Japan 2008 Motorcycle Adventure - Chapter 1: The Basics

In August of 2008, I joined four American motorcycle riding friends and three Japanese riders for a two week, 2,000 mile motorcycle adventure in Japan.

Hokkaido Island

A not untypical view on the island of Hokkaido. Lakes, mountains and rice fields. Always stunning!

Our goal was to ride around and through the island of Hokkaido, known to the Japanese as “The Northern Territories”. On our return trip to Tokyo, we would ride about 500 miles of the main island. Riding 300 miles in a day in America is not much of a challenge. The top speed in Japan is 80 KLMS per hour, about, 50 MPH. One day we rode through mountains and rarely got over 40 MPH. You can ride 250 miles in a day in Japan and have a fine feeling of accomplishment.

I kept copious notes on our trip and at this point they are intimidating to view and transcribe. I shall write the story of our trip in two page chapters and this first will set the scene for what is to follow. I think it only fair to the Japanese and my fellow travelers that I first dispel what were my misperceptions about their country and what we could expect.

General information:

Japan is comprised of four major islands. 90% of the population lives on one island. There are sixty active volcanoes in Japan. Tsunamis and earthquakes are common. One earthquake in Kobe in 1995 killed 5,000 people. While we were there we experienced two earthquakes. One was imperceptible to me, the other, quite remarkable. The larger was a 4.6 and was centered 60 miles from where we were staying. Japan does call itself “The Trembling Land”.

We spent the majority of our time north of the main island on the second largest island, Hokkaido. It is the breadbasket of Japan. It is quite beautiful and while not as hot in the summer as the main island of Honshu, in the winter it gets considerably colder. The tip of Hokkaido is three miles from Russian territory line. The northernmost tip of Hokkaido is about 400 miles north of Vladivostock, Russia.

Japan in total is 378K sq. kilometers . with a population of 128M people. California is 410K sq. kilometers with a population of 34M. Despite this fact, when you get away from the cities, you are in GREEN country! The mountains are covered in lush vegetation. There are huge tracks of forest and mountains put aside as national parks and rice fields abound. Rice is not grown like wheat. It is grown in small paddies that have access to irrigation. The paddies themselves are quite uniform and straight lines of taut string outline where the rice is planted. It quickly becomes obvious to passersby that the fields themselves are a source of pride. The fields are tended with care and one doesn’t see weeds anywhere near them. In the two weeks we were there we could see the difference in the height of the fields and could easily follow the waves of wind as they travelled across the lush green blades. Often, farmers would plant colorful flowers in the space between the irrigation ditches of the paddies and the roads on which we travelled. A lovely touch.

Tokyo is a crowded city and my expectation was that I would be visiting the set of Blade Runner. Wrong. Downtown Tokyo is like Manhattan. Only cleaner. The architecture of Tokyo reminds me, in many ways of Chicago. The extensive parks attached to the Imperial Palace are beautiful and quite serene. The streets are marked with English signs and the main area of shops and high-rises is not unlike any international city. The traffic is polite and quiet and it becomes exceptionally warm in the summer. It was over 100 degrees and humid on the day we were there. Sitting on a hot motorcycle wearing full protective gear and full face helmet this becomes a daunting experience. The renown Ginza is the equivalent of 5th Avenue in New York and is mostly populated with the same shops.

Like any major population, this one is stratified also. However, since everyone looks much the same to a stranger, the class differences are not apparent to the casual visitor. The major division is a racial one. The native people of Hokkaido are related to our Inuit people or what we once referred to as Eskimos. To me they look the same but I’m told that they are different, have retained many of their customs and are a separate people. They are called “Ainu” and we stayed in an inn that was owned by a Headman’s (Chief’s) daughter. But that is part of another narrative.

If there is one visible aspect of Japan that tells the story of these people, it is the cleanliness. Every aspect of our trip was highlighted by the surprising cleanliness of every part of their lives. You would expect bathrooms in hotels and homes to be clean but highway rest stops and public restrooms were all spotless. Those among you who have travelled in some parts of rural Europe or America will appreciate that a lot of people would have to buy into that concept to make the difference here that Japan enjoys.

In some ways, cleanliness is the direct result of a collective consciousness that seems to say, “We are all going to live in this small space together and that will be difficult, so let’s all try to make it easy on each other by respecting each other’s space and keeping everything clean for everyone”. On the Sunday of our departure I got up early and went for a walk. We were only a few blocks from a huge three-tiered American style mall with courtyard, so I thought I could get an idea of what people shopped for by visiting this mall several hours before it opened. It was drizzling out and the hotel loaned me an umbrella. A free service that they are obviously accustomed to providing. The store cleaning crews were busy everywhere and very few other people were, like me, walking about looking in windows. I spotted a middle aged man walking his small dog in the open common area of this mall. The dog was standing near a drain and was doing his business. The man carried a shoulder bag and when the dog finished, he took from it a plastic bag and picked up the pieces, very much the way I have seen conscientious dog owners do all over the world. He then took out a quart size bottle of water and rinsed away the dog’s urine and remaining traces of feces. At that point in our journey, I wasn’t even surprised.

Public transportation is exactly that, and the public use it. Trains are efficient, clean but not inexpensive. We enjoyed using them and found fellow travelers to be friendly and curious and consistently pleasant. The children, even small ones, appeared to be very polite and also steeped in our culture. Say Boston and they say the Japanese equivalent of Red Soxs!. American baseball teams that have Japanese players have a loyal following in Japan and all their games are televised. For an American, a train ride in Japan need never be dull.

Motorhead Rider Jackets

Kei and Kaagi both have “Motorhead Rider” Jackets

Curiously the Japanese have a fascination with both the imagery of the English language and the fonts we use to form our words. There are 46 Japanese characters in the Japanese alphabet and they are complex and precise. Because of font choices, our 26 letters offer endless variations.

The Japanese love to name conveyances of all kinds with English names. On the first night that we arrived, we took a train from Toyko to Ebina where we were staying. A forty-five minute non-stop ride through what looked to be all city. Our Japanese hosts told us we would be on the le Mans train. I found that curious but said nothing as I was only a few hours into my Japanese experience and didn’t want to appear either rude or a pest. We climbed aboard a wonderfully clean and well appointed train with white lace like headrest coverings and began our journey.

At one point curiosity got the better of me and I asked out host why this was called the le Mans train. He had a puzzled look on his face and explained that this was the Romance train. When he said romance it came out lomance which I took to be le Mans. Once we had chuckled about that, I asked him why it was called the Romance train. No reason. Just a nice word.

We got off the train and took a cab to our hotel. Painted on the side of the cab were the words Happiness Sky. We had a wonderful French dinner one evening in a restaurant using title graphics reminiscent of sixties bloated “flower power” lettering . It was called My. No reason.

Yellow Corn Jacket

Nonsensical….but beautiful

English Graphics are hugely important to the decorative aspects of signage and clothing. Accuracy or meaning appear to have less to do with conveying a thought than the satisfying arrangement of an attractive display of symbols and colors. As a result you might easily see a pretty eight year old with neat pigtails wearing a brightly colored t-shirt with rather suggestive wording in bright lettering across it. Obviously neither the child nor the parents have any idea what the words mean.

Young people wear clean and fashionable, but not necessarily revealing, clothing. And many young men and women dye their hair. The color of choice appears to be a very dark red. And it is very attractive, particularly on women.

The above sets the scene for our trip. In Chapter 2 we discuss our bikes, our preparations, food and BEER.