We picked up our bikes in Tsuyama to blue skies.
Through Daisen National Park and that conical volcano overlooking the Sea of Japan we went, snow along the roadside.
We spent most of the day riding along the Sea of Japan and arrive at Arifuku – a continuous Hot Springs destination since the year 600.
Our boutique hotel was perched on a side of the hill and we were the only guests. Traditional rooms awaited – all tatami floors and paper sliding doors, complete with a visiting area with two chairs and a table, right in front of a large plate glass window overlooking the clutter of hot springs hotels.
Dinner that night was a 5-star affair with course after course coming at us: blow fish, sashimi, pickled goodies, breaded pork cutlet, steak cooked over a heated rock, and fish soup. All the riders wore traditional Yukatas and the laughing never stopped.
Blue skies and we are off down the coast of the sea of Japan.
Fishing towns, complete with small fishing boats, fish markets, and cluttered streets. Farm roads with rice fields and ornate roof lines for the homes and cherry blossoms singing out.
We stopped for lunch at the Shoin Shinto Shrine in Hagi.
Cherry blossoms, Japanese menus, and a lesson from Chie on how make a prayer at the Shinto Shrine. Some riders wrote wishes and folded them in paper and hung them near the shrine.
The last bit of riding was through a World Heritage Site – Akiyoshidai – limestone karst formation that stretched for miles. The road was open and smooth and we picked up the pace!
We pulled into the small town of Nagato and enjoyed thermal Hot Springs, a stream lined with cherry blossoms, a grand dinner and Karaoke.
Mist greeted us as we worked our way along the coast to the the end of the island of Honshu.
We ate lunch at a spot under the main bridge that connect the islands of Honshu and Kyushu. Massive cargo ships slipped through the eye of the needle as we dined on deer, shrimp soup, and pork cutlet.
Rain was in and out all day, but we got a break as we climbed into the mountains to an old shrine high in heavily forested mountains. Old cedar trees almost 1,000 years old with fog and ornate rockwork made for an outworldly feel. We had gone back in time.
Hundreds of curves later, we are back down at the valley bottom. Forest, shrines, cherry trees in full blossom, and a clear mountain stream to connect it all. So beautiful, you could not go slow enough to take it all in. We entered the city of Hita to our hotel, right on the river. Cherry blossoms bordered the other side of the water, and we enjoyed an outdoor hot springs bath, from the 8th floor of our hotel.
Dinner that night was meat and carrot soup, fish soup, udon soup, sashimi, and all sorts of other delights, meticulously presented in a variety of dishes.
As the crow flies, our destination is only 25 miles away, but we kept busy all day long.
We geared up and went to Nakano Motors – a vintage BMW boutique shop. Mr Nakano specializes in restoring BMW motorcycles and his clients are from all over Japan. We checked out his shop, exchanged gifts, stories and smiles and marveled at his impeccable shop and some of the beautifully restored BMW sidecars and motorcycles.
After that, Hirata chose a course through the mountains. Vaulted stone pillars, lined the narrow river gorge as we curved our way along. Brightly adorned cherry blossoms screamed out from all around us. The skies were clear and the sunlight turned beautiful to brilliant as cherry blossom tree after cherry blossom tree sped past.
In the small town of Kusu, we stopped at a traditional restaurant, complete with tatami floor, sitting pads, low ceilings, archaic electric wiring and great food. We ducked into this hole in the wall through cloth flaps, and had to take our shoes off.
The owner was a rider, and followed us out to our bikes, smiling and taking pictures. There is something special when you are bid farewell by waves and smiles….Japan seems to be one of the most accommodating countries in this regard.
After lunch, we went to the small town of Yufuin, and to the famous Iwashita Collection: The first floor is an eclectic banquet of 30’s , 40’s and 50’s memorabilia – everything from old pachinko machines to a fuselage of an old Saber fighter. The second and third floor were dedicated to motorcycles. Every make and year imaginable were there for show. After perusing the collection, we enjoyed coffee and conversation. The coffee was on the house: Mr Iwashita himself was unable to greet us, but called ahead to make sure we were made to feel at home.
