Japan 2008 Motorcycle Adventure - Chapter 2: Da Plane, Da Bike

Newark to Tokyo is a 12 hour flight. Peter Delli Colli, Art Milliken and I flew from Boston to Newark early on a Sunday morning. The crossing of the dateline, the length of the flights, and the train ride from the Narita Airport to Tokyo brought us into town for Monday’s evening rush hour. The Eastern flight was good and the food better than average, the train ride from the Narita airport sixty miles away was quick, quiet and very comfortable. Arriving at Tokyo’s main commuter rail station was not quite the dreaded experience I had anticipated. The main train station is lighted, clean and very busy. It makes Central Station in NYC look positively medieval.

Arthur guards the luggage

Arthur guards the luggage in Newark Airport

We met our friend and chief organizer Kei (pronounced “Kay”) at the train station.

Kei is a very warm and sympathetic figure and I got to know him on our trip to Labrador last summer. On this trip I would learn to appreciate not just his attention for details, but his very thoughtful plan to expose his friends to the very best and broadest of Japanese experiences. Each person in our group has travelled extensively, so arriving in strange lands and figuring out where to go and how to get there is not as daunting for us as it might be for others. Even so, the site of Kei was a warm and welcomed one. We all lugged baggage and were unfamiliar with the maze that connects Tokyo’s central airport to the maze that supports the Tokyo station. Our destination was, as it would be throughout the remainder of our trip, a warm secure place in which to rest and access to copious amounts of cold beer.

Train to Tokyo

Peter DC/John and George on train to Tokyo

We also met the other two Japanese riders who would shepherd us through Japan for the coming 12 days. Kaagi and Noa (Pronounce Kaaghi and Noah) are friends of Kei’s and expert BMW riders who have done this trip before. Both Kaagi and Noah are “men of a certain age” and though neither could be considered fully bi-lingual, their more than rudimentary knowledge of English combined with their persistence and patience insured that we would understand every communication. The fact that these are intelligent and interesting men, both engineers, made the effort of communication more than worthwhile. And so we settled into a most comfortable private dining room and began a bonding process that would serve us well throughout our trip and beyond.

The restaurant chosen for our first meeting was decorated in light wood boardroom style paneling a contained private function rooms each contain a long table and chairs for 10 to 12 people. We eight, with our luggage, easily made the room completely ours. One wall of our room looked out onto another party of Japanese business men occupied it noisily. All wearing white shirts and ties, smoking heavily, these “younger than us” men were obviously enjoying a similar bonding ritual to ours. And it wasn’t their first. They enjoyed bonding and worked at it. In our case, age, and the fact that we were coming off a long day’s travel, made a subdued comparison to our neighbors. But a few cold beers later and we were fully their equal as we all laughed and struggled to communicate with our new friends. We had ample time before our train and so we enjoyed our first meal in Japan. And it was excellent. The airport/airline food had been better than expected but it was now some ungodly body-time hour and we were sitting down to an excellent meal of dumplings and noodles and meat and fishes. All strangely prepared and presented and wolfed down with large amounts of damned fine beer.

The Restaurant

Kei (seated) Kaagi, Peter DC, John, Peter B, Arthur, George and Noa (standing).

Dinner over, three hours later we staggered on to the “Romance Train” for a 45 train minute ride to Ebina, a suburb of Tokyo which would be our mainland base. The Romance Train is the first class ride to the suburbs; big recliner seats and plenty of room for luggage. I sat next to a Japanese business man who works for Sony and was taking the 8:00PM train home. His English was excellent and I determined that I should engage him in brilliant conversation about his work and life. I quickly felt his answers to my very clever questions were tentative and I determined to put him at his ease by asking questions that would show him how much I knew about his wonderful country and his brilliant company. I gave it all up for good when I heard myself ask him if he had ever met Soichiro Honda, the founder of his company. Though no response was forthcoming, the look on his face plainly said “I am sitting next to a complete idiot!” Fortunately, as I may have mentioned elsewhere, I am not particularly observant and it was only when I woke up in the morning that I realized quite what that look meant and concluded that he was correct.

In the morning, at a reasonable hour we had a very American breakfast in our very nice American style hotel. The temperature was unseasonably high and predicted to get hotter. We then met Kei and in a series of deft moves we found our way to two dealerships where we picked up our bikes. Kei has two bikes, a BMW R-100 and an older Honda CBR 650. John Newton rode Kei’s second bike. George rented a Yamaha 1300 FJH from one dealer and Art rented a Suzuki 1250 Bandit from the Ducati dealer who rented us our 1300 STX Hondas. Peter’s was brand new and mine had 600 miles in the clock. The dealership was attractive, well equipped and carried many Ducati lifestyle products I have never seen before. The staff spoke no English but between Kei’s translations, their unfailing patience and our still travelled-addled demeanors, we all got through the paper formalities in good time and good humor.

Ducati Dealership

Picking up our Japanese bikes at a Ducati dealership.

Now suited up, helmet on, in 95 degree heat we started up the bikes and eased into the traffic flow of a busy two lane divided highway dotted with stop lights at every tree quarter mile post. The 1300 STX is about 650 lbs wet and about 125 lbs more than my Ducati ST-4. Much of that 125 lbs is higher up on the bike and stopping completely at stop signs quickly teaches you not to lean the bike even slightly to either side. Speaking of stopping, the bike has “abs” and a “progressive” braking system that applies brakes to the rear wheel when the front hand brake is applied. The bias continues to be to the front but you can definitely feel the difference. Interestingly, going back to a bike that does not have the feature is more difficult than adapting to it initially. I would vote “yes” on progressive braking. The transmission, strangely enough at first, is five speeds. This seems odd until you ride the bike and realize that the motor is very strong and pulls evenly and easily from 1500 RPM and revs freely in 5th to however fast you want to go. This bike doesn’t need any more gears. The stop and go traffic in high heat didn’t faze the bike a bit and the well designed faring kept engine heat from adding to the already high temperature thru which we were riding.

Japanese traffic is not as daunting as Boston traffic, primarily because they are considerate and rarely, if ever, use their horns. Once off the two lane highway we were on narrow streets that might be considered “lanes” here. Riding on the “wrong” side of the road takes a little getting used to but fear is an excellent motivator and the need to focus on where one should be on the road becomes crucial. We rode to Kei’s house where the bikes were dismantled and the three Japanese engineers rigged each one and our helmets with communicators. These guys fussed and argued and tested for several hours over these bikes and when they were all finished, we took off our shoes and went into Kei’s house where Ami, his beautiful wife had prepared and delicious meal. For all the reasons explained in Chapter 1, Tokyo houses are not large, and frankly neither are their inhabitants. Ami served us a traditional Japanese meal and we large clumsy Americans did our very best not to break anything or embarrass ourselves. We had kept Ami waiting for several hours beyond when we told her we would be ready but she was exceptionally gracious and made our first home visit and meal in Japan a memorable experience. After this late lunch we rode down to the hotel and napped in preparation for dinner.

Kei and Ami's home

At Kei and Ami’s home. She has had lunch ready for two hours while we screwed with the bikes.

We had dinner at the Japanese equivalent of what would be called “The Dumpling House“ here. The food was delicious and plentiful and cheap. And the beer was delicious and plentiful and reasonable. They also did Karoke and fortunately none in our group seized the occasion and neither did anyone else.

On first full day, we had picked up our bikes, done about 35 miles, eaten wonderfully and for the second but certainly not the last time, we went to bed tired and tipsy. Perfect!