Japan Blog Part 2….The Ride, The Bikes, The Places
Happy New Year! 2013 is finally here, and that means in 10 short months the American International Motorcycle Expo will gather the industry together for the inaugural show that will change the way business is conducted in powersports. The landscape for marketers continues to evolve with new information on the show front, and I’ll devote our next blog to that topic. Before that though, I want to complete the story of our trip to Japan a few months ago. So enjoy the story!
Previously, I wrote of the very special recent vacation I enjoyed with my wife, Stephanie, our son, Shaun, and many friends of Kenny and Tomo Roberts in the southern part of Japan. Part 1 shone a light on the remarkable experiences we shared in Japanese life through our Japanese hosts. In this segment, I’ll relate the time spent together riding motorcycles in Japan.
Generally speaking, our days broke into riding and after-riding segments. As described in Part 1, we were based at a traditional Japanese hot springs hotel, so the day started with a dip in the hot springs, a great breakfast together in the little dining area at the hotel, then into riding gear for the day’s ride. The riding portions were generally exquisite – on near-perfect roads in very rural areas that had great elevation changes as we climbed up roads that ascended the vast flanks of Mt. Aso. As we soon learned, Mt. Aso is the largest caldera basin in the world – at one point, 25 kilometers across, and 120 km in circumference! Such a place provides a vast geographical area to explore and appreciate. In a way, the topography had a Smoky Mountains meets Cascades vibe to it. Not particularly high mountain ridges, but a fairly wet clime. We also learned that this area of Japan had suffered from torrential rains in the previous month, and many roads were partially closed by water damage, although generally speaking no problem for us, especially on motorcycles.
Our motorcycle fleet consisted of a number of borrowed Yamaha’s, thanks to Bob Starr of Yamaha in the U.S. who helped coordinate bikes for KR and the group. Included was everything from a Super Tenere, VMAX, FZ-1, and an FJ- 6. Additional bikes were part of a local rental fleet, most of which were new, and included the Honda CB1300 Bol D’or Special Edition Steph and I rode for the week. Mixed in were a new BMW GS 1200, a couple of XR1200 Harley Davidson’s, and our hosts’ personal Ducati Diavel AMG limited edition, Harley FLR, and a full-dresser Harley. Yes, an eclectic mix, something for everyone!
Our son, Shaun, had never really participated in an extensive street ride of this type, with most of his riding experience off-road, or on dual-purpose bikes on the street. Knowing this, we had spent a weekend, one month prior, riding with Kenny up in the Sierra foothills on a true “streetbike” to ensure he was confident about riding in Japan. I will admit that on the first day of riding over there, I felt those nervous pangs every parent feels (and Steph was in the same boat as me) when Shaun saddled up with the group. I’ll also admit that at 27, and living fully on his own with a job in San Francisco’s technology industry, it had been a while since we had the luxury of experiencing those parental pangs! With a choice of bikes, he was fortunate to have a brand new Honda NC700X to ride. Upright seating, nimble, and the perfect mount for the mission. It should really have been no surprise that he did very well on the ride – so much so that we never gave it a second thought after the first day. As KR opined, “if you’ve got the ability, you’ll figure it out and be fine.” Turns out he does, and he did. Maybe there is a motorcycle gene after all…and I suppose KR would know.
Riding with Shaun was one of a number of key experiences for us during our time there – feeling the camaraderie of riding with our son, and the greater fullness of life it provided (yes, we should be doing this more often!). Oh, and Shaun had a great time coming to understand the grand dynamics of riding with a group of characters bonded together by “the ride.”
Some of the memorable moments of ‘the ride’ included incredible miles and miles (or kilometres and kilometres) of twisty roads that climbed up one part of the vast volcanic area of Mt. Aso on roads that were in perfect or near-perfect conditions. Most of where we rode was very rural, with a lot of rice paddies. There were a lot of random observations of the ride. First, the vending machines. Not talking your basic Coke machine, but rather a greatly expanded, large machine vending coffee drinks (hot and cold) in a can, as well as various soft drinks, with generally a selection of more than 30 drinks in one machine. You would see these machines practically anywhere – it was quite common to see them on the side of the road next to a rice paddy, with nothing else around. Amazing to the Americans, as we naturally expected they would have been vandalized in America if left in such remote locations. It really was quite a cultural comment on the respectfulness of the Japanese people.
