Driving Japan’s Tsumagoi Panolama Line in the Subaru WRX STI

Ken Saito
Subaru WRX STI review front

Photo: Ken Saito

After seeing all the cars take on the Tsumagoi Panolama Line during the Asama Hill Climb, it made me want to try out this road myself.  I made a mental note to come back here one day in an appropriate car and have my own hill climb.  But judging from the cars that did the best on the Hill Climb, mega power wasn’t necessary.  Instead, balance and grip was more important.  So when Subaru gave me the keys to a 2019 WRX STI, I knew it was going to be the perfect car to try out on this road.

Subaru WRX STI review rear

Photo: Ken Saito

Getting to the Tsumagoi Panolama Line involved a drive across a road called the ‘Nihon Romantic Highway’ which was a 3.3 mile stretch of straight road.  There was a small kink, but it’s one of the longest straights I’ve seen in Japan.  The slight elevation changes also added to this road’s uniqueness and memorability.

Subaru WRX STI review roller1

Photo: Ken Saito

After having fun on this road, it was time to carry on inland towards the Tsumagoi road.  This was an entirely new experience for me because when I previously drove on the same bit of road to get to the Hill Climb event, it was under the pitch black darkness of night.  Seeing all the views during the day was a first. I felt ripped off, to be honest, as the views here were as stunning as anywhere else in Japan.

Being cooped up in Tokyo, you forget how beautiful and serene the Japanese countryside can be.

Subaru WRX STI review straight road

Photo: Ken Saito

Driving this WR Blue WRX STI through this landscape with the naked trees made me think I was in some kind of rally stage.  It didn’t seem like Japan anymore but rather some European rally stage.  It was also dangerously empty, by which I mean the emptiness encouraged the sort of silly driving associated with these sorts of cars.

ubaru WRX STI review cockpit1

Photo: Ken Saito

I eventually made it to the bottom of the Tsumagoi road and stopped next to the shed used as the start line for the Asama Hill Climb.  While here, I had to take a couple of photos of the view behind me.  See that patch of white in the middle of the mountain in the below photo?  That’s right next to the Usui Pass, another epic road in this area.

Subaru WRX STI review profile

Photo: Ken Saito

Immediately, tire marks from the Asama Hill Climb fresh from the last hill climb were still visible on the first corner.  It’s a fast bit of road, with a few sudden dips and tight corners.  For the most part, it’s a road where you can get up to a medium to high speeds very easily.  The best thing though, the lack of traffic.  During the couple of hours I spent there I must’ve seen less than a dozen other motorists.  Now it makes sense why the Hill Climb event takes part this far out of Tokyo.

Most of the videos online from the Asama Hill Climb only show the section at the end, as the cars near the hotel.  Most of the “hill climb” is actually pretty flat.  The uneven road surface, a constant reminder we’re not in metropolitan Tokyo, can make it feel like the car is about to take off at any point.  At least it keeps things interesting.

Subaru WRX STI review front grill

Photo: Ken Saito

Subaru WRX STI review wheels and brembo calipers

Photo: Ken Saito

I couldn’t leave this road without replicating the shots I had from the Asama Hill Climb so I took the Subaru to the oddly named ‘Wife’s Hill’ corner.  There’s hardly any other traffic on this road so you’re free to explore to your heart’s desire.  I got here a bit late, the sun was already setting by the time I was taking photos of the car throughout the road.  But even on a public holiday weekend it was eerily quiet.  It truly felt like winter in the sense everything was dead around; plants, tourists and all.

The empty roads made me understand the Subaru’s appeal though.  It was my first time in a proper STI, the last time I drove a WRX was the JDM-spec S4 which had a CVT.  The STI with its 6-speed manual only option, silly rear wing, and highlighter yellow brake calipers made it more sporty and edgy.

Subaru WRX STI review shifter knob

Photo: Ken Saito

Subaru WRX STI review rear wing

Photo: Ken Saito

Compared to the new Civic Type R this has a more old-school, raw feel to it.  The power delivery is more manic, akin to turbo engines of old.  This is the sort of car you hang on for dear life while being pushed to the back of your seat.  Very quickly do you become intimate with the seat and steering wheel.

Subaru WRX STI review cockpit2

Photo: Ken Saito

Subaru WRX STI review cockpit3

Photo: Ken Saito

But all while feeling a sense of security from Subaru’s brilliant AWD system.  The way it covers ground, whatever the surface, was utterly staggering.  It genuinely surprised me how fast it was in a straight line and more so around corners.

Sure, push it towards its limits and it started to show a whiff of understeer but it’s more of a slight reminder you’re being a bit silly than it actively trying to steer you into the nearest tree.  It became more obvious towards the end of the Tsumagoi road on the hairpins towards the ski resort.  Certainly, the front end was more wayward than the Civic.

Subaru WRX STI review engine bay

Photo: Ken Saito

But I’m glad I had Subaru’s AWD on these roads.  Subaru’s home turf is Gunma and this car was made for these sorts of roads.  A rearwheel drive sports car would’ve probably been too much of a handful on these roads at this time of the year, I’m not sure it’d be an entirely snow and ice friendly car.  Somehow though, driving here in the Subaru felt just right.

Subaru WRX STI review front angle

Photo: Ken Saito

After a quick stop on an empty country lane with the backdrop of Mount Asama, I had my fix and headed back to Tokyo.  Now that I’ve had a go on this road, I think I’m ready to take on the Hill Climb next year.

Probably…on second thought, maybe not.  I didn’t time myself driving the Hill Climb route, but I was probably a lot slower than the competition!

Subaru WRX STI review top of car

Photo: Ken Saito


Author’s Biography

Ken Saito is a Guest Writer specializing in Automobiles who resides in Japan. With a B.A. majoring in Media Studies with minors in Asian Studies and History from Victoria University in New Zealand, Ken has contributed to motoring websites like DriveLive New Zealand, CarsOfTokyo (Japan), Jalopnik (USA) and Petrolicious (USA), as well as magazines like Lords Magazine (France) and Automobile (USA).
Ken may be one of the few people to have been ‘canyon carving’ in a Cadillac SUV against a Ferrari F40…

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