Coast to Coast Twistybutt?

Coast to Coast Twistybutt
Coast to Coast Twistybutt

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!

The Twistybutt – Japan’s Iron Butt Challenge

ride apart

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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Bike Tour: Lakes, Tea and Senbei

It’d been quite a few weeks since I’d been out on the motorbike for a day trip, so when my old friend ‘CS’ offered up the middle day of a 3 day weekend for a trip out in November, I was up for it, and so spent some time staring at my Touring Mapple book and Google Maps to see where we could put in a few hundred kilometres.

As I’m all about style and culture, I had decided we should meet up on the infamous 246 road before moving up into the mountains of central and western Kanagawa Prefecture. The meeting place: The Eastern Gods Truck Station.  Well technically it’s the Toushin Truck Station, but the literal translation of the kanji sounds a lot better in my opinion. Yes, it’s a truck stop – a fair sized one too – with a restaurant, showers, some rooms, and of course ample parking for large trucks, and a smaller area for vans. We parked up in the latter car and van park, CS’s Triumph Tiger 1200 dwarfing some of the vans, whilst everything dwarfed my CB400.

tonkotsuramen onigiri
tonkotsuramen onigiri

A cup of tea and a catch-up later we were on the 246 for a little while before heading north on the 412 and then moving onto the 413 and pushing west. The 413 is a decent road – well surfaced, the odd narrow portion, with plenty of twisties to play on. For the most part you’re going along valleys, but at elevation, so expect some dampness and mist, especially on an overcast day like we were on. It was at this point I discovered the mist loved settling on my visor and stubbornly refused to roll off, so I need to sort that out.

About half way along, we came across a rest area near the town of Doshi, and sailing past all those people in cars who like to queue for parking spaces, we parked up in the bike area which was packed with bikes and bikers – men, women and children of all ages, with all manner of bikes, trikes and quads. It was a good place to take a break, with people queuing for various hot snacks or grilled chicken, pork, vegetables , some tasty looking grilled fish, as well as a shop selling powdered radish roots, fresh veg and other things there was no way I could fit on my bike. In the end I had a bottle of hot lemon juice from the the vending machine. A missed opportunity in retrospect – I should have queued for the grilled fish.

Grilled Fish!
Grilled Fish!

Back on the road, more twisties, but then a slower section in traffic around lake Yamanaka.  I always like the lakes around Mt. Fuji, especially for the novelty ferries. I didn’t take a picture, but Yamanaka had the giant swan ferry on the water as we rode past.

Another missed food opportunity here: we went past several nice local places and pulled away from the commercialized lake area,and only when we were stopping for some fuel did we decide we were hungry, by which point our only real option was the nearby Royal Host.  It’s perfectly acceptable as a place to eat, but as a franchise, we’d usually avoid it.

As CS has a GPS system, he oddly likes to make use of it, and due to this, it likes to run him a merry jaunt on occasion. This time, instead of taking us to a small tea house on a mountain road I had spied on Google Maps, it decided we really wanted to sit in more traffic around the outskirts of the larger Kawaguchi lake  in a market stalls area where it continued to confidently claim the tea shop was always 3 minutes away,.

After fifteen minutes, we called it out, told it we weren’t happy, did U-turns and followed my direction following my paper map. That was better. Or at least it was better for a while, since on the 137, we were to look for road 708, a svelte mountain road where this legendary tea shop would be waiting for us. Unfortunately CS was a couple of cars in front of me, and he missed the turn. This left me bombing up the road thinking I was way behind,  arriving at the beautiful tea-shop and realising it was just me. Long story short, CS did finally locate the place, and it was worth it.

Tenkachaya
Tenkachaya

It’s called Tenkachaya (天下茶屋), as in, ‘whole world under heaven’ tea shop.  They also make and sell senbei rice crackers. There’s no parking as such, and the collection of cars and bikes basically hug the sides of the road.  Inside it’s all wood, modestly lit, and very relaxing. The staff were really friendly, and explained what was available in the shop and on the menu. That’s when we noticed we’d misunderstood something. They do sell tea –  indeed they give you a complimentary cup when you sit down – but their speciality is a blend coffee. I had to have one, and yes, it was very good. Also, the senbei were sweet, sort of lemon flavoured, and the staff advised us to break them in their plastic wrappers before eating because they could probably stop a bullet. They do taste rather good though, so we bought some as omiyage to take away too. It’s by itself really on that 708 road, which the tunnel making it far quicker to get to and from the lake, but it is worth the ride/drive up for a rest stop and to take in the view.

