We knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore when the white-gloved driver briefly stepped off the airport bus after we boarded to pick up a cigarette butt on the sidewalk, and then the ground crew at the airport in Tokyo lined up at attention and cheerfully waved us off as our connecting flight left for Okayama, Japan. Imagine that at LAX or JFK. Okayama is on western Honshu, Japan’s largest island, and is the hub for MotoQuest’s Japan Three Island Tour, a 12-day immersion into the real Japan far from the techno glitz of Tokyo. There’s some really great riding on the southernmost islands of western Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku, and the locals’ traditional culture, habits and food remain largely uninfluenced by western mores.
Many of us who ride dream of exploring mountainous and mysterious 2,000-year old Japan, home of motorcycle manufacturing’s Big Four. This once-a-year MotoQuest tour is timed around the “sakura,” when the country’s ubiquitous cherry trees briefly explode with light pink blossoms and lace the roads and countryside with color…but only for a week or two at most. Although the late March-early April timeframe can bring an unpredictable mix of good and not-so good riding weather, by risking a little rain and cooler temperatures, we took away indelible memories of a Japan that few tourists ever experience.
Before transferring by bus to The Paddock (see sidebar) 90 minutes away in Tsuyama to get our bikes and start the ride, our international group of 19 riders and guides enjoyed a jet-lag acclimation day exploring Okayama’s beautiful spreading Korakuen Gardens and imposing Black Castle. The evening kicked off at The Paddock with a sake barrel opening ceremony emceed by the right honorable Mayor of Tsuyama himself, and soon dissolved into an orgy of sushi, rice, ginger pork and buckwheat soba noodles that were handmade on the spot. Food has a starring role on this tour—nearly every night and morning we chopsticked our way though endless bowls and plates of Japanese delicacies like sushi and sashimi, soba or egg noodles, small cooked whole fish, sukiyaki, yakitori, shabu shabu cooked at the table and much more. Although the menu is authentic and adventurous, the really bizarre crawly stuff that would scare off Andrew Zimmerman was thankfully absent.
Nearly everything except lunch most days is included on the tour—even gas and tolls—and while Japan tends to be expensive, I was surprised by how cheaply we could have a bowl of ramen or udon noodle soup or perhaps a fried pork cutlet with rice for lunch. Most days my wife, Genie, and I spent less than 2,000 yen (about $20) on food, though the damage that we inflicted upon Japan’s beer and sake supply in the evenings quickly took up the slack in our daily budget.
On the first riding day, we left Tsuyama in the sunshine and quickly rose into the mountains to the north on our way to the Sea of Japan and the north coast of Honshu. Winding mountain roads through beautiful pine forest with a crisp dusting of snow gave way all too soon to the crowded urban coast of western Honshu, where we used the buddy system to leapfrog all 14 bikes through the larger cities. When the road opened up we wound alongside the ocean under steep cliffs and behind protective sea walls, with a gorgeous view out to the numerous small islands off Japan’s coast.
The ride was led by the able and inscrutable Masakazu Hirata, who was hired by MotoQuest’s good-natured founder Phil Freeman primarily for his talent at karaoke, but also Masa’s knowledge of the route, a fun network of tiny back roads, expressways and both toll-free and two-lane toll roads. The bilingual Freeman rode sweep, with Chie Okamoto from The Paddock in the chase van carrying our luggage and the family of a Mexican couple who took turns riding shotgun on father Pablo’s Triumph. Navigating in southern Japan, or even just ordering lunch and buying gas in the many non-tourist areas we visited, can be difficult if not impossible without a Japanese speaker along. Few of the locals speak English, and nearly everything is written in script characters, including the road signs. We had map briefings every morning, but no one dared stray from the group because it would simply be too hard to explore on our own.
Each night we stayed in a modern hotel or a traditional travelers’ ryokan, where we slept on futons spread out on straw tatami floors. Besides the lavish meals, our reward at the end of the riding days was the onsen, or public baths, at each inn. Upon arrival we shed our riding boots at the door and changed into yukatas, Japanese traditional robes provided by the hotel that can be worn throughout the property and to the onsen. I could have gone the rest of my life without seeing another man naked, but once you get used to the idea and acquainted with the others, the convivial atmosphere in the shower area and hot pools—some of them with natural hot springs in indoor and outdoor areas—makes you look forward to the experience each day. There are lots of rules in the ryokans and onsen though, and at the first inn we received quite a few humorous scoldings for improperly worn yukatas, wearing house slippers outside, outside slippers inside or shoes onto the tatami floors and various other minor offenses. One is often tempted to ask why things are done certain ways in Japan, but in a very old, homogenous society like this one, as Phil said, don’t ask why—just do.
