I am embarking on my biggest ever motorcycle journey around Japan. 17 days, four ocean ferries, high mountains, lush green valleys, remote country roads and blue ocean vistas island hopping around Nagasaki. As Doc Neeson said, this is it folks over the top. If you have some spare time then let me share some of the real Japan with you instead of the concrete jungle that many people think is Japan or indeed many people visit and never travel beyond. (photo via Tokyo Camera Club) Grand Motorcycle Tour of Japan first appeared on Motorcycle Paradise October 2016
Before that I need to escape this metropolis. Going north I need to go through or around Tokyo. Through is madness, hours spent in gridlock on expressways too narrow to lane split or ride around vehicles. Around to the west I first have the super congested Yokohama expressways and then often 20km traffic jams going north with everyone else exiting the city. Both are rather stressful ways to start a tour so I came up with another idea. Take the ferry across Tokyo bay and start riding from the other side. Starting the ride this way was so relaxing. I could have had breakfast on board as well which I didn’t realise so could have slept in a bit more – nah I am kidding myself – on a ride I still wake up well in advance of the alarm and cannot get back to sleep
It was nice weather and although I first had about 300km of highway that is easy to cover on a motorcycle like the FJR with electronic cruise control and electric windscreen. Plenty to see on the highways in Japan as you whisk past cities and through dozens of tunnels. The route was then on some minor roads across Ibaraki prefecture like below. I took a break in a small park and took my winter liners out of the gear as despite being October the day was warm. I re read some emails on the phone. I had been contacted by a recruiter about a job in Melbourne. Handsome remuneration but did I really want to go back to that life. Money is always a handy item to have of course. But then I look around and see the old guys here with their top of the line Lexus and think nothing can make up for time lost. These guys below did not have the answer. I rode on to Mt Nasu which I had not visited prior and the sunshine suddenly disappeared as the temperature fell away. Japan four seasons as they say – but it can be all in the same day. I tried to continue as is ‘sans liners’ but watched the temperature fall from 26 to 16 on the dash and then cold rain drops and it dropped to 7 in the space of 30 minutes, so jacket liner back in and winter gloves on, no where to take pants off the put those liners in so legs just do your best and then secure everything for a cool and damp ride on to Aizuwakamatsu. Clean bike lasted one day, ha-ha I don’t even bother trying to keep it clean much now days.
I am staying two nights here and on day two riding a loop from the hotel visiting two volcanoes in the Fukushima prefecture, Mt Bandai and Mt Zao. It was warm down on the ground leaving the hotel I was hot at traffic lights but once I climbed up Bandai the temperature like yesterday fell from mid 20’s to mid teens. Leaves just starting to change colour on Bandai. I am about a week too early for the colours of autumn proper but also a week before the madness of 100’s of cars and people lugging around cameras with lenses big enough to photograph trees from the moon. Bandai Azuma Skyline below. Some colour near the summit. And the volcanic section of Mt Bandai followed by the superb northern mountain road. This is view at my picnic lunch spot today. Takimi Stand Observatory on the way up My Zao which is a fancy name for a clearing overlooking twin waterfalls but the view was superb and deserves a nice name. Around this region is famous in Japan for apples and there are many fruit stands at the farms so I stopped and got one fresh picked from the tree for lunch. Quite possibly the best apple I have ever tasted.
Weather was fine and I thought today will be first time to ride the Zao Ecoline not in clouds. Well I guess thinking that I tempted fate as whilst I enjoyed the road up I could see the top was starting to get cloudy and by the time I got to the top it had totally clouded over with cold mist blowing across and temperature had dropped from a steamy 27 at the base to just 3 degrees. This is what I wanted to see (photo wiki commons) Possibly if I had not stopped for an early lunch might have been in luck but no point worrying about things that way, just go with the flow. Below is what I got. Oh well maybe next time. I was riding back south towards the lakes west of Mt Bandai over some minor roads traversing smaller but still scenic mountains. Odd how I have started to consider 1000m ranges as small. Japan is so mountainous. It clouded over at one point and looked like I might get a repeat of yesterday but I zipped up against the cold and rode on out of the hills. If I have some time when planning a ride I like to look over the area I will ride in Google maps with the user provided photos in the bottom bar activated. Often I see a photo of some out of the way spot someone has added, a viewpoint not on the main road or on top of small mountain which I then add to my route. Quite a few spots I feature on the blog I have found this way.. And so it was when doing todays route I saw this tiny pond on a side road and added it to my GPS thinking it might make for a photo opportunity. The days are getting short now, the sunset is about 4.30pm. I aim to finish riding early but pushed the distance out a little on this tour so end up riding up to sunset each day. The good thing is that later part of the day now has some nice light. Below is a very Japanese autumn image, that grass grows this time of year, the rice is ready to harvest, shadows are long with the sun’s angle. It had been a long but excellent 2nd day of the tour.
