Dr Frazier Rides the Roads of Japan

February 1, 2008
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
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Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

The Honda CB 400 was easily able to carry me to Japan’s furthest point north  Cape Soya.
Dr. Frazier’s plans were to ride to the furthest point north in Japan, Cape Soya on the Island of Hokkaido, riding this 400cc Honda he rented in Hokkaido.

Toilet shoes? Singing toilets? Heated toilet seats? A visit to a Japanese john was a mini adventure in weird.

Just inside the door to the restroom were plastic toilet shoes to be worn in the toilet room. Before entering, visitors have to take off their “house shoes,” slip-on shoes only to be worn in the hotel room, or in some cases from the moment they entered the front door of the hotel. Motorcycle riding boots were left in lockers at the entrance. After slipping out of the house shoes, the foot was deftly extended over the threshold to the toilet and inserted into the waiting plastic slip-ons that were to be worn while the visitor was visiting the toilet room. The process was reversed upon leaving. The risk in the adventure was making a mistake and wearing the plastic toilet shoes out of the john, or worse, wandering into a public area still wearing them.

And then there were the toilet seats with push button controls on an armrest to make the sounds of birds singing, or adjust the temperature of the seat. Once when a “water” button was pushed, my camera got washed, as did my face.

The plan was to ride to the furthest point north in Japan, Cape Soya on the Island of Hokkaido. I could tag it, then look across a few miles of ocean and see the Island Sakhalin, part of Russia, which I had ridden across to Vladivostok some years earlier. I would join a group of Americans and circle Hokkaido, the premier riding destination for Japanese motorcyclists seeking adventure away from the more populated areas south.

Japan had some interesting motorcycle driving rules, like no pillions on the expressways. This was an old rule, one designed to keep women’s skirts from being caught up in the rear drive chain, sprocket or spokes. In other countries, like Colombia and Burma, pillions were prohibited, but to keep the gun guys off the back for attempted assassinations. I saw neither pillion gun guys nor motorcycle ladies wearing skirts in Japan, but did see some pillions on the two-lane roads on Hokkaido and some pretty ladies wearing dresses.

Another interesting Japan rule was their motorcycle license test requirement that states riders must be able to pick up their motorcycle by themselves if it fell over. The graduated licensing for learners (up to 400cc) requires a second and more expensive test for the bigger bikes that reduces the number of large displacement and heavyweight motorcycles on the roads.

For a country known for manufacturing motorcycles, another surprise was how few were on the road. On some riding days less than a dozen other motorcyclists were seen.

For the more traditional heavyweight tourer one of these was a trike  another had a sidecar  thereby skirting the “big bike pick-up” test.
What if picking your bike off the pavement was a testing criteria in the States? The owners of these bikes circumvented the Japanese law by buying a trike or sidecar, thereby skirting the “big bike pick-up” test.

The idea of shipping or flying a motorcycle into Japan from America was foolishly prohibitive, being both costly and time consuming. On Hokkaido, rental motorcycles were available and my 400cc Honda easily kept up with the sedate posted speed limits. Like many things in Japan, driving was conservative and ordered, with traffic patrols around to insure the drivers obeyed the laws. Stop lights and signs meant stop, solid lines in the middle of the lanes meant no passing and exceeding posted speed limits could result in a hefty fine and license suspension.

Piloting a motorcycle in Japan was different from rolling around the USA. The Japanese motorcyclists were not hand wavers like the American and European hand wavers. This was because the Japanese drive on the left side of the road. If they take their hand off the throttle to wave at or acknowledge an approaching motorcyclist in the oncoming right lane, their throttle slams shut. If an acknowledgement by a Japanese motorcyclist was given it was usually a slight helmet nod.

Entering a roadway from a side road or parking lot required another learning curve. If entering and wanting to go left, the motorcyclist looked right to see if any vehicle was bearing down on them, then left to clear what might be in front of where they wanted to go. If wanting to make a right turn, they looked right to clear what was coming down that lane, then left before crossing the closest lane and turning into the flow of traffic going right.

