Our journey to Kawasaki's Autopolis circuit was via bullet train, where we gained a greater appreciation of the 174-mph engineering marvel.
With the memory of the previous night's festivities etched in my head it was time to complete the most anticipated portion of our journey. The horde migrated to the train terminal for our express ride on the Shinkansen to Fukuoka followed by another bus ride to Kumamoto, our base for the next couple days. It took a while and a small miracle for us to locate our stand but before we knew it we were loaded on the bullet train and headed south at terminal velocity.
It was here, at a GPS-indicated 174 mph that the nature of these trains really came into perspective for me. For anyone who has actually traveled on a motorcycle at top speed, you can confirm that it is anything but a smooth ride. Wind is buffeting your helmet around, the force on your chest seems to want to toss you off the back and the prospect of actually hitting something at that speed must be put out of your mind altogether. Yet, within the confines of the Shinkansen, you can't tell the difference between 6 and 174 mph without looking out the window. From now on I will look at these vehicles of mass transportation with a new interest. I mean, imagine a network of railway that would allow for a fast and comfortable run to Vegas in about an hour without the hassle of the airport? Seems like a good idea to me now.
That night in Kumamoto is memorable for a number of reasons. It was our second consecutive meal featuring authentic Japanese cuisine, only this time our hostess was a young lady adorned in the traditional flamboyant attire of the Geisha. The term Geisha
translates to performing artist and throughout the evening she performed a couple of elegant dance routines for our enjoyment in between sitting and answering questions from the twitterpated journalists, who tried to simultaneously show interest while managing to resist the allure of her delicate features and demure voice without subsequently looking or sounding like a fool. As far as I could tell, it didn't work for many of them.
The food served at Kumamoto was unusual to our non-horse-flesh-eating sensibilities, but made more palatable by the presence of our Geisha hostess.
The dinner itself featured an amazing assortment of unique foods many of us had never experienced but one in particular bested the others by a furlong or two. It was presented to us as three thinly sliced strips of marbleized red meat and one similarly sliced slab of white flesh displayed like a fan on the plate. A dish of thick and delicious teriyaki-style dipping sauce made it more than palatable, but I couldn't eat more than one of the uncooked pieces since I usually order filet mignon done medium well. The white meat was much more tough and tasteless, so I couldn't consume even a bite of it. The coup de grace for this appetizer was delivered with the news that this was horse meat. Yeah, I just ate Seabiscuit sushi. Sorry PETA.
The next morning we were bussed to the famed Autopolis circuit nestled in the hills of the Oita Prefect in northern Kyushu. This was round four of the All Japan Road Race Championship and Kawasaki
's own Akira Yanagawa was starting on the front row. When the premier race was about to get underway, the fans flocked to the starting grid for the most extravagant display of bikes, babes and machines I have ever seen at a motorcycle race. Each team had the usual assortment of technicians and mechanics on hand but they also had a flag bearer or two and a pair of umbrella girls. The female announcer got the fans worked up with her auctioneer-like introductions, while the girls twirled the umbrellas. A unique sound always accompanied the final words of the announcer's intro, which I can only describe as the tone you might hear after selecting your player in a video game. This really got the fans worked up and they contributed to the excitement with air horns, screaming and the cheering of the masses. It was great.
We were blown away by the pageantry of the All Japan Road Race Championship, which included enthusiastic introductions, flag bearers and, of course, umbrella girls.
Yanagawa got the holeshot and, much to our delight, led the race through the halfway point. A crash from the one rider who was hounding him hardest offered a glimmer of hope that the popular rider would pull it off, but a determined ride from Yamaha's Katsuyuki Navasota ultimately spoiled the day for our Kawasaki hosts as Akira-san settled for second place. It was still an epic show and after watching the best of Japan circulating the track we were all beside ourselves in anticipation of getting to ride there the next day.
It was easy to sleep after baking our brains under the Japanese sun for six hours, plus it was certain tomorrow would be a day to remember. The group arrived at the track early the next afternoon and the only sign that the race had been there the previous day was an assortment of big rigs and a few huge piles of used tires on each end of the paddock. In the garage we saw our trio of Malaysian-spec ZX-6Rs a ZX-10 and a ZX-14. A few Malaysian-spec ZRX and other non-US model street bikes were also on hand for us to tour around the complex while the other folks were riding on the track.
