明けましておめでとうございます 2016!

A slightly belated greeting into 2016, which we’ll be calling Heisei 28. It’s all about the reign of the Emperors, and is designed to confuse me when I come to sort my taxes out next month.

We did the midnight tick-over at home with the family, but for Hatsuhinode – the first sunrise of the year – I was out on the motorbike to meet up with some friends.  Since I was riding into the sunrise, I thought I’d get the old GoPro Hero 2 out and do a timelapse:

We met up at a Konbini, and I was able to get my traditional biking breakfast of onigiri, but this one was unfortunately common – grilled salmon (焼き鮭) but still did the trick.

Shake Onigiri
Shake Onigiri

Then it was time to ride back up the 134 through lighter traffic, to meet up with a few more people at the Seisho SA, which boasts a great view of the bay, clean toilets and allows you to enjoy the quality musical coffee machines. I never get bored of this Pacific Ocean road on the bike, and just have to remember to take my turn inland – it’s easy to just keep following this road down the Izu pensinsula.

From there, it was on up to the Mazda Skylounge to take in the view along the Mazda turnpike (now 520yen one way).

At the Skylounge you can guarantee a good selection of people on any given day, and here on New Year’s Day I was impressed to see a steady stream of older people – alone and in groups – come up in taxis, take in the view and perhaps have a drink, then get back in the taxis to wherever they’d come from. For myself I had a cup of tea and decided to try the chili cheese hot dog. In no way traditional, or even advisable, but it did taste pretty good. No photo sadly.

Finally, thanks to Frank for getting a line-up shot and for putting the day together:

New Year 2016
New Year 2016

Here’s to hoping 2016 continues as well as it started, and all the best to everyone.

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Review: Why We Ride

I heard about ‘Why We Ride‘ in the middle of 2013; it’s ostensibly a documentary of sorts about why people ride and love to ride motorbikes. I love riding my motorbike, if that’s any kind of caveat, but that’s not actually why I bought the film, or what this review is about. Also, I’m reviewing the 2,000yen iTunes HD movie, not the BluRay/DVDs version.

To cover the structure, it’s beautifully shot, the camera work and direction are top notch, the soundtrack is fantastic, and as it lacks a central  narrator, the narrative is done via the people being interviewed. One trick the director uses is to not introduce the people speaking, until a sequence which closes the movie. I think this is so as to not distract you and focus on what they say, but I found it a bit confusing in places, because I like to know who is talking, and the end roll, whilst a good idea, comes off as a little bit clumsy in places by comparison.

As you can see from the trailer, it looks beautiful, and whilst much of the road footage looks good, the staged ‘bikers helping each other’ section looks a bit overly staged, and wasn’t really needed. That said, there are some wonderful pieces from the Bonneville salt flats, which reminded me that anyone can go out there and try their bike out, and the place looks truly extraordinary. There is also some time spent looking at training classes, and other skills based exercises, which fit with the theme the film has that motorbiking isn’t the outlaw groups some imagine, and it hits on the old Honda ‘you meet the nicest people on a Honda’ campaign, to show that to an extent motorbiking has grown up, though it goes without saying that it still has a sharper edge.

The film follows some of the history of American biking icons, like Daytona, some of the dirt tracks, some famous figures, and biker culture over the years, including events like the Sturgiss Rally.  One issue then for non-Americans then is that it can seem a bit disconnected. As a non-American myself, I understand the allure of biking to be universal, and some of the background on Daytona to be interesting and informative, but as I don’t follow American motorsports, I didn’t know who some people were, or their larger relevance. It’s not a criticism, just an observation. It’s also odd that they discuss European biking and MotoGP, but don’t seem to interview or go into that at all.

One person I did recognise, and I think the one who came over very well, is Ted Simon, of Jupitalia fame. I’ve read his books, and he’s a fascinating man, whose dual round the world trips inspired the Long Way Round & Down series. As ever his insight was concise and based on personal experience of going around the planet on a bike. I’m biased though; everything he says I find to be interesting.

