Last year on my return from Hokkaido I stayed in Aomori prefecture and enjoyed one of Japan’s major summer festivals. I actually did not know about it prior to arriving and by sheer chance got a room thanks to a late cancellation. I was so impressed I decided to design a ride this year north to Tohoku again.
First up to get away from the Tokyo-Yokohama metropolis. Traffic is hellish in Tokyo so I detour right around to the west which adds considerable distance but saves sitting in traffic jams which would be foolhardy on a day like this. It is almost too hot to ride, I am perspiring like crazy despite wearing a summer mesh jacket.
That FJR1300 fairing is great when it is cold but with a ‘real feel’ from AccuWeather at 39 degrees it is uncomfortable when not moving. I have ridden in Australia in these conditions over summer a few times, 37-38 degrees is not uncommon in February and is my upper limit for riding however I usually would be on the road at dawn there to enjoy the cooler morning then try to stay in the mountains so the heat was less and no sitting at traffic lights.
Very easy to become dehydrated on a day like this. I stop for an early light lunch and plenty of fluids at a highway rest area and realise that something my photos never convey well is the scale of the mountains in Japan. The peaks are often obscured by clouds. Around me now are 2000m peaks but you would never realise it as all obscured. I won’t be riding over them today, the expressway goes under. The 11km long tunnel offers nice cool air like entering a shopping mall.
The weather on the other side is a dramatic change from cloudy to lovely sunshine. The expressways in Japan are mostly elevated so you get a commanding view of the countryside travelling on them. (p.s. I still have my Polaroid Cube to get the odd low resolution on board photo like above but sold my Hero 5 Session which was unreliable)
I used the expressway for about 300km which on the FJR1300 is effortless. My previous motorcycle was the 2010 Honda CB1100. A beautiful and fun to ride bike but on open roads the wind blast was fatiguing, not that I did more than an hour highway previously. Same really with all my previous bikes. Having almost year round summer and good roads just an hour from my former home lots of airflow on a standard (recently relabelled ‘naked’) motorbike suited me for day trips but if I was to choose another bike in Australia it might feature a screen, maybe not as big as the FJR but something to defuse the air.
If I was touring around Australia then I would love to have the electronic cruise control the FJR has. In a country that has demonised speed this would really come in handy. Here there are no highway patrol cars with radar since all the highways are elevated and divided with exit/entry ramps far apart and no turn bays. No rear facing speed cameras here either and even the front facing ones are few. Around the big cities you might encounter unmarked police cars on the expressways, always luxury Toyota Crown vehicles (One of the domestic luxury brands like Lexus that exists in Japan). They take advantage of where there are highway bus stops to be able to pull vehicles over since otherwise there is no place to stop a car. So it is relatively easy to know that these select areas are not the place to be speeding but otherwise away from the city limits there really is little to no enforcement on speeding.
Exiting the expressway I enjoyed revisiting the magnificent route 252. This mountain road with tight corners is not the ideal environment for a big bike but now that I know to run a lower fuel load the FJR rides so much better then I originally gave it credit for.I had previously been refueling far too frequently for this bike thus always riding with a heavy fuel load. It’s still hard for me to fathom seeing 1/3 left on fuel gauge means at least 150km range remaining as the trip computer never takes into account reserve.
I only need fill up once a day and try to do that when it will use some of the fuel on regular roads to arrive the mountains with less. (Todays ride 476km was achieved on one full tank from home… )
Some lovely rural scenery near the town of Mishima.The photo above reminds me that the 7/11 stores here used to play Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple) orchestral version on repeat. Now they play Daydream Believer (The Monkee’s) instrumental version on repeat. Little things like this make me smile.
The weather is extra variable today from sun to overcast to sun to damp roads back to sun. I arrive the scenic Fukushima region by days end.I am staying in Kitakata tonight. A medium size town with an old district that is like a open air museum. I’m hopeless at photographing urban environments but the streets were fascinating to walk around. Someone who is good at capturing decaying Japan is Lee Chapman.
