Matsuri event brings a little bit of Japan to Taupo

Like a lot of things – events in particular – the day, date and what actually happened at the very first Drift “Matsuri’ (a word which loosely translates as ‘Festival’ in Japan) have been lost in the mists of time.

Today, of course, virtually every country exposed over the past 20-30 years either to so-called second-hand ‘Jap Imports’ (NZ, Ireland, Sth America and in more recent times, Australia and a number of Asian territories etc) or to fast-depreciating manual transmission, rear-wheel-drive coupe and sedans like – let’s see – BMWs (western Europe), Ladas (Russia and Siberia) and a mix of all three (the UK, eastern Europe, the Russian far east , and even South Africa and hotspots (literally) in the middle east like Lebanon and Dubai) have some sort of annual, bi-annual or at least semi-regular Drift Matsuri event.

My ‘guess’ is that the very first would have been held at the sport’s ‘spiritual home,’ Ebisu, (which I have written about before). Situated high in the foothills west of the city of Nihonmatsu in the Fukushima prefecture (yep that one!!)  the complex of drift specific tracks has been created by landowner and drifter Nobushige Kumakubo (of Team Orange) fame to make it easier for anyone – literally – to turn up and either learn from scratch or practice the fine art of drifting.

I’m also thinking that the first specific ‘Drift’ Matsuri was probably held sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s – or, in other words – just when the ‘sport’ was shrugging off its illegal street and touge (mountain pass or canyon-road) roots and embracing the brave new world of competitive battle-style drifting.

It was this ‘battle’ component, for instance which – I believe – secured Drifting’s place in the sporting pantheon. Where, for instance, would Boxing be if it weren’t a competition between two finely honed fighters?

Answer? Nowhere.

As the old saying goes; its takes two to tango, something the original architects of the sport, Option magazine founder and publisher Daijiro Inada, and the Dorikin (Drift King) himself, Keiichi Tsuchiya, not only realised but built their whole presentation model on.

With all sorts of international travel bans in place at the moment, this year is obviously a bit different.

In the past 10-years however,  drifters from around the world  have been have flying into Tokyo’s Narita airport and taking a Bullet Train north to Ebisu where they will enter into an agreement to buy a drift-ready car through on-track concessionaire, Andrew Gray (a Scot who moved to Japan to drift and has stayed), and joining the organised chaos that is Japan’s Drift Week aka ‘Matsuri’ in either Spring, Summer or Autumn.

The word ‘bacchanalian’ immediately springs to mind when I think about how to describe a week in which – when you get there – all you have to do is drive………………

The only issue here, of course is that Bacchanalian is based on excess boozing and I’m reluctant to build a word picture around getting rat-faced and anything to do with driving a car – on OR off the road!

So let’s just say that Matsuri meetings are all about celebrating everything that is good about the activity we now know as Drifting

Sure, you could also do a bit of touristy stuff in and around Ebisu – like visiting local shrines and retreats in the mountains behind the complex – if you really must.

But Kiwi mates who have attended at least one Matsuri event in Japan have told me that once inside the gate you simply don’t want to get out from behind the steering wheel of your car.

First, there are all the many and varied ‘courses,’ you can tick off and/or practise your skills on. Then (hah! get this) there is a special competition just for visiting ‘foreign’ drivers called the G1GP .

Once that is over there is little time to rest and recover either  because the final 48 hours (and I quote from the brochure) is all about a famously popular non-stop, day and (If you can hack it) all-night too, drift ‘frenzy’ on each of the six or so different courses. Which you can check out with top Norwegian drifter Fredric Aasbo here.

Most people, of course, pick and choose from this smorgasbord of ‘drifting delights.’ But some – again from what people tell me – and what I have observed from the ‘many’ YouTube channel videos I have watched in the past two or three years, that the odd ‘animal’ will stay awake (and obviously alert enough) all day and the next night just to say they did so.

Here there doesn’t really appear to be the demand to run our local Matsuris 24 to 36-hour straight at the track. Though the organiser of the Taupo Winter event I attended this weekend just past, Chris Howard, makes sure the 100+ drivers and several hundred other mates, spectators and assorted hangers-on are as well catered for off the track as they are on it.

As it turned out by the time I had had my full of drifting all day (after leaving home in Auckland at just after 3.00am that morning) and packed the Skyline and my pit area up it was a just-starting to get chilly again at 5.30pm on Saturday evening, and though I fully intended to stick my head around the door and check out the after-party at a venue in downtown Taupo, after a shower and freshen up at my digs half way between the track and ‘town’  by the time I got there I was dog-tired and ended up back at my unit and ready for bed by 9.00pm.

Last year I signed on for two days at the beginner/amateurs’ course on the old ‘club circuit’ and had  a ball….this year though I decided it was time to pull on my ‘Big Boy drift pants’ and run with the ‘Big Dogs’ on the main (D1) tandem course at Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park.

In the past I’ve been loath to do this because my old N/A SOHC 3-litre RB30E Skyline is just so underpowered compared with virtually every other car at a major event like a Matsuri.

I was buoyed at the summer event late last year though watching the antics of former D1NZ series regular Nick Teeboon and current D1NZ judge Brendan Duncker in their consciously low-powered AE85 and 86 Toyota Corollas and resolved to take a page out of their gravity-assisted (The D1 course at Taupo starts with a roller-coaster run  downhill in the reverse, clockwise direction, from turn 4 to turn 1) book.

Lining up behind guys like former D1NZ Pro-Sport champion Vincent Langhorn and current  D1NZ hard chargers Tully Puckey and Ra Heyder seemed quite surreal when I first pulled up at the start shute. But no-one told me a piss-off and I found that I could hang even with the two Genesis  Massive 2JZ Toyota-powered Chasers in 1st and 2nd gear off the line.

Once everyone else in a turbo or V8-engined car clutch kicked to crest the top of Turn 4 sideways however, I was buggered as I promptly ran out of revs, wheel speed and talent through Turn 3.

By cutting across the ripple strip at Turn 2 I could make up some ground on them again only to lose it as I was blinded by twin walls of thick, acrid and initially anyway – utterly blinding – tyre smoke which stuffed up my planned entry to Turn 1.

Sure, I could have done what I have always done in the past and simply done single run passes all day. But sometimes, as I was explaining to someone, you have to take a step into the unknown…and bar a couple of trips off the track as I re-familiarised myself with how hard you need to mash the go pedal to keep the old R31 in drift (rather than reverting to grip and throwing me off in whichever direction the front tyres are facing at the time) I had a ball.

As did pretty much every other person I spoke to (be they driver, event official, R31 afficionado etc etc) over the two says I was at the track.

To which all I can say is, Chris mate, when’s the next one?

Ross MacKay

Ross MacKay is an award-winning journalist, author and publicist with first-hand experience of motorsport from a lifetime competing on two and four wheels. He currently combines a day job editing NZ4WD magazine with contract media work, weekend Mountain Bike missions and towing his 1989 Nissan Skyline drifter to grassroots meetings around the North Island.

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