We're renting motorbikes and seeing Japan on two wheels!
I really wanted to hire some Japan-only motorcycles, like a Honda CB1300 or something that's never been sold in North America.
This was all the rental company had left... BMWs. Haha!
Oh well. They explained to me that since everyone here already owns a Honda, nobody really rents them out. Instead, they specialize in more exotic machinery, like BMWs and Yamahas. Huh? Yamahas are exotic?!? Apparently, the MT-07s (they call them Tracers in Japan) are a very popular model.
Before the rental company let us loose on the roads in Japan, they made us watch a short orientation video and undergo a quick briefing. They went over stuff like how to drive on the left hand side (which we've basically been doing for the last couple of years), which of the cryptic Japanese documents were insurance and ownership papers in case we get stopped by police (very strict speeding laws here!), how the toll highway system worked and how to say basic motorcycle phrases in Japanese.
The most important one: how to ask for "High Octane Gasoline" at the gas station. It's "Hai-okutan-gasorin".
When I heard that, I literally LOLed! "Really? It sounded like you just said 'High Octane Gasoline', but with a mock Japanese accent... Isn't that offensive to Japanese people?"
But apparently there are some words that don't have Japanese translations, so they just phonetically sound the English words out, taking into account that Japanese people can't pronounce "L"s. For example, "McDonald's" becomes "Maku-dona-rudo".
I think that's hilarious! But in a totally respectful way, of course.
The bikes we got are current-model, low-mileage F800Rs, lots of luggage space now that we don't have camping gear!
Pulling out onto the Tokyo streets, I was struck by how leaned forward the seating position is.
The F800R is not a sportbike, not by a long-shot. But having ridden sit-bolt-upright dirt bikes and adventure bikes exclusively for the last 5 years, my back and wrists were killing me after only a half-hour hunched over in traffic. Plus no fairing and the tiny little flyscreen above the headlight gave me no wind protection in these chilly conditions. How am I going to survive on this thing riding all over Japan? Ugh!
Speaking of traffic, we leave the rental place after the morning rush hour has subsided, but there are still a lot of cars on the roads in Tokyo. What makes it worse is that there are stop lights every friggin' 50 meters in the city! You know how in North American traffic, you can catch a sequence of green lights when going the posted speed limit? We call it riding the "Green Wave". Well here in Tokyo all the traffic lights are programmed to deliver the "Red Wave"... OMG! So annoying!
"Stoplight" in Japanese is "Sutoppuraito". Say that out loud and it becomes awesome! :)
The rental agency guys told us the speed limit in the city is 40 km/h. This is not enforced by police. The "Sutoppuraito" do that for you... It is physically impossible to accelerate faster than 40 km/h and then have to slam on the brakes to haul you down to a full stop, all within 50 meters. Trust me, we tried...
At that speed, it takes us forever to get out of Tokyo. Once outside of the city limits, we pull into a strip mall to grab some lunch and nurse my aching back and wrists. Neda doesn't seem to have any problems with the seating position. She took to the F800R like a natural.
We park in the lot with all the other cars but an attendent approaches us and starts talking to me in Japanese.
I get this alot in Asian countries, it's because I look local. However, in Japan, Japanese people keep talking to me in Japanese even *after* we've both established I don't speak or understand Japanese. But Why?!? They just keep talking at me, as if I will magically learn the language in the next 30 seconds or so. And not a few people, almost all of them do that.
It's so strange... It's like they are telling me, "It's incomprehensible that you look Japanese, but don't speak Japanese!" :)
It took us awhile for us to understand that the parking lot attendant
wanted us to park here, off to the side. Cool! Special parking!
Just like there's a Gringo Trail in Latin America - which is that route where all the tourists travel on, I get the feeling that there's a Gaijin Trail in Japan, which is basically all the major cities on the Japan Rail system: Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto... Anywhere outside the Gaijin Trail, there's no need for any locals to speak English anymore. And none of the signage needs to be in English either!
Well, we're off the Gaijin Trail now.
I doubt many non-Japanese-speakers embark on a self-drive journey across the country. This is confirmed by the automated sushi restaurant that we've chosen to sit down in for lunch:
The ordering system is totally in Japanese, no English whatsoever! AHHH!
Once you've ordered, the food shoots out on this conveyer belt and is routed to your table. Cool beans.
Everything is automated! Unfortunately, we can't figure out the system at all. We try to use Google Translate's optical recognition app on our phones but it spits out gibberish. "Ladies Lunch" was one dish it translated. Whut? We're just mashing buttons as if it's a video game, hoping that we're not ordering one of everything on the menu...
Finally, we give up and flag a woman from behind the counter over to help us, but she doesn't speak any English either. She demonstrates to us which buttons to press to order and pay, which is good enough to get us by.
Then we use the only Japanese phrase we know: Arigatogozaimas! (Thank you very much)
Success! Neda did order the "Ladies Lunch" in the end! :)
This was not as frustrating as it sounds. We're so enamoured with Japanese culture that our floundering in this total immersion was actually fun! We giggled with delight at just about everything from the button-mashing, to Ladies Lunch to the way the trays popped off of the conveyer belt.
We're having a great time not being able to read or understand Japanese! However, this is only our first day on the road. I hope this sense of wonder doesn't fade too fast...
One small thing I liked is the wrapper that the chopsticks come wrapped in. We've learned that you can make a chopstick rest from the wrapper if you fold it right. In this restaurant, they've designed the chopstick wrapper so when you fold it, it ends up looking like Mount Fuji! See the picture above. Mount Fuji is the national symbol for Japan and has important cultural and spiritual significance in the country. But more about that later.
We hit the road with full tanks and full stomachs.
