|12-02-2013, 05:38 AM||#1|
Ride Alaska & Beyond
Joined: Nov 2009
Karl´s Custom Japan Motorcycle Trip
MotoQuest offers professional custom motorcycle tours worldwide with experienced multi-lingual guides (https://www.motoquest.com/custom-tours/) Here is a diary from one such tour:
MotoQuest Guide Cameron McGill describes a 32 day ride through Japan from southern Honshu to the far North of Hokkaido.
36415 minus about 700km= 35715km starting point.
After packing the bikes with the helpful hand of Chie, we set off under a sky threatening to open, but yet to do so. After a colourful few minutes getting used to our new rides, we enter the highway for a beautiful ride though the countryside through endless tunnels and massive bridges offering outstanding views of the valleys far below.
The one heavy downfall of rain on the radar had its eyes set on disturbing our ride and after 20 minutes of a downpour, finally forced a brief stop inside a tunnel for a gear change. However, in an evil twist of fate that could only be perpetrated by the riding gods themselves, the deluge disappeared moments after, leaving us sweltering in our newly added riding gear. Furthering the joke, upon arriving at our first destination, Himeji Castle, the gods continued their prank by having it be closed for the next decade while restoration work takes place.
Pushing north in search of the terrific riding which awaits, the riding gods continue to aspire against us, forcing another deluge upon us and a second gear change. Not willing to let them better us, we alter our route, push on and break free. Rivers now run near there cresting point, mist shrouds the perpetual mountains we ride through and the traffic fades away, creating a lasting image of what nature in Japan truly represents. Continuing that theme upon our arrival in Amanohashidate is the gracious reception of our hosts at the Minshuku where we have booked ourselves for the evening.
Despite arriving late for dinner and holding up our hosts schedule, they quickly note our soaked appearance and make efforts to see to our well being, hand-drying our baggage and offering to move dinner to an even later time to allow us to clean ourselves.
When feeding time finally arrives, our riders are quickly overwhelmed by the large amount of food served to them and proceed to beg forgiveness for leaving so much uneaten. It was suspicious however that all of the sake seemed not to be wasted. After hanging gear to dry overnight, sleep
quickly came to all of us.
Seemingly moments later, but closer to 10 hours, we were aroused by the call of breakfast which also proceeded to overwhelm us with its colossal size. Even without the appearance of beer and sake, much was left uneaten again, much to our shame as it was so ornately prepared.
A morning walk around the small village, visiting the sandbar which draws people from afar, displayed older style Japanese buildings also. Topped off with a highlight trip up the nearby mountain on a single seat chairlift to the viewing area which displays the true meaning of Amanohashidate. Called The Bridge to Heaven for the sandbar’s appearance when viewed between one’s legs, all were struck by the area’s beauty.
After loading up and hitting the road, the morning had disappeared and haste needed to be made to make our evening accommodation, a splendid ryokan with a natural onsen and beautiful view over a fresh water lake with mountains towering over it. The riding gods, obviously feeling that our riders were worthy after testing their mettle the previous day, allowed the sun to shine. A quick jaunt on the highway sped things up immensely and introduced our new riders to the art of passing on the shoulder. Unlike many roads, Japanese do not have a gravel edge and build the shoulder to the same quality of the main road as it also serves as the emergency lane. From the newly built highway, the immaculate riding conditions provided numerous views of rising mountains, tunnels and valleys filled with traditional Japanese homes surrounded by the lush green of multiple tiered rice paddies.
After exiting in the town of Obama at the end of the expressway, our riders were introduced to what is a roadside stop, which the Japanese do quite well. Since Obama’s election in 2008, his image has been plastered throughout this area and we quickly encounter a life size cardboard cutout image of him and souviers of him for sale. While consuming our fruit smoothies to bring down the temperature a little, a gaggle of young Japanese girls enter and proceed to pose it the cutest possible way with the cutout for pictures, eliciting smiles all around.
Nearly 4pm, we push onward to get to the ryokan to enjoy it’s pleasures. After a few mintues of slow, hot town riding, the road opens up to sweeping views over the ocean, displaying the endless oyster farms and perfectly engineered curves leading to our freshwater destination. However, new highway construction has removed our planned road to the ryokan and a secondary choice was taken, introducing our riders to the art of maneuvering through a 1 meter wide road, designed for two way traffic. Dodging hanging spiders, vines and the occasional branch, we emerge at our final desination.
Entering through the huge traditional gates, we are steered to parking our bikes under the main entranace and little old ladies scurry out to assist us with our luggage. However, far to heavy for them to carry, disappointment is seen in their eyes as they believe they have failed to do their job. A quick compromise is reached to enable them to save face and they happily carry jackets, tankbags and helmets inside.
