The clock ticks down on the Super Bowl, and as the sports bar empties, I’m exhausted and ready to hit the sack. Too bad that’s not an option. I’m in Tokyo, it’s barely past noon, and in an hour, I’m going to pick up one of the first Cadillac CTS’s in Japan. While my friends back home are either celebrating or drowning their sorrows into the wee hours of the night, I’ll be navigating Tokyo traffic in the afternoon sun.
My schedule for the next five days looks something like this: Collect Cadillac on Monday. Return Cadillac on Friday. Everything in between is up for grabs, and that sort of road-trip freedom always spells trouble for me. I get greedy. I look at a map and say, “I want to go there. And there. And there.” And so I decide that I want to go to Hokkaidō, the northernmost of the Japanese islands – go any farther, and you’re in Russia. Hokkaidō has some twenty percent of Japan’s land mass but only five percent of its population, thus it seems like the perfect place to exercise a big, brash sedan. To reach the ferry to Hokkaidō, you need to drive to Aomori, about 500 miles north of Tokyo. It’s a trip that’ll take us far from the techno-sheen of the city and deep into the hinterlands, where we’ll get a chance to see what the locals make of bumbling Americans rolling up in a quintessentially American car. Five hundred miles plus a ferry ride: ambitious but doable. But then, I didn’t factor in the snow.
When I mention my plan to our hotel’s desk clerk in Tokyo, she says, “Much snow.” I relay this information to Brian Konoske, the photographer, who tells me that he also shared our plan with a hotel employee. “He told me, ‘Very dangerous,’ ” Konoske says. Given the Japanese propensity for circumspect conversations (there seems to be no word for “no” but fifteen variations of “maybe”), dropping the phrase “very dangerous” is tantamount to, “My coworkers and I will now wager on which day you will be eaten by yeti.”
It’s a good thing Cadillac offers the latest CTS with all-wheel drive. It’d be even better if they sold that one in Japan. Our ride for the next five days is the performance-oriented CTS, complete with the 304-horsepower, 3.6-liter direct-injected V-6; a sport suspension; and Michelin Pilot Sport summer tires. Cadillac doesn’t sell enough cars in Japan to bother with a right-hand-drive model yet, so the only discernable change for the Japanese-market CTS is extraplush floor mats, which may come in handy if we need something to throw under the rear tires for traction. Much snow. Very dangerous.
On the way out of Tokyo, I develop an exceedingly unhealthy attitude toward the car’s nav system. On one hand, I’d be lost without it – literally – but on the other, I’d take great pleasure in ripping it out of the dash with my bare hands and tossing it into Tokyo Bay. The maps and the vocal commands are rendered in Japanese, so I’m forced to follow the turn-by-turn pictogram on the LCD screen while coping with Tokyo traffic from the wrong side of the car. Since I decide that it would be poor form to crush an innocent family in their Daihatsu Silly Boy Turbo beneath my almighty Yankee bumper this early in the trip, I prioritize my attention to the road and thus make lots of wrong turns.
After a late lunch, it’s growing dark by the time we reach the highway. I have a friend, Jason, who works for the military and lives in the far north of the main island of Honshū, and my plan is to reach his town tonight and head to Hokkaidō tomorrow. To make that happen, we’ll need to open the taps a bit and see if Japan’s highways live up to their Midnight Racer rep. And that’s why, with Konoske asleep in the passenger seat, we make our way north out of Tokyo at a safe and sane 125 mph.
The guy in the Alfa Romeo 156 started it. There I was, minding my own business, when he pulled alongside, hung there for a moment, and then bolted for the horizon – the universal signal that it’s on. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t fall prey to such a sophomoric challenge, but right now I’ve got the honor of a nation to uphold. If I don’t floor the gas on this bitchin’ Caddy and fill that guy’s rearview with the hungry maw of my grille, then every Japanese dude with an Italian sedan and an attitude is going to think he can poke Lady Liberty in the eye and get away with it. Not on my watch.
It turns out that those Alfa 156s are faster than you think. At least, this one was. It’s a dead heat up to nearly 140 mph, at which point we settle into a high-speed, two-car convoy blazing north through the Honshū night. Domo arigato, Mr. Robautobahn.
The fact that Konoske sleeps through this triple-digit blitz is a testament to the CTS’s high-speed solidity. It’s also a testament to how ridiculously tired we are, and when the Alfa exits the highway and the adrenaline recedes, I discover that I can’t make it much further. It’s time to call it a night, so I take an exit at a town with an airport icon on its sign, on the theory that a town with an airport will also have a bunch of business hotels. This isn’t a great theory.