The Tea House
The Tea House

After that good rest we started winding our way towards the Chuo expressway, joining at it’s southern starting point, and following it east. There was plenty of traffic – perhaps people returning Sunday night to avoid the read traffic insanity of the Monday return, so we ended up filtering for a couple of kilometres before stopping before the Hachioji junction where we parted ways. My route would take me onto the newer Ken-O extension south. I like the road as it’s not so busy, there’s plenty of distance between junctions, and even though there aren’t yet service areas, it’s a relaxing ride though I should note, there’s no street lights along some sections, so with just me on my bike, even with the headlight on, it felt oddly isolated.

The only notable thing on that final stretch was that all the auto-payment arches (ETC) were broken on my exit ramp, so I had to stop and get off my bike, get my bike seat off to give the chap on the gate my ETC card so he could manually check it through, then put it all back together. I’ve never had to do that before. Odd really.

All in all a good day out.

(An aside here: the lake is called Kawaguchiko. That ‘ko’ denotes lake [], and though most signs in English say Lake Kawaguchiko, it’s technically Lake Kawaguchi I think).

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Bike Trip to Tanzawa

I was looking for somewhere different to go on the bike for a few hours, and using a tried, trusted and very scientific method, I looked at my map to see where there were very few roads, thinking fewer roads meant a generally quieter area. It didn’t take more than a minute to see the Tanzawa area in central Kanagawa.  With all the research I needed done, I got a fresh flask of tea, the camera, hopped on the bike and off I went.

There’s a rough route here on Google Maps (I hope this works – it’s been a bit hit and miss lately):

There are actually several ways to get to where I needed to go, but I thought I’d get some faster roads in to warm up, and avoid some traffic, so I took the quick Fujisawa bypass down to the coast, did a little on the 134 before cutting north on the 61 up to Isehara. Isehara is a notable place for me since it’s where I lived for two years on my first tour in Japan, teaching English in schools on the JET programme. It seems not much has changed, a few new places, more car parks, but it still seems as nice a small town as it was.

Contrast that with Route 246 which is as comically evil road out here in Kanagawa as it is in central Tokyo. It’s not a fun road on two wheels, but fortunately on this day, it wasn’t too bad, and most of the drivers were relatively sane.

It was route 70 I really wanted though, and the climb into the mountains aiming for the Yabitsu pass, so just before Hadano I made the right and began the ascent though increasingly relaxed housing, more fields and a great view of the mountains.

I’ll be honest, I somehow managed to take a wrong turn, for which I blame my being easily distracted by small and interesting looking roads. I realised my error when I… ran out of road.  This was to be something of a theme for the day.

No More Road

I soon got back on track, and onto the important job of loving the road and the scenery, it’s just a great little area to go and look it. It also seemed popular with cyclists.

There are a number of things to see along the way, some small shrines, which aren’t really notable, and a few viewing points, which give great vistas of the towns below.

tanzawa-tower1

There’s a small service area at the beginning of the Yabitsu Pass. OK, there are some vending machines and a toilet at the start of the Yabitsu Pass to be honest, but don’t worry about that, it’s fairly secluded, and offers just kilometre after kilometre of beautiful twisty roads, shaded tree cover, mountains, and small rivers running down these small valleys.

On the day I went there were also quite a few hikers which is great, but I noted many walked on the left, and not (per international convention I thought) facing oncoming traffic, which would be their right, so be careful on real hairpins, since not only could there be someone walking on the road, but they may well have their backs to you. I think  this was a bit of an issue for the cyclists a few times.

I love twisties, have I ever mentioned that? I don’t ride a bike for speed, I just like seeing what’s out there, meeting people at stops, and winding, winding roads, and this area is great for that.

There also seem to be a lot of camp sites around the area, so I’ve pencilled them in for next year.