All my GPS routes can be viewed in detail and downloaded from ridewithgps.com, user account warren. Riding along route 252 on day three I could not travel more than five minutes before needing to stop for yet another photograph. The name Fukushima is associated with the Daiichi nuclear plant disaster in the 2011 Tsunami but understand the region is large and so I am in the middle of the country while the affected area is over on the east coast. Fukushima is a really beautiful part of Japan. These photos are straight from the camera. No post editing. It really is beautiful everywhere you look riding here.
Even my low res Polaroid Cube can’t take a bad photo here (below) and it has the imaging power of a 90’s phone camera, but I did stop briefly to take this. I realised the Cube doesn’t take a still per se but rather powers up and takes a couple seconds of video then produces a still from one frame of the video. That is why it has about a 2 second delay from pressing the photo button and what image it produces and why all the photos I try take with it usually miss the target or are blurry. I like the idea of taking some photos on the fly with a non fixed camera so I am considering updating to the GoPro Session 5 as out of 150 photos taken this ride with the Cube there is only about 10 that are on target and not blurry. Routes 252 and the 352 traverse a series of lakes and the riding and views are wonderful. I cannot recall seeing air as clear as this in Japan before. You ride through a lot of snow sheds circling the lake in the mountains. Route 352 initially has these long bumpy old tunnels that go for many km underground however outside there is another road, narrow one lane that climbs up high around the lake. It is very spectacular. Hard to photograph this road but you are up high with sheer drops in places with water crossings that have no rail. Quite an exciting ride. Once back down to the valley floor I found a spot I could take a break for lunch. Fresh air and just the sound of the river cascades. This is really living…
I stayed in a town nearby to Nikko last night. Nikko itself being 3 times the price. Hotel was what people call a Mom & Pop type place. So much more interesting than the new hotel chains. Nothing much in that small town but this is Japan and a convenience store is always nearby so a nice walk around then dinner is easy, simply choose from the wide range of fresh prepared meals and they will heat it up for you and pack it for walk back to hotel.
I had a nice pasta plus a fresh garden salad and a pudding type dessert popular in Japan. This sort of thing will set you back maybe $5 and the quality of the food is quite high. Never in another country would I expect good food from the 7/11 however here this is a way of life. The next day I got served a Japanese breakfast. You can save a few dollars here by skipping the breakfast option but hotels are only $40-50 bracket per night including breakfast and I find it sets me up well for a big day of riding. (although eating such big meals puts weight on me fast. The black covered bowl to left contains steamed rice)
Nikko is a very popular place to visit from Tokyo. Day four on tour I realised I timed things poorly. I was there on a Saturday. The leaves were just starting to have some colour. It was a hopeless gridlock on the road to the lake by just 8.30am I picked up some bad habits riding around place like Philippines, basically when completely stuck I will use any space either side of road or footpath to move on, which surprised some here today. I don’t know the exact way it would be said in Japanese but this Chinese saying would be close to what I wanted to have written on the back of my bike. 我的生活我做主 ‘ my life, I call the shots’ or my life, my rules. The Japanese version would have to add excuse me before and sorry afterwards .
Once free of that drive in movie parking lot it was a great ride along route 120. Another fantastic day weather wise, brisk still in the shadows this morning and oh so clear skies. View to my right when riding this morning below. A little colour near the top of the range. And then I revisited a hidden spot I photographed a couple years back on just a iPhone. I thought I might see how I go now I have a proper camera (albeit one that gives people purple lips sometimes..) Anyway below I think came out alright. Straight from the camera no post edit. I feel the boat is me, having drifted away from the rental shop to the far side of the lake not sure it was the right thing but in a peaceful place… Back on the road I encountered lots of other riders. A fine Saturday and I am on roads within striking distance from Tokyo so it is to be expected.
