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Motorcycling in Japan I

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Tohoku TripTohoku Trip UpdateBest Places to Ride in Japan
Worst Places to Ride in JapanWhen to Visit JapanStolen!

Notice to Readers!
 I left Japan in 1998, and have only visited for short periods since then.  When possible, I will update this page with information when I become aware of it.   It should be noted, however, that information on this page may be out-of-date or inaccurate.  I am keeping this page up as long as I feel it might be helpful.  Any current information or corrections that readers may be able to provide would be much appreciated.
Updated September 2000

Frwd  Page 2: Where to Ride in Hokkaido, Where to Stay, Buying a Bike in Japan, Things You Should Know, and Riding in Canada.


Our Spring 1996 Trip in Southern Hokkaido

In the annals of motorcycle riding fiascoes, this has to rank right up there. Okay, so it wasn't a complete disaster.... we didn't crash and no one got hurt.  But in terms of sheer misery, money wasted and level of futility, this is the only motorcycling experience I had that rivaled the ill-fated Himeji motocross park incident of 1990, (where I jumped my rental RM125 into a track-side pond after five minutes of riding at $100 an hour and couldn't get the bike started again).

From out home in Sapporo, we planned our trip for Golden Week, (end of April).  We had made similar trips in the Kansai region around this time, and although it was chilly at times, it was always a lot of fun.  We were going to go across the sea into Northern Tohoku at first, but then we thought it would be too cold, (Northern Tohoku is the area immediately under Hokkaido). So we decided to take a ferry down south to Kansai, until we realized that that was going to cost us ¥50,000 (Check today's exchange rate.) in ferry fees alone. So we decided that it wouldn't be that cold after all, ("Yeah, that's it! It'll be warm!! Yeah!!") and planned a wacky route from Sapporo, down south a bit, and into Tohoku. Well, the first day was okay, a bit cold, but not bad. Some of the roads in the mountains were still closed due to snow, and some other roads were surrounded by snow, but we had no major problems.

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The second day traveling along the coast got cold. Bitterly, bone-chilling cold.  When we arrived at the minshuku, wearing everything we owned, it started to rain. We were the only guests.  "We don't get many visitors at this time of the year," said the proprietor, eyeing us as one would a streaker standing at the gun counter at Wal-Mart.

The next day when we woke up it was pouring, and even colder.  We decided to cancel the rest of the trip and head home, 280 kms away. It was without a doubt the most miserable motorcycling experience I have ever had. We rode along the coast for about 100 kms with a cruel cruel wind whipping off the water from Siberia at about 5 Celsius, and the rain pouring down. We blundered through ugly, boring fishing villages for what felt like years.  My hands froze solid, and we still had five hours of riding ahead of us. I was frozen and miserable.  We headed inland to escape the wind and damp, and started climbing higher. The wind died down but the rain continued and it got colder as we climbed into the snowy mountains. Then I felt an icy chill in my nether regions. My new rainsuit sprung a leak in the crotch area, and 4C water was seeping in. I started fantasizing about Mr Donut's coffee and donuts, and even started envying the tourists trapped in the buses. Thank God I had plastic bags on my feet under my boots. (Man, I must have had a plastic bag over my head when I was planning this trip.)  I longed for the warmth of home and the marvelous Washlette.

Oh well, we learned a very valuable lesson. Motorcycling season in Hokkaido does not start in late April. If there is snow on the mountains that you can reach up and touch from the street, it is too early. At least we were smart enough to call off the trip before we had flushed a thousand bucks down the hole.


Tohoku Trip Update

Well, I tried the trip again in early August, and for the most part, it was a success. The trip definitely started out slow, but picked up towards the end. Had three days of sun, and only two of rain. Took the ferry from Tomakomai in Hokkaido to Hachinohe in Tohoku (northern part of Honshu the main island,) and spent the night in a YH. The next day it rained as I rode to Morioka. I was a little disappointed with Morioka, I don't think it's worth going out of your way to visit. Stayed the night at Hachimantai YH, definitely one of the poorer YHs I've visited. Damp, smelly, dirty, and poor food. The next day it looked bad, lots of fog, light drizzle. However, after riding for about ten minutes, the clouds suddenly broke and I was treated to great riding on a really windy road. Rode to Kakunodate, which has an interesting old Samurai quarter, but not much else. Spent the night on the Oga peninsula, which was also disappointing. Oga city is a depressing dingy "resort" town dedicated to flogging souvenirs and its many health spas, reeking of sulfurous water. Yikes, no thanks.  The trip didn't look too promising at this point.

