The Japan Adventure – Part 1- Appreciating Japanese Culture…
It was in the works for some time – a recent vacation I made to Japan with my wife, Stephanie, and our son, Shaun, to join friends, both old and new, for an immersion in Japanese culture. And, oh yes, to ride motorcycles! While on the calendar for many months, it was still not easy to pull away from the many activities involved with the steps that are building toward the AIMExpo launch in just under a year, but ultimately, it proved to be a trip of a lifetime. In part one of a two-part blog, I’ll relate more about the discoveries surrounding Japanese life, with part two sharing the wonderful roads and experiences of riding over there.
Organized by long-time friend Kenny Roberts and his wife Tomo, the trip assembled friends of KR’s who have ridden with him in Sturgis over the years, as well as some of his friends from Central California. For the past three years, they’ve traveled to the Kumamoto prefecture, a very beautiful part of Japan in the south where Tomo is from, and ride the countryside in the area of the volcano Mount Aso. Each year the ride assembles in early October, and given the timing, I figured that if I was ever going to go, this had to be the year. Next year during this time I’m going to be pretty busy, knee-deep in launching the inaugural AIMExpo!
After spending a couple days in Tokyo with Kenny and Tomo, we headed south to meet up with the rest of the group in Kumamoto. About a dozen Americans in total made the trip over, and we were joined by some wonderful Japanese friends, some of whom we had previously met in Sturgis. I should note that this was Shaun’s first time to Japan, and we would come to particularly enjoy his great enthusiasm to understand and participate in the Japanese customs and culture.
Tomo and our Japanese hosts had organized a myriad of activities, with an eye towards great riding and appreciating various aspects of Japanese life. We were in the Kumamoto area for eight days, and it was a very special time spent growing together as a group, both American and Japanese. In retrospect, the trip was a certain dichotomy of familiar and unfamiliar. It was the familiarity of riding, but riding in a vastly different place with greatly differing norms – starting with riding on the “wrong” side of the road! It also had the familiarity of spending time together, like at Sturgis, but in a far different environment, not to mention the amazing difference in the food!
As part of our appreciation of Japanese culture, we stayed at a traditional Japanese hot springs hotel out in the country. While it meant sleeping on traditional mats on the floor (very comfortable, by the way), more than anything it meant having the hot springs spa to relax in after a good day’s ride. The natural hot springs presented not only soothing minerals for the body, they also provided a great social gathering spot. The springs facilities were segregated, not co-ed, and many great conversations were had about riding, bikes, and all manner of manly topics, at least in the men’s spa. Oh, and what took perhaps a day to get used to was that the spa area was also the shower area, as our room had only a sink and toilet. The showers and spa were communal, and, shall I say, au natural… That in and of itself provided entertaining conversation amongst the whole group in the bar!!
Trips like these always seem to find some sort of common theme that is a thread running through the entire experience, and for this trip it was music, particularly live music. It all started out on the first night with dinner at a karaoke bar that was a private party for our group. As part of the group’s “hazing” ritual for first timers, Steph, the rookie American woman, was called up to have the song “Only You” performed personally for her by a local Japanese guy with a superb voice! His rendition of the song was simply amazing. As part of the local host group, he was around every night, and we managed to get him to sing it live, without Karaoke, every night! Not surprisingly, he became known as the ‘Only You Guy’. Shaun was heckled until he got up and sang a somewhat passable Karaoke version of “Hotel California.” Not sure the singing gene got passed on to the boy…but you had to admire his effort!
Shaun notwithstanding, it turned out that the American contingent was stacked with some outstanding talent! Long time rider and actor John Corbett, the DJ in the TV series Northern Exposure and maybe more notably a regular on Sex in the City, is a fantastic musician just about to release his second album, and his brother-in-law, Mike McGill, is a very talented guitar player as well as a superb riding talent. They inspired us nightly with acoustic guitars loaned to us by a local luthier (guitar craftsman). To add icing on the cake, we spent one night at a Japanese country-western biker bar with a live country band, accompanied by line dancing from the locals. Don’t be fooled, these line dancers were amazing. John and Mike managed to join in with the band for some songs that everybody knew, and it turned out that one of the songs sung that night had a pretty special meaning.
When Kenny was tearing up the tracks in Europe on the way to three world championships, there was a ritual that developed within the team, especially between Yamaha team engineer Mike-san and KR. Roberts, self-described “hick from Modesto,” always enjoyed country music, and one of his favorite songs was Okie From Muscogee. So back in the racing days, as a salute to Kenny, Mike-san would play the song when he won a race, in what I’m sure was great irreverence to the old guard in GP at the time.
These days, Mike-san is the importer of MV Agusta in Japan, and he joined us for this one evening at the Strong Boss Saloon, as it is known. A bit older with some health challenges, it was a special, heart-tugging moment when he joined Kenny on stage as John and Mike sang Okie From Muscogee, commemorating the bond that has tied them together over many years from the GP paddock. It should be noted that it was a rather stellar debut of KR’s singing career, met with lots of tears and laughter at the same time throughout the Saloon.
Early on, I mentioned our Japanese hosts. Leading the local group is a successful businessman, Michio-san, who coordinated bikes, ride leaders, dinners, and most significantly, a sharing of Japanese culture. A native of the Kumamoto area, he hopes that by hosting American riders on Kenny’s ride, we might shine a light on the Kumamoto area as a desirable place to visit and go riding. A short 1 1/2 hour flight from Tokyo, he is working to create interest among Japanese riders as well. He’s built a combination garage space and sleeping space known as “ASO Rider’s Base”. It’s basically a club that can be joined to store riding gear and motorcycles at for out-of-towners. Fly down from Tokyo, go riding!
As part of the cultural sharing, one night at dinner there was a bit of intrigue. We went to a traditional Japanese restaurant, with seating on the floor, and soon after we got there, the American women on the trip, Steph, Lynn Bartlett, and Melissa Silva, disappeared from the room. After an hour of them missing, we knew something special was likely afoot. (Although, it should be pointed out that it didn’t slow any of us down in enjoying the local food and grog…) After yet another hour, the ladies finally reappeared, resplendent in Japanese Kimono’s and traditional lantern head dresses. Stunning was the word for how beautiful the ladies were. They had even been coached to do a bit of traditional dance for us!
The woman who coached them, and helped them dress in the Kimonos, was a 91 year-old woman with a vast traditional wardrobe. Her story is very heart-warming. As a young woman she endured World War II, and because of that experience, she holds a great desire to show and create friendship with Americans through the sharing of this part of Japanese culture. As a special part of that friendship, she asked each of the women if they would keep their Kimono as a sign of friendship. Of the many special experiences on the trip, this was especially touching, a true hand of friendship being extended, and quite emotional for the ladies, as well as everyone in the room that night.
All in all, we were privileged in so many ways to live and touch a large variety of Japanese life and culture through our fabulous hosts. In so many ways, one’s faith in humanity is recharged, and all because of a common bond established though the goodness of riding motorcycles together. Stay tuned for Part 2 where we go riding…