As we continue our journey north and eastwards, the weather gets progressively colder. We are set to meet another motorcycle rider from the Facebook group that we've been introduced to. Meeting these fellow bikers has been a highlight of our trip so far.
We're riding into the peaks of Nagano Prefecture
You may have heard of Nagano, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Yep, we're riding into the heart of ski country. In April. We are back to wearing all of our layers for the chilly ride into the mountains.
Riding through a lot of these tunnels blasted through the sides of the steep rock faces
The GPS shows us a few routes to get to our destination, which is just half an hour outside of Nagano city. The longer route takes us north to the coast and around the peaks of Nagano Prefecture. Instead, we opt to take the direct route east, straight over the mountains. It's April. What could go wrong?
Road closures. That's what could go wrong.
"I may not be able to read Japanese, but I strongly suspect that mountain pass is snowed in..."
Actually, my exact words were, "Ofukme (another small town in Nagano prefecture)! There's snow everywherez!" Looks like we'll have to do some GPS re-routing to find an alternate road at a lower elevation, one that's actually passable this time of year.
But first, we have to eat. Sushi break!
After lunch, we hit the road again to make another attempt at getting over the mountains. We actually ended up going north to the coast, hugging the lowlands and then diving back down south through Hakuba Valley. So the map above is a bit incorrect. It's just too early in the riding season for mountain passes...
You cannot argue with Mother Nature.
The amended route down through the Hakuba Valley
Where there's mountains, there are valleys.
Where there are valleys, there are rivers.
The magnificent mountain ranges of Nagano Prefecture all around us!
The Hakuba Valley gets an average of 11 meters of snowfall a year. Next to the northern island of Hokkaido, this is the most popular place in Japan for tourists to come ski.
Some monkey business at the side of the road. We also saw a mushroom factory and caught a glimpse of a Japanese Serow!
A serow is a goat-antelope. It's also the name of a Yamaha motorcycle. At one point, the Serow was almost extinct, but the Japanese saved it. But then Yamaha stopped making the bike anyway in 2007. Just kidding! The goat-antelope was almost extinct in the 1950s, but due to government protectionist and anti-poaching measures, the Serow population is actually thriving and is now considered a pest animal by local farmers, just like kangaroos in Australia.
Stopping for a scenic Nagano Prefecture break
Watching a typical Japanese pick-up truck drive by, snow-covered mountains in the background
We pull up to Robin's friend's place. Ross is an Australian ex-pat, and he runs a BnB in Hakuba called Falcon Ridge. His place is fully booked over the wintertime because it's right next door to Goryu Ski Resort. However, it's the end of ski season now, so the house has emptied out and Ross has graciously offered to host us at his place.
Falcon Ridge House
We quickly discover that Ross is a motorcycle fanatic. But not any kind of motorcycles. BMW motorcycles! He gets himself a new BMW bike every riding season. This year, he's got a shiny F800GS parked out in front. So cool!
We make ourselves at home at Falcon Ridge House
Ross' BnB is a great place, but the piece-de-resistance is:
Right next to the house is a sheltered door, which looks like the opening to a bomb shelter underneath the property. Ross leads us down a darkened narrow stairway lit only by a neon handrail, then opens a red metal door into his motorcycle-themed "Bike Bar". Bright neon lighting and all sorts of bike paraphernalia decorate the ultimate man-cave! Bike Bar is quite the popular apres-ski hangout during the tourist season.
A Ducati Monster sits up on a stage in the back. Ross tells us he's storing it for a friend over the winter. Then I look around. Waitaminiit. We're 20 feet underground and the only entrance was the stairway we just came down.
Ross proudly nods his head. And it's not the only bike he's carried down here.
Then he shows me the blackened spot on the stage floor where he does burnouts. I notice there's a shiny stripe on the Monster's rear wheel. LOL!
I ask Ross if he's ever had any problems with rowdy patrons. He replies, "Nope, not at all!"
Living out my motorcycle rock and roll fantasies with DJ Ross in the control booth
The reality: Neda: "Can we turn him down a bit?" Ross: "Yep. On it."
Everyone's a critic.
That evening, Ross calls up one of his friends, Neil, and we all pile into his Japan-a-Van (a Toyota Voxy? Never heard of it before). He wants to take us out to his favorite restaurant in the area, which is a half-an-hour drive to the next town south, called Omachi.
