Japan Ride 4
The following is the fourth chapter of the trip five New England riders took to Japan to ride the Northern Territories.
In my business travels I have used many car ferries in many places. Most have fresh paint and look pretty good from far. And most have reasonably comfortable accommodations and decent food. None I have used in Europe or America prepared me for my first ride on a Japanese car ferry.
The Sunflower Furano sailed at 18:30 hours on Wednesday and with a scheduled arrival at 13:30 on Thursday at Tomakomai on the Island of Hokaido. That's an overnight. The above picture shows us lined up to board and shortly afterwards drinking beer on the open top deck.
The car/bike storage sections of these barges are eerily similar wherever you are. Bikes are usually the first to board and the first off. Cars to the right, bikes to the left, dirty straps and rusty chains are standard issue. That's where the similarity ends. Above the car decks on the Japanese car ferry are two more decks. Sleeping accommodations and a front and rear seating area on one; a huge restaurant and, of course, the public baths and front seat area on the other.
We Meet TD. Everybody is responsible for tying down their own bike. You often get help, but the responsibility for where the straps go and how tight they are is entirely yours. The seas can be rough and if your bike falls it will be a long time before you get to it, so you must tie it down properly and check the tie-down straps carefully.
Boarding just ahead us and riding a powerful Honda, was an attractive young woman in a handsomely fitted riding suit. We said hello and offered to help her tie down her bike, she said that wasn't necessary, tied down her own bike in a minute and was gone. We took our luggage, our helmets and our tank bags and, wearing all our riding gear we climbed up narrow stairways to the sleeping decks. We lumbered through lounges and found a place to dump it all, put on some shorts and grab a beer. That was the well earned beer pictured above.
Kei has arranged for us to all sleep together in a small room with bunk beds. Five upper, five lower on either wall, very narrow passage in between. Seven of us, and three strangers will share this space.
Out West, in the old days of Wild West Rodeos they travelled the animals from town to town by truck. Horses fight with horses and bulls fight with bulls. Because these horse and bulls were wild and valuable they didn't want them fighting among themselves. The horsemen would tie a horse and a bull side by side and they would just eye each other nervously for the length of the ride. Ten men in a small room is a lot like that.
So we had a beer and bumped into TD again. She joined us and was a more than pleasant companion. Her English is flawless and she is an engineer at the Honda plant on the main Island. Her route was different from ours and her trip was shorter but we all agreed that it would be fun to travel together when it was convenient. TD had ridden in the US and Europe and was quite used to travelling alone on a motorcycle. We were to learn that this is not an uncommon thing for girls to do in Japan.
We dined buffet style in a huge cafeteria style room and the food was absolutely terrific. Although we had not ridden that many miles, we were pretty weary puppies by the time we hit the rack. But not, of course, without the obligatory after dinner bath. On a car ferry! I had showered that morning but the heat of Tokyo and pushing the bike around left me in a state that compelled me, tired as I was, to shower again if only for the sake of others. Sure enough, as we were to find on so many occasions on this trip, the Japanese bath set-ups were virtually identical, even on a ship. A place to hang your towel and put your room key, a row of showers against one wall with inverted plastic buckets beneath them on which to sit facing a lower shower head about two feet off the floor, and an upper shower head at the normal height. The procedure goes something like this; Standing, use the upper shower to soak, lather up and rinse off your upper body. Sit down on the inverted plastic pail, lather your privates and wash your feet, then use the lower shower to rinse yourself. When completed. Use the upper shower to rinse all over. Now you are very clean. Move into the room containing a long rectangular pool, four or five times as long as it is wide with built in ledge that allows you to sit in the very warm water that is liberally laced with minerals and salts that are meant to relax you and open and refresh your pores. One shares this communal tub with up to twenty-five or thirty people, of the same sex, of course. Once complete, you dry off, wrap your towel around yourself and walk back to your room wearing just your wet towel and the supplied paper sandals. You walk this way through numerous lounges and hordes of totally uncurious fellow travelers. Pores clean, liberally mineraled, we all slept very well.
First thing Thursday morning, if you are Japanese, you have another bath. Same ritual as the night before. Several of the round-eyes* skipped it and went straight to breakfast. Count me in the group that skipped.
The time until disembarkation is long and I spend an inordinate amount of money in a slot machine that is meant to connect me to my email. The thing is an evil joke and only boredom and my documented penchant for banging my head against a wall explain this irrational behavior. Finally we dock at Tomakomai and are reunited with our bikes. All the bikers gather together onshore to reassemble their gear and prepare for their journeys. We meet some neat people with interesting bikes and chat and exchange plans. Bikers are brothers. It becomes readily apparent that a lot of Japanese bikers are not in it for the glamour or the speed. Bikes are a way to get from here to there cheaply and/or with panache and style. There seems to be a bond of joy among these people that I remember being a part of biking when I was younger, in the sixties. That was when bikes were scarce and were individualized not as much by choice as by the necessity created by poor design and equally poor quality parts. That spirit exists in Japan and judging by some of the bikes we saw out there, for the same reasons.
* "Round eyes" is what I thought the Japanese would call us when we couldn't hear. I asked Kei and he said "No". Surprised, I asked him what did they call us? He smiled that big smile and laughed, "Big nose" he said.