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It’s not often I’m stumped as to where to start a rally story but I guess this is one out of the ordinary, out of the country and thankfully, out of this rotten heat! But still where to start… I could start as we drove through the Karuizawa mountains in Japan in an Impreza rally car as a huge moon rose behind a still smoking volcano.

I could start it while I was standing knee deep in snow on a hairpin with my camera snapping rally cars as they slid past me on the ice…. or I could start it by telling you the two zero cars were driven by none other than our own Aussie drivers, Danny Murphy and Dean Herridge. Either way, it was all good.

CHECK OUT OUR BARAGI ICE AND SNOW RALLY PHOTO GALLERY 

Most people probably wouldn’t think of Japan when it comes to snow rallies and while this maybe the motherland of Subaru, Mitsubishi, Toyota and the like, it’s not a place many Australian teams have ventured in the past, with language a sizeable barrier to begin with. Nowadays, however, there are many experienced translators who also specialise in full rally team co-ordination and guiding you through an event from start to finish, whether it be one of the WRC, APRC, national or local events on offer here. So if you’ve been watching Norway and Sweden and thinking all that snowy fun is just too far away, it isn’t.

Dean Herridge was asked to drive at this event as a guest of STi Japan, while Danny Murphy was asked by good friend and former APRC and WRC driver, Takakuwa san. After a brief stopover in Tokyo, we made the trip to Karuizawa via the shinkansen train and a drive up into the mountains, while Dean arrived the following day.

The shinkansen trains really do have to be ridden to be believed, with aeroplane-like seats, a tea lady or two and the smoothest ride you’ll ever find at 200+ kilometres an hour. This technology originated in the 1960s and has just improved ever since. On our way to Kyoto later in the trip, the train speed popped up at 292 km per hour, allowing us to cover almost 500km in just over 2 hours.

Rally HQ is also something out of the ordinary. A massive Statue of Liberty greets you at the gate, then you wind your way past the giant ferris wheel and theme park to the multiple enormous chalets, mostly four stories high, which house the many rooms, a small pub, noodle bar, several restaurants and cafes and an onsen. Our rooms had tatami mats and cushions instead of lounges and the nearby volcano provides plenty of hot mineral water for the large onsen bathing pools in the basement below.

With many years as a competitor in WRC and APRC championships, Takakuwa san has the perfect experience as to how a good international rally should be run and in all respects an international competitor could easily enter the Baragi Ice and Snow Rally and feel completely supported and at home.

Except perhaps, for the ice and snow. “This stuff is hard enough to walk on, let alone drive on,” was a comment we tossed about before the rally….. words that rang in my ears as my feet headed skyward on a stage one corner, much to the amusement of the team who had just bogged their Impreza nearby in one of many evil snow drains which increase the challenge here even further.

For us, the event began on Wednesday evening with a trip to a resort around 20 minutes away to pick up Dean’s car for the weekend, which had been on display there. Sitting proudly in the resort foyer, surrounded by potted palm trees and sofas, one of which contained a sleeping man, we contemplated making our own “Funniest Home Video by starting the car as he slept. Unfortunately the hotel staff made us push the Subaru outside before kick off.

We followed Takakuwa back to Karuizawa in the rally car. This was the car Dean would be driving and it was immaculate. Built by STi to WRC spec, the cage itself is a work of art and the engine makes all the right noises! It was probably the only time I will ever sit in a seat once occupied by Kaj Lindstrom, and with the full moon rising behind the smoking Mount Asama volcano, the whole gig had a very surreal effect.

The event organisers are so committed to this event and its success, that on the Thursday they organised a practice session for all the internationals and newcomers to the event – completely free of charge. A road high up in the hills was chosen, closed and a full afternoon of ‘go for your life’ was provided.

This was the day Dean first saw snow fall, and it had been a few years since Danny had driven on the icy Mount Akagi roads here (in a 2001 event), so this was greatly appreciated. The young guns also went for runs with the more experienced drivers to learn a trick or two, although fun was definitely the theme of the day with great tales of off road excursions and ‘whose skid marks where they?’ heard at the end of the day.