This yokocho (alleyway) in Omachi reminds me of the ones in Tokyo, where tiny bars line the narrow pathway
The only difference is that this alleyway is sheltered, probably because of all the snow they get in the Hakuba Valley! A lighted blue beer sign, Asahi, stands outside the restaurant, and we all duck (literally, because the door is short) into a tiny Nepalese establishment called the Himalayan Sherpa.
All of us crowded into a tiny booth in Himalayan Sherpa
Over a dinner of curries, roti, and assorted Indian flat-breads, we talk about our motorcycle trip and our hosts tell us about life in the Hakuba Valley.
My initial impression of ex-pats in Japan was that they were all English teachers living in the cities. But meeting Ross and Neil in "rural Japan", changed all that. Ross is helping Neil find a property that he can convert into a BnB as well. They told us there were a whole bunch of ex-pats here that cater to the winter tourism industry, managing vacation properties, running ski/snowboard stores, instructing at ski schools, etc.
The empty bottles of Nepal Ice beer were rapidly piling up on our tiny tabletop, so we decided to switch venues. We stumble out of the Nepalese place, out into the yokocho, and walked a few dozen meters to a bar where Ross told us he knew the owner.
We also switch from beer to liquor
And Yes, that bottle *is* shaped like Godzilla...
Despite what the picture above shows, by the end of the night, Neda is actually the most sober out of all of us!
None of the guys are in any condition to drive back to Hakuba, so Neda has become our Designated Driver by default. "I don't think I can drive us back, guys...", she protests.
"But you haven't had that much to drink, you'll be fine!", Ross counters.
"No, I don't think I can drive this:", she motions to the Right-Hand-Drive steering wheel on the Toyota Voxy.
"It'll be fine, you'll do great!" Ross has already made himself comfortable in the passenger seat.
Neda is still a bit hesitant, but she's our only way back home. We've ridden motorcycles on the left side of the road for so long now, it's become second nature. But it's different in a car - the hardest thing to do on a RHD car (if you're used to driving LHD) is to keep such a wide vehicle centred in the lane, since the driver's seat is on the other side. You automatically want your steering wheel to hug the left side of the lane. Driving on a twisty, snow-covered unlit road doesn't make things any easier!
On the drive back, Ross peers out his passenger-side window, and every now and then he'd calmly tell Neda, "A little bit to the right...", when Neda drifts too close to the curb.
And just like that, the four of us, and one Toyota Japan-a-Van made it safe and sound to Hakuba.
The next morning, we nurse our hangovers over breakfast at Falcon Ridge
I spy the Vegemite collection on the counter and then I remember: oh yeah, Ross is an Aussie! Normally, I prefer marmite (Yes! There *IS* a difference), but beggars can't be choosers, so I attack the jars of vegemite with a tablespoon.
We get suited up to leave Hakuba. Ross is escorting us out of town with a farewell ride!
Before we leave, Ross wants to show us the sights and take us riding through the backroads around his neighbourhood. Awesome! I'm loving these Japan motorcycle sendoffs. Whenever we stay with someone here, we always get a proper two-wheeled goodbye!
We follow Ross to Hasedera Temple, just down the street from where we were staying
Hasedera is a Buddhist temple. Our bikes peek through the archway
Quick walk around the temple grounds. We keep our helmets on not because we're lazy, but because it's cold!
A line of Buddhas and one Neda
And then back on the road. Riding by huge snow-making machines on one of the ski hills nearby
Like many of the Olympic Games, most of the venues for the sporting events are not held in the hosting city, but outside of it. The skiing events at the Vancouver Olympics were held at Whistler Mountain, 2 hours north of the city. Nagano City only hosted the skating and hockey events. Most of the skiing events in 1998 were actually held right here in Hakuba.
Kashimayari Ski Resort. Closed for the season. All the chairs at the ski lift are already off the cable and stacked to one side
Every good biker knows that some of the best riding roads are in the mountains. Ribbons of asphalt snake around the countours of the jagged landscape, offering up a twisty playground for two-wheelers. I remember spending each summer riding around all the same places we used to snowboard in the wintertime: Whistler, Mount Tremblant, Jay Peak, Whiteface, Lake Placid...
Ross takes us as far as Lake Kisaki and after doing a loop of the lake's twisty shoreline, we stop to say our goodbyes and head off further south.
Another great stay and ride! We are loving the motorcycle hospitality while we're in Japan!