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Neputa float lit from within and carried by about a dozen men. There were about 50 of these floats in total.

From here things picked up. Rode out to Hirosaki, and saw the gorgeous Neputa Matsuri, the most interesting festival I have ever seen in Japan. Next day I headed out for the Shimokita Peninsula, (the axe shaped tip of Northern Honshu). Made one teensy route error and ended up on an 80km gravel road that was either always going straight up or straight down. If it had been paved it would have been an amazing road, but riding it on a street-tired bike it made for a slightly hairy but interesting ride. The ride up the "blade" of the peninsula was uneventful, but the roads on the peninsula were fantastic, some of the best I have ever ridden. Particularly Route 338 on the west coast, which had a gorgeous stretch of brand-new two-laned blacktop, almost completely deserted, which wound through some beautiful mountain and ocean-side scenery.  See the picture at the bottom of this page.

Also visited Mount Sore-zan, a creepy ancient volcano dome containing a shrine to the souls of dead children. Here you can find hundreds of children's pinwheels spinning silently in the breeze, placed there by grieving family members, trying to placate the souls of their kin and help them on the way to salvation.

Finally spent the night at the Shiriyazaki YH, which was very nice. Woke early to see the sunrise with the other guests at the YH, and we shared the event with a herd of tame free-grazing horses. Returned that afternoon on the Ohata - Muroran ferry. Total cost for the trip was about ¥45,000.


Recommended Areas

All Japan map

Japan is, surprisingly, a great place to ride, once you get out of the cities. I lived near Kobe for about two and a half years, so this is the area I know best. I have never toured the Kanto region, (around Tokyo), but even going within 500 kms of Tokyo gives me the willies. Naturally, I can't comment on the riding in that area. If you come to Japan, here is what I recommend, from the areas in which I've ridden.

Kyoto - Nara - Kobe - Himeji Area : Kansai
This area is by far the best bang for the buck in Japan. Kyoto is unsurpassed in tradition and culture, and with Nara and Himeji close-by, you can see a lot without putting hundreds of kilometers on your bike. The side roads are windy and uncrowded (usually), and a trip to the Sea of Japan or the Japanese Alps is also possible. Also highly recommended is a trip to Takayama, a gorgeous mountain town near the Japanese Alps.

Robert and Emi near Takayama
Robert and Emi near Takayama with their rented CB400, around May 1994.

Shikoku - Japan's Other Island
If you want to do a lot of riding, and see a part of Japan that even a lot of Japanese have never seen, try Shikoku, especially the southern parts. There are some incredibly winding and uncrowded roads, and I still have great memories of the small-intestine shaped Route 439 through central Shikoku. (I once had a Japanese rider tell me he preferred Hokkaido to Shikoku because Shikokou was "too winding.") It was a peg-dragging white knuckle ride through gorgeous mountains and pretty villages. Rail service in Shikoku is slow and not comprehensive, so riding is the only way to go. Shikoku is still considered quite backwards, and there are some really gorgeous unspoiled areas here. I've toured Shikoku twice, once on an NS250, and once on an NS400, and I'd go back in a flash. Avoid the big cities near the mainland, and you'll love it.

Mountain road in Shikoku
Yoshiko checks out the view from a hairpin turn in Shikoku.

Okayama - Chugoku
This area, approximately including Hiroshima and Okayama city, has some gorgeous unspoiled mountain roads. In Okayama there are also about six International Villas, which offer great lodgings, cheap prices, and beautiful scenery. These villas are available only to foreigners, and the prices are dirt-cheap. (If you really want the address for the Int'l Villa Association, Email me and I'll send it. They are so good though I should actually keep it a secret). My absolute favorite places in Japan would have to be Fukiya and Bitchu Takahashi (which has the castle at the highest elevation in all of Japan), gorgeous villages that are like a trip back in time. The Sea of Japan is also relatively unspoiled and untouristed. I've made trips in this area on both NS250 and 400, as well as an old Yamaha TT250, (two-up, youch!!).
Kyushu - Southern Japan
I've got to admit, my experiences here have been very brief, but from what I did see, it would be worth it to go back. The coastline was for the most part clean and the roads windy, and the weather great. I made this trip on my NS250, after taking a ferry from Kobe to Miyazaki.


Where Not to Go!!

