2016 Japan Three Island Blog by Phil Freeman
Saturday, March 26th
This was our first official start day of the trip and already more than half of the 19 had arrived. They were out wondering around, exploring the city, eating raw things, and enjoying street scenes. If anything, Japan is an explosion of the senses, and if you are into people watching, you can’t ask for a better venue. There was a large, outdoor shopping avenue that stretched the better part of a kilometer, and most riders sauntered over there, near the city center, to take it all in. Thousands of people walked the mall, with nearly hundreds of shops and restaurants to see.
The city of Okayama was completely destroyed during the second world war, but you would not have guessed it. With a population of 4 million, it retained a bit of a small town feel somehow. In the evenings, it grew very quiet, void of the sound of cars, horns, or even human voices.
I started my day by going to the airport to pick up Genie and Mark, a couple from California. Mark was the editor-in-chief for Rider Magazine, and would be writing an article about the trip. He and Genie, who trains dogs for a living, had been wanting to come to Japan with MotoQuest for a while.
On the same plane was Scott, who advertised an eastern United States accent, but lived on the small British Caribbean Island of Anguilla. I think he was winning the contest of how many planes did it take to get to Japan. I got them checked into the hotel and even though it was 10 in the morning, the hotel staff was able to get them into their rooms early. And, in Japanese fashion, they all apologized for the inconvenience.
Next came Richard, a Brit ex-pat from Hong Kong. He arrived by high speed train from Tokyo. At the busy passenger pick-up area at the downtown train station, he literally threw his bags into the van and jumped in. We had just a moment to touch hands for a brief hello, and then we were back into the ocean of traffic. Like many of the riders, he had been to Tokyo, on business and transit, but never had the opportunity to see the countryside of Japan. He was in for a real treat. He was originally born in Penang, Malaysia, as his father was a weather forecaster for the RAF there. He moved back to England until he graduated University, then went straight into the foreign service. He has lived all over the world and his last stint was a modest 30 years in Hong Kong. He said that he was part of the team who was instrumental in working with the Chinese takeover. Since the Chinese supplied the water and electricity to Hong Kong, they were holding the cards, but somehow he and his team got through it. What a transition to have a hand in!
I had a family from Mexico out there somewhere, and I was to pick them up at the train station, but it came at the same time I would be out of town at the airport, so they opted to take care of themselves. Pablo and his family also live in Hong Kong. I had yet to meet him, his wife and his two daughters, but was relieved to get a WhatApp message saying he had made it safe and sound to the hotel.
I had a couple of hours before my last airport pick up, so, at sunset, I set off for a walk around the Kouryakuen – the Black Castle Gardens. It was one of the three prestigious gardens of all Japan. I would not enter it, since it was closed, but there was a nice little walkway that skirted between it and the Asahi River. At sunset, the pinks and oranges in the sky were in full symphony and there was something else special happening: Hanami. During the cherry blossom time each year, the Japanese go crazy for Hanami, which means literally “Blossom Watching” but is also known as drinking [barbecue]. And so, along the waterway was strung a long line of paper lights and every few yards there was a tag fluttering from the string, denoting a reserved spot for a group to do their “flower watching”. Generally, a group would bring a large tarp to spread out over their area, then take off their shoes and sit down around and outdoor charcoal-burning grill, and cook small slices of meat and vegetable and sip BIRU – beer. Laughter, jokes, and story telling was soon to follow. Children ran around kicking balls and playing while the adults sat around in a circle just having a good time. The cherry blossoms were not at peak yet (it only lasted 4 days out of the year), but they were on their way, with some trees starting to sport their colors.
There was also a long line of food stalls offering hot dogs, yaki tori, beef barbecue, tripe and hard boiled eggs. This was all going on at sunset with the backdrop of the imposing silhouette of the Black Castle, it’s reflection shimmering off the Asahi – simply divine. I knew there was a lot of violence and disorder in the world, but strolling through this scene could only bring a person to a happy place. Yes, perhaps the human race does work after all. Just keep the news volume on mute!
Meanwhile, back at the airport, I did my final run at 8PM to pick up the very last three of the group: Bill, Steven and Stephanie. Steven and Stephanie hailed from San Diego. A Dentist, Steven had ridden with MotoQuest to the end of the earth in Patagonia a couple of years back with his daughter. Now, it was time for him and his wife to explore Japan. Bill was lawyer from Ohio, and had taken some 8 trips with MotoQuest, 4 of which were with me. He had had a good run seeing the world: Peru, South Africa, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, India, Vietnam, Laos, Alaska….whew! He was a rather quiet sort, but always up for any adventure or to lend a hand, or to offer a wry, dry comment to pepper the situation. I called him “Loafer” because he showed up in India without his luggage and did not have his riding gear for the first day ride out of Manali. He, without complaint, just wore his travel slacks, collared shirt and his nice loafers…and proceeded to ride to 13,000 feet high in the Himalayas with them! Haha, Loafer was in the house!
Well, I had to admit it, I was happy that all 19 souls made it to the destination. No small feat, taking into account that they had came from some 7 countries and from all points around the globe. To take into consideration what was implied to move these people from point a to point b – the technologies recently developed, the schedules humanity somehow were able to maintain…it was nothing short of amazing. This group would be sharing a common experience and would never be – all of them – together again, except for this point in time and this place in the world. This was a one-time experience, to be savored for years to come.
As the founder of MotoQuest, I get a little tickle of satisfaction when a group comes together like this. For me, the enjoyment is looking over the dinner table and seeing the faces, the engagement, the stories, and hearing the laughter of these once strangers that are now becoming acquaintances. Some will go on to become life-long friends. I marvel at this demographic of people: those who will not only go to a foreign country but will also ride a motorcycle when they get there. They are truly adventurous. And, when you peel back the layers of their past, you find that they are the people that believe they can do anything. Optimism is rampant in this group. What a cast of characters!
Sunday, March 27th.
This was the first time the entire group had met. We all assembled in the hotel lobby, with luggage scattered everywhere and the usual smattering of informal introductions. There were no name tags at this point, so the group organically did their rounds with each other, getting to know the other travelers on this far away, exotic journey.
It was the first time that the group got to meet Chie, who would be with us as the support van driver for the rest of the week. She was also part of the family that owned the motorcycle dealership from which we would be renting the bikes. Chie had been raised, somehow, to fear no barriers. She was one of those people who could calmly and professionally handle any problem on the road. She had lived in Seattle for 5 years, so her English was flawless. She also could fix a bike, ride any bike, and anticipate any needs of the group. I called her the “jedi knight” of support drivers. The group did not know it yet, but they would come to admire and rely on her.
At this point in the trip, usually, the riders would come to me with any questions or concerns. They would, though, over the course of the week, stop doing this and go straight to Chie. She was the true fixer. Her tireless optimism and can-do attitude almost seemed unreal. I had already fielded a couple a questions at this point by saying, “That is a Chie question.” When it came to any cultural nuance-type wonder or head-scratcher – she was the one that could enlighten without hesitation.
It took almost a full minute to get everyone’s attention as we stood gathered outside of the hotel. I kept raising my voice, and the voices of those deep in conversation kept rising above it. It almost came down to Doron giving a crisp, loud whistle to get a silence. I hate to step on introductions and small talk, but there would be information and so…
Our mission for the day was to explore the famed gardens of the Black Castle of Okayama. We would go to the entrance of the gardens, get everyone in, and cut them loose for a full two hours so that they could wander around them and also check out the actual Black Castle. We would be meeting in front of the Black Castle in two hours (about half a kilometer away), go gettum!
