With the possibility of snowfall around Mt. Aso over the weekend, the likelihood of Autopolis Super Lap being cancelled loomed over me as I boarded my Solaseed Air flight to Aso-Kumamoto Airport.
What was I supposed to do though? I had already paid for the flights, the rental car, the hotel, lined up photoshoots with a handful of drivers, Sekinei had taken time off work; there had been too much planning to call it off based on a ‘what if’.
I took my window seat on the fairly new Boeing 737-800, and settled into what is an all to familiar environment to me. The flight time would be just under 2 hours, which would give me an opportunity to finalize some loose ends and maybe catch up on some sleep. I fired off a few texts, sent an email, and then turned my phone off. Once we leveled off at our cruising altitude, my eyes shut and I was out. I suppose the one good thing about my weekend burns to Japan is that I never have trouble falling asleep, literally anywhere. I awoke to the flight attendants announcements that we were on our final approach to Kumamoto airport. After the wheels touched down, I turned on my phone, put it in my bag, and not wanting to deal with answering messages at the moment, promptly forgot about it.
Sekinei and I deplaned and went outside to catch the shuttle to the rental car facility. As the sliding doors opened, we were hit with a harsh, cold wind reminding us we were no longer in Tokyo. Autopolis Circuit, located in the Oita Prefecture of Kyushu, sits nearly 3,000 meters above sea level in the Aso Kujiyu National Park just Northwest of Mt. Aso’s peak. Given its location, the track is susceptible to unpredictable mountain weather, and is often times found blanketed in snow during the Winter months.
I typically run pretty warm, and most of the time a t-shirt is enough for me on an airplane. I had a light jacket to put on after we were outside, but unfortunately I was a bit under-dressed for the 0 degree temperatures (Celsius) and so I was relieved when the shuttle pulled up after a few minutes and we were rewarded once again with a controlled climate. On the ride to the rental car station, I pulled out my phone to check the weather for tomorrow morning, and noticed that Shimada had messaged me. He knew I was coming to Kyushu just for the Superlap and was nice enough to keep me informed of the weekend’s proceedings. I started to read his message, looks like he and Hannita are at a rest stop outside of Kikuchi and that the event had been…cancelled. I let out a very long sigh, and tossed the phone to Sekinei for him to read. I did my best to hide my disappointment; after all, you can’t fight mother nature. Sekinei rang up Shimada, and since they were just a short ways from the rental car facility we decided to at least meet up and chat.
When we arrived, the two cars were on flatbeds on the outskirts of the parking lot. All parties present were visibly disappointed in the turn of events, including the Tomiyoshi brothers who provide support for Hannita during his events. Not wanting my trip to be a complete waste, I politely asked Hannita if it was at all possible to photograph his car for the new book. After some discussion about the time it would take to offload and prep the car, he and the brothers agreed, and we followed the two to the nearby Honda Safety and Riding Plaza; a smaller, Honda sponsored circuit that was geared towards motorcycle riding.
Those are some photos I found on my old phone; thought I’d include them for the sake of visual reference. As we left the lot bound for HSR, I couldn’t help but be grateful for the opportunity to photograph Japan’s fastest NSX. Superlap or not, at least I was able to check one thing off my list.
At HSR we offloaded the NSX, and the Tomiyoshi brothers went to work getting it into it’s race-ready form (or in this case, it’s photo-ready form). During the photoshoot, we were reminded as to why the event was cancelled as the temps dropped dramatically and snow started falling from the sky. If there was any doubt as to how cold it was just look at the faces of these two bystanders who came over to check out the NSX. This collection will be in Volume 2 of 80R coming out this Summer – so, I apologize if you came here for photos of the NSX. You’ll have to wait a bit longer for those.
After the shoot, we had a few hours to kill before I had to drop Sekinei back off at Kumamoto airport. He had a business meeting that came up and was unable to stick around for the remainder of the weekend. After talking aloud of what we wanted to do, Shinichi Tomiyoshi invited us back to their shop, to which I gladly accepted. The shop is located South of Kumamoto in the small, coastal town of Izumi, which made for a really nice drive. The expressway we were on weaved in and out of these hills that provided brief glimpses of the East China Sea (now that I’m looking at a map, I’m just now realizing how close Kyushu is to Korea. I probably could have swam to Jeju Island).
