The Week I Drove A Honda S800M Through Japan

Introduction

Why can’t plans go our way?

I’m serious. This from someone who does less actual planning and more general direction pointing, but still! We as automotive enthusiasts have a plan of adventure during a road trip; a vision if you will of how we see an epic journey unfolding. We often wait months, sometimes putting in long hours of wrench time and spending more money than planned, but isn’t it all justified in the end?

I am a US military member who has lived in Okinawa, Japan since early 2020. Over a year ago, I purchased a 1969 Honda S800M that was once owned by long-time Japanese Nostalgic Car contributor Skorj. This was after a two years of digital correspondence between myself, Skorj, an S Car Honda Club mechanic, and the car’s then owner/collector. You can read more about all that in The Day I Bought A S800M.

Now, back to my latest chapter in this story…

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Let me paint the picture: I planned an epic 10-day road trip with my brother who was going to fly in to Japan from the US to join me. We are talking a generational pilgrimage-type road trip here; stops at all the meccas of Japanese automotive heritage locations and bucket list sites. Honda’s god-status tuners Spoon/Type One and Mugen? Yes please! Nismo and RWB? Of course! Daikoku Parking Area for iconic car meets? You betcha!

Then, for our journey south, we planned overnight stays in Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Fukuoka and Kumamoto. We would avoid expressways where possible and seek out traditional touge routes through the mountains for the full JDM fanboy experience.

This would all be done in the classic Honda icon I had just purchased. True childhood dream come true stuff. But alas, it was not meant to be.

It might have been a bit too ambitious really, especially during an era of ongoing pandemic travel restrictions. At the time, I figured Japan would soon open back up to tourism and everything would be back to normal, well before our selected start date, which of course came and went. Life has a funny sense of humor and history is 20/20 because I was way off.

The time eventually came when I could no longer hold off on the trip hoping for ideal conditions. The car had to move before April after spending longer than planned in the care of a generous friend with an extra parking space. These were the cards I was dealt, so I had to make the best of it.

Instead of a shared Japanese road trip between two American brothers living their best lives, I offer you a consolation prize of a four-day sprint from Tokyo to Okinawa. One packed with long hours on the expressway, frequent stops to local convenience stores for quick food, becoming a first time open ocean vehicle ferry passenger, and hoping my 50-plus-year-old Honda did not leave me stranded in a country that I don’t speak the native language.

Day 1

I arrived in Yokohama via airplane and train on an early March morning. My family and I had spent Christmas in Tokyo just a few months prior, so I was feeling confident in my large metropolis public transportation navigation skills. I only got lost once…

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Like a man on a mission, I walked up to a familiar workshop and friendly master mechanic that had been taking care of my little Honda while I lived more than 1,000 miles away. We exchanged greetings and I thanked him for the kindness he had shown me. His brother, who also dabbles in classic Shōwa-era cars, was in town and together the pair did a final mechanical check of the Honda before helping me pack it with all the spare parts I had acquired during the past year and a half.

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In typical Japanese politeness, they escorted me to the nearest kōsoku-dōro (expressway) entrance to see me off on the start of my solo road trip.

I had a lot of miles to cover until my first overnight stop and only half a day to do it. With a room booked in Kyoto for the night, it would be another seven hours before I could rest up. Like most people, I prefer to make long drives in daylight if I am unfamiliar with the route. It was one less thing to worry about among other variables that could make this whole trip go south. I decided to push the little Honda to get ahead of the clock, and it did not disappoint.

Originally built as a high-revving sports car with European inspiration, the early Honda S-cars are not really designed for sustained modern highway speeds. Luckily my car is a later S800 Coupe model that traded 1,000rpm from the rev limit (now only 9,000rpm instead of 10,000rpm, the horror!) for more usable torque, a few creature comforts like an efficient heating system and more reliability. Of course, my car had also just received a mechanical refresh of the entire engine and drivetrain with a few bits thrown in to bump up the original power output number and increase reliability across the board.

To my relief, cruising at 70mph (112km/h) proved no trouble at all, if not a bit buzzy with the 4-speed transmission. There was ample power to inspire confidence and the coupe design makes the cabin feel more like the inside of a miniature Jaguar E-Type in terms of perceived space. I felt like I was a road rally driver of the past as I soaked up the miles to Kyoto.

Day 2

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Kyoto for a foreigner is kind of a ‘pinch me’ moment, and I woke up early to try and do some sightseeing before I hit the road. Even though the original trip plan was a bust, I did not want to miss an opportunity that might not present itself again.

Walking the streets you have only seen on Instagram is a bit surreal. Colorful temples at the end of winding alleyways, cherry blossoms lining streets and framing wooden building – Kyoto really made me feel lucky to be living in Japan. Due to the early time there was not much foot traffic, so it was ideal for taking pictures. However, the shops had yet to open so I could not grab any souvenirs to take home with me. It’s a good reason to come back for sure.

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Driving from Kyoto to Fukuoka took the most time behind the wheel. It was here, as I moved away from the city to the countryside, that I came to truly appreciate the Japanese roading system. Yes, the tolls were expensive, but I could see exactly where the money goes.

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The pavement was amazing and I drove over hundreds of bridges and through dozens of mountain tunnel passes that must cost a fortune to maintain. The roads were all as smooth as glass, free of trash and debris, well-lit, and large rest areas were frequent. In the US, you point your big SUV in a direction, set the cruise control and try not to fall asleep. This drive was different in every way. Constant sweeping turns and hills to play with and the best roadside convenient stops on the planet.

