I’ve discovered that one of the few downsides to owning a very reliable motorbike is that even though you do the regular checks on it, there are times where you think, “When was the last time I checked that?”. For me recently that was the tyres, as I knew they’d been on quite a few years, so I did a close inspection, and whilst they had wear left, there was a small amount of crazing in some of the tread, and since I actually have a lot of riding to do over the winter, I decided it was time to swap them out.
I asked around, checked in on GaijinRiders and I was actually surprised that for the two things I needed to know, I was getting quite a few people saying the same thing – for my bike and riding style, the Michelin Pilot Road 2 tyres would fit the bill, and the best place to get them fitted was a small shop in Setagaya in Tokyo called Speed Stars.
I called them a couple of days before to confirm the tyre and the dimensions, and they’d said they’d need to order the tyres in, which I thought might mean a week or so wait – actually it would be the next evening. That’s just good service and market knowledge.
The shop is about an hour from me, but it’s a decent run on a good road, so no problems there. The day I went the weather was miserable and raining, but I’m an all weather rider, so I got on the rain gear and the trusty 2006 Honda CB400 SF to make the run.
The SpeedStar people come across as really friendly, and had the job done in less than an hour. I’d actually arrived a few minutes after they opened and there was already a couple of people in – I get the feeling this place is really popular. I waited in the adjoining cafe they own, where the staff were friendly, even showing me around her own bike (a nice Harley) and chatted until the new tyres were on. They’ve got a very nice atmosphere there, and it’s the kind of place which is worth stopping in if you happen to be passing in Setagaya. The pricing was good too – cheaper than NAPS, and there’s a small discount for paying cash, but even if NAPS were a little cheaper, I’d still go to SpeedStar just for the people and service.
I’ve now done a few hundred kilometers on the Road Pilot 2s, and they really area a good tyre – very stable with good cornering and you can really feel the improved rolling characteristics over the old Battlax. That cornering is going to be important – I love riding the twisties.
I’m looking forward to getting a few thousand more kilos under these.
Another December means another opportunity to do a Toy Run. Bottom line: a bunch of bikers get together, deck the bikes with tinsel , dress up as Father Christmas, and go and spend the day with some kids at a couple of local Childrens Homes.
I wrote up the previous ones from 2009, 2010 and 2011, which were all a little different, but equally fun. This year was no exception; due to some scheduling issues with one of the homes, we decided to take the whole group to both homes in one day, instead of splitting the group. We also changed the meet up point from Tokyo, to the Ebina service area in Kanagawa, to allow for more pillion riders, and to make some of the logistics for non Tokyo riders, that little bit simpler. In the end, these all turned out to be great decisions.
We always manage to score great weather, and I rode the 45Km up to the Ebina SA (I live much closer, but took a long route to get in the right direction) with my Santa outfit on, and the bike all decked out, so I was getting looks and waves from kids in passing cars, and even a request for a present from a guy on a construction site whilst I was waiting at some traffic lights. It was cold, very cold, but a beautiful day, with bright blue skies. It’s also worth noting that a Santa hat and beard securely fastened to your safety approved helmet is about as aerodynamic as a big pillow on an expressway.
Ahead of schedule I met up with the riders already at the meet-up point, and we were already getting a lot of questions and requests for photos from just members of the public passing through what is a busy rest area on the Tomei Expressway, even at 9am on a Sunday morning.
We cruised out of there to a fair smattering of applause, and a lot of very curious looks as perhaps thirty plus bikes snaked our way onto the Expressway to make our way down to the the first children’s home. On the short video below, we went through one toll booth and there was a Police bike parked near it and he really didn’t know what to make of it. Shame he couldn’t join in.
Near the first home, we met up with some others who were joining from a different route, and all together we rolled in, and the kids loved it. Whilst some of us played games with the kids, we ate some soup and some pizza, handed out the gifts, and some of the kids got rides on the back of some of the bikes.
After a couple of hours, we were off again to the second home, making our way down the coastal road, getting a lot of waves from fellow bikers, as it’s a really popular route. The second place is a little smaller, so we were cramming the bikes in, but the kids there are great too, and they’d also made some good soup, and cooked up some pizzas we’d brought, in a home made pizza oven, and we stood and chatted, played bingo and let them take the tinsel off a lot of the bikes.