You really want to avoid spending any amount of time in any big city. Visiting Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe or even Kyoto is best done using local transportation. It is much easier, faster and less nerve-racking. Of course, you can always just park your bike while visiting these places. Japan is quite a small country, so you can't avoid driving through some big cities at some point. Even small little "country" towns can be highly developed and congested. A lot of Japanese talk about Hokkaidoas if it was a motorcycle paradise. I guess for the Japanese it is pretty interesting: wider, straighter roads, broad plains, more national parks, camping and hiking opportunities. But for the foreign tourist, it's nothing to get too excited about in my mind. There are no great cultural attractions, the roads aren't as winding, and the season is very short. I would personally give it a miss, especially considering the expense of getting there.


When to Go

Note: The seasons I am talking about can be longer or shorter depending on which end of Japan you're talking about: I'll be referring to the seasons in the Tokyo - Osaka - Hiroshima corridor.

The best times to ride in Japan are in Autumn or Spring.  Summer, including June, July, August and September in most of the country, is very hot and humid, (except Hokkaido, which has a pleasant summer).

Snowed In
Mountain roads can be snowed-in until early summer.
We helped this guy across this snowfall on a road in the Japanese alps, but we decided to head back
as our street bikes would have slipped down the gorge, possibly making us inconveniencing and embarrassing the rental shop owners.

Winter in Japan runs from about November to the end of March. Snow falls in the mountains and on the Japan-sea side. Definitely not riding weather, although daytime highs are almost always above zero. April can also be quite cold, but May is usually a nice time to ride. The cherry blossoms start blooming, and much of the countryside is covered in pink flowers. This season extends into June, depending on the area. June sees the arrival of the rainy season, (except Hokkaido, which has no rainy season), which is not too pleasant, as it is not only raining a lot, it can also be quite hot. You will also want to avoid the first week in May as almost everyone in Japan gets "Golden Week" holidays, and a lot of the roads will be very crowded. Summer, as I explained, is very hot and humid, but not totally unbearable. Riding in the city with a full-faired bike is pure hell, as I found out one very hot day in August in Osaka a few years ago. The third week in August is the time of the Obon festival, and things will be crowded, as almost everyone in Japan is on holiday. Getting into mid-to-late September and most of October, you will find the best riding. Days are pleasantly warm, there's no rain, and the leaves are changing color. Beaches will be uncrowded, and tourist season is winding down. My recommendation.

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Route 338 in Tohoku. Brand-new pavement, totally deserted.






Stolen!

When I arrived in Japan in 1989, I used to leave my helmet on my motorcycle handlebars all day, unlocked, and more importantly, unstolen when I got back.  Back in 1989, I thought I owned the only u-lock in Japan. I found out in the summer of 1997 why Japanese are so security-concious now.

One morning I grabbed my helmet and headed out the door on my way to work. The day looked nice and I was reassured by the familiarity of my neighborhood as I walked down the stairs to the parking lot: the never-ending construction of the apartment across the street, the constantly-being-replenished heap-'o-trash on the corner, one million crows perched on a high-tension wire, the neighborhood tree, and the brick I rest my sidestand on. My eyes followed the side of the brick upwards, towards where my bike usually sits, but came to a halt at the top of the brick.  My trained eye noticed that the space normally occupied by my motorcycle, by all objective standards, was empty!

I did not dwell on the aesthetic quality of the brick too long, perhaps a minute or two, just long enough for the construction workers across the street to admire the pathetic sight of a gaijin holding a helmet and staring at a red brick and an oil stain. Gone. Stolen. Vanished. I ran back inside, and called the cops. They showed up about ten minutes later, inspected the scene of the crime, drew a few diagrams, sucked in a lot of air, and had us come down to the station to fill out a report.

The police were very friendly, telling us that the bike might be found, but if it was, it might come back to me in a box. Unlike North America, where bikes are stolen for parts and stripped, bikes here are stolen by teenage "Yankees" as they're called to use for joyrides. These brats take the bikes, cut off the mufflers, add some ludicrous accessories, (whale-tails are big, as are huge girder like contraptions holding the headlight), and then go out late at night, often two-up and helmetless, and ride the bike as slowly as possible through intersections, all the while revving the bike as high as it will go, thus attracting as much attention as possible.

I was lucky. The police found my bike in Otaru, a city about 60kms from Sapporo, abandoned in a tunnel when it ran out of gas.  The damage was light, only the ignition key cylinder and tank lock had to be replaced, at a cost of about $240. I also spent another $150 on new locks and an alarm. I also covered the bike in stickers that say "Alarm installed." I was lucky. Later that summer,  a coworker had his brand-new Kawasaki Zephyr stolen from right in front of our office downtown, and it too had the forks locked and a disc brake shackle in the front wheel. And he still owes $5000 on the loan...

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Copyright© 2000, Sean Lewkiw
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