Imagine a cool night, a narrow mountain road, fresh tarmac freckled with dew. The air perfumed with the scent of forest floor, pine, and pungent, fuel rich engine exhaust. On one side of the road, a dense wall of lush green vegetation that is intermittently lit with headlights and then tinted red in the brake lights of the car ahead, the other side a dark abyss, the edge of the mountain. Clinging to the mountainside, the black ribbon of tarmac meanders up the mountain with endless variations of turns, from long sweepers to tight hairpins. The echoes of tire squeal, pops and crackles of exhausts on throttle lift, and the ensuing roar of uncorked engines upon corner exit, can be heard in short bursts cutting through the song of crickets in the otherwise silent misty air. Like a distant thunderstorm approaching, the sounds both break the monotony and blend into the natural ambiance as these un-natural machines achieve a harmony with the road, with the mountain, and with the driver. It is just past midnight in Japan, on a typical touge (Japanese for mountain pass road). For many fans of JDM cars, this is probably a vivid fantasy, or perhaps an Initial D binge watching induced fever dream. Chicago is a world away from Japan, and further still from the type of environment you would find on the famed touge’s of Japan’s Gunma prefecture. To find anything even approaching a mountain near Chicago would entail a 9 hour drive minimum. Yet, here we are on an unseasonably cool afternoon, celebrating that spirit of the Japanese car, with JDM Chicago’s season opener car meet.
Perhaps that touge fantasy is not what turned you on to AE86’s, Chasers, Silvia’s and the like. Maybe you picture a towering megalopolis Tokyo, with tentacles of brightly lit highways bursting free of the claustrophobic cluster of sky scrapers, creating their own strangling web across the expanse of city. Long straight sections with sparse traffic, the lights above passing by like a steady strobe at triple digit speeds. Highway warriors weave these roads through the night, exhausts howling above the din of the metropolis below. Occasionally, dipping underground or through tunnels, the symphony of internal combustion at full throat, turbochargers whistling while spooling furiously, and the whip-like hiss of blow off valves, resonates within the concrete cylinder and bursts forth at the opening like artillery leaving the barrel of a cannon. Parking areas throughout the network of highways, become impromptu car meets/staging areas, with all manner of machinery on display; FD RX-7’s, MKIV Supra’s, NSX’s and GT-R’s. All wait patiently with engines humming through the night, exhaling a light fog into the air that intermingles with the drivers’ cigarette smoke as they chat nearby. A metropolis we have, and Chicago has it’s share of highways and undergrounds, but maybe not on the same scale or the same feel. Yet, here we are gathered around like minded individuals that love Japanese cars and want to capture that spirit of the JDM car. In a way we not only imported the cars themselves, but it seems an entire culture that surrounds them, or at least our perception of that culture.
When we romanticize anything, it rarely measures up to the fantasy when looked at objectively. People talk of the romance of American cars all the time, Route 66, drive-in theaters, drive-up burger joints, the open road of the west. They speak of European cars and the romance of driving across the south of France, the Amalfi coast, Monaco, or the autobahn. For Japanese cars, it’s the Gunma touge, the C1 loop, or the Hakone toll road. It’s all just different versions, different flavors of the same thing; a petrolhead’s love for cars. Maybe the reality is not exactly like the romantic fantasy, but if you love cars it matters little. Some JDM fans simply gather to see the cars they love, drive the cars they love, or just to hang out with like minded fans of the JDM scene. This is what makes JDM Chicago’s meets some of the best; the way it captures this spirit, and the quality of cars that are drawn to them. Mountain road, highway, or a parking lot in suburban Hoffman Estates, you’ll love it all the same.
-writing and photos: Robert Sixto