TL;DR: An awesome 500Km run across Japan, having a great time on bikes with friends before food and beer. No bad way to spend a day.
“This is not an easy ride! You will be on the road for the best part of daylight and maybe more than 12 hours with little time to just cruise and zone out. It is a true feast of twisties that even gluttons have trouble swallowing.” – Touge Express
The Coast to Coast Twistybutt is an informal event put on each year for bikers in Japan by the Touge Express site. We would be riding from sea level at Odawara in western Kanagawa prefecture by the Pacific Ocean, all the way over the spine of Japan to 2,172m on the highest national road in the country, and then on to Joetsu in Niigata prefecture, on the Japan Sea coast.
This was my second attempt at the 500Km route, having clocked in a 15 hour time last year, rolling in tired and wet to the hotel at 8pm. I loved it, I was hooked.
This year I had a few goals – to ride better, to ride smarter, but overall, to be better prepared.
I’d trimmed my gear down from not-so-much, to downright minimal, so that instead of a waistbag and a camping drybag, I was just using a jacket pocket and one of my bicycle’s panniers, down to puncture kits, tools, fasteners, safety kit and a change of clothes. I’d spent more time really understanding my navigation app (OSMAnd+), and understood how gpx GPS tracks worked on it, and spent a few hours in Kurviger.de making a track from the ‘official’ route.
This year I was riding with an old friend (CS), who has been riding far longer than me, but this was his first go on the C2C. We woke around 3am, got prepped, got that all important cup of tea in, and with gear safely strapped to the bikes, we set off into the dark, under that weird illumination of a full moon.
The few other bikes we saw en route were all fellow twistybutters it seemed, and rolling down the coast road to Odawara we were all waves and enthusiasm.
We met at the base of a toll road as it has a small but convenient car park, which we promptly filled with just over 80 motorcycles, from 110cc SuperCub copies, to elegant and classic Kawasaki’s, to big BMW 1200GSs and pretty much everything in between.
It’s a totally international field of riders as well as the machines, and everyone took photos, exchanged last minute tips, realised flaws in their plans and eagerly awaited the off. After a reminder from the Touge Express team about road etiquette and safety, at around 5.15am we set off with a mere 500Km of twisties ahead.
I again found the first 50Km awkward as I was navigating for the two of us, and generally I don’t ride following a route, so I had to remember to check my turns and not disappear along a beautiful road, but which wasn’t the specific beautiful road I should be on.
(It also became apparent from the profanity levels at stops, that my riding partner’s Google Map / Smartphone system was not working for him at all, so it was looking like I’d be leading the whole way!)
Bounding along on my Tracer with CS’s Triumph Tiger 1200 Explorer’s familiar lights in my mirror felt good in the brisk morning sun, as we twisted towards Fuji, and I had to keep to a point I’d made: I wasn’t going to stop for photos every few kilometres early on like I had the previous year. It’s a difficult promise to keep as many of the views we’d pass by are stunning, and at one point we skirted Fuji, with low cloud barreling down a valley towards it looking like a wave lapping up on a beach. OK, maybe I should’ve have gotten that picture.
(I should also say we were riding with another chap, EP, but for reasons unknown he took another route, but thankfully he made it to Joetsu! )
The roads on the south end of the route were decent as some are well travelled tourist roads, so we made good time as at this early hour there were just a few cars around, mainly photographers looking for that early morning Fuji shot.
After the initial barrage of turns, as we neared Kofu, we traversed a kind of valley bottom between mountain ranges, and you’re reminded that there exist flat, and even straight roads, which suddenly feel wrong. It wasn’t many kilometers though before we were back climbing up into new mountains and more touge, meandering through small villages.
We really only stopped for fuel or for a quick snack, drinks and to stretch our legs around every 100Km. At the 200Km stop for refreshments (and for CS to get caught with his trousers down again, adjusting his knee protectors), we encountered probably Japan’s most minimally stocked convenience store. It was like some homage to late eighties eastern bloc shops I remembered seeing – empty shelves, and half of what products they had were local wines and other alcohol. The staff though were two very friendly old ladies who chatted with us, and made a point of bringing out their personal rubbish bin when I was trying to find somewhere to throw some rubbish.
This kind of interaction seems normal when motorcycling here in Japan, everyone in the mountains just has time for people, and if you’re on the road, then that’s a talking point. When we took on fuel around 300Km, we had a good chat with the old gents running the place about why we were on the road, where in Japan we had set off from, how long it had taken, and where we were going. In fact we were quite appreciative as we’d passed a few petrol stations which were either closed for good, or closed for the Golden Week holiday which had just started. (Oddly, I really start looking for fuel when I’m down to half, even though half would still likely get me ~ 150Km.)
We bumped into a fellow Twistybutt’r just a few kilometers later when we were looking for some more refreshments at a large Seven Eleven, and he was relaxing with a cigarette, his CBR600 parked up, and with that riding position for a few hundred kilometres, I can see why you’d be stretching out. We exchanged tales of the ride thus far, and other riders we’d seen.