In the past, I used to try to keep everyone together. This was an impossible task. I have resigned to throw the sand in the air, and see if it all lands in the right spot. I explained to Masa (our guide) the concept of cat herding. He had never heard that term before, but laughed and understood right away. That was 10 years ago. Now, we talk amongst ourselves in Japanese right in front of the riders about the “Nekotachi” which is the plural form for cats. I also jokingly refer to the group using the counting modifier “biki” in Japanese, which means a small animal. It would be used to count cats, so in this case, “Nan Biki iru?” means how many small animals “cats” are here with us now? Over the years, I don’t get a snicker out of Masa when I use this. Indeed, he now uses it, and has passed this term onto his riding friends. Now we talk to each other straight-faced, for example, when we are about to get on the bikes an head out and we discuss if all the “cats” are here, so we can go. Masa will answer,” I think there is one cat still in the bathroom. ” Business as usual.
From the Black Castle, we would go as a group to get lunch, and then circle back to our hotel to catch a charter bus that would take us to the small city of Tsuyama, in the heart of Honshu. We would check into a new hotel, and then go to Chie’s motorcycle dealership for a welcome dinner that evening.
The mayor of Tsuyama had asked if it was OK if he could come and welcome us to his city. Chie had arranged all this, and of course I emphatically said yes! When the group found out that they were going to meet the mayor, they mostly asked if this would be a formal occasion, usually with anxious looks on their faces. I told them not to worry, come as you are. (Chie confided to me later the mayor had asked her the same thing!)
So, back at the entrance of the garden the nekotachi were off on their own, exploring a dreamlike landscape. The garden was manicured perfection. All areas of the park had been meticulously groomed. There was a pond that dominated the center of it, filled with vibrantly colored Koi. There was an area where Cranes were kept. They were impressive specimens of all white with black heads and a dot of red here and there and a full 4 feet tall. Bamboo lined the limits of the garden, giving it a secluded feel. The grass was trimmed, everywhere, to the length of a putting green. All borders were delineated by bamboo fences denoting a high level of craftsmanship. There were dozens of Banzai trees, one of which had begun growing out over the pond, with carefully placed supports to keep its branches from dipping into the water. There were small sitting areas of hard wood, open aired, complete with roofs divided by meandering streams. These were no shoe zones and one could go in and just sit down in a peaceful place. There were bridges across slow moving streams that were not straight across but in a zig zag. I was told that evil spirits jump in a straight line, so the foot bridges, usually made of stone or wood, were designed in a zigzag to stop them from crossing over.
When you panned over the garden, every element from the trees, the grass, the waterways, the thatch roof buildings, the tea plants – was an image of perfection. I used surreal before but here it is again: surreal!
I heard laughter and looked across the lawn to see Pablo from Mexico, playing tag with his daughters Juliana and Veronica. Even the mother, Gabi, was giving chase. The sun was out and warm and I was strolling with Bill from Ohio. He was still jet lagged so I suggested we go over to the warm lawn near the Pablo clan and just sit a while.
Two hours passed almost in a flash, as we sat there with Pablo’s family, Bill and later Doron and talked about travel, life and politics as the rest of the garden’s visitors drifted by. It was one of those relaxed moments that you look back on with a smile.
When the time came, we rendezvoused with the rest of the group and walked over to the series of food stalls I had passed the night before. It was a perfect venue for the group as there were many choices of food, the sun was out, and the promenade was chocked full of locals barbecuing, walking dogs, playing soccer, drinking and generally having a relaxed Sunday. We were the only foreigners in sight. The choices of food ranged from beef on a stick to yaki soba to deep fried chicken to ramen. There was a beer and saki stall, and some of the riders took advantage of the non-ride day to just unwind.
After an hour or so, it was time to meet the bus at our hotel. We walked the entire gauntlet of food stalls, strollers and barbecuers. Some of the members of our group were invited to join some of the more boisterous groups of picnickers. It was tempting…but we had to meet the bus.
At the hotel, a mid-sized bus awaited with “MotoQuest” written on a sign in the window. We loaded up and were on our way to Tsuyama.
Traffic and buildings gradually gave way to farms and forests. It was a great appetizer to those who had never traveled the “inaka” or countryside of Japan. Ornate gardens, stylish tiled roof lines, clear flowing rivers, tucked away shrines, groves of bamboo and the occasional cherry blossom tree in bloom passed by. The trip went without incident (there was a brief bathroom break and perhaps some saki got spilled down the aisle of the bus, but whose gonna tell? ).
After checking into our hotel, we went over to the dealership of Chie’s family, called Paddock. There, tables were laid out in the show room with sushi, tempura, salads and other fried delights. There were many locals there helping with the food. There was a host on a microphone leading the program. The mayor arrived and did his rounds, handing out his business cards. There was bowing and clapping. Some of the group was picked to start the ceremony by hitting the edge of a large tub of Saki with wooden mallets – a ceremony for good luck. Then, everyone filled their glasses and traditional wooden boxes (which were used as glasses) and, as the Mayor completed his welcome speech through a translator, we all raised our cups for a “Kampai” or cheers. The the feast was off and running. The mayor continued his rounds. There was a soba expert making noodles, and a “katsu” or deep fry expert making delicious things off to the side. We all grabbed plates and went around drinking, eating and talking.
The formality of the Japanese and their open-armed way of hosting is something of a marvel. As a guest, you can only feel wanted and touched by this style of treatment. Tsuyama was not a big city and it was not a tourist city. It was a simple farming and manufacturing town, with a history of over 1,300 years. To them, a group of 19 foreigner from all over the world to come to their town was a sign of prestige. It was moment of pride. It was almost their “duty” to welcome such a contingent of travelers and in true Japanese fashion, the red carpet was flamboyantly rolled out.
By the time yawns started up and the crowd dwindled, there was a general feel of true appreciation for the efforts on the part of the locals to welcome our group. I gathered Chie’s Mom and Dad and the riders gave them a standing ovation.
It was one of the treasured nights that would stay with all of us for the rest of our lives. This was the first time we had done such a welcome dinner for our group, and I dare say no one would soon forget it!
Monday, March 28th
There was a new hotel in Tsuyama, closer to the dealership. It was brand new and set up like a motel. I am always anxious to see how new hotels go, as it can be hit or miss. It was pretty basic, but clean, and everyone seemed to like it. There was not enough room for me to stay there, so I got a room at the same MinShuku, or Japanese Travel Lodge, as Mr Hirata and Mr Aoyama. Mr Hirata, or “Masa” would be the guide on the trip. He and I had been running this trip for about 10 year now. He was part of the BMW Flat Twin Club – a club consisting of 70 some odd members living throughout southern Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku. The club had been organizing group rides with me for almost 15 years now. Mr Aoyama (which meant “Blue Mountain” ) was also a club member and together with the same band of members, had traveled with me in Alaska (4 times) Patagonia, and Peru. Mr Aoyama was a quiet sort, always present but not a peep erupted from his mouth. He simply enjoyed shadowing our groups for the first day, since he lived in the area and was good friends with Mr Hirata. He showed up with a 1958 500cc BMW in pristine condition.
I arrived at the lodge after the welcome dinner, and there they were in the lounge, watching sumo wrestling on the television. They asked me if I wanted to take a bath, and I declined. Not deterred, they asked again, and so I caved, partly because I knew they would not give up asking and that I did need to clean up at some point. I was so tired, I was ready to just fall off to sleep.
