The Kitsukawa family lives just a few kilometres outside the port town of Takamatsu. The house and land belonging to the Kitsukawas are nestled on a mountainside from which wide-reaching views can be enjoyed across the hills of southern Japan’s Shikoku island. But this view isn’t so important at this very moment, because the man of the house, 77-year-old Shimpei Kitsukawa, is just about to open his garage door. Whenever he does so with strangers standing by his side, his wife Nobuko (70) holds her hand in front of her mouth to hide her grin in advance of this special moment: “For my husband, it’s like a sacred event.”
Part of the family: for the four members of the Kitsukawa family, Mercedes-Benz is more than just a car brand.
Shimpei Kitsukawa – the honorary president of the Mercedes-Benz Club Japan.
He has expressive, alert eyes and a full head of grey hair. As the third generation running the family’s ship component manufacturing business, he heads up a team of over 600 employees spread across their locations and offices in Takamatsu, Tokyo and Yokohama.
In Mr Kitsukawa’s eyes, the vehicle that is parked in the garage underneath the couple’s home is “the most beautiful car in the world”. Through the wooden-trimmed glazing you can already make out the 300 SL Roadster from the W 198 model series. Of this series, only 1,858 units were ever produced.
At the beginning of the 1970s, he acquired the sports car and with it simultaneously fulfilled his childhood dream. “This car can speak, you just have to listen. It says: my owner is successful and has very good taste. Not everyone is allowed to drive me.” What’s more, the legendary two-seater has quite a special history, as the industrialist explains: “I believe it was the first ever 300 SL Roadster to arrive in Japan.” A group of experts from a vehicle manufacturing consortium wanted to drive and study the vehicle in the late 1950s in order to learn how to make such a perfect car.
Ready to roll: the honorary president of the Mercedes-Benz Club Japan is ready for his tour of the island.
Monk in a Mercedes: Hirofumi Kawada from near Kobe joins the group on Shikoku in his 190 SL.
But these days, Mr Kitsukawa doesn’t bring it out of the garage very often. He has problems with his back, and long journeys are now a thing of the past. But that doesn’t stop him walking around the Roadster a couple of times, passing a feather duster over the paintwork and gently stroking the leather of the seats: “I don’t need much more than this to be happy – and I mean really happy!” But today, they are venturing out onto the open road. Mr Kitsukawa in his yellow pullover vigorously shoves open the door. “Take a look at that red,” he says in the filmset-like surroundings. “My sun is rising!” The romantic scenario isn’t just observed by his wife Nobuko, but also by his daughter Mari (37) and his son Katsuya (44).
Ready to roll! Mr Kitsukawa opens the soft top, gets behind the wheel, pulls his fingerless black driving gloves taut and pauses for a few seconds with his eyes closed. Then he starts his “favourite piece of music”: the engine of his 300 SL. His daughter Mari gets into her 280 SL, W 113 model series from 1970, while his son Katsuya drives the 280 SE 3.5 Cabriolet, W 111 model series from 1971 out of the grounds. Both cars were a gift from the businessman, whose wife has joined him in the passenger seat of the 300 SL. I ask whether she has ever driven the car. “Driving the 300 SL myself without an automatic gearbox and power steering? No, I have too much respect for it to do that!”
In front of their property, three further members of the club are already waiting with their engines running. “Whenever Mr Kitsukawa invites us to accompany him on a tour, it’s a real honour and so, of course, we are glad to join him,” comes the typically Japanese formulation from Hirofumi Kawada, a Buddhist monk with a dark cap and a young-classic Rolex on his wrist. The monk has travelled from near Kobe, around 150 kilometres away. His 190 SL Roadster, manufactured in 1960, is four years older than he is. The other two – Masashi Sumino and Masaki Kato – align their R 107 and A 124 in the classic convoy.
Sea view: the members of the Mercedes-Benz Club Japan really enjoy getting behind the wheel.
The open road and mild, smooth air. Cabriolet weather! Mr Kitsukawa spent several weeks preparing for the small club outing with his family and friends – not to mention the journalists from Germany. Everything was planned with painstaking precision. Maybe this is his last big tour, because in a few months’ time he will be turning 78 – the age at which he wishes to surrender his driving licence. “It’s my own decision,” he explains. “After 60 years behind the wheel, it’s now getting to the time where I think I should. It’s not just my back that’s causing me trouble – my reflexes are also starting to decline. But to be honest: when I think about what it must be like to live without a driving licence, it already makes me feel a little melancholy.”