There were three groups divided into 4-5 riders depending on the luck of the draw. My group included two familiar names with both Neale Bayly of SpeedTV.com
and that wiry weasel Kevin Duke. We sported the latest track-focused underwear
in an attempt to give ourselves an identity - even though it just gave fuel to the ridicule and harassment we would endure during the next few days. I chose to sit out the first riding session so I wouldn't have to miss a session at the end of the day. However, after watching everyone else go at least once and the first group get a second run, I was bitterly disappointed to learn I was going to have to wait until after lunch to turn a lap.
Kawasaki's own Akira Yanagawa snatched the holeshot in the All Japan Road Race event and went on to finish second.
The anticipation was a killer and it was pretty damn hot, plus I was feeling bad for myself and second-guessing my decision to defer the early slot, but doing my best to keep my angst internalized. When the track went green though, I was first out with Bayly offering to guide me around the track. At last I was on the track after flying halfway around the world driving halfway down Japan, eating raw horse and waiting in my leathers for two hours while everyone else talked about how incredible the track was. It was worth the wait.
The 2.9-mile long circuit has all of my favorite elements as well as a supremely smooth surface. This is motorcycling nirvana in my opinion. Gear after gear, lap after lap the speeds increased as I gained familiarity of the layout. Some tips and pointers from the cool kids had me going better every session. On my third time out I actually witnessed a wolverine running onto the track. I slowed to take a look and the feisty furball rose on its hind legs and stared me down with its black and orange fur at attention as I rode past. No one believed me, so perhaps it was Seabiscuit-induced hallucination - or I found my spirit animal, either way it was great.
The day after watching the race, it was time to be the race, with our very own personal trackday at the Autopolis circuit.
The climax of the Autopolis experience came during my final session of the day with the tires greasy and the track temps peaking. Kawasaki's test rider Shigeru Yamashita let me put Kevin Duke's rear facing camera on his ZX6 so I could follow him around and get some footage of me on the track: Easier said than done. I also had a front facing camera rolling so we could get both perspectives. As the developmental rider for the ZX-10R and with a few thousand laps around Autoplis to his credit I am sure Yamashita wasn't overly impressed with my scratching skills. Still I pushed as hard as I could to hang with him at his journalist-safe pace and experienced the most entertaining ride of the day. He led me through turns I had been missing, faster than I figured I could go. He showed me where I was blowing my drives and forced me to get my reference points figured out in order to keep him close. It was unbelievable fun and you are invited to take a lap of Autopolis with me in the accompanying video, even though the rear facing footage didn't come out because someone who works for the other Motorcycle magazine didn't turn the camera on when we left pit lane. I will never forgive you, pal.
When it was over I was ready to move to Japan so I could do this again soon. The layout is fast and flowing and the numerous elevation changes out it a step above the heretofore easily most favorite track of mine, Laguna Seca. There was no time to mourn the ending though because we had to bust-ass and get back on the bus to Kumamoto. We were a few hours from heading back to Tokyo and the conclusion of our Japanese tour. If there was a more entertaining way to end this story it could not have been scripted any better.
Riding off into the sunset, or at least flying home towards the sunrise, our Japanese adventure came to an end with our sincere gratitude to the folks at Kawasaki for such a memorable experience.
Big boats, fast bikes, faster trains and a week in one of the world's most beautiful countries was well worth the time and I hope it was worth it to my friends old and new at Kawasaki. I think back to a time when my world revolved around the color green. After piling 44,000 miles on my trusty ZX-7 during college with my mullet flapping in the wind, establishing a really, really bad driving record, accumulating a few scars, scraping together a few one-nighters and following the careers of Scott Russell and Doug Chandler religiously along the way, I never imagined that one day I would make my way to Japan - especially as a guest of Kawasaki.
I've had the opportunity to imbibe with the President of Kawasaki Consumer Products, Shinichi Tamba in the dining hall of Kawasaki Headquarters. I willingly ate pureed cow tongue topped with raw sea urchin, raw horse, shark-fin soup and a 100-year old egg. I saw the inner-workings of Kawasaki's motorcycle manufacturing plant and have been enlightened to its influence in the world outside of motorcycles. To put a price on the experience or to attempt to express it in any more words than I already have would simply be futile. In the end all there is left to say that has not been said is thank you. Thank you for this experience because it is one I will not soon forget.