The rooms at these traditional inns were usually small, and featured a tatame floor and no bathroom or shower. Common bathrooms were down the hall and the bath was a tub that everyone at the inn used. This was very typical in Japan: the entire clientele at a travel lodge would utilize the same hot water in a bathtub before draining the plug. The protocol was to rinse (some locals opted to shampoo and soap and then rinse) yourself with water while sitting on a low plastic seat using a movable shower head. Then, you took away the cover of the bath, and dropped into the hot water and soaked until you were satisfied. No soap or shampoo was to be used in the tub. Afterwords, you replaced the cover, and then sat on the stool and lathered up with shampoo and body soap and then rinsed yourself with the shower head one last time.
I retired to my room and laid out on the thin futon on the floor, nuzzling my head against a small pillow full of dry beans. The sound of a pile of dry beans, underneath one’s head sounded closer than it really was. It was not comfortable, but, when in Rome…
The next day I heard a voice at the door, “Phirippu!” and it was earlier than I expected. The Japanese are extra good at running on time. The van was parked outside. Chie had dropped it off some time in the night, and I was to shuttle our riders over to the dealership to receive their bikes. Hirata had come by motorcycle, so he inputted the telephone number into the GPS and it led me to the new hotel, with polite albeit curt reminders in Japanese on when and where to turn.
Everyone was excited at the hotel. This would be our first day of riding, and you could feel the energy! We arrived at the dealership in two van loads. They spilled out, lined up to do bike paperwork, sorted their luggage (one pile to stay, one to go), went over their bikes, put on their gear, and performed a test ride. This procession took almost two hours. I was running around, setting up my bike with GPS, Tank Bag, Dry Bag, dividing up goodies for each rider (which had been sent in a box with me), and answering questions. This year, we would be giving out a MotoQuest logoed helmet carrier, hat, buff and pen. Of course, there would get stickers. Through it all, questions were coming from all sides. It was a crazy time, since I was trying to concentrate on not only getting myself together, but helping everyone else too. Fortunately, Chie and Masa and the entire crew from Paddock were there to help! One bike did not start, so they had to take it away and replace it with another one, meaning they needed to transfer the ECT Card Reader – the Toll road automatic system – to the new bike. This took time.
Finally, after so much preparation, we were all there, ready on our bikes and giving the thumbs up to Masa. He would take lead and I would sweep. Chie would be driving the van behind it all. We would be riding 1,600 kilometers together, all 14 motorcycles, for the next 8 days, through the southern three islands of Japan.
We would need to keep together, so we would be practicing the “Buddy System”. The group would always be cut into segments by traffic lights and other delays. We would, at times, be out of sight from each other, so the way the buddy system worked was that the default was always straight. When there was a turn, and if you could not see the rider behind you, you would wait at the corner until they arrived, get a head nod or some kind of recognition, then go on your way. The rider that just made the turn would do the same courtesy for the next rider and so on, until the sweep rider came along. It was a chain, and very often it could get broken, and that was when the adventure started. I called it the fallible infallible. Usually it worked and it was a symphony when it did. But, when it did not work, it could take all day to collect everyone and get them back on the right track. As incentive, whoever broke the buddy system would have to buy a round of drinks for those who had been lost.
Off into the countryside we went – and the scenery splashed up from all sides almost at once. Terraced farm plots, Japanese roof lines, manicured gardens, farmers with straw conical hats working their fields – all rushed by. Each narrow valley was cultivated wherever possible. As soon as the steep slopes of the hills or mountains started, an impenetrable wall of Bamboo, fir trees and deciduous trees took over. It was a clash between nature and man kind and the statement was poignant: there was a clear limit to each. Electric lines were visible in almost all scenes.
Traffic melted away until it was just our group of motorcycles climbing through the forest, on our way to Daizen National Park. Snow started to appear along the roads and the temperature dropped. Mt. Daizen was a promonate volcano on the north coast of Honshu and overlooked the Sea of Japan. This part of Honshu was regarded as the remote part of the island – isolated and unpopulated. As we pulled into our lunch spot, Daizen was out, front and center, its sharp, snow-covered ridges daring any climber. We were in cow country and you could smell them but not see them.
The weather was clear, with a temperature around 60 degrees. At lunch, we enjoyed dried ginger, dipped in sugar, tempura udon, chicken cutlet curry and vegetable soba. Japanese tea was served and we all enjoyed the time, learning the food and each other.
The rest of the day was spent running along the coast of the Sea of Japan. We traversed a large city by taking the toll motorway, then stop/go traffic in one last town before we broke away from large populations completely and at last, we were clipping along the coast. As you looked down the coastline, you could see little islands dotting the horizon. Japan’s landscape is rugged, with most places featuring steep slopes that drop right to the sea. The roads are engineered to take the brunt of the sea, and often times waves can be seen crashing against the concrete walls, challenging the road and sometimes sending sea mist across the road. The engineering of the road was audacious. It told the story of how man was going to take on nature. Can it?
As the sun was setting we pulled into our destination, the hot springs retreat of Arifuku. Thermal hot springs came to the surface here and it had been a destination for 1,300 years. When there was a source of natural hot water in Japan, the routine was for many hotels, big and small, to tap into the source, and feature an “onsen”, or spa, in their hotel to attract travelers. Arifuku was old school, with an eclectic collection of Japanese-style inns, one on top of each other, crowded in this narrow, steep draw. Our hotel this night was perched above most of the buildings, up against a hill side. You had to climb a series of stairs just to get there. No elevators and no shoes allowed.
There was a battalion of slipper rules: wooden slippers outside only, shoes off before entering the inn, bathroom slippers only in the bathroom, socks ok throughout the inn. Bathroom slippers were only used for the two steps it took to get from the door to the toilet and back. It was common to forget about taking them off, and that was when the hotel staff chased you down to tell you so. The first hour after we arrived the hotel staff kept sending our group back to the bathroom, to return the brightly colored slippers. The outdoor wooden slippers featured two perpendicular pieces of wood affixed to the platform, one longer than the other, adding a couple inches to your normal height. When you walked, a crisp clunk, clunk, clunk, against the stone walk ways could be heard throughout the draw. Ohio Bill was new to the game and lost it all on the first stairs, barely crashing down. It would take some practice…
The rooms were with tatame floors, with some rooms with en suite bathrooms. Most of the rooms shared a common bathroom. There were no showers in the rooms. Hot springs pools for each gender were in the basement, the scent of sulfur permeated throughout the building. Outside, you could see clouds of steam rising all over the small town.
When you arrived at your room, it was bare, save for a low table, used for socializing. You would sit around it on the floor, legs under the table, on a square flat pillow. Decorations included a rock, etched with kanji on a stand, some flowers, a land line telephone and a television. When you were gone during dinner, the hotel staff slid the table to the side of the room, laid out a futon, and voila! you had your bed. Each room also had a smoking or social sitting room, affixed with two chairs facing each other, divided by a low table. This room was long and narrow and usually had sliding paper doors for privacy and was right in front of the windows of the room. The table usually had an ashtray (most rooms smelled of smoke), a towel dry rack and a refrigerator.
Waiting for you was a folded up Kimono, or Yukata (robe), to be used for going to bath, going to dinner and wandering around town. There were usually two parts to the kimono, the outside gown and the overcoat. The flared sleeves of the overcoat acted as large pockets, perfect for keeping your room key and spare change. It was usual to see Kimonoed Japanese travelers, clogging it down the streets outside the hotel. I told the riders to not pack too much, because ultimately you would be wearing kimonos every night.
