Courage or Insanity; Riding in Japan: from Tokyo, to Yokohama, Izu and beyond...
So there I was, staring off at the walls, mulling in frustration while sitting in a bike rental+repair shop about 30 minutes walk from Yutenji station on the Toyoko Subway line in the suburbs of Tokyo, when suddenly I notice the table is shaking. This snaps me out of my daze, and I wonder where the friend(D) of mine went who, just seconds ago, was sitting directly across from me. It turns out he was hiding under the table, pretending to tie his shoe, in an attempt to stifle an extreme outburst of side-splitting laughter. This wakes me up a little, and I ask him what the kurfluffle is about... he replies, "They just saw his shirt!". I quickly curse myself for not paying attention, and whirl around to see my other friend(C) standing there, catching awkward glances from the staff, as he stretches his arms into some rain gear, exposing the t-shirt I had custom made for him shortly before leaving Canada. I kick myself for once again violating the first essential rule: "never turn the camera off".
In retrospect, it is amazingly easy to temporarily acquire a high-powered motorcycle in a strange and foreign land, where you do not understand the language, the rules, or the road-signs. I really can't believe that all that was required was a little forsight; 30 minutes and 30 dollars spent before leaving Canada, at the local BCAA offices acquiring a simple piece of paper with your photograph glued to it. The rest was open-ended, just a refinement of the details regarding when, where, and how - nothing more. Originally the most promising prospect had been through "www.japanbikerentals.com", a website geared towards foreigners, complete with options for American styled couch-bikes and GPS-enabled touring packages. Surely that would have been the sane, easy way all around. In other words, completely undesirable!
Instead we opted for the slightly more complex option of hassling locals into translating for us, as my broken Japanese runs out of gas somewhere after "we like bikes, we have bikes in Canada, here is a picture -see?!". It took some legwork, but we were able to be pointed in the right direction by Tomoko-san, a very gracious young lady who happened to be 'tomodachi no tomodachi' (a friend of a friend), who fortunately was able to take an hour or so off work to help us convince the local shops (www.rental819.com) that we were in fact sane, knowledgeable, completely responsible gentlemen looking for a couple days of relaxation and exploration as we toured the surrounding areas. In other words - she lied through her teeth for us!
My frustration, however, was growing, as this was now the 2nd bike rental shop we had dragged her to, as the first one had some issues. Well, rather, friend(C) had the issues, as he was picky and whiny about what bikes we ended up on, with absolutely zero consideration for the time of others. The first shop had a few bikes, but unfortunately for him, it took him longer than my two seconds to make up his mind about what to ride, as I 'dibbed' the only 1300cc Honda CB "Project Big-One" in the place - the only other options at that shop above a 400cc being a Hayabusa and a funky BMW. A long time was spent humming and hawing over it, before deciding to jump on the bit of information detailing the fact that there was a 2nd outlet a few kilometers away that had more bikes. We hailed a "Takushi!" and were on our way.
This 2nd shop did indeed have more bikes, but not much more variety. The option for a 2007 CBR1000RR presented itself, although I did not want to 'hump the football' for 3 days, and my friend shyly admitted that it may be a little easy for him to outride his capabilities, coming off a 1971 Kawi piece-of-shit. After eyeballing everything else in the shop, he decided it was best if he copied my choice and chose the same bike, as this shop had an exact copy as well - but this required renting 1 bike each from different shops. Luckily I was able to finalize the details of the rental on my own, without Tomoko-san's translation help. However it was in this time that I became frustrated and annoyed with friend(C)'s nitpickery, and had opted to remove myself from the ordeal as much as possible by sitting with friend(D) at a table in the corner. Friend(D) was leaving Japan the next day, and after travelling with us for just over a week, he concluded that our desire to rent and ride bikes in this crazy corner of the world was a delicate balance between "courage and insanity". It was shortly after this remark that I found him giggling under the table. What was so funny about the shirt friend(C) was wearing? Well after leaving the store, he would remark about how he was getting eyes from the cute female employee there, up until the time he removed his overcoat and exposed the shirt, baring a clever slogan that didn't quite say what he THOUGHT it said (it's written in Kanji). He was under the belief that it said 'looking for a Japanese girlfriend', much like the other shirts I had made up and given out, but little did he know that he was given the one shirt with one rather essential kanji character changed: girl -> boy. This involved an elaborate plot to execute, making damn sure that he never had the chance to compare his shirt to the others. And it worked out well, other than the fact that I had to walk around with him, people laughing, thinking he was gay, but luckily I was able to explain (in Japanese) that he had no idea what the shirt really said, and that it was an elaborate prank, which often had them laughing even more, and him wondering what all the laughter was about - to which I'd reply, "oh, we're just talking about how funny your shirt is", which was the truth
So, anyways, it was finally decided that the bikes would be picked up at 5pm the next day, and off we went. Total price for renting a helmet, rain-gear, and a 1300cc Honda for 3 days? 44,500￥ - basically $450 Canadian dollars. Not a bad price, so maybe you can dispel your ideas that "Japan is expensive" now. The site geared at foreigners was about $600 for 48 hours, and that's before gear or GPS navigation packages are thrown in. The plan called for us to pick the bikes up, and jump headfirst into driving on the wrong side of the road. We were sort of expecting some sort of fighter-jet pilot pre-briefing, a crash course in reading roadsigns and stoplights, or at least some sort of elementary explanation of the basic rules of the road. But when the time came, nope, none of that...they just handed us the keys and let us ride off to our inevitable doom. Hell, we didn't even have to attach a credit card to the ordeal; just payed in cash, and they mentioned that it would be a $500 deductible if we were 100% at-fault. We eagerly agreed, warmed up the bikes, and darted out into the wrong side of the street, heading towards oncoming traffic, before quickly realizing that yes, indeed, things were done a bit differently here in Japan. Hell, is the right-of-way now the left-of-way? No one knew for sure...
