Riding Japan: Stranger in a Strange Land

August 20, 2010
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
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Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

The Strangers dance at Yoyogi Park.
Twist and shout - Yoyogi ParkThe Lebels  attired in black jeans and leather jackets  politely wait their turn.
The Strangers and Lebels square off at Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park.

Rockabilly music plays at the gate to Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park as the Strangers and Lebels meet one fine Sunday afternoon. The Strangers have the dance floor, black pompadours and baby blue denim threads whirring and twisting to the beat. Impromptu air guitars and Elvis gestures are prevalent as they pivot on worn black cowboy boots held together by electrical tape. The Lebels, attired in black jeans and leather jackets, politely wait their turn. Downtime allows for extra coats of aerosol hairspray, dramatic slow-motion combs through lacquered hair, heads cocked to the side – emoting a mixture of James Dean, West Side Story and The Fonz. The standoff is amicable, yet the possibility of a choreographed knife fight breaking out seems very real. As for me, I’m the American journalist off to the side – a stranger in a strange land.

Bridgestone invited MotoUSA to Japan for the introduction of its Battlax BT-023 sport-touring tire. The offer included an exclusive ride at the company’s proving grounds, as well as a tour of its lone motorcycle tire plant. But the off-bike travel experiences of our first trip to Japan imprint the more vivid memories.

This meeting of two Rockabilly dance troupes wasn’t the first perplexing moment in the Land of the Rising Sun. That occurred moments after wandering off a 10-hour Trans-Pacific flight and into the restroom. Or was it? There appeared to be three separate stations, with unfamiliar benches, bars and hoses. One was a sink, I think. Another appeared to be a toilet, but this commode was plugged up to a power supply and closer examination revealed all manner of knobs and wands which, if we understood the signs correctly, were prepared to deploy oscillating jets of water to our undercarriage. Groggy from flight, I gave it shot, then backed out of the room unable to fully process the situation.

Tokyo Bay - Japan Motorcycle Tour
Tokyo Bay and Sumida River (top), including one of the many bridges en route to the Asakusa district (below).
The temple at Asakusa is a popular tourist stop.

Panicking as I search for the button to activate the exit door, which whished open like a science fiction spacecraft, I escape the bathroom and stumble to the curb outside the Narita airport. Buses stop every couple minutes with destinations written entirely in Japanese Kanji script. The one sign I do understand still makes my head hurt a little, as it’s for the “Smorking Area.”

Japan is a very different place indeed.

First-time travelers to Japan are in for a memorable experience. It’s an amazing country and unique culture that’s hard to take in all at once. English-speaking Bridgestone reps were there to hold our hand during our unforgettable trip, but any intrepid rider armed with a couple of memorized Japanese words, a phrase book and an adventurous spirit can tackle the Asian archipelago as well.

Sleeping off jet lag, we awake the next day in Tokyo for a boat tour of Tokyo Bay and the Sumida River to the Asakusa district. The massive Rainbow Bridge spans the bay, but up river we pass under a host of smaller bridges. KachidokiBashi, KiyosuBashi, EitaiBashi…

It doesn’t take long to decipher that Bashi means bridge in Japanese and it was 1931 when Shojiro Ishibashi founded his namesake tire company – the name transposed to Bridgestone from its literal Stonebridge translation. After its founding the tire company emerged from the destruction of World War II, thriving as it sold tires to the flourishing Japanese automotive/motorcycle industry. Growing even more powerful, the company purchased Firestone in the late ‘80s to become the world’s largest tire manufacture – a position it fights to hold against Europe’s Michelin and America’s Goodyear.

Buildings in the Imperial Palace complex - Tokyo Japan
The Imperial Palace, home to numerous keeps and gardens, as well as one of the residences for the Emperor of Japan.

The far-reaching scope of the Bridgestone name extends across many segments of Japanese society. Japan’s prime minister at the time of our visit, Yukio Hatoyama, is the grandson of none other than founder Shojiro Ishibashi. Bullet trains reach their blurring high speeds riding on purpose-built Bridgestone tires. Many high rise buildings rest on Bridgestone isolation bearings, which help damp the seismic energy of earthquakes. Bridgestone sporting equipment includes bicycles and golf, the latter being a game Mr. Ishibashi enjoyed personally and which the country obsesses over much like America as driving ranges dot throughout the cityscapes. Less glamorous products include industrial goods like conveyor belts. And, yes, Bridgestone produced motorcycles too – though that particular branch of the company was scrapped.

