Matsumoto Camp 2006 (English)

my bike at Utsukushigahara
This weekend I rode out to Matsumoto Camp, a rally run by the Heaven & Hell MC in Matsumoto, Nagano. Last year this rally inspired me to write a post about bikers and brotherhood, and the feeling was the same this year.

I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to go due to my recent career change, but the timing of the new job worked out just right, so on my second morning of unemployment, I headed out into the mountains for some fun.

I left my neighborhood with Kazu and Go, who as usual blogged the whole trip realtime on his cameraphone. We met up with Ami and YOS on the Chuo Expressway, and YOS’s shovelhead was already having problems. An all-too-familiar grinding noise from the clutch area meant that he would be shifting by matching gears before the end of the trip, but he’s been down that road before and decided to go on anyway.

The weather was absolutely beautiful, and just cool enough to wear a leather jacket without getting too hot as long as you keep moving. Not much traffic and smooth sailing as we steadily gain altitude heading into the Japan Alps.

Unfortunately that smooth sailing meant too much vibration for YOS’s shovelhead, and the bolt holding on his muffler flew away somewhere.

That’s no condition to hit the twisties, so YOS headed off to the nearest Harley shop. We offered to stay with him, but with weather this good…let’s just say he didn’t have to twist our arms too far to convince us to go on without him. We headed up route 40 out of Suwa, a thin twisty little road that just goes up and up and up.

And at the top, a gas station with a view.

With the deep blue of the sky, the deep green of the mountain meadows, and the clear mountain air, we were all feeling a little high as we headed on to the famous “Venus Line”, which was an expensive toll road until just a few years ago.

The riding was so good I found myself whooping like an idiot and singing at the top of my lungs going down this perfect road on top of the world.

We had some oyaki (dumpling-ish things) and some disappointing soba noodles at the Mitsumine overlook, with a 360 degree panorama of this area of the Alps. We then headed down route 67 towards Matsumoto city.

Last year when I passed this way, I looked at that sign, saw the warnings about “steep inclines” and “narrow roads” and immediately thought, “that sounds fun” and chose the road less traveled by. Turns out that was a mistake, and they weren’t kidding about “steep” and “narrow”, and forgot to mention “more potholes than tarmac”. This year we took the bigger road, which turned out to have plenty of curves while still allowing us to enjoy the ride.

We turned through Utsukushigahara Onsen resort headed towards Asama Onsen resort, and passed through several kilometers of grape fields (Nagano is famous for sweet wine) and the sweet smell of the grapes on the vine was almost overpowering. In Asama Onsen town we stopped to stock up on booze and other necessities, and then headed up the mountain to Misuzuko and the site of the rally.

We made it! It’s always great to be remembered and welcomed like this.

Matsumoto Camp is a smaller rally, with a little less than 300 bikers participating this year, but the site is amazing, and this scale feels just right.

I’ve played with Shutaro in past years, and he remembered me, and hurried to show me his Harley bicycle. For a kid his age he was really considerate, and kept pestering me to visit the H&H MC tent before they ran out of Soba and roast pig.

And he was right to rush me. I got there just as the last of the handmade soba noodles were being put out. Didn’t get around to taking a picture until after they were gone.

By the time we finished setting up our tents, YOS, who had fixed his bike and then gone back to the Venus Line for some riding before joining us, finally arrived. One of the things that make this location spectacular is that at night you can see the lights of Matsumoto city far below though the trees behind the tents.

Ami brought a mini camp hibachi that folds down to fit into a VHS case. We fried up some pig intestines, and then switched to my family recipe BBQ spareribs, which were quite a hit with the other bikers.

My friend Nike from the Toyama Sexy Dynamits MC brought me their local delicacy of Masu-zushi (trout sushi). You’re supposed to cut it up into bite-sized pieces, but the Toyama crew wanted to see the barbarian eat it whole. It’s some seriously tasty stuff, so it wasn’t too hard to oblige them.

The members of the Matsumoto Heaven & Hell MC put together a band for these events and played Japanese rock from the 1970’s. Kind of silly, but everyone got rowdy and had a great time.

People kept bringing by new types of booze for me, and in this relaxing atmosphere, sitting around the fire next to my bike with kickass bikers from around the country, I was feeling better and better as the night went on. It turns out that I took quite a few pictures of my bike from my camping chair that night.

And then I woke up in the morning and took yet another picture of my bike while eating breakfast.
And the weather was looking good again.

We headed up an obscure old road that one of the local bikers told us about, twisting around and around as we headed up to the top of the pass. It turns out I was attacking the turns hard enough to make my fuel efficiency drop significantly, and I ended up hitting my reserve tank going up this road. Since there aren’t any decent-sized towns in the area I decided to trust my luck and press on.

On this sun-dappled road surrounded by white birches, I noticed that some of the group hadn’t caught up, so it was time for some pictures.

It turns out that Noriko, who joined us after just meeting us the night before (I often have that effect on women) had dropped something off her luggage on one of the turns. The gold lamé flame pattern on her softail is pretty wild.

As we climbed to higher and higher altitudes I started to really worry about my gasoline, but at the top of Utsukushigahara Meadow we found a gas station. The attendant guy said it was the only gas station at 2000m elevation anywhere in Japan.

And across the street from the station, we got this amazing view.

After filling our tanks and our stomachs, we headed back along the Venus Line. It was such a beautiful day that after a while the smile muscles in my face started getting sore.

[update 2006.9.11: A group of bikers we had met at the rally saw us passing by from an overlook and then sent me this picture.]

We parted ways with Noriko at Lake Shirakabako and headed back through Chino to the Expressway, then through the usual traffic to get home. Other than the traffic at the very end, I think our brains were giving off alpha waves the whole time we were riding. Great weather, great roads, and great friends made for some amazing touring and a top-notch rally.

I’ve been really busy this year, with a new baby in the house and with my career change, so I haven’t had a chance to go to any rallies or events, and only managed to make it out for real touring once back in spring, so I’ve been really stressed out. But all of that stress blew away in the mountain winds this weekend, and I’m ready to start my new career with a renewed spirit.

Thanks to everyone who rode with me, and especially to the Matsumoto Heaven & Hell MC for setting everything up. See you next year!

5 thoughts on “Matsumoto Camp 2006 (English)”

  1. Thanks James.

    I understand that Northern Cali’s got some great scenery too, but even in a generally picturesque country like Japan, that area of the Alps is really breathtaking.

  2. Good ride report. Nothing better than bikes, buddies and beer. Unless you also add babes into the equation.
    Did I mention I may be visiting Japan next year? My change of jobs has meant less time riding and more time in an airplane for me.

  3. Thanks, langtry.

    Snark, there were plenty of babes there too (many of whom are also buddies). I just spent my time talking to them rather than taking pictures—dereliction of duty, I suppose.

    Make sure you contact me when you make it over to Japan.

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