We learned quickly that the gifts are important, but the kids really like the bikes, chatting with us, wearing the Santa outfits, and really just having a bit of a party, which is what it’s all about. It’s sometimes amazing how the kids are growing up too, and some are getting jobs, and the small ones, just babies in 2009, are now walking and talking. It must be a difficult start for some of them, but I think these kids are going to make a really good go of life, and I hope next year they let us come back again, and see if we can make it that little bit better once more.
Over the last couple of weekends I’ve managed to get out for a couple of morning bike trips; from the first one I put some video together from the Hero2 mounted on the handlebars. There are three main routes – #134, the Pacific Coast road along Sagami Bay, the Toyo Tires Turnpike, a twisty mountainous toll road, and then the Izu Skyline Parkway, another long stretch of twisting roads with some great views of the coastline as it snakes south down the Izu peninsula.
The second trip I met up with my old friend Colin, and his rather nice Triumph Daytona 955i, at Kawaguchiko lake after a 100Km ride up some normal roads and the Tomei expressway, and we meandered back homewards down the 413 Doushi road, another relaxing, scenic road through mountains and valleys, except this time we had to break out the rain gear.
We also stopped off at Cafe Gout Temps which has to be seen to be understood – it’s a Japanese house with British castle and tea shoppe fascias bolted on, and crammed with authentic looking church pulpits, pub statues, doll houses and all manner of oddities. It serves a good avacado and mushroom pasta dish and some fine English tea as well.
After thinking about getting one for quite a while, I finally bought myself a Go Pro Hero 2 camera. For those not familiar, the Hero 2 is often described as a ‘sports camera’, or a ‘point of view’ camera in that it’s a rugged design, comes with a durable waterproof casing, and is designed to be bolted to things, stuck to helmets, surf boards and such, to get closer to the action. It’s also different from a point n click in so far as it has a wide angle fixed lens (f2.8) thus no zoom, and is designed to be modular, allowing users to add to it as needed.
For example, I invested in the LCD bacpac (add-ons are usually suffixed with ‘~pac’ in the Go Pro world) so I could view video as I go, set a shot up, or review the footage. The screen uses battery though, so I set mine to power down after 60 seconds, or you can just detach it after you think you’ve got the shot set up properly, reducing the weight, which is likely a key factor if you’re mounting it to a helmet or some other item where you want the least weight on you can get, and since you can’t see the LCD, there’s not much loss!
The accessories like the LCD also come with their own range of covers to attach to the supplied waterproof casing, so the whole unit profile is kept to a minimum but still waterproof. Some of the covers are also open to allow better airflow and mic sensitivity when you don’t need total waterproofing. My usage scenarios as really for my motorbike trips (on the bike or helmet), my bicycle runs, for the snowboarding and ski trips, and for down by the beach or swimming to get some more footage of the kids where I wouldn’t be able to take the point n click, which not only lacks a waterproof case, but is a bit unwieldy.
First off I tried some of the modes out; I wont go through all of them, but the ones I played with were the 1080p @ 30fps, 720p @ 60 fps, and 848*480 @ 120 fps all at the wide 170deg. field of view setting. The 1080p/30 looked fantastic, though this is the first camera I’ve had which supports it, and has a solid frame rate. The 720p/60 I think is where I’ll spend most time – it gave a smooth, slightly slow motion effect, and a solid picture even when moving. The 848*480@120 (WVGA) is good for when you really want some slow motion, which I tried out by running the shower at putting the GoPro in it’s casing on the floor, and seeing the droplets hit.One note for this is that it requires good lighting.
Overall, I really like the video performance – it’s h.264, and for me slots straight into iMovie, though GoPro do provide a basic editor called CineForm which isn’t bad at all for a free download, and allows you to convert the videos to other formats. Audio isn’t bad from the built in mic, but it’s very much secondary I suspect, though you can plug a mic in if you like.
The Hero2 also does stills at 5 or 11MP, and supports time lapse, and timed photos, which look very decent also. I put in a 32GB SDHC Class 10 which cost me less than 3,000yen, and complies with all of GoPro’s requirements for running 10fps still bursts, which are also useful. I bought the ‘Outdoor kit‘ which comes with a lot of ways to attach the GoPro, including to handlebars, but have a look at the motorsports or surf kits if that’s more your thing.
Unlike the original GoPro Hero cameras, this has a more detailed front facing LCD which makes changing modes and settings much easier than its predecessor’s by the sounds of it, and has small LEDs on most sides so you can see it’s still recording. Another nice fringe benefit is that it charges from a mini USB connector, which is something I wish more cameras did!
