Hell and Back

As a followup to the last post, here’s the story of my first ever long touring trip, which turned out to be both more of an adventure and more of an ordeal than I had bargained for.
Transalp with Koinobori

I bought my first bike, a 400cc Honda TransAlp, on the advice of Makoto, a tall Japanese guy on my basketball team. Makoto also offered to take me along on a trip to his hometown in Kagoshima, Kyūshū, and show me the ropes of the whole touring thing. So a week after getting my license, with no riding experience whatsoever, I hopped on the ferry to Miyazaki.

In the Kagoshima dialect, ぼっけもん (bokkemon) means “daredevil, reckless person”, and I got called that many times whenever people heard that I had made the trip after just getting my license.

After riding together to Makoto’s parents’ house, Makoto pulled out his touring map and showed me the roads to Cape Toi, suggesting it would make a good solo day trip for a beginner. I was nervous as hell, but with the help of the maps I made it out to the cape and saw the wild horses, and even got to watch wild monkeys stage a protest in the middle of the road, jumping on tourists’ cars and demanding tribute. Mere weeks after taking my riding test, I was finally doing what I had dreamed of, seeing parts of Japan I would never have reached without wheels, and it felt good.

Then came the rains. Sudden, torrential rains. I threw on my brand new raingear and discovered something else new: the tourists were all scattering to their cages and huddling under umbrellas, but in my rainsuit and helmet I was invincible. Ha Ha! Your ineffectual showers do not concern me, for I am a Biker! (Nowadays I feel significantly less invincible.) After a leisurely bath at an onsen on the way back, I returned to Makoto’s house feeling like a conquering hero.

I then resolved to see as much of Kyūshū as possible before getting back on the ferry, so I set out to see the famous caldera of Mt. Aso and take a mud bath at Jigoku Onsen (literally “Hell Hot Springs”). I got there late in the day with a heavy mist on the mountains, so I went straight to the campground by the onsen, and this is where I had my first experience with the camaraderie of Japanese bikers.

I rolled into the campground and the riders who were there before me started welcoming me, telling me where to park my bike and set up my tent and inviting me to dinner. There were only around six bikers and two bicyclists, all of us meeting for the first time, but we talked long into the night like old friends about riding and the joys of the road.
Jigoku Onsen Campground
I woke up in the morning with a high fever. I couldn’t spend another night in a wet campground, and the inn was booked solid. The management found a kind elderly man who was willing to share his room with me, but he was hard of hearing and only spoke a mumbling Kumamoto mountain dialect, so our conversations all followed this pattern:

Old Guy: <something unintelligible>
Feverish Gaijin: I’m sorry. I don’t understand.
Old Guy: What?

My fever meant the end of my Kyūshū expedition, but I somehow made it back to the ferry in one piece. I saw less than half of what I had planned, but I learned far more about the world of Japanese riders than I had expected.

I never did get to see that caldera.

10 thoughts on “Hell and Back”

  1. Dude, how tall are you? o_@ You make that Transalp look like a bicycle. I can imagine you walking through the crowds in Tokyo. You’d be looking like Godzilla ROFL.

  2. I’m 6’7″(199cm), so yeah, I’m a bit of a monster here.
    “Huge Ben” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

    One of the reasons I ride a Harley is that it’s one of the few bikes that can be easily modified to fit me.

  3. I still have to write my “origin story” post… but the very first time I rode a bike was in Japan, around the Mt. Aso caldera area. I was a ryugakusei on fall vacation at a ranch-like property owned by my friend’s homestay family. They had a bunch of 250cc dirt bikes and let us try them out even though we didn’t have licenses.

    Well, I got on board one of the bikes and somehow, I got it into my head that if I stopped too soon, they’d think I was afraid to ride. (Maybe because I actually was!) So I just kept going… off the ranch, and onto a paved road. I must have gone a few kilometers before I wiped out on a patch of sand on the asphalt. Luckily, I was wearing protective gear, so I didn’t get hurt. I still remember the road coming up to smack my helmet brim, though.

    The funny thing about this was that one guy was videotaping me riding around, and then zooming off down the road. So if you watch the tape, you can see everyone’s expressions change from amusement, to concern, and finally to panic, as they gradually realize that I’m not coming back.

    And that was that, until years later, when I returned to Japan. But that is a tale for another time…

  4. Hi! I have been riding and racing here in Japan for a while now and finally have time to tour the country,so I thought I would go over board and just ride round the whole country.
    Used to be a pro boxer here until I had a huge bike accident that left me with an artificial femur head in my leg,I just hope my leg holds out. Any advice you can give would be much appreciated. Nice site,great read.

  5. Hi Warren,

    I’m not sure what kind of advice you’re looking for. If you’ve got any questions we’d be happy to answer them, and there are some things you should be sure not to miss when doing a full-country tour. Let us know if we can help.

  6. hey,
    i have been in japan for a few months now and i was looking for a place to ride dirt bikes, when i stumbled on your site. i know u all are street riders and i ride offroad, but I figured i would ask you guys if you had heard of or seen any tracks or offroad riding places around yokohama or tokyo. any help would be great?

  7. Hi bullit,

    I wish I could help more, but I don’t know of any dirt tracks meant for that purpose. But if you head up into the mountains in any direction out of Tokyo, there are unpaved forest roads to explore. I know I’ve seen offroad types with map books pointing out the fun ones, but I’m not sure where they get them. Even the “Touring Mapple” series has some information on the good dirt roads.

  8. Have you been back to Kyushu? I rode for two years in the Kyoto area (check out Rt 4 in Nara…the sickest), and I wondered how long it would take to ride to Aso-san from Fukuoka. Anybody?

  9. Colin,
    I’ve never had a chance to make it back to Kyushu, and I rode up to Aso from the south, so I can’t really give you any advice there. I really would like to make it back there some day, since everyone says it’s spectacular.

    Thanks for the tip about Route 4.

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