Dinner was where this place set itself apart. There was a large dining hall, complete with stage, a vaulted ceiling and tatame floors. Dinner was intricate and was presented with rows of low tables or trays, two rows facing each other. Each tray was an individual dinner, and sported various types of food. You sat on the floor, and tucked your legs underneath the low table. A wooden back rest was anchored underneath a square flat pillow, where you sat.
Your dinner was a set, and what you saw was not all what you got. As you ate your way through each little dish, it was replaced by another exotic delight. The hotel staff buzzed in and out of the room, the kitchen being two full floors below the dining hall. Each meal featured an element of fire. There would be a little sterno burner, over which was a pot or a hot plate or something. It could be a soup, or you would be obliged to cook your own meat. The burners were lit when the entire group sat was assembled, post toast. It was standard that not a morel of food was touched, nor a drop of drink drunk, will the entire group had collected and sat down. As soon as the group was together, there would be a “Kampai!” or cheers, and game on. Usually there was a little aperitif for thekampai, then the sterns would be lit and the feast started.
When you looked over the dinner, it was overwhelming. There was sushi, sashimi, sea weed, egg custard pudding, small fish, tempura fish, tempura vegetables, udon soups, a variety of sauces, rice, pickled vegetables, tofu, and on and on and on. The portions were petite, but the overall size of the meal was staggering. Once one dish was finished, it was replaced by another. The end of the meal was near when you could see some kind of fruit being served. This meal was so over the top, you could hardly believe it was happening! This was not the way Japanese usually ate at home, it was a splurge, a grand luxury.
The baths in the hotel were simple and natural. Each gender had their own room. There was an entrance area, tatame floored, to take off your clothes, use a sink, with a mirror and toothbrushes. There was a place for you to stow your robe and other possessions while you soaked. You would leave your large towel, and all your clothes, and take your small towel into the baths. The Japanese usually used it as a “modesty shield” and hung it casually in front of their goods as they walked around the baths. The small towels were never to enter the baths, so they usually were folded and left sitting on the rim of the baths, or folded up and put on their heads.
To enter the baths, you slid a glass door open and stepped into a tiled, foggy room. In this case, there was one simple bath, about 12 feet by 8 feet and 2 feet deep. A trickle of hot thermal loveliness came in from one corner and poured into the bath. The room was small – enough room for just two shower stalls and the actual bath. Some onsens offered many different tubs, both indoor and outdoor, sometimes with cold tubs, saunas and massage showers. This one was as small as it gets, and at each cleaning stall there was a mirror about two feet off the ground, a plastic stool, plastic seat, moveable shower head, which you could hang hands free high or low. The faucet had the option of faucet or shower head, and had a lever that when pushed, would time out after about 10 seconds. Shampoo, body soap, and conditioner are ubiquitous in these onsens. The baths would be open 24 hours, and exclusive for the hotel guests.
There were two ways to do it: Shower and soap first, rinse and then get in the bath, or rinse and do the soaping post dip. This was our first time at the onsen and soon, the riders would be enquiring about it each evening, they just did not know it yet. It was a soothing way to end the riding day.
Tuesday, March 29th
We met again in the same dining hall for breakfast. This time, the trays were lined up together but pushed together, one facing another. About 12 dishes were there, little samples of the exotic: a pile of little fish, miso soup, rice, a burner which cooked bacon, which you put a raw egg on to cook, a cooked fish, a ball of fish eggs, tea, pickled radish and something green. There was even a little sea urchin. The meals were dominated by protein, with little or no carbs. The only regular carb we could find was rice, and nothing was processed – it was as healthy a meal as you could imagine.
Bikes lines up, warmed up, everyone geared up, even the Mexicans accounted for, the hotel staff came down to bid us farewell. Pablo was taking turns riding with his daughters and his wife. This time it was the little one’s turn, Juliana. She gave a grand smile as they pulled out of the garage, to the waves of the travel lodge staff.
We made our way to the coast by way of small country roads. The cherry blossoms were still not out completely, with some trees only half lit up with bright pink. The weather was clear and the temperature was cool – perfect.
The coast dominated the first part of the day with views of the Sea of Japan, dinky islands, fishing boats, small fishing towns, small farms, tunnels, and slow, slow traffic. The speed limit was advertised as 40 kilometers an hour…that is just 28 miles an hour. Really?!
There were so many intricate coastal scenes, showing the fishing lifestyle. Coastal villages with buildings clinging to the side of the ocean, docks, boats, and fish markets eased by. .I wanted to stop a dozen times to just take it in. Every island within reach had a bridge to it, and I just wanted to explore.
We arrive in the port city of Hagi and went to the Shoin Temple. Yamaguchi prefecture is known for producing more prime ministers of Japan than any other prefecture. The temple was named after an influential Mr. Shoin, who started that particular Shinto Shrine. There are two religions that predominate Japan: Buddhism and Shintoism. Shinto is purely Japanese, and they both live at harmony with each other. Buddhist Temples will be across the street from Shinto Shrines. I found that Japanese in general were spiritual, but not zealous about their religious beliefs. They would not attend religious ceremonies on a regular basis, but would attend a temple or shrine during New Years or some other big date. Religion was not a topic that seemed to come up much, and you got a “live and let live” vibe from the Japanese.
We ate lunch at the shrine’s entrance, and old style restaurant with the menus only in Japanese. Chie and I dotted around, table to table, explaining the menu and getting the orders in.
After lunch, we went to the shrine and Chie showed us how to pray. First, you washed your hands at a stall where there were ladles and a trough of water. First the left hand was cleansed, then the right. The water would fall from your hands to outside the trough.
You then went over to face the shrine, front and center. Its doors were wide open, with a railing, denoting up to which point you were welcome to stand. You looked to the back of the Shrine, to the mirror. Two bows, two claps, one more bow and a silent wish and you were done. You had the option to donate a little coin for the shrine’s maintenance. There were small machines there where you could purchase a piece of paper – much like a fortune in a fortune cookie – and on it, was an action. Some of them were good and some of them were not so good. If they were not good, you had the option to tie it on a series of strings drawn tight, parallel to the ground, in front of the shrine. If it was a good wish, you could opt to keep it.
We left the city and again enjoyed small country roads all the way to our hotel. At one point, the road climbed and we went through a mysterious area full of stone karsts. Trees were non existent for miles, only karsts. This place was called Akioshidai and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The road through that area was lovely, with little or no traffic, great curves and elevation changes. It was our first taste of the great riding that Japan had to offer.
At our hotel, we sat in the lobby, sipping a wildy bitter green tea while I went over the schedule. “Dinner will be on the second floor at 7:30pm, the women’s hot springs will be on the second floor until 9PM and the mens be on the first floor until 9pm at which time the genders of the baths will switch.” Yes, that is right, they change up the genders of the baths and that is when the snickers and jokes started to flow. At this hotel, slippers were not mandatory until you got to your room. Each place had its own idiosyncrasies, and it was always funny when I presented them to the group.
Japan is more modern is some ways than any other country in the world. It is also backwards and behind in other things…and there was no rhyme or reason to it all. The one thing that I tell my groups is to leave the word “why” at home, because there are no explanations. It just is. Sometimes, a crafty soul will try to disguise a “why” with a “how come” or even a “What” but I call them on it. It’s just a whole lot easier to let it go and shake your head…
That night we met in a banquet room and the usual off-the-charts meal was presented. This time we got to cook our own meat, and we had beef udon soup to heat up too. The usual suspects of sashimi, pickled goodies, miso soup and rice were there. Two older Japanese ladies, dressed in traditional Yukatas drifted around, serving us our courses and drinks. After the meal, Hirata did what he does best: started the Karaoke party.