While hotels on Hokkaido were plentiful, they were expensive – $150 for a single room would be a bargain. A couple of beers and light meal in the hotel restaurant could easily consume $50. The next lower level for sleeping was the smaller guesthouses or bed & breakfasts. For motorcyclists however, Hokkaido had something unique to offer, roadhouses or motorcycle-friendly cafe/bar/dormitory combinations.

These were dormitory style clubhouses, sometimes offering bunk beds or only floor mats. Often there were central heaters for colder days. The rooms would be decorated with motorcycle posters or memorabilia. Outside would be found toilets, showers and baths. Some offered tenting areas but most Japanese motorcycle travelers carried only a sleeping mat and bag, plus their own house shoes. For the serious budget conscious traveler, roadhouses offered grills and stoves for cooking. With gasoline prices approaching $6.50 per gallon, these roadhouses were a way to ease travel costs.

Japanese motorcycle pillion not wearing a dress that could get caught in the rear wheel
Japanese motorcycle pillion not wearing a dress that could get caught in the rear wheel

Most of the motorcycle roadhouses were open only during the high season of June through August. All were near or attached to a restaurant/cafe/bar for chilling and swilling at the end of the riding day. Some motorcyclists would find one they liked and use it for a base, settling in for several days and doing day loops around the area. Like hotels and homes throughout Japan, motorcycle boots were left outside the dorm rooms, or in some cases just inside the entrance.

Eating was always an adventure, in price and in product. A steak could cost between $400-$500. Many of the restaurants had menus only in Japanese. The best practice in this case, if no one spoke English, was to find a likeable price on the menu and point at the item, then eat what was served. Other restaurants had sample plastic displays of their menu items which could be pointed at. The most reasonably-priced eating was the small food stalls or restaurants, but these seldom offered English descriptions and no plastic displays.

For fast food, there were a few McDonalds, but none away from the big city. If looking for something quick and inexpensive the many minimarts offered the solution. Here they sold items like “cup of soup” or “cup of noodles” to which hot water from a nearby counter in a hot water container could be added. The mini marts also had the usual fare of soda and cold drinks and sometime cellophane-wrapped sandwiches.

Also popular were the sushi bars, where toy trains of flatbed cars had plates of sushi riding on them. The train circled the bar and the customer lifted off the plates they wanted. The bill was computed by multiplying the number of plates by the set price per plate.

The roads of Hokkaido were of similar construction and composition one would find in New Zealand or the Alps – clean, well marked and seldom was there a surprise like a declining radius curve. Directional road signs were in Japanese and English so a GPS was not needed. If the rider got disoriented and asked for help, the local residents were friendly and helpful. If they did not speak English they would find someone who did, once even using their cell phone to call a friend who spoke English and served as a translator.

The other traveling motorcyclists were also friendly. When asked if their picture could be taken, they were always happy to help make the memory. Usually some small talk would take place and their English would surface. They would often not try to speak English for fear of making a mistake but some laughing and friendly attempts at Japanese usually was met equally.

More Japanese lady riders.
More Japanese lady riders.

Riding around or through Hokkaido was a mix of mountains and ocean. Often waves would splash seawater onto the road as the ocean thoroughfare wound along the coast. Other times a paved section would be barely wide enough for two cars as it snaked through tree-covered forests or along a blue pristine lake. A ride to the top of a volcano or past a ski lodge was a reminder that in the winter Hokkaido is a top ski destination. Roads through the farmlands that ran past barns and tractors reminded the rider why the island is also one of the main agricultural areas of Japan. And then there was the farming of the plentiful ocean that surrounded the island, fish and seafood being one of the main menu items in restaurants.

On Hokkaido I connected with a group of riders from Aerostich Tours, the leading motorcycle tour operator in Japan. If the adventure motorcyclist wants to try adventure at the opposite end of the spectrum, from flogging through the desert sands of the Sahara or slipping in the cold snows of Alaska, their Japan offerings might be a way to ride this jewel on the globe. If you go, don’t forget and wear your plastic shoes in public.

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