Reconnaissance was a leisurely affair on Friday afternoon, as the organisers worked to cover the Baragi Ice Circuit with more snow before race day. Strange weather conditions are also affecting this part of the world, with warmer temperatures than expected and lighter snow falls. This area provides Tokyo with almost 80% of its water during the spring melt down and there is already concern of shortages. Despite heavy snow falls leading up to the event, snow making machines were brought into action to help.

Although I can’t say I minded it being ‘warmer’ with the regular minus 20 degrees being almost a full 60 degrees difference from Perth and Melbourne lately, it was still way too cold to me. Yet that is how life at the Baragi Ice Circuit works. The club who run this track often spend their weekends here in the well-below-freezing conditions preparing the track to do laps, race against the clock and each other.  

Visit GIO Rally day arrived with less snow than the organisers would have liked but everyone was keen to go, despite the lack of bouncy snow banks to save you on the slippy ice. As Danny and Dean headed out to the stages, I teamed up with legendary photographer Sakamoto san – a man who has been to 19 Pikes Peaks and heaven knows how many other rallies! The stages are difficult to get into so we opted for a hairpin on stage one.

Danny was first past us in a 2005 Impreza owned by Funaki san and built by Arai Motorsport. Rally fans may remember Funaki for his colourful appearances at Rally Australia and Rally of Canberra. From Subaru Vivios to later Imprezas, one thing has always remained constant with Funaki over the years – crazy flowery sticker work! And unfortunately for Danny, this shiny new blue Impreza was no different with flowers, hearts and kisses from one end to the other.

However, behind the fun appearance of this car lies a fitting tribute to Kawano san, a top man from STi and team mate of Funaki and Hasegawa who died of cancer shortly after competing at Baragi in 2006. Kawano san came to Australian in 2005 to enter Rally Australia with his wife as co-driver, a final goal achieved for him in his last few months of life. The entire event has been dedicated to Kawano san, and his brother was here to drive in his place.

Dean was next to slide past in good style with lights flashing and sirens blaring. Dean was here after an invite from Uesugi san of Teppei Sport. Uesugi, or Whisky san, as he’s known because it’s similar and easier for us Westerners to say, was one of the orig inal members of STi and following his retirement recently, he did anything other than retire and is still very much involved in the sport.

After waiting a little longer under the clear blue sky in knee deep snow, Toshi Arai was the first of the competitors to scoot past us. The PWRC star was flying out to Sweden the next day for the WRC round but was up for a quick practice on home snow. Kamada san was by far my favourite of the day, he slid past me at a cool 90 degrees to the direction of travel for the entire hairpin corner!!

The field consisted mostly of Imprezas, the odd Mitsubishi and a few little Subaru Vivios to finish off. Only one car slipped into the drain on the other side of the road from us, but 10 cars following nearly collected it, despite the stranded driver and co-driver waving frantically and with triangles in the snow. It was just that slippery. From here we headed back to the Baragi Ice Circuit to watch the midday super special stage, before returning to HQ.

When we arrived back at the Ice Circuit I was surprised at how many people had come for this event. It’s a fair drive from Tokyo itself and Saturday is still a work day for most Japanese, so many of our friends said they had taken a holiday in order to come and stand in the freezing cold – now that’s commitment to your sport.

Visit GIO For Danny and Dean the event went well and both performed their jobs effortlessly, despite an evil rock hidden in the snow giving Dean a puncture and Danny earning the new nickname ‘Draino’ for a small ‘off’ during recce. Both cars emerged unscathed at the end of the day and the organisers were rapt with the efforts of both drivers. As for the boys, I think they enjoyed the experience of being at the event just as much as the driving.

“It was really great to be here and help Takakuwa san and it’s always great just to come to Japan again,” said Danny, who has been here more times than he can remember. “The countryside here is just so beautiful and the rally was so much fun.”