I couldn’t really tell you what my expectations were in regards to what Tomiyoshi Racing would look like. On one hand, I figured their facility would be a reflection of the caliber of cars that they build, but on the other, having visited several Japanese tuning shops in my lifetime, I know that there’s always room for surprise. Needless to say, when we pulled up to what appeared to be a small, abandoned Yellow Hat, I was indeed surprised.
While they backed the flatbed up into the yard to offload the NSX, I parked in the department store parking lot across the street and checked out the store front. This R34, which is currently undergoing a rebuild, is an Autopolis regular, and in it’s prime is one of my favorite GTR’s in all of Japan. It belongs to Taka Kuma who works a florist in the Fukuoka area – someone I’ve always wanted to meet, but just haven’t got the opportunity to yet. I was really hoping to see it fully assembled and in race form, but just being able to see it in person was cool for me. Few things excite me as much as getting to see builds I’ve followed online for years.
This EVO was parked somewhat nonchalantly along the side railing of the shop. I kid you not, I spent about 80% of our time at the shop staring at this car. The EVO 9 has always been a sort of dream car for me, and each time I see a build here in Japan that I’ve not seen before, I do my best to document it for future reference – this one was no exception. I later learned from Shinichi that the owner is an older gentlemen (aged 60!) who still drives the car regularly at Autopolis. It is currently one of the fastest of its kind around the Kyushu based circuit.
The exterior aero, in comparison to the other cars parked in the driveway, would be considered mild by most accounts; especially being right next to the NSX. Once Shinichi showed me a little more of the car though, it came into perspective as to why it was so fast.
The car had obviously been sitting outside for some time, exposed to the elements. Dirt build-up on the trunk lid, and rusted quick release pins for the GT wing are pretty much common on Japanese track cars that have no choice but to be left outside due to a severe lack of covered real estate. Some people would go absolutely crazy over this (present company included), but this is all too common here. Part of me thinks it gives the car a bit of character.
I gotta say it was a very impressive build, and it alone was worth the extra drive down to Izumi. I was actually going to attempt to set up a photoshoot the next day, but everyone was busy and getting in touch with the owner was sort of out of the question. It would have been great to get the story for 80R, but at the very least I wanted to share it on the site.
We said our goodbyes to the brothers and made our way back to Kumamoto. By now the sun was starting to set and as I dropped Sekinei off at the airport, it was all but dark…and once again, it began to snow. So I started my drive up the mountain to my lodgings for the night. I figured it was too late to change my flight, we had already arranged for this place, and at the very least I would have an enjoyable evening and morning on the mountainside.
The windy road up was super sketchy, and with each passing kilometer and each meter in elevation gain, I wondered more and more if I would ever make it to my final destination, or end up camping on the roadside for the night. It started snowing a lot, like actually blanketing the road; which happened to be very narrow. I was in my tiny, front-wheel drive rental car and each time I hit a spot of ice the drive wheels would lose traction and slide to one side. I eventually made it, having no idea what my general surroundings were; mountain passes in Japan are virtually unlit. I got my camera gear out of the trunk and as I carried it to the front door, I was greeted by a very welcoming older gentleman. I checked in, the hosts actually drew me a bath, and I settled in for my one night ‘resort’ stay.
The next morning, not having an event to rush to, I took my time getting up. I enjoyed a coffee on the now snow covered patio, and got lost in my thoughts staring out into the white nothingness. It was nice. This is a horribly bleak looking cell phone photo that I took -my cell phone was like 5 years old (I finally got a new one).
The couple had a Golden Retriever that they had given a very human name – which escapes me at the moment. Here’s a photo of the pup.
The dog was so excited to see someone else it could hardly breathe. I was sure to send a video to Franklin, as we often exchange photos of dogs. I wanted to stay a bit longer just to hang out with the dog, but I had to get moving.
I said my goodbyes to my gracious hosts, and hit the road. I figured I may as well make the drive to Autopolis; I was already halfway up the mountain, and wanted to see what it was all about. Right away I could tell, given the road conditions, why the event was cancelled. Even if Autopolis was dry, there’s no way flatbeds carrying race cars would make it up the single lane, ice covered path. The previous day, Hannita was telling us a story about how they tried to come up to the circuit when it was snowing a few years ago, and the flatbed they were driving slid off the road with the NSX onboard. Luckily nothing was damaged, and they were able to get the flatbed out with some tow assistance.