He stood up, waltzed over to the Karaoke machine, and proceeded to pound out a heart-felt “Love Me Tender”. Elvis was in the house. The next thing you know, the latins were in a karaoke frenzy. There was a stage and a “closet” full of costumes and other karaoke accessories ranging from rattles to tambourines to masks. Suddenly one of the servers came out in a white dress and an black-haired wig and this sent a wave of laughter through the group and then it was on! For the rest of the night, songs, recitals, and laughter reigned. Ah, the Karaoke spirit struck again!
Wednesday, March 30th
Good weather was in the forecast, our goal the island of Kyushu. This would be our longest day of riding. We headed directly north to the Sea of Japan. There was a bridge that went to a small island called Tsunoshima. The water was a bright blue and the current ripped under the bridge as we stared down into the clear water. A fishing boat cut through the current. The wind picked up. It was a moment of pause to take it all in.
I like to play a game when I see a scene that does not look like Japan and this was one of them. I tried to guess where in the world this would be, if I did not know I was there. Nothing came to mind. It was beyond compare.
We clipped through the farmlands. Cherry blossoms reached out across the narrow road. Each small valley we entered was stuck in time. No young people were in sight. Bamboo framed in every farm plot. This was the real Japan.
We took an onramp to the toll express way. Each toll station we passed through had gates that obligingly opened for each motorcycle quickly. We picked up speed and then we were on their version of the interstate. Large trucks kept pace with us and smaller cars whizzed pass. Not far down the road we turned off, just after the city of Shimonoseki, the very southern tip of Honshu Island.
Down we went underneath a massive bridge to a highway rest stop area. All the amenities were there, albeit highway fare: hotel, convenience store, trinket shops and restaurants. We opted for a “fast food” ticket restaurant (the other sit-down one was closed.) You had a picture display of the menu, then you found the corresponding Japanese symbols on a ticket dispensing machine, put in your money, pushed the corresponding button and it spit out the ticket. You handed the ticket to an attendant, she gave you half and handed the other half to a busy little kitchen. The place was full, so you had to scrape for a seat. When you number was called out, you came up to get your meal. An all-you-can-drink water machine was next to the kitchen, followed by a place where you bussed your own tray. Each meal was made to order and ready within minutes.
After lunch, the group migrated outside to take in a busy scene. We were underneath a massive suspension bridge, connecting the two main islands of Kyushu and Honshu. It was no more than a kilometer long, spanning a narrows that features a severe current. Ocean going ships threaded the needle both ways. The bridge, the traffic noise, the industrial jumble lining the other shore, the ocean current and the ships all made for a terrifically mesmerizing scene. We ate ice cream and leisurely took it all in.
After lunch, we crossed the bridge and were officially on our second Japanese island – Kyushu. We held to the toll road for quite a distance before exiting. We traversed several large towns and many traffic lights.
At our next rest stop, Pablo notices his Triumph was not running right. We tried several tactics to find out what it was, and figured something was plugging the jet. The carburetor would have to be taken apart, but we would need to finish out the day before we could fix it. I traded motorcycles with Pablo, and finished out the day on a bike that kept cutting out.
We entered the mountains and went to “the road of a 100 curves”. We climbed through the forest. Each curve had a number, so we knew exactly how many curves we were taking. After about 40 minutes we came to the top of a mountain and arrived at a Shinto Shrine named Takatsuri.
The shrine had been around for 1,300 years. Enormous cedar trees, dating to 900 years old, dotted the campus. We climbed a long stone staircase, taking in the intricate stone statues, little shrines, monstrous trees and peaceful ambiance. It was completely quiet except of the sound of water – a small trickle could be heard softly, resoundingly, thoughout the area. The original shrine was built right out of a rock wall. The attendant showed us around back where the original structure was, and showed us the “face” in the rock high above. Looking up through the tall cedars, taking in a large breath of fresh mountain air..you could only pause and admire the feeling of this place. Tall rock spires could be seen, ducking in and out of passing clouds far above.
After the Shrine, we split in two groups to ride the road down the other side of the mountains. This was a brilliant plan, so that every rider could ride their own pace. It all went so smoothly until the second group took the wrong turn and it took me a full hour to find everyone. I was a little stressed, trying to figure out where everyone had gone, but in the end, there was no better place to get lost than in Japan countryside. There they were, far down the wrong valley, making friends with a road construction worker.
We all arrived, just at dark, at our hotel in the city of Hita. Entering a Japanese city at night, with all the bright lights, neon signs was disorienting, but the buddy system did not break down.
We checked into the hotel, and all the riders immediately went to the hot springs. This time, the hot springs were on the top floor of the hotel, overlooking a canal and mountains. It was a little strange, being naked, showing your wares to those below, but what the heck, its Japan.
Dinner that night was another outrageous affair. Some of the ladies were sequestered by hotel staff and showed up donning traditional Yukatas. They were stunning. We took pictures of all the women, and, in turn, the women made the men line up for a shutter memory. Laughter, oh, the laughter.
Thursday March 31st.
We rode out of the hotel parking while the hotel staff waved flags, held a banner saying “Thank You” in Japanese and waved goodbye. Kiki, ever the witty spaniard, pointed at them and asked what they were demonstrating against.
We went only a few blocks through Hita before we stopped at Mr. Nakano’s BMW restoration shop. Nakano was one of the Flat Twin Club members and he restored vintage BMW motorcycles for a living. He had been on several of my rides and over the years, I had been bringing groups by his boutique shop for casual visits. His wife, son and several friends were there to meet the group. Coffee and tea were handed out. We all ping-ponged around the entrance and back shop, staring at his collection of motorcycles and side cars. His shop was immaculately clean. The bikes he had on display were in excellent condition. Nakano looked impeccable, with a blue one piece jump suit. After about 30 minutes of visiting, we all gathered for a photo, got on our bikes and bid farewell. I had traveled all over the world with him and he was one of those travel companions that was always up for an adventure, willing to help out. No matter what happened on the road, he had a sparkling smile on his face. To see him for so briefly just one time a year was bitter-sweet, but in life, even if you have a second to spend with someone, you should savor it. At least you have that.
We rode into the countryside. Japan’s extremely rugged landscape engulfed us, and the route we were taking us offered no view without steep hills or mountains. Again, we found ourselves surrounded by narrow valleys, small farm plots, modest farm houses with ornate rooflines. Cherry trees blossomed both by design and by nature. We would go along rows of them along a road, but you could always see them in full bloom dotting the forest carpet above us. There would be a wide patch of various greens from fir trees and bamboo, and amongst them a bright pink cherry tree, singing its colors out loud.
We arrived at the Iwashita Collection in the town of Yufuin. Rain had started, and we were all in our rain gear as we dripped our way into the lobby. Mr Iwashita was like Charlie in Charlie’s Angels. You never really saw him, but he was always aware of our arrival. He would always call in to make sure his staff served us complimentary coffee as a welcome. I am not sure what he did or does for a living, but is collection is nothing short of eclectic genius. Stain glass windows from Europe, Chandelier collection, figurine collection, old movie poster collection..as you walk through the group floor, you are overwhelmed by the widest variety of old, interesting stuff that you can possibly imagine. Old movie theatre projector, check. Saber Jet Plane fuselage, check. Marilyne Monroe statue, check. After the first floor, we went upstairs where there is a collection of 150 motorcycles and other rare motorized hybrids reside. Everything from an old AMF Police Harley Side Car to the original honda series of motorcycles to anything with two wheels, an engine and a history. It was simply amazing, and the group strolled through the place, jaw dropped for over an hour. Then, like clockwork, Mr. Iwashita called in, and asked his staff to take a photo of our group, and made sure we all had some coffee.