As you come out from the Pass, you start to skirt Lake Miyagase, which looks stunning, and is actually a man made lake supplying water for much of east Kanagawa and Tokyo, so if you look carefully you can see dead trees just below and protruding through the water line.

The colour of the rocks, the water and the treeline just looks so different to many of Japan’s lakes, and is quite a contrast to the very green feel of the place.

tanzawa-lake2

The lake has several smaller rivers feeding it, so I chose a road that followed one which the map suggested ended closest to mount Tanzawa, and headed up. More twisties! There were some small collections of houses, presumably for farmers, and the required white kei vans, coming and going, and more and more, signs were for hikers, pointing out hiking routes and estimated walking times.  The roads started to get narrower, and there were more pieces of rocks and leaves in the middle.

Fishing River
Fishing River

Along the way I came across and angling farm, if that’s what they’re called, so I pulled over to have a look. At a turn in the river,  a makeshift gravel carpark (and BBQ spot I suspect) had been created and several pools with weirs of rock built for fishermen to fish their own spot.

tanzawa-fishing1

It looked like a lot of fun if that’s your thing, and each pond was well stocked. It looked a bit rigged if you know what I mean, but everyone seemed to be enjoying it. Yes, I know nothing about angling.

Further on, I made another wrong turn and hit another dead end, retraced my steps, and got back on route, and saw some beautiful waterfalls,  but it was increasingly obvious that the  road was not well travelled at this time of year – branches on the road, a rock slide, a stream flowing across it, and even a snake at one point. Some bent barriers also suggested a few drivers had been a little over enthusiastic on the corners.

I pushed on, taking care between the rocks, and trying to avoid branches in case they also turned out to be snakes, whilst at the same time trying to enjoy the view as the road was now quite high above the small river below.

Finally though, as all good things must come to an end,  this did in the shape of two large steel barriers across the road,  which didn’t entirely come as a surprise since the 50m of road up to them was basically a rock track.

tanzawa-bike1

That then I decided was the end of the run, and I headed back the way I came, stopping to take some photos of the lake, waving to a few bikers as they passed, and felt a little sad that this place was so close and yet I’d never ventured up here. I am planning to come back as part of a group next time, and perhaps we can try some other roads.

 

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Bike Trip to Manazuru

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve been out on my bike for a run, rather than just running errands, and in fact, the last time, I just did old faithful – the Izu Skyline. This time I decided to blend the old and the new, so I took my favourite ocean-side route 134 down towards Odawara, and then go up the Hakone Turnpike. It used to be called the Toyo Tires Turnpike, but now it’s the Mazda Turnpike. At the lower entrance they basically changed one cheap sign for another cheap sign. At the top, they’ve renamed the cafe area to the Mazda Skylounge, though aside from that, it’s business as usual – and there’s nothing wrong with that – a good chance to see people who love to get out on 2,3 or 4 wheels. I await a unicyclist at the SkyLounge for that single wheel addition.

Sat outside the SkyLounge, on one of the benches with a view down onto lake Ashinoko, I was drinking some tea from my flask, and leafing through my Mapple touring map book, trying to find somewhere I could do in a couple of hours, and be back home in the early afternoon. It just wasn’t going to be Izu again I’d decided. As I leafed through I noticed a small spit of land out into Sagami Bay, that just hadn’t registered with me before, I suspect as I’m usually on the coastal road, which lacks an exit near it – the small peninsula called Manazuru.


View Larger Map

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though, first I needed to get from (A) The Mazda Skylounge, to (B) Manazuru. Fortunately for me, a nice way to get there is via Yugawara and Route 75, a playful twisty something, meandering down through the mountain valleys, with plenty of tree overhangs, shade, and more corners than you can shake a moderate sized stick at. It must be five years since I last used this road, and it’s a shame because it’s a lot of fun. At Yugawara, at the base of the 75, it’s a short jaunt on that 135 coast road, but you jump off before the toll and express routes, and then in my case, headed for Manazuru station. I was wondering how these roads were going to work, as on the map there seem to me a mass of turn-offs in front of Manazuru station – and there are. However, after years of tourists, they’ve got it organised, with colour coded lanes to take you to different areas. Fundamentally, the 739 road loops the peninsula, but near the cape (as it’s called) a smaller road breaks off, but this is one way, and quite narrow, which is a good thing, as it keeps traffic flowing safely.