And so it began; the most epic, adventure filled ride of my life. My words and pictures will ultimately fail to capture the wonder and amazement found along this journey.
We got horribly lost in within the first few moments. It seemed simple enough in the theory phase; simply retrace our steps. But jumping out into Tokyo traffic, where lane splitting is apparently not only fully legal, but expected, and stop signs are triangular and blue, with kanji written on them, let alone driving on the left side, worrying about that first right turn you have to make, constantly watching your mirrors for speeding scooters, you can get pretty disorientated, fast. It was amusing, however, that before hopping on the bikes, I had spent the greater part of the day and night leading up to this lamenting with nervous anticipation the inherent difficulty in adapting to the differences to be found here. I had not, after all, come all this way to spend time in a foreign hospital, and in fact wondered if travelers insurance would cover a mishap on an heavily overpowered motorcycle in this strange land. My travel buddy, friend(C), however, remained calm and casual, indifferent to said differences, confident that it wouldn't be a problem. Interestingly, once I threw a leg over the bike, it took me approximately 2 minutes before becoming fully accustomed to the changes, and blending right into the flow of two wheeled traffic, complete with lane splitting at speed between moving vehicles, where he, on the other hand, immediately became tense and nerve-racked at the change in thinking required to navigate the motorized crowds. heh.
I think it took us about an hour after leaving the bike shop before we eventually found our way back to Meguro-ku, the suburb of Tokyo where we were staying with some friends. It was here that we'd use as a central bearing, and once found, we would simply circle the blocks, gradually moving outwards, in an attempt to familiarize ourselves with the surrounding areas and subtleties of road rules. We pondered simple things, and perhaps never found a correct answer, to puzzles such as: is the right-of-way now the left-of-way? Is lane splitting actually legal, or is it just that *everyone* does it? Where do you park a motorcycle, when everywhere seems to have 'no motorcycle parking' signs, even the paid-parking lots? How often to the parking-police come around if you ignore these signs and park on the side of the road amongst the bicycles? (every night, we were told. ticket cost: 50,000￥ ($500!)) As night fell, we felt confident with about a 10 block radius of the immediate area, and went for dinner. As it turns out, Denny's in Japan is FANTASTIC as it has a completely different menu. Ordering a beer from the waitress got some very unusual looks as she glanced nervously at our helmets, and again we perceived a possible violation of etiquette or behavior. We ate fast and got out of there, for fear of roadblocks and riot police being called in. Later, we would discover, the intake of ANY alcohol while operating a motorized two-wheeled vehicle was punishable by a $20,000 fine and up to 15 years in Japanese prison, where apparently they force you to sit seiza (Japanese kneeling) for up to 5 hours a day, amongst other bizarre specifically-Japanese punishments. My record for seiza in martial arts is 1.5 hours, and I thought I was gonna be paralyzed, my knees were destroyed for weeks. yikes. We headed back to the mansion at Meguro-ku, debated about where to park the bikes (ultimately we just chanced it by parking it off the street in a cubby-cove near a shop entrance), and headed in for some rest, but only after a few bottles of sake to celebrate the sense of major accomplishment for making it this far without dying. (so far).