The following farewell party was an experience in itself. Takakuwa san and Miss Chiyoda san had gone to great lengths to have a less formal, more western style party than the traditional Japanese function. Many of the podium winners were more than a little wobbly come presentation time, making for great humour and heaps of laughs. The dinner itself was five star, unlike my ability with chop sticks!

The evening finished with Toshi Arai playing ‘paper, scissors, rock’ with the partygoers in order for them to win prizes. This is the way of deciding many things in Japan, as I’ve discovered. Dean and Danny were both presented with green monster feet, which double as snow shovels and a Japanese rendition of Happy Birthday was sung for Danny, just to round out the ideal birthday for any rally driver.

Around midnight a quick pack up of rally HQ was arranged as everyone dashed back and forth in the snow with the usual mountain of gear required for running an event. A defrost in the small pub or adjoining noodle bar inside the chalet followed with one particularly wobbly driver falling asleep next to his noodles! Unfortunately when the lads carried him upstairs they discovered that the room number written on his arm wasn’t actually his…. Oops.

On Sunday morning it was back to the ice circuit – the fun wasn’t over yet! The day was the Ice and Snow Festival and everyone had stayed around to have a bit more fun. First up Danny was handed the keys to a good looking 1991 Legacy, complete with studded tyres and was told to take people for laps of the circuit – enter two of the best hours of his life! Dean was also there in his rally car, but more cautious perhaps because his car had to be returned to show later that day, and overnight the melted snow had turned to ice.

Crazy Kamada was flat out again and put on a good show, sliding about with as much skill and commitment as if it were a rally, and with some rather nervous looking passengers onboard. Once all the ‘paper, scissors, rock’ winners had had their turn in the cars and anyone else who wished, it was onto the truck racing!

Visit GIO Seriously, truck racing, but not just any old trucks. Imagine tiny Subaru Sambar trucks with 4WD Leone-like chassis. Then imagine 10 people in the trays of each doing ‘recce’ of sorts. Danny, Dean and Takakuwa formed the “Organisers Team” and Dean was the first to fold himself into their tiny truck, quite a sight in his full Subaru Rally Team Australia gear.

Danny was next, but struggled with his feet on the tiny pedals, losing time on the hairpin while braking and accelerating simultaneously by accident with his big boots. Takakuwa had a good run and a great laugh as well. The fun continued through the afternoon as people went for practice laps. Sara, a local co-driver trying her hand at driving for the first time, impressed me in a little Daihatsu as she caught someone in an Impreza over the slushy course.

This was by far our coldest day here, even though the sun was out and the sky was blue. While it was only minus 5, the wind chill was evil at around -15 and I spent most of the afternoon hiding in the 4WD which rocked about in the fierce wind. We were all pretty glad to get back to the hotel and thaw out.

Monday morning was the time for final goodbyes as Dean headed back to Perth, before continuing on to Brisbane in his role with Subaru. Danny and I returned to Tokyo before a well deserved holiday in Tokyo and Kyoto, but not before being given a close-up tour of Mt Asama and the beauty that is Karuizawa. Just two years ago Mt Asama last erupted; showering rock up to 10 kilometres away, but today it is hidden under snow, all except the still smoking peak. Lunch at a rather bizarre and groovy ‘Cowboy Restaurant’ followed, before the shinkansen rocketed us back to Tokyo.

So if you think this sort of adventure or snow rally is for you, perhaps look a little closer to home before heading off to the expense of Europe. Just 10 hours from Melbourne are some of the most friendly, rally crazy people you are likely to meet and more laughs and adventure than you can handle!

We would all like to thank Takakuwa san, Miss Chiyoda san, Uesugi (Whisky) san, Ichikawa san, Funaki san, Izumi san, Sakamoto san, Ai san and all of the Baragi Ice and Snow Rally Organisers and fans for allowing us to be part of their fantastic event. Domo Arigato Gozaimasu!!

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