manazuru-rockpool2

I stopped a couple of times along the road to watch people sea fish off the rocks, see the literally fresh fish being dried, and listen to the waves. Riding on though, and onto the one way loop through winding lanes, you finally get down to Manatsuru Cape itself, and a nice large tourist area with car parks and bus parking. From the building, you can get a great view of the bay, it’s very scenic, but I hadn’t come all this way to look at the Pacific from the top of the cliffs – I’d come to touch ocean, and see the shrine. Well, not so much a shrine but, well the photo explains it. As far as I can tell, it’s called ‘名勝三ツ石’ or Meishoumitsuishi. Literal translation – ‘A place of beauty with three rocks’.

manazuru-cape2

As you descend by the steps though, there’s a nice looking cafe. I can’t recommend anything from there, as I was a little early for it to open, but it looked very inviting, perched on the sloping rocks with a grand view of the ocean. At the base of the slope are some toilets, then the pebble beach. The large rocks at the end of the spit are often cut off from the coast when the tide is high, but when it’s low, you can walk out towards them on the rock causeway. You have to be careful on the rocks, and there are thousands of beetles and such, but it’s nice to get out around the waves, and if you’re up for it, try to catch some small fish or shellfish.

manazuru-cape3

The rocks themselves, between two two of which are stretched some Shinto based paper streamers on a long rope (called shime 標, or even a rope version shimenawa), look quite striking against the surf, and it’s easy to see how people living near here in times past would want to make an acknowledgement to the gods of the sea.  All it all, it’s quite a fetching place, and somewhere you can sit for a while and just look out over the vast Ocean. You’ll likely want that rest too, before the hike back up the steps.

manazuru-cape4

The building at the top of the cliffs is nice, but it’s nothing special, if you’ve seen one tourist targeting restaurant selling local food and trinkets, you’ve pretty much seen this one, but it’s got a great view, the menus seemed OK (again, it was too early to try), the staff were nice,   it had some nice places to sit outside, and vitally, the toilets were clean.

After I’d drunk some more tea on the lawn over the cliff, I could feel the bike calling me, so off I went again, giving cyclists plenty of space on the bumpy road, but actually not so far, as another building came into view, and in front of it, the Manazuru Fire Station, which is a simple building with large glass windows, showing off the single fire engine. It looked quite nice in it’s own way.

The building just behind it looks like a large converted house, in some old, and non-Japanese style; at first glance it looked almost south east Asian colonial – yes, I’m not much of an architectural scholar. In front of the house, what was once likely a large stately lawn, has been quite tastefully converted into a miniature golf course. Walk past this, through the palm trees, and again there’s a beautiful cliff-top view of the ocean. I think this is all a part of the number of hotel resort facilities in the area, for those who want to come down for several days.

manazuru-golfhouse1

There are lots of things to see on this peninsula actually – I’d quite like to come back for a full day and walk around a lot more to see more of them, and once you’re here, on foot is a good way to do it. Of course, two wheels are the best way to actually get here.

Manazuru My Map
Manazuru My Map

I made a Google Map link, as the image above is a grab – it didn’t want to show for some reason. However you get here though, the compactness of the area makes it worth the trip.

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That Old Skyline Again

Whenever I get a half day to take a run out on the bike, there’s always the decision to be made about whether I should go somewhere new, take some random turns, get off the beaten track, or go somewhere I know, tried and tested. Not always, if ever, an easy decision.

Earlier this week then, when I got that time, I went conservative and decided to do a run I know I can get through in about 6 hours, even with some vital stops for tea: down the Pacific coastal route 134, then up to the Dammtrax Cafe near Hakone in the mountains, then down the toll based Izu Skyline. Then back pretty much the same way.

I’ve written about this route before simply because I really like it – I even did a video for it over a year ago:

A Quick Run to Izu in the morning from Nanikore on Vimeo.

For me it kicks off with some nice straight and fast roads down towards the beach with great head-on views of Mt. Fuji in the morning mist, then out along route 134.

