Out in the Hills – Jan. 2012

As it was a national holiday here in Japan (Coming of Age Day I believe), a few of us headed up into the hills of Izu and Hakone and spent a few hours riding the twisty roads and taking in the sights. I have to say it was quite cold up there, especially on the bike and when out of the sun, but it was a good ride with clear skies, and not many people on the road. A great day out, and I clocked up 187Km door to door, which is not too bad for the first run of the year.
Ready for the Off

Black and White Mountains

A Quick Run on the Skyline

It’s been a few months since I’ve been out on my bike for more than running errands and such, so when I was able to negotiate a whole morning to get out on the road, I had to decide how best to use the opportunity. I was tempted to just do a few hours of ‘take random turns’ up in the mountains, which is what I like doing, but it’s unpredictable time wise, especially on the return leg. Instead, I decided to go for a tried and tested – but fun – route.

Getting on the bike at 7am on Sunday morning means less, but not zero traffic – as I went down the 134 coast road, that Shonan is a surfer place is very apparent, especially at this time of year – lots of people in wetsuits on bicycles, with boards strapped in U shaped holders on the bicycles, people in cars just lazily drifting along, checking out the beach.

It was basically a nice, sunny morning, fairly warm, but not too hot, riding in my mesh jacket and Draggin jeans, in good sunshine, a nice clear view. It’s a good road to go down, you have Fuji ahead of you and the beach on the left, and year round there are a smattering of surfers in the water, fishermen (and women) on the beach, and the universal collection of people walking their dogs on the sand.

Some of the faster roads are toll based, but usually only a couple of hundred yen, and I have ETC on my bike, so I just slow down and go through, rather than in the old days when I’d have to stop and fumble for change in my tank bag with my gloves on. That’s always frustrating, and in the winter and in the rain, it’s a real hassle. On the Seisho Bypass there’s a small service station where a lot of bikers stop to meet up, and sometimes I stop off for the cinnamon coffee, made by an energetic vending machine which plays you upbeat, potentially Colombian music whilst you wait for the drink to be reconstituted. Today though I was against the clock a little, so I skipped the coffee and decided to head straight to my first real stop, turning off at Hayakawa, and heading up the Toyo Tyres turnpike (toll again) to the rest stop at the top which houses the Dammtrax Cafe.

View from the Dammtrax
View from the Dammtrax

As I got closer to the turnpike the road was getting damp and then wet, and at the top of the ‘mountain’ near the Cafe it was even raining a little and once more I was glad I keep my rain gear under the seat, just in case things got worse, but in the event the rain stayed off. The Dammtrax Cafe is in the corner of a food court in the main building, and is a homage to the Ace Cafe near London (where I really would like to go). They do a decent drink and a hot dog too, and the whole place has some great views. Whilst it’s a tourist spot in general, like most of the Hakone area, there’s always bikers and car enthusiasts there – the day I went there was a large BMW meet-up with some of the BMW reps there for what looked like an organized ride. It’s always a place to get into general conversation about bikes, custom work, and pick up some good routes and tips.

When I came back to my bike, I noticed the one next to mine was a Triumph Street Triple, with a great tank decal.

A Nice Triumph Tank
A Nice Triumph Tank

The weather was still wet, but most of the road was OK – no real surface water, but for someone of my skill level, definitely reason to be careful on the corners. Off I went then to the Izu Skyline, another toll road which runs a little over 40Km north to south down the spine of Izu – it’s all hills and twisties, and thus tremendous fun on a bike. For me, on a non sports bike though, I keep an eye out for people coming up fast behind me, and keep an and let them run past – we’re all just out for a good ride. Yes, it’s a fast road.

Enter the Skyline
Enter the Skyline

The route does give great views, and there’s a good selection of roadside stopping points for photographers. There’s also a selection of service stations, including this somewhat derelict one; it always reminds me of some neo-Communist building for some reason, grey concrete surrounded by grass broken car parks, a monument perhaps to Bubble times.

When Rest Stops Die
When Rest Stops Die

More than anything, it’s a fun route to ride down, slow or fast, beautiful tree lined stretches, which open onto the sides of mountains, with great curves and vistas which make you want to stop and take a photo.

Get to the bottom and there’s really not much there, beyond a sort of derelict cafe which may or may not be open at certain times of year – at least it’s never had any sign of life inside it when I’ve been there, despite the constant white van parked outside.

After reaching the bottom and having a nice cup of tea from my flask, I turned right around and worked north again, retracing my exact route back past the Dammtrax, back down the turnpike, and back down normal straight roads and traffic, back to Shonan having thoroughly enjoyed it.

I usually say that having a motorbike is very liberating in Japan, just taking the next turns at random, but even so, there are good mornings to be had just taking a route you’ve done plenty of time and just enjoying the bike and the road.

Tea is also good.

