Japan Trip 2018, Part 2

Exhaustion kept my body sluggish but the high water pressure and heat of the shower did wonders to bring me back to life. The shower was cramped with the sink overlapping the shower tub near the faucet. It was a no-frills hotel but not dirty or uncomfortable. It was located immediately next to the train station which was ideal for me. I had one of the same breakfasts I often have whenever I'm in Japan: Boss Coffee Lait and an egg and teriyaki chicken sandwich, both gotten from a nearby Lawsons.

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SuperGT at Twin Ring Motegi

I sat on the sunny side of the bus. My phone said it was only 56F out but I was sweating under the magnifying glass window. We passed a store called "Fruits and Liquor" and I immediately craved a boozy smoothie. The bus was a normal commuter bus and the trip took nearly two hours from train station to trackside bus stop. As much as I'd have liked to spend as much as time as possible at the track, the slow ride was a lesson in patience that I needed.

I noticed tree leaves were starting to change color as the bus pulled into the track's north entrance. I'd have noticed sooner if I wasn't lost so deep in my own thoughts. The second lesson in patience was to take a step back and take in my surroundings.

There was a lot happening in the entertainment area beside the track. Souvenir shops, food stands, interactive demo booths including one with a Lexus race car simulator, even a zipline that went over the top of it all. A pair of JAF F16s did a fly-by followed by some aerial maneuvers as I stood in line for gyoza and craft beer - both from Utsunomiya and both fantastic. I think Japanese food vendors have figured out how to pipe their cooking smells into crowds without being overly conspicuous about it. It's impossible to walk by them and not be overwhelmed with ravenous urges.

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The beer I'd gotten was from a local microbrewery called Utsunomiya Craft Beer Bar. They had a few great beers on tap. The IPA was flavorful without being overbearing. It was a nice departure from the ever-hoppier IPAs that American brewers have been pushing toward the last few years. Their brut IPA was light and refreshing with a hint of juniper to keep things interesting. I could have stood there all day drinking beer and eating gyoza. I almost did.

Even though the brewery was local, it wasn’t easily accessible for me during my brief stay in Utsunomiya. I was disappointed that I couldn’t visit them, but the beer they were serving me took some of the sting away.

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My seat was in the Z Section, which was a very long walk from the main area. My seat also had a sizeable puddle under it - the only puddle I'd see in the entire damn country until the morning I left to head home, and of course my feet were in it. I scooted over a couple spots since there was plenty of empty space on the bench so I'd have dry shoes. I took a picture of the puddle before moving out of it, though.

Pettiest. Tourist. Ever.

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Despite what may seem like whining, I had an awesome view of Twin Ring Motegi’s Turn 11. This 90-degree corner is at the end of a downhill straight, the exit of which passes under the other 'ring' that gives the track its name. There's little room for error here, and a Lamborghini Huracan GT3 found this out the hard way when it locked up its brakes and went wide into the gravel trap, losing a panel and later blowing out a tire as a result of the offroad excursion. At least he hit the gravel. The wall abutting it is rather unforgiving so eating gravel is a best-case scenario when things go wrong here.

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I couldn't have asked for better weather. The Lime Rock Park jacket I had on proved completely unnecessary and I'm glad I didn't take the Suzuka Circuit poncho I had ready in my luggage back at the hotel. I enjoyed the sun as I stood in line for half a damn hour for thick-sliced bacon, which wasn't nearly as good as I'd hoped. The curry bun I got from a vendor a couple spots down was much better. The dough was super soft, the outside crispy yet so delicate that you could hear the crunch more than feel it. A grapefruit Strong Zero found its way into my hand from a vending machine all on its own, so I used it to wash down the food.

There seemed to be more non-Japanese people than I'd seen at previous races. There were two Austrians I met when waiting for the bus at Utsunomiya Station. There was a guy with his young son who I'm assuming were Canadian given the maple leaf hat he wore. There was a Volkswagen fanboy that proudly displayed one of that crowd's mainstay stereotypes: he was polite, had gauged piercings, and wore a few pieces of GTI swag. There wasn't anything online to recommend or point foreigners to the Z Section, so I'm not sure if it was just coincidence that a group of us ended up together or if it was by design - the ticketing website could have just shown all other sections as not available to non-Japanese IP addresses.

