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Suzuka: Getting there is half the fun

Maurice Hamilton October 2, 2012
Arriving at Suzuka is always an achievement © Sutton Images
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Mention Suzuka and I instantly recall seeing a grainy black and white photo of John Surtees at the wheel of a Honda F1 car in the winter of 1966/67. This was the Honda test track; a unique facility at the time in motoring, never mind in motor racing. The car was white with the Rising Sun symbol on the nose; very Japanese and, it seemed to me, very far away.

That feeling persisted on my visit in 1987 when Suzuka staged a World Championship GP for the first time. There was no prior information about where to go or what to do. Just an address and a vague description of the train journeys involved. Talk about a trip into the unknown.

It was early evening when I landed at Osaka. Ahead lay the task of dealing with the Japanese rail system. There can arguably be no network more complex or, paradoxically but no surprise for Japan, more efficient. The only difficulty is you need to know precisely where you are going.

Having reached the terminus in Osaka city centre, the next stage was to find the Kintetsu Line; specifically, the branch serving Yokkaichi City, where my hotel was located. If you think a map of the London Underground is daunting for strangers, I wouldn't recommend, at the end of a long day, peering at what appears to be working drawing for the motherboard in the railway's computer system; a mass of weaving and criss-crossing coloured lines joining blobs of various sizes, all of them annotated with Japanese symbols.

Unlike now, very few of the wall signs carried an English translation. But, this being a major metropolis, concessions had been made and I found, in the ticket office, a sign bearing the word 'Kintetsu'. Result! Not so fast, Hamilton San...

The bloke at the desk had not the faintest idea what I was talking about when I asked for a single to Yokkaichi City. I pointed at the name on my hotel voucher. I may as well have shown him the Terms and Conditions for the British Rail South East Network Card which, rather pointlessly, I seemed to be carrying in my international travel wallet.

He called for help. Another official (I can't refer to them as ticket clerks because each was immaculately turned out in collar, tie, standard blue suit and, disturbingly for a first time visitor, bowing unctuously as if I was visiting Royalty. I knew Mr Ecclestone liked to have us create such an impression, but I felt this was excessive. Sorry, I digress..) This man recognised my destination and issued the appropriate instruction. The matter of cost was easily solved when I was proffered a calculator with the amount in Yen twinkling in red lights.

Money duly handed over and ticket received, the next hurdle was asking for a receipt. The request was greeted by a slightly silly grin and intermittent nodding of the head; a combination I was soon to recognise as the Japanese equivalent of: "Sorry mate. Haven't an effing clue what you're on about." Except the Japanese are far too polite to either admit defeat or use an expletive. Realising this was going nowhere and, if I didn't achieve my goal I would be seriously out of pocket, I suddenly remembered advice given to me by Kenny Acheson.

Kenny had raced extensively in Japan and, in common with many Europeans, loved every second of it. "They're funny people," he had said. "If in doubt, try adding an 'o' to our word in English." (By the way - sorry, I'm digressing again - he was referring to dealing with Japanese people and not, as you might imagine for one Northern Ireland man talking to another, how we should cope with the English after stepping off the Belfast-Liverpool boat for the first time.)

Gerhard Berger won the first F1 race at Suzuka in 1987 © Sutton Images
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As soon as I said the word "Receipt-oh", it was as if I'd told the man he'd won a million quid. Inbetween lots of "Hi...Hi" and some serious nodding accompanied by a look of intense relief, he set to work with demonic energy, his hand fairly flying across a receipt pad to produce extraordinarily neat writing resembling fretwork created by a biro. The fact that the text would mean sod all to either my accountant or Her Majesty's Inspector of Taxes in Bradford seemed unimportant in this moment of mutual triumph.

On board the correct train (finding it only came by chance after more fruitless nodding and silly grins), I met Heinz Pruller who, at that moment, represented a lost comrade rather than the F1 commentator for Austrian TV.

The journey would be about an hour. Beyond that, we knew very little. This was a cross-country rattler rather than the magnificent Shinkansen Bullet train to be experienced in later years. In other words, we were stopping at every hole in the hedge where the platform signs were not only poorly illuminated but also without an English translation. Or an Austrian one, come to that.

Each time the train came to a halt, we anxiously questioned startled fellow passengers.

"Yokkaichi City?"

Nothing.

"How about Yokkaichi-oh City-oh?"

Nothing. Save, of course, for the now perfectly understood silly grin and nodding. In later years, we would learn there's no need to mention 'City' and it's actually pronounced 'Yoo-kite-ssch,' but said very quickly. With appropriate nodding.

For now, we had to work out from a map Heinz had procured that Yokkaichi City was represented by the Japanese symbols showing, as far as we could tell, a window with curtains alongside a chest of drawers and a man with one arm brandishing a sword. It was with considerable relief that we eventually saw this collection of little drawings and duly alighted in what indeed was Yokkaichi City. And the weekend hadn't yet started.

Gerhard Berger, who would win the race, said coming to Japan had been fun. He didn't know the half of it. Now we had to find our way back to London-oh.

Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1 in the build-up to each Grand Prix.

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Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1. A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live