Draggin’ Jeans

Currently, when I’m out on the motorbike, I have two options for leg wear – either my 5.11 Tacticals with the Alpine Stars solid knee protectors, or my Dainese leathers. I’ve always felt a bit vulnerable in the former, but the truth is, for quick runs and errands (statistically when you’re more likely to have an accident) and especially in the hot weather, the leathers can be a bit cumbersome to get on, sit in traffic with and walk around the shopping centre in.

With that in mind, I went looking for some biker oriented jeans or similar, which either had pads, or under which I could use my solid knee pads.I looked at a few places like Aerostich, but after trawling forums, found that Draggin’ Jeans always seemed to get decent reviews. They do a fair sized selection, but in the end, I went for their basic Classic jean – nothing fancy, a thick weave denim with their standard Kevlar weave at key points inside.

Draggin Jeans

Obviously ordering online is always a bit worrying for clothing, but for better or worse it seems that Draggin’ has some limits which may help – as far as I can tell, they only sell 34″ inseam trousers for men. This is a bit longer than my usual 30″ but I thought I could get them altered with minimum fuss, and bike jeans do need to be a little longer than usual.

So how are they? They’re really good. Lets cover fit first: the waist is pretty much exactly what I was expecting in terms of size, and similar to jeans I’ve bought in the UK – but not in Japan. The leg didn’t actually seem that long, and of course sat on the bike, with boots on, you want it to cover your ankles, and they did, and despite obviously being a bit long, they didn’t drag, and a simple measurement showed the seam at 33.5″ so it is pretty much what it says.

They’re very well made – thick denim material with quality stitching. The yellow kevlar weave inside is particularly striking, but it doesn’t feel rough when you’re riding, and does seem to feel like it’s going to help if you end up sliding on some asphalt in the future.  They have the usual jean pockets, but I found them a little difficult to get into, which may be a problem for some, but I tend not to put anything in my trousers on the bike anyway.

On the road with the bike, they’re really comfortable, and blocked a surprising amount of wind, though I haven’t tested them in any rain, but I would expect they’d react like all denim – might become cold and wet quickly, with a long dry time. That said, they’re definitely worth the money and a huge improvement on normal jeans and even the 5.11s.  I also received some of the basic Knox kneepads, which seem pretty good – 3D molded solid core with a foam outer; interestingly the way to affix them to the jean is to glue a strip of ‘military grade’ velcro (supplied) to the knee area of kevlar weave, and then affix the pad to the corresponding strip of velcro on the pad. I haven’t done this yet, but these are Draggin’s own guidelines, so I see no reason they shouldn’t.

My only point of note on these is that if you had the velcro in, but for some reason didn’t wear the pad, you’re probably going to get a decent red mark on each knee from the velcro.  They’re not cheap though – 249AUD (they’re an Australian company), which is about 175USD or about 20,500yen plus shipping. Are they worth it? Yes, I would say they are – a vast improvement over even tough jeans, and whilst not leathers, they do feel safe, warm and comfortable.

Tokyo Toy Run 2010

December 12th. 2010 marked the second Tokyo Toy Run (check here for last year’s).

Essentially the Tokyo Toy Run was a group of bikers and like minded individuals who got together donations and gifts for two children’s homes and rode down to the venues in an almighty convoy to personally deliver the toys to the kids and staff, and spend the afternoons playing tag, football and whatever else the kids wanted to do until exhaustion kicked in.

It’s based off, and organised by, the Gaijin Riders forum, but pulls in attendees from other forums as well as other bikers we know.

Last year’s event was a huge success, and so I was looking forward to this one. As before, I met up with a few riders I knew from last year’s event and the forum at NAPS Yokohama on Route #1 for those of us coming in from Kanagawa. NAPS must have been following the forum (they’re a sponsor), as they left the chains off the car park this time, so we could get in there to make sure we all knew the run in route and have a chat.

We decided that since ManyBu (sorry, it’s forum handles) had the Garmin Navi, we’d follow him, and since he was on the CB1300, he’d likely be the quickest too; the other rider was SomethingWild, who was also the coordinator for the second children’s home. Unlike last year, I have ETC on my bike this year, so no fiddling around for change at the toll booths, but SomethingWild didn’t, so we’d be waiting for him on the other side of the barriers, which is no problem.

The run in was great – we left NAPS around 6.45am, and essentially ran the Bayshore Route through Yokohama past Haneda to Odaiba, to this year’s meet up point at RICOland. It was a beautiful run-in watching the sun come up, and with minimal traffic and only a single error on the Garmin we made good time, and were already waving at families in cars, and at traffic lights as ManyBu was in a Santa suit, and my bike was pretty well adorned with tinsel and gift boxes.

At RICOland, the car park was already filling up quickly at 7.40, with a lot more santa suits than last year, and honestly, a very healthy demographic across ages, gender and nationality – many more ladies and Japanese for instance, which is a great sign.

