Your complete guide to the most incredible roads in Japan, where to find them, when to drive them and more!
From crazy underground tunnels to magical, winding touges, Japan simply has to have some of the dreamiest driving roads in the world. Many people don’t realise it, but around three quarters of Japan is covered in mountainous terrain, and many of these mountainous areas (which generally contain cute sleepy towns and hidden hot spring resorts) have some incredibly cool twisty roads – more than you could ever count! It really is a driver’s paradise…
You don’t necessarily need a performance car to enjoy them either, although they’re obviously much more exciting when you’re behind the wheel of something that handles well and has adequate power. But you know, part of getting out and enjoying these roads is the adventure that they take you on, and if you’re the type of person who appreciates stunning scenery and beautiful vistas, you’ll have an amazing time driving around Japan no matter what kind of car you’re in!
It wouldn’t be realistic to aim to drive all of these roads while you’re in Japan (unless you’re looking at moving there permanently), but if it is possible for you to get your hands on a car and escape the city at some point while you’re there, we’d definitely recommend checking out at least one of these awesome locations. Alternatively, there are some cool roads in more central locations too, so we’ve included some of those in here as well. Note that most of these roads are in or close to the Kantō region, and we’re currently working on a second guide that focuses on roads in other regions.
Bandai-Azuma Skyline, Fukushima.
At around 28km long, the Bandai-Azuma Skyline is a former toll road which carves its way high through the Azuma Mountain Range, providing spectacular panoramic views from above. Many people drive the Skyline road in order to access popular hiking trails around Mt. Azuma-Kofuji – an active volcano which looks like a miniature Mount Fuji!
You don’t have to leave your car to enjoy the scenery though, in fact, the road itself was practically built for that reason! It first opened in 1959, and was created to allow visitors easy sightseeing access to the area. It carves through various mountainous landscapes, crossing huge bridges towering over deep valleys (like in the opening image featured in the title) with luscious greenery in the summer, fiery red and orange foliage during autumn and barren, other-worldly landscapes in the spring time. Note that from mid-November to early April the road closes due to heavy snowfall.
The road (route ’70’ on the above map) begins west of Fukushima city passing through the Takayu Onsen (hot springs), and runs down toward the Tsuchiyu By-pass, which is actually really close to Ebisu Circuit. So if you’re already planning on going up there, this is a must-do for while you’re in the area!
TOP TIP: Go early in the morning or in the evening to miss traffic!
Mt. Tsukuba, Ibaraki.
The area surrounding Mount Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture is a driver’s paradise – there are simply so many cool routes you can take here! With most of Ibaraki and surrounding areas being so flat, car enthusiasts flock to Mt. Tsukuba to enjoy the elevated roads there.
Some popular routes include the Purple Line or the ‘Omote Tsukuba Skyline’, the ‘Fruits Line’, which is a long road which snakes off in different sections with some more tighter, twisty sections, and the ‘Yubukuro Pass’ which snakes back down towards Sakuragawa.
Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line, Kanagawa / Chiba.
Probably one of the craziest roads ever built, the Tokyo Bay ‘Aqua-Line’ is a toll road running between Kawasaki and Kisarazu in Chiba Prefecture. That doesn’t sound too crazy though, right? Well, as the name suggests, it actually runs underneath Tokyo Bay (or at least two thirds of it does anyway).
At 14km long, it includes a 9.6km tunnel and a 4.4km bridge, as well as a large artificial island called Umi-hotaru where the tunnel and bridge meet in the middle of Tokyo Bay! Umihotaru has a large parking area as well as restaurants, shops and viewing platforms, and is definitely worth checking out. From there, the road continues over to Chiba via the bridge.
Since its opening in 1997, the long, straight tunnel has been a popular spot for illegal high-speed racing over the years (for obvious reasons!), although during the day and at peak hours it can get quite congested with commuter traffic. If you’re wanting the full experience, head there late at night – but be prepared to pay the hefty toll of ¥3000 (or slightly less if you’ve an ETC card). The Aqua-Line cost a whopping 11.2 billion USD to build, so you’ve got to pay the price if you want to use it!
Bayshore Route (Wangan), Tokyo.
You’ve all heard of this one! The Bayshore Route of the Shuto Expressway, commonly referred to as the ‘Wangan’ is a stretch of tolled highway that runs from Yokohama to Ichikawa in Chiba. Altogether it lasts for around 70km, diving down through sections of underwater tunnels and crossing many bridges over the artificial islands around the edge of Tokyo Bay. The Wangan has been a popular street racing venue for decades, (made well-known thanks to the escapades of the MidNight Club, followed by the Wangan Midnight manga/anime series), although now with tighter laws in place, this scene has almost completely died down now.
Daikoku Parking Area is positioned along the Wangan closer to Yokohama, and is still a popular meeting place for car enthusiasts, although these days they’re generally just casually meeting up with friends as opposed to taking a break in between 300km/hr top-speed runs! It’s no rural mountain pass, but this concrete jungle gym has plenty of space here to stretch a car’s legs, and will send tingles down your spine thinking about some of the incredibly dangerous driving that’s taken place here in the past…
NOTE. If you missed our Intermediate Guide #4: Cool Car-Related Activities in Japan, make sure to visit this for more information on both Daikoku & Tatsumi PA.
