Melbourne’s Simone Martin travelled to Japan to see rallying in the snow, to see Dean Herridge drive the zero car in the event, and to witness the debut of Toshi Arai’s brand new Subaru Impreza WRX in action.

Here’s her story…….


For all those of you who are sitting at home drooling of the Swedish WRC’s snowy stages – dream no more! Yes, a trip to Sweden with your whole team and car may require a lottery win, but we’ve found something close to home that will give you a taste of snow even deeper than Swede, and the only thing you need to pack is your race suit and co-driver!

In 2007 we were lucky enough to be asked to come to the Baragi Ice Circuit Club’s Rally in Tsumagoi, North West of Tokyo. The rally was a great success with top drivers Toshi Arai and Kamada entered. It was also a fantastic experience for us, so when we were asked to return in 2008 we again leapt at the chance to join the team of volunteers that make this event so much fun.

The rally has now been re-named the Rally of Tsumagoi and the event organisers are drawing on their own wealth of knowledge as long-time competitors both here and overseas to create an event which is truly international. Unlike anything we have in Australia, the Rally of Tsumagoi covers roads of ice and snow across mountain ranges probably more suitable for skiing and snow boarding than motorsport.

While the 2008 event has been run and won, in 2009 the organisers will have available rental rally cars of all shapes and sizes, and drivers and co-drivers will be able to fly in with just their helmets and race suits in tow to compete. Even a service crew would be provided. As for licensing, at this stage we think only an international driving permit will be required (Approx. $50 cost). We will confirm this shortly as it may change if the event gains international status.

For those of you who like the idea but are worried about the language barrier, don’t stress. The organisers speak good English and all you have to do is speak a little slower and clearer than you would here in Australia. Short courses at TAFE colleges or Melbourne’s CAE are a good idea though, as with any overseas travel, where learning the basic ‘please and thank you’ is always appreciated by the local people. Translators can also be organised for you if you wish but I don’t believe it would be necessary.

As for the event itself, it is run no differently to any FIA spec event. Most of the road book and paper work is in English or is easily understood through the maps and diagrams included. Of course there is the odd “Frying Finish” and ‘Brakefast’ which is a meal, not a pace note, but this just adds to the fun of being here. Many of you know the effort of organising a rally but imagine trying to organise it in another language second to your own!

I have been most impressed with the effort Takakuwa san and his team have put into this event. The maps are exceptional. The paper work is all world class. Recce forms, safety plans, the road book itself and all time control paper work is produced to the very standard to which they have learnt in their time competing around the world. Also you can use the road book here or you are welcome to write your own pace notes.

Many top people from STi, Subaru, Mitsubishi and other famous Japanese motoring and motorsport organisations have come to work as officials at this rally also, adding to the high standard of organisation. These people are all very ‘new age’ Japanese in their thinking and keen to embrace the world outside of Japan. The old style customs of class and order are replaced here by keen enthusiasm with huge respect still maintained.

It is a fantastic opportunity to incorporate travel, rallying, and to learn the culture and country from which many top rally cars and teams have stemmed. You can even go snowboarding or skiing while you are here in the pure deep powdered snow that is already attracting so many Australians that parts of Hokkaido are now know as ‘Little Australia’. Return flights to Narita, Tokyo, start from $1440 AU (ex.Melb) and with the Japanese Yen to Australian dollar ratio often close to 1AUD:100Yen lately, it’s the perfect time to try something new. With that sort of exchange rate most things are similar in cost in Japan to what they are here.

JR (Japan Rail) also offers week long rail passes for around $290 which make travel here so much easier. Many of the signs are already in English, since the soccer World Cup came to Japan a few years ago and each announcement on the train system is repeated in English. These JR passes also entitle you to travel on the Shinkansen. This train system frequents between 200 and 300 km per hour on the open sections of track and the smoothness and timeliness of travel is truly excellent.

In 2009 we will again be making the trek to Japan for this event and will be happy to help with any queries you might have if you’d like to enter the 2009 BICC Rally of Tsumagoi. Please contact me at and I will answer your questions and put you in touch with the event organisers if you are keen to get a plan started. Whether you are planning a career in the WRC or just looking for a new experience for young or old alike, I’m sure the 2009 BICC Rally of Tsumagoi will once again be a blast, just as 2007 and 2008 were for us.