As always, we don't have a concrete plan, but the general idea is to keep on heading south, towards the warmer islands, because it's so cold up here in the north. We are thinking that we may be able to see some Cherry Blossoms bloom sooner since it starts earlier in the south. And then follow the blooming season as it moves northwards throughout April.
Since the surface roads are sooooo slow, we hop on the Tomei Expressway and pay the toll. Holy Expensive!!!! The average toll for cars in Japan is ¥24.6 or $0.25 per km, so about half that for motorcycles!!! But it's the only way we get to go faster than 40 km/h...
On the highway, I see familiar names on the road signs. Yokohama flashes by. Isn't that where they make the tires?
After a couple of hours heading SW at glorious triple digit speeds, we exit around Mount Hakone, just north of the Izu Peninsula. I read that there are some great twisty roads in the area.
There are indeed twisty roads in the area. And snow on those twisty roads: Mikuni Pass
Here's a quick lesson we learnt. In late winter/early spring in Japan, don't go motorcycling close to anywhere that has "Mount" in the name...
We tiptoe through wet and slushy roads, unable to apply our sportybikes to their full capabilities.
From where we are near Mount Hakone, we are less than 50kms from Mount Fuji. We can see it looming large in the distance
If you've ever seen the Fast and Furious movie, Tokyo Drift, you'll know that the car guys all go up into the mountains at night, backing in their souped up Skylines and Hachi-Rokus at every turn on the twisty roads. On Mikuni Pass, the evidence is there: you can see black rubber marks behind Neda's helmet in the picture. In front of the scenic lookout, Neda points to where someone did donuts. LOL!
Neda grabs a cloud drifing past Mount Fuji. Stone marker: 三国峠 reads Mikuni Pass
Glamour shot of our steeds
There's a little diorama showing where Mount Fuji is. It's right behind you, Neda!
Ah, Mount Fuji. Subject of countless poems and paintings. The spiritual and geographic symbol of Japan, it is the largest mountain in the country (it's actually classed as an active volcano!), perpetually capped in snow all year round and is perfectly symmetrical from all sides. The main religion, Shintō, has the belief that gods or deities exist in nature, residing in trees, lakes, the rain and the wind. No wonder the Japanese have such reverence for the mighty Fuji. If the weather is clear, you can see Fuji from Tokyo. If that happens, the Japanese believe that indeed, it will be a good day.
Today for us, clouds shroud Mount Fuji, but it doesn't dull our excitement about riding motorcycles in Japan! Despite the cold weather, our Uniqlo HEATTECH underwear is doing an adequate job.
Lake Ashinoko below me and the town of Hakone on its shores
There are cruises decorated like pirate ships that tour around Lake Ashinoko, to give visitors a view of Fuji from the waters
Back on the road!
From the Mikuni Pass, we head back south away from Mount Hakone and towards the Izu Peninsula
We are only here for one thing:
The Izu Skyline! One of the most popular motorcycle roads in the area, some argue that it's the best in the country!
(Oh yeah, we parked beside a nice-looking Africa Twin)
The Izu Skyline runs along the eastern side of the peninsula through some very mountainous terrain. It's very twisty, as if designed by a motorcycle rider, and there are many scenic pullout stops to view the coastline and the Sagami-nada Sea below. Of course, it's a toll road. You gotta pay to play. It's divided up into sections and you pay to ride each section. A popular thing to do is only pay for one toll and turn around before you hit the next tollbooth so you can ride your favorite section over and over again for the price of one toll.
Outside the washrooms at the toll booth, there are many posters targeting motorcyclists
You don't have to be able to read Japanese to get the dorifto. Ride safe, it says. Too many accidents here. The third poster says you win a prize if you can maintain a minimum speed of 110 km/h in the corners... what?
More bikers returning from their last run of the day on the Izu Skyline
Because it's so early in the season, the days are still very short. We'll have to zoom through the road without stopping otherwise we'll be riding in the dark very soon. Sorry, the light wasn't good enough for pictures and we didn't stop at any of the scenic pullouts.
Too busy having fun!!!
Here's a little example of the Izu Skyline. Not the best corner, just one where I was able to pull out my camera and do a quick snap
With dry roads ahead of us, we attack the Izu Skyline with zest, getting a good feel for the rhythm of the curves on the road. In the absence of traffic and other obstacles, you can really get into the mindset of the road designers: what speed the road was designed to take comfortably (and uncomfortably!), how far you can safely push the bike in the turns, etc.
For the first time today, I'm glad we're on these sportybikes instead of our staid GSes. The aggresive seating position feels much more natural as the digital speedometer steadily ticks higher, allowing you to lean more confidently into the corners. The 800cc engine is the same one as Neda's F650GS, but it's tuned a bit better for the street. Good power and feels more revvier than my R1200GS. Oh, I've missed sportbikes so much!
And the road! So nice and wide, and the pavement is in excellent condition. After riding for so long in developing countries, it's such a relief not having to worry about potholes or cows lurking around the next corner! WHEEEEE!
The Izu Skyline is about 40km long, I stop for a quick snap on the bikes and then we're off again!
We made it to the end of the Skyline just as the sun disappeared below the Izu mountain range to the west of us. Despite the interminably slow start trying to escape the gridlock of Tokyo, our first riding day was most excellent once we made it out to the countryside!
No AirBnBs in the area, so we're forced to stay in a hotel just off the Skyline a couple of kms outside of Itō. Nice little shelter for our bikes
Super-nice accomodations and the price is not that bad - about $50. Prices in Japan are a lot cheaper than what I thought they'd be!
Tomorrow we head further south, in search of warmer weather and Cherry Blossoms!