The annual family snow trips have been a popular event for us for a while – it’s not too much of a drive (~4.5 hours / 320Km), to Nagano Prefecture’s Shiga Kogen area, and even better, the last 15Km requires [rubber] chains or snow tyres, and as we have the former, I do get to enjoy driving in the mountains.
We usually like to try different places to stay for a bit of variety, but this year we stayed at the same place for two weekends in the ‘village’ of Ichinose, thanks to getting a deal staying at the Hotel Japan for a few days via Expedia.
Disconcertingly, this hotel we chose had a fire a couple of years ago in the main wing apparently, though from what we saw, it all looked like business as usual aside from lots of reminders not to smoke… I don’t know why, but does the name ‘Hotel Japan’ seem a bit generic? That said, breakfast was decent, it’s above an excellent Nepalese restaurant, and the onsen is nice and clean.
Anyway, for families, Ichinose is very decent – a cluster of hotels, some bars and restaurants, and access to much of the Shiga Kogen ski resort area, and even over to Kusatsu if you drive just a little bit more. We spent time around the Diamond area nearby – it’s not awesome powder or insane double diamonds, but it’s a nice family paced warm up area, then we drove the 5Km around to Okushiga, as they have a good ski school for the kids, and a good mix of steep, S bend oriented forest runs for variety, and on a good day, some nice powder – it’s also just a bit of a slide over to the Yakebitaiyama courses.
It’s difficult to believe it’s been a year since I got my 2016 Yamaha MT-09 Tracer, but it really has been. What a great year too!
Getting down to business, so far I’ve put over 6,400Km (~4,000 miles) on the Tracer, which for me is pretty respectable in 12 months, so here’s a very quick mini-review of the experience so far.
“It’s a great motorcycle.”
There we are, nice and to the point. Done.
OK, maybe I should add something to that.
To ride, it’s fantastic, there’s plenty of torque and power coming out of that CP3 triple engine, and it never gets old winding it up on the twisties.
Of the three throttle modes, I’ve mostly just been leaving it in standard for most of my riding, though I do slip it into the B mode for heavy rain in the mountains, where it’s effective for that – there’s a much smoother roll on experience.
The A mode is fun, and yes, on the highways it’s useful, but honestly it’s a bit too enthusiastic for the way I ride day to day – I don’t ride aggressively, at most I’m around ‘decisive’, sometimes I drift into ‘plodding’.
I spent a bit of time setting the suspension up, and generally I’ve been pleased with it, and adjustments are simple, though at one extreme on the rear the C wrench provided meant I had to move the chain guard to adjust the pre-load. Only had to do it that once though.
The stock tyres, Dunlop OEM D222 Sportmax, are OK. Coming from Pilot Road 2s, they don’t feel as good, but they’re certainly not bad. I am planning to swapping them out for Road 5s though.
I haven’t modded it much beyond adding some frame sliders so I can’t speak to the customising aspect, but the whole MT-09 range seems to get plenty of attention on the mod scene.
It’s all about the riding though, and the riding has been great, from the mountains to hours on the expressway, to trips around town, and nothing to fault really, the windscreen and front fairings provides a bit of wind deflection, which is good when I ride the coast roads, and the seat-height is pretty much the highest I’d feel comfortable on.
Have you dropped it?
Of course I have! Nothing exciting – did a U turn on an incline, foot was on some loose stones and slipped, leading to one of those slow, inevitable lowerings which deserves a round of applause. Nothing damaged though, save a minor bend in the brake pedal.
Best ride so far?
It has to be the Coast 2 Coast Twistybutt. Over 500Km of touge twisties from the the Pacific to Japan Sea coasts in a day, and the Tracer did it with comfort and ease – this thing loves twisties, and if there’s one thing Japan has piles of, it’s twisties!
After sorting the suspension for my slightly over-fed self, a minor tweak for my significant other, and it’s a fine two-up bike, where reports say the pillion seat is comfortable with a decent view, but not out in the wind. I tried throttle on B, but standard is still fine for two.
One odd thing for me might be the mirrors. They’re OK after you’ve messed around with them, if a bit narrow for me personally, but I found the stem nuts would vibrate loose now and then, once leading to the left side one spinning around whilst riding, forcing me to pull over and look for the correct spanner in the micro toolkit Yamaha provides – of course there wasn’t one which fit in there, so I bought one (17mm?) from a local DIY shop which has now saved me on a couple of days out. Also, the fuse on the aux outputs are for 2A, so beyond a phone, USB etc., you may want to be careful. Don’t ask me how I know.