The following are tales of our 2008 adventures as we (‘we’ being myself, Danny Murphy and Dean Herridge) once again found ourselves in the shadow of the mighty Mt Asama volcano.

In 2007 Dean drove the zero car and Danny the double zero while I took photos while standing in knee deep snow in a beautiful white forest. 2008 again saw us in these same roles. Sakamoto san is the main media co-ordinator here at the rally and is a rally veteran of countless WRC and APRC events around the world with 18 Pikes Peaks under his belt. I am again heading out to the stages with him and very much looking forward to it.

Dean, once again, had a 2005 Impreza once driven by Tommi Makinen while Danny had a car owned by local rally driver, Funaki san. Many Rally Australia followers may remember the “Power of Love” rally team from 2005 when Kawano was granted a final wish to drive at Rally Australia with his wife as co-driver shortly before he passed away from a terminal illness. The team ran three cars in Australia, all of which are covered in stickers of hearts, flowers and kisses and all of which are here now. Danny’s 2005 Impreza is one of these and Kawano’s brother is entered in another.

Danny and I arrived in Tokyo with two days to spare and had a great time exploring the Shinjuku and Ginza areas of Tokyo. The department stores alone here are worth taking the time to visit. Tokyo Hands in Skinjuku has everything from Snap-on tools, to the craziest fancy dress outfits imaginable, Crumpler bags from Melbourne and 100’s of gadgets to make daily life here a little easier. Called the “Creative Life Store” this really is what it’s all about in Japan, finding fun in the every day.

Dean arrived in Tsumagoi after a night in Tokyo and meetings with his new Cusco Team with which he will do three rounds of the APRC series this year. The temperature here is very different from his native Perth, hovering between five degrees to well below zero at night, even colder in the mountains.

On Wednesday afternoon we arrived in Tsumagoi and checked into Rally HQ, The Hotel Green Plaza Karuizawa. This Swiss style chalet hotel is the perfect place to run a rally from. It is located centrally to the rally stages with great facilities including many restauran ts, volcanically heated onsen baths and even a dog hotel! An ice village is also being built here for the weekend with igloos, an ice bar and ice carvings of everything from teddy bars to Godzilla to a huge Aztec temple under construction.

We quickly headed out to the stages in Takakuwa’s Landcruiser. This 70 series has a mile of clearance and more body roll than the Titanic but was perfectly suited to the deep snow out on the stages. A snow plough would be required before race day to get the cars through but meanwhile we had a great time chugging through the deep powder in low range first gear, up and down the mountains.

I also now understand the ‘leaning on snow banks’ concept you hear so often on the WRC coverage, although interesting in a 2 ton Landcruiser, it is all good! Some fluffy deer, looking more like large shaggy dogs than Bambi, watched us. Conditions are fairly extreme here, especially high up on the mountain plains with the wind howling past and ice under foot.

The rally consists of eight stages, including a special stage at the ice circuit. As race day draws near there are frequent trips out to install signs and the usual control points you would find at any rally. Again, everything is easily recognisable as standard. As the week progresses more organisers and officials arrive and each night becomes later and later with the sharing photos and sake (rice liqueur) or Irish whisky while chatting like a bunch of ‘Obachan’s” (Nana’s).

With each morning is a buffet breakfast with so many types of food to choose from you won’t know where to start. There is traditional local fare including noodles, miso soup, salmon, rice, pickled vegies and nori (seaweed) and western foods like cereal, yogurt, fruit, eggs, bacon and toast. There are even French fries as the Japanese are big fans of fried ‘potato’. Japanese food in Japan is far better than Japanese food here, like everything I guess, best taken in context. The Japanese beer is also very good with Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo being the most popular. Sake however is rocket fuel so take care.

The hotel restaurants aren’t traditional in that you don’t have to sit on the floor but shoes are checked at the door of some of the restaurants so new socks are a good idea, no shoes on the tatami mats basically. Many people do come to dinner here in robes after being in the Onsen. Seriously, I love a restaurant you can wear your “PJ’s” and socks to! It’s very relaxed. Funaki san looks the part – slippers, traditional robe and WRC jacket. Interesting style! He strikes a pose to show his flair. They’ve a great sense of humour here.