An Xmas Tree
An Xmas Tree

The camaraderie at these meet ups is great – there’s just no negativity – and after a period of admiring some of the bikes and their decorations, the core organisers started explaining the plan for the day.

Ready to roll
Ready to roll

A few things had changed this year – the meet up being in Odaiba was obviously the first, but then it was much like last year in the middle – a ride over to Daikoku Futou service area for a rest stop and meet up with more riders, and then a ride over to NAPS Sachiura where the staff were ready and waiting for us with marked out car park areas and some more gifts for the homes themselves.

This was where a few competitions were judged (Best Dressed Bike and so on), and we divided up for the two homes – Elizabeth Sanders, which was the home we also supported last year, and Chigasaki Farm Home, a smaller place we were supporting for the first time, which is where I’d chosen to go.

Santas Bike
Santas Bike

Considering we had just under a hundred bikes by this point, it’s quite a feat the group can split into two easily, and quickly organise into sub groups with riders with navigation systems in each, and where possible make sure everyone had the right routes in them (they were available as files from the forum beforehand).

Unlike the ride to that point, which was mainly expressways with large groups of bikes, we were now going out onto normal roads, through Kamakura and down onto route 134 meaning we’d be in traffic and we’d be likely to get split up through traffic lights. In the event, it seemed to work out fairly well, no one seemed to get too lost, and that we were sat in traffic meant that people could take our pictures, children could wave at the Santas and we could even explain what it was we were actually doing, which is great. Mid-way down Kamakura’s main street a KTM blew coolant all over the road and Loco’s leg, but aside from that I don’t think there were many mechanical issues which is good – I’d hate to miss out on this through a bike fault.

Rolling, albeit slowly, down that Route 134 was actually quite nice, watching the ocean I’m quite familiar with, and once past Enoshima we could get a little speed up.  We saw a tribe of bosazoku coming the other way on their noisily modded 125cc and 250cc’s – they’re a beach staple making as much noise as they can – and a few actually waved as they went past the other way. A shame we couldn’t get into their revving game (it’s against our own Run rules).

Soon enough we were at our final staging point, making sure we hadn’t lost anyone, and that we were all at the right place we prepped up for the final few hundred metres in to the Chigasaki Farm home, off the main road and into the venue down a narrow road.

Wow! It seemed like the whole place was there to applaud us in, both from the home and from a few people who seemed to have just happened to be walking down the street. That was pretty humbling, I have to say. We all just about managed to get a place to park in the small parking /recreation area, and after a few more minutes and some shuffling of vehicles, we managed to get the toy van in, and SomethingWild and the head of the facility managed to get a quick aisatsu done, before we could get all the presents moved into the chapel hall for the staff to divide up later; and the excitement level was already pretty high.

To me the highlight of these days are the actual games, and within minutes I’d got into a football (soccer) kick-about with some other bikers and some kids, before Loco broke out some goal markers and an (American) football we’d brought, along with some belts with velcro’d tabs on for some touch football. I wont pretend I understood the rules, but on 5-a-side with three kids and two bikers on each side, it didn’t seem to make much difference; the kids on my team picked it up way quicker than me (I was still having flashbacks to playing rugby which is a different beast entirely) and they were pretty much winning the game for us. It’s good to win like that sometimes!  I don’t know how long we were playing, maybe about an hour, but I was sweating into my santa hat, and one of my team suggested maybe I was a bit overweight and unfit. Frankly, guilty as charged.

Eventually the game wound down, and as people started departing, and the sun got a bit lower we organised about four of the better riders to give the kids rides in the small car park with the others keeping an eye on everything, with the motorbike and sidecar doing circles in the ‘football’ area. That was probably the highlight for some – the kids loved being on the bikes and just bouncing around the bumpy yard at 10km/h.

Somewhat apologetically I had to head away before the bingo kicked off, but it seemed that everyone had had a pretty good day of it, and if nothing else, that was the point.

I think sometimes being in Japan, foreigners can feel a bit outside of things (yeah, hence the term ‘gaijin’ I know), especially with the charity system being quite different to say Europe and the UK. Events like this though remind us that that’s a bit wrong headed sometimes. Everyone on the run found a way to make it happen irrespective of where they came from, and even though it’s technically the bikers helping these kids, when you see some posts in the forum from after the event, and our faces at the homes, I can’t help thinking that in a major way, they’re helping us too.

A Tokyo Toy Run 2011? Already under discussion.

Through Wasabi Country

So we rolled for the first bike day out of 2010. Actually, this is the first day out I’ve ever done in January. It’s a part of my ‘all year round’ biking push for this year to get more kilometres under my belt – more experience on the bike.  DG joined me on his trusty Skywave, and under a crisp – rather chilly –  blue sky, we headed out onto Route 1 with only a general plan – we wanted to head down the Izu peninsula and take a look at a hotel of all things, called Ernest house which some on the gaijinriders.com forum had recommended.