We hear the Bridgestone corporate tale while plunging up-river, visiting the market district and temple of Asakusa. The area is fascinating, as is our next stop – the exclusive Imperial Palace. A guided tour of the grounds of the Emperor’s residence yield unforgettable views, but the gearheads in our motorcycling entourage are impatient to visit Tokyo’s Ueno motorcycle district.

The Ueno motorcycle district in Tokyo.
Tokyo’s Ueno district, home to numerous bike shops and dealers, including places where you can pick up unusual gear selections.
Highway Magician Black Running higrway the3rd Yellow Corn

Apparent since we entered the city, motorcycles are prevalent in Japan, but most are small-displacement models. Like Europe, Japan has a graduated license system and while endorsement for small-displacement scooters isn’t difficult, moving up the next two stages (125-399cc and 400cc+) requires more effort and testing. Bikes larger than 400cc were the exception rather than the rule in the city.

Arriving at Ueno the streets are lined with tiny motorcycle garages and service shops displaying affordable, smaller-displacement used bikes as well as new models. Scooters and pristine 400s, like the CB400, are predominant, but visitors will see two-stroke sportbikes, Honda Monkeys, the ubiquitous Super Cub, electric-powered pedal bikes – a little bit of everything. It is clear, however, that Japan’s domestic motorcycle industry has not been spared the economic downturn, with many shops newly shuttered.

Still there are plenty one of a kind gear shops that have held on. They display garish helmets and jackets that clothe Japan’s colorful motorcycling sub-cultures. We find one vinyl jacket, shiny copper and black, with the lettering on the back reading: “Highway Magician Black Running higrway the3rd Yellow Corn.” On its own it doesn’t make much sense but it fits right in with Charlie Brown half-helmets, Brando Wild One jackets, foppish scarves and riding goggles – all of which can be had in Ueno, a definite Tokyo stop for the visiting motorcyclist.

Our opening days in Japan are non-stop, paying a visit to Bridgestone’s downtown Tokyo HQ and the nearby train station, from which we’ll take a bullet train to Tochigi prefecture to visit the company’s motorcycle tire plant and proving grounds. The Tokyo Station is a gauntlet of ticket exchanges and gates, all moving very fast, almost as fast as the trains that blow by on the high-speed rails. Japan is a paradox: on one street visitors may find a temple, with serene garden and fountain – the next block holds a pachinko parlor, with loud gaming machines blaring and lights delivering sensory overload.

Bullet trains in Japan run on Bridgestone tires.
Bullet trains in Tokyo Station. Reaching high speeds many run on Bridgestone tires.

Our bullet train makes short work of the kilometers to Utsunomiya, a fairly large industrial city in the Tochigi prefecture. The city will be our base of operations for the visit to Bridgestone’s nearby facilities, as well as the start and end point for a scheduled street ride to the Motegi Twin Ring circuit. Arriving at Bridgestone’s Nasu tire plant a guided tour takes us through the sole motorcycle tire production facility in the company’s multinational operations. Viewing the step-by-step tire-making process reveals a refined and technologically advanced system. Yet it’s surprising how much human interaction is involved, particularly in the construction process.

After the tour, it’s on to the company’s proving grounds, where professional riders evaluate more than 10,000 tires a month in a battery of tests on the 10 different courses. A fleet of 180 cars, along with 40 larger trucks and buses, are maintained at the grounds, as well as a roster of 70 motorcycles.

Motorcycle USA was honored to be counted in the first group of journalists to ride there, and things were beyond squared away at the proving grounds. We start on time, exactly. We end on time, exactly. A predetermined schedule of rider and bikes ensures all journalists rode an equal amount of time on the same machinery and tires. At the end we fill out detailed tire evaluation forms and answer questions from genuinely interested Bridgestone employees. Testing tires. It’s almost like they did this sort of thing all the time…

Bridgestones Tochigi Proving Grounds
Testing at the Bridgestone Proving Grounds.
Testing the Bridgestone BT-023 at the Japanese firms Tochigi Proving Grounds.
The Tochigi Proving Grounds provided the perfect venue to test Bridgestone’s newest treads, the BT-023 tire.