I actually picked mine up on a business trip to New York, as the JP distributor’s price was 31,500yen after taxes, and I could get it for 25,000yen in the States – I think that’s a fairly generous mark-up given the exchange rate to be honest. Here’s a quick sample of some footage I shot straight off the handlebars of my motorbike. You’ll notice there’s a slight ‘fish eye lens’ look about it, which is due to the lens type. It’s rendered out at 720p/30 though there’s some loss of quality due to Vimeo’s encode and adding the player, here in SD, so it looks even better if you go to Vimeo to see the high definition version :[Update: April 2012 - I paid up for Vimeo Plus so this can be viewed in HD from here - at least until April 2013!]
Overall then my first impression is that this is a quality product – image and audio is well above what I expected, and the build quality is very decent, so I’m looking for this to take some abuse and still get me some footage I just wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise.
If you want to see what the GoPro cameras are really capable of, search for ‘GoPro’ on Vimeo.
The best way to get the feel of a country a little bit better is to physically travel it. How a country feels – the people in the place – in it’s capital, or a major city, compared to the farmlands, the mountains, the sea-ports or wherever, can give you a markedly different impression of the country, for better or worse. See any many aspects as you can really increases your appreciation for it.
On a small scale, that’s pot-luck ordering in restaurants. I used to walk into Ramen shops and order whatever the person next to me was having by pointing at it, as even when I could read the menu, I still didn’t always understand what it was. I never got overcharged. In fact, sometimes, I’m sure they undercharged me for even doing this.
We go up the scale, and travel by rail; Japan is a gift for doing this because the rail systems are simply amazing, and it’s a pleasant way to travel, either bimbling long in local trains, hitting the Shinkansen for that faster feeling, or taking your time on one of the long scenic runs like the Cassiopeia.
Some visitors and foreign residents to Japan hire or buy a car and see more of the country that way – and it is a great way – though the traffic jams are sometimes not so fun, and you very quickly understand the fetish for in car entertainment. Sorting that license out, or using an International if that’s legal for you does put some people off.
Somewhere in all that though, there is the motorbike, and I wonder if some people overlook it. Frankly, that’s a mistake – if you truly want to know a country – get on a motorbike.
I should say now that this isn’t a tutorial on getting a license and all that – better people than I have already invented that wheel, so pop on over to GaijinRiders, or SBKJapan, and the enthusiasts there will help you out, and the ‘Motorbiking in Japan‘ blog, if only because he chronicles going from not being a biker, to loving his bike.
For me, I’ve always loved bicycles, so the idea of two wheels has always appealed to me, but I came late to motorbiking; I spent two years on a 50cc Zoomer around Tokyo in my early thirties, and then decided I would do the 400cc licence in 2006 and bought myself the dependable CB400 Super Four, and then did the large licence in late 2007. I really wish I’d done them both sooner. Still, there’s hope – I really enjoy reading the books of Ted Simon, who in his early 40′s went on a four year round the world trip, and chronicled it in the book “Jupiters Travels” and several follow up books which I’ve managed to collect (with the help of my wife!) including the one for his second round the world trip at the age of 70! I’ve quoted him before in this blog, but to repeat this from Mr. Simon, from the travelogue ‘Long Way Round’ , this sums up why I like motorbikes :
“I think the motorcycle is best because it puts you so much in contact with everything. You experience, much more closely, the nature of the terrain, you can almost taste the cultures that you’re riding through. Because it exposes you to the climate, to the wind and rain, it’s a much more complete experience.”
In a more humble context, new family life restricts my riding and where I now live, I can’t commute, but I do love to get out for days, or even just half days and run out on the bike. I’ve written on here a couple of times about some of the places I’ve been, and seen, but perhaps what I haven’t mentioned is that I couldn’t have done any of it without the bike. Some of the weird roads I’ve travelled, some of the very odd tunnels, tea houses I’ve stopped at, accidental off road excursions and so on, none of it would have been possible without the bike. Really, some of the places either aren’t signposted, or aren’t on a map, or you wouldn’t think to take a car down. On a bike, you just turn, when you want to stop, you just stop – parking isn’t much of an issue, and even the rain doesn’t stop the fun.
It’s not just the riding and the environment though, it’s the reaction of people, the more obscure the place you go, the more interesting riding there becomes.
