Simon Clays traverses the island of Kyushu in the latest sports offering from Japanese car manufacturer Lexus. On the way, he finds peace with the gods and monsters of his teenage obsessions, manga and anime. By Simon Clays
I’m standing on the edge of the hotel’s lobby area, staring down at the city of Fukuoka and the surrounding crayon of deep blue ocean that marks the point where land meets sea. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such blue waters. Another journalist joins me. He makes the same remark as I about the water. We’re doing what journalists do: marking time, chatting idly, waiting to be impressed.
“It’s my first time in Japan,” I tell him. He’s been to Tokyo and Kyoto. I should go, he tells me.
“I’ve been fascinated for decades,” I go on. “Had a career with Nintendo and Sony. Written scores about manga and anime movies. Literally a research thesis on post-war Japanese monster movies. Held a torch for God knows how many Japanese starlets. And yeah, I dig sushi.”
He laughs, moves on. I’m not sure if it’s at the sushi or the starlets. Yet, for all the talk that I should have taken the plunge and embraced Japan as a vacation many moons ago, it’s work that’s finally driven my visit, literally. I’m here to test a new Lexus supercar. Yet, this isn’t the Japan of Lost in Translation that my mind imagined. There is the neon hustle and lightning pace, but someone has nudged the dimmer switch to low. I’m about 1,100 kilometres west of Tokyo—closer to South Korea and Seoul than the heartland of Japan. With all of its leggy sprawl, Fukuoka City sits on Japan’s most southerly island, Kyushu—the last land mass before the billions of gallons of water that make up the East China Sea.
This is old Japan. Slower Japan. The Japan most influenced by the Chinese. And Fukuoka is the city with the closest cultural connect to China. My first stop is case in point, as I want to check out Hakata-ori textiles. If that sounds a little left-field, let me explain. This technique of fabric-making goes back to the 13th century, when two local weavers travelled to China and studied for six years in Mingzhou. They returned with a cloth so strong and so fine that it was adopted by the royal Shogun—1,000 yarns each, of just one millimetre, go to make a single band, and just one band can take up to six months to produce. It was worn by samurai and warriors in the fierce battle that protected the island, and Japan, from the Mongol invasion of the notorious Kublai Khan at the end of the same century. It was donned again when doomed Japanese pilots took to the skies as kamikaze air warriors in the desperate last days of 1945 and the bloody climax to the War for the Pacific. Visitors to Hakata-ori textiles can take a tour of the looms in action, and yes, there’s a shop that sells everything from ties to togas.
That segues me nicely back to Lexus, which just happens to have used Hakata-ori in extremely limited edition for their seat upholstery before. Or so the kind gentlemen who are familiarising me with the internal manifestations of the LC 500h tell me. The first thing I’m struck by, is just how much of a departure the car is from where Lexus started. It’s a long hop from their sedans of the 1990s. The only real commonality to the Lexus in India range is the ever-growing part-electric, part-petrol (hybrid) stance.
For sure, this GT is a roguishly good looking beast, all bonnet and braces. Haunches as high as your shoulder and wheels straight out of my manga movies, it’s quite beautiful in silver. This fact is borne out as I idle the car through town. Ahead, standing on the banks of the canal that separates one set of highrises from another, there’s a crowd of Japanese kids, eyes glued to an immaculate J-pop boy band, who are lip-syncing on a floating stage. Until the Lexus purrs by and the crowd is drawn by the car’s dramatic aesthetic. The boy band disappears under the bridge, and I think the Lexus has just got more ‘Likes’ and selfies than any other car I’ve driven.
In a GT, you demand comfort. The Lexus has it in spades (10-position electric seats for starters) and is quite simply a spaceship kitted out with just about every device there is to pack into a car. At one point, I think I might find a Swiss army knife lurking under the dash.
Driving through a city of such contrasts is a delight. The high-tech and the historic glide by. Temples and technology. Shintoism and shopping malls. And then, there are the eateries. Restaurants of all shapes and sizes litter side streets. Inside, outside, waterside, there’s something for every conceivable taste bud—even the vegetarian. Fukuoka is fabled for its sushi and the much-feared monster, the blowfish, which requires the chef to hold a license. It’s been known to kill diners and looks like it was dragged straight out of my manga comics. But sushi? Hold that thought.
The drive out of the city that is split into two by the River Naka-gawa, with Fukuoka sitting on one side and Hakata the other, is quite spectacular. The roads open up, and so can the car. There is a multitude of places where I can push the 354 bhp of Japanese auto muscle around Kyushu island. Further south, and to the west, there are at least eight active volcanoes that can be summited. Mount Aso is the most famous—and most tempestuous—erupting as recently as 2018. Most are accessible through miles of untouched parkland, if you have the constitution and a good pair of hiking boots.