Is that the reason he planned this tour with military-like precision? “No,” he answers. “I want everyone to feel great and to enjoy some lasting impressions. Plus, I have a pretty Germanesque character and like to follow a plan. We Japanese and you Germans are similar in many respects.” Even the first stop along the way is sensational: we have a view of the Great Seto Bridge – an architectural masterpiece capable of withstanding an earthquake up to 8.5 on the Richter scale. With 296,000 kilometres of steel cables, you could wrap it around the world seven times! The bridge is made up of 705,000 tonnes of steel and around 3.5 million cubic metres of concrete, and is itself 13.1 kilometres in length and thus the longest two-deck bridge in the world.
Great Seto Bridge.
Pit stop: after our meal, the businessman hands over the 300 SL to his son.
Besides all of its vital statistics, Mr Kitsukawa is also more than familiar with the best places to get a view of this bridge – both from the Pacific coast and from the winding roads in the mountains. Our journey takes us past mussel farms, olive groves, bonsai parks and Buddhist temples, and it almost seems as though Mr Kitsukawa had suddenly forgotten his backache. The group talks shop about driving sensations and engine sounds. Meanwhile, the 300 SL Roadster is now at the hands of Kitsukawa Junior. But he’s the only other person allowed to drive it!
Shikoku is known for the longest Buddhist pilgrimage path in the world, explains monk Hirofumi Kawada, thus giving the island in southern Japan yet another superlative point of attraction: “Anyone who wants to visit all the temples on the island will have to walk 1,400 kilometres – that’s how long the 88-temple pilgrimage is.” Along the way through a national park, the Kitsukawas decide to briefly turn their white 280 SE 3.5 Cabriolet into a family wagon high above the coastline there.
Naturally, the men are up front and the women in the back. And when the photographer asks the ladies to swap with the men, Mr Kitsukawa first finds it a little strange. Why would the head of the family be at the back? The businessman pauses for a moment and says, “OK, so I have to sit in the back and the two women in the front? Sure, why not!”
Route plan: Shimpei Kitsukawa tells his friend Masaki Kato (left) where the tour will lead them.
The mood of the group becomes increasingly relaxed. And whenever the wind blows his hair around, Mr Kitsukawa instantly pulls a comb out of his back pocket. “I’m a little vain,” he comments with a smile, as if caught red-handed. He’s long given up on his schedule and route plan. Now he just goes with the flow. Another area in which he is proficient is finding the best restaurants on the island. After our break for a sushi lunch, it was clear that this is definitely the best place around if you’re a fan of this typical Japanese fare.
And after the six-course evening meal in the gourmet restaurant Chiman in Takamatsu, we’re also left with that same feeling: the Wagyu beef melts in the mouth like butter. In Japan, Wagyu cattle are still bred on small farms, where they are said to be massaged to the sound of music and given beer and rice wine to drink – and their beef is seen as the best (and most expensive) in the world.
A burning passion: the chef at Chiman in Takamatsu celebrates his creativity on the stove.
Hostess: Nobuko Kitsukawa runs one of the region’s best restaurants in Takamatsu.
“You’ll never guess who the boss of this restaurant is,” says the host at the end of the meal to the reporters, having clearly enjoyed the amazing meat and the whole situation. He grins in response to the shrugging shoulders and curious regards of his German guests. “It belongs to ...” he says, adding a dramatic pause, “my dear wife.” The whole group of Mercedes-Benz fans claps, as do the chefs, waiting staff and other guests.
A tour of Mr Kitsukawa’s manufacturing facilities wasn’t actually on the route plan. But on the second day it wasn’t far off course. The same is true of the local Mercedes-Benz dealer, of which Kitsukawa has for decades been one of the best and most loyal customers. The diligent employees naturally served coffee and biscuits to the entire group. “In six decades, I’ve bought 150 new cars here,” estimates the businessman. “But most of my classics came either from the USA or sometimes even from Germany.”
Along the way, his wife talks from time to time about her trips to Europe and enthuses about her experiences in the West, especially of the castles and crystal-clear mountain lakes in the Alps, the vast panoramas and especially about Salzburg, where she regularly visited the Mercedes-Benz & Friends international club meetings.
Island tour: the tobacco brown 280 SL was a gift from father to daughter just a few years ago.
Next, she surprises everyone by briefly taking to the wheel of the red 300 SL Roadster – on an expansive, lush meadow beneath the castle of the coastal town of Marugame in the west, around an hour’s drive from the Kitsukawa family’s countryside retreat. Son Katsuya and daughter Mari, not to mention Masashi Sumino, Masaki Kato and monk Hirofumi Kawada, applaud the businessman’s elegant wife and capture this precious moment with their cameras. Shimpei Kitsukawa meanwhile, fully aware that this very emotional club outing around his native Shikoku island is now gradually drawing to a close, dabs his eyes dry with a handkerchief. He does so secretively and almost looks a little embarrassed. “Tears of joy,” he says. “Just tears of joy.”