Standing at the Starbucks inside Nissan world headquarters, I attempt to gather my jet-lagged thoughts and make sense of the work that awaits me. A mere sashimi throw away from Yokohama Station, the towering corporate structure has become a staple along the local canal, and a wonderland for automotive fans.
But I wasn't there for a latte, and my time spent exploring the floor and all that it had to offer had come to a close. I was on a mission, and the person I was there to meet had me mulling over the last time I had gone toe-to-toe with Godzilla.
It had been quite some time since I had last driven an R35 Skyline. The previously piloted model had been a USDM version, all cloaked in rich metallic Katsura Orange, and begging to be driven on the Road America course in Wisconsin. Much like the the rest of the GT-R line, it too had seen both its jutting reptilian jaw and slithering sports coupe interior updated with cosmetic modifications. It may be an older automobile by now, but this kind of curb appeal still tends to grab the average passerby, and with its six figure-ish price tag, it'll no doubt gobble-up a few wallets as well.
As for me, I had somehow managed to book an evening with none other than Hiroshi Tamura, famed Nissan executive, race car driver, and video game influencer. From what I had been able to glean from video interviews and previously published feature pieces, the man was somewhat of a Japanese celebrity. A spokesperson for the brand who harbors a deep love for all things fast, and who at the moment was walking toward me with arm outstretched.
Meeting Mr. GT-R is kind of like meeting Mario Andretti, Jay Leno, or a completely calm Jim Carrey. It's an extremely rare celebrity-like close encounter that few people ever get to experience. Like all three of these celebrities, Tamura-san has a sharp sense of wit, and the twinkle in his eye immediately tells you that this is indeed true. Vibrant, intelligent, and salt-and-peppered to perfection, the curry-loving Nissan specialist is a performance fanatic to the core, and at the moment was asking if he could take me out for a night on the town. Sure. I'm game for a few Datsun stories and an evening with Mr. GT-R and his favorite sharp-toothed reptillian pet.
Formal introductions out of the way, we make for the elevators and the fleet of pristine vehicles beneath. A decision needed to be made. Should we take a Premium Package and roll-out in the same Katsura Orange I remembered from my last jaunt in Godzilla? Or go all-in, and make the NISMO version our chariot for the evening? Being an old codger with a bad back, I instantly requested the Premium, to which Tamura-san smiled, saying something about us "riding in comfort." All the fun with fewer snapped vertebrae. Sounds like a smart balance to me.
Leaving the underground parking deck, we high-tail it over to a dingy alleyway on the other end of town, all the while getting the basic small talk out of the way. It's cold, and the turbos sound happy. Too bad we're in the heart of Yokohama and there's slow traffic everywhere. Oh well. I have just been informed that we are en route to a very special spot that makes Mr. GT-R's favorite fried pork cutlets. Perfect. I like giving my arteries an occasional field day.
Over dinner it's more small talk and delicious deep-fried goodness. At least, all the way up until I get nosey. Limited demand for a Skyline is one thing. But why hasn't Nissan come out with a fresh Fairlady Z yet? Mr. GT-R stops smiling, puts down his chopsticks, and responds with simple, frustratingly honest logic. Sports cars and Skylines will always be the fun stuff that automakers tinker with when the funds look right. The global market is also on edge at the moment due to trade war fears, and playing it safe has been something that the Nissan brand has gotten quite accustomed to over the years.
Despite the long-overdue need for fresh generations of both road-rippers, Mr. GT-R admits that much like the forthcoming Tool album, the wait must go on. The conversation turns toward talk about how the Nissan mastermind had to fight tooth and claw to get a fresh clutch in the 370Z. But Mr. GT-R took it upon himself to upgrade the damn thing, and update it he did.
By this point in the evening our fantastic fried pork cutlets and fresh cabbage salad had been consumed, and it was time to move on and hit the highway. Bridges, bypasses, overpasses, and a world-famous rest stop all awaited, and I was in for one hell of an interesting ride.
