In 2015 we took a once-in-a-lifetime road trip across Japan behind the wheel of a proper Showa Era icon. The chariot of choice was an Isuzu 117 Coupé, and it would serve as our trusty steed for 10 days and over 2,400 kilometers before the trip was done. This is the story of an epic journey covering the entire southern half of Japan by JNC.
Before we jump into the Grand Tour, a bit of back story to understand the reason for this trip. When I first moved to Japan, it was to a small city in the northern part of Hokkaido called Kitami. Working for a small English teaching company, the assignment covered four cities — Kitami, Abashiri, Engaru and Monbetsu (which is one of the northern-most cities in Japan). Unfortunately, the job was the very definition of miserable. So after just eight months, I found a new gig in Nagoya.
At the time, every yen earned went towards the purchase of a 1986 Corolla Levin. I packed my entire life into the back of the AE86 and set off for Nagoya. With five days to get there, there was no reason to bomb down the highways, which can get very expensive with tolls. Instead a course consisting of back roads, coastal routes and touge was plotted. The little Hachiroku and I cut through the center of Hokkaido, hopped a ferry into Aomori, then went east and ran the coast all the way down into Gunma. From there, we drove across the mountains, popping out into Suwa and finally a ran straight shot south into Nagoya. It was an unforgettable five days and every bit as amazing as you’d expect.
After six years working in Nagoya my wife and I were getting ready to move back to the US. The first trip had covered the northern half of the country, so before leaving Japan it seemed appropriate to embark on another that would cover the southern half. However, in the intervening years the AE86 had been replaced, after a slide in the rain had gone awry. Enter the Isuzu 117 Coupé.
How does one prepare for a 1,500-mile road trip across Japan? Aside from the usual maintenance, like flushing the brake fluid and changing the oil, the 117 had a penchant for consuming coolant. No obvious leaks could be found and simple things like a new thermostat and new radiator cap had already been tried. While pulling the plugs to check compression, coolant began spewing from the number 1 cylinder spark plug hole. That was the nail in the coffin. The head had to come off before any road tripping could commence.
Fortunately, Isuzu still carries new head gaskets in stock, and three days of wrenching later the car was running like a champ again. We took her for a 100km test drive locally around Nagoya just to make sure everything was working as it should. Once convinced all was right, we decided to head out the next day. Packing, however, now required an extensive tool kit, just in case. Here are all the tools conceivably needed for any roadside repairs.
There was probably enough to rebuild an engine! Each piece was carefully wrapped in rags so as not to bounce against each other and make noise. Everything was stuffed into a box that fit early perfectly behind the front passenger seat. With the car sorted and a roadside repair kit packed, the 117 was ready to set out.
Like the trip six years ago, it was decided that no highways would be taken. Doubts about the car’s performance still lingered, so we started our journey by heading straight into downtown Nagoya. If something were to go wrong, the brutal environment of downtown traffic would bring it to light before we got too far. Turns out, there was no need to worry. With the car running as smoothly as could be, we soon found ourselves turning north, leaving Aichi Prefecture and heading into Gifu.
With the 117 running in tip-top shape, we pressed westward into the countryside. Pouring rain and overcast skies all day didn’t take one iota of enjoyment from the drive through valleys and mountains. Still, remote roads were avoided for the time being, as we wanted to be able to get a town quickly if something were to go wrong with the car. She was gaining my trust with each kilometer.
We stopped at one of Japan’s ubiquitous 7-Elevens for a break. Looking at the meters upon shutting the engine off, I was surprised to find that this particular kombini was exactly 100 km away from our starting point. The 117 had turned a major milestone, 100 km with no faults. Some of our worry subsided as we set back out into the rain headed out of Gifu and into Shiga Prefecture for our major destination of the day, Lake Biwa.
Lake Biwa is the largest freshwater lake in all of Japan and home to some of the most gorgeous views your eyes will ever glimpse. At the southern tip of Lake Biwa sits the ancient capital of Kyoto. It is beautiful, but still a bustling city and a major tourist destination, so we decided instead to skirt along the northern side of the lake, stopping at a parking area to snap a few photos.