Alas, I made it. I drove around the grounds exploring what I could, but a lot of the roads were gated off. I don’t really buy anything when I’m in Japan anymore, but I do like to get decals of the circuits I visit for my camera case. I was hoping that, even though the event was cancelled, they’d have some sort of shop open to where I could purchase some. Turned out to be nothing I could access though…or so I thought.
I found this photo on Google because I somehow forgot to take one, although its eerily close to what it looked like at the time of my arrival.
I pulled up, gave the guy a wave and approached the entrance. He was cleaning off what looked like an engine component that belonged on a motorcycle with a can of carb-cleaner. We exchanged greetings and I explained to him my situation and if by chance they sold decals in their shop. They didn’t, but he sort of alluded to his ability to get them. At that same time, an older man came shuffling through the entry way, making his way outside to where we were standing. He boisterously welcomed me in for a cup of coffee, and given the cold temps, I gladly obliged. My random trip to Autopolis was getting interesting.
Inside, I was greeted by what would turn out to be their family in it’s entirety (for the most part). The younger man in the orange fleece, is the son of the guy in the picture below (the older gentlemen that offered me coffee), Mr. Okamura. I warmed up a bit by the large furnace in the center of the room, and then walked around the room soaking in all of the photographs, posters, trophies, motorcycles and parts, and the rather large kitchen. I got my coffee and dove right into the plethora of questions I had. Okamura’s story is a pretty cool one, and one I thought was worth sharing here, albeit has nothing to do with time attack really.
In his prime, this guy was a very skilled motorcycle rider. He competed in several decades of racing around Japan and in Autopolis had won several first place trophies and podium finishes in his riding career. Over those years he has accumulated a good amount of friends and acquaintances, proof of which littered the walls and shelves of the single room cabin. Not just fellow riders either, friends from all types of motor sports. He had a photo of an RWB Porsche on the wall as well, turns out he knows a few of the same people as well. His shop, which is located in the infield of Autopolis, is full of race bikes; both current and former. Apparently he doesn’t like to get rid of old stuff; whether it’s because he’s never had a need to, or if he had sentimental attachment to them is beyond me. He talked quite a bit about the money he would earn from races, and the hundreds of women he used to pull in, but according to him it came at a cost. Apparently a lot of the other riders didn’t care too much for his success; something he joked about quite a bit. His stories, although entertaining, and told in a very nostalgic manner, were tinged with a hint of unbalance. He repeated the same things multiple times, and his son comically interjected a few times to get him back on track. You could tell he loved what he did, and having visitors to tell his story to was something he enjoyed dearly. When I asked him how old he was, he honestly didn’t know; he had to ask his son, who was also not sure (haha!). We settled on 72. Had he not have injuries in both his wrists, I’m sure he’d still be riding to this day.
He now runs, Ukare-tei, a circuit-side eatery that specializes in BBQ beef skewers. His food is famous throughout the paddock of Autopolis, and his shop has become a staple of the circuit. The sticker he’s holding up is a caricature of him on his old race bike holding one of his famous skewers.
After a solid hour of chatting, the son excused himself for about 20 minutes. He came back with an Autopolis bag with two sticker sheets inside. He had called a friend of his who worked at the circuit and was able to open up the gift shop to get some decals. What a simple, but very large act of generosity. I explained to him my habit of collecting circuit decals as I thanked him, and he understood fully being a fan of motor sports himself.
As I walked around the room looking at all the trinkets and photos, the son asked me to follow him to the backyard. As we had been talking about my cars, he wanted to show me something they had in the back shed.
The first roller door was open as he led me into the garage unveiling two Taikyu-spec EG6 builds that he and his friends drove in a local one-make series. The builds themselves were really simple, but what who would have thought that this random family I stumbled across were so involved in racing.
This is also a testament to how boundless the Honda Civic is in compatibility. It’s such an enjoyable platform that literally everyone from all walks of life are able to enjoy it in whatever capacity they so choose.
It was the perfect ending to my accidental encounter at Autopolis. If there was any doubt left in my mind that the trip was marred from the Superlap being cancelled up until this point, meeting these people completely erased it. I told myself I would visit Autopolis again soon the next opportunity I had, and when that time comes, I’ll most certainly make it a point to stop by Motor Sport Paradise to check up on my new friends – hopefully with the addition of some beef skewers next time.