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The red mile



Phalanx of Ferraris at Takamura Museum
Photos by Marish Mackowiak


Automotive aficionado Marish Mackowiak cruises Hakone's strip of motor museums

Some of the spectacular splashes of red you'll see around Mt Fuji in the next few months are not all autumn leaves. They're fire engine red Ferraris and other exotic European cars. While Hakone is full of well-trodden tourist attractions, its motor museums at the foot of Mt Fuji are one of the area's best kept secrets.

Japan's most breathtaking collections of classic and exotic vehicles are housed in four exhibition halls that form a 115km circular strip from Gotemba-Gotemba; you can hit them all in a day or spend the night. If you drive up from Tokyo, get off the Tomei Highway at Fuji Township and follow Route 139, heading towards Fujinomiya and Fuji-Yoshida. This takes you by pleasant countryside, Motosu-ko and Sai-ko lakes. With scenery, in-museum shops, cafés, video games and a nostalgic look at automotive history, this road trip is not just for strapping men and wanna-be sons. So start your engines and get ready to tail TC through the past.


Austin-Healey Sprite Triumph TR-3A at Kawaguchiko Motor Museum

Checking out the classics
Built in 1981, Kawaguchiko Motor Museum (0555-86-3511, www.big.or.jp/~atmuseum) was one of the first car museums in the area and your first stop on the circuit. To find the museum, locate the Fuji Visitor Center on Kawaguchiko's main street and drive 6km up the adjacent road with a sign indicating the Yamanashi Red Cross Hospital. The museum rests in the middle of a forest at the foot of Mt Fuji. Upon arrival a Lockheed 104 jet poised for take-off atop the entrance will greet you. Next to the car park is another plane, an old twin engine Curtiss C-46.

The Kawaguchiko Motor Museum is the brainchild of avid automobile collector, restorer and racing car driver Nobuo Harada; his son Jun runs Racing Palace, one of the other galleries on the route, and is still involved in car racing. Inside of Kawaguchiko Motor Museum, in the vintage area (Hall A), an extensive cavalcade of immaculately restored classics awaits. The oldest are two of the first Benzes, from 1886 and 1898. To convey the atmosphere of times past, an antique rickshaw and Penny Farthing are displayed with promenading mannequins in period garb. Several old motorbikes include a 1925 Indian and a 1926 Douglas.

A veritable who's who of other prominent marques up to the 1950s include Morgans, MGs, Lancias, Fords, a Bugatti, a Porsche and a Pierce Arrow limousine. The most stylish is a sleek 1947 Alfa Romeo convertible coupe, in aqua with a contrasting white soft top and whitewalls. The British ambassador used a regal looking black 1950s Rolls Royce. One of the most famous models is a silver 1954 Mercedes 300SL gull wing coupe.

On the upper level, there is a row of more recent Italian exotics. While boys will drool at the more contemporary wedge like Lamborghini Countach, enthusiasts are sure to swoon at the 1964 Alfa Romeo Gulia Sprint, looking like something from an Italian version of the Jetsons. Adding spice to the mix is an outrageous bright red 1974 Cadillac Eldorado convertible.

Not surprisingly, the company plans to open an airplane museum with about 20-25 planes next summer. Exhibits will include a WWII Mitsubishi Zero and the last remaining WWII Japanese "Betsy" bomber in the world.

1959 Cadillac Sedan De Ville at Takamura Museum.

Up-market autos
A similar father-son relationship controls the rather refined Takamura Museum (JY1000, 0555-62-0001) at Yamanakako - your next stop. Owned by a local politician and landowner, the Takamura joins the father's enthusiasm for fine art with his son's interest in cars. From Kawaguchiko, simply take Route 138 for Gotemba. At Yamanakako, turn right and the museum is just behind Gusto.

The ground floor of this extensive building features vintage Chevrolet, Dodge, Ford and Mack trucks. Upstairs, a shimmering shock of red Ferraris parked along one wall greets you. On the opposite side are parked Rolls Royces from the last five decades. A classic 1959 Cadillac convertible has more fins than a Stealth bomber. On the third level, streamlined classics such as a 1937 Cord and 1939 Graham "sharknose" sedan demonstrate the confidence of an automotive "American Century."

A short distance away is another luxurious haven of stunning exotica, Gallery Abarth (JY2000, 0555-62-4884), named after the famous Italian producer of racing cars and design specials. It's nestled in the woods along Route 138, 4km from Yamanakako. An importer of Italian foods, Shiro Kosaka had been amassing a fine collection of classics since the 1960s, but it wasn't until 1992 that he finally built Gallery Abarth to show off his treasures.

While the Ferraris at Takamura are stunning, nothing can adequately prepare you for the glare of bright red sports cars inside Abarth's museum. As at Takamura, soft music wafts through the cavernous display area while polished marble covers the floor, where a range of Abarth-modified Ferraris, Lancias and Fiats sit. Among the most dramatic is a 1989 Ferrari "Prototipo Mythos" convertible and a futuristic looking 1969 Coupe Speciale - at least it used to look futuristic to anyone that owned a die-cast Matchbox toy version of the same car as a kid.

