The Motorcycle as Time Machine

No, the title doesn’t reference the embarrassing fact that I’m just now getting around to writing about a touring trip we made in early April. This is more about one of the things I love about riding motorcycles in such a dramatically mountainous country: being able to experience multiple seasons all in the same day.

When we left the Tokyo area, the few remaining cherry petals were fluttering down from the trees, marking the end of the most eye-catching part of spring. But after heading down rows of towering cedars toward Nikko, we headed up over the mountains toward the Aizu region of Fukushima, and gradually moved back in time through the seasons as we gained altitude, toward fully-blooming cherry trees, then partially blooming, then bare, followed even by the earlier-blooming ume (plum blossoms), before dropping our altitude again into the town of Kitakata, where it was nearly hot enough to feel like summer.

ノジ君のバイクのクラッチワイヤが切れそうだ

Noji had noticed that his clutch wire was partially frayed (<– foreshadowing), so we picked up a spare wire at this bike shop, which has been thoroughly occupied and taken over by cats.

Shadow

We then picked up enough altitude for it to feel like spring again. (I love what the late afternoon spring sun does with shadows.)

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The next morning, it felt nearly autumnal outside our cabin.

寒いに決まってるけど、ここまで来たんだから

And then, despite warnings, we simply had to explore the Bandai-Azuma Skyline, which often tops polls as one of Japan’s most spectacular roads.

White birch, snow, and beautiful winding roads

We kept gaining altitude, and soon headed into a wintry world of snow and white birch.

Noji-kun on the Bandai Azuma Skyline

We weren’t really wearing the right gear for mid-winter, but it was beautiful enough to make it worth some shivering.

Cold bracing morning

磐梯吾妻スカイライン

There was never a question that we made the right choice.

Not a bad location to fix a clutch wire

Finally down from Fukushima’s highlands and off through the gently winding roads of Ibaraki back toward home, Noji’s clutch wire did in fact break, but by then we had returned to mid-spring, so we had some nice scenery to enjoy while we made the repairs.

Takayama by the slow roads

The forecast had been for rain all weekend, but I soon put a sto

The weather forecast had been calling for rain all weekend, but I soon put a stop to that (my luck with the weather when I want to ride makes me seriously consider the possibility that there really are rain gods, and that I’m their favored son). We took off our raingear on the outskirts of Tokyo and never needed it again.  Noji-kun had plotted us a brilliant twisty route from West Tokyo up through Chichibu, over Yatsugatake through Chino to Ina, over Gombei Pass to Kiso, then over Norikura to Hirayu. It worked out to an all-day ride when we could have done it mostly by expressway in a few hours, but it’s nice to cover that distance only using beautiful misty winding roads.

Bikes at Norikura Plateau

The long roundabout way around up and down Norikura Pass meant we got to the campground just before dark, but it was worth it.

Supermoon through the trees

The supermoon peeks in through the trees above our cabin, as we relax after a soak in the onsen.

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My carb had been coughing, sputtering, and overflowing, so we gave it a good campsite overhaul in the morning.

Usui's Mach 3

I love that our rides these days always seem to be roving museums, since so many of the people I ride with prefer these beautiful old pieces of art. Here’s Usui-san’s Mach 3.

Kano's Z2

And Kano-san’s Z2.

Noji's W3 -- Aside from my intruding 1993 Harley, our group was

And Noji-kun’s W3.

I even felt a little guilty breaking the theme of this mobile exhibition of 1960s–1970s Kawasaki history with my early 90s piece of American steel (but I suppose at least the Evolution engine is mostly 70s-level technology).

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Packed up and ready to roll!

I love this old town.I wanted to pass through the old town of Takayama, since I love these old buildings.

Gyukushi--You can't do takayama without steak-on-a-stick, even i

And I can’t pass through this region without sampling the Hida gyu-kushi (steak on a stick!), even if it’s only 10AM.

As soon as my bike started running right again, it was time for

After some minor carburetor tweaks, my bike was purring along beautifully, which meant, of course, that it was someone else’s turn to break down. Noji’s W3 decided to throw an easily solvable electrical tantrum.

But the break gave me a chance to admire the flora.

Which gave me a moment to take some pretty flower pictures.

Noji looks back to make sure i noticed the awesome view of Ontak

Back in action, Noji-kun turns back to make sure we all noticed the view of Ontake (unfortunately blocked by the tree and some clouds at this point).

Ina from Gonbei pass

Heading down toward Ina from Gombei.

This trip really reminded me of how much I love real roads. I should take the long way around more often.

Ten Bikers, Two Bikes

A bunch of my biker friends got together for camping, but Sano-san’s panhead is being overhauled, Go and Kazu couldn’t get their bikes out because their condo complex is being refurbished, Nobu had to bring her kids, and Owen and Yuco had to bring the dogs, so only three out of ten of us came by bike.

The mountain cherries are still blooming. I love the pink-dapple

And then the kickstarter on Noji-kun’s bike nearly fell off less than a kilometer from the first meetup, so he called his brother in law and ended up driving his bike to the campsite on the back of a mini truck.

Noji-kun and his bike made it after all! 結局ノジ君もバ

Noji-kun explains how it happened  事情説明

The culprit  犯人はこれだ。

My bike wasn’t exactly on its best behavior either. The engine was purring beautifully and pulling me around those mountain curves with confident power, but the electrical system is showing its age; I needed a jump at half the stops we made. (That’s when it comes in handy to have friends in cars for support.)ジャンプ3回、押し掛け2回していただいた。

We had to jump-start my bike three times and push-start it twice

 

Two other bikers who happened to be at the same campground were on KZ1000s, one of them with the same rare reverse-imported model Stinger rides (too bad it wasn’t with him this time).