From the outside of the building, you would never know what was waiting inside. The building was in the countryside with forest all around. It was one of those road side attractions that was fine not being visited by everyone, but those who did would never forget it.
The rain had pick up and we all put our rain gear on, and headed out into the wet. We were on a road that was marvelous, but the rain made it so that it was a challenge. We endured fog and rain for more than an hour and a half. Along the way a small truck carrying a motorcycle came from the other direction, hit the brakes and the driver got out, right in the middle of the road, waving madly…Mr Iwashita! We had no time to stop, so we would only see him for a second as we sped past, soon lost in the mist and the clouds. His mystery just seemed to build.
We arrive at our hotel just as the last light of the day disappeared. Everyone was soaked, tired and ready for hot springs. This particular hotel had nothing special about it. It was a one of those that hosted large bus groups, usually from Taiwan or Korea. It was located next to farmer fields, at the base of Aso Caldera. Aso was the place where an enormous eruption happened, leaving an obvious hole in the ground so large, that tour books call it the largest caldera in the world. The steep rim of the caldera is miles wide, and completely flat at the bottom, save for a new volcano sprouting up in its center – Mt. Aso.
So much thermal energy here, and the hotel had one special thing going for it. It had the usual hot springs like any other hotel, but off to the side was a separate building that featured private baths for individuals. There was a waiting room by 6 to 7 different rooms that could be used by just one to two people. Each room was vacant unless a light was on. This was a real treat, and not all the hotel guests got the memo, so usually, you could enjoy your own little outdoor hot springs bath to yourself!
That night, we had the usual dinner set up but this time featuring some rare edibles. Tonight on the menu was beef, and horse. Horse was served both cooked and sashimi style.
After dinner, most of the group retired but a few of us went to a karaoke box (room) and sang some songs, laughing and acting foolish for another hour. “Yellow Submarine” and “North to Alaska”, “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas”…we all pitched in, with Pablo and family leading the way. I think it was because of this particular night that for the rest of the week, the entire group would erupt in “Yellow Submarine” singing out loud together, at any time, any where. It’s funny what karaoke will do to a group!
Friday, April 1st
We all expected rain, but it did not arrive. We headed strait across the caldera plain towards Mt Aso, the steaming volcano that is literally growing at the center of it. As we made our way across, I looked out over all the fields and farms and buildings and could only wonder what it would be like to live in a place that you know would explode again. Mt Aso is a National Park and has a very small bubbling caldera at the top of it. In years past, we were able to ride right to the rim of it, and look down. Recently, however, it had been acting up, and access to the rim was no longer possible. The clouds were low, so we were unable to see the mountain from afar. As we climbed up, through the forest and pasture land, there were only brief breaks in the clouds that would allow us to see the steaming mountain. We resigned to have to ride past it, without getting the chance to see it in its entirety. The soupy fog only allowed for us to see the tail lights of the motorcycle ahead of us.
Our route took us due east, towards the coast of Kyushu. The road was a delight for the eyes. The landscape was so rugged, it was a wonder how anyone could maintain a farm there. Deep gorges with rivers far down below criss crossed the land scape. There were no places where the mountains went gradually up, nor any flat areas where farming would be easy. The road was full of curves. When you looked up the side of a mountain slope, bamboo, fir trees, deciduous trees and cherry trees mixed together with colors and textures that reminded me of a Van Gogh painting.
Just before lunch, it happened: one of the riders got pulled over for passing on a yellow line. It was the Mexican, Pablo. Oh, the jokes would come for the rest of the week! The policeman was on a motorcycle and when I came around the corner, Pablo was already off his bike, trying to say he was sorry. We had gone through the trouble to make sure, before the trip, that he had his International Drivers License. Without which, he would not have been able to rent a motorcycle. That was the first thing that the policeman asked for. The policeman let him go with a warning. All Pablo could do was say he was sorry, bow and say “you are cool” – his new phrase – “Kakko ii” meaning literally, “your style is good”. The policeman, the only bike cop we had seen so far, told me to tell the rest of the group to not pass on the yellow lines and that there were many more of his kind on the way to the coast.
Chie had opted to not come to deal with the Police man. It was best done by me, as I was a foreigner, I had more leeway with the law enforcer. I bowed very low, a sign of submission, and agreed to everything he said to me. Pablo resisted the temptation to take a picture with the him, he was so excited to see such a cool dude. Jokingly, and half seriously, I had briefed anyone who would be pulled over by the police to say “Nihongo tabemasen” which meant literally, “I do not eat the language of Japanese. ” These country cops usually had never been in direct contact with foreigners and did not speak English (though English was a six year obligation in school) and usually there was a bit of reluctance to spend any more time than necessary in an awkward situation (with a foreigner). Usually, they would premise with the question whether you spoke Japanese or not, and if you replied in this order, the answer was obvious. I had seen it work before, and so…
The Police man was riding a Honday CB 1300, all decked out white with boxes and sirens and we went over to it to admire it. When we parted, he stalled it, pulling out onto the road and almost layer it down, after which, he restarted it, turned on the siren, and sped away…
During lunch, Masa came over to me to suggest we split into two groups again. This is what I wanted to do, and the night before had been the usual disagreement that we went through every year: I saw a new road from the year before and wanted to take it, but Masa, red-faced, immediately said “No, no, no!” Masa worried about the safety of the group and did not want to lead the group down a road he was not familiar. I, on the other hand, was willing to lead those who were up for the adventure and search out a new route. We usually combatted over this topic this during the night, and found resolution during the day. Chie had seen this debate year in and year out, and usually avoided any of it. I was the gas, he was the brakes. But after the night was over, he had changed his mind, so we made a plan.
I told the group there would be two optional after lunch. Since I had already lost almost the entire group already, they were excited. Half the group opted to follow Masa straight to our cabins, the rest wanted to explore.
I did not know how to get down to it, but I had been seeing a road far below by a river that we would be crossing several times by high bridges. I wanted to see if was possible to ride along the river and find a route from our lunch spot to this road. And so, we found a route that would take us down, down down to the river, and then we doubled back to see if we could connect it to the lunch spot. It turned out to be a marvelous piece of riding. The temperature climbed at least ten degrees as we came to the base of the canyon. The cherry trees were in full bloom. We clipped along a clear river, passing small towns, a dam, a tunnel. The vaulted volcanic rock walls climbed up on all sides, the cherry pedals fluttering across the road, this was one of this fantastic rides that left you smiling. The road was at some points just one lane and without any traffic or buildings, the valley walls came down from the sky far above. It was much more than I hoped for, and I brought the group to a stop, they all raved about this new found route. After finding a steep winding bit that connected us back to the restaurant, we doubled back to ride the road down stream until it connected to the original route, and it turned out to be seamless. We finished the day on a brand new motorway that brought us to the lonely coastal outpost of Kitaura.
