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22 March 2024 · Mazda Stories

Road To Hakone

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Escaping the bustling metropolis of Tokyo, Zoom-Zoom takes the versatile Mazda CX-5 to one of Japan’s most celebrated driving hotspots.

Words Ross Brown / Images Dan Froude

It is a cool autumnal Saturday morning in Tokyo’s affluent Ginza shopping district, and I’m admiring the reflection of the Mazda Soul Red Crystal CX-5 in an elegant shop window while I wait for the lights to change on Chuo-dori street. Despite the early hour – the sun has only just breached the top of the Ginza Six luxury department store – the pavements are teeming with ambitious shoppers, here for a day of retail therapy and Michelin-starred refuelling.

Although the streets were empty a mere hour ago, I become aware that this is clearly not the right place for a drive. This realisation is further compounded when a nice policeman leans in and politely explains that I can go no further – the road is for pedestrians only on weekends. So far, not so good: a CX-5, a full tank of fuel, and nowhere to go. Well, nowhere in Ginza at least. Decision time. I turn the wheel and guide the nimble SUV through myriad narrow streets and out through the city, until towers become houses and houses become fields and Tokyo is far behind us. Our destination? Ninety-two kilometres south, to the lakeside town of Hakone in Kanagawa and the fabled Hakone Turnpike, officially known as the Anest Iwata Turnpike Hakone.

Completed in the middle of the last century as a viable means for commercial trucks to traverse the mountains surrounding the local towns, the turnpike has undergone several transformations. With the arrival of Japan’s efficient, modern highway system, the toll road fell out of favour until being rediscovered by Japan’s automotive communities, who popularised it through manga comics, video games, and drifting competitions (to some, the turnpike is the birthplace of drifting). From 2014 to 2017, Mazda owned the naming rights and the Mazda Turnpike Hakone was born. I check my speed. Just thinking about the route can make a car go faster.

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The entrance to the turnpike begins at the base of a vast mountain range that overlooks the sparkling Sagami Bay, and the route ascends over 1,000 metres in 14 kilometres. No longer sponsored by Mazda and sometimes known simply as the Hakone Turnpike, it has a 50km/h speed limit that means today’s drive is perhaps somewhat more sedate than history expects, but I’m glad of it. The early views down to the sea are spectacular and the road is littered with a spray of golden leaves, as the gentle touch of autumn sweeps through on the Japanese breeze. I take a moment to marvel at the versatility of the CX-5. Just two hours ago, it had felt as if it was made for the city, darting through Tokyo’s narrow streets that are normally the reserve of Japan’s Kei cars. Then, out on the highway, it had become a pure SUV, smoothly eating up the kilometres on our journey south. Now, as we sweep our way up the mountain, the Skyactiv-Drive six-speed gearbox and i-Activ AWD system begin to put in the hard work, effortlessly guiding me through one corner and on to the next. All too quickly, we clear the treeline and arrive at the summit, the observation tower, and the incredible sight of Mount Fuji.

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The draw of Japan’s most famous mountain means the observation deck carpark is full of locals and tourists alike, and it’s here that a chance encounter reminds me that Mazda doesn’t just make cars, it makes communities, and brings people together in unique ways. A line-up of four MX-5s introduces me to Asaka, Himeko, Mikuko, and Yuki – a group of women bonded by a love of driving. Having met through a combination of social media and car events, the adventurers now take to the road together to share their love of driving, and love of the MX-5 that runs generations deep. “My dad told me if I was going to buy a car, it had better be a Mazda,” laughs Yuki, as they fire up their engines and depart in convoy for Hakone’s Lake Ashinoko, drawing admiring glances (and cameras) momentarily away from Mount Fuji.

“MAZDA DOESN’T JUST MAKE CARS, IT MAKES COMMUNITIES.”

My time on the turnpike has also come to an end. My final destination is the Hakone Retreat Villa, a luxurious world of secluded woodland cottages with hot spring baths and warm wood stoves. Like Mount Fuji and the observation tower, the retreat combines old and new. Rippled window glass, over a century old, and ancient tabletops made from single pieces of timber combine with state-of-the-art technology and world-class cuisine to create a little paradise of peace. I sit back, watch the sun set, and think of long winding roads, gently falling leaves, and one of life’s great driving experiences.

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