Let’s face it, if they’re the only downsides, that’s not too bad at all.
I’ve been looking around for some frame sliders for the Tracer, and indeed found quite a few which seemed to fit the bill with it being based on the fairly popular MT-09 and all.
As you could expect, the two two main types for my model were the ‘single bolt and puck’ type, and those which used two bolts per side with the slider puck somewhere in the middle on a bar or mount. Despite being a little more expensive, I decided to go for the latter two-bolts-per-side type as I think they’d disperse any inpact force a little better, and frankly I quite like the look of them. I also thought it’d be something different to install, as I’d only had the single bolt type on previous bikes.
Truthfully, I’ve been lucky over the years not to drop or slide my bikes too often, but the Tracer is quite tall for me, and I’ve felt it almost go when doing some slow, tight U-turns down mountain roads which had suddenly stopped being roads, so once more I thought I’d get some sliders on, just in case.
After a bit of thinking, reading, more thinking, and several cups of tea, I’d narrowed it down to either a set from German manufacturer SW Motech, or some from a Japanese company called Baby Face. The Motech ones look nice, they’re well made and angular like the Tracer. The Baby Face ones look more traditional, with the more tubular style puck but the two piece bar is a very nice piece of engineering. Partly because they looked chunky, and partly because a friend is a distributor who tends to only represent decent kit, I thought I’d give the Japanese manufacturer BabyFace a go. Price wise here in Japan they’re quite similar.
The sliders arrived in a well packed box with the contents shown above – all in a kind of vacuum bubble wrap, and with some very basic instructions. Very. Basic. Those instructions had an odd blowup diagram of the assembly, some generic warnings (‘don’t fit these when the engine is hot’), some general torque guidance for their bolts, and a request to consult your bike’s service manual for specific mounting bolt torques. There’ s also a parts and spec list, but none of the parts themselves have numbers on them, so be sure to measure and know which part is which.
I dry assembled them, and beautifully labelled them with premium masking tape, in an attractive shade of pink. You can see the two parts which form the bar are quite chunky, but they’re light, and even when only lightly tightened, they feel incredibly rigid.
Next up was fitting them to the bike.
Per institutions and experience, I’d need some threadlock, for which I defaulted to Loctite Blue 243 which hasn’t failed me yet. The rest are the usual hex bits and the required torque wrenches.
The BabyFace bar bolts just require 5 & 25Nm torquing, with the engine bolts requiring 45Nm.
The instructions recommend an engine jack, but since I don’t have access to a specific motorcycle one, I simply put the bike on its centre stand, then a car jack under the engine until I could feel it taking some weight, and the bike didn’t move.
From that I just went one bolt at a time, doing first the left, then the right slider. It was actually simpler than expected. Only one of the original Yamaha bolts had any threadlock on it, but for scale I put a small drop on each of the four engine bolts. Each bolt I removed I labelled and put in a ziploc. Force of habit.
Basically, remove a bolt, clean the theads and washer (as it would be re-used), thread the new BabyFace bolt through the slider assembly and washer and into the hole, hand tighten, then do the second bolt for that side and then torque them both down. No problems.
As you can see, they suit the style and colour of the Tracer, so I’m really pleased with them, and despite the sparse instructions, fitting was a breeze likely thanks to the quality engineering.
As expected, they feel incredibly solid on the bike, fit in to the design and in a good way, disappear.
Look and feel well made
No installation issues
Instructions are very generic, and not immediately clear so spend some time absorbing them.
At the tail-end of Golden Week this year (May 5th to be exact) I took part in Touge Express’ 2017 Coast to Coast Twistybutt, an invitational run across Japan from the Pacific Ocean to Japan Sea purely via the mountain pass roads or ‘touge’ as they’re known. 500Km of turns with the occasional short local road connecting them.
If you were on a straight road, you were probably on the wrong road.
So where is the tale of this crossing? I did write one, but it’s not here, it’s on a real motorcycle website, so thanks to Chris and everyone at RideApart for bringing tales from the touge to the broader world – they’ll be all the better for it!
