Rally Nippon: Japan’s thrilling classic car rally

Scenic roads and unique culture combine in the annual Rally Nippon, a 700-mile showcase of Japan’s flourishing classic car scene. Simon de Burton joins the field

The starting line of the 2015 Rally Nippon, outside the 1,200-year-old To-ji temple in Kyoto
The starting line of the 2015 Rally Nippon, outside the 1,200-year-old To-ji temple in Kyoto | Image: Dunhill

The reason the MG TD sports car of the 1950s came to be nicknamed “Midget” doesn’t need much explaining: it’s because it is absolutely tiny. But never did a Midget seem more minuscule, more vulnerable, more unsuited to 21st-century driving, or more completely and utterly broken than the one I was standing beside on the uphill exit from a Japanese motorway tunnel during last year’s Rally Nippon. “I bet you can fix it,” cooed my female co-driver optimistically, as lorries thundered by and the sun dipped ever lower beneath the horizon, “and we’ll probably even make it to the hotel in time for dinner.”

But the pool of oil creeping across the tarmac and the shards of freshly milled metal glinting amid its glossy blackness told another story. They spoke of an engine failure so catastrophic that only a miracle equipped with a large tool chest and several key items from the MG parts catalogue could possibly have got us underway again. And even then we’d have been lucky to make the next day’s lunch, let alone that night’s dinner.

Two participants in a 1956 Porsche 356A Cabriolet
Two participants in a 1956 Porsche 356A Cabriolet | Image: Dunhill

Moments before, our Rally Nippon had all been going reasonably well, despite the fact that the MG – generously loaned by event founder and organiser Yusuke Kobayashi – was about the most modest and least powerful entry in a 70-strong, multimillion-pound field that ranged from prewar cars by marques such as Bentley, Bugatti, Alfa Romeo, Talbot and Jaguar to 1950s and 60s classics including Triumphs, ACs, Porsches, Ferraris and Mercedes.

Kobayashi, an accountant and property developer with a longstanding love of old cars inherited from his late father, staged the inaugural Rally Nippon in 2009. As well as recognising that it might appeal to Japan’s relatively small but enthusiastic community of classic car owners, his vision was to encourage foreign participants in order to both bolster the country’s collector scene and give enthusiasts familiar with European or American-style classic rallying an entirely different driving experience.

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And in the space of seven editions, it has come to be regarded as one of the key events of its type in the country, along with the longer established La Festa Mille Miglia – Japan’s version of the Italian Mille Miglia rally – which this year will take place (for the 20th time) on October 14-17.

From the start, Rally Nippon has been backed by men’s outfitter Dunhill, which has a historic connection with cars dating back to its original Motorities accessories of the early 1900s. The rally provided the firm with a golden opportunity to capitalise on its century-old links with the automobile in one of its most important markets, where quintessential Englishness is probably appreciated more than almost anywhere else – as evinced by the number of Japanese drivers in the 2015 event who turned out in period-correct kit.

A 1967 Ferrari 275GTB/4
A 1967 Ferrari 275GTB/4 | Image: Dunhill

Held annually, the route of the rally varies – but it is always scheduled around autumn when the countryside is virtually ablaze, as the leaves, known as koyo at this time of year, turn from lush green to dazzling shades of gold, rust, orange and copper, creating a natural spectacle so impressive that it is said to attract as many visitors as the spring’s more widely recognised cherry blossom season.

Combine that with some fabulously scenic roads and Japan’s unique culture and architecture, and making the effort to travel from far afield to enter soon begins to make sense. For a fee of about £4,000 – although this varies from year to year depending on the event’s location – competitors get four long days of driving that, when I competed in 2015, started and finished in Kyoto and followed a 700-mile route, stopping at Imabari, Kochi and Awaji and taking in locations such as Uwajima city and the breathtaking Cape Muroto-misaki along the way.