Daijiro-san and Hiro, the Highway Magician
It was 6am when my eyes popped open, and after gathering my wits about me, and folding up my thin futon padding on the hardwood floor, I headed out to the 7-and-I-holdings (7/11 in Japan is not quite translated correctly, wtf) to get a Vitamin water to shed the morning fog of residual sake hangover. That's one of my favorite things about Japan, is the beverage selection. Simply fantastic, and I feel incredibly let down that we don't have equivalent selection here in 'America'. As I walked back out of the store, I heard the distinct sounds of bike turning the corner, and watched as they passed, ultimately pulling up right in front of the apartment entrance where we were staying. I walked up as they pulled off their helmets. These fellows were clearly our escorts for the adventures to come; the brother and bother-in-law of a Japanese friend in Canada. She had arranged for her brothers to meet up with us and take us on a tour of the local areas, which was perhaps the only way we would be able to find our out of the city and into the countryside. We were told they didn't speak a lick of English, and my Japanese would surely be exhausted of all possible casual conversation before long, so this was sure to get interesting. I walked over and introduced myself. Hiro-san, in his 50's, was riding a highly customized early 90's gsxr1100, apparently punched out to well over 1200cc's with various other tweaks and mods, complete with dry-clutch and several other goodies. We were told before we ever met him that he was a highly skilled mechanic, and indeed, he related how he had several bikes in various states of performance overhauls at home. Daijiro-san, the slightly younger, and appeared as a layed back, casual man, the veritable 'Ginbei', so at ease and relaxed that he would ultimately ride most of this adventure side-saddled with one hand. Perhaps it was because he was an accomplished racer in his off-time, and wanted to subtly hint at the fact that this ride would be slow-paced and boring for him. He had showed up riding his sisters ducati monster 400, punched out to 512, which again, with Hiro-san acting as mechanic, had been tweaked to the maximum capabilities. I would later wonder just what sort of unholy black magic had been poured into this thing, as there is no way a 'little' bike like this should fly the way it did. We went in, and gathered our gear, headed out and warmed up the bikes.
Travelling through the streets and alleys of Tokyo in the early morning, traffic was sparse, and the speeds were instantly up. The cold morning air cut through my hoodie, sharp and crisp, jolting me into lucid awareness. Despite this crispness of consciousness, if we were to suddenly lose track of our hosts, we would have most certainly been lost proper; twisting our way through the concrete maze of the cityscape, the skyscrapers gradually diminishing in size and stature, there was no way to retrace our steps now. Hiro-san took the lead, with Daijiro-san playing sweeper. There was the distinct feeling of being babysat; they knew that we would be rightly fucked without their navigational lead. Roaring through the quiet streets with a posse of bikes, passing by withered old men and women opening their storefronts, they'd only look up briefly as we passed, paying no special attention to us. This was, after all, Tokyo... where bikes of all shapes and sizes rule the roads, nothing special to see here.
Suddenly Hiro-san pulled up to the sidewalk. This was a brief stop, as he explained it was his friends house. Here he showed us his collection of bikes in a virtual closet-garage. There was no room whatsoever to see in, other than simply poking a head around the corner of the door and looking in. There were 3 bikes in this space, an amazing arrangement of jenga like precision. There is very little space to be had for this sort of thing, and every inch counts in Japan. This in fact mirrors many of the streets and alleyways, many of which are so narrow any Canadian driver would simply shrug it off as an impossibility to venture forth; yet the Japanese are such superb drivers, that they navigate these tight spaces not only while dodging pedestrians and cyclists in both directions, but also managing to find space to let an oncoming car get by in a courtious dance of millimeters and inches, at speed. I have seen drivers reverse around tight, winding spaces, with obstacles of all shapes and sizes in the way, some of them moving, and ultimately park with perfection in the tightest of spaces. Some of these feats had me amazed at the skill and precision required, and if offered to attempt to replicate the maneuvers, I simply would have no choice but to humbly decline; and I used to consider myself a very skilled technician behind the wheel of a vehicle. Not any more. So let it be said; The Japanese are superb drivers, and not once did I witness an error or mishap between automobiles; not once did I see any sign of road-rage or egotism from anyone in an automobile; They simply put most western drivers to shame when it comes to both skill and grace behind the wheel; so if you harbour any stereotypes about Asian drivers, I dare you to match the precision and skill of the Japanese.
After this brief stop, and some delicious O-nigiri for breakfast, we were off once again. This time, after a short while spent twisting and turning through the labyrinth, we came to our first toll-booth, and behind it, a ramp leading up, into the sky. This was our gateway onto the Tokyo expressway, and elevated super-highway in the sky - the quickest, and easiest way (short of the train system) to cover vast distances quickly. We payed our fee and the gate was lifted, and we launched up the ramp, merging at speed with a steady flow of traffic. The expressway was smooth and wide, flowing quickly with gentle curves, changing elevation and direction like a roller coaster. It was here that a switch was flipped, and hiro-san darted off, as if challenging us to follow. Setting the hammer down, we rocketed forth, streaming through the traffic like they were parked cars. The 1300 hondas were waking up now, tailing Hiro-san effectively, despite his best attempts at losing us through daring maneuvers between traffic, that many of you here would dare label either insane, immature, or squidly. But this man was in his 50's, and riding for at least 30+ of those years like this; his longevity no doubt aided not only by his skill, but the skill of the drivers surrounding us - as this seems to be the 'norm' for riding in Japan, there is no spooks, no jerks, no roadside warriors or cell-phone heros out to ruin your fun. This was, by all accounts, the squidliest of behaviors back in Canada, but here it seemed to be mandatory for getting where you needed to go. I havn't ridden like this since I was a cocky never-been-crashed newb, as you gradually learn the hard way, but here it's just somehow different feeling. All in all, after getting over the initial discomfort of constantly splitting close-moving traffic while moving at speeds in excess of 140kph, you do begin to wonder just how legal this practice is, and what will happen when you pass that first cop - I had heard that roadside lectures could last over an hour, and was wondering just how well I'd be able to translate and interpet the list of violations as they'd stream past. I hoped I could rely on the 'stupid gaijin' card, and opted not to worry about it, and instead just focus on fitting through tight spaces at speed.