1947 Chris Craft motorboat at Takamura Museum

Exciting car racers
Compared to the boutique-like atmosphere of the previous museums, Racing Palace (JY1000, 0550-76-6688, www.big.or.jp/~atmuseum) is relatively earthy, consisting of two big hanger-like halls. Like its partner Kawaguchiko, this cavernous space also sports an aircraft out front; this time it's a Mitsubishi F-1, the first all-Japanese fighter jet, but this will be changed to a Phantom F-4 in future. The F-1 is still in flying condition and was flown at a Japanese base until February this year.

True to its name, Racing Palace emphasizes sports greats. "Hall A" focuses on 50 years of motorsport history, from the 1930s to the 1980s. "Hall B" has a Formula 1 section and a number of motorcycles. All types of racing cars are represented, from rally cars to Le Mans to touring vehicles. One of Racing Palace's highlights is the NASCAR Chevrolet Luminar, the actual car used in Days of Thunder. A loft level brings the total to around 80 exhibits. Hall B also contains a memorial display dedicated to the late Ayrton Senna, including photographs, memorabilia and a number of the cars he drove. Racing Palace is located 4.5km from Central Gotemba, just off Route 246 heading towards Tokyo.

Gotemba Sports Car Garden

More stunning exotics
If you think you've seen most of Japan's stock of exotic vehicles by the time you get to Gotemba Sports Car Garden (JY1500, 0550-84-0550, http://www.ferrari-museum.co.jp), think again. This place is a veritable shrine to Ferrari amidst luxurious leafy surroundings - just head towards Hakone along Route 138.

One of the pioneers of Hakone's car museums, Yoshiho Matsuda built the now closed Porsche museum in 1981. When that failed, he went on to open the Art City Museum of Art in 1996, which included artworks by the likes of Warhol and Lichtenstein, as well as glass art. In 1998, this, in turn, evolved into the current Ferrari-based Sports Car Garden. Among the highlights are vintage Ferraris, mostly dating from the 1960s. For small children, mini versions are available. Kids can take their pick from Porsche, Mercedes or Ferrari, among others. A half size Bugatti, made in 1927 for Ettore Bugatti's second son, is on display. There are also hundreds of models and even miniature airplanes. In a nearby wing, there is a selection of streamlined ultra exotics. As well as Ferraris from the 1970s, there is a fabulous Ferrari F50 that hits 325kph.

Rolls Royce Phantom T Limousine at Takamura Museum

Just for kids
Kids will go crazy over the fine array of (mostly red) model cars on sale at Gotemba Sports Car Garden, although a reasonable selection is also available at Kawaguchiko Motor Museum. At Sports Car Garden, there is a noisy high revving Sega/Ferrari arcade game for kids of all ages who need to let off a bit of steam. This museum also has extensive landscaped grounds perfect for all manner of kiddy antics. Generally though, most of the museums aren't suitable for children of less than about eight years of age.

Where to eat
There are few possibilities for a bite to eat near the relatively remote Kawaguchiko Museum, but Kawaguchiko township and Gotemba have the usual array of fast food and other outlets. In addition to the predictable range of touristy amenities, there is a Gusto conveniently located right in front of the Takamura Museum, on the main road overlooking Lake Yamanakako. In keeping with their upmarket European image, Gotemba Sports Car Garden offers the Café Bella Vista for a coffee or meal.

Gallery Abarth

Budget accommodation
Don't feel like driving all the way back home? Although the Fuji area has plenty of hotels for the well heeled, visitors on a budget are also catered to with youth hostels at Kawaguchiko, Fuji-Yoshida, Yamanakako and Gotemba.

It all goes to show, that there's more to this popular area than onsen, waterfalls, shrines, spectacular alpine views and sundry tourist clichés. Start your engines and rev up for some real driving excitement.


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Tokyo car museums

For those unable to make it all the way to Mt Fuji, a taste of automotive history can be had at Toyota's History Garage (03-3599-0808, www.megaweb.gr.jp), beside Venus Fort and a part of the Mega Web complex in Odaiba (Aomi stn, Yurikamome line).

While there's only one Ferrari, there is a good collection of Japanese models from the 1950s onwards. Around 30 exhibits of Japanese, European and American models combine with a generic, American-inspired "Route 66" retro look.

On the flip side, there are some cars here that represent the opposite of retro - including a 1981 Delorean, complete with gull-wing doors and a brushed aluminum body, famous for its role in the film Back to the Future.

Fans of finely restored cars can check out the Restore Pit, which shows actual restorations in progress. English-language pamphlets are available to help you find your way around, and there's an excellent enthusiast-quality shop, Grease, featuring a wide range of English language books and magazines (some go as far back as forty years).

Best of all, it's free.
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