In early January this year, I took a freezing run down the coast road here in Kanagawa; that’s the literal meaning of ‘freezing’ too. I stopped off for some coffee and got into a great conversation with the few other bikers there, as to how completely mad we were, or how truly inspired – we decided on the former. Plodding along at 80Km/h with a cold wind, looking at the beautiful Pacific Ocean, with Mt. Fuji in the clear distance is fantastic, and the frosting of ice on your helmet, and that steady chill on your hands fades away. A bit. Actually, on that trip I remember stopping at a McDonalds at the side of the road for another hot drink, and even the staff asked if I was OK on the bike. I took the coffee outside, walked through a passageway under the coast road, and spent the time it took me to drink the coffee talking to some people fishing off the quayside. Does this happen if you’re in a car, or does having biker leathers on key into something which means you’re safe, because you’re out there? My Japanese isn’t great, but I’m fairly outgoing – I’ll talk about anything, so for me , being on the bike has been great to just meet people doing their thing.
On a different tack, a friend and I were just picking random turns in Izu, and ended up in a valley, where the river seemed to be full of vegetables, with a little rail track in the air with a cart. From a few signs we’d seen on the way for shops, we assumed this was a wasabi ‘field’. It was completely fascinating – I’d heard they prospered in running water, but I’d never seen it, and since the whole area was serviced by the traditional farmer’s vehicles – tiny white Suzuki vans, I suspect many others haven’t either, apart from the more tourist ones, unless you were on a bike.
Meeting up with fellow bikers, just by accident is always interesting – the bike itself is a topic of conversation. I remember talking to a man in his late sixties at a service station, who pulled up on an old Harley Davidson, with his wife on the back. We were just talking about bikes, and I asked him whether he’d thought about getting a Prius as I see a lot of retired people driving them. His response was a hysterical mime of the kicking of cars and the throttling of owners: “Prius drivers are idiots!!”. You see all these old men, maybe former senior businessmen or something when they worked, and imagining them in a Prius, blocking traffic somewhere, and you realise that the cool, interesting ones spurned that, and keep to two wheels, and are enormous fun to be around.
It is a good crowd too, a certain camaraderie; I’m fortunate enough to be on the GaijinRiders forum, and to have been involved with two Toy Runs to benefit children’s homes, because they could. (There’s something beyond culture which means that kids love the sound of a hundred plus motorbikes revving up.)
Anyway, I think you get the idea – I love biking. Not for speed or to talk specs or anything like that, just because I like being out there, plodding along, feeling the environment around me, and hoping I remembered to put my rain gear back under the seat.
Yesterday, DG and myself got on the bikes for the first day trip of the year, clocking up 290Km (180miles) door to door, which was a fair distance given we barely hit an expressway – just small local roads.
We went from Fujisawa in Kanagawa-ken, down the coast road for a while, then up into the mountains of Hakone on some of the great special roads. Often when I’m up there I go to the Gyoza Centre near Gora for lunch, and then we headed down the spine of the Izu peninsula, before the long haul back up the 135 coastal road. We actually headed to a bar a friend of mine owns for a soft drink, but unfortunately he seemed to have shut it for the night.
I was pretty pleased with the day’s ride – I think my riding’s getting better especially on the corners and inclines which is good, staying on top of the throttle a bit more, and keeping the bike lower when i need to in corners.
As always, there were great moments and views you wish you had a helmet-cam for, but there were others – a parade of about 20 very expensive sports cars (Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini) and customs, a lot of very nice ‘bikes – which we did get some photos of. It was kind of ironic, as we sat in the tea lounge of the Toyo Tires Turnpike Cafe, we saw a woman posing (for want of a better phrase) who might have been a model of some kind being steadfastly ignored by all the men around as they gawped over the expensive car show. There’s no accounting for taste I suppose. Finally she gave up and got back in the Ferrari she arrived in.
Other interesting notes were route 102 which where we joined it had a very impressive incline for a few kilometres, and about half way up, a set of traffic lights, which mercifully stayed green, and a fully automated self service petrol station, which had us a bit confused for a couple of minutes.
I had to avoid a bat of all things on one road at about 70km/h, and avoid a moron stepping in the road just a kilometer from home, justifying again that the most dangerous part of a bike trip is in the last few miles. Fortunately, neither flying mammal nor walking mammal were hit (although why the guy was walking around in the road I have no idea).
As soon as I have the route plotted, I’ll put it up on brightblack, as much for my own benefit, but I hope someone finds a new, great road for them.
Update: Finally got it into Google Maps here (Aug. 10th).