Damp morning despite fine day forecast . Another rider contemplating wet weather gear. We both decide not needed. I really like these, the Honda CB1300 Super Bol D’Or. Not much saving on weight or price to mine. (The FJR1300 in Japan is priced same as other large domestic models $11K-$14K new) But the Honda sure is a handsome motorcycle.
My route skirts over towards Mt Bandai but I veer left and then ride north along next to the lake, the normally great views that footsteps lead you to unfortunately obscured today. The roads although damp as you can see were still able to be enjoyed and were drying. I spent the rest of the morning dodging some serious rain that was all around me. I only got the occasional drop and remained dry behind the FJR’s fairing and screen.
Lazy riding leaving the bike in fourth even at urban pace, it will accelerate away from as low as 1500rpm in that gear. Maybe not quite as smooth as the Suzuki Bandit 1200, but then what is. (maybe that 1300 Honda?..) I really do like the character of a big inline four.East or west it is very wet. That’s some serious looking clouds, thought I was going to cop it a couple of times but managed to skirt around by sheer luck staying either behind or in front of rain. By midday I ride clear of this into sunshine in Miyagi prefecture. I took a detour on whim seeing a sign indicating some sort of historic site and followed a narrow road up a small hill to reach a clearing with toilets and a rest area cabin. Perfect spot for lunch, zero people or cars I had a very peaceful rest here and enjoyed todays lunch of couple of varieties of onigiri. Rather narrow road, still many places in Japan that you can feel off the beaten path. After lunch I reached a highlight of the day, the fabulous route 398 over Mt Kurikoma. I keep saying how great the riding here is realising my words are probably empty since you need visuals but many roads are covered in by forest making a photo just a small bit of tar that could be anywhere. But occasionally there is a photo opportunity like today where it is more open.This is what many of the good roads I list in Japan are like to ride, only being able to see them clearly is a rarity. As you can see the sun came out and it turned steamy so I stopped to rehydrate despite being not that far to my hotel as I know if you leave it then dehydration can hit pretty hard. Someone asked me are there beer vending machines. Yep sure, but you can buy beer or pre mixed spirits at any supermarket, drug store or corner store so you are surrounded by beer in Japan.
I have mastered the Japanese self serve pumps now at all the chains and have switched to use them to save a little. The self serve stations seem to have all unified the pump colours to red for regular, yellow for premium and green for diesel. I still see some variation in pump colours at older gas stations but usually those are full service so you need not guess.
This is typical layout, I sometimes need google translate on the phone to workout what the screen is saying but they are all moving to a similar format now it seems so I can guess and get it right. The screen will play ads while you pump then I noticed this trip you get a slot machine animation after finish at a couple of them. Seems you can win back some money off your fuel bill. The Japanese love to gamble, there are pachinko (slot machines) by the thousands in every town.
I continue on my way north today riding a hidden route called Mizuho No Sato from Yokote. If you zoom in on my GPS route (found on ridewithGPS.com user warren) you can see how it is strung together. This is a fabulous start to the day, the air is clean and cool and the skies are blue.
Not sure you can make out in the image above that the mountain in the distance still has snow in August! It is deceptive the scale of mountains in Japan. This is Mt Chokai 2236 metres and is very long distance away but due to clear air can be seen from Yokote this morning. I make a small visit to Lake Tazawa, it is a nice scenic ride along the shore.
Then route 341 north which has excellent sweeping corners as you climb over Mt Hachimantai and neighboring mountains.
I did not come across any particular good photo spot so you will have to take my word it is very nice. I stopped in the small town of Kosata for lunch. This was a place where a lot of gold was mined and there are the trappings of former wealth to be seen around the town, the impressive former mine office building was very European.
