Japfest is a festival of highly modified Japanese cars down at a racetrack in Northamptonshire. We arrived there in a car from Germany. A man in a high viz jacket waved us through the main gate.
Driving through the crowds of Nippon automobile enthusiasts in a rented Audi, we stood out like a sore, European thumb. A wave of anger and revulsion flooded the paddock. People spat out toxic spouts of Monster Energy in sheer disgust, parents covered their children’s eyes and one man wearing a Suburu-branded fleece ripped off one of our windscreen wipers with his bare hands.
After a bit of faff, we finally managed to park up. Fuelled by an overpriced bag of prawn cocktail Walkers and a vegetable samosa bought from a service station, I headed into the field of cars that made up the main bit of the festival. Row after row of pristine and not-so-pristine Suburus, Mitsubishis, Hondas, Nissans, Toyotas and even a few Datsuns stretched out for miles in every direction.
People sat on fold-out camping chairs doing nothing much in particular, and the scent of African woodbine invaded the nostrils from all angles. Bored girlfriends stared at their phones whilst men wandered around carrying little cameras on sticks. Although most had opted for black hoodys, it was nice to see one man had made the effort…
One of the reasons I’d been dragged down to this festival was to talk to car owners. "We'll do a photoshoot, you can get some interviews," they'd said.
You’d think finding car owners in a field of parked cars would be pretty easy, but there was hardly any about. Maybe they were all enjoying a hot-dog in the dining area? Or perhaps there was some secret owner's zone I didn't know about where they sat in Recaro seats playing Need for Speed?
After a long while of wandering around trying to put a face to the cars, I spotted a man in a red hoody stood next to a matching red Mitsubishi. After a quick interrogation it was confirmed that he was indeed the owner.
"What’ve you got here?" I asked.
"It's a track car. It's stripped out. There's no creature comforts in there. I just bought it like this to be honest," He said.
"That’s cheating isn't it?"
He ignored my comment. I asked him about his day-to-day car.
"It's that one there." He pointed to the other, slightly stealthier looking Mitsubishi next to him. "I was using that one on the track, but it’s a limited edition and there was only 26 of them made, so it was a bit of a waste. I was devaluing it, so I bought this one specifically for the track."
I said it sounded expensive.
"Oh yeah, it's big money. The fuel system in this car alone is £1500. Don't even talk to me about the engine. I plough so much money into it, but you can't take it with you can you? You might be gone tomorrow. It's a social thing as well, because we all meet up the night before in the hotel and have a few beers. And then we’ll go hell for leather the next day. It’s good."
It did sound like a laugh. I asked him how fast he went.
"On the track? I don’t even have chance to look. If you bear in mind this'll do 0-60 in about two seconds, then you ain't hanging about. When you launch it off the start, it makes you feel sick. I'm dizzy by the time I get to the first corner."
By this point, he wasn't really selling it to me. I have a car, but I have no interest in reaching sickening speeds in it. I just use it for trips to the supermarket and the occasional scenic jaunt. What separates people like me from people like him?
"I think you've got to have interests haven't you? It's like my missus—to her a car is just a car—she couldn't tell you what make her car is. But I'll tell you it's a Qashqai. It's just an interest. Everyone's got their thing. For her it’s shoes and bags, and annoying the hell out of me..."
Fair enough. We chatted a bit longer about his home-town of Dukinfield and then I walked on. One interview down. How many was I expected to get? Would a poor performance here strike me off the list for all future outings? I plodded further into the paddock, Dictaphone in my right hand, and camera in my left, hoping someone else would answer my barrage of hashed-together questions.
Like a moth to a halogen headlight, I was drawn to a Honda with an engine made seemingly of pure gold. I knocked on the window to talk to the man inside. He stepped out of the car to show me around.
"I used to have a 1.5 D15 but that broke, so I bought an automatic D16. I took the manual bit off the D15 and put it into this. But then I blew the engine up so I had to put a new one in," He said.
I didn't really know what he was talking about, so I just nodded along. He told me he'd done everything on the car apart from the paintwork.
"How did you learn all that?"
"Just research really. Google is massive nowadays so I'll just research everything. I love it. As long as you can handle a tool then you could do something like this. Have a go, have an aim, persevere, win."
Not a bad little motto. I asked him about the gold under the bonnet. Was it real?
"It's chrome gold which is the next best thing. I spent enough on this car without spending thousands and thousands on that."
Would he ever get real gold put in there?
"Yeah, I might do it eventually. This is a show-car. I've just bought a DC5 so this can be put in a garage and get perfected."
He looked fairly young. I asked how he'd got into cars.
"I've just always loved building things. Taking things apart and seeing how they worked. Then when I started driving I knew exactly what I wanted. The next thing I want to do is get the bay painted professionally. It's alright now, it's just about show-worthy," He said.
"Just about show-worthy? This thing is pristine," I said.