Despite the overcast weather, the view was breathtaking. This is actually the third time I’ve been to this particular parking area, but each time, regardless of the weather, its vistas never cease to amaze.
Because of its proximity to Kyoto, Lake Biwa regularly appears in old Japanese literature, especially in accounts of famous ancient battles and in poetry. After drinking in the scenery of this historic site, we hit the road again, heading straight for Fukui Prefecture along Japan’s western coast.
Upon reaching the edge of Honshu we turned south, passing through the town of Obama (yes, it has the same name as the President, but in Japanese it means “little beach”). We soon emerged from Fukui Prefecture, arriving in Kyoto Prefecture and our stopping point for the night, Maizuru city. After securing a hotel room and dropping off our luggage, it was time to reward a day of fault-free driving with a biiru. To be continued…
Our route for Day 01 covered 225 km across four different prefectures: Aichi, Shiga, Fukui, and Kyoto.
Spectacular! Gorgeous photographs too… Jealous for sure! The 117 looks spectacular as well.
Thanks Skorj! I wish I was still in Japan so we could roll out together, tiny S800 and 117!
Love the photo’s and the story with it. Touring Japan is definitely on my “bucket list”.
Thank you! It was one of those things that I knew if I didn’t just up and do it when I had the chance, I’d regret it for the rest of my life!
Looking forward to this one 🙂
Thank Kevin! It gets a lot more interesting once the rain subsides, haha.
I don’t get it; how did Swahili speaking Kenyans get to Japan over 1500 years ago?
Can’t wait for part two. Ever since I read “Roads to Sata”, in which the author walks the entirety of Japan from north to south, I’ve always wanted to do the same. Flying in, buying something interesting for the trip, and documenting it in photos and words is a bucketlist item. Thanks for letting me live vicariously in the meantime.
Thank Alan! I’ve never heard of Roads of Sata, but it’s on my Amazon wishlist now!
“Part 01 or 1,001”.. hopefully. Well done, I can’t wait for the other chapters. Good grief, what a gorgeous car.
Thank you very much! There are quite a few more parts to come!
Oops, sorry, I meant of 1,001, not or 1,001.. dang phone.
The Isuzu 117s are prized by people who know and have them, they are lots of fun to drive with very good performance, fine handling and with marvelous visibility and very comfortable and roomy interiors, and while not cheap are one of the least expensive vintage Japanese sports touring cars to buy and so worth the time and trouble of ownership. Just really starting to be discovered, they represent one of the last great bargains in JDM collector cars.
I have two and just love the cars, you want to turn them into daily drivers… As I tell people on a regular basis it is the car the Fiat 124 Sports coupe should have been. and not quite as potent as a Fiat Dino Coupe both of which I have had the pleasure of owning.
High praise. The 124 is a brilliant little car, in coupe or spider form.
The early torque tube 124 coupes were quite good, and worthy competition to the Isuzu the later open drive shaft cars lacked the early cars sophistication. Ferrari experienced similar results on the 275 GTB when they enclosed the drive shaft, with a rigid tube between the engine and trans axle… The Isuzu’s have excellent road manors and are quite predicable handling cars similar in that respect to the Fiat 124’s. Interestingly enough the front calipers are very similar in design to the ones on the Fiat’s The Giugaro styling is also a wonderful Italian contribution to the 117. .
Great piece, I love the header money shot, that really cements the 117 as beautiful in my eyes 🙂
I taught Japanese in Hida (northern Gifu-ken) for a year, enjoyed the teaching, and enjoyed just cruising the mountain roads in my S13, window down, induction howl bouncing off the rocks. The mountain roads are amazing, it feels magical the way you turn a corner and discover a new world each time, hidden away from mundane reality.
This is good stuff right here. So jealous!
Looking forward to part II, since here in Canada having a mug of Ashai is the best I can do…
I’ve done Nagoya-Tokyo in a Sports 800, but still want to tour the northern coast on a motorcycle. Looking forward to your next installment!
Looking forward to future installments, Dave.
I finally got around to doing some driving up through Japan. Sadly not in a JNC, but in a Suzuki Hustler. Felt great to drive again and really makes me want a car. Maybe after I move, if I ever find a suitable place.