Another oddity was the agricultural burns. It was like growing up in the countryside back in the 70’s before EPA. The sights of smoke and smell of burning leaves reminded me of being a kid back in upstate New York. It was a great reminder that the sense of smell is always heightened while riding. Totally unrelated was the conundrum of the scooters in the cities. It seemed the scooters had assumed the persona of a Harley in Japan, especially the feet-forward maxi-scooters. A large number of them were running considerably louder than stock aftermarket pipes. The riders had jackets with nonsensical sayings/wording on them. The most mysterious of all that we saw was a scooter rider in Tokyo with a jacket proclaiming ‘Vegamite Lupus’ on the back. Shaun googled it, and it might possibly have had a connection to a soccer team. Strange to us Americans, nonetheless.
Day one’s ride was the longest, primarily because our lunch stop was planned at a very special place in the mountains. Just like anywhere else, much of the ride is about where we would be eating lunch! A relative of Michio San’s has a very unique restaurant on a river where he raises pheasants, and we were treated to pheasant sashimi and sushi, as well as cooking some on small table barbeques. Some of it was very good, and some of it was, well, better cooked, but it was very, very fresh!
Because it took longer than expected to ride to lunch, we were a bit behind in our schedule, and on the way back elected to take the toll road/expressway back to shorten the time. About half-way to lunch, Steph and I discovered that while the CB1300 was a fine mount for the two of us from a power and handling perspective, the seat was a 90 minute seat, at best. It was not as noticeable on the twisties, when you could move around, but not a good scenario on the tollway. The tollway was quite a feat of engineering as it covered the region of rolling hills and smaller mountain ranges with great bridges and tunnels. There was one tunnel that I began to wonder if we were ever going to come out of, as it probably was a good 5 miles long. With a numb butt and no light at the end of the tunnel, I’m sure it felt much longer than it actually was! We couldn’t get to the beer and hot springs quick enough at the end of that day’s ride.
Riding two-up with Steph was fun because we shared our observations of the characters in the group as we rode along. You would have thought that one world champion on the ride would suffice, but no, we had two. Tetsuya Harada, multi-time 250 champion was also along, and we couldn’t have asked for a better guy to have on the ride. Totally unassuming on and off the bike, no agenda, and ever helpful. What cracked us up was he would happily swap bikes in the group, and when he ended up on the Diavel or an XR1200 it gave us a smile to see this 5′ 5″ guy in his open face Arai smiling and looking like he couldn’t be having any more fun! On one weekend day when there were a lot of bikes on the road, we stopped at a popular roadside destination for bikes, and while we were hanging out looking at bikes, a guy rides up on a 250 Aprilia Harada world championship replica! The owner could hardly believe it when Tetsuya walked over to check it out!! Lots of photos ensued, and the lucky owner got his tank signed, not just by Harada-san, but also by Kenny.
On the day that we rode to the active area of the volcano, we were disappointed that we couldn’t go all the way to the top because it was releasing noxious gases. We decided to wait a bit to see if they would subside and the road to the top would open. While hanging out, Kenny, who does better at going than waiting, sat down next to the path to the souvenir store with his helmet out, upturned as if looking for donations saying ‘Will wheelie for food!’ Pretty quickly Harada-san joined in, and in short order a nice Japanese man recognizing their antics dropped a couple snacks in each helmet!! A small but representative moment of the kind of fun and entertainment we enjoyed all trip long.