The following day includes a planned street ride to the Motegi circuit. This was the moment we were looking forward to the most, yet oddly enough blasting around the countryside proved the most familiar experience of our entire trip. Although riders must use the “wrong” i.e. left side of the road in Japan, the scenery and sensation of bike and road feels just like home. As we pile on the miles, some of the Kanji characters even begin looking familiar after seeing them repeatedly on highway signs.

Arriving at the Motegi circuit, empty thanks to the 2010 Japanese GP being cancelled due to that pesky Icelandic volcano, we have free reign in the Honda Collection Hall. The Honda facility houses beautifully kept racing motorcycles and cars from the marque’s past. Yet another must visit for racing fans.

Afterward we push back the way we came. The ride to Motegi was fun, but leaves me wanting a quintessential Japanese riding experience. Retracing our steps the lead rider takes a detour. Within minutes our group climbs a curvy mountain path and we’re suddenly speeding through tight corners and long sweepers. Tree blossoms fall on the road from overhanging branches, then swirl in the wake of the bike ahead. The road is narrow, but there are no other cars. The only people we see are elderly gardeners, tending thick beds of onions and cabbages – the manicured gardens of their country homes set off with stone gates. Our road winds on, the blossoms falling… This is it, that Zen moment I was looking for.

Returning to Utsunomiya we follow identical industrial roads to our hotel. The riding portion of the trip over, it’s time for celebration, sushi, sake, karaoke… The next day is our final hurrah in Tokyo.

Ground zero Harajuku street.
Near Harajuku Station is a collection of popular hangouts for young and old, local and tourist, to see and be seen.

Back in Tokyo a handful of our group chose to explore the city further, making our way to Harajuku, a fashionable district named after a nearby train station. Disembarking the train we walk through sidewalks crammed with young people and tourists. One of the youths wears a baseball cap pushed down and askew. “Harlem” is badged on the front, but Harlem is a strange foreign place in Japan, an idea more than an actual location. Harajuku holds a similar place in the Westerner’s minds. Physically the place is small, including a few busy street corners, alleys and the adjoining Yoyogi Park. But the Harajuku idea carries notions of gaudy fashion and our small group wanders the lineup of real-world stores and costume shops. Our weird meter piques with mannequins frocked in getups of Lady Gaga-like bizarreness. The occasional Harajuku girl, styled in brash eye-catching outfits, will pose silent against a wall as tourists take photos. The youthful vibe then shatters (along with my weird meter) as a rotund middle-aged chap with powdered white face struts by dressed as Alice from Alice in Wonderland, replete with blonde wig, blue dress, Mary Janes and white tights.

“And What About the Fat Urban?”

What about the fat urban  - HarajukuImpromptu air guitars and Elvis gestures are prevalent as they pivot on worn black cowboy boots  held together by electrical tape - Yoyogi Park
Tokyo Harajuku. You never know what you might see.

The question catches me. It is printed as a slogan on another passerby’s T-shirt, one more example of a Harajuku fashion non sequitur. Some of the phrases found on Japanese clothing and signage are deliberately obtuse, created to leave fluent English speakers nonplussed. But there are plenty of organic lost-in-translation examples throughout the country, like warning signs that say “please carefully fall” instead of “watch your step”, not to mention the “no smorking” signs or the black motorcycle jackets of our dancing friends the “Lebels.”

Off to Yoyogi Park. A group stands at the park entrance with signs saying “Free Hugs.” People walk over to claim their prize, then calmly march on about their business. Foregoing the hug, we trod along to the street vendor to snatch up a 500-yen beer. The Lebels and the Strangers are about to begin again. The Rockabilly music blasts louder. The pompadours and denim start to juke and jive. Dancers smile in their revelry – their motions hypnotic. It’s a wonderfully strange scene.