A purple NSX kept flying by at an unrelenting pace. I realized later it was Jenson Button driving it. Go figure. At one point he got into a position battle with the Zent Lexus LC500 that made for some exciting situations. Jenson and Yamamoto won the race with their Raybrig NSX. I'm actually pretty happy about that because his participation in the series is sure to bring some much-deserved attention to Super GT from abroad.

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Usually when I go to a race I try to get as involved as I can. I want to go to the paddocks, I want to get into the garages, I want to get in the cars. This time around was different. I took it easy. I relaxed. I forced myself to just be there, and that’s it. Just be there. Just be.

I was in my own little Utopian dream. I needed to learn to enjoy it and appreciate it for what it was. There were plenty of things to see and do even with a slow-paced approach. And I’ll be honest, it was a great change of pace. I’m just not sure I could do it again. There’s so much I want to do and experience that I can’t help but push to see what’s possible. It’s that question that’s always there, taunting me… What if?

Hungry, Tired, and…. Bloody?

I fought off sleep on the bus ride back to Utsunomiya. The return trip took much longer - it was almost 2.5 hours to get back. At least I had a seat. The unlucky ones standing must have had a terrible ride.

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I freshened up in my hotel room and walked down the street to a gyoza place that was supposed to be really good. Of course it was closed. Next door was what looked like a small, somewhat traditional restaurant with cozy seating. There were only four people inside. The chef, a waitress, and two patrons sitting at the small bar. I sat at a table and after a bit of communication trouble, I managed to order a steak and glass of red wine.

I sat there jotting notes when I heard a familiar artificial voice ask, "Would you like a drink?" in English. It was Google Translate. All four of them looked at me with a look of shock and concern, awaiting my reaction. I laughed - a good, honest laugh that was a bit louder than I intended or expected - and they all laughed with me, relieved that I wasn't upset or embarrassed by the situation. The language barrier had created an awkward situation for all of us and it was dissolved in an instant.

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The steak was heavily seasoned and cooked rare. The wine was on the sweet side. Both were very flavorful but not how I prefer either. Still, I ate every bite and downed all of the wine (like that even needs to be said). I would have ordered another glass of wine and maybe a small dish of food to follow the steak, content to sit there and continue writing for another hour or so but then I got a sudden, unexpected nosebleed and had to excuse myself. I paid my bill and returned to the hotel.

It seems like every decently-sized city in Japan has a building covered in a crazy-cool mural. Utsunomiya was no exception. I had to stop and get a pictures of this one as I made my way back to my hotel. I wish there were more places in the US like this.

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After clearing my blood-clotted nostril, I sat down on my bed and a wave of exhaustion hit me. It'd been a long day and the sky had gone dark a long while ago, so surely it was late. I crawled into bed and grabbed my phone... it was only 8pm. Oh well. I fell asleep.

I'm not ashamed to say I had gyoza for breakfast the next day. The restaurant I went to was next to the hotel, opened super early, and had 12 types of gyoza. Not only that, but they had a sampler platter that had a piece of each type so you can try them all. The cheese gyoza was a nice surprise and I enjoyed it more than I expected. One was fragrant, like saffron and jasmine or something like that. The kimchi gyoza had a nice kick and great flavor, and was one of the best in my opinion. All in all, not a bad way to spend 1100 yen to start the day.

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The only thing that would have made it better was a nice dry beer. Wait, no… it was an early morning and beer would be silly.

A breakfast beer, then. Yes. That’s more appropriate.

From there I walked across the street to the train station to snap some quick pictures. One, a tall, majestic statue of what I assume is a celebration of family, ascending into the sky. It was a beautiful monument that took a long moment to take in completely.

The other statue, literally just a few steps away, was short and stubby and awkward in every way: it was the infamous gyoza statue.

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You can draw your own conclusions.

I snapped some pictures of the statues, then boarded a train to my next destination: Sendai.

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