The last part of the day was highlighted by great roads. Curve after curve on great pavement through forest, over mountains and through the countryside. There was not much for traffic as we clipped along. We peered down the escarpment to the bottom of an enormous caldera. Mt Aso blew its top many years ago, and cleared out a large, easy to see caldera. Its steaming peak in the center is testament to the volcanic forces at work here. Indeed, it had awakened again last year, and was proudly spewing sulfuric clouds into the air in the distance.
We picked an off-the-beaten-track road which precariously hugged the cliff as it wound its way down to the basin. We arrived at our hotel, checked in, and met up again at dinner. This hotel offered exclusive hot spring baths that you could take individually, each one decorated uniquely.
Today was the day to enjoy the Island of Kyushu and it´s coast. Our path took us due east through countryside full of steep slopes, deep gorges and low mountains. When looking at a mountainside, you saw a patchwork of different colors and textures. The colorful natural quilt included portions of cultivated and stepped farmland, houses, bamboo, pine trees, deciduous trees and cherry blossoms.
Looking out over the landscape you could see layer upon layer of mountains off into the distance. This place was impossibly mountainous as far as the eye could see. The sun broke through the clouds, and, aided by cloud lighting, made everything sparkle, especially the cherry blossoms. The road was a series of unending curves and went along the edge of a gorge, complete with large, arched bridges and even one curly-cue spiral.
We came close to the coast and took a toll road almost all the way to our destination. If we had taken the local roads, we would have spent literally hours tied up in traffic, as we passed through several towns and small cities. Our last leg of the trip took us to a quiet campground along the ocean, complete with cabins, beach, and lined with pine trees. The sound of surf could be heard as we carted our luggage to our respective cabins. Each cabin came complete with futons, kitchen, hot showers, private baths and a picnic table with the center being a barbecue grill.
We got in quite early, so the riders dispersed, exploring the area, riding up and down the coast, walking the beach, relaxing, and napping.
Chie took off for town in the van with one of the riders to go get provisions for our barbecue that evening.
We all reconvened that evening and shared the grill with salmon, pork, chicken, peppers, carrots, asparagus, rice balls, and a variety of munchies. Most of the food was on bamboo skewers and roasted over the bed of coals. Our last course was yaki soba and as we tried to finish the food (which was impossible), singing broke out in the group and soon, under a nearly full moon, most of the group adjourned to the beach for more festive laughter and singing. Not a bad night in Japan.
We headed up the coast to catch a ferry bound for the island of Kyushu today. We took mostly local roads that hugged the coast. Clear blue water, fish farms, fishing boats, small port towns, and cherry blossoms were the order of the day.
The road went from two lanes to one lane throughout. On the sharp corners, there was a convex mirror posted, so you could see any oncoming traffic. The was little or no cars on the road, and much of it was constructed of concrete, rising up from the water. We made our way out to the most easterly point of Kyushu island, on a slender peninsula that jutted out into the Pacific Ocean.
Women in cute bonnets waved to us, fishermen sat in a circle, mending a net, and sea birds patrolled the skies. Some parts of the road were a series of steep switchbacks, which made for very fun riding. We made it to the ferry just in time for the first wave of our group to board. They would only take 8 motorcycles at a time, so some of us held back to catch the next ferry an hour later.
Once on Shikoku, we rode as far west as we could on that island to a little fishing town nestled by the sea. There were only a couple hundred residents at most, and fishing boats came to and from as we watched the sun set.
That night, we feasted on shabu shabu – cooking thinly sliced raw fish in a rolling boil and dipping them in a citrus based sauce. We also had a miso based soup with cabbage, tofu, mushrooms and a small, lobster-looking thingy. In all, it was a grand meal, with ingredients as fresh as they could be.
Today would be our longest day and so we got an early start. We would span most of the island of Shikoku and rain was in forecast. We started in a downpour and trudged through fog, wind and rain for the better part of an hour.
Once off the peninsula, the clouds dispersed and as we gassed up, the skies just stopped letting the water fall. We headed toward the heart of the island and the views just got better and better. River after clear river went by. Steep slopes were everywhere, heavily forested and impenetrable. Tunnel after tunnel allowed us to go through mountains, and pop out only to see a short river scene and go into another tunnel. There are really no places to build large cities on Shikoku, so all you see in natural beauty. The country swells with ruggedness.