Even if I didn’t know some of the people, or the relevance of their achievements, the key is really the points they make, there’s a focus on those women who ride, both now, and those who have ridden their whole lives, and how it’s not just about riding pillion, but being the rider. There’s a lot from kids and how they’re safely and constructively introduced to motorbikes, and thus the family and community built around it. It’s endearing to be sure, and so it’s not so much a documentary as a rallying call for those who already ride, and something of an advert perhaps to those who don’t, mainly though it’s about the people – some are champions, some of just people who like to get out on the open road.

One interesting aspect not discussed, but just something I noticed in the shots themselves are the split in those wearing helmets, and those who aren’t. It’s an issue to some, not to others, but in a documentary trying to show how safe and responsible it’s participants are, it’s interesting to see no discussion on this, and plenty of comments about feeling wind in your hair.

For what it’s worth, I’ve always worn a full face helmet on scooters/motorbikes, though I don’t mind what other people choose to wear – its a personal choice, sometimes with personal consequences either way. I remember riding 50cc Zoomers around packed Tokyo streets at night, and how bad the taxi drivers were and how close those trucks got, so any additional protection was a good idea for me. I know in America helmet laws vary by state, but in many European countries (and here in Japan) they’re mandatory.

So who is this targeted at? People who currently have a motorbike for sure, it may also coax some people back, and perhaps get some new converts, or re-assure people they can still ride. Truthfully, I think you could expand that to people who like to see some great cinematography, and listen to people who truly love doing something. In that aspect, it reminds me of the snowboard film “Art of Flight“.

It’s nice it covers so many branches of the biking community – it’s not all speed freaks, or custom bikes, or off-road, it’s a collection of different riders, and so does live up to it’s title, why we ride.

Tokyo Toy Run 2009

So what was the Tokyo Toy Run? Basically, it’s an event whereby a lot of bikers got together, brought toys and such and did a convoy down to a worthy cause. For this inaugural run, it was to the Elizabeth Sanders childrens home in Oiso, Kanagawa Prefecture. This, as far as we could tell, was the first biker toy run in Japan. I don’t know why, but I find that in itself somewhat incredible.

The event was pretty much suggested, organised and run from the forum around which the Gaijin Riders gather – gaijinriders.com. The original post went up on September 9th but for some reason I didn’t really get it into my head until late November. By that time the core team had put together a rough plan, decided on the beneficiary, and were hashing out routes and other guidelines. You can see in the thread, now spread across a lot of pages, and see how this evolved, and the sheer enthusiasm behind it.

Eventually, things were hashed out in the forum, and then put onto a wiki entry which became the go to place for decided items.

The Day

I got up far too early and went down to NAPS Yokohama on route one to meet a chap from the forums called Manuel, sporting a nice Honda CB 1300 with things like Garmin GPS and ETC units – things my bike only dreams of. Introductions done, and a swift coffee drunk, we headed into Tokyo on a combination of toll and local roads, making good time to Tokyo tower with Manuel regularly having to slow up for me – I don’t ride very fast.

We arrived at Tokyo tower at about 7.20am having seen some other people going our way en route;  there were already about 20 bikes there and once we all parked up, everyone was chatting like we’d known each other for years, that initial exchange with the new people such of myself between forum pseudonyms/avatars , and people’s real names and faces and bikes.

Despite the hour, there were a lot of people rolling up – more than I somehow expected. One number I heard then was just over 60 and I could believe it. The feeling was very, very upbeat, and the bikes seemed to be getting more tinsel and attention by the minute. The only thing moving quicker was the volume of toys being packed into the back of the Hilux which was to act as the support vehicle, but without which would have left a lot of toys seeking transportation.

The core team then went through the few rules for the run, explained the route, the requirements for two-ups to go by a slightly different route whilst in central Tokyo and the basic logistics, along with a brief handout. Oh yes, and getting through the toll gates. There were only a couple, but as one of the ETC-less I was wondering how that would work, so I just asked around for other non ETC people, and quickly four of us decided we’d group, and one would pay for four, and we’d at least be able to hurry ourselves through, and it seemed like a few other ad hoc groups were forming around this idea, and then we were away.