I have a bit of a commute for my job, so I’ve tried to find different ways to make use of the time in a more constructive manner, and one of those ways is to listen to podcasts. As I have quite a few on my list right now, I thought I’d break this up into two posts – ‘Motorcycles’ and ‘The Rest’. As an aside, I’m currently running a cheaper Android phone (a Lenovo Moto G5+) and the DoggCatcher podcatching app. (I did a round-up of my podcasts in 2009 and 2011; a few I still listen to, some have gone away.) Anyway, on with the list:
Adventure Rider Radio RAW – Out of Canada, this is a monthly panel show, usually running 90-120 mins. of experienced overlanders discussing situations, kit, their books etc.. I’ve not done anywhere near the travelling they have, but it’s often interesting for tips and funny anecdotes, as well as differing perspectives on how to travel for long periods. The same production team also make the weekly Adventure Rider Radio, but this can be hit and miss as there can be a lot of native advertising in some episodes – probably worth a try though.
Front End Chatter – Two motorcycle journalists from the UK discuss street bikes as well as some racing content and usually runs for 60-90mins every two weeks. There’s a lot of light banter and some very decent Q&A in most episodes.
Two Enthusiasts – Two American chaps, based out of the Pacific north west of the US discuss bikes, with a slant to technology and the motorcycle industry itself. This is an extension of the usually decent news website Asphalt and Rubber, and each episode goes for between 60-90 minutes.
Moterrific – Two American ladies this time make this podcast on a semi-regular monthly schedule, with each episode running around 60-80mins. They discuss areas to ride, gear, and dip in to some of the challenges women face in the hobby from perception, to decent gear, to bike height.
Tabibike Ladies Bike – A Japanese podcast which doubles up as both motorbike podcast and Japanese study for me, where the two hosts discuss bikes as well as bike culture, all the way into food and happenings during rides. This podcast is a little shorter at around 40 minutes per episode.
So those are the ones I’m currently listening to, but feel free to recommend others.
The Fourth Phase is the third snowboard focused film / travelogue from Brain Farm, mainly featuring the ideas and riding of Travis Rice and friends.
The very short version: It’s a well shot video of snowboarding and life following the water cycle across the north Pacific with some wit and wisdom from Travis Rice and friends thrown in. I enjoyed it the first time around on my home BD / TV, and I even enjoyed it second time around on my phone during my commute into Tokyo. It’s re-watchable.
Still reading? Thanks, here’s the slightly longer version.
This video came five years after the excellent Art of Flight (2011), and almost nine since That’s it, That’s all (2008). I recommend both of those previous ones by the way.
It notionally follows the cycle of water around the north Pacific, meaning it starts in Wyoming (as ever with a Travis Rice part), then scoots via Travis’ catamaran across the Pacific to Japan, then to Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands in Russia, before heading back to Alaska. The Fourth Phase of the title alludes to some wonderful property water possesses beyond solid, liquid and gaseous phases, derived from the book by Gerald H. Pollack.
That’s the metaphysical bit behind the title, but what about the film itself?
Compared to Art of Flight, there are fewer of the epic slow-motion and dolly shots, and more point-of-view and drone footage. That’s not a bad thing in my opinion, making it feel more personal. As for the other personnel, there are a few guests per region, but it’s anchored around Travis Rice and Mark Landvik. They’re both personable on screen, whereas some of the other riders look overly self conscious. Landvik always comes across well I think, so a good choice there, especially as things develop, but there needed to be more of them together.
The time in Japan I especially liked. I’m biased I know as I live and snowboard here, but those scenes more completely captured what it’s about – great tree runs, hikes out, the very surreal feel in the countryside during the epic amounts of powder snow and deluges of water the islands get, and the people who live in the mountain regions. The standouts were the fire festival footage, and the eerie illuminated night tree-runs, so well done to the team for the location work and cinematography.
Music is always a key part of snowboarding videos, and this one moves from classical to rock to synth pop, and it broadly works, though some bits don’t seem to work as well as others. The orchestral sections in Russia are excellent for example, but some of the synth-pop for the Japan sections seemed a little disconnected to the visuals. Much of the soundtrack was done by musician Kishi Bashi.
The Russian section is interesting even if there isn’t so much riding, just through the geography of the place, yet there are snowboarders there, even if the set-piece of the crew giving some local kids a board feels a little clumsy, a bit more explaining what the local boarder community is up to would have been more useful than the surf scene, which whilst fun, didn’t really add as much as more with the local kids would have.
