“Kiite, kuru zo!” (Listen, they’re coming!) a youthful voice to my left excitedly exclaims as monstrous wails and screeches echo across the valley.
I glance down at my camera, making sure my settings are dialed in. Manual focus, check.
As I bring the viewfinder up to eye-level, a bright yellow light radiates from around the corner a hundred feet away. Suddenly, the light disappears as a piercing screech fills the air, only to suddenly blind me a moment later as a Toyota Cresta rounds the bend in a perfect drift, right in front of a patchwork Nissan 180sx, a Panda AE86 and a roaring Silvia S15.
The smell of burning rubber fills the air and a chill runs down my spine as I instinctively take a step back. As if a stampede of a thousand bulls is underway, the ground beneath me trembles and one by one, the four turbo-powered drift missiles thunder by, mere inches from my lens.
For as long as I can remember, I have been into cars. I had the stereotypical Lamborghini Countach poster above my race-car bed. Before I had my license, I honed my driving skills in Gran Turismo and sank my part-time earnings into the Initial D arcade machine at the mall.
Yet, I never could have foreseen that one day I would literally be on the same mountain roads where Initial D takes place, riding shotgun in an AE86 Trueno, one hand firmly grasping my camera, and the other bracing myself against the passenger door for dear life.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s back up a bit even more. This article is about how I came to Japan. It’s also about how my documentary Drift Hunter came about once I got here. But more importantly, it’s about chasing your dreams.
Your Dreams Matter
In university, I was studying to be an accountant. However I can’t say that I grew up dreaming of becoming a bean counter. Accounting, like law, medicine, or engineering was just one of the only acceptable fields according to my Asian-immigrant parents. Though I graduated with a degree in Economics, the prospect of searching for a corporate desk job straight after graduation like the rest of my peers felt like the last nail in the coffin of some of my crazier dreams.
At the time, I had three “crazy” dreams.
- I wanted to travel the world and live somewhere different for awhile.
- As an avid fan of shows like Top Gear, Initial D, The Fast and the Furious, etc., I also wanted to drive a sportscar on famous roads like the Nurburgring in Germany or the Mazda Turnpike in Japan.
- I wanted to make movies and be a filmmaker.
These dreams felt silly to consider in the face of reality and the enormous pressure to conform to the norm and follow established ‘life scripts.’ Graduate university and find a job. Work hard and get a promotion. Climb the corporate ladder. That was the script that I was sold from childhood, and what all of my friends were pursuing.
Yet, I had this belief that if you take one step towards a dream, just one, then you massively increase the odds of fulfilling it. The difference between 0% and 1% is an infinite. And after you take the first step, just take a couple more steps. Keep going, even if you have to work on your dream on the side; keep putting one foot in front of the other, and soon you may find that your dreams have taken on a life of their own and you are just along for the ride.
And so, in my last year of university, I decided that I would take at least one step towards that first dream of seeing more of the world. Sure, I would continue to study hard, keep my marks up, and apply to jobs in corporate finance, but on the side, I would try to find a way to do something completely different.
I opened up a browswer and googled: “How To Live In Japan”.
Let’s Go To Japan!
The story of how I ended up in Japan is actually an increasingly common one. After my initial bout of research, I decided that I would fulfil my wanderlust and dreams of travel by teaching English abroad for at least a year after graduating university. I applied through The JET Programme, and if you’re reading this article you’re probably familiar with it—perhaps you even made the exact same Google search I did to end up here!
With JET, you can put down some preferences for where you want to live in Japan. However, I knew not to put too much stock into those requests, so I was not surprised when I didn’t get any of my choices and was instead told that I would be going to Gunma Prefecture (which, to my chagrin, seemed to consistently come last in nationwide ‘beauty-rankings’).
Undeterred, I did some research and discovered that there is a lot to love about Gunma. It is home to some of the best onsen in Japan, it’s a hotspot for outdoor sports, and it’s said to have the best cabbage in Japan (yay!). However, there is one more reason why Gunma is a particularly compelling place for car and anime enthusiasts. It is the real-life locale of one of my favourite anime and manga series – Initial D.
It was as if fate had spoken to me. I was being sent to live in the place where my childhood obsession was based on, the place I spent countless quarters as a kid simulating on arcade machines, the place that, perhaps, unconsciously made me gravitate towards Japan in the first place. Upon realizing this, I immediately resolved to fulfill my next long-standing dream: to drive a sports car through the real touge (mountain roads) featured in Initial D.
