By the end of Day 03 we’d arrived at Shimonoseki, the southernmost point of Honshu, Japan’s main landmass. As the island on which most of the nation’s major cities — Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima — are located, Honshu contains about 60 percent of Japan’s land and 80 percent of its population. Our goal today was to make it to the city of Nagasaki on the western edge of Kyushu Japan’s third largest island.
We roused ourselves from our peaceful slumber in our hotel to yet another beautiful day in Japan. The streets were already bustling, with cars driving down the streets in perfect formation and spacing, while trains wheels clacked like clockwork.
Up to this point, our 1978 Isuzu 117’s engine had been performing flawlessly. The brakes, however, had a bit too much pedal travel for my tastes. Before starting the trip, I’d rebuilt the front suspension and ripped the head off of the engine, but the brakes had merely received a quick fluid flush.
A routine morning oil and brake fluid check showed constant levels, so neither was leaking. As a bit of a worrier, though, I became concerned that perhaps the master cylinder wasn’t building as much pressure as it was supposed to. So before leaving Shimonoseki we called ahead to the nearest Isuzu service center, which happened to be in Kitakyushu City (literally, North Kyushu). The man on the other end of the phone sounded more than pleased to welcome us.
There are two way to cross the Kanmon Straits that separate Honshu from Kyushu. When it was completed in 1942, the Kanmon Tunnel was a railway only and consisted of two tubes, one going in each direction. It was Japan’s first undersea tunnel, measuring about 2.25 miles in length. As motorcars became more popular, a roadway tunnel was added in 1958, and in 1975 a separate 11-mile passageway was built for the Shinkansen.
The second option was to hop on the Kyushu Expressway for a few kilometers and cross at the not-staggering-but-far-more-scenic Kanmon Bridge. Naturally, we chose the bridge, marking the first time we’d used a expressway during the entire trip thus far. After passing through the toll gate, we’d be on the highway for a total of just two kilometers before exiting on the Kyushu side.
Built in 1973, the suspension bridge spans only 0.66 miles, giving you an idea of just how little water actually separates the two islands. 360 yen later, we touched ground on Kyushu for the first time, landing right in the thick of Kitakyushu’s city streets.
While in many ways similar to the rest of Japan, there existed in Kyushu just enough minor differences in the environment to remind us that we had crossed over. One particularly cool example was the color-coded lanes and street signs found throughout the island. For instance, a typical sign of this type would mark some lanes — in this case, the Fukuoka-bound Route 3 — in red, while a local road leading to Central Kokura was depicted in blue.
Approaching the intersection, you can see that the entire road has actually been painted to match the sign. The colored lanes made it incredibly easy to follow your intended route with minimal confusion. While this color-coded system was quite prevalent on Kyushu, it was used rarely, if at all, on Honshu.
Upon arrival at the Kitakyushu Isuzu service center we were greeted by a jovial ojisan. He came ambling out, excited to see a 117 Coupé in the sheetmetal. He checked the master cylinder, gave the pedal a few presses and proclaimed that aside from the rear brake shoes needing replacing, everything else was perfect.
Talking old Isuzus, the ojisan mentioned that the 117 Coupés had just gone on sale when he was hired at Isuzu, and that it brought back a lot of nostalgia to see ours. We thanked him as he sent us on our way with newfound confidence in the brakes (really, I just needed someone to tell me not to worry so much).
As we continued, we learned that local routes contained just as many roadside oddities as America. Assorted sightings included a flying Doraemon, an abandoned GT40 kit car, and even a dinosaur. Strangely enough, though we were driving through Fukuoka, we didn’t really see any Fukuoka-style kaido racers.
Instead, we came across something called a Mitsubishi Flying Pug. Some googling later on revealed it to be Mitsubishi Pajero Jr. kei SUV-based, with a retro front end and finished in the colors of Mitsubishi’s first 4WD vehicle, the 1937 PX-33.
