The Japanese character for 'touge', 峠 , combines three other characters. 山 means 'mountain', 上 means 'up', and '下' is its opposite, 'down'. 'Touge' thus means 'up and down the mountain', and so a road over the mountain, or mountain pass.
One bend on Nikko's famous 'Irohazaka' pass, named the 'ABC hill' as there is a bend for each letter of the Japanese alphabet
Our image of Japan is of the concrete and neon of Tokyo, yet there is another Japan to discover. Jagged volcanic mountains thrust skywards all down the centre of the land, squeezing most of the inhabitants out to the coastal edges of the country.
Out beyond the city limits, the road climbs and twists, snaking back on itself as it scales the valley walls, rising steeply to the mountain ridge, then over into the next basin. Habitation, side-turnings and english-language signs are left behind with the last of the used-car dealerships, as the road narrows and turns, climbing for the sky all the time.
Inland Japan thus consists of a few small, scattered towns and villages, joined by a network of narrow and winding roads. If you live out here, a simple run into town to buy milk can turn into an extended drive on a road worthy of any videogame special stage.
And of course, with the flatter areas of Japan so heavily built-up, the only equivalent of our B-roads or quiet country lanes available to Japanese enthusiasts are these winding mountain roads. A road running to a ski or nature resort out of season, or an old road now bypassed with a modern tunnel, becomes the perfect quiet stretch of tarmac to challenge both car and driver to their limits.
When I was dispatched to mountainous northern Gifu as an English teacher, I discovered a perfect example of the touge right on my doorstep. Turning off the valley floor at 500m, it followed the Sugoroku river valley up to its head, reaching a plateau with a small village. From there it rose again to a summit tunnel, almost 1,500m above sea level.
What I remember from the 17 miles and 1,000m of vertical descent is the utter unpredictability of the road; it would run fast, with just a few slight kinks, and then barrel straight into a 180-degree hairpin.
With my modestly powered SR20DE Silvia, descending was the more exciting direction; the steep slopes mean that horsepower is barely relevant; tyres, brakes and courage make the difference between a fast and a slow driver on the downhill. Thus descending the touge becomes the great leveller, where you don't need an expensive car or a big turbo to keep up - even a 64hp 'Kei' car can be fast in the right hands.
Thus, the fun of the touge is that anyone can play and anything can happen - a place to expect the unexpected, and to keep learning!
PS: You can find the Sugoroku road here -
One time I met some local drivers on the Sugoroku road. That story is here -