After the previous day’s stay left us unable to consume all put in front of us, pleading with the staff reduced the amount of food served to us at dinner by half, which still remained plenty. In addition, other guests who had been fishing just before dinner had their caught bass given to the kitchen, and all quests were able to enjoy 5 minute old sashimi as a result. It simply will never get fresher.
After a hot day riding, the onsen, offering views of a stunning sunset out over the mountains and lake and a fridge filled with beer and sake quickly helped rid the muscle aches accumulated over the day. Sleep came quickly to all.
After enjoying the last few minutes of the serine calmness of the ryokan, and a few obligatory pictures with the staff at the majestic front gates, we hit the road under sunny skies just shy of 11am.
Only minutes into our ride, we encounter one of the numerous hawks in the area feeding on the road. Having been challenged by them on previous rides, there were a few nervous moments where the hawk decided it was a fight or flight situation. Thankfully, he chose flight and we were able to enjoy some
close views of one of Japan’s great predators.
A brief gasoline stop introduced our riders to a Japanese style gas station where there are no pumps on the ground. Rather, they are housed in the back and hoses descend from the overhanging roof and the amount is tracked on digital boards above the door entrance. Hours of coastal riding along perfectly manicured roads offering stunning views out over the sea of Japan followed. While roughly the same size as England, Japan possesses twice the coastline and makes great use of it by putting roads along much of it. Attempting to make Takayama, a lengthy ride already impeded by a late start and hours of twisty coastal roads, which, which terrific, don’t allow us to make much time, the highway again become our only option. After an 80km ride, the bill was
surprisingly only 800 yen, a far cry from years past when one could expect five or six times more. As Japan is attempting to promote more tourism in the countryside, road tolls have been drastically reduced, much to our pleasure.
After pulling into Kanazawa at 3pm, home to a castle by the same name and the famous Kenroku Garden, one of the three most beautiful in Japan, hard decisions needed to be made about the day’s destination. Deciding to enjoy the magnificent sights these two attractions offer, Kanazawa quickly became the evening’s final stop. After a few hours perusing the best Garden Japan has ever
constructed and the ruins of Kanazawa castle with its imposing rock walls we clean up at the hotel and enjoy dinner in one of Kanazawa’s entertainment districts. Emerging full and exhausted, we are thankfully greeted by cool evening air, our first break from the repressive heat and humidity we’ve been
exposed to so far.
To be continued...
Click here if you feel like riding Japan: https://www.motoquest.com/guided-mot...e-tours-japan/
|12-03-2013, 04:17 AM||#2|
Ride Alaska & Beyond
Joined: Nov 2009
Days 4 to 6
Up and away at the crack of 10:30, we head south out of Kanazawa with visions of Japan’s major mountains dancing in our heads. Two hours of winding roads thrust us deep into the mountains before dropping us into 50km of gorge, the road gracefully following a river with walls of green rising sharply all around us. As noon approached, we came to our mid-day destination, Shirakawa, home to Japan’s world heritage thatched roof houses. A few hours of perusing the village of Ogimachi followed, offering views of the meter-plus thick grass roofs, steeply built to allow the heavy snowfalls the area receives to fall off. Lunch, with beautifully marbled Hida beef as the centerpiece was washed down by unique flavours of ice cream that could only be found in Japan, such as soy bean, soda water and soba noodles.
With the best riding now awaiting us, we head east, planning to crest the first of Japan’s three great mountain ranges. Fate, however, quickly intervened in the form of construction workers tolling behind a sign informing us that construction would begin today. A few sweet words prodded them to let us
past and so began 20 minutes of curves, climbing and stunning views over the valley floor far below.
Just when it appeared that that we had carried the gods favour, they clearly reminded us who is in charge by presenting us with a 4 meter deep construction hole and a determined construction crew chief who was in no mood for attempts to appeal to his compassionate side. Although, ultimately a failure, all agreed the ride up and back was clearly worth the futile hour spent pursuing it. Riding perfection was quickly replaced with freeway riding and countless tunnels to enable us to reach our sleeping quarters in Takayama for the evening. All was not lost as the end of the day was still met with a tempura dinner and beautifully frosted Sapporo draft beer.
Depart at 10:45am, Shirakawa at 12:30, arrive at 6pm-ish at Takayama.