One thing we’d both seen was another biker on a big BMW coming the other way with his pannier wide open at the back. I remembered as I was waving at him and pointing at the back of my bike and him. I don’t think I got my point across.
One reason for that is the ‘biker wave’ – we wave at each other as a salutation as we pass, to say hello, or to pass on information, but sadly I don’t know what the correct gesture is for ‘your side box is open and I think everything has fallen out’. I think he just interpreted my motions as sheer enthusiasm.
It has to be said though, as the day went on, the road quality started to get patchy. Or indeed non existent. We had a stretch of about 100m of basically gravel and stone downhill where they were looking to put asphalt down at some point. Going down this wouldn’t have been much of an issue for either of us, except that there were a couple of cars coming up who apparently had to be in the centre of the track, and would not negotiate, so we were left to get through the rough side sections. It’s all good practice.
I should say at this point that there isn’t much traffic on most of this route, and the vast, vast majority of cars on twisties will move to the side and wave you past. These were the exceptions to that.
We went over some quite badly maintained roads, down through some valleys where there was plenty of debris on the road, as well as the required tar snakes, ripples of asphalt and general subsidence leading to significant drops from mountainsides.
It’s part of the deal – we have great mountains and thus touge and twisties because of Japan’s location on the rim of fire, and the typhoons and long deep winters take their toll. Indeed this year there was a change of route due to one road being closed for nearby volcanic activity. That’s the trade-off – not all of these places can be maintained beyond adequate levels, and I’m fine with that.
We pushed on, savouring the views. At one point I got myself caught in a ragged trench running down the centre of the road when I was looking to overtake a farm vehicle, and had to wrestle the front wheel out of the rut and get back into a lane before anything came the other way, I managed it, but it made me a lot more wary of passing in that area.
Almost the only photo stop we made was at the snow walls on route 292, not far from the highest national road in Japan sign, and a truly beautiful view to see, and something of a tourist attraction, and after several hours of there not being much humanity, it’s a friendly reminder. I have to say this is my favourite section I think, riding between banks of snow, awesome vistas, small streams of melt rolling across the road, and the dedicated skiers getting the last runs of the year in before strapping things back to their cars and heading down, whilst the hotels reconfigure themselves for cycling and hiking season.
Winding down into the next valley, and cutting through a small town it was getting into later afternoon, and we were about to start on the last full set of twisties, which are mainly unmarked single lane farmers roads, and which the previous year I’d done in the dark, in the rain and hadn’t really enjoyed it. This time I was a few of hours earlier, it was dry, so I got to enjoy a wonderful ride down into Joetsu during the golden hours towards sunset, with the light bouncing off the fields and ponds.
We also passed a lady on a mobility scooter coming the other way. Uphill. In the middle of nowhere. The biker spirit never leaves some people it seems.
The last section is a quick highway burn into the town itself, and we rolled into the Hotel car park literally twelve hours after we’d left Odawara, with the sun just about to set.
All that was left to do was a soak in the onsen and have a few beers with the other riders, make sure everyone was safe, exchange stories and bike scars and share a few laughs before getting some sleep, to be fresh again for the next day, where some would continue to other parts of Japan, but where I would be making my way back home.
All in All
It was another fantastic Twistybutt, good times with good people. It’s a great opportunity to challenge and improve your riding skills, or recognise where you need to put some work in. It’s also a good time to learn your bike, how to pack it, how to navigate on it, and if you’re riding with other riders, how to effectively communicate, or agree beforehand how you’ll proceed.
The main thing I learned from last year’s coast to coast, which not only saves time, but boosts enjoyment on the day: knowing the route is everything.
This could be by running it beforehand, or just having a solid mental picture of the turns from studying a map of Touge Express’s route. It also includes having a method of navigation which you know and understand. For me this also included having a far better idea of how GPS tracks, routes and maps work.
Last year I had the source route (the golden master) on Google Maps, and I exported it from Furkot as a GPX route and imported it, seemingly successfully, into OSMAnd+. It didn’t work so well. OpenStreetMap and Google Maps are subtly different, and when I missed a turn my smartphone would then try to recalculate to the next waypoint, which may or may not be on the golden master route. I also didn’t fully understand some of OSMAnd+s options, further adding to route recalculation. It all added up to wasted time and missed turns.
This year I used Kurviger (which also uses OSM) to make a 1:1 track copy of the golden master, which then looked 100% correct on my phone, and I set OSMAnd+ to just use that, so if I missed a turn, it wouldn’t recalculate, it would just point to where I left the track. that was pretty much exactly what I wanted, and was the key to making the navigation portion a case of checking turns in advance, and actually in 500Km I only missed one turn as it was a fairly small hook turn in a forest, forcing us to do a U turn a hundred metres later.