At 7am, there’s not usually much traffic, but since they’re widening the whole thing right now, there were some road works, but those of us on two wheels can usually get down the sides without too many problems – it’s worth noting that the vast majority of Japanese car drivers are quite happy to stay away from that left hand curb and give riders some space. Unless you’re being really obnoxious anyway.

It’s a mix of toll roads – none of them too expensive – until this point, but I usually take them over the free local routes to get that nice elevation above the beach and ocean. You can ride along, see the early morning fishermen on the piers and the beach, the waves coming up the beach – it’s very relaxing. Along this section there’s a service area often used as a meeting point for bikers, so if you’re looking for a quick drink and a chat with like minded individuals, it’s great. I remember stopping in early one February, the kind of morning where ice was forming on the front of bikes – chilly. Unlike on those spring and summer days when the place is packed, there were just three of us, all out on our own, clutching hot drinks next to the bikes, generally not understanding those who don’t ride year round, and also realising it was likely us that were a bit nuts

That beach section, like most roads here, is in good condition, but as it’s been assembled in concrete sections, you get that rhythmic bounce at each join, like a train on it’s tracks.

There are a few routes into the mountains, but the two I usually choose between are the Toyo Tires Turnpike, and the Hakone Pass. The latter is free, but the Turnpike takes you straight to the cafe, and I think is a more entertaining ride up.

Either way, from here on out, it’s twisties, twisties and more twisties.

The Dammtrax cafe is a part of a general service area – it would like to be the smaller sibling of the famous Ace Cafe near London – and has a lot of photos and memorabilia from that place, but it’s not, it’s a corner of a food hall which also offers ice cream and ramen. That’s not to say it doesn’t have the idea – the staff are great, you can buy random biker items, and on most days, you’ll be sat with a bunch of bikers. The car park is huge though, and in the spring and summer months, owners clubs, manufacturers and other motor vehicle related vendors set stands up to sell their products and often have giveaways. In peak season you could probably spend a couple of hours just looking around at all the cars, bikes and talking to the people.

From here though, it’s a short run down route 20 to the upper entrance to the Skyline, and from there, it’s just over 40Km of fun. There are places to stop along the way, and at the halfway mark there’s a service area which sell the usual Japanese selection of gift foods and vegetables and food.

One odd thing along the route, a few kilometres from the beginning is an abandoned building, claiming to be an Energy and Environment Building, if you’re into abandoned building (‘haikyo‘) then this one might want to go on your list. I didn’t go inside, just walked the perimeter; I like the design, and that there’s a drive in ramp (though not I suspect for vehicles really). I’ve ridden past it so many times, but never stopped. Next time I’m up there I might take a closer look at the ramp.

The Skyline is a great road though, good surface, plenty of slopes, turns and enough straights that you can escape slow cars and buses if you get unlucky enough to be behind one. Don’

There’s also a lot of places to pull over for photos, since the road gets you great views of Fuji on one side, and the ocean coast on the other. If you keep your eyes open (so to speak) you’ll also see the odd farm track leading off the road – I’ve followed a couple of these, and they are a lot of fun. This time I rode up one for a few kilometres, and it was great to see a camp site I didn’t know existed, and a really nice stream and some waterfalls- a good place for a cup of tea from the flask.

The end of the Skyline is always a bit of a let down – there’s nothing there after the toll booth – just a long closed down restaurant place. A weird anticlimax, it’s also not very photogenic, though like the Energy Museum, I should probably look into it’s history.

Another quick trip to Chiba

Now and then, I like I take a day to go over the bay to Chiba and just run some of the twisties on that peninsula on the motorbike. It was a nice day, and after a 7am start, took a relaxing ride down the coastal road to Kurihama to meet a friend, and take the ferry over – just a nice relaxing 40 minute boat ride, and time for a chat and a cup of tea on the way over. There’s usually a few bikers on this ferry, and a decent percentage on dirt bikes, as Boso apparently has quite a few kilometres of off-road for those so inclined.

My friend was looking to give his new Triumph Tiger Explorer a good run on some twisties, and I was looking to simply have a more successful run than last time. When we came over in March, we had stopped for a traffic light when some genius in an SUV rammed my bike, forcing me almost 10 metres forward and effectively stopping the run before lunch. That day, dealing with the police and the hospital meant we’d lost most of the day, but with bits taped up on my bike, the police at least let me ride it home.

