There’s no doubting that there are many well-storied and truly iconic roads on this planet of ours. Italy’s Stelvio Pass. Romania’s Transfăgărășan. Norway’s Atlantic Road. Even our own Great Ocean Road is commonly added to these lists as well.
But there’s one road that never makes the cut for these lists nearly as often as I would have expected, and it’s one of the best roads on offer in a country that is almost a Mecca for petrolheads.
I am, of course, talking about the Hakone Skyline in Japan – a road that lies in the shadow of the truly iconic and utterly spectacular Mount Fuji.
Perhaps the reason why Hakone isn’t in the same sentence as names like Stelvio – and isn’t subsequently made into a badge that’s tacked onto the back of Alfa Romeos – is because it’s not quite as long a stretch of tarmac. Or maybe, perhaps more likely, is because it’s fame has really come as a result of the manga and anime Initial D spreading the reputation of that road and the many others featured in the books and programmes around the world.
Regardless, it’s a road that in my opinion demands respect, as we’ll delve into, but the car I chose to drive it in similarly demands respect that it often doesn’t garner.
When Toyota launched its fifteenth-generation Crown in its home market, and while I was planning for my trip to Japan, I just knew I had to have a steer in one while I was over there.
A few months of phone calls and emails later and I’d secured the RS Advance model with the 2.0-litre turbocharged engine that you see here. Now, as with the Audi A7 in my look at Victoria’s Reefton Spur, I did have the car on loan for another publication, but I’ll still tell you all you need to know.
With 182kW and 353Nm, an eight-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive, and an adaptive air suspension setup that was fine-tuned on the Nürburgring, the Crown certainly appeared to have all the right hardware for getting the job done. It’s a fabulous thing to drive, the new Crown, and felt right at home on a road like this. It certainly looked at home, too.
Getting out to the Hakone Skyline is, admittedly, a fair trek from Tokyo, which is where I had been staying at the time. Setting off bright and early, I managed to beat most of the traffic on the way out of the city, and quickly hopped onto one of the many expressways which, thankfully, was the one heading in the right direction.
It took around an hour and a half to make it to the first stop for breakfast in Fujikawaguchiko, which, given a lack of time as I was set to be driving a Nissan GT-R that afternoon at 1pm, was the easy choice of roast beef and horseradish sandwiches and cans of BOSS Coffee from the local 7-Eleven.
From there, it was another half an hour’s drive towards the mountain road that awaited me, most of which was composed of simply cruising through town and basking in the gaze of the utterly stunning Mount Fuji.
Before hitting the Hakone Skyline itself, I highly recommend stopping at the Fujimatsu View Restaraunt just a few hundred metres before the turn-off to the actual road in question as it’s one of the best photo ops I’ve ever come across. With Mount Fuji perfectly framed behind the large carpark in front of it, there are few places you’ll be able to get as good a shot of your ride as here.
Do note though – and this is something I’ve seen a lot of others comment on – that clouds will start to form around the top of Mount Fuji seemingly right on the dot of 10am, just as they did when I was there. Thankfully, I made it only a little after then so you could still see most of it, but the early bird will absolutely catch the worm when it comes to photographing it.
Taking a right-hander slightly further up the road onto what lead to the road in question, the Initial D flashback moments will quickly pop into your head as soon as you see the tight, twisting road that lies in front of you.
Barely two lanes wide in these early stages, it’s framed perfectly either side by an Adelaide Hills-level barrage of trees. The tarmac itself, however, is framed by the infamously deep gutters that helped Takumi Fujiwara beat Keisuki Takahashi’s Mazda RX-7 in his trusty little Toyota AE86 by dipping his wheels into them to help turn beyond the grip of the tyres themselves. While that’s a great move if you’re in a manga comic or an animated television series, in reality, you’ll want to steer well clear of these dangerously deep troughs.
Like Takumi, I too had to deal with a Mazda heading downhill on this road while behind the wheel of my Toyota, although it was one I was heading in the opposite direction to. While I cannot praise the quality of driving in Japan enough as everyone is very polite on the roads and exercise excellent anticipation, I somehow managed to encounter the one bad driver in the whole country on this road when a guy in a Demio (that’s a Mazda2 to you and I) wildly understeered around a tight left hander onto my side of the road. Thankfully, I was quick on the Crown’s brakes and avoided any harm, although it did help to reinforce the 30km/h speed limit on parts of this section.
After finally getting up this nerve-wracking initial section of the drive, you’ll come across the first tell-tale sign that a good road lies ahead – tyre marks marring a big, open, sweeping bend. This, folks, is the sign that you’re definitely in the right place.
After the road starts to open up a tad from this point onwards, you’ll find yourself quickly arriving at the road’s iconic tollgate, at which you’ll find one great surprise – for one of the best driving roads in the world, it’s one of the cheapest to access in all of Japan at just ¥300 in each direction, compared to the many, many thousands of yens I’d spent on tolls until this point driving on congested expressways.
You can see on the Hakone Skyline better than any road I’ve ever driven that your toll money is actually going towards the road itself as you’ll instantly notice that the surface is absolutely immaculate. Granted, I was driving in a comfortable luxury sedan riding on air, but just looking at the beautifully smooth surface that lies ahead of you you can see how unmarred it truly is.
The way the incredible twists and turns of it link into one another is similarly smooth, as the road progresses along incredibly predictably. You’d have to be travelling way too fast to really cock up on any of these beautiful bends as each feels perfectly cambered, allowing the car to turn in without much roll or wrestling with the wheel, before spitting you out on the other end ready to plant your foot down and rocket towards the next.
Now, speaking of speed, I should mention that the posted speed limit is a mere 40km/h, but don’t expect many people to actually adhere to that. I won’t tell you just how much I exceeded it, but a lack of any police or speed cameras at the time meant I could put my foot down a bit and wind up the Crown’s turbo engine after having sussed out the road and made sure the coast was clear for a bit of fun.
After driving for a while, you’ll stumble across one of the other great little photo spots by a rock that has some white markings painted on the side of it. Here, too, you’ll find a great view of Mount Fuji as you would back at the restaurant, although again, you’ll want to be early to actually see it from this point. Which I didn’t exactly.
Heading back down from this point – as I was unfortunately running out of time to head on any further all the way to the Hakone Shrine, giving me an excellent excuse to go back again soon – I headed back down towards the tollgate again, revelling in the lovely downhill bends that unfortunately exposed a slight lack of endurance in the heavy Crown’s brakes, as they did start to smell a tad right towards the end.
On the topic of braking, however, one thing I did find incredibly helpful were the slight little bumps painted red on the approach to each corner that highlighted where you should be putting the anchors on. And d’you know what? The marked braking points on each where perfectly spot on, meaning you can enjoy the road far more easily knowing that you have a clear visual reference for how to enter each corner, alleviating the need to worry quite so much.
It’s truly a world-class road, the Hakone Skyline, and one that should be on every petrolhead’s bucket list to go and drive. The surface is amazing, the corners are perfectly laid out, the view is stunning, and there’s no need to overthink as to where you need to be turning or braking as it all comes so naturally.
For the cheapest toll road I encountered in all of Japan, it was undoubtedly the best of the bunch, and a road I can’t wait to go back and drive again, and hopefully in just as fittingly perfect a car.