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“Please follow me to the jail,” says the Tokyo police officer who has been chasing me for the last seven blocks on his bicycle. At each red light I would hear a whistle and shouting that faded when the signal lights would turn green. I was completely unaware that it was one of Tokyo’s finest in hot pursuit. When he finally caught me, he politely tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to move to the sidewalk for a talk. It seems I missed the “no right turn” sign placed between the no parking, 40 kmh, no standing, and street signs in characters I struggled to comprehend. After several calls and two hours of confusion on how a ticket should be written to a crazy rule-breaking American, the officer sheepishly made his request for my presence in the clink. My heart sunk, and my mind raced. “JAIL?” I said, holding my hands up like I was grabbing cell bars.
“Oh, sorry, wrong word; Station please.” My heart restarted, and the color returned to my face. Another hour of paperwork, an explanation in broken Japanese and English, 6000 yen, and I am on my way.
This would be the only drama during my motorcycle journey on the main island of Honshu in Japan. I had 14 days, keys to a Kawasaki Versys, a GPS and vague idea of where I was headed. My plan was to head in the direction of Tokyo to meet a rider I had exchanged one email with. I would travel north from Kawasaki’s headquarters in Akashi, making plans as I rolled along.
The extremely helpful Kawasaki staff asked a few things of me before I left. I needed to carry a rental Japanese cell phone and call them every night to confirm I was still in one piece. Did they know something I didn’t? They gave me a helpful guide with all of the road signs in Japan. As you may have already guessed, I studied it for about two seconds. Obviously not long enough, but damn it, I was ready to hit the open road!
The (not so) Open Road
With a short 130 km ride to Kyoto, I estimated that I would be in the historic city by noon. This would give me plenty of time to check out some of the temples and shrines before checking into my hotel. I had set the GPS to avoid toll roads in order to make the ride more scenic. This put me on surface streets through Akashi, Kobe and Osaka. It was well before noon, so rush hour traffic was not even a consideration. I soon learned it is always rush hour in the big cities of Japan. Buses belching diesel fumes, crazy neon-colored semi trucks, boxy sub-compacts, scooters of all shapes and sizes and motorcycles all pack every artery of these cities. Was this a mistake? Was I totally crazy for trying this? My first day I was wondering if this was a good idea.
Three hours later and way behind schedule, I was finally leaving the madness of the Osaka road system behind me. Factories and department stores give way to open fields and open roads. This is the Japan I am looking for. Lush green mountainsides dotted with traditional-looking farm houses are surrounded by rice fields and clear-flowing streams. The air feels less heavy here. Although it’s just an hour away from the big city, it feels worlds apart.
Arriving in Kyoto, I was greeted with a more relaxed urban feeling. While the hustle and bustle is present, this town seems more laid back. The pace is a half a step slower compared to Osaka. The people smile more. They love their city; they are proud of it.
The next morning I hopped on the Versys and headed out to explore the legendary temples and shrines of Kyoto. Riding a motorcycle in an old city like this has its advantages. All the streets in Japan are narrow compared to those in the States, but here a small two-seater can barely fit down some of the back alleys.
Better yet, many of the streets near the largest concentration of temples are closed to motorized travel during the hours when tourist foot traffic is heaviest. Still, it seems a blind eye is turned to the occasional scooter or motorcycle cruising through. I was able to save myself some serious uphill hiking, thanks to some well-timed nods to the people that took notice as I slowly made my way though the pedestrian horde. Parking? Right next to the bicycles!
Home to more than 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, Kyoto has no shortage of sights to see. On the recommendation of the friendly staff of the Kyoto Garden Hotel, I pointed the Kawasaki to the eastern section of the city. This side of town is home to a large concentration of temples, allowing me to experience Kyoto’s history in a short period of time. After making my way as far as I dared on the bike, I parked it and walked through temple after shrine after temple until I arrived at the momentous Kiyomizudera Temple.