Then there’s Beppu, Japan’s premier onsen town, where, courtesy of the island’s intense volcanic activity, there are natural springs of varying heat and colour to bathe in. All this heat is why the Japanese christened the last of the main islands ‘Fire Island’.
But I want some heat of my own. A chance to push the silver Grand Tourer through its paces. Shika Island, just 30 kilometres west of the city, seems the ideal place. Within no time, I am snaking along a coastal road, which seems to have been built for this GT’s cornering ability. The views of the islets out at sea, mauve companions to some of the most pristine sandy beaches I’ve ever come across, are both stunning and surprising in the same gear change. It speaks mountains about the Japanese as a culture and how much they respect their land. I know the beaches that line the coastal road are a haven for city dwellers on the weekend; the island is reputed to be the best place for surfers in Japan, yet there’s not one piece of litter to obstruct my view. No ugly graffiti offends nature. Man’s impact is subtle, and the waters run clear.
So clear, I have to park up, take a coffee, sit in the warm sunshine at the water’s edge, and gaze out into the East China Sea. It’s majestic, endless. I think about Kublai Khan and his 1,50,000-strong flotilla spread as far as the eye can see across the ocean, all those centuries ago. It’s no wonder he wanted it for himself so badly.
Back in the cockpit of the Lexus, all is calm. However hard I push the hybrid horses, the car never gets too excited. It’s incredibly well balanced and only feels a little ill at ease on the occasional engine rev. Of course, being part electric, it’s lightning-fast off the blocks—instant torque that propels the car to 100 kmph in five seconds. The LC 500h’s head-up display ticks me off on occasion as I get more familiar with the tarmac and the island’s hour-glass curves. The whole experience is serenity. This is, I guess, how Lexus would want it. Fire on the outside organised zen on the inside.
On the way back into the city, I feel the need for a little more tranquillity, so I make for one of the city’s most famous Shinto shrines. The Hakozaki Shrine dates back to the third century. It’s been home to spirit Gods of pretty much every shape and size, although the temple’s main shrine dates back merely 500 years. Sure, its picture-book architecture is a sure social-media hit. But the water cleansing ceremony one must perform before entering is the most eloquent way to understand the Japanese’s respect and code for their lost ones. The temizuya, found at the entrance to the shrine’s inner grounds, is a place for ritualistic cleansing. Both your hands and mouth must be pure before you enter. It’s a slow and gentle process that eases the revs, rubber, and petrol from my soul.
Soul satiated, my stomach starts calling out for attention; it’s time to track down some of the city’s legendary cuisine. But where? I’m kind of mid-town without the slightest comprehension of what the signs are saying. All I know from tinkering on the Internet is that the Nakasu area has a reputation for great bars and nightlife. It’s the Soho of the city, where 18 bridges meet, and also home to the city’s largest strip of neon enticement.
I’m lost in a sea of home-bound commuters. The day has passed by with unexpected haste. For all the 18 bridges, I can’t seem to find even one. There’s only one thing to do: ask a stranger. At random, I wave at the nearest passing human. It’s a guy. Middle-aged. Dressed for work. He listens intently to my pleas. There’s a pause while I’m expecting him to reel off a series of lefts, rights, and landmarks, but no such thing happens as he beckons me to follow him. I’m thinking I must be much closer than I imagined until we’ve walked for nearly half an hour.
Then, suddenly, he stops and points at a very tidy bar opposite us. Gives me the thumbs up, bows, smiles and is gone. As it happens, the bar, Nakasu 1923, serves a pleasing Japanese ale and is located just metres from a dozen great sushi joints.
It’s time to take stock of the day. This morning, I was waiting to be impressed. I am now. All the cultural quirks I read about, played, and watched in the decades gone by, have come to life before my eyes. The car has been devilish. But the thing that has struck me most about the region is its people. This type of kindness, willingness to help and pride is a rare bird, indeed. It’s infectious, and the city feeds off it. It is as hungry to please as I am to sample. Now it’s time to find that fresh fish on the canalside, and maybe, just maybe, I’ll spot Godzilla lurking in the waters, too.
Agora Fukuoka Hilltop Hotel & Spa affords great views of the city and is a short taxi drive from the centre of town. There are rooms that flaunt the traditional Japanese tatami style simple furnishings, mats, and bedding. Or, you can opt for a more Western-style room, dressed in much the same way as any Indian five-star room. From INR 13,000.
Restaurant Sola, situated in the heart of the harbour area, serves excellent modern Japanese cuisine, courtesy of Michelin-star Chef Hiroki Yoshitake. For a more traditional meal, Meihodo Keien in Hilton Fukuoka Sea Hawk takes some beating.