
Soon the nervousness takes a different form, as friendly faces wave me off behind the R32 GTS-T for the descent. They’ve been welcoming, but now they are posing a pretty clear test – how fast do I drive ? I was about to find out.
The pace is definitely quicker now, flowing through each series of small bends and braking hard for the longer ones. I forget my own car and focus entirely on the Skyline’s tail-lights, trusting his braking points and following his lunges of speed, gravity assisting our relatively modest horsepower. Faster than ever, we rush down the mountain in a single hit, bends and straights merging into a crazy blur. The nose runs wide, I lift and it tucks back in, the Silvia becoming an extension of my body as I react to the motion of the car ahead, while we carve between walls of rock and fly over crests.
Reaching the bottom again, we return at a sensible pace to the town centre and park up. Yuike-san, behind the wheel of the R32, said he’d felt a lot of pressure from me following him, but I assured him that I’d been pushing very hard myself just to keep in touch. It is always easier to follow than to lead, especially on an unlit mountain pass. Many more driving adventures followed, but the first, defining experience of mountain driving remains for me that special Spring evening, on a mountainside in central Japan.