"It's just my standards. This was my daily car, but now I've got the DC5 I can put this in the garage. People are always surprised that this was my daily car and was so clean. I just can’t see myself driving a boring car—I just don’t see the point. I'm a car guy, so I have to drive a decent car."
And it was most certainly a decent car—probably one of the slickest on the paddock. But whilst some owners go for polish and shine, others preferred slapping a big sticker on their spoilers. Or maybe painting an intricate Japanese landscape onto their engine. All is perfectly acceptable at Japfest.
Next to the paddock was a racetrack. I wandered over to see what was going on. Hidden in a cloud of Pirelli-infused smoke was a large crowd of people holding up cameras and cheering as cars drifted by.
They weren't racing; instead they just took it in turns to slide around the corners as the owners of tyre companies around the world rubbed their hands together with glee.
It was pretty simple entertainment, but it was still good to watch—especially when two cars drifted in cahoots. Even Lucifer himself seemed to enjoy it.
A quick chat revealed that the devil, contrary to all the bad press he gets, was actually a bloody nice bloke, and was in fact a family man who enjoyed trips to Southport. Never judge a book by its tattooed head, as they say.
By this point I was flagging a bit. I think I’d probably inhaled a full part-worn Bridgestone tyre, and the fumes were getting to my head a bit. Even the daftest bumper sticker was failing to register and the cars were starting to blur into one.
But then, just as I thought I'd finally seen enough Japanese vehicles—I spotted an armada of Toyota pick-ups lined up on the crest of a grassy knoll. Was it a mirage—a four-wheel drive oasis created by a trick of light and my petrol-peppered mind?
I scurried up the grass bank and reached out to feel that the steel was very much real.
A woman wearing a hi-viz jacket stood next to a particularly serious looking off-road machine. I told her that I worked for a clothes shop, and I was doing interviews with people about Japanese cars. It sounded weird but it was the truth. She said she would answer my questions. I think when people put a lot of effort into something, they're always happy to talk about it.
"It started off as a '91 MK3 Hilux. It's been stripped right down to the bare chassis and then modified for the coil springs. It was built for doing trials and climbing over rocks. The colours are based on Ivan Stewart's colours. He’s an off-road racer from America."
In front of the pick-up were two remote control monster trucks with the same white, orange and red paintwork.
"We take it off road and we take it to the arena competitions. It gets absolutely filthy. We go all around the country. I've had some spills in this. I rolled it down a bank and made quite a mess of it. As you can see, it gets into scrapes."
"How did you get into off-road driving?" I asked.
"My partner and I have always liked vehicles. We used to race trikes, then quads and then rear-engine space frame vehicles."
"Like Baja Bugs?"
"Yeah. But we always liked Hiluxs and dreamed of owning one, but back then they were so expensive."
Her massive white, orange and red truck was a bit of a departure from all the lowered drift-mobiles in the paddock. I asked her what she thought of the more typical Japfest cars.
"I love the Jap cars. If I didn't have this I'd probably have a show-and-shine Jap car. I like the little Japanese kei cars."
She explained that in Japanese cities you can only have a car if you've got somewhere off the street to park it, unless it's what’s known as a kei car. These are only about one and a half metres wide, and their engines are only 660cc, but they've got the same proportions as normal cars. She'd had three of 'em.
Show-and-shine was something I'd seen mentioned a bit inside the festival compound. What was it?
"You put your car on show and everyone inspects it. It’s what we’d normally do with this one here." She pointed to a super-shiny black Hilux parked next to her off-road Hilux. "I'm glad we haven’t entered it today because it got really grubby from the drive down."
"This one here has won best in show a couple of times against all these other cars. I'll turn up at these show-and-shine events with all these sporty cars and they'll think, 'What's that thing that's turned up?' But I'll go around and look at the cars and think, 'That's a bit grubby.' They've got it easy with the cars—they just need to clean the bodywork—I've got to do underneath too.
Lying on the gravel under each pick-up was a large mirrored plate so people could see how clean the undersides were. They were impeccable.
"I'll spend all day cleaning it. I'll wash the underneath, and then go around and polish and buff it. I spend hours doing it. I've got a paintbrush with a really long handle for the really awkward places. I've made it a full time job really."
I never did find the show-n-shine, but I certainly saw a lot of shiny cars—and isn't that what life is all about?
As the afternoon went on the sun disappeared and it started to rain. It was time to leave. After finding our disgraced German car we made a covert exit onto the motorway. On the way back we stopped off at a service station for a Subway sandwich—veggie patty on Italian herbs and cheese, with all the salad and a dousing of both sweet onion and chipotle sauces.
I'm not sure if there’s anything you’re meant to take away from this article, but if this was an episode of Jerry Springer, his 'Final Thought' would be something like this…
"Whether you're interested in drifting cars, looking at jackets, collecting stamps or catching rare butterflies in a large net—it's all okay—scratch under the surface and it's all the same really. Until next time—take care of yourself, and each other."