A calm moment on the Tokyo Expressway
Dai-san in his casual side-straddle style. I'd seriously estimate that he spent 90% of the trip riding like this!
Somewhere out of Yokohama, the Izu peninsula can be seen in the distance
After the speeds settled down, we eventually came down off the expressway, and rejoined city traffic. We would navigate through this city (Yokohama, and ride the coastline for a while, and eventually come to rest for a snack and some beverages at the base of a mountain toll-booth. This was clearly where the riding was about to get really interesting. In the time we sat and relaxed, there was perhaps no less than 200 bikes in and out of the tolls, some stopping before or after their mountain run. Very few 'casual' vehicles were welcome here, only serious toys were to be found; Ferrari, Lamborghini, Lotus and Porches streamed through the gateway, signifying this as a serious playground just up the hill and around the first hairpin corner. The sweet music of various high-powered exhaust notes sung in unison, forming a chorus of adrenaline, as they opened up and faded skyward like aggressive angels, ascended the hills with eagerness, but only after the price was payed. The excitement was growing. I prepped my toll-fee in hand.
When the gate was lifted, we took off up the mountain. Hiro-san almost immediately gave us the whirly-fingered international 'beware of cops' signal, but I think he used this to throw us off for a moment and gain a split second head-start, as he immediately tucked in and hammered it into the first corner. Cops be damned, I figured, I'm just following along trying not to get lost, would be my best excuse as a stranger in a strange land, and dammit, it had to work. What followed was such a sweet succession of sweepers and hairpins, no amount of words can even accurately describe this, but I will say that this was a perfect section of mountain road, twisty and smooth, with banked corners and increased textured grip in spots, as if to say, "go harder, we designed this for you!". And so it went, for over an hour, as we climbed that beautiful mountain at breakneck speeds, only slowing slightly on the straights to momentarily look up and over at the beautiful scenery all around us. Hindsight says I really should have taken the time to stop and gather photographic evidence, as certain sections were so amazingly picturesque that it's hard for me to even believe they were real. It was a surreal experience, this ride, the whole way up, over, and out, not a moment was dull or routine.. the road challenging and forgiving, in all ways the ideal ride.
There is no other moment so permanently etched forever in my mind as so absolutely perfect, as the first moment I rounded a corner giving way to an uphill straight, lined on both sides by symmetrical Sakura trees, so perfectly in bloom that they created a sort of pink, fluffy tunnel that we road through; as we entered, the mountainside was blasted with a cool ocean breeze, gently plucking bountiful amounts of sakura leaves from their blossoming perch and weaving them through the skyway like soft, freshly falling snow... To blast through this at high speed held them almost motionless, slow-mo, flittering and twinkling like stars in the sunlight. Time slowed down. A perfect moment. The ultimate realization of harmony. 'They are all perfect', I realize. My grin can barely be contained. This moment will be with me forever. I can die any moment now, and I will be taken back to that one moment forever. Simply beautiful. I close my eyes and I am still there. I hope this never goes away.
Eventually we would reach the summit of this particular mountain. At the top, was a cafeteria and lookout point, as this location offered a clear vantage over the lake to the towering behemoth that is Mount Fuji. Again, pictures can not do this justice, it's size and scale is lost once you attempt to capture it and contain it. An impossible task, something that must be seen to be believed.
It was here that most, if not all, bikers of all makes, models, and styles, seemingly stop for the mandatory chat and coffee. If you thought BCSB had a 'scene' on those rare big-event days when 100+ bikes show up, than the 'scene' here at the top of this unnamed mountain in Japan was surely to put us to shame. A loose estimate would have to count 300+ bikes, with a constant roar of new arrivals and departures, this was defiantly a mecca of machinery. In one sub-parking lot alone, was no less than 25 porches, as if to say, by standing in the right lineup, you too could rent and run one of these up and down the mountain, for a price. But no, these were all private toys, the owners gathered around and gabbing much the same way about what I can only assume is the equivalent to biker chit-chat and bullshit for 4 wheels.