I was tempted to visit the grave of Jesus Christ… ‘Seems legit’ as the saying goes, though Japan is not a Christian religion society with 99.9% following Shintoism. However 56km round trip was a bit too much to add on to todays ride. Climbing up from the lake, the northern side would be a nice spot in Autumn I think with the red leaves contrasting with the blue. Terrific bit of road then north in a sweeping arc through the Hakkoda mountains and over to Hirosaki. Hard to photo as closed in but excellent surveying. Bear country up here.
Great days riding.
Tonight is time for the Neputa festival. Not to be confused with the similar name and more well known Nebuta festival in Aomori the Neputa festival in Hirosaki is far less crowded which is why I chose it out of the two which together are part of the four designated major festivals of Japan (although there are literally 100’s of smaller festivals in summer across Japan). Many of the Japanese festivals have origins related to banishing demons, seeking a good harvest or bountiful catch from the ocean and have evolved over the years yet retain this at their base.
The Neputa festival features huge fan shape floats, ‘Neputa’s’ with elaborate paintings that contrast between gallant on one side and elegant on the reverse. People march the streets with flutes and lanterns to ward off evil spirits reciting phrases in the ancient local dialect. But the highlight of the Neputa festival has to be the huge Odaiko drums and the sound from these that you feel to your very core. They measure about 3.3 metres (10 feet) in diameter and weight about 2 ton.
It’s quite an extraordinary event that runs for 3 hours. The light was fading fast as things commenced and so I walked from a good spot I had in search of more street lights to illuminate things but as I arrived they turned these off and from then I struggled to get any clear photographs.
A cooler start today. I leave Hirosaki back towards Lake Towada. Some excellent riding on route 104 despite a full fuel load due to well surveyed road. I am soon back to Lake Towada and I stop down by the western side at a lovely spot for a vending machine coffee and try to get something of a photo. I sold my Lumix LX100 after 18 months due to inconsistent focusing and this is the first ride with a Lumix GX85. I am not liking the new camera and most photos on this ride are from my phone. Most people never get away from the cities so only see a very urbanised Japan but the rural areas like Aomori are beautiful.
Speed traps here are very rare but today for the first time in four riding seasons I came across a old school box radar setup on side of road. Not sure why police would not have speed cameras or speed lasers but they don’t nor do they use speed cameras hidden in parked cars. I was behind a small van and going to pass but fortunately I didn’t as I was in no hurry just cruising looking for a convenience store to get a cold drink. Later I got to thinking how much luck comes my way. I may never be wealthy nor stop doing dumb things on regular occasions but fortune seems to shine on me in other ways like this today and in the sense that I have found what makes me happy in life which those with much more often seem not to discover.
I did not put sufficient cuesheet entries (waypoints) in my GPS route for today thus the Garmin took me via more urban roads on a longer journey because it is always trying for the faster route. Eventually I rejoined my intended roads south of Ninohe. A lovely rural route that curves along the river for a pleasant ride.Then an excellent climb up into the mountains on route 20 running to the east. Here I turned directly south but first I took some time out for lunch. I forgot to freeze my cooler brick last night but no problems being summer the convenience stores have frozen drinks so grabbed one of them earlier which served two purposes.
I came across a shady spot under some trees at a hiking area with an adjacent closed shop. Later looking inside I can see the fridge full of beer and cabinets full of cigarettes but despite being in a totally isolated place nothing is touched and the toilets have been left unlocked and stocked with paper and towels.
From here I am riding one of the best roads I have yet found in Tohoku. Route 7 starts a little narrow but then opens up to be this grand sweeping ride that crests two mountains and an absolute joy. Of course not many places to take a photo but this below in one of the tighter parts. A beautiful but of tar in the middle of nowhere.
After here I ride another gem of a road, all but hidden on Google maps it seems to have no route number but is called Big Forest Road locally according to a road works sign. This generously surveyed wide road goes through a huge pine forest that covers a large mountainous area. It is fairly remote and I only see one other car the whole time.