Meaning “Pure Water Temple,” Kiyomizudera is one of the most famous temples in Japan. After making my way up the steps I was rewarded with an amazing view of the city from a colossal wooden terrace. Down the hillside on a twisting path a spring shoots water out of the hill. It is believed to have healing powers. Unsure if I was allowed to drink from the fountain because I was not Shinto, I watched people drinking and offering prayers up to heavens. Then an older Japanese woman sensed my hesitation to drink and asked me to join her at the spring. I clumsily followed her lead in the ritual of drinking. The water was surprisingly cool. Refreshed, I politely bowed to the kind lady and walked back down the hill to the bike. I can’t tell if it healed me.
On my way back to the hotel, I made a wrong turn and ended up in the Gion District. Tourists flock to this area hoping to catch a glimpse of geisha and to enjoy some tea. I saw plenty of tourists, but no geisha. Unimpressed, I decided for the rest of my time here that if I saw more than a few tourists, I would ride in the opposite direction. Finally I made my way back to the hotel and my small twin-sized bed. Before sleep I scoured a local road map for a road on which to get my sportbike fix.
The next morning I set my GPS with my chosen route taking me northwest of Kyoto. The city faded away in my mirrors as I climbed into the hills above the former capital of Japan. Soon I was enjoying the perfectly paved sweeping corners as I closed in on the summit. This route led me through the small town of Kurama. At the end of the town the centerline of the road disappeared and the asphalt got rough, really rough. The Versys was perfectly suited for this road and performed without fault.
For the next 25 km or so, I didn’t see another soul. Eventually, I came to a clearing in the woods; there sat a small traditional looking house and garden. Stopping for some pictures, I posed the Versys on the road in front of the home. Just then a husband and wife pulled up behind the bike. Worried that I was blocking the road I scrambled to make room for them to pass. The man asked me in very good English if I would like a tour. This was his weekend home that has been in his family for over 200 years. How could I say no? He proudly gave me a tour of his garden and home, and then invited me to enjoy some coffee. We sat on tatami mats at a short table enjoying instant coffee and cookies. He was curious how an American on a motorcycle had ended up taking photos of his ancestral home. He told me of his trips to the Midwest for business and his hike into the Grand Canyon. He also offered an invitation to use his house in the spring for vacation with my wife. Before I knew it, two hours had past. I thanked him for the hospitality and agreed to see him again soon.
Japan’s Iconic Mountain
I was sad to leave, but at the same time, anxious to see the legendary Mount Fuji on my way to Tokyo. Hopeful that the weather would cooperate, I motored north on the Tomei Expressway. I stuck close to the posted speed limit of 80 kmh after almost getting nailed by a battery of speed cameras. Moving through the coastal mountains the expressway burrows through several tunnels cut into the steep hills of this region. As I exited the last tunnel in the coastal mountain range I was greeted by Fuji towering over the western coast. In that instant it was clear why it is one of Japan’s most popular subjects in art and poetry.
More often than not, Mt. Fuji is obstructed by clouds and haze. In May and June it is clearly visible only three days a month on average. I was extremely lucky to get a glimpse before the clouds rolled in and cloaked the peak. As I neared Fuji City the weather turned on me and it began to rain. While the precipitation continued into the night I hoped that I could get another view of Fuji in the morning.
The next morning the sun was out, but the sky was hazy. Determined to get a photo of the snow-covered monument, I found a road leading toward the mountain. As I got closer and climbed higher, the view improved. The tourist season on Fuji doesn’t begin until the first of July so the road was mine to enjoy and was otherwise devoid of traffic besides the occasional sports car. I was able to make the climb to the highest paved point on the mountain, Kawaguchikoguchi, in about 30 minutes. Kawaguchikoguchi is a popular starting point of hikers in the summer so it gets crowded here when the weather is good. Today, however, Fuji is my personal playground. Going down was more fun than coming up. The damp pavement allowed the rear of the Versys to step out entering the steep switchbacks when dropping down a gear or two. Coming out of the corners was just as fun, sliding with the throttle to the stop and a silly grin on my face. As much fun as it was on the way back I considered making a few more passes but I had to get to Tokyo to meet up with my guide Masata for the next leg of my journey.