And so after months of preparation, I arrived in Japan in August of 2010, wide-eyed and full of wonder. In the blistering summer heat, I and around 1000 other new JET participants underwent multiple orientations where we were taught how to deal with culture shock and avoid getting kancho’ed. As the summer drew to a close, I settled into my new job as an English teacher in a junior high school.
However, I didn’t blaze into school, drifting around bends and spinning into the teacher’s parking lot. I commuted to work in a mamachari , the most common style of bicycle. Japanese people young and old ride them. Like many things in Japan – fax machines, squat toilets and kerosene heaters, they have remained a peculiarly unchanging fixture of daily life even as Japan charged into the 21st century.
My mamachari and I.
Driving a Sportscar In Japan
While the mamachari was nice, I was still limited in the places I could go, and I wasn’t exactly living out my Initial D fantasies. In Gunma, most people get around by cars because there are much fewer stations than in the big cities. So, I squirrelled away half of my paycheque for the first few months and searched for a chariot with a few more horses on Goo-net.com, the Autotrader.com of Japan. Unlike most JETs who do the sensible thing and buy a cheap used kei car, I was determined to fulfill that second crazy dream.
Browsing Goo-net for an afternoon is enough to make any petrolhead green with envy. As an ex-pat living in Japan, the Impreza STi Ver. VI, S15 Silvia, R34 Skyline, these forbidden JDM (Japanese domestic market) classics from the 90’s were actually within reach (well okay, an R34 was still quite a bit out of my price range). I trawled through listing after listing, finally setting my heart on a rally blue Subaru WRX Impreza STi Ver. V.
However, fate had other plans in store. A week before I had scheduled a trip halfway across the country to check out the rally blue Subaru, I found out that my next door neighbour Mizuki was looking to sell her car – the homely black Mazda Miata (known as the Eunos Roadster in Japan) that I passed by everyday on the way to work.
Back in 2010, the worldwide Miata boom had not yet fully materialized and so my image of the humble convertible was “hairdresser car”. It wasn’t really on my radar. As Mizuki tossed me the keys to take it for a spin, I was certain that this tiny car would be too cramped and too slow to compare to a turbo-charged, all-wheel-drive Subaru. “You break it, you buy it!” she winked, as I pulled away from the parking lot of our apartment complex.
After getting acquainted with the clutch, I decided to giv’r a little. ZOOM-ZOOM! The little roadster had some pep after all! It turned out that this one was a lightly tuned S-Special edition with a Bilstein suspension and a few aftermarket mods. While it was still down in power compared to even most econoboxes, it was low and the lightness of the chassis could be felt through the clutch and the small diameter MOMO steering wheel.
Although undeniably it was not particularly fast, it handled like a go-kart. You know in Mario Kart when you mash down the A-button before the light turns green to get a little speed boost? Stepping on the accelerator felt like that in real life. I was hooked.
However, it was once I got the car out onto the local touge 5 minutes down the road that the chassis came alive. Within minutes, the ethos of the Miata – the concept of Jinba ittai (horse and rider as one) truly became apparent. The 50:50 weight distribution and peaky engine were the ideal match for the narrow, winding mountain roads of Gunma. Though I had driven a manual only a handful of times before, the Miata joyfully danced around every turn and corner. Try as I might, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
And then I put the top down and experienced open-air motoring for the first time. Blasting the heater as the chilly mountain air swept my hair back while I breezed down the valley, I felt like I had somehow been transported into the Autumn Ring stage of the Playstation game Gran Turismo. Was this real??
Though I tried to play it cool when I got back to the apartment, when Mizuki asked me what I thought with a knowing grin, there was only one answer: Miata. Miata, miata, MIATA.
I plunked down ¥200,000 (about $2000 USD) and sped off with my first car before she could change her mind. As an inaugural trip, I drove an hour all the way to the top of Mt. Haruna, the mountain range that is home to the main touge featured in Initial D.
First night the with the Miata on Mt. Haruna
Spending my days driving a humble Miata in Japan was the culmination of that second dream. Following that goal I set for myself opened the door to all sorts of interesting adventures and attracted like-minded enthusiasts to my life.
I befriended a group of sports-car-owning English teachers called the Gunma Hi-Octane Club. Together we went out for drives on the three famous mountains of Gunma; Mt. Myogi, Mt. Haruna and Mt. Akagi – all three of which are featured prominently in the anime Initial D.