The farther south we rode, the better the scenery became, and by our third riding day the urban sprawl thinned out and the views were of rocky coastline, yellow spring flowers and winding roads in conifer forests, where the occasional cherry tree in full glory would bring out the cameras.
Crossing the bridge that leads from Honshu to Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu, we started making detours into the mountains from the coast to do a little faster riding. Speed limits in Japan are very low, just 50 kph (31 mph) on most two-lane roads and 100 kph (62 mph) on the expressways, and for the most part Masa stuck to them or rode just slightly faster. Although boring at times it’s for the best, since getting stopped would be costly and time consuming. We still had plenty of time for lunch, visiting several beautiful shrines, a BMW restoration shop and motorcycle museum or just hanging out at each rest stop. And once in a while Phil would hang back with a few of the faster riders to play a bit of catch-up in the twisty bits. After a while I got used to the pace…assisted by numerous Coke Zeros, the universal jet-lag cure.
Kyushu is less densely populated, and the route between small fishing villages and inland towns was a lightly traveled mix of winding coastal roads and mountain rollercoasters, including playful Route 500 with its 100 corners, each signed with its number. At the top, enormous 800-900-year old trees surround the 1,500-year old Takasumi-jinja shrine. We passed a man stringing seaweed on a line to dry, with hawks gliding over the road lined with sculpted trees. Topiary is everywhere, in fact, lining the city streets and front yards—it’s beautiful but I would hate to be the one who has to manicure all of it.
One of the more interesting days of the tour took place on Kyushu, with a ride alongside a deep gorge lined with terraced farmland and countless cherry trees bursting with blooms, culminating in a twisting descent into the caldera of the Aso volcano. Rain and fog obscured our view and slowed the pace, but the next day it cleared up for the short ride to some rustic cabins on the coast, where the MotoQuest team whipped up a tasty barbecue dinner on the beach with help from several of the riders. Ours was a very friendly and compatible group, in fact, prone to breaking into song and joking around at meals, and “that guy,” the one who no one can stand and often shows up on motorcycle tours, stayed home for this one. Maybe he doesn’t like fish….
From the lighthouse on the tip of Kyushu’s rocky easternmost peninsula, the group rode north to catch a ferry to Shikoku, where we stayed on its westernmost point in a small fishing village. The cherry trees were redlining as we rode east to the Five Level Highlands in the mountains on small roads in the rain and heavy fog, with a warming lunch at the summit. As we skirted another gorge and wound through river valleys, the rain stayed with us, obscuring Oboke Canyon on what was potentially the most scenic day of the tour—a good reason to come back. Fortunately it cleared up for the last riding day, which offered a little bit of all the beautiful scenery we had encountered thus far. After 1,644 kilometers, or 1,021 miles, we parked the bikes at The Paddock and enjoyed a rousing farewell dinner back in Okayama, since some in the group were departing in the morning.
It’s only a 30-minute trip on the 180-mph Nozomi bullet train from Okayama to Hiroshima, a bittersweet adventure MotoQuest had lined up for the last day. While Hiroshima has been restored and grown to become the largest city in western Honshu, it’s best known as the first city in history to be the target of a nuclear weapon. When American forces dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, near the end of World War II, tens of thousands were killed instantly, and by the end of December 1945 about 140,000 had lost their lives from the lingering effects. We quietly wandered its large Peace Memorial Park and Museum and stood humbly under the “hypocenter,” the actual spot over which the bomb airburst, hoping this unimaginable horror (or the subsequent blast at Nagasaki three days later) never happens again.
Before heading back to Okayama and saying our good-byes, we lunched on Hiroshima’s famous okonomiyaki, a kind of seafood and noodle pancake grilled right at our table, with plenty of beer to lighten the mood. The amazing food, sublime beauty of Japan’s southern islands, eye-popping cherry blossoms, incredibly friendly and polite Japanese people and exciting variety of roads and scenery made this an unforgettable tour. Some would say once-in-a-lifetime, but I know I will be coming back.