Approaching the mountain top I round a corner to see a black bear on the side of the road right in front of me. I am not sure what to do except ride on slow sound the horn. To stop and try turn the FJR requires a three point turn which might not be good idea. I am assuming the bear will associate the large motorcycle and noise to that of road traffic, something to be avoided and run off the road which fortunately is what happens. I would have loved to have obtained a photo but attempting same would have been foolhardy. Shame the weather turned to overcast and gloomy again. The views are obscured by low clouds but this was one incredible ride that went on for ages with nobody whatsoever around. Rather cool this afternoon down to 20 degrees in this region which was perplexing for me coming from the tropics where summer temperatures simply never fluctuate by such a large figure.
I arrive Miyako and had planned to go to the seaside to photograph a famous rock formation known as Jodogahama at sunset but the weather is now gloomy low haze, a condition I have blogged previously that affects Japan so it was no use to leave the hotel and I will try see it tomorrow morning instead.
It is peak summer but today 19 degrees and I need windbreaker. There is a little light rain so I have to skip going to the seaside. Riding west I am going to explore more of the hidden route known (maybe) as the big forest road today in the next section I found that runs south though another huge pine forest. This turns into another amazing ride on a wide well surfaced road with modern surveying providing predictable curves and easy riding. Zero traffic but plenty of wild life.
I have seen two black and grey mountain goats and a large deer on the road so far. My goal is to master the slow ride and be in no rush on tour which is just as well on these roads as you could easy come undone with wildlife if blasting along. Another difficult road to photograph as mostly closed in then when it opened up to almost Australian high country looking dairy pastures called Arakawa heights the clouds blanketed the area. Well it was a great ride I highly recommend. I stop at the small village I think is called Chiwari and a local guy is talking to me while I am composing a selfie at an old shop but I cannot understand much. People always assume I am American and I have to pronounce Australia as Ooostralia but with no vowel emphasis since Japanese do not emphasis tone like Latin based language speakers do.
I doubt I will ever be able to speak Japanese. Actually I’ve given up trying to learn it. I could pick up some basic Italian in just a week of being in Sicily but after years of on and off study at home and in classes and being surrounded by people speaking the language I cannot understand a thing. Shame about the weather as Iwate prefecture is really nice but not possible to photograph much in these conditions. Eventually I have to put some rain gear on as it turns to a steady drizzle. Chance to test my summer rain travel gear which consists of very lightweight bicycle rain pants and a thin spray jacket which also doubles as a light wind breaker when travelling. I would not want to do a lot of rain riding in this gear but for this sort of thing it is sufficient. Small local fire stations dot the countryside. Easy riding wide rural roads with few cars remind me of Shimane prefecture. It is very enjoyable despite passing showers. The roads are well surfaced and good grip as all open country without leaves or silt on the road.
No where to stop for lunch with cover from rain however. I look at each village to see if there is any park or rest area but this prefecture seems to not have much in the way of community space unlike others that always feature that. I stop eventually rather late having reached the ocean and Miyagi prefecture. At least it is dry here so I need not find cover. I can get out of the rain gear as ahead I can see no rain on the radar. I have my own chair although only use it rarely it was handy for taking boots off and removing my rain pants.
Love having panniers. I was thinking a small mat to place on ground would be handy if you use rain suit/pants. I normally am wearing Gore-Tex pants so no need to stop and do this. From here south it is rather congested. This area was inundated in the 2011 tsunami tragedy and is one huge recovery zone now with many roads gone I found myself unable to follow my route and mostly on detours. Something I never really show in my photos is how many roads are under construction in Japan. Everywhere I go they are busy building new roads that are elevated and go straight under mountains bypassing another good riding road.
Not sure why since the population is shrinking and aging rapidly. In some areas like Iwate today the already excellent roads are near empty as are the rural towns but still new highways being built. It’s not for employment as in Japan there is 150 jobs for every 100 people by current reports. Of course that is if you are Japanese. For foreigners there is little to no employment prospects.