Kitaura was a small fishing town and just out in the country was a rest stop on an old sleepy road, which had become even more silent, due to the new motorway that bypassed it. The rest stop featured the usual bathrooms, drink machines, sea food restaurant and shop, but offered something unusual: a municipal campground, complete with fixed tents, public barbecues, bathrooms and rustic cabins. It was surrounded by steep forested hills and pine trees, and there was a sandy trail which led through a Park Golf course amongst the fir trees to a white sandy wine glass-shaped beach. Across the water was an island where a aqua-culture complex was housed, and just north of us was a small boat harbor and many aqua-culture cages, floating off shore. The low drone of diesel engines from the boats working the cages could be heard clearly, far off shore. The lap of the waves against the beach was soothing. The birds in the trees sang their story. Each person or couple had their own cabin to themselves and we had rented every last one of the cabins. There were no neighbors, no other people but our group. Each cabin had a loft complete with tatame floors and futons, a fully equipped kitchen, and ample bathtub, wooden floors and some of them feature large round tables inset in the floor. You literally sunk your feet below floor level and the table height was just a foot above the floor level. When you sat down, the table was chest high.
Our plan of attack tonight would be a barbecue, and everyone would pitch in. Chie set about organizing a shopping party that would go and get all that was needed for the festivities at the nearest shopping center. Each cabin had a picnic table, affixed with a central brick-lined grill and tarp roof. My cabin would be the place of action, so I collected more seats, more knives, more cutting boards, and more pots. We would be able could prepare everything there on site. When Chie and Co. came back, we went to work as a team, cutting vegetables, making little salmon delights wrapped in tin foil, and Richard took it upon himself to make a potato and broccoli and ginger dish. Chie directed as we all cut, drank and sang through the preparations. Masa got busy with the coals, a drink bar was set up and “The Yellow Submarine” was sung a number of times throughout.
After about an hour it had grown dark, the coals and food was ready, and plates were handed out. Now, the cooking would begin and we designated two cookers at each corner of the grill to tend over the food and disperse it out. Richard started out, then handed the tongs over the Chris on one end, Stephanie took over at the other. Beef, Onions, chicken, Salmon tinfoils, all went over the coals. Salad was passed around. Richards spuds and broccoli were dished out. Soon the crew of 19 souls, representing 6 countries and four languages grew silent and the feast was on! The food lasted the better part of two hours. The drinks came on again, and singing would sporadically start and stop throughout. Then, one by one, yawns prevailed and the group dwindled little by little.
I spent the last part of the night, translating the meaning of “Mexican Time” to Masa, as described by Veronica, Pablo and Gabi’s oldest. Masa was perplexed at how the Mexicans seemed to find time irrelevant and asked how her dad, a banker based in Hong Kong, managed to work in a professional world with no respect for time. Veronica said that her dad did respect time, but also chose when and where to exercise his punctuality. That some meetings warranted it, and some did not. She went on to say that in Mexico, one must be flexible, and that since everyone was like that, punctuality was not needed, that indeed everyone was late, and so, one was on time. Masa could only shake his head and say that in Japan, time was money, and that if you did not respect time, you did not respect money, and that Japan in its entirety, would not wait for you. But after some more thought, he wondered if he might move to Mexico, where time was not taken so seriously. He could only shake his head and resign himself to the fact that Japan is too straight, there there was no wiggle room for flexibility.
We all collected in front of Tito and Orna’s cabin until at last we all drifted off to bed. It had been a wonderful night, where everyone pitched in to make a truly international barbecue, one that would not be soon forgotten.
Saturday, April 2nd
Clear skies greeted us and a sunrise over the ocean was delight to see. We collected once again in front of my cabin as breakfast had been laid out by Chie. Hot water, tea, coffee, peanut butter, bagels, two types of bread, pears, bananas, and yogurt were offered. We all sat outside around the picnic table we used the night before. I cleaned up the kitchen and all the dishes and we organized the trash to be taken out to the caretakers office.
All of the riders gathered at the bikes and we went over the route for the day. We would be leaving the island of Kyushu, and take a ferry to the island of Shikoku. On the way to the ferry, we would go to the end of Tsuramisaki Peninsula, Kyushu’s most easterly point. After which, we would be rendezvousing with a ferry to take us to Sadamisaki Peninsula on the island of Shikoku – that island’s most westerly point. We would be staying in Shouno – a little fishing village of just a couple hundred people, far away from any tourist place, right on the ocean.
Skies were clear and the road was breathtaking from the start. At first it climbed into the hills, with sections of cherry trees lining the road, in the middle of no where, for almost a kilometer at a time. It boggled the mind that by design a touch of class would be everywhere, without any sort of pattern. After the hill section, the road hugged the coast and weaved back and forth along the protected coast. Little fishing towns full of small fishing boats dotting the bays flew by. Traffic was sparse and curves were everywhere. It was a delightful ride and sun warmed us as we sped by piles of anchors, fishing traps, coiled ropes, hidden shrines, bobbing boats, and cherry blossom trees in full bloom.
We stopped at a rest area for the group to “give and get” as I call it. Take on water, leave water. Some of the riders drifted over across the street to a building that housed holding tanks and produced ice for the fishermen. One boat was moored there, taking on ice for his coolers. I asked him what he fished for, and he opened up the hull, displaying a bunch of eels, swimming around in the live well.
Back on the road, we came to a T intersection, where the Tsuramisaki Peninsula started and followed a lovely road to the end of it. Images of crashing waves, sea birds, locals fishing with fishing poles, and little old ladies with cute bonnets all blurred past. It seemed any time we would stop, a local would approach us and ask us where we were going and where we were from. One older lady asked me where we were going and I said to Shikoku, do want to join us? She laughed and said she was wished she could, that she was busy today.
At the end of the peninsula, we walked a few hundred meters to a lighthouse which used to be a gun battery. From there, you could see the distant mountains of Shikoku, the broad ocean stretched out to infinity to the south. Large ocean-going freighters were throughout the scene, both near and far. The water far below was crystal clear.
Until the ferry, the coastal road would continue like this, save for some toll road sections, to pass some larger towns. We were already getting later on in the day, and had to push to make the ferry before sun down.
The Kyushu Ferry System runs like a swiss watch and has a fleet of modern boats complete with articulating hulls that can load from the front. The catch is, for whatever reason, each ferry can take a maximum of only 8 motorcycles. There is plenty of room for more, but the “why” question is out of the question. We would be making the trip in two teams, so Masa headed out early after lunch with the first wave.
The second group pulled into the ferry station just as group B was disembarking. They waved to us as they sailed into the distance. We waited for just 30 minutes before riding onto the next ferry. A team of tie downers were there to secure the bikes and we walked up to the outdoor deck to take in the scene. The ferry only took an hour, with some rider napping, some strolling, and some playing board games with locals.
We arrived at the port just as the light was starting to fade. Our last few kilometers were on a a one-laned road which clung to the top of a spine of mountains, the backbone of the thin peninsula. At last, it wound down to our destination town far below. Groves of oranges lined the road, and as we entered the town, you could not see a soul walking the streets near the harbor. A sleepy fishing town to say the least.
I first came across this town as a suggestion from my Flat Twin Club friends. They would converge here for the food, as this particular hotel was renowned at offering a seafood feast second to none. It was fresh seafood that at Tokyo prices would range in the hundreds of dollars. The fish were caught that after noon. There was even an aquarium built into the basement of the building.