A New Friend
Japan can be a very confusing place to travel. Having a GPS or detailed map will save you a lot of time and headaches.
Masata has a small home in a suburb of Tokyo. His single-car garage somehow accommodates a Honda CBR1000XX, Kawasaki KX250, Suzuki DR250S and his car. He speaks enough English to make up for my lack of Japanese and before long we are chatting like old pals about the bikes and the route he has planned for us over the next two days. His plan is to head northeast to Lake Chuzenji and the temples of Nikko where the roads are fantastic and the scenery is out of this world.
Riding with Masata, I learn that motorcycles are allowed to go around traffic to the front of the line, no matter how small the space is. Several times I watch in amazement as Masata drags his left footpeg on the curb as he squeezes past buses and trucks. Afraid of falling behind and losing my way, I follow. Luckily the ground clearance of the Versys is greater than his CBR, and I don’t have to drag hard parts.
The road to Lake Chuzenji climbs over 1300 feet in a series of hairpin turns. This would be supermoto paradise if not for all the cars cautiously climbing and descending at a snail’s pace. A few times we were able to catch a break in traffic and twist the screws a bit. Masata is a small guy but throws his CBR around like it’s a minibike. I can’t help laughing out loud in my helmet as he overcooked a corner, locked-up the rear, squared off the turn and whacked the throttle open like some awkward ballet. After checking out the view of Chuzenji we head down the hill to Kegon Falls. We spend some time scoping out the popular waterfall, which is fed by Lake Chuzenji run-off, before climbing back on the bikes and making our way towards Nikko.
Nikko is home to a large shrine complex called Toshugu. Built in 1617, the building and halls are lavishly decorated with painted figures, including monkeys, lions, giraffes, elephants and dragons. One tower gateway in particular is adorned with 300 carvings alone. Even with thousands of tourists it is serenely quiet in the temple complex. Priests still go about their daily rituals and people are constantly climbing the steps to the prayer area, the same as it was hundreds of year ago. It makes we wonder how a country that leads the world full speed into the future, manages at the same time to change very little. The couple days we spent touring this region came to an end too quickly, but there was more to see back in the city so we headed back to Tokyo.
Following Masata through the crowded streets of Tokyo was never easy but always entertaining. It got real interesting at one point as I scrambled to stay close when he turned onto a packed street. Shortly thereafter I found myself trying to explain what I was doing to the Tokyo police. When asked to follow the officers to the station I figured that I was actually going in the back of a police car.
To my surprise the office handed me all of my documents back and jumped in his car. I pulled in behind and off we went. At the second stoplight the light turned yellow and the squad car drove through the intersection but I stopped for the red light and watched the squad car disappear into the traffic ahead. I looked over at Masata, and he just shrugged. We broke more traffic laws trying to catch up to the police than what we originally were busted for in the first place. I don’t think they even noticed we were missing. When we reached the station, we parked the bikes right in front as if we were the guests of honor. I answered the same questions at least ten times in a row and finally received a ticket that looked identical to Masata’s. Why this couldn’t have happened earlier is a mystery. After it was all said and done, Masata offered to pay for my ticket because I followed him. I told him no way, 60 bucks is a small price to pay for such a memorable experience with the police.
The next morning I headed south toward the Kawasaki factory and a flight back home. I stopped in Matsumoto for the best Mexican food in Japan, then ate a $150 steak in Takayama, played some pachinko in Hikone and picked up some crazy-colored Nikes for my wife in Kobe. The second half of the trip seemed to fly by in a blur. The scenery was stunning as we navigated our way through the Japanese Alps between Matsumoto and Takayama. It seemed that time was eluding me as I tried to take in as much of the spectacular sights, sounds, and culture of this remarkable country.
When I returned to the factory, I was received with applause by all of the Kawasaki staff responsible for getting the Versys ready for my expedition. That night we all went out for a celebration dinner. While sitting with them I came to the conclusion that the people I met are what really made this a once-in-a-lifetime journey. The locations and history were what I came to experience but it is the people that made this journey special.