I stop at an establishment whose sign reads “Swiss Inn” but is neither Swiss nor an inn. (Discuss.) Other than the non-Swiss non-Inn (it was a restaurant), none of the signs are in English. It’s profoundly disheartening to realize that you not only have no reservation, you don’t even know what a hotel looks like. We don’t know what town we’re in. Nobody speaks English. Sleeping in the car is looking like a distinct possibility.
Finally, Konoske snaps. He opens my Lonely Planet book and finds a page that includes the Japanese characters for “hotel.” He studies this for a few minutes before shouting, “Hotel! Dude, that’s a hotel! That’s the word for it on the sign!” He’s gesturing frantically at a building that looks just like every other building – which is to say, concrete and eight stories high – but I pull in to see if we’ve found salvation. By some divine act, this place is a hotel, and one with a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant right next door, no less. And all it took to find the place was for Konoske to teach himself how to read Japanese. I’m not sure this bodes well for the rest of the trip. The next morning, I peer out of my hotel-room window at the Subaru dealership next door. All the cars on the lot have their windshield wipers pointed skyward in the universal automotive symbol for imminent snow. Nonetheless, it’s a new day, and I’m filled with optimism.
I fire up the Caddy and pull it around to the lobby, where I plan to coerce the desk clerk into translating my directional needs to my nemesis, the navigation system. But the nav system, apparently insulted by the many creative epithets I hurled at it yesterday, refuses to report for duty, its screen remaining stolidly blank. Cold panic fills my belly. It would be difficult to find Hokkaidō using the rearview mirror’s compass. While Konoske packs his camera gear into the trunk, I plead with the nav system. I sweet-talk it and promise I’ll behave: I’ll take it to all those points of interest it always wanted to see and give it the latest map updates as soon as they’re released. This time, things will be different. And they are, once I realize that I’d pushed the day/night dimmer button last night and pushing it again causes the screen to burst to life. I’ve never been so happy to fix a piece of electronics that I hate. I immediately resume calling it names, because I’m incorrigible.
We get back on the highway for two reasons: First, it’s still a long way to Aomori, where my friend Jason lives. Second, it’s already snowing, and I figure that sticking to the highway gives us the best chance of survival, short of returning this car to General Motors shod with steel wheels and Bridgestone Blizzaks.
In the daylight, and outside the gravitational pull of Tokyo, even the highway is beautiful. It’s like Tuscany with snow, the road traversing forested hills, diving into long tunnels and back out to vistas draped in white. The mountains don’t look as tall as the Alps or the Rockies, at least as far as I can tell through the omnipresent snow. I take it easy, and the Pilot Sports, ill-suited though they are, do yeoman’s work in the wintry conditions.
A bowl of rest-stop ramen and a breathtaking $100 toll charge later, we’re finally in Aomori. It’s about five p.m. Angry gray waves batter the northern shore of Honshū, and the snow is so deep that the sidewalks are more like human sluiceways chiseled through the ice. But at least we’re here, and I’m excited that tonight Jason will be able to help us find a hotel and a place to eat. I call him to say I’ve arrived in Aomori. There’s an uncomfortable pause on the line before Jason replies, “I don’t live in Aomori.”
Japan is divided into prefectures like America is divided into states. So when Jason said he lived in Aomori, I’d assumed he meant the town. But there’s also an Aomori prefecture. Our predicament now is akin to showing up in New York City and having your friend tell you, “Yes, I live in New York – Albany, New York.”
Jason estimates that it’ll take two hours to get back to his town, via a narrow, snowy road that hugs the unforgiving sea before turning right, into the dark forest inland. I’m coping with the slick road, barely, when I glance at the nav screen and see that I’ve got to take the next left, like now. I’m heading downhill, and the road is completely white. I try to muscle the Cadillac into the turn, but the traction isn’t there and we begin a slow, sickening slide into the oncoming lane. Where there is a car. “This is it,” I think. “I’m going to find out what happens when you have a car accident in Japan.” I’ll have to get out of my car, exchange insurance information, and commit seppuku for bringing shame to my family with my poor off-camber car control. But the CTS’s stability control system, heretofore dormant, springs to action with a chattering from the brake pedal and a groan from the calipers, and somehow the electronic hand of God grabs the front end and points it back into our lane. Konoske exhales through clenched teeth. “There’s a difference,” I say, “between having a vacation and having an adventure. This is not a vacation.”
When we finally reach Jason’s town, Misawa, I’m ready for an onsen. Japan is basically one big volcano, and while that geologic predicament has its downsides (eruptions, lava flows, tsunamis) the upshot is that you’ve got nature’s hot tubs all over the place. An onsen is a bathhouse built around a natural hot spring, and, as a marathon runner, Jason is a big proponent of the onsen’s curative properties. I want to check one out before dinner. “Is there a place to change into my bathing suit?” Konoske asks. “Oh, you won’t be needing that,” Jason replies.