Two z1000 riders were camping nearby, so the other Kawasaki ride

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Masakatsu helps take the dogs for a walk

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We weren't sure we could get my bike started again if we stopped

But Izu in the spring is fantastic, and those roads are soul-healing, even with only two of us on two wheels.

Early autumn touring

Shirakabako and TateshinasanSometimes it’s the unplanned stuff that makes a ride great.

Last week I headed toward Nagano for what I thought would be a short solo touring trip before meeting up with friends for drinks, but on my way to the expressway, my friend Go suddenly pulled up next to me at a stoplight. He was also headed toward Nagano, and mentioned that he was thinking of riding along the Venus Line, one of my favorite roads. I had originally planned a pretty straightforward route to my destination, without much non-expressway riding, but at the mention of the Venus Line, I just had to change my plans.

It took me many miles and several hours out of my way, but those few hours made the difference between a very good day and a glorious day.

Now that I’m obsessed with photography, I think maybe it’s a little annoying to ride behind me. Go put together an amusing video of me location scouting—slowing down and/or pulling off at every single overlook trying to find good spots for photos.

Go's bike and mine in front of Shirakabako

But I think all that reconnaissance paid off: this shot↑ was taken one minute into that video , while the one below↓ was at around four minutes in. Kirigamine-Fujimidai

Another unplanned benefit of the timing of this trip was that Vibes Meeting (one of Japan’s largest biker rallies) was being held that weekend along that route, so we were constantly passing and being passed by other Harleys. One of my favorite bits of footage from Go’s fork-mounted action cam was when we passed by hundreds of bikers lined up to get into the campground (at 2:10 in the video). I’ve mostly stopped going to rallies these days, preferring to camp with friends, but Vibes was always one of my favorites, and I still love the feeling of converging on the site along with legions of other bikers.

With no real planning, I got to feast my soul on gorgeous early autumn weather, the feeling of biker community, photo geekery, and one of the most beautiful winding roads on the planet, with one of my best friends.

I split up with Go at Kirigamine, and he headed back toward Fuji to find a campsite (and it turns out he then ran into our friend Shu-chan and rode with him for a while as well).

Mitsumine

I continued along the Venus Line to Mitsumine overlook, and looked back to admire the beautiful winding road I had just enjoyed.

moss

After a spectacular day like that, the wine that night tasted even better than usual.

ready to roll

The next morning, I decided to drop by to see Chris, since I was in the neighborhood (for a very broad definition of “neighborhood”), and we rode together for a bit for the first time in decades.

A quick ride with ChrisAfter a brutal week at work, that weekend was exactly what I needed.

Wabi-Sabi made in USA

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These old bikes may be originally from America, but I think they actually evoke an aesthetic similar to the imperfection and asymmetry found in traditional Japanese art. Truly moving works of art (when you can get them to actually move).

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Also, although we didn’t plan it this way or anything, the five Harleys that got together for camping this weekend covered the entire history of Harley Davidson engines since the 1940s, turning our campsite into a temporary motorcycle museum.
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From the top: a 1946 Knucklehead, a 1957 Panhead, a Shovelhead, my 1993 Evolution, and a Twincam, with a Kawasaki W1s thrown in for good measure.

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That’s my girl!

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Last Saturday, I had to drop my youngest, Mai, off at her swimming class, but my wife somehow managed to lose the car keys, so I had to take her there on the back of my bike.

Apparently, she had fun even just riding through the neighborhood, because she insisted that we take a real ride on Sunday. It’s still a little cold, but I can’t refuse a request like that.
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Mai has never shown any interest in bikes until now, even when her older sister Lin and I come back from a ride with happy stories. Now they’ll have to argue over who gets to go.
面白い石をずっと探してた。
Thanks for losing the keys, Yuri!
Father and daughter on a bike jaunt

Cold morning ride with Fujisan

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This has not been much of a year for motorcycling for me, for a number of reasons–some good, like a trip to Taiwan and a long stay in Yellowstone and Tetons, and some bad, like my father-in-law’s funeral and my own bout of cancer (I’m fully cured, but recovery from the surgery took a while)–and I’ve really missed the mountain roads. I finally got a free morning last week and took a spin on some of my favorite roads in Hakone for a photo session with my ride and the mountain.

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The ride can’t always be great


I realize that nearly all my touring reports start and end with something along the lines of “that was an amazing ride!” And I pretty much always feel that way when I get back from touring, because even when we have nasty weather or mechanical trouble, the positive stuff and great times always outweigh any negatives.

But it can’t always be that good.

Today, for instance. I woke up bright and early ready to conquer the roads and go visit the mighty Pacific, but cloudy weather and other stuff delayed my departure. Then once I got out of the tunnel on the Aqualine across Tokyo Bay, the wind was gusting so strong I had to slow down to a crawl and was still getting blown around to the point where I couldn’t ride in a straight line. On top of that, the air was filled with cedar pollen, particulate pollution, and yellow sand from China, and the haze kept visibility to a minimum. Even when I did finally make it to the ocean, blowing salt and sand and haze made for a much closer and less impressive horizon than I had been hoping for.

I think I got ten or fifteen minutes in the twisties where the mountains blocked the wind enough that I could enjoy the winding roads, but I spent pretty much the entire ride battling wind and grit.

But the thing is: I somehow enjoyed myself anyway, and I still can’t wait to get back out on the road the next chance I get. Because these unpleasant ones really are the exception, not the rule. We just have to keep riding.

The continuing adventures of a couple of American bikers in the Land of the Rising Sun