Kyoto’s Arashiyama-Takao Parkway, part of Rally Nippon’s 2015 route
Kyoto’s Arashiyama-Takao Parkway, part of Rally Nippon’s 2015 route | Image: Dunhill

Whereas it’s not unusual for a European classic car rally to begin in a windswept car park, the Rally Nippon invariably kicks off from a major landmark – which, in our case, meant a starting line at Kyoto’s 1,200-year-old To-ji temple, a Unesco World Heritage Site that boasts Japan’s tallest pagoda.

With such events being relatively rare in the country, hundreds of spectators turned out to admire the cars before the flag dropped and the rally started – and then the first stumbling block faced by a western driver made itself felt: the road book, rules, directions and signposts were, of course, entirely in Japanese. Edging out into the Kyoto traffic and faced with a 200-mile day in a 63-year-old MG with a cruising speed of 50mph, it quickly became apparent that a moment’s lapse in concentration could see us adrift.

Competitors in their 1955 Porsche 356 Pre-A Speedster
Competitors in their 1955 Porsche 356 Pre-A Speedster | Image: Dunhill

On one occasion we missed a crucial turn into a time-check area and arrived at the entrance to a three-lane expressway that offered no option of turning back – other than under the embarrassingly strobe-lit guidance of a police patrol vehicle, which, following protracted gesticulations and studious checking of paperwork, escorted us on a circuitous 20-mile route to return us to the turn-off we had missed almost two hours earlier.

The journey continued in silence, one of us focusing unerringly on the navigation, the other on the driving. But the lack of conversation did little to detract from the thrill of motoring to Awaji Island across the Akashi-Kaikyo suspension bridge (the longest of its type in the world), witnessing the mighty Naruto whirlpools, pottering along beside the remoter parts of the Shimanto River or threading the car along the flower-covered Cape Muroto. And the koyo flanking the Arashiyama-Takao Parkway is a sight never to be forgotten.

The castle at Imabari, one of the cultural stops along the way
The castle at Imabari, one of the cultural stops along the way | Image: Dunhill

In between, muster points at locations such as Matsuyama Castle on Mount Katsuyama, Uwajima’s Tenshaen Garden and the Kamigamo shrine on the banks of the Kamo River provided foreign participants with an eye-opening glimpse of Japanese culture – and opportunities for points-scoring “autotests” in which we acquitted ourselves reasonably well.

But while we could lay claim to little more than being along for the ride, forced into a peculiarly relaxing sense of detachment by our sudden immersion in an alien land with an alien language and with the car our only point of familiarity (while it lasted), most of our fellow competitors were demonstrating their love and enthusiasm for classics with a characteristically Japanese attention to detail reflected in the immaculate condition of their machinery. Despite the country harbouring few specialists in the most collected marques, their cars were beautifully turned out and impressively original.

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“It is considered rather shameful among members of the classic community over here to drive a car that is dirty, badly maintained, not very original or incorrectly restored,” says Koichiro Fukasawa, a Tokyo-based internet marketing consultant and former diplomat. “The scene has become more and more popular in the past few years and people now frequently travel from Japan to events such as the Goodwood Revival and the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. They are also buying cars from abroad and that has led to an increase in the number of events in which they can be used.

“I think one of the things that attracts us to classic rallying,” he adds, “is the fact that people in Japan are generally rather shy – but doing something like this gives us a chance to make friends with people we might never usually meet and have some fun with the cars we love, while visiting some historic places we would probably otherwise never get around to seeing.”

This year’s Rally Nippon will not, however, take place in Japan, but in Taiwan on November 10-13, as Kobayashi furthers his plan to raise awareness of classic cars in other parts of Asia; it returns to Japan in 2017 (entries must be completed by March). And if you prefer to rent a car in which to take part rather than shipping your own, Kobayashi can help. Should you find yourself behind the wheel of a 1952 MG TD with “black tulip” paintwork, do go gently…

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