After Nikko I rode Mt Akagi which looks a bit like a hangout for the wanna be racers, many sports bikes on paddock stands with van, I presume bikes not even ridden up here. Nice road but had one guy run wide into my lane. You are at risk on these type of roads of being taken out by someone when their ‘ambition outweighs their talent’ as Casey Stoner once put it. Lovely spot on other side for todays picnic lunch (below) From here on to Mt Haruna. Another bikers spot by the looks of things but lots of traffic on the road making progress very slow. I had to pull off some fancy passing to get moving again. From there it was one great mountain range after another. All fairly tight closed in twisty roads so not many photos. I started to get fatigued by mid afternoon to be honest. These sort of roads are a lot of work on a bike like the FJR.
I was happy to get on some sweeping valley roads briefly before returning to more technical roads again. I designed the first part of this tour for a mate I used to ride with in Australia who had been going to do a ride here. So there is a lot of riding packed into each day, many 1000’s of corners. I really cannot explain how amazing the roads are here for riding when the weather cooperates. Imagine your favourite mountain pass, then imagine there are an almost endless number of similar mountain passes that follow. That’s riding in Japan. Looking ahead or looking back. End of today I was on the Tsumagoi panorama line. A terrific sweeping road with as the name suggests panoramic views of the Nagano alps. I stopped at a park I previously visited to take a rest. This is a place you can declare something to the mountain, like your love for your partner. I have posted this location once before but such nice weather it is worth revisiting. I sat there awhile taking in the view and in very short order the sun started to fade so I had to reluctantly get moving as I still had another small range to ride before the hotel. The corners never ended today. I wish I had been able to share with my mate. I think he would have been overwhelmed. Between Nagano and Toyama is another alpine mountain range that in the northern parts does not have any roads across it. I had been looking at the Kurobe Dam on Google maps and saw and image for another dam on the eastern side called the Takase dam that seemed to have a road to it. I decided to make this a side trip on this tour. It was going to be 50/50 chance of being open. Saw photos of cars there just a few years ago on Google but more and more remote roads are being gated. It was a lovely ride up there but alas the road has been gated about 5 km from the dam. Not sure why but the road up the dam wall is a series of switchbacks with no guard rail so perhaps some safety concern. Below is a old photo from Google maps. The leaves again just starting to change in the valley near the dam. Look carefully and you can see the steam rising from the hot water in this stream. Look really careful and you will find a Japanese person taking a dip (click to enlarge any photo).
Nobody swims at the beach and no house or apartment complex has a swimming pool however Japanese people are crazy in love with sitting in hot water, usually together with others in a public bathhouse but also in nature. One of a few cultural things I have zero interest in unfortunately. Leaving here I encountered a series of road closures for a fun run/marathon. I was trying to ride along the Azumino Art Line road which sounded interesting. I was traversing small farm roads that ran parallel to the road I wanted to ride when I came across this rather striking statue in the middle of the fields. Embrace the sunrise it seems to say, but perhaps a greater meaning or story is behind it. Eventually I could rejoin the Art Line and came across a few interesting items. I did not have the time today to further explore the area as it was a ambitious route on day five so from here I was next riding the Nippon Salad road. That was the roads name. Bit congested, quite a few monkeys were running across the roads perhaps getting the odd bit of food from the farms nearby. Away from the big cities there is still a lot of wildlife in Japan. Lunch rest area today had a free hot mineral water foot spa. You eat and take a foot spa. I was on my way then to the Shinhodaka ropeway. Double decker cable cars. And up we go.
I was frankly disappointed at the top. Not that there was a lot of people, I am used to that, or the that cable car fees were 3500Yen which is expensive but you simply cannot see down into the valley to have a good sense of height. The viewing platform is set well back from the edge in the middle of the ridge. Anyway it was sunny and clear, but I took the car back down not so long after arriving. Back on the road I had a fantastic ride up route 471. Such a nice road then I turned towards the north and revisited some roads that impressed me so much previously. The first road has no number but joins the 484 then you enter the Arimine Natural Park. It is all superb riding up into the park where it then gets a little narrow for a bit.