It was a spunky Canadian named Jeevy, in his little red turbo-charged Subaru Vivio that first showed me that the gutter technique used by Takumi in the anime was actually possible. And it was my friend Mike from England that introduced me to the awe-inspiring confidence of the AWD in his Mitsubishi Evolution. He almost made me regret not going AWD like I had originally intended. Almost. But, it was my mentor Darc who actually indoctrinated me into the underground drift scene in Gunma.
Darc was a fascinating fellow. A tall, rough-talking South-African, he had, through sheer force of will, made himself a fixture of the local drifting community in Gunma. Like me, he came to Japan with dreams of drifting and sportscar ownership and had bought himself an S14 Nissan Silvia. His car was what drifters call a “missile”, and his earnestness to prove himself eventually caught the attention of the local drifters.
He befriended them and went to track events, hung out at their garages, and got really good at speaking his own unique brand of unfiltered Japanese which was heavily influenced by the drifters’ macho way of talking.
Time passed and my adventures in Japan accumulated. Darc and I would swap stories over beers at the local izakaya (Japanese-style pub) . I’d talk of my travels and he would often regale of me of crazy stories with his drifter friends. “Though they exist outside of the cookie-cutter norm of Japanese society,” he mused, “they are some of the best people I have ever known.”
“Introduce me sometime.” I challenged one night.
Darc paused and set his mug of Asahi Super Dry beer down. He stared at me intently for what seemed like an eternity, clearly ascertaining whether or not I was ready.
“Alright,” he remarked as he took a huge swig and finished off his beer, “Meet me tomorrow at [redacted]. 10:00 p.m sharp. Don’t be late.”
I didn’t realize it yet, but he had just invited me to a secret drift meet deep in the mountains of Mt. Akagi.
Breaking Into The Drift Scene
Prior to this night, I had only briefly glimpsed that Initial D was real. Drift lines leading to damaged railings, the sounds of sliding tires off in the distance, and the Panda Trueno that parked beside me at the gym hinted at a hidden world right around the bend.
Well thanks to Darc, I was suddenly right in the thick of it. I followed his banged up Silvia up a winding mountain road that at the time, could not be accurately placed on Google Maps. Cellphone service was still really spotty that deep into the valley.
As I followed Darc further into the darkness, the wails of screeching tires got louder and louder, until after the N-teenth hair-pin turn, we arrived at a spot where a congregation of cars were lined up against the side of the road.
We pulled up and parked at the end of the line and I watched as tire smoke wafted up into the night. 400hp Skylines and Sylvias flew by sideways, an arms length away.
I was utterly mesmerized. To me, this was like seeing dinosaurs in the flesh. I hobbled over to the gallery, an area on the side of the road where spectators gather to watch the drifters and stood mouth-agape as I witnessed the spectacle of underground touge drifting unfold in front of me. It was like I was transplanted right into an episode of the anime I had watched so many years ago.
At the time, I was putting out videos on my youtube channel of my Japan experience semi-regularly, and I had made it a habit to carry around my DSLR camera everywhere I went. Here was an opportunity to capture some truly interesting footage, right in the birthplace of Initial D. Gingerly, I took out my camera and asked the people in attendance if I could take some movies. “Ii yo.'”(Go ahead.) I was told, and so I set about capturing a window into the scene.
It was an incredible experience that still stands in my mind as a highlight of my Japan adventures.
I cut the footage from that night into a short video and tentatively put it up on my Youtube channel.
On a whim, I sent the video to Kotaku where somehow it was featured and IMMEDIATELY went viral. 70,000 views overnight. Hundreds of messages asking me to produce another video. I was overwhelmed by the response.
Unfortunately, a couple of the drifters in the video were pros who feared losing their sponsorships and asked me to cut them out. I had to cut over 75% of the video.
Drift Documentary Dreams
For months, I laid awake thinking about that night in the mountains. When my friend Darc moved to Tokyo to pursue his own dreams, I came to realize was that I was the only non-Japanese who had gained access to the real-life counterpart of the anime Initial D and actually had the opportunity and wherewithal to document it.
A unique opportunity had opened up for a brief moment in time. I decided that I had to produce a documentary, or at the very least, capture more tantalizing footage. It was a chance to full-fill another of my dreams of being a filmmaker. I asked Darc for advice and he pointed me in the right direction. With his blessing, I started going out “hunting” for more drift meets.
It wasn’t easy. Drifters constantly change meeting times and locations to avoid run-ins with the police. I searched along roads that still had fresh patches of burnt rubber along drift lines from the previous night. I followed those lines up and down winding mountain roads like a hunter following deer tracks, but they were always dead ends.
Frustratingly, I would hear the roar of modified exhausts and screeching tires echoing across the valley. They were out there. I couldn’t give up.