Ōme to Ōtsuki (Route 411 & 139), Tokyo / Yamanashi.
We discovered this incredible driving route when we were staying out in Ome, and one day decided to head down to Mount Fuji via Mt. Mitake and Okutama – what an amazing drive! The most eventful part of the trip took place between Ome and Otsuki, which is around a two hour trip…
After Mitake is when things start to get fun as you head up through the mountains following Route 411, also known as the ‘Ome Kaido’ – this route has actually been around since the Edo period (between 1603 and 1868)! The road travels alongside the Tama River, twisting through valleys and tunnels, eventually reaching Lake Okutama where you’ll drive along the lake’s edge for a while before turning off onto Route 139.
NOTE: Look out for monkeys around the lake!
This is where things get really weird, and if you look at this on Google Maps you’ll see why. After the sleepy rural town of Kosuge the road splits in two; one route is a skinny mountain pass with some crazy twists and turns, and the other goes through a newly-built tunnel which bypasses this old road. The tunnel is super long and runs down quite a steep gradient, which feels bizarre, after a while it really starts messing with your head! But the coolest part is that this isn’t a hugely popular route so there aren’t often any other cars, which makes this tunnel extra fun… if you know what we mean!
Ashinoko Skyline & Hakone Skyline, Kanagawa / Shizuoka.
Now we’re getting to the good stuff! About an hour or so southwest of Tokyo is beautiful Hakone, an area known for its hot springs, lush green surroundings and best of all, its epic driving roads. On the western side of the picturesque Lake Ashi lies some of the best: the first of which is the ‘Ashinoko Skyline’ road, a 10.7km stretch of pure driving nirvana. This road eventually links to the ‘Hakone Skyline’ which continues on for another 4km.
Twisting high through the mountains on the border dividing the prefectures of Shizuoka and Kanagawa, these roads boast views of the lake below and best of all, Mount Fuji!
TIP: You have to be pretty lucky to see Mt Fuji, as it’s almost always hiding behind cloud cover. Your best chance of a full, clear view is if you visit early in the morning and during Spring when it’s still cool – the peak will be covered in snow during this time too.
You’ll have to pay a small toll to drive them, but it’s worth every bit, and if you needed any more of a reason to go there, the Ashinoko Skyline now also has a musical section! Yes, that’s right – a 320m-long section of road which plays a theme song from a popular anime TV series when you drive over it. How cool is that?
Nagao Pass (Route 401), Kanagawa / Shizuoka.
Just north of where the Hakone Skyline finishes is another seriously cool road, although this isn’t a toll road so if you weren’t prepared to cough up the money for a toll (which would be silly because it’s not very much!), you could drive this as an alternative, and it has Fuji views too!
If you wanted to combo it up, you could continue onwards from driving the Ashinoko and Hakone Skyline roads and then take route 401 up towards Gotemba. Alternatively you can do a full loop by continuing around route 736 as shown in the above map.
FACT: Touge or Tōge (峠) is the word for ‘mountain pass’ in Japanese.
This is more of a skinner touge road as opposed to a nicely presented sightseeing road, so it’s a bit more rough and has no road markings in some places. But it’s super cool, and definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area! And if you’re staying in Hakone and drove up here late at night, you might all of a sudden find yourself in the middle of a drift train…
Hakone Turnpike, Kanagawa.
Yet another cool road to check out in Hakone, the ‘Mazda Turnpike’ (formerly the Toyo Tires Turnpike), is less about the tight twisties and more about stretching your car’s legs at a decent pace. It’s also a tollroad and (surprise, surprise) it also has stunning views of Lake Ashi!
It’s a super popular area for car enthusiasts – although all of Hakone is – and although it’ll be busier on the weekends, you’ll be in car-spotting heaven if you come up here on a Sunday! There’s also a restaurant at the top which makes a good rest stop.
Route 730 & 147, Yamanashi / Shizuoka.
Starting at Lake Yamanaka (one of Fuji’s five lakes), Route 730 starts with a windy uphill section that leads up past a look-out with stunning views of Mount Fuji and the lake below. And as you continue uphill, it only gets more and more exciting…
Eventually the road heads downwards again, and this is where the corners start to tighten further, with steep dips and insane amounts of camber – seriously, who made this road!?
You might even be able to spot some evidence of sideways action on the way down!
PRO TIP: As much as we all like to think we are sometimes, you’re not Keiichi Tsuchiya! If you’re just in Japan for a visit, you’ll likely be driving a car that doesn’t belong to you, and if you’re not used to getting sideways on mountain roads like this, it’s very different to drifting on an open circuit. How are you going to get back home if you have an accident literally in the middle of nowhere? You’ll look like a fool and it’ll overshadow your time spent in Japan! If you’re really interested in getting involved in some sideways touge action, make friends with some locals, go out with them and watch and learn.