I stopped to have a bit of a stretch a short way inside the park and admired the different shades of the flora, I try not to put a motorbike in photos anymore but forgot this time. Setting off I went about a few km then came around one corner and got a real shock. On the side of the road was a medium size black bear. There has been four people killed by bears this year in the north. Campers or hikers I think. Anyway I need not worry as the big FJR scared the bear who scampered off into the bush as I rolled by.
Reminds me of the 1988 movie Deadly Pursuit (Shoot to kill in some markets) where a bear is approaching Tom Berenger and Sidney Poitier in the wilds of British Columbia and Sidney starts waving his arms and yelling and the bear stops and turns away. Tom asks ‘what was that?’ and Sidney replies – ‘Everyone up here acts like they have never seen a black man before – why should the bear be any different’. I get that a lot in the countryside. People will stare simply because they have rarely seen a foreigner. Away from big cities or areas where there are US military bases there really is few if any non Japanese. So as Sidney said… Exiting the park I stopped to revisit the river view I posted before but today it was slightly better weather and I had my ND filter to slow down the shutter for you to enjoy an encore presentation. Day six route was to link two tours into one or something along those lines. The first 5 days were based on a ride planned for a mate then I had the basis of southern tour half mapped out so I decided to join the two together. Woke up to light drizzle and looking at the weather radar it was heavy rain to the south exactly where I needed to ride.
But the rain was slowly moving east so I decided to try riding to the west as much as possible then swing back towards my hotel hopefully avoiding the really heaviest rain. This is my original route,
This plan was going quite well. I had scattered light showers but was avoiding what was certainly rain of biblical proportions happening to the east of me. On the expressways distance is covered easy so the 300km that can take 8 hours on regional roads came up in 3 hours and I needed to slow things down or I would soon be in that rain. Some great looking food at a highway service area so I had an early lunch.
Curry smelt too good to ignore and I had the place to myself. At these service areas you will mostly see a menu and then need to purchase the item using a vending machine to get a ticket you give to the people cooking. It’s just like the food courts in Thailand and it saves the shops from having to deal with money and just do food prep. You also encounter this at train stations and other places. Just work out what you want then put the money in and push the button for the number matching item. If you are unsure what things are like with ramen shops try pressing the number one menu item, it will usually be their most popular dish or chefs specialty.
You will likely be given a buzzer at a highway service area or other food court type place which alerts you when to come and get your food. At ramen shops they will serve it straight to you as often it is counter style seating. A tip in Japan if you are eating at a busy time first secure your seat, go and place an item on the table at the spare seat, no one will take it and now you have reserved your spot go back to machine or counter to order. This applies in coffee shops too. Of course regular restaurants you will be seated by staff.
Iced water is always free and good way to eat cheap is to not order any soft drinks as the meals can vary from $3 to maybe $8 but a fizzy drink will add another $3 to $4. Also you need to return your tray to the designated area for returns in any food court or hotel buffet type breakfast. Recycling is taken seriously in Japan. I have a different type of rubbish pick up each week day. Everything has to be separated. Been wondering today how I will go riding around in Australia next month. I will have to remember to remove my helmet at petrol stations. Cannot pay at the pump and have the bowser singing a song to me (link to video) or get full service with fill up and screen wiped down. No getting a great meal for a few dollars at a 7/11 or a beer for a dollar at the supermarket.
Will have to look at the speedo all the time too. I never really look at that much here, there is no focus on revenue raising just real safety… Oh well enough pondering things time to get back on the bike and push on as the rain radar looks not too bad now. Some easy riding towards my hotel. I stop at a small village train station to answer call of nature and as always am delighted the public toilets are unlocked and spotlessly clean and well cared for not vandalised.
I check the time table, a train is due soon, it arrives and is a one carriage train with one passenger as can still exist in rural Japan. It is painted in a theme, covered with what seems to be the local wildlife a Japanese raccoon which is also the regions mascot. This area is famous in history for ninjas and there was a ninja temple but I could see a break in the rain on the radar so decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth and made tracks to the Route Inn hotel I was staying at and used the spare time to attend to washing as they always have a coin laundry on site.
My good fortune with weather continues even if I had to abandon some of the days plans. ‘Seven days away I thought I heard you say’. Hmm never mind me that is just what is printed on my 100 yen laundry bag I got from Daiso. Feeling upbeat today after a good nights sleep.