The onsen features a selection of pools – one of them fortified with minerals, another like a giant hot tub, one outdoors. Then there’s the one that shoots electric current into the water. This, apparently, is supposed to be good for you. Jason climbs in, and when it’s apparent that he’s only feigning electrocution, I gingerly follow his lead. I stick my arm in front of the electrode on the side of the tub, and my muscles begin twitching involuntarily. Honestly, my arm feels good afterward – like I got a massage – but I can’t imagine that electrocution, no matter how low-voltage, is really beneficial to one’s health. “You know,” I say to Jason, “in high school, I always figured that sooner or later we’d end up hanging out naked in an electrified tub in Japan.” Jason considers this for a moment and replies, “A childhood dream, realized.”
Having survived that ordeal, Jason provides us another challenge at dinner: eating fugu, the poisonous blowfish. If not properly prepared, fugu is deadly, and each year several people die of fugu poisoning. The fish is chewy and a bit bland. It’s tasty enough when dipped in chili sauce – most things are – but I’m not sure that consuming blowfish ranks very high on my list of “things to risk my life over.” Good to know.
The next morning it’s executive-decisions time: Hokkaidō is out. Even if we made it to Hokkaidō, we’d have to just turn around and head back to Tokyo. We wouldn’t have time to get off the highway and check out some of the interesting attractions of rural Japan – such as Hotel America.
On the way in last night, we’d passed a sign for Hotel America. When I asked Jason if that was a good place to stay, he said, “That’s a . . . sexy hotel.” Which was a euphemistic way of saying that Hotel America is a love hotel.
Love hotels are a subset of the Japanese lodging industry devoted exclusively to those travelers looking to get their freak on. You rent your room by the hour, and to ensure privacy, the entrance and the exit are on separate sides of the building so that you’ll never see another patron (or an employee, for that matter – key collection and payment are automated). Love hotels are also big on fanciful themes. And the one nestled in the woods near Jason’s town happens to have a theme centered on the U.S.A. Naturally, we have to go check that out.
At the entrance, we pass a gaudy, neon-lit sign that depicts the Statue of Liberty and looks as if it were uprooted by a tornado in Las Vegas and deposited here in this quiet forest. As we pull up the driveway toward a low set of buildings that look more like storage units than a hotel, an employee shoveling the driveway sees us and runs away in horror. I guess he didn’t want to embarrass us, assuming that anyone checking into a pay-by-the-hour hotel adorned with a miniature Statue of Liberty on the roof has much capacity for embarrassment.
We take a few minutes shooting photos out by the sign, much to the consternation of a couple who keep driving back and forth, putting their tryst on hold until the camera guy leaves. Evidently, guests at the Hotel America don’t care to push their theme so far as to include actual Americans. Can’t say I blame them.
When we’re done ruining the locals’ love lives, we stop at a gas station for a fill-up (which costs about $75, not as shocking as I’d expected) and our daily plea for navigational assistance. Destination entered, we head – back south – for Nikko, a resort town that Jason recommended. After staying in austere, $50-per-night business hotels, I’m ready to find some dry roads and postcard vistas.
With that goal in mind, and in search of an empty two-lane, I exit the highway at the first opportunity. Maybe we won’t make it to Nikko by nightfall, but I didn’t come to Japan to spend 1000 miles on the highway, paying exorbitant tolls and eating rest-stop ramen. Almost immediately, we find the sort of road I’d imagined as the perfect Japanese country two-lane: a wide, lightly trafficked ribbon that hugs the sides of the mountains as it meanders up into the hills and down to the valleys on its way from village to village. In the populated areas, ramshackle buildings crowd the pavement on both sides, and finally, we start to receive the sort of perplexed stares that I had imagined we’d garner out in the sticks.
I burn so much time on this diversion that, as usual, we’re late for our destination. As night falls, we pull back onto the highway and hope for some high-speed company to whisk us toward Nikko. At dusk, a brand-new Subaru Impreza WRX STI charges up the outside lane, and I fall in behind. We’re cruising at 100 mph, the STI and I, when suddenly, he hits his brakes and dives over into the slow lane. A moment later, red lights fill my rearview mirror. That set of headlights that had been trailing me for the past couple miles? A cop.
The Subaru brakes even harder, down to about 55 mph. He’s freaked out. I’m curiously calm. I might be headed for a night in a Japanese prison, but at least my insurance won’t go up.
I’m wondering which juicy target he’s going to choose, me or the STI, when I abruptly receive my answer: neither. After hanging next to us for a quarter mile, lights ablaze, copper-san simply passes us, then douses the strobes and continues on his way. Now I’m really confused. Generally speaking, when a cop paces you at 100 mph and lights you up, you’re in for more than the “gotcha!” rolling warning. This is the most perplexing thing to happen since Konoske ordered a hot dog out of a vending machine at the last rest stop. I mind my speed the rest of the way to Nikko.
