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Kyushu car culture: Taryn heads to Japan’s southernmost island

4 May 2024



“And finds a bunch of very like-minded individuals”



If you’re reading this magazine, you’ve probably got at least some idea of how ridiculously cool Japan’s car scene is. Having spent the better part of the last half decade actively learning about car culture here, I still feel like I’m only just starting to scratch the surface — that’s how big it is! I’ve spent most of this time exploring in the Kanto and Kansai regions and really wanted to head south to Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four largest islands.



This old survivor looked like it needed a makeover, but being able to see its original old and cracked hand-painted livery, straight from the late 1980s, was very cool



When I finally made it, in terms of its car culture, Kyushu felt like uncharted territory. I only knew about a few different car events taking place there each year, and I knew very few people who had visited before. Our destination was Autopolis, a large racing facility in quite a rural area in Oita Prefecture. It was built in the late ’80s by a wealthy investment banker as part of an ‘auto-racing resort’. The banker had big ambitions to host Formula 1 there but went bankrupt before that could happen. Now it’s owned by Kawasaki and hosts regular events on both its international-grade full circuit and smaller Lakeside Course, which is ideal for drifting.



Following a two-hour drive in our rental kei car from the airport in Fukuoka, we approached the main gates of Autopolis and found ourselves joining a convoy of crazy-looking vans (you know what I mean — the ones with weird body modifications like huge, swooping wings?) which, as it turned out, were also having a separate meeting there that day in a different part of the facility. Following the sound of squealing tyres down through a tunnel and towards the Lakeside Course, I couldn’t help but feel a bit apprehensive, as I still wasn’t really sure what to expect. All I knew was that it was a meeting for cars from Japan’s Showa era — so, basically, anything made pre 1989. There was a large car park where some cars would be parked up and then there’d be some open circuit sessions at which, as we were about to discover, drivers could basically do whatever they wanted.



This S12 Silvia has been transformed into an incredible super-silhouette tribute, although with more of a kaido-racer twist



We arrived just as the first group of cars was heading out onto the track — but instead of everyone lapping the circuit in ordinary fashion, it was every man for himself out there. An AE86 was ripping huge figure-eights, an old Skyline was drifting the back section, while two X70 Toyota MkIIs began drifting in circles around each other, all while a shark-nosed Corona was producing massive clouds of smoke from a huge burnout — it was total madness. Some more orderly drifting did eventually take place later in the day, with sessions seeming to alternate between the normal drifting and total havoc.




By mid-morning, the car park was starting to fill up with an eccentric assortment of cars, and, as expected, most of them were ’70s or ’80s models: C210 Skylines and fourth- and fifth-gen Toyota MkIIs, along with their Cresta, Cressida, and Corona stablemates, seemed to be the most popular. The organizers didn’t seem too strict on the pre ’89 theme, as there were some early ’90s cars there too. Shakotan styling seemed to be one thing that all the cars had in common, though — with a low ride height, wide period-correct wheels housed under wide over-fenders, and quite a few cars sporting nostalgic race-inspired liveries.



Our favourite car of the event had to be this super-cool SA22 Mazda RX-7. It was sitting nice and low on SSR MkI wheels, and the rear windshield had been replaced with a Pantera-style hatch with retro side louvres



Being a big Fairlady Z enthusiast, I couldn’t help but try my best to strike up a conversation in Japanese with the owner of a crazy G-nosed Fairlady Z two-plus-two. When I showed him some photos of my own Z back in New Zealand, he was so impressed that he actually offered to take me for a ride in a convoy with some of the other old cars around the circuit! I politely accepted and jumped in the passenger seat, which was hilariously fixed in a fully reclined position. Off we went out onto the circuit, old-school American rock ’n’ roll music blasting from the old Nissan’s crackly front speakers, following an incredibly cool wide-bodied Celica and a bunch of other old cars, including a Soarer with Lamborghini-style scissor doors — only in Japan. With all of this taking place in 30-degree heat, it all felt a bit unreal.

This duo of police-themed cars even made an appearance — a Nissan Skyline and a Honda Today kei car — the most unlikely pair! The R32 driver was drifting on the circuit all day and actually dressed up as a policeman, complete with a white helmet and baton! 





Maybe it was just this particular event, but there seemed to be some amusing parallels between the car scenes in Kyushu and New Zealand. In comparison to the types of enthusiasts you might find in the big cities like Tokyo or Osaka, these guys from the very south of the country were much more relaxed and loved nothing more than producing a whole lot of tyre smoke — at the end of the day, cars were getting together in groups of three or four and doing doughnuts around each other until their tyres popped. It just goes to show that no matter where you are in the world, and no matter what language you speak, skids are fun!



This article originally appeared in NZ Performance Car issue No. 248 — to get your grubby mitts on a print copy, click the cover below: