The Working Monkeys (and Motorbikes) of Nagano

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.

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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New Tyres – Michelin Pilot Road 2

I’ve discovered that one of the few downsides to owning a very reliable motorbike is that even though you do the regular checks on it, there are times where you think, “When was the last time I checked that?”. For me recently that was the tyres, as I knew they’d been on quite a few years, so I did a close inspection, and whilst they had wear left, there was a small amount of crazing in some of the tread, and since I actually have a lot of riding to do over the winter, I decided it was time to swap them out.

I asked around, checked in on GaijinRiders and I was actually surprised that for the two things I needed to know, I was getting quite a few people saying the same thing – for my bike and riding style, the Michelin Pilot Road 2 tyres would fit the bill, and the best place to get them fitted was a small shop in Setagaya in Tokyo called Speed Stars.

I called them a couple of days before to confirm the tyre and the dimensions, and they’d said they’d need to order the tyres in, which I thought might mean a week or so wait – actually it would be the next evening. That’s just good service and market knowledge.

The shop is about an hour from me, but it’s a decent run on a good road, so no problems there. The day I went the weather was miserable and raining, but I’m an all weather rider, so I got on the rain gear and the trusty 2006 Honda CB400 SF to make the run.

The SpeedStar people come across as really friendly, and had the job done in less than an hour. I’d actually arrived a few minutes after they opened and there was already a couple of people in – I get the feeling this place is really popular. I waited in the adjoining cafe they own, where the staff were friendly, even showing me around her own bike (a nice Harley) and chatted until the new tyres were on. They’ve got a very nice atmosphere there, and it’s the kind of place which is worth stopping in if you happen to be passing in Setagaya.  The pricing was good too – cheaper than NAPS, and there’s a small discount for paying cash, but even if NAPS were a little cheaper, I’d still go to SpeedStar just for the people and service.

bike-newtyres

I’ve now done a few hundred kilometers on the Road Pilot 2s, and they really area a good tyre – very stable with good cornering and you can really feel the improved rolling characteristics over the old Battlax. That cornering is going to be important – I love riding the twisties.

I’m looking forward to getting a few thousand more kilos under these.

A Cover for the Motorbike

For some reason, this month seems to have become the month of motorbike covers. Just to go over the history a little then.

My previous cover was one I bought at NAPS a couple of years ago based on the recommendation of a friend. I can’t remember the brand, but it felt thick, and seemed well made. Indeed it started out well, kept the bike nice and dry, but sometimes the local cats would sit on it, and scratch it, and chunks started to come out of it. It’s difficult to describe the material – it was like a thickly woven paper, a bit like the one-shot oil change overalls material, but several layers of it bonded together. After a year, I found it left a lot of ‘dust’ from the inside layers on the bike after putting it on and taking it off again, and finally after two years I’d decided I really didn’t like it, as now some of the seams were ripping, and some holes exposed the bike, so I planned to buy a new one.

I could have gone for something from NAPS since it’s just down the road, but decided to ask around, and ended up getting a few suggestions from Jason Fullington, and after reading some reviews and thinking about it, I decided to order a cover from Nelson-Rigg – the Falcon Defender 2000 – through Jason’s company AFGMoto.

As it was coming from the States, I expected it to take a week or two, but it made it within a week, and since I was looking to go to the AFGMoto shop anyway, I decided to drive on up there, though in a four wheel vehicle and in traffic, it took a little longer than expected – it’s just outside the Yokota airbase on Route 16, which is not a quiet road.

In the meantime though, and in an odd twist, I went out on my bike for an hour last weekend, leaving the old cover neatly folded next to the conifer tree in front of our house, so it wouldn’t move, and when I got back, it had gone – yep, someone stole my old, hole-riddled cover in the hour between 9.30-10.30 PM.

Fortunately the bike was only under a tarp for a few days.

As you can see from the image below, the Falcon Defender is a rather tasteful black and silver. The black is a thick polyester weave, which feels very sturdy; the silver is a heat treat version of that. Unlike previous covers which had straps, this one has an elasticated skirting which I actually find feels far more secure, and should prevent flapping in the wind. Under  the silver logo triangles are some holes to allow some venting, which the previous cover lacked, which I think was also an issue.

It feels very good, it looks very decent too, so frankly I’m very pleased with it, and it’s far, far easier to get on an off. As a package, it also comes with a backpack to pack it in if you want to take it with you, or store it – something else I just couldn’t do with the bulky cover before, and actually something I’d want to be able to do. One minor issue for me is the eyelets for a bike lock are just a little too small for my lock, which isn’t a major issue, and they eyelets are re-enforced, which is nice. This may be more or less of an issue depending on where you live – I don’t think my old cover would’ve been stolen if it was on my bike.

For sizing, buying from a US site for a Japan only bike was a little concerning, and from their sizing, it seemed a medium size would do, but I saw a couple of reviews which praised the cover itself, but advised going one size up, and I would agree – for my Honda CB400 Super Four, that’s a large size cover on there. The only downside is that the heat shielded material stops just short of the end of the exhaust, but I generally let my bike engine cool anyway before putting any cover on it.

Price wise, given the exchange rate (Yen wins) and buying through AFGmoto, it was much cheaper than I think anything I could have gotten from NAPS, coming in under 7,000yen (though I picked it up of course), making that previous cover at 10,000yen even less of a deal.

Defender 2000
Nelson Rigg Defender 2000

CB400 Super Four

After a couple of years on my old faithful 50cc Zoomer, last Friday I took delivery of a new Honda CB400 Super Four bike, and very nice it is too. It had always been a bit of a goal to have a ‘real’ bike, and this one really doesn’t disappoint at all. Then again, I wont be able to afford a new one any time soon, so I’m hoping it’s as reliable as people say.

In the few days I’ve had it I’ve only notched up 60Km, but it feels like a nice smooth ride, but with enough grunt to be able to get around Tokyo very nicely. I suppose more importantly I feel a bit safer on it in traffic than I did the Zoomer, but that’s certainly no slight against that bike, that’s just the nature of city riding. Then again, being a rather heavy person the 400cc engine seems a bit more sprightly.

Anyway, here’s a quick picture:
the bike

Zoomer Scooter a Go Go

On the back of the previous post, I thought I should actually explain which scooter I ended up going for – the Honda Zoomer in black – a sturdy ride, which I should be picking up next week – all insured and ready to go.

We ended up going down Kannana dori last week, to one of the 5 or 6 bike shops down there, and found a small shop where the staff were really helpful, and they had a couple of Zoomers in stock so we could check them out up close (again).

Whereas a few shops had been unwilling to order one for us (I really have no idea why), these guys were on the Honda ordering system straight away and gave us a straight order date. I know sometimes you can order something, and be told it’ll be a week, only to get a call during the week to say it’s going to be late, whereas these guys were straight up and said it would take a few weeks, which is fine, as I had to sort the helmet and everything out.

The insurance turns out to be in two parts – one is basic insurance limited on you and any other person in an accident, not covering vehicle damage. The second insurance is optional and covers (in my case) unlimited amounts on any people and vehicles in an accident.

Why go for more expense above and beyond the legal requirement? Well mainly as most of my friends who have bikes said that the first insurance is almost worthless, and that vehicle repairs can cost a fortune as the concept of fault in Japan is different from many other countries, so even if you feel you weren’t at fault, you could still find yourself with a fairly large bill to pay.