One of our days was spent riding to the southeastern seaboard city of Oita. Yamaha had organized an autograph session for Kenny that benefitted a charity there. Autograph donations were collected for tsunami victims, who we learned were, in many areas, still suffering quite a bit. Entire towns were wiped out, and the greatest emotional fear of the victims is that the world has forgotten them. We actually learned this from an American woman, Anya Miller, who has spent over a year volunteering up north in the area of the city of Rikuzentakata, in the Iwate prefecture and provided first hand accounts of what it’s like. When we got home to America, Steph made up a sign that said ‘Rikuzentakata You Are Not Forgotten’. She brought it to a variety of social gatherings, got a group around the sign for a photo, and pasted it on Facebook, also sending to Amya. We’ve heard back from Amya that it meant a lot to the victims in Rikuzentakata. Anyone can do it, so why not start something in your neighborhood!
Other riders who joined us included Jerry and Lynn Bartlett, long time (and now retired) industry folk who spend many days a year in the saddle of their respective motorcycles; Tyson and Melissa Silva, Kenny’s stepson and wife; Tom Seymour of Saddlemen, purveyors of some mighty fine seats and perennial dirt-track sponsor; Gary Nakashima of the Nakashima Golf company, a Stockton-based manufacture of high end custom clubs; Stuart Morita, college buddy of Gary’s, and of course the previously mentioned music men, John Corbett and Mike McGill.
We were also fortunate to have a couple of very solid Japanese host riders shepherd us around for our time on the bikes. Syuichi Sakamoto and Tomomi Nakamura on their Multi Strada and GSX-750R respectively paced the group perfectly, and when a few of us wanted to occasionally be a bit more entertained, they picked up the pace, enjoying it all as much as we did. Also inspiring was Nobuko Kunii, young wife of Masami Kunii. She had recently earned her 250cc motorcycle license, and was still getting acclimated to a street environment from the riding school environment. She rode her CBR250R with us most days, including our more than 300 km day. If she wasn’t riding with us she was at riding school working on her big bike license! Also along as a key organizer of the trip was Hatsumi Tsukamoto, close friend of Tomo, and PR pro to MotoGP, WSBK, and Japanese Superbike teams. That gal really can make stuff happen!! She rode backseat everyday, and got to be inspired by Jerry’s manhandling of the Harley dresser as he kept pace with the rest of the group on their much more corner-friendly machines.
The generosity of Michio Kanamaru who organized much of our activities, donated use of his bikes, and opened up his Aso Riders Base for us, cannot be overstated. He spent every day but one riding with us, and we’re looking forward to returning his generosity when he and a number of his crew come to visit in Sturgis next year. Most touching was on our last day of riding, a Sunday, when he held a fundraiser at the Aso Riders Base, with Kenny and Tetsuya providing autographs for donations to the tsunami victims. Michio also very warmly and graciously recognized the recent passing of John Corbett’s mother. Everyone was given a wrap of black duct tape around their arm as a sign of mourning, and Michio spoke to the large crowd in Japanese prayer that ended with a minute of silence, that was, well, not totally silent. The moment of silence was marked by the continual beeeeeeeeppppp…. of a solitary motorcycle horn- for the whole minute. John was touched by the genuine outpouring of the fellow motorcyclists assembled, and we learned another Japanese custom. This last day of riding meant our time in Japan was coming to a close. We departed the next day with Michio-san assembling all of his crew for one last gathering in a lounge at the Kumamoto airport. After final laughs and stories, we bid farewell and headed out to the gate, looking forward to seeing each other soon again next year in Sturgis.
As I said at the start of Part 1, this was a time spent growing together as people bound together by the experience of riding motorcycles, but becoming so much more. The memories I took away will be forever with me. The area of Kumamoto/Mt. Aso is incredibly beautiful. Riding as a family with Shaun was very special- as was the enjoyment of his headfirst dive into Japanese culture/lifestyle, and the omnipresent thread of music with John and Mike. The night of the Kimonos, the great food, and all those fantastic roads….and a whole lot more. While it’s always good to head home, we miss the good people and shared experiences in Kumamoto with Kenny and Tomo and the gang. As we were leaving to board our flights, Tom Seymour and I marvelled at the time spent together. We both agreed that we had truly ‘lived life’ in the past week, with a fullness not often enjoyed. Since KR will hold next year’s ride in such close proximity of the launch of the AIMExpo, I’m going to have to start working on him to change the dates, otherwise Steph might be visiting Japan again without me!!