On the Ferry Again
On the Ferry Again

For some reason, I get a really simple pleasure from riding my bike on and off ferries, and we found some great little twisties along the way, very little traffic, some nice views, and generally had a good time.

We stopped for lunch, originally intending to eat at an Italian restaurant we saw, but it turned out – after we’d walked in – that it was closed; generally unless there’s a sign outside saying “Closed”, I work on the theory a place is open. Anyway, it wasn’t, but the upside was that the neighbouring ramen place was, so we settled for that, and in a great piece of serendipity, the place turned out to be fantastic and quite cheap. Getting good food on a run is always good, with the bonus that you can balance your expanded stomach on the tank when you set off again. The only downside – I lost the receipt and forgot to mark the place on my map.

Ramen For Lunch
Ramen For Lunch

The Boso area is very different to the crowded urban Chiba bordering Tokyo; where we were it was very rural, lots of fields and hills, though I got this sense that it’s faintly run down – we passed a lot of abandoned or disused buildings, and it seemed like a lot of the petrol stations had closed. I wonder how the local economy is faring nowadays since so much seemed to hark back to the bubble of almost two decades ago.

Rural Chiba
Rural Chiba

As the afternoon moved on though, the weather began to close in a little, and we opted for coming back via the Aqualine, a part bridge, part tunnel connector between Yokohama and the Boso peninsula.

I have to admit, I don’t especially like the 4Km bridge section – it’s across Tokyo Bay, it can be windy, there’s a lot of fast, big traffic, and even in good weather, it’s not so fun on a smaller (400cc) naked bike. The weather was getting worse too.

As the road goes from the bridge section on the Chiba side, to the tunnel section on the Yokohama side, there’s a very large service area called Umihotaru, which is on a man-made island. It’s basically a multistorey car park and shopping centre, well known as a bit of a date spot. We weren’t on a date, but we did stop off, if only to have a last warm drink before the last 50Km run home.

It was also raining by then, which is no real problem – the rain gear is always under the seat – but the wind was also picking up, so we got the rain gear on, and headed down in to the tunnel, then broke off from each other as I headed to the west.

My route takes me over a lot of bridges, skirting the coastal industrial areas which means a lot of wind and large lorries, but not usually anything dangerous. The wind was really cranking up though, and I was having to lean the bike into it, hunkering down low over the tank, and trying not to let the bike veer too much from my line as some cars were passing just off to my right, not really judging it well (I could easily touch a lot of wing mirrors), and then the rain started coming down.

In these conditions, on this 80Km/h road, I usually drop it down a gear, keep the revs up, and go down to about 60 Km/h, meaning that usually there are people still blasting past me and probably cursing this biker who is making them actually maneuver their nice wind shielded, dry cars.

Over one bridge and the inevitable swirling of wind around the large bridge towers, and I noticed that no one is passing me any more, but I’m still the same distance behind a tanker in front of me, so I have a look around, and it seems like this weather isn’t just affecting me – everyone is going 55 – 60 Km/h. Nice to know I’m not the only one having to be careful. After about 30 minutes the road took me a little further inland, giving some protection from the wind, to sit up a little more, increase some speed, and not have to lean in so much. I ride year round, and try to be wary of ice and such, but one thing I think I handle better now than previous years is riding in the wind – revs up, tank gripped with the old legs, arms relaxed, and hunker down over the tank.

It was nice to quietly roll up the hill to the house, a little tired from holding the bike through what seemed like the edge of a decent sized storm, but I think it was another good day out if only because it was good to feel like my biking ability had improved a bit through the twisties and that weather, which is always a good thing.
[Run length only ~260Km + ferry]

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, and that Shonan is a surfer place is very apparent, especially at this time of year – lots of people in wetsuits on bicycles, surf-boards strapped in U shaped holders on sides of the bicycles and 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 fisherwomen?) 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.

The Best Way to Meet Japan

Down By The Beach

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 license 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 by motorbike, 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 these 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 a forest. Somewhere.
In a forest. Somewhere.

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.

wasabi farmOn 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.)