There is of course plenty of big mountain riding, hikes, great heli-drops and at least a few nice ramps. There’s also the hospital section which is now either a requirement or a tradition at this point.
One minor disappointment with the BD version I have are the extras – not as many fun outtakes as previous discs, and even the behind the scenes sections seemed a little forced.
If you see reviews, reception was mixed – maybe they wanted Art of Flight 2 which is a little unlikely as this wasn’t directed by Curt Morgan, it was from Jon Klaczkiewicz, and as I understand it, there was an Art of Flight series which should’ve covered that?
I think there’s a few things going on here.
Firstly, as this is built around Travis Rice, he’s getting older, and whilst he brought other younger riders in, this is more about his thought process, and what he’s into, which was doing runs he hadn’t done before. Yes, his first world philosophizing about being a seeker is a little cringe inducing, but you can tell he believes it and to his credit, is getting out there and doing it.
Also, given all the snowboard videos available online these days, it’s difficult to know if the sponsors would go for yet another flurry of epic jumps in Alaska by itself, or whether Red Bull, GoPro, Skullcandy and all the other very obvious sponsors would want to do that, given they’re already saturating those markets online.
On the ‘missed opportunities’ side, I actually wanted to see a bit more of Travis Rice on the catamaran, beyond the philosophizing, actually following this water cycle the premise hangs on. I’m always keen to hear more from Brian Iguchi too, who just seems like a very calm chap to sit down with.
Ultimately it’s a great film to watch but it’s straddling two different genres – it’s not an hour and a half of shredding and epic jumps, but it’s not really a travelogue either since there really isn’t enough about what happens locally – even the Russian shutout wasn’t really explained for example.
If you want straight riding and tricks with the odd laugh, probably better to go back to That’s It, That’s All in this series.
We were up in Shiga Kogen (Nagano Prefecture) again a few weeks ago for yet more snow fun, and decided to go and see the famous snow monkeys in the hot spa pools of Jigokudani Park, since we were in the area and hadn’t been before. There are a million or so amazing photos of these monkeys around the internet so I won’t post any of my own of them, but instead, a couple of the valley running through part of the park to give you an idea of what it looks like when you take a step back.
The park is actually a ~1.6Km walk from the car park area to the monkeys, and requires a fee of ~800yen per person to get in to see them, so be aware. The walk up is through a beautiful valley side though, a long, winding, if somewhat icy track, which is quite relaxing. At the base of the stairs which mark the final few hundred metres, there’s a group of old traditional houses and a steam geyser – and the occasional naked man in an outdoor bath (routenburo) if that’s your thing!
You can see above where most of those amazing photos actually happen. It’s not always this crowded though, if you take a look at the webcams when they’re live, it’s often fairly empty. It is of course well staged – the monkeys are fed by the park staff to encourage them to come down, though guests are understandably discouraged from feeding the monkeys. As someone who has had a close face-to-face encounter with an adult male snow monkey in a carpark on a previous snow trip, I can vouch for not getting too close.
Also of interest to me was a group of old, and somewhat battered looking motorcycles down by the track, some Honda (Super) Cubs and an old CD90, all muddied up and with chains on for the snow, ice and mud. They look like they’ d seen some fun for sure. They seem to be used for running basic deliveries, and I dare say they’re probably road legal, but sadly there were no owners around I could ask. Definitely the types of vehicles you want for this terrain.
A modern motorcycle has a number of safety systems built into it to help the rider stay safe, but we all know you’re also at the mercy of the other person and the universe in general. Insurance helps for sure after the event, but what if you need that little extra protection avoiding an accident?
Here in Japan we can also call upon the gods, and get ourselves an O-mamori [守り]. These are small amulets, commonly looking like small bags, which are purchased from shrines, and intended to bring good fortune or ward off evil and bad luck. The bag usually contains something which has been blessed, for want of a better term – I don’t know what’s in mine since part of the deal is that you don’t open it.
I had an omamori bought for me from a local Shinto shrine, and I now have it safely tied on under my motorcycle seat, to help ward off crazy minivan drivers, Prius drivers, and all the others who seem to forget there are vehicles with less than four wheels. This one then is of the traffic safety or koutsuu anzen variety, and let’s hope it serves its purpose!