Finally, a day off the bikes for our riders to relax from the hectic pace of a new town every night and Takayama is just the place for it. Nestled in a valley with mountains surrounding it on all sides, Takayama contains the amenities of a large city, but with a small town feel. One of the only cities in Japan not flattened during the war, much of its original charm remains. Breakfast is found at the morning market, along with more coffee that a person could safely consume. Followed by a leisurely stroll around the old district containing endless amounts of traditional Japanese houses.
Lunch presents us with the opportunity to consume more of the famous Hida beef, with it´s wonderfully marbled appearance and succulent taste. Not until one spends a little time at Takayama’s main train station does one realize just how country this city of one-hundred thousand is. With only one local train per hour and ticket gates manned by an actual person, it slowly dawns on our riders. Followed by a single car train where the conductor is also the ticket taker at smaller stations. Combined with a lovely ride through the countryside, a true old world idyllic scene is created.
However, upon arriving at our remote destination, this vision suffers a setback as taxis required to take us to our afternoon destination are nowhere to be found. A quick retreat is beaten back to Takayama and the walking path in the Eastern mountain area through cedar forests holding temples, shrines and
cemeteries act as a terrific substitute. Followed by a terrific, REAL beer burger for dinner, our relaxing day is complete.
After ordering a beautiful local beer, I inquire as to the taste of this relatively new wonder to the waitress. Clearly confused by why such a person would ask such a question, she delicately turns her head sideways and responds with a straight face “it’s beer flavour”. Duh!!! Why didn’t I know that?!!!
Our earliest departure yet, 9:30! We head east out of town towards the scenic mountain area known as Kamikochi. We again enjoy small, twisty mountain roads leading us into the next range and delight in the 10 consecutive switchbacks leading to the base of Kamikochi. As private vehicles are forbidden to enter, we grab a taxi into the park and proceed to enjoy 3 hours of leisurely strolling on walking paths with stunning views of mountains rising before us with a perfectly clear (and freezing) mountain river rushing past. A lunch of local fried chicken with views of the mountainous background and the Kappa bridge cap off our time at Kamikochi and all quickly fall asleep on the 20 minute return taxi ride.
While the weather has fortunately held in the notoriously fickle Nagano mountains, our riders pay the price as we remain stuck behind the gaggle of tour buses trying to navigate the sharply twisting and descending road to Matsumoto. However, in an olive branch from the riding gods, it does provide
ample time to enjoy the views of the stunning gorges we are riding along. Within the hour, we reach our hotel near Matsumoto station and settle in for the evening.
More to come soon...
Click here to know about our upcoming Japan trips:
Click here to know more about our custom tours:
AK Rider/MotoQuest screwed with this post 12-05-2013 at 03:04 AM
|12-03-2013, 06:53 PM||#3|
Joined: May 2002
Location: Colorado - Fort Collins
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|12-04-2013, 06:06 AM||#4|
Ride Alaska & Beyond
Joined: Nov 2009
Days 7 to 9 Japan Custom trip
After a quick breakfast under the watchful eyes of two high school soccer teams also staying at the hotel, we head out to walk the ground of Matsumoto castle. Ascending to the 6 th floor inside the imposing proves a challenge with staircases boasting both incredible steep angles and huge individual stairs. The view from a top was well worth the struggle. By 12:30, we have departed, heading for the onsen resort town of Kusatsu, 1200 meters above sea level nestled in the mountains of Gunma prefecture. While the weather was again in our favour, the gods chose balance in the universe by plaguing us with traffic along our glorious routes.
A quick lunch in a remote countryside restaurant and quickly on to Kusatsu, to enjoy the town and its numerous onsens. The centerpiece of the town is the
near boiling water which comes up in the middle of town at about 90 degrees. It’s run over long wood tubes to cool it before being sent to nearby onsens for bathing consumption. The sight itself is the town’s main attraction and both quite a sight, and smell to witness. Guests are encouraged to walk around the town centre in their yukata’s. As Kusatsu is 1200 meters above sea-level, high in the mountains of Nagano, the temperatures are tamed from the perpetual heat at lower elevations traditionally found during the Japanese summer and we all enjoy the relief.
Having enjoyed the first night so much, we quickly decide to extend the stay at Kusatsu to two days. During breakfast, it has become clear that it is time to introduce our guests to Japanese Natto. The father-daughter team quickly demonstrates their experience in life as the father quickly eyes up the sealed natto package suspiciously and politely declines. Having been around the block, he is aware that food that has to be sealed, is done so for good reason. However, the daughter is much more easily convinced that it is an experience not to be missed and agrees to partake in sampling it. As she removes the seal from the fermented soybeans, her enthusiasm quickly disappears as the smell hits her nose and she quickly understands why her father has a devious smile on his face. She bravely puts on a smile for the camera, but it too quickly fades as she begins to stir the sticky mess and more of its lovely aroma reaches her sensitive beak. As the natto hits her tongue, all attempts at bravery are completely abandoned and replaced with a cringing face and the initiation of the gag reflex. Even when mixed with the hot mustard and sauce which accompany it to help mitigate the smell and flavour, the results don’t change and a second bite is abandoned, much to the delight of onlooking Japanese whose belief that
foreigners can’t eat natto is upheld, and thus their nation safe for another day.
