Escaping the bustling metropolis of Tokyo, Mazda Stories takes the versatile Mazda CX‑5 to one of Japan’s most celebrated driving hotspots.

It is a cool, autumnal Saturday morning in Tokyo’s affluent shopping district of Ginza, and I’m admiring the reflection of the Soul Red Crystal Mazda CX‑5 in an elegant shop window while I wait for the lights to change on Chuo-dori street. Despite the early hour—the sun has only just breached the top of the Ginza Six luxury department store—the pavements are teeming with ambitious shoppers, here for a day of retail therapy and Michelin-starred refueling.

Although the streets were empty a mere hour ago, I become aware that this is clearly not the right place for a drive. This realization is further compounded when a nice policeman leans in and politely explains that I can go no further—the road is for pedestrians only on weekends. So far, not so good: a Mazda CX‑5, a full tank of fuel, and nowhere to go. Well, nowhere in Ginza at least. Decision time. I turn the wheel and guide the surprisingly nimble SUV through a myriad of narrow streets and out through the city, until towers become houses and houses become fields, and Tokyo is far behind us. Our destination? Fifty-seven miles south, to the lakeside town of Hakone in Kanagawa and the fabled Hakone Turnpike, officially known as the Anest Iwata Turnpike Hakone.

Completed in the middle of the last century as a viable means for commercial trucks to traverse the mountains surrounding the local towns, the turnpike has undergone several transformations. With the arrival of Japan’s efficient, modern highway system, the toll road fell out of favor until it was rediscovered by Japan’s automotive communities, who popularized it through manga comics, video games, and drifting competitions (to some, the turnpike is the birthplace of drifting). From 2014 to 2017, Mazda owned the naming rights and the Mazda Turnpike Hakone was born. I check my speed. Just thinking about the route can make a car go faster.

WATCH: The Mazda CX‑5 on the Hakone Turnpike.

The entrance to the turnpike begins at the base of a vast mountain range that overlooks the sparkling Sagami Bay, and the route ascends over 3,280 feet in 8.5 miles. No longer sponsored by Mazda and sometimes known simply as the Hakone Turnpike, it has a 30 mph speed limit that means today’s drive is perhaps somewhat more sedate than in previous years, but I’m glad of it. The early views down to the sea are spectacular and the road is littered with a spray of golden leaves, as the gentle touch of autumn sweeps through on the Japanese breeze. I take a moment to marvel at the versatility of the Mazda CX‑5. Just two hours ago, it had felt as if it was made for the city, darting through Tokyo’s narrow streets that are normally the reserve of Japan’s Kei cars. Then, out on the highway, it had become a pure SUV, smoothly eating up the miles on our journey south. Now, as we sweep our way up the mountain, the Skyactiv‑Drive six-speed gearbox and i‑Activ AWD system begin to put in the hard work, effortlessly guiding me through one corner and onto the next. All too quickly, we clear the tree line and arrive at the summit, the observation tower, and the incredible sight of Mount Fuji.

The draw of Japan’s most famous mountain means the observation deck parking lot is full of locals and tourists alike, and it’s here that a chance encounter reminds me that Mazda doesn’t just make cars, it also makes communities and brings people together in unique ways. A lineup of four Mazda MX‑5 Miatas introduces me to Asaka, Himeko, Mikuko, and Yuki—a group of women bonded by a love of driving. Having met through social media and car events, the adventurers now take to the road together, to share their love of driving and love of the Mazda MX‑5 Miata that runs generations deep. “My dad told me if I was going to buy a car, it had better be a Mazda,” laughs Yuki, as the women fire up their engines and depart in convoy for Hakone’s Lake Ashinoko, drawing admiring glances (and cameras) momentarily away from Mount Fuji.

My time on the turnpike has also come to an end. My final destination is the Hakone Retreat Villa, a luxurious world of secluded woodland cottages with hot spring baths and warm wood stoves. Like Mount Fuji and the observation tower, the retreat combines old and new. Rippled window glass, over a century old, and ancient tabletops made from single pieces of timber combine with state-of-the-art technology and world-class cuisine to create a little paradise of peace. I sit back, watch the sun set, and think of long winding roads, gently falling leaves, and one of life’s great driving experiences.   

Words Ross Brown / Images Dan Froude