Being a mono culture means people stop their cars and stare at me when I am off the bike taking photos. It’s literally like I am some wildlife beside the road haha. This means it is difficult to employ foreigners in any role that interacts with the Japanese except English teacher where they expect to see a foreigner. Not sure what the future holds for Japan but it will likely reinvent itself again at some point.
I had a great ride planned down the Oshika Cobalt line to a viewpoint at the end of the peninsular but there was no chance to see much in the gloomy haze so I axed part of todays route which was already a ambitious distance and just as well since the ride into Ishinomaki took forever. Some of the worst traffic I have encountered but much of the problem is a large area was wiped out in the tsunami and bridges are still missing and widespread damage making one chaotic mess. It’s been 6 years but I’d advise to steer clear of the area affected for some time yet.
I am using the same gear mostly as my last ride except the jacket that this time is the BMW Airflow. This is a fine jacket although it’s effectiveness in cooling will vary depending on the motorcycle you ride. On my CB1100 this jacket flowed heaps of air but on the FJR1300 it flows much less but still ok.
It’s construction is far better then your regular summer jacket which often have a couple of weak points. The materials used in cheap summer jackets will not protect much in a crash. The plain nylon used is not abrasion resist and the mesh has little strength. These jackets tend to just tear apart. The BMW Airflow has mesh panels that are very high strength material almost like fine wire and the main jacket material is high abrasive resistance. It is made in a special colour to reflect heat not build it up like black jackets do and this indeed works well in my experience. It also has full suite of armor including pro style back protector. It’s about as serious a summer jacket can be in my opinion, built very tough and whilst expensive if you can find one on closeout sale like I did then it’s an awesome bit of gear for riding in high temperature conditions.
Not a particularly good start to the day. Raining outside so I went back to bed but that was a wasted effort since I just lie awake. It’s ironic, when young and needing to be awake on time for early work starts I would struggle endlessly to get out of bed and now without such need I wake up early and am unable to return to sleep.
The rain eventually eased to misty spray so with low clouds with damp roads I head off onto the expressway and am at a loss what to do. My intended route over Mt Bandai will be torture in these conditions and I really have nothing much else I can do today in lieu. About 30 minutes into things I hit the GPS up for how many km it is to home and it says 600 something so I decide to cancel today and tomorrows route and ride home as the weather has gotten the better of me.
It’s odd as not one day was forecast rain, the entire week was looking good weather wise and the rainy season had already ended but this is how things are here, you simply do not get the run of fine days like in the southern hemisphere that I am used to.
Even on my supersonic armchair today was going to be a long ride and it was a late start. I decided to turn the pace up a bit on the long section from Sendai down to Utsunomiya. Say what you will about touring motorcycles but on the FJR1300 with the screen up you still have air circulating but almost no wind turbulence or buffeting and can cruise at anywhere between 100-200kph in complete effortless comfort.
My GPS was guiding me on a big arc around Tokyo as I have marked all of it as avoid in the Garmin maps and it sometimes takes that too far as it did today but more further away expressways are lower traffic and much easier to ride which suits me more than the absolute fastest route. I took plenty of breaks to rehydrate as the sun of course had decided to now make an appearance and the temperature miraculously was back up to steamy 36 degrees as if mocking my decision to call time but I am totally certain if I turned around back towards Fukushima the sun would say adios amigo and be off behind some clouds in a jiffy.
Is it just me of are these adventure bikes growing in size every year. I mean the FJR is a large motorcycle by anyone’s reckoning, too big really, but look at that new Honda Africa Twin, it dwarfs even my QE2. Adventure bikes are becoming the two wheel equivalents of SUV’s.I made really good time until I got to the Chuo expressway. Welcome to Tokyo and four lanes gridlocked at 3.00pm on a Saturday afternoon. This bike feels very big trying to lane split. Fortunately I only had to do that for about 18km. Well, that’s all for this ride report. Conditions beat me a little this time but still much that I enjoyed, particularly the magic roads in Iwate that I shall definitely return to another time. Join me again next month for something completely different as John Cleese would have said.