Recce time is Friday afternoon. Danny and his co-driver, Suzuki san, head back to the stages to put the final touches on the ice racing circuit and check out the course. Later in the day I head out to the stages with them on “Bento Box” delivery duties. Many officials have been out in the cold and wind all day but are provided a Bento Box lunch - traditional style of fried chicken, rice, vegetables, salad and fruit from Funaki’s restaurant – ‘The Rock’. At the ice circuit we double as recovery, rescuing a crew who’ve gone off. When I take a photo of their stricken Lancer, there is much hiding of faces and laughter as they try to run away in mock embarrassment.

Friday night sees the usual drivers briefing and also officials briefing. Saturday dawns to perfect conditions. It is cold, really cold – minus 11 apparently. Other than thermals, you won’t need any special gear, just layers of warm clothes. I call it the “Sara Lee look” – layer upon layer upon layer. I am wearing three layers of thermals, a rally jacket, two scarves, gloves, jeans, tights, boots and a beanie. The sales at Kathmandu are a great idea if you’re coming here and you can save a fortune buying snow gear in Australia at the end of our snow season, September/October time.

With the ceremonial start underway I head out to the stages with a group of photographers/fans co-ordinated by Sakamoto. Mostly 30 something women and only a few men, I’m surprised to learn that many of them have travelled to Australia and Norway to see Petter and Chris in action. They are dressed from head to toe in Subaru Blue like rally crazed Smurfs and speak great English. The remainder of the weekend with them is the most fun I have ever had at a rally! (Now that is a big call!)

No one does enthusiastic rally spectating like the Japanese. They love it!! For example, in Obihiro in Hokkaido there is a rally shrine, dedicated to the WRC and APRC rounds which frequent there. We set up on a long sweeper of a corner, uphill, perfect snow cover, and fantastic. Danny, grinning from ear to ear, is first through and holds his Impreza in a perfect slide of the whole 100 metres of the corner. Dean is next in similar style, waving to the fans as he goes.

The first competitor through is Toshi Arai in his brand new Impreza. He showered us all in snow as he bounces the car off a snow bank at the end of the corner. The new Impreza looks fantastic and many people have driven for hours just to see it here. There is a Lancer driven by Kuroiwa san who is determined to beat Arai on his home soil, and former national champion, Ayabe san is quick past as well.

Kunisawa san, Japan’s answer to Grant Denyer, has also entered. One of Japan’s top motoring journalists, Kunisawa’s web site received over a million hits. In 2005 he switched to rally driving and has driven in New Zealand, Australia and Thailand since. Ikemachi san, a regular Dakar and UAE competitor, has also entered and Ayabe san who is a local legend in rally circles.

You may not know many of the local drivers by name but they are committed, quick and fantastic to watch and many have a great history in rallying. The rivalry here is done in fun but at the end of the day they’re all here to do their best. Most also put in extra effort for the spectators as the foot was well and truly planted once they saw us.

As we reach the end of the 37 car field, out come the 4WD turbo or super charged Subaru Vivios and Daihatsu Boons and man, do they go! Maximum attack is the only way forward with these guys and their small size obviously gives them more room to throw their cars around. They slid past us at full tilt, the fans going crazy and the drivers tooting and waving. Some have even braved these stages in 2WD vehicles with two Honda Civics and a Toyota which would be labelled a Lexus here in Australia.

As the sweeper car arrives we get ready to head to the ice circuit. I had thought that after the rally had finished a stage the roads would be swept clean and to some extent they are. The snow has been removed but the thick ice below remains, making it even slippier but the snow banks are still there to save you. The sky hangs a thick grey with snow waiting to fall anyway so it will be thick again in a few hours.

Up at the Baragi Ice Circuit the giant Mt Asama volcano stands quietly in the background. Last year it was still smoking and it last erupted in 2004 - adds to the excitement really, doesn’t it! We hiked up to the back of the circuit to a small forest section, slipping and sliding in the tricky conditions and occasionally hitting the deck as our feet went from under us. We tottered about like penguins really, trying to stay up right until we are off the road and into the snow.