We climbed to the top of a mountain, but the clouds forbade us to see. Back at the bottom of the valley, the rivers continued to go this way and that, all the while the cherry blossoms glistened. It was the finest riding of the week, with much of it on backroads with little or no traffic. We were engulfed in pine forest, tunneled by cherry trees and surrounded by endearing Japanese farm scenes. It was a dream .
We arrived at our hotel on one of the few undammed rivers in Japan. Steep slopes shot skyward on all sides. The hotel sat on its own, with only local train track, with a single engine car to break the silence from time to time.
Clouds licked the steep lush slopes of mountains of Shikoku as we clutched out of the hotel for our last day of the trip.
We clipped along a river valley due north towards the Seto Bridge that would take us to Honshu Island. The Seto Bridge is an enormous suspension bridge and one of the world’s largest. Fog and rain met us at the bridge and we rode in soup across it. Half-way, we stopped for lunch on an island, connecting the two massive halves.
After lunch, the fog cleared enough that we could see the massive goliath, with its triple stacked highways and railway.
We stepped up on the highway and got off on a local road on the Island of Honshu for our last hurrah. It was well worth it. Sweeping corners through picturesque valleys and farms, the usual lush mountains, dotted with wild cherry blossoms, and some surprise roads all lines with cherry blossoms, overhanging the road. Cherry blossom petals drifted down onto the road like snow.
We turned in the bikes and there were smiles and fist bumping, all around. We had ridden a total of 1,700 miles and spanned three of the four major islands of Japan. We had ridden the coast, the mountains, the cities, and the country. We had seldom seen other foreigners and had forged friendships within the group and with locals that would last a lifetime.
At the farewell dinner there was laughter and talk of other trips in the future. Masa had guided a great trip and Chie had done anything and everything as a driver to make everyone comfortable and happy.
What can you say, it had been a great trip.
Day 9: Hiroshima
We jumped in the van and went to the Okayama Train Station to catch a bullet train to Hiroshima. It would take but a half an hour and travel at speeds of over 188 miles an hour. At the Hiroshima Station, we boarded a trolley and traveled through the vibrant city. We disembarked at the Atomic Bomb Dome and walked to a side street to the Hypercenter. A small plaque stands non discreetly at the side of the street, with an explanation that you are standing underneath the actual detonation spot of the first atomic bomb to be used versus humans. It was detonated at 600 meters for maximum effect. Standing there, you can feel the weight of the past, the future and precarious entrance for humanity as a whole upon entering a whole new era. No longer is total warfare possible amongst humans. I think every person in the world should stand at this spot and take in the moment.
We walked a block over to see the Atomic Bomb Dome. It was constructed by a Czech Architect and made of brick, concrete and iron. Since it was just underneath the blast, it was able to withstand the blast and is that iconic building you see in any photo of Hiroshima just after the bomb was dropped.
We then walked over the the Peace Park, and I bought everyone entrance tickets to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and the group went in. After they came out, there was a solemn mood to the group. This is a heavy day, but I see it as a day of hope. We then walked over to a shopping arcade and found a restaurant specializing in Hiroshima’s famous dish: Okonomiyaki. It’s basally a squid pancake, but has cabbage, thin pancake, pork, shrimp and soba noodles in it. This hole-in-the-wall restaurant features a hot grill at each dining station, so the Okonomiyaki is kept hot. You cut it into pieces with a sharp spatula, put sauce on it and go to work. Everyone loved it.
Then, we were free to walk around the shopping area. This city is busy and thriving and there is no mistaking that humans are capable of healing, learning and moving forward. A day in Hiroshima is a day well worth experiencing.
We got back to our hotel and got together for photo sharing and arranging transport for departure the next day. It had been a very mixed group of riders, from as far away as Saudi Arabia and Switzerland, and there were more than a few new friendships made on this trip. We waved good bye to Chie and bid goodnight to each other. We had shared a memorable experience in Japan together, and, hopefully we would share more to come.