This is really the first time I’ve ever been in a group of more than five, and it was quite a rush to be honest, roughly two columns of staggered bikes in Azabu, patiently waiting to get through the first pay toll gate.  Again, plenty of passers-by staring, some taking photos with their keitais, some whilst walking their dogs, a few even asking what the event was.  Up to the expressway it was fun seeing all these bikes who had patiently and considerately waited for us all to get through, and then us all take off down the road, trying not to block up too much of the lanes, and let cars through. The turn offs were well marked by the coordinators, and then we were off down and over the Rainbow Bridge – another first for me.

Again, it’s a great feeling, being in convoy, the morning sun coming down, going over the bridge. Excellent. I was expecting some wind buffetting on the bridge itself, but it wasn’t bad at all, though coming down the slip road on the other side was like hitting a wall of wind and for a few seconds it got a bit wobbly, then thankfully subsided. Then it was more great road, tunnels under airport runways at Haneda and over more bridges to the quite bizarre Daikoku Futou services. This is essentially several stacked rings of tarmac, with a car park and services in the middle. And a welcome respite, toilet break and time for a cup of coffee.  It was another chance to talk to more of the other bikers, talk bikes and exchange routes.

As we prepared to roll out, I was towards the rear of the column and so it was readily apparent just how many bikes there were, and how many bikers, and, especially with that Hilux, how many toys we were bringing. All the bikes seemed to have toys in boxes, strapped to pillion space, in panniers, just all over them. Riders in Santa outfits, elf hats, metres of tinsel and various other decorations. I actually wish I’d done more to my bike than the tinsel on the handlebars and around the rear seat bag. Now that the morning traffic was truly in flow, we must have made quite a bizarre sight.

One thing I’ve come to learn about a lot of bikers, is that a decent percentage of them are great photographers. The sheer number of dSLRs coming out for action shots and people getting sensible stationary positions for drive-by shots was impressive, and I’m sure there’s going to be an impressive collection going on line in the next couple of weeks. Next stop, NAPS Sachiura.

I’d not been to NAPS at Sachiura, or Sachiura itself before, so I wasn’t quite ready for that grid of traffic lights so common on industrial estates the world over – especially here in Japan. After a bit of an odd route to the shop itself, we promptly filled their ‘car’ park, though I think we hit before it was due to open, so hopefully we didn’t lose them any business.  This was a fun stop: more toys, a lot of photo shots which turned into pretty cool group pile-on photos, playing with balance bikes, drinking of coffee and more merriment. This was essentially the last group stop before the push down through Kanagawa to the Children’s Home.  Lots of Virgin Airlines stickers too. Were they a sponsor? Who knew, but as we pulled out of there, there were a few of those stickers on people and machines.

Unlike the first half of the trip, we were now pretty much on normal roads – often narrow back roads. Great fun yes, but the sheer number of traffic lights meant we got sliced up into quite a few groups. In fact, at one point I was on my own going down the main road of Kamakura. Chaos theory of course dictates we all re-joined each other at times, mainly sat in some traffic along the coast road, admiring the view, and having pictures surreptitiously taken of us, and vice versa. Cruising on down the coast, then up onto a bit of highway before the Oiso turn off (small as it is), and then down some increasingly narrow roads, and then, yes, at the Home itself.

The Kids and the Venue

At first we just tried to get the bikes in, without making too much noise for the locals, in what is a typically dense neighborhood – stop and engines off – no idling. After a few minutes waiting in a back street, we rode up and into their car parking area, doing a decent job of filling it, and I have to say it’s a nice leafy place. Then – and this is something which made sense – the kids wanted to see all the bikes ride up and park in front of the main building.