Down By The Beach
Down By The Beach

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.

First Bike Run of 2011

So whilst many 20 year olds prepped for the Coming Of Age Day national holiday, I awoke early, got a nice hot cup of tea, wrapped up well and headed off for my first run on the bike in 2011. Even though I’m still a novice and have a basic bike (a 2006 Honda CB400 SuperFour) I do like to get out all year round. Knowing it would be chilly, I went for two layers under my leathers, and set off.

For the sake of the blog, let’s call a ‘run’ something over 100Km door to door, and a ‘trip’ something over 250Km? This one ran to approx. 124Km., so not a long one.

I only had the morning due to family commitments in the afternoon, but wanted to see how far I could comfortably get. The run down Route #1 and then out onto 135 – the coastal road – was OK, but it was already apparent how cold it really was, and the roads were wet.

That said, that road is awesome to see the sun rise, the early fishermen (and women) on the beach, and on the clear days, Mt. Fuji in front, and to the right of you.

After a cold start, I pulled in to the service station at about 7.45 on the Seisho Bypass just past Kouzu to get a cup of coffee from my flask and see who was around. This is a very popular meeting point for people – especially bikers – as there’s a special bike parking area and quite a bit of space, but there were only four of us there. Four. Usually there’d be ten times that. The other three riders were all in serious winter riding gear so either I was part of some dedicated few, or I was being a bit foolhardy/optimistic.

A Cold Morning Sunrise
A Cold Morning Sunrise
Only A Few Takers
Only A Few Takers

One thing I did do was to put my rain gear on as an extra layer, and the effect was nigh on instant – reducing the wind chill significantly, and proving once more why you should always keep rain gear on your bike!

Back on the road the only issue was dodging the snow clumps blowing off the roofs of cars flying past – really, is it such a difficult task to clean your whole car? Good luck when you brake.

I will admit that my next route was ridiculously optimistic – I went up to the Toyo Tires turnpike entrance, despite the apparent snow on the sides of the roads, and the generally wet surface; looking at the mountains towards Hakone and Odawara, it had obviously had a decent amount of overnight snow. Unsurprisingly, the chap on the gate, looking at bit bemused at myself and the biker rolling up behind me, explained that the road was closed due to snow and ice higher up. So that was Plan A down, so I went to Plan B, which was to continue a nice run down Route 135.

It was still cold, but the sun was a bit higher now, around 9am, and getting a little warmer, however, that road is twisty and the surface was wet and glinting in the sun, and at least once I could feel the back wheel slipping on the white paint from zebra crossings, so between those (and there are many), the manhole covers placed conspicuously on the best riding line, and the twisties, it was a good riding workout.

At about 9.30am, I saw a small McDonalds by the side of the road and decided that this would be my halfway turn around point. Now, I don’t usually like McDonalds  but at that time of morning, feeling a bit chilled, I quite fancied a muffin and hot coffee, except I seemed to have stopped at one of the few McD’s which doesn’t have the breakfast menu, so I settled for the smallest hamburger I could order with the largest coffee (no fries). I will also say that the music being played was a pretty decent attempt at an 80’s rock revival which took me back to school disco days.

After the food and coffee I decided to walk a little before getting back on the bike and resting the stomach back on the tank, and followed an under road track to the beach  where I chatted to a couple of people fishing off the pier. It really was a beautiful day for it too by this time.

View from the Pier
View from the Pier

The ride back was fairly relaxed, even if it was getting a little congested by 10.30 and again, there’s plenty of driver’s who don’t see the point in cleaning snow off the roof. I did stop off at the Nexco Tachibana services for a break and a coffee, and I’m happy to report that whilst the esoteric vending machines which play invigorating Colombian music are still there, the toilets and rest area have been renovated. The outside  sitting area has now been encased in glass, so you can get out of the wind a little more. Well done Nexco.

So it was a short run, and hopefully I’ll get somewhere new and a bit further away next time, which at this point is likely to be next month but it was worth it to get out and feel a bit of road under the wheels.

For those interested – Seijin no Hi – became an official national holiday after the Second World War, and celebrates people who have turned 20 since the previous January 15th, and it generally the age people can smoke and drink and do all those other fun things.