This hotel offered hot public baths and common bathrooms. Sinks and mirrors were out in the hallway. The baths were heated water, but not thermal in nature. The water was hot, and located on the 5th and 6th floor and as you shed your clothes, you would be staring down at the town. Again, a moment of modesty, but, what the heck…
The menu was extravagant: Shabu Shabu beef, pork and tuna. Shabu Shabu was a rolling pot of water, whereby you drifted thin slices of the raw meat through the water, swish, swish, swish, until cooked. Then you dipped them in a sauce, then down the hatch, followed by a rice chaser. Fantastic. To add to this, perfectly grilled and seasoned fish, sashimi, a large bowl of crab legs, and a decadent lobster-broth soup. It was way too much food and too excellent tasting to pass up splurging.
Sunday, April 3rd
This would be another very long day, so we assembled early and headed out at 9 in the morning. We asked the hotel proprietor, a comical fishing village sort with flashy white boots and wry smile if we might have some oranges. He produced a full box of them as a gift!
We made our way east to the main part of Shikoku, and then along the north coast, along the Inland Sea. The clarity of the water was hard to get over. We then dove inland, and followed a river to a small town, cherry blossoms and farms as usual. The rest of the day would be dominated by river valley after river valley. The road would punch through mountain after mountain, pass through narrow valleys and back through more mountains. There was no expense spared for the road system here. One of our group counted the number of tunnels throughout this day and it came to 54.
At first, the weather was good and we decided to take a mountain course which would add time and distance to our schedule. But, as we approached the mountain, mist started to turn into rain. We pushed on, winding high into the mountain country. The road was rarely used, as the pine needles covered much of the road way. Up we went through the pine trees, into the clouds. We were soon in the soup, and crawling our way at a slow pace along the one-laned road. We were passing pastures and silos. Cow country had arrived. In the thick of the clouds and mist, we arrived at a destination: a building appeared out of fog, a rather out of the ordinary site. Why was this building here, was the question. We would not be able to see it, but we were at the top of one of the highest points of all of Kyushu at a Mountain Resort of sorts, complete with a full restaurant and broad pictures of what the scenery looked like when it was not pure cloud soup. Unfortunately, we were not destined to be able to see what was possible to see that day, so we resigned to just eat lunch and follow the road down and down, back to the river gorge.
The rest of the day was was filled with different types of rain, stunning clear rivers, cherry trees galore, steep canyon walls and over-the-top concrete road work, clinging to sides of rock walls and hanging out over rivers. We had moments of pure downpour with intermittent mist. We pushed on, and were all drenched when we pulled into our last rest stop. We had to keep going, before the light of the day was vacuumed away. It was a total of 6 hours of wet, and we were all glad to arrive at the hotel, just at the last light faded.
Thermal hot spring never felt so good, and the dinner was actually presented with tables and chairs, to which everyone commented in favor. The group was really gelling at this point.
Here we had, bankers, dog trainers, entrepreneurs, air traffic controllers, lawyers, students, land appraisers, energy merchants, teachers, restauranteurs, and dentists. Their ages ranged from 10 to 70. They came from all over the world, and they did not know each other before they arrived. Now, they were like a family, each of them taking care of the next. Pablo and Gabi’s daughters were a hit – everyone was an aunt of an uncle to them. All of the riders were upbeat and adventurous. It was one of the best groups I had ever been with.
Monday, April 4th
This would be our last day of the ride. We would be leaving the island of Shikoku, and cross over to Honshu once more by way of Seto Bridge: one of the world’s largest suspension bridges. We followed the Oboke Canyon until its end. This was one of Shikoku’s free flowing rivers, with no dams at all. Before long, we were negotiating traffic and on the toll road, headed across the massive bridge. This part of Japan was profound: Industry. Large tankers, small tankers, smoke stacks, trains, highways, and buildings stretching out to the horizon. This was the industrial corridor of Japan. Half way across the bridge there was an island, and we exited there to get lunch. The offramp was a curly cue, spiraling a full 720 degrees down to the island below. When we stopped in the parking lot you could see the impressive bridge in its entirety. It had two layers of transit: The top was used for cars and trucks, and underneath ran two sets of train tracks. This was a fine example of Japan’s ability to build.
Our last ride of the trip was a pleasant river valley Masa had planned. The weather was clear, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom and the country scenery would not let up. We passed through modest farm plots, bordered by clear water streams and thick forests. We stopped briefly at a place where the side of the road was dominated by cherry blossoms in full bloom. It was hard to believe the the ride was already coming to an end. The time had flown by.
Bikes turned in, we had all made the 1,600 kilometer trip without incident. The group had come together so well and that night at the farewell dinner there was a large round of applause for Chie and Masa’s efforts. The group had come together like a family. It was really a unique set of characters.
Tuesday, April 5th
We gathered up and went to the main Okayama train station to catch a high speed train, or “Shinkansen” to Hiroshima. It would travel at up to 144 miles an hour for 40 minutes and deliver us to the place where the first atomic bomb was ever used on a populated city.
Today, we would take a trolly to the center of the city, near where the famed Dome is, that survived the blast, directly under where the bomb was let off, 600 meters above. Because of its design, made of concrete and iron, it was one of the few buildings to remain standing after that blast. The bomb was set off high up for maximum effect.
From the trolly, I took the group away from the Dome and over to a side street where a nondescript plaque told you that you were standing at the hypocenter of the bomb blast. It was at this very spot, 600 meters up, the most lethal weapon known to mankind was unleashed. It was a solemn moment for our group. Here we had enjoyed all the nuances of this exotic culture, its food, traditional baths, and the amazing hospitality of its people. We had ridden through the countryside and been welcomed open armed wherever we arrived. Now, we stood quiet and looked up. The profundity of this location cannot be described. It can only be experienced.
We then walked over to the Dome and I set the group free for a bit so they could walk around it. There were a few locals pitching information regarding the bomb blast along the side walk. The cherry blossoms were in full charge now, so picnics could be seen up and down the main river walk. It was hard to imagine the destruction that had happened here, when you surveyed this scene.
We then walked to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and I bought everyone an entrance ticket. We met up about an hour later, the mood was somber. And, as we walked to our lunch spot, we filtered through hundreds of locals, enjoying picnics as the Hanami celebration was in full swing. Cherry blossoms fluttered throughout the scene. Such a juxtaposition, having just seen the museum and the tragedy that had happened, to walking through what could be construed as the most peaceful environment on earth. It was difficult to imagine how a society could pick itself up from such destruction.
We walked into a pedestrian mall and into a side elevator and ended up in a hole in the wall Okonomiyaki restaurant. Okonomiyaki is basically a squid pancake. It is much more, with soba, shrimp, egg…and served with two styles of sauces on a hot plate at your own table.
After, the group disbanded to to some shopping, and then it was to the train and back to Okayama. The day was heavy, but I feel that it is everyone’s duty to go there, to see what humankind can do to each other, and also what we can do to bounce back. It is both a sad and celebratory day.
Most of the group went off to bed but some of them lingered and joined me to go to a “Kuru Kuru Sushi” place. Rotating sushi washed down with draft beer was a nice end to a very busy and emotional day.
Wednesday, April 6th
The group would be off to the four winds today. I spent the day ferrying people to the airport. It was a day of hugs, goodbyes and promises to get together again. New friends and lasting memories were made on the adventure. Some of the group would continue their adventures in Japan, while some would fly directly home. Japan is a unique country in so many ways. We had spent a full week riding and almost never met foreign travelers. We had stayed in some very authentic places, off the tourist track. This is a world-class experience. If ever you want to see the real Japan, please let me know.
Check out information on: Japan Three Island Tour