Smart decision, so out we went, got in position, putting most of the big cruisers up front, and (slightly over-) revved our way back in, and lined the bikes up, facing off with the kids. For a moment, that was kind of odd, but it did make it easier to see the scale of the ride – quite impressive.  After the official aisatsu and all the presents being hauled into a viewable room it became apparent the sheer volume of gifts, just piles upon piles of toys, books, teddy bears and everything in between. Pete did a top job of the introductions, slicing though that initial apprehension with some banter in Japanese, and kind of explaining to everyone the whys and wherefores.

As I mentioned, its a nice location, on a hill side above the coastline, the collection of buildings an odd hybrid of stereotypical school, with some kind of small apartment building feel to it, with several outhouses, some of which were for sports and other activities, and down the paths, different playgrounds and activity areas. Quite scenic in its own way, even in the grip of Winter.

And there were the kids, and honestly, despite the knowing of what the trip was for, seeing all these kids, from small toddlers up to pretty much adult high school kids kind of surprised me, but I have no idea why – perhaps because of my own child.

Anyone who has taught kids (I did  JET for two years), or been somehow involved in looking after a child knows that awkward feeling of where to start with a child you don’t know. We had that, on both sides I suspect, for about a minute and then the chaos you know is coming just descends. They all seemed like good kids, good people, the staff seemed really friendly too, with that calm confidence people who know what they’re doing just have.

One minute I’m impressing the kids with my ability to be the only person who can’t draw Anpanman, when one of the boys asks me if I want to play touch rugby. Why not? I played a little rugby at school, and this touch version probably eliminates the requirements for cuts and bruises.

Actually, it wasn’t touch rugby, but a variety of tag games designed to foster a bit of team work, and grab velcro’d tapers off your opponents. I don’t want to demean our fellow bikers, but there were a few of us there possibly not in the best physical shape we’ve ever been in, touting leathers in many cases, and generally not looking sporty. On the other hand, those kids, boys and girls were as fast as whippets, and you had that feeling that you’d jumped into something halfway through – they all had their tactics down pat.  To be fair to us, we caught on quickly, and in our mixed teams, we faced off well against each other, and I even managed to grab a few tapers but I don’t mind admitting I was outclassed in most games. I don’t pivot like I used to! Actually, I never, ever pivoted like that.

What were we doing there? Oh yeah, we were on a toy run to a kids home. After an hour of throwing passes to kids and trying, and failing to grab tapers I’d sort of forgotten, we were just hanging around at a place and throwing a ball around. I heard people looking around and saying “You know, we could paint this place”, and “You know, we could fix up that flower bed” and it seemed that a future Run wasn’t in any way a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’. I suspect that if we’d have done a poll around 2pm, there’d have been enough people up for a Spring [clean] toy run too.

It was an incredible few hours, and I was actually quite disappointed to have to leave, and on the ride home, I was already thinking about 2010. I wonder if the challenge for the next one wont be getting people interested, it’ll be trying to control the event – balancing the benefit of numbers to that feel you get from having the right group size. That’s a good challenge to have.

The Forum Behind The Event

I became a member of the GaijinRiders forum in August 2009, mainly to ask advice on getting handlebars fixed, and to see what was around for tours though I’d lurked around off and on for a while. After a few months there, it seems the place really does have a decent core community as shown by the Tokyo Toy Run. Getting a group of bikers together – many of whom had never met – some of whom only joined the forum for news on the event is I think the defining point which shows when a forum is a community.  Got a bike in Japan? You should probably sign up and contribute.

First Google Map

Minor note, I finally finished my first Google Map of my last bike trip. The map is here. It took me a while as I kept forgetting about it, and had some random issues. One thing I did figure out is that if you draw a line and it spills over on the menu on the left from page one to page two, then it wont show on the map; thus, on my MacBook, the last leg isn’t shown until I go to the second list on the left. Maybe I’m missing something.

It was rather laborious as I couldn’t get the ‘follow road’ line tool to do my bidding, but hopefully I can fix that up for the next one, next month.