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Over the last five years there has been a select few friends that have made an annual event of motor biking around what we based in Hong Kong perhaps should call the near east, in search of the ‘perfect road’.
The number of attendees at each successive road trip seems to be dwindling with each new child born and each promotion gained.
This year just two committed to the pilgrimage, but the destination decision process was no less hard fought than those that went before. If not harder as each proposal was met with a binary outcome. So after months of passionate deliberation, even more passionate argument and some rather stoic drinking we agreed on Japan. Sadly our friends and other half’s did not share the same view. 'I've never heard of anyone going to Japan on a biking holiday' ‘What about the radioactivity?’ ‘You cant speak Japanese’ ‘You wont get hot showers – they have electricity rationing’ ‘What about the earthquakes?’ 'Where is your health/life insurance?'
Gladly we motor bikers can, like blondes hide behind common preconceptions and ignore ‘sensible advice’, instead counsel is taken from a blogger by the name of Iron Chef who seems to be overwhelmed with exuberance about Japan road infrastructure.
We take an afternoon flight from Hong Kong and land at the relatively new Cathay destination of Tokyo’s city airport Haneda. 1200 yen later and three subway lines negotiated with a little help from the friendly locals and we arrived in Akasaka.
We booked into the reasonable Chisun Grand Hotel hotel at Yen 11,000 a night. Its pretty hot 30c by day and 26c at night, so its time to see if it was correct to disbelieve the naysayers, yes Tokyo has hot showers, and yes it has air-conditioning. A meal of Japanese BBQ’d tender meats a few Asahi s to the good (Yen 3,500 each) we returned to the Hotel at a reasonable hour excited to greet the new day refreshed.
Eager to get on the road, the 3 minute walk to Japanbikerentals.com was competed in under two, the company, situated down a quiet road, is owned and run by an American and an Australian. These super efficient guys had us briefed and set up within the hour. The bikes were very well maintained and of decent spec. Your writer taking the f800 BMW and the larger animal that is Damien the cb 1300 Honda.
Using the much needed GPS we head south west out of Tokyo towards Japans iconic Mount Fuji. What lies ahead? Well we did not really know, few friends had visited rural Japan (even those that had or still do live there) and despite knowing many bikers we have never met anyone that has ridden here, can it really be as good as Iron Chief says? This felt like unchartered waters – just how we felt in Taiwan, Korea, Cambodia on other trips and just how we like it.
A few hours later and a few thousand toll road yen lighter we pull off the motorway and can see the mountains ahead of us.
The Izu Skyline, the Hakone Skyline the Venus Skyline how can these roads live up to names like that, especially when you are used to riding on the UK’s M25!
We slip through a few towns and head into the foothills of Mount Fuji.
The weather is hot and dry, few clouds overhead, the roads are excellently maintained, there seems to be a lack of police, lack of visible speed cameras, is there something we are missing? Yes no bikes. That’s not a good sign. Where there are good roads and perfect conditions there are always bikes.
We pay another toll (Yen 650), the attendant gives us two thumbs up, he looks excited, I think he knows something we don’t, a Ferrari drives past us and opens up 12 screaming cylinders I am sure much to the annoyance of the players teeing off at the picturesque Belle View Nagao Golf Club by the side of the road. We pull away the attendant still smiling. A few kilometres later our hearts were racing almost as fast as the revs on our bikes. Was that road a dream? A lovely mountain climb, twisting roads, hairpins, lush vegetation, Mount Fuji in the distance, amazing. At the next toll road there are many bikes coming the other way. That felt like our own private road (to be honest race track)– this is what the Nurenberg ring must feel like. Should we head back and ride the road again.. no.. what lies ahead.
We ride along mountain ridges, up into elevated passes, down into valleys, along lakes, across high bridged, by the side of damns and through forests that I thought existed only in Alaska. We stop only for fuel and for one of the four meals a day we agree we must eat – not because of energy depletion but because we love Japanese food.
The bright sunshine diminishes into a beautiful dusk we look for a hotel. Lake Kamaguchi-jo at 1000 meters above sea level has majestic views of Mount Fuji, along its edge scores of Japanese Mount Fuji admirers recline into their seats in the specially built panoramic viewing lounges that many hotels here sport.
We book into the aptly named Fuji Lake hotel (cheaper at Yen 6,500 as it sits with its back to the mountain). After a lovely hot shower we ask (well miming and smiling might be closer to the truth) where we should eat, we hear the words Yakatori and within minutes are sat on the tatami mat floor of a restaurant. Its only 6.30pm but we owe it to ourselves, we had conquered the Hakone/Ashinoko skylines afterall. The food was wonderful, stuffed peppers, chicken, asparagus, bacon and the Mount Fuji sake even better. At 8pm its looking like the town has gone to bed, another stranger highlights location of a bar and within minutes new friends are found, s downed and stories mimed and our fourth meal of the day consumed. The ever present Mount Fuji in the background, one of its arteries alight with the glow of hikers head torches hoping to summit before daybreak. We retire to bed at 1am.