One night on my way home from another fruitless drift hunting excursion, I stopped by a 7-Eleven for a coffee. As I exited the convenience store, I heard the familiar whine of spooling turbos and saw a caravan of six or seven highly-modified Silvias, Skylines, Truenos and RX-7s speeding by. They were driving in the direction of one of the three famous mountains of Gunma. “This is it.” I thought, as I jumped into my Miata, cranked the ignition and sped off in pursuit.
When I first pulled up to the drift meet, it was admittedly a little bit awkward. It’s not every day that a random car joins your caravan and follows you deep into the mountains. But sometimes you just have to put yourself in awkward situations and see what happens. Knowing ‘how to roll with it’ is an important skill that anyone can and should learn.
And so I introduced myself. With a big smile, and a mix of Japanese and English, I said that I was just a curious Canadian who was interested in the drift scene, but didn’t really know much about it. Maybe it was the fact that I rolled up in my Miata, or that I didn’t look like a cop or a typical Japanese person. But just like Darc said, drifters really are friendly people!
They opened up to me, asked me to hang around and over the course of a few weeks, I found that I got invited to more and more nights out on the touge. After a several meets had passed, I brought up the fact that I wanted to make a documentary to bring worldwide awareness to their scene. Surprisingly, the guys I talked to were really enthusiastic about the idea and were gracious enough to let me capture footage for my documentary freely.
Thus, for the past several months, I have been slowly breaking into the underground touge drifting scene in Gunma, Japan which is very literally the anime Initial D come to life. I had become a drift hunter, keeping an eye out for tell-tale signs of drifting, searching for new contacts and approaching drifters to be included in my documentary. It’s been an incredible experience so far.
The documentary, which I have titled Drift Hunter, continues to take shape every time I go out to film. Through Drift Hunter, I want to tell the story of the real-life counterpart to Initial D, and show people just where fact meets fiction. I want to convey the same visceral awe I feel when I’m out in the mountain, filming the drifters slide by at ludicrous speeds, inches from my camera. Filming this documentary has been a ton of work, but I’ve learned so much, met incredibly interesting people and had amazing experiences.
My third and final “crazy dream” had starting coming into focus, and I am grateful every day that I was not sitting at a desk job merely fantasizing about what could have been. You can see the fruit of my labor and watch the first episode of the documentary here (make sure to subscribe on Youtube and sign-up for the email list to get notified when I release the next episode soon):
You can also check out the website I made for Drift Hunter at www.drifthunter.net
Guard Your Dreams
What I’ve come to realize in all this is that if you have a dream, you should give it a chance. You never know where your life will take you if you just take that first step. However the more your dreams are “out of the norm,” the more fragile they are.
Even after you take those first steps, until you have made some headway towards them, you must guard and protect your dreams. Be careful who you reveal them to because the world is full of naysayers and pessimists masquerading as ‘realists.’ Your family and even your closest friends, while they may have your best interests at heart, will introduce doubt into your mind and pressure you to follow society’s script and regress to the norm. I know that if I had let people get into my head years ago, to introduce enough doubt into my mind, then I would never have come to Japan, never had countless life-changing adventures, nor started filming Drift Hunter, and created this site which you are reading right now.
Everyone has dreams – big and small. Whether its something like travelling somewhere you’ve always wanted to go, a dream job, or starting your own business – every single one of those dreams is precious. This is your life and no one else is going to pursue your dream for you. And when you do start to pursue them, you also meet other people who are pursuing their own and get inspired.
It is said that you are ‘the average of the people who you hang out with the most,’ so surround yourselves with high achievers and people who ‘made it’ in whatever domain you wish to succeed in, and you’ll gain momentum. You’ll also find yourself getting sucked into positive feedback loops where each little milestone motivates you more and you realize that failures are just learning experiences which take you one step closer to your goals.
Finally, when you chase your dreams, you inspire others to do so. Part of the reason I created The Jet Coaster and Drift Hunter was because of all the emails I get from people around the world telling me that I’ve helped show them that it’s possible to bring to life something you love.
So if you have a dream, chase it. Chase it before you are too old to regret not giving it a shot. Even if you have a family, responsibilities, a mortgage and bills to pay, if its something you really want, hack away at it on the side and see where it goes. Or, in the immortal words of Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Hey, I'm Albo, co-founder of TJC. I was a JET in beautiful Gunma Prefecture for 5 years. I started thejetcoaster.com to teach and inspire others how to live a life of travel, learning and adventure.