Once again, I couldn’t believe that a kid from Maryland whose first car was a 1991 CR-X that got totaled (not my fault, I promise) was driving Honda’s first sports car through the Japanese motherland.

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Having arrived in Fukuoka before the sun set this time, I did what any Speedhunter would do – explore the streets on foot from my hotel with a camera in tow. Despite the rainy weather, I found some interesting sites, including a boutique racing shop that had a Nissan Fairlady Z and several very nice European sports cars inside.

What do you think is under that red car cover? Probably a Ferrari, and perhaps sporting a Liberty Walk kit? That’s just my guess…

Fukuoka itself has a distinctive Japanese city feeling that separates it from the more famous cities in the north. It is not the glittery international destination hotspot of Tokyo, the hipster coastal city of Osaka, or a world-class historic culture and tourism hub like Kyoto. It doesn’t pretend to be any of those thing either, and I can respect that. It’s like a small tough kid that had to grow up with bigger folks on the playground and became a bit of a rascal with a chip on its shoulder. It reminded me of my little outlaw S800M, holding its own among other JDM legends.

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Day 3

The pattern of early morning rising continued on day three and it was still raining. Today was going to be the last drive through mainland Japan, my destination being the south port city of Kagoshima to catch a ferry back home. The ship was scheduled to depart early afternoon with a 25-hour sea journey time to Okinawa, stopping at multiple ports along the way.

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As usual, I left with just enough time to make it to the dock. My luck was still holding out, because just by chance I checked my GPS at a stop 10 miles from the city and saw that I was headed to the wrong location. The automotive gods must have been still smiling down on me…

Let me pass on some advice if you ever come to Japan: Don’t be too proud to use Google Translate and pretty much beg the locals to take pity on you if you’re a poor ignorant American. When I arrived at the ferry ticketing office, I was told I could only reserve car slots online the day prior to departure. I had actually tried to do this a few times, but Japanese financial institutes and businesses don’t always work well with US banks so the purchase never was able to go through. In typical cowboy fashion, I figured I would show up and handle it when I arrived.

That’s right, I flew across the country, drove a classic car 900+ miles in a land that I don’t speak the native language at all, praying I did not break down somewhere with no real way to easily get the car repaired, on a belief that the ferry company would sell me a ticket on the day of departure to meet my tight timeline. The response from my wife after I texted her an update was, “why do you live your life this way?”. I do not have a good answer, so moving on…

This is an example of me doing general direction pointing rather than having an actual thought out plan, like I mentioned at the beginning of this story.

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An immediate hurdle was that the vehicle hold was full. Smart travellers, who followed the normal procedure, had reserved all the available spots. I like to live on the edge.

The next ferry was in two days, which would not work with my schedule as I was departing on a work trip as soon as I got back to Okinawa. So I did what any self-respecting man in my position would do, I asked for help. I explained my situation via Google’s robot voice, applied to the innate Japanese courtesy I have come to highly admire, and threw myself at their feet for mercy.

The young man behind the counter saved my butt. Not only did he convince his manager to sell me a passenger ticket, but also brought a deckhand from the ship to literally measure my car in the parking lot to see if there was room for it. There was! My luck at this point must have been legendary.

Within 30 minutes I was in line to load the little Honda with the rest of the vehicles being transported to Okinawa in the ship’s cargo bay. Somehow, against all the odds and with a lot of help, I had reached the final part of the trip. I was grateful, but all I could think about at the time was whether or not sea sickness would be in my immediate future.

Day 4

I was not able to book a single individual passenger room since I was pretty much one step off a stowaway at this point. The passenger hold accommodations were separate cubby spaces with sleep mats in a large open area. Even though we had passed through some pretty rough water between the mainland and the southern island chains, my heavy tiredness and empty stomach keep me reasonable and mostly passed out for most of it.

With calmer waters ahead I ventured for a late lunch in the dining area and sat outside to pass the time, beginning to process the last few days. It had been a complete sprint through Japan, but something I’ll never forget. Adventures like these bring us closer to our cars. The experiences we share bond us to our machines and elevate them beyond simple, desirable purchases. It was also a great crash course in the S800M’s quirks. I’ve started to figure out what it does well and what I can improve on.

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Arriving in Okinawa was straight forward. I could drive my Honda right out of the cargo hold at the direction of the deckhands, through the port gate and then onto the street. I still had an hour drive back to my house, so after a quick stop for gas I was on my way, cruising in familiar territory.

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Taking the coastal road instead of the expressway presented another perk of ownership I had yet to enjoy. The slower movement pace and frequent stops for traffic lights allowed me to share the car with others for the first time. On more occasions than I could count, the little sports car drew smiles, looks with pointed fingers and thumbs up from the Japanese locals.

What are my plans now that the S800M is in my possession full time, you might ask? Well, there is always rust to repair and protect from, especially on a tropical island in the Pacific. I’ll admit it is not exactly practical being a tiny two-seater with no air-conditioning for full-time family duties, so I will be keeping my daily beater for the time being. I still intend to take the little Honda with me when I move to my next assignment in 2023.

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Honestly, at this point I just relocated it from one hibernation spot to another, but we added a pretty significant chapter to the book of ownership and that makes this important.

So I guess this brings this part of the story to a close. Sure, it was not the original road trip I planned, however it was a whirlwind adventure nonetheless. One that I will cherish and appreciate every time I look at this little rascal. Daddy’s “toy car,” as my kids say. Until next time!

Brian McIntyre Ray
Instagram: brianmr87

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