In the last installment of our cross-Japan trip, a life-long personal goal was achieved. I had driven from the northern Hokkaido on one end of Japan to southern Kyushu on the other. However, the journey was far from over. We and our trusty 1978 Isuzu 117 Coupé had to make it back home to Nagoya. Aside from a couple of kilometers on the only bridge onto Kyushu, we had kept to back roads, avoiding Japan’s efficient but expensive expressways. We weren’t about to start now.
We had followed Japan’s northern coast down to Kagoshima so, naturally, on the return trip we’d take the southern route. We bid farewell to the Amuran ferris wheel that is one of the city’s main landmarks and headed towards the coast.
Just as we reached the coast of Kagoshima Bay, our eyes caught an unbelievable sight — a plume of steam rising from the top of Mt Sakura. Sakurajima, as it’s known in Japanese, is an active volcanic island in the center of Kagoshima Bay. At least, it was an island, according to maps drawn prior to its 1914 eruption. Lava from that blast permanently connected it to the Osumi Peninsula.
Was it about to blow again? It’s difficult to explain the feeling one gets from such a show of force from mother nature. After all, we’d never witnessed a live volcano eruption before, and the sight generated an incredible sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
We pulled over into the nearest parking lot to get a better look. Everyone else was simply going about their daily business as if a mountain wasn’t exploding. Were they not seeing the giant column of death coming out of the freaking volcano!? After a few minutes, it dawned on us that this wasn’t a full scale eruption, just the mountain blowing off a bit of steam.
Just to be sure, though, we asked a passerby in case we needed to run for our lives. “It’s no problem,” he replied calmly. “This happens every day!” Really? The mountain explodes a little bit every day? That’s crazy talk!
Sure enough, the smoke soon started to dissipate and life returned to normal, leaving us with nothing to do but hop back in the Isuzu and set off on another breathtaking coastal road.
Headed towards Miyazaki City, the fuel gauge started dipping again so we pulled into a gas station, making sure that no precariously placed poles would crash down from the heavens as we refueled. The urban traffic of Kyushu had definitely taken its toll, and our average fuel economy dropped to 12.2 km/l (28 mpg). Still, we challenge any modern Isuzu to achieve that!
To get to Miyazaki, we cut inland on Japan National Highway 10, a route that gave us our first real taste of touge running. Much of the the Wanitsuka Mountains are part of a sprawling Miyazaki Prefectural Natural Park, full of lush obi cedar forests as far as the eye can see.
Of course, there were beautiful sights for automotive enthusiast as well, including an FD3S Mazda RX-7 and a long Mitsubishi Debonair at a used car lot just begging for someone to adopt it and bring it back to its former glory.
Out of Miyazaki, we followed the Sea of Hyuga coastline north to Nobeoka. From there, we crossed into Oita Prefecture, where Route 10 turns into the Sotaro Touge, 80 kilometers of what was by far the best road we’ve encountered in Japan.
The Sotaro Pass was known, even in ancient times, as a dangerous transport route to the village of Sotaro, founded in the laste 1600s. Today, it is a staggeringly beautiful touge winding alongside an entire mountain range, perfectly smooth and blissfully twisty. Even at relatively low speeds of around 50 to 60 kph (no more than 40 mph), it evokes nonstop ear-to-ear grins.
Even better, for most of the pass, the road parallels the JR Nippou Line. Sometimes the rails cut into the mountains or crosses over the highway, but for the most part it runs right beside the road. And, as it just so happens, a JR Kyushu 783-Series Nichirin train caught up with us as we hustled through the hills.
Sometimes it came at us from the from the right, or passed over us only to appear on the left. Japan’s trains famously run precisely on time, down to the exact minute, so it obviously didn’t care about the old Isuzu beside it, but for around 30 kilometers we were side by side, pacing each other at nearly the exact same speed.
Eventually the tracks split off from the road and we were back to diving through glorious mountain roads alone. The closer we got to Oita City, though, the more small towns began to appear. One in particular appeared to be quite fond of kabuto mushi, or rhinoceros beetles.
Descending the mountains on our way to Oita, we happened upon a small town not too far away from Saiki City. Driving through the center of the town, another sight caught my eye, forcing the second panic stop of the day as I yanked the wheel into a 7-Eleven parking lot.
We’d traveled all this way and barely seen any kyuusha, much less any nostalgic Isuzus. To run into a 117 Coupé that looks nearly identical to ours was entirely unexpected! We waited around for a bit until the owner came ambling out. He was engrossed with his pack of cigarettes and hadn’t taken notice of us just yet, so we said hello and asked if that was his 117. “Yes it is,” he said, and then stopped dead in his tracks as a massive smile spread across his face.
We hit it off instantly, swapping photos and trading war stories about classic Isuzus. His was an XC model like mine (despite having an XE badge on the rear), although as a 1981 model, it had the 2.0-liter version of the SOHC engine as opposed to our 1.8. Other than that, for all intents and purposes, the two cars were identical.
The owner told us that he had worked hard for many years, saving up every yen he had to buy his 117 brand new in 1981. That’s why his car has an old number plate on with a different font and fewer digits at the top. He’s been driving it ever since.
Eventually, we broke out our shaken-sho (registration paperwork) to compare specs, and laughed as we both pulled out the original Isuzu paperwork folder that comes with the car when new. Aside from the odd replacement part, his car is 100 percent original, having never been repainted. It was heartwarming to hear how he’d been taking care of the car for 35 years. We chatted for nearly an hour, eventually trading contact info and vowing to stay in touch.
As we drove the final stretch into Oita, we reflected on the chance encounter. If we had chosen a different route, or been delayed by as little as two minutes, we would have missed meeting at all. The universe works in mysterious ways.
By the time we finally rolled into Oita City it was properly dark outside. We were exhausted, but our reward, some of the greatest tebasaki I’ve ever tasted, was well worth it. To be continued…
Our route for Day 07 covered 325 kilometers across three prefectures: Kagoshima, Miyazaki, and Oita.