The coastal road down Shonan gets you some beautiful views, so we made a point to stop on the Seishou by-pass just to take some photos and have a cup of coffee. For 200 yen we got some kind of coffee / chocolate fusion with cinnamon from one of those vending machines which has a video screen showing the coffee being ground etc., whilst playing a pretty catchy latin American tune. Almost surprisingly, I have to say it was actually was a very decent drink. I’ve been past this service area on every run down this road but never actually pulled in, so even though we hadn’t been on the road very long, I thought it was good stop – a lot of bikers, who are always friendly, and a fairly decent cross section of machines. Again, my CB400SF was pretty much the smallest thing there.

shonan beach

We worked our way don’t the coastal road  [135] in minimal traffic, only slightly missing our turn off onto #59, which at least gave us chance to have a bit of breakfast in a McDonalds (shame!) whilst we decided where we were. Then, fueled up on caffeine and cholestrol, we made our way down #12 and finally onto #59.

Road #59 is a lot of fun for me – it cuts through wasabi growing country, through meandering hills and valleys, over rivers and on roads which though tarmac, often get very bumpy and are usually a single lane, with those convex mirrors to see a little around blind corners. You can stop pretty much anywhere and buy wasabi, and in a few places actually see a wasabi farm – we saw a very impressive one which was effectively in a river, since I understand that wasabi requires a lot of fresh water to grow.

wasabi farm

Its a nice, slow, windy road, with great vistas. However, not much in the way of cafe’s or fuel! There are however, a selection of temples and shrines along the way, and down some side roads, so they were a bit of a photographic opportunity also.

sunset at the shrine

Right now it seems like they’re doing some work on the western part of the road, in fact, when I first did a run down it last year, a section was closed for post-earthquake repairs. That now seems largely done, though we did have to ride across a short stretch of gravel, but down the road we were stopped by another road closed sign which we elected to heed, so we turned back and took another route. I’d also done this road previously – another tree-lined winding road, which pops out back near the 414, main north-south Shimoda/Izu road.

Down the 414 we went, around the bizarre looping bridge (I think it’s called the Kawazu Nanadaru Bridge),  and kept on the road, until it met the #135/#136 junction where we took the latter for a few Kms until we went down a smaller road to the ocean and found Earnest House. The place itself looked very nice, very close to the beach, and you can imagine the whole area packed in the summer. In an adjacent building is the Paradise cafe, a nice bare wood place, where we got some good food for a not completely outrageous price.  We chatted with the staff, what seemed a brother and sister team, who both seemed to speak some English, and we ended up having one of  those conversations in both languages. A good bunch of people. I think we’re already planning a trip down there for the Spring with the family.

The trip back was uneventful – it got dark and cold, and the traffic level was a lot higher as usual on the #135, but we still made OK time, slipping down the side, and  pulling in for hot drinks as required.  All in all, a good run, and a great start to the year!

Door to door: 328Km.

Bike Tour – Shimoda

After a few months off, I managed to get a day on the bike today. Actually this was a trip with a difference – I decided that instead of having a rough idea of what and where I’d be going, I set a destination plan and with an estimated return time. Dangerous stuff once I get out on the road!

For this trip I set the destination as Shimoda, with a return time of before dinner. A fairly ambitious schedule. That said, I didn’t want to rush.

As it happens, and not wanting to spoil the surprise, I hit both of the above, clocking up 304Km and doing some great roads in good time.

First I went up to the Toyo Tires Turnpike and had a drink. It’s always good to stop up there and see all the bike and car groups meeting up and looking at all the vehicles; it’s all very friendly, and the Dammtrax cafe is certainly geared to this audience – you can even buy a new helmet up there if you need it.

From there I did a bit on Route 20, before doing the length of the Ise Skyline, which was great, and the first time I’d done it top to toe. Not that I actually needed to, having hit the bottom I turned around and head up an exit to connect to route 59, which I was planning to take over to the 414 main road down to Shimoda.  It’s a nice ride, except that half way along a local informed me the road was still shut for maintenance due to last month’s earthquakes, and indeed it was. I did manage to find a smaller access road though which took me a bit out of my way but turned out to be an excellent ride, albeit on very narrow, leaf and branch strewn roads. Great fun.

It’s the first time I’d been down the 414, and before turning off to the 14 to hit the coastline, I got to do a weird and yet oddly fun double circle part of the road in the middle of a rural valley. It seemed to be there for sheer engineering prowess, but was a bit of a amusement park reject.

I stopped down by the beach – literally a couple of metres from the sand and had a sit down, before heading back up the coast, doing many of the small toll roads and just thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful weather.

Long story short:I put the route on Google Maps here.