As we pulled into the long, meandering spiral exit ramp, Tamura-san turns to me, smiles and says that we were now arriving at Japan's most famous meet spot for tuners and enthusiasts. Looking all the world like a rough rock afloat in the ocean, the Daikoku Futo rest area sits amidst a maze of intersecting interstates, a convenient location resting beneath corkscrew roadways. We were rolling in a few minutes before 10pm, a move that guaranteed us a spot down below, as the police were known for randomly banning entrants afterward.
Arriving at the bottom, we were greeted by a small group of riced-out looking vehicles, a few purpose-built canyon carvers, and a half-dozen Mustangs. Surprise over seeing so many American pony cars in one place aside, I looked toward the resident police station, and grinned. It looks like this place tends to get a bit rowdy at times. I like that.
A convenience store glows with LED invitation in the corner, a stark contrast to the aging welcome center on the other end, what with its faded concrete siding, 1980s touches, and wide array of vending machines. In the center of the parking area a towering piece of jaggedly-lit architecture juts skyward, a warm and strangely beautiful advertisement for the automotive fun below. We head toward the vending machines and opt for coffee that is ground in front of you and freshly perked per order. As we marvel at the robotic vending machine's clever capabilities, I begin asking questions once more, this time with history in mind.
Mr. GT-R has been with Nissan since 1984, and in that time he has gone from a nobody on the assembly line to a reputable video game influencer, and onward to being a figurehead for the brand as chief product specialist for all things NISMO and GT-R. Stories of younger days, and those who were able to conquer the local loop in under five minutes came to the table, followed by woeful ones about the Japanese bubble bursting, and the uncertainty that it left with everyone at the time.
It wasn't until sometime in the mid 1990s that Mr. GT-R's perseverance eventually began to pay off, and it came to him via a most peculiar proposition. Kazunori Yamauchi, a relatively unknown automotive enthusiast and complete computer whiz had been working on this video game project, and he needed experts. Yamauchi was hell-bent on building a game that was so life-like that it would be able to mimic many of the elements not commonly seen in driving games at the time. Tamura-san brushed-off the offer, claiming that he never had invested much interest in video games and that he was too old to start, a claim that was about to change forever.
Yamauchi remained persistent, and eventually curiosity got the better of Mr. GT-R. The video game guru was soaking-up every milliliter of automotive insight that he could source, and when Tamura-san saw the level of detail that was going into Yamauchi's game, he knew that he had to be a part of it. The product was called Gran Turismo and Tamura-san was about to star in a series of TV advertisements marketing the revolutionary game, in the process turning the video game industry and simulators as we knew them upside down.
Flashforward more than 20 years, and 14 follow-up releases later, and Mr. GT-R has a strong following based solely on the GT brand. Even as we stood at that frigid rock of a rest stop, people would come up and say hello, thrilled by the fact that royalty was mingling with the locals on a street level that night. From kids wanting pictures, to Porsche builders with impeccable taste, everyone wanted to greet Mr. GT-R. Coffee finished and clock ticking, I fired-off a few extra snaps and we headed back out onto the freeway. It was late and I had a plane to catch the next morning.
Cordial goodbyes made and friend requests sent, I returned to my room a bit worn, but strangely recharged as well. Mr. GT-R's enthusiasm is infectious, and while he may not be at liberty to discuss future plans for the Nissan brand, he does offer a lot of positive reinforcement.
The Fairlady Z will more than likely be reborn sometime soon, forged from the ash of the old, and equipped with a fresh Exedy clutch. Tamura-san's mighty Skyline GT-R will emerge once more as well. Sure, it may take a while, but with Rogue CUV sales still rolling strong, the Nissan piggy bank is filling up faster than ever before, and that is both good news for Hiroshi Tamura and Nissan enthusiasts alike. So for now let's all take a deep breath, appreciate what we've got, and recognize that just as long as Mr. GT-R is around, there will always be bigger and better Godzillas stomping down Tokyo streets. We just have to be patient and wait for the next generation of monster to hatch.