My aim is a shot of a rally car with Mt Asama as the back drop and this is no problem as both Dean and Toshi slide by. This is photography heaven with huge mountains and dormant volcanos surrounding us here in the middle of an ancient caldera. We are now on a section where the cars go by on one side and then back past about 50 metres behind us. The fans run back and forth between the two areas, cheering and waving in the deep snow.

There is ice on the exit of this corner though and just as I imagined, some one would slide off with the power still on, get grip and then spear off the road. Thankfully the car stopped when it hit the deep snow right in front of us, before it hit any of us as we all fell face first into the snow in our bid to get out of the way. The fans were back on their feet in an instant, hurling snowballs back at the offending driver in fits of laughter! And again as he passed on the other side, tooting and waving.

For me it was over all too soon and Toshi Arai had won the day, the new Impreza impressing on its debut. Ayabe was second and Kuroiwa third. Darkness began to descend as we headed back to Rally HQ. Many people wandered around the rally cars in parc ferme with the largest crowd gathering around Arai’s Impreza.

The fun wasn’t over yet. Now, there are rally parties and then there are Japanese rally parties! In 2007, Dean, Danny and I marvelled at just how much these guys and gals let their hair down at party time and 2008 was no exception. As with any rally party, ‘what happens on tour should stay on tour’ – all I can say is that if anyone heads for you with a texta pen in hand – run, or you will wind up looking like Drimo chan, a local cat cartoon character, complete with whiskers and cat nose like I did!

By midnight the craziness had subsided at a small noodle bar inside Rally HQ where the hard core crew kicked on. More fun was to come on Sunday though, with the Ice Festival which follows the rally. What looked like a foot of snow had fallen during the night and Danny cleaned off the Landcruiser with a shovel! By the time we’d driven the 30 minutes up to the ice circuit there was still frozen snow set thick on the bonnet.

Anyone skiing here right now would be in bliss. Twice PWRC champion, Toshi Arai, however, was on his way to Sweden already and the thick snow would make even leaving Japan a challenge with the transport chaos back in Tokyo. Even the drive back was reportedly doubled in time by the weather.

First up for the day were the fan rides. About 100 people lined up for rides with Kuroiwa san, Dean, Danny, Ikemachi san and other rally drivers. Out on the ice circuit it was slipping and sliding and the fans loved it, happy to sit in the navigator’s seat with who ever they could for a spin. The game of the day was for drivers to slide a section of the track, spraying the fans with snow as they went. The fans were quick to retaliate with snow balls and laughter.

After lunch it was truck racing, tiny 4WD trucks with teams of three drivers. Danny, Dean and Ikemachi san teamed up against other teams of both drivers and service crew. Competition was fierce and it was purely luck for a win here. Seat belts had to be fitted before a driver could restart and it quickly turned to tactics as the underpowered trucks could only go so fast at best. Danny, Dean and Ikemachi even resorted to push starting each other off the start line to get an advantage. A local service crew won the races much to their pleasure and joked that next year they should enter the rally rather than be the service crew!

The snow fell all day in the biggest flakes I’ve ever seen! The highlight of the day for me was definitely being let lose on the ice circuit at the wheel of Takakuwa san’s GT Forester with Miss Chiyoda san as my guide. What a laugh. I’ve done miles of off road driving in my time and the closest thing I can equate this to is the Pig Pen of Landcruiser Mountain Park after some rain - gluey, slippery and tons of fun! I did a couple of laps of the track and was hooked. Absolutely brilliant fun!

All in all the weekend was a complete success! Takakuwa and his team did a great job of organising everything, from the event itself to the party and accommodation. Now begins the count down for 2009 when the BICC Rally of Tsumagoi has even higher hopes and with the support the event has from fans, teams, sponsors and local government, I’m sure it will be “Subarashii” once again! A huge thank you from all of us to Takakuwa san, Miss Chiyoda san, Aya san, Funaki san, Whisky san, Sakamoto san and everyone who made us feel so very welcome. Thank you! See you next year.


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