How can this new day be better than the day before? With the destination roughly agreed we head north along the Venus Line (how can you not want to ride the Venus Line). Ahead lies more mountains, more back roads, more food, more adventure. The GPS ignored, the smaller roads embraced, a few dead ends but its worth it for the glimpses afforded of rural Japan, kids flying kites, a landing zone for paragluiders, rice fields, super dense forests, cottage industries and yet more amazing food cooked with the use of fresh mountain water (not sure if I believed that one Damien), this area is known for its Soba noodles and we can see why.
Here in rural Japan there are few cars on the road and even fewer people walking around the small towns we passed through (perhaps it was too hot – perhaps it is the radioactivity?)
We ride on roads that seem to be built for bikers over high mountain passes, through glorious micro climates, across bridges, by damns, through tunnels, into ski resorts resplendent in the summer sun, stopping at roadside cafes to indulge in so soba noodles, some tonkatsu, we were in heaven. We are riding through Negano the site of the 1998 Winter Olymipcs, – no sign of any damage here despite it being hit by a 6.6 magnitude earthquake the day after the devastating Tsunami hit Japan’s East coast.
Next stop Matsumoto home to of one of the three best Japanese castles – so the guide books tell us. Home of not enough hotels I say, especially during a rare Japanese holiday weekend. Thankfully the GPS had the locations of all known hotels, Out of town Hotel Koranso chose us not because of its review but because it must have been the 40th hotel we tried, and the only one with a room, our luck was in. An ever so helpful English speaking lady and her two daughters run this Onsen. She was quite chatty and made us feel very at home, the large rooms had Tatami mats but were made more comfortable by the addition of a mattress. We hit the lively town (taxi Y2,000 into the centre) we have two dinners (how good is this food) and drink a few s.. what a great day. We awake to a breakfast was a feast of fish, miso, vegetables, tea, and unidentified things, its delicious, the cost? bed and breakfast at 6,500 Yen each, a bargain. We hit the road sad to be leaving such hospitality but excited yet again about the roads that lay ahead.
Matsumoto is surrounded by mountains, it would be terrible not to explore the ranges that filled the horizon. Yet again can today’s roads be any better than the day before and the day before that? We were not let down. There are not enough superlitives, somewhere out there the business man that supplies the roadsigns that warn of hairpins or sharp bends is sunning himself on his 100m yacht.
After many miles of wondrous roads the last overnight stop of this adventure comes into view Kusatsu. A diversion steers the bikes away from the centre of town. Many stalls set up in the square gives us a hint of what is to follow. A hasty hot shower is followed by a third meal of the day, a do it yourself Japanese BBQ, the tongue rubbery, the cartilage uninspiring a fourth meal on our minds before the end of the third (this turns out to be the only unsatisfying meal of the adventure) but wait… lots of enthusiastic chanting, men wearing t-shirts that fail to cover their Speedoes, lots of bandannas, lots of swilling and deities mounted on poles atop the shoulders of perhaps 40 devotees. There were 10 or so of these juggernaughts being paraded around this small town square with its natural hot spring in its centre which for the only time of the year its being ignored. The revelry continues late into the night. We are urged to join in, thousands pack the square young, old, sober, drunk, happy and happier, the night fades to a less than sober black.
Tokyo bound the next day, but still enough time to take in a few more twisting back roads, to follow the locals showing us the racing lines, to round elevated lakes, to negotiate steep mountain passes accessible only by ladders of hairpins, to wave at the locals who are enjoying forest-shaded log cabin retreats.
Sadly the GPS performs the task of guiding the bikes back to base. It takes just an hour or two to get from this biking wonderland to the outskirts of Tokyo. The great guys from Japanbikerentals.com are gracious enough to listen to our 4 day 1000 miles worth of stories
The only accident – a bruised shoulder suffered by your author when helping to carry one of the deities.
Radioactivity – we don’t think so
Inability to speak Japanese – well we managed to navigate, eat, fill up with petrol, secure hotels, find drinking partners, find amazing roads.. I’d say not an issue
Electricity cuts – err NO
Hot showers – YES (and natural hot Onsen)
Very welcoming friendly locals - YES
The best roads in the world ? QUITE POSSIBLY
Iron Chef – I think you undersold it.
Japanbikerentals.com - see you next year
|izu, japan, matsumoto, nagano, tokyo.|
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