We saw many koi nobori too, large koi fish-shaped wind socks hung in springtime in the hopes that children grow up healthy and strong.
At one point, we caught sight of some old cars stashed on the side of the road. That was cause for a U-turn, so we circled around and discovered a shop called Car Story. There didn’t appear to be anyone around, but I was pleasantly surprised to find kind of cars (in other words, ones that needed a lot of work!) scattered about. A small office off to the side had a phone number to call, but rather than be a nuisance we simply snapped a few quick photos.
Particularly fetching was a Toyota Starlet sitting on a set of Advan A3As. Further in the back was another Starlet, in copper and just begging for someone to buy it and bring her back to glory.
There was no shortage of AE86s either, including a Corolla Levin that looked like it had once seen race duty, but was now relegated to parts duty. A walk around to the back of the small office revealed two more AE86s barely visible through the tall grass and an X70 Mark II sitting on a set of SSR MkIs.
After the photos we hopped back into the Isuzu and continued onward towards Nagasaki. It wasn’t long before we had an “in the wild” sighting of one of my favorite Nissans, a Figaro.
As we meandered through cities and the small back roads that connected each one, we hit a milestone. With careful timing, we pulled off the main road just in time to snap a picture signifying 1,000 kms of beautiful, trouble-free driving.
The stop afforded the opportunity to enjoy the rollover as we passed by acres of rolling rice fields.
Truthfully though, it had been the hardest day of driving thus far. From the moment we hit Kyushu, the roads never took us fully out of city environments for longer than 15 minutes at a time. The traffic was constantly stop and go, and the scenery rarely opened up to show us the beauty that Kyushu holds.
Of course, city driving takes a toll and the 117 was positively gulping gasoline in traffic. For the second time on our journey, we had to fill up the tank again. This time, however, we chose a modern gas station that had no rust anywhere to be seen.
Even with the incessant gridlock, we still averaged nearly 12.7 kilometers per liter, or 30 miles per gallon. That’s downright stunning for the SOHC 1.8, an engine that’s already 40 years old. It’s even more stunning when you consider that a 2016 Toyota Corolla only gets a combined 31 miles per gallon. Makes you wonder why everyone doesn’t drive a nostalgic.
With no more need to stop and a full tank of gas, we put the hammer down heading out of Fukuoka and into Saga Prefecture. Turning south at Kashima, we followed Route 207 along the Ariake Sea and circumnavigating the base of Mt Tara.
As it happens, Route 207 is the road upon which the famed fruit-shaped bus stops of Konagai were installed. Built for a travel expo in 1990, they include a giant apple, a seaside yubari melon, and a yuzu beside a Subaru-Daihatsu-Suzuki dealership. There are sixteen in all, and remain surprisingly well-maintained.
Just south of Nagasato, we came upon the Unzen Tara Sea line, a massive land bridge connecting the small towns of Yue to the north and Azuma to the south. Spanning 8.5 km (5.3 miles) across Isahaya Bay, was part of a reclamation project to keep the inland area protected from flooding and storms. Drainage stations along the way pump water from the inland area to the sea side.
After crossing the bay, we snaked our way through the valleys with Tachibana Bay to our south. The sun began to set as we neared Nagasaki, and the traffic picked up once again, enclosing us in a sea of one-boxes.
As we entered the city, we spotted one of the streetcars of the Nagasaki Electric Tramway. In major cities like Tokyo, streetcars are basically extinct, but these remnants of the Taisho Era are still going strong in western Japan. Nagasaki’s streetcars opened for business in 1915, and remains the only rail system in Japan that still operates all of its original lines.
By nightfall we were safely in the city most famously known the west for being the second target of the atomic bomb. We’d spend the next day touring its historic locales. To be continued…
Our route for Day 04 covered just over 250 kilometers, but it was the longest day yet due to the sheer amount of traffic. We hit three prefectures, starting with Yamaguchi, then Fukuoka and finally ending in Nagasaki Prefecture.