On tour every day is ride day and I tend to wake up extra early and cannot get back to sleep. It’s not too bad as I can then have early breakfast and be on the road but missing some sleep each night eventually adds up so it does feel good to be well rested. Morning mist in the valley below. Revisited fabulous route 169 south of Nara into Wakayama and Mie prefectures. This road is overshadowed by the famous Ryujin Skyline a little way south but this and route 168 are interesting riding. Lots of abandoned homes and forgotten shops in small villages on what were once more busy routes. A reminder life is just a temporary thing. I took a side road to visit a high viewpoint I found again on Google maps using the photo option. Half way up looking down at the circle sky bridge on route 169. And up high overlooking the mountains (p.s.the photo is not crooked it just the way the land is, you feel like you might fall off!) I was wanting to remind people to always chock your bikes front wheel if you have to stop facing down hill because they can move forward in gear. I look for a rock and wedge it while taking photos (need not be big to provide enough extra resistance) then kick it off the road as I am remounting. Riding back down behind a girl on a beautiful new Triumph Thruxton who was very obviously uncomfortable on the roads under permanent tree cover that were damp and little slippery. Riding a dirt bike/moto-x bike on a farm or a track for while is the best thing a road rider can do. You get used to the feeling of a bike being loose and it changes everything I think.
I had lunch at a great little spot in a small town Shimokitayama that sits below a huge dam. Local person came to talk to me but again I struggled to say much. I have joined a language school finally as home study is never going to get me to conversation level Japanese so see how I go. Stopped at a camp ground below the dam which had me singing that 80’s hit song Great Wall by Australian band Boom Crash Opera (it’s about the Hume weir if you did not pick the connection ) From here I took a back road, route 425 to get me across to the 168. This road goes high into remote mountain pass and is mostly narrow one lane.
I’ve been wanting to explore more places like this so have included a few roads on this tour that will test me on the FJR. On the way up I stopped at a switchback corner to look around. Let me indulge with a series of photos. First the corner I stopped, then looking down where I had been then looking up to see the road cutting far above where I would need to ride to.
And then lastly looking back to where I was parked from the spot marked with the arrow in the last photo (middle of photo) I’m really off the beaten track here. Near the summit there has been a bit of development with a tunnel and the old original road over the top closed. That sign says route 425, and the corner number. They sometimes number the corners on certain roads. Since I am going in descending order that means I have 408 corners ahead of me. About now I am thinking about a lighter motorcycle… A lot of the road on the other side was damp with leaves and slippery as it gets so I was actually glad to get off this road but it was wonderful scenery and zero cars. Not even a so called adventure bike. Too far from a Starbucks perhaps… I had a great ride up the 168 which unfortunately like so many roads in Japan is being straightened by tunnels but today I was glad as feeling fatigued from all the corners and tricky conditions on 425. I passed Kongobuji the famous Buddhist headquarters overflowing with western tourists but I am not religious so kept on going to Wakayama. Feeling tired I decided to skip the remainder of my route and try ride directly in to the city. Dumb move. Wakayama is a city in love with the automobile. There is a couple of places like this in Japan where perhaps the train network is not up the the usual Japanese specifications or the city thought they could make buses work which has never happened anywhere in the world. Ok better get off my former public transport planner soap box.
30 degrees, what the, in October this was a heat wave and here I am stuck in heavy and slightly aggressive traffic trying to get downtown. I saw later my original route was further but then joined the expressway into heart of city, I planned it so long back I had forgotten. Finally arriving at the hotel I discovered my booking had been for another date. I tried to get a room but was told nothing available despite rooms showing available on the online booking sites – ok I guess I get the hint you are pissed at me for some reason – no problems to find another room just around the corner at a Mom & Pop style old hotel. Phew so glad to get out of the gear this afternoon.
Dinner at Royal Host tonight, another of the many affordable chain restaurants in Japan simply called family restaurants. Took a walk around on the unseasonably warm evening to view the castle that sits illuminated up high above the low rise city but I only had the iPhone with me which is hopeless in low light so all my photos are rubbish. Tomorrow I board the ferry to Shikoku. The tour moves soon to coastal roads as I make my way south to Kyushu and to my destination of Nagasaki where I will try to tour the ghost island Hashima (below). Hope you will join me for that in part two. Image via wiki commons Hisagi