As the morning sun melts the frost off the cars in the Nikko Kanaya Hotel parking lot, I select a brochure from a rack near the front desk. It’s an advertisement for a nearby ski resort, and its cover depicts two animated grapefruit riding a snowboard. They are grimacing, as if in concentration, or perhaps constipation. Really, Japan? This is how you promote a ski resort? With constipated snowboarding citrus? May I ask why?
Lonely Planet describes Nikko as “one of Japan’s major attractions,” and it lives up to the billing – a mist-shrouded river passes hilltop temples, and you can easily imagine that the forest is filled with ninjas, which is scary. While there may not be silent killers in those woods, there apparently are monkeys, as evidenced by frequent road signs warning of monkey crossings. This is surprising, since it contradicts my long-held mental image of monkeys living in warm places with a plentiful supply of bananas. I slow down every time I see one of these signs, both out of caution and a powerful desire to spot a troop of Japanese snow monkeys.
In the middle of town, Konoske spies something even wilder than that: a yellow, early 1970s Ford Mustang Mach 1. It’s up on blocks in someone’s driveway. While this is the most outrageous American car we’ve seen, it’s definitely not the first, which is perhaps part of the reason why our black CTS hasn’t garnered nearly as much attention as I’d expected. With more than 40,000 American military personnel stationed in Japan, there’s a lot of Detroit iron running around. Jason has one friend who drives a Chevrolet Suburban; another has a Camaro. Back in Tokyo I saw two Chevy Blazers and a lifted Dodge Ram. Our Cadillac is innocuous by comparison.
We need to head back toward Tokyo. As much as I love sushi and Nissan Skylines and unfailingly helpful service-industry people, by the fifth day, I’m OJ’d – over-Japaned. I’ve had enough hot-dog vending machines, naked electrified hot tubs, Monday morning football, SARS masks, monkey crossings, love hotels, and ambiguous answers. As we near Tokyo, I pull into the parking lot of a Kentucky Fried Chicken. I don’t even eat KFC at home, so cultural withdrawal is the only reason
I can proffer for submitting to the deep-fried embrace of Colonel Sanders. And even then, the chicken tenders are weird – they’re covered in batter that you might expect on fish and chips, and this makes me slightly despondent.
It dawns on me that the Japanese affinity for Western culture is never without a twist. Consider Ichiro Suzuki’s slapping, high-percentage swing: it’s baseball, but it’s not baseball as taught in Des Moines. Japan is rife with 7-Elevens, but they’re filled with sake and mentholated face masks. I’m having lunch in a KFC, but the eleven herbs and spices got left back in Maui. And all that speaks to the reason why we encountered no other Cadillacs in 1000 miles of driving – Cadillac, these days, knows what it’s about, and you can’t co-opt something that’s so focused. The sharply pressed styling, the big V-6, even that distinct Caddy smell (new-car, with heavy notes of leather) defy interpretation, and that limits its appeal. The CTS is a little bit lost here. I can relate.
In Tokyo, it makes sense to stay in the recently built-up Shiodome area, which boasts lots of hotels and is a short walk to the Ginza. We stayed at the Conrad Tokyo, but the Park Hotel Tokyo next door is the best bargain (during our trip, rooms there were less than $200 per night). Shiodome is adjacent to the gigantic Tsukiji fish market – if you’re jet-lagged, head over there at dawn and watch the morning fish auction. Better yet, order sushi in the evening at one of the nearby restaurants. You can’t get fish much fresher than that.
Two more Tokyo tidbits: Make sure your hotel offers validated parking (our overnight tab in the Conrad garage, before validation: $100). And before getting a cab, have a hotel staff member describe your destination to the driver. Why? Because there are almost no street names in Tokyo. Seriously. We don’t know how anyone finds anything.
Outside Tokyo, definitely check out Nikko. The Hotel Nikko Kanaya dates to 1893 and makes you feel like you stepped onto the set of The Last Samurai. Also, there’s a killer Japanese steak house just down the hill.
Pressing north, Misawa’s 60,000 residents include 13,500 Air Force, Navy, and Japanese air-defense personnel at the Misawa Air Base, so there’s a lively, if compact, nightlife scene. Mikami restaurant is the place to get fugu (poisonous blowfish), a national delicacy in Japan. A fugu dinner cost us 5000 yen, which is about $50.
if you’re game for an onsen visit, Aoba Onsen is one of the oldest onsens in Misawa, which has twelve such bathhouses. Onsens generally cost between $2 and $4 per visit. One final word on driving in Japan: If you need to cover major distances, beware that the highway tolls will likely cost more than fuel. Over five days, we racked up $250 in toll charges.