As you can see on the map above, this route actually crosses through three prefectures, so you’ll start in Yamanashi, drive through the edge of Kanagawa briefly, and then the road actually changes to Route 147 when you pass into Shizuoka, where you’ll end up not far from the entrance of Fuji Speedway. It’s only a short drive at around 15 minutes, but it’s a seriouslygood 15 minutes – so good that you might actually find yourself driving up and down here more than once!
Irohazaka (Nihon Romantic Highway), Gunma.
This incredible route consists of two one-way roads with double lanes, one that runs downhill and and the other uphill in a big loop. Interestingly, the name comes from iroha, the first three of 48 syllables of the former Japanese alphabet, and the word zaka means slope. Both winding roads consist of 48 hairpin turns! The two roads were built back in 1954 and 1965, and used to be toll roads but are now free for anyone to drive.
There are various stops along the way including a ropeway where you can visit a higher observation deck with spectacular viewing of the waterfalls and winding roads below. Because this area has such beautiful colours in Autumn (from late October to early November), it can get super busy so if you’re wanting to get a more spirited driving experience, you’d be better to visit at a quieter time of year, preferably on a weekday.
Usui Pass, Gunma / Nagano.
A section of the Nakasendō Highway, Usui touge is an amazing road with some rich history behind it too. It’s been used as a major transportation route since at least the eighth century, and it’s the home course of famous drifter Keiichi Tsuchiya! The old railway bridge pictured above is also a famous landmark along the way.
It leads from Yokogawa in Gunma to Karuizawa in Nagano, which is a popular tourist spot for locals. At around 12km long, the road is tight and technical, and incredibly squiggly the whole way – it’s crazy to think that anyone could have the guts to drift here, let alone race!
When we drove here it was wet and foggy, so it was extremely slippery with poor visibility in places, and like other mountain passes you’ll need to watch out for large patches of leaves on the ground, especially if you’re driving in Autumn. Unfortunately many popular ‘enthusiast driving routes’ like this have had these horrible killer cat’s eyes installed on their centre lines in an effort to discourage any dangerous/fun driving manoeuvres, and a lot of Usui’s corners do have them. Crazily enough, these wheel-destroying lane dividers don’t put everyone off, as drifters still choose to accept the challenge and stick to one lane!
DID YOU KNOW: That all the mountain passes that feature in Initial D are all based off real roads? Usui is the home course of Impact Blue, Irohazaka is the home course of Team Emperor, the Nagao Pass, Hakone Turnpike (where Ryosuke’s battle with Rin Hojo took place), and Tsukuba is home is Purple Shadow, aka. ‘Good Arm’ and ‘God Foot’. Then of course, there’s the most famous…
Mt. Haruna aka. Mt. Akina, Gunma.
Initial D’s main character Takumi Fujiwara’s home turf is Akina Pass, but in real life this mountain road is based near Mount Haruna in Annaka, Gunma. It’s also only a short drive from Haruna.
FUN FACT: With the fictional name Akina, ‘aki’ means Autumn, and ‘haru’ from Haruna means Spring.
This incredible touge runs from tranquil Lake Haruna down to a small town called Ikaho and lasts for around 6km, and it’s exactly like in Initial D. Even where the downhill begins on the map above (where the teams meet-up before they commence racing) looks exactly the same! In real life this road is part of Route 33, the ‘Jomo-Sanzan Panorama Hwy’.
Note. If you head back towards the lake and continue down Route 33 (towards Haruna Shrine and the Post Office on the map), this is also a really cool road too!
Unlike many other popular mountain passes like Usui, this sacred ground remarkably remains untouched by any big road dividers or giant cat’s eyes, almost as a nod to the famous series. Towards the bottom however, there are a series of weird speedbumps that are more like large consecutive humps – so if you’re driving a super-low car you might want to be wary of these.
We’re not sure if it’s more exciting because you recognise the road when you drive it, or because the road itself is just so awesome, but it’s definitely at the very top of our list of dream driving roads in Japan for both these reasons. And make sure to have some Eurobeat tunes by Move ready for the full experience!
Kanjo Loop (Hanshin Expressway), Osaka.
The ‘Loop 1’ Route of the elevated Hanshin Expressway runs in a clockwise direction, cutting through the very centre of Osaka. In the late hours it becomes a playground for street racers – or at least it used to before the police really cracked down on racing there. Back in the mid-’80s it became popular with local racers in Honda Civics, making these cars synonymous with underground street racing in the area. Although this scene has quietened down now, you can still check out the loop and tackle the tight, abrupt corners for yourself. During the day and especially during rush hours it can get super congested (we’ve been stuck in a horrendous traffic jam here before!) so if you can get out there at night, you should! Who knows what you might see…
If you’re feeling adventurous or want to learn about roads in other areas that we haven’t covered above, check out this awesome list of ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY SEVEN awesome driving roads in Japan!