When the morning festivities are over, it’s decided to have a leisurely half day on some of the spectacular mountain roads found in Gunma and Nagano and accompany it with a mid-day stop to see the famous onsen bathing monkeys. We set off on the Shiga-Kogen route, which houses 90 minutes of some of the most beautiful riding Japan has to offer. We are taken from cedar forests, past sulfur vents to the dwarf bamboo laden plateau, offering views over the seemingly never-ending Japanese alps, all on roads immaculately maintained with no gravel on its edges and possessing some of the best curves a rider could ask for. Despite it being tourist season and the road containing some traffic, many vehicles pull over and wave us past, understanding the motivation behind riding this road on a motorcycle.
Japan, with its four major motorcycle manufactures, certainly understands and embraces motorcycle culture and all drivers contribute a little to ensure it can be enjoyed.
After catching our breath, we ride up to the Monkey park on a road so narrow that two motorcycles would struggle to pass each other. A brief walk takes us into an area where 160 Japanese Macaqua monkeys reside. We spend the next hour watching them eat, bath and fight. As spring has just passed, many female monkeys are in the possession of a child, and very protective of them, making
for numerous interesting interactions. Having long become accustomed to humans, they completely ignore the 10 people taking their pictures and invading their territory, even walking casually between people’s legs.
After a quick lunch break overlooking some of the former Olympic venues, we are again beset upon by the riding gods. Having given us a day, they then take it away and impose a broken clutch cable upon us, ending our day and denying our ride back to Kusatsu. Our hotel quickly dispatches a vehicle to pick up our riders and take them back to the healing waters of Kusatsu for solice. After a few phone calls, the insurance company has a truck arrive to whisk away our damaged bike. However, being so deep in the mountains, while produced terrific roads such as we are riding, also means that the area is devoid of a suitable repair shop as the local population is too small to sustain it. So, our bike ends up at a shop nearly 2 hours from our breakdown site.
After accompanying the bike to the shop and discussing repairs with the mechanic, we learn the part won’t be in until the next day’s afternoon, thus jeopardizing the next two days plans. Arriving back at the hotel at close to 8pm, long past darkness in Japan, who doesn’t use daylight savings, I am greeted by an uplifting event. The hotel where we are staying is putting on a Taiko drum demonstration, and I am just in time to catch it. Although now 3 hours after the end of dinner time, the staff insists I eat and opens a restaurant solely for yours truly and in true Japanese hospitality, supplies me with free beer to wash down the nearly 20 dishes I am presented with.
Today presents some challenges as our rider’s one request was to visit Nikko and today was designed to be an early arrival there to enjoy the world heritage temples that is possesses. But, without a bike, alternate arrangements need to be made. It’s decided a rental car is the solution and by 10am we set off with it and our one remaining working bike. As our route takes us past the bike shop, we stop in about 1pm to find it repaired, much to our surprise. Having only 2 riders and 3 vehicles, we have to continue on and travel over the mountains down the 46 curves leading to Nikko. With our riders settled in their accommodation, they set off to explore Nikko while I make the return trip to retrieve our bike and return the car. Arriving at the bike shop at its 7pm closing time, the owner, who lives above the shop, agrees to come down and open the shop for me later in the evening to get my bike back, despite the late hour.
After dropping off the car and taking a brisk cab ride to catch the final train of the evening at 8:30, I am met with a station attendant who tells me the trains have been stopped due to heavy rain. They arrange a taxi which gets me back to the mechanic’s at 11pm. He graciously comes down to open the shop for me. Setting off on the 3 hour ride, I am quickly met by an additional challenge as both rain begin to pour down and I am nearly out of gas. In the mountains of Nagano, gas stations close early, usually by 7pm and the prospect of finding one seems grim, as does some emergency accommodation!
After a few inquiries, I am able to fuel up and get a 100 yen pair of rainpants. The night ride to Nikko is pleasant as the stars are out and the temperature, even on top of the plateau, is in the low 20’s. Along the way, the night brings out the local creatures and deer, rabbits and raccoons dot my route. After
arriving at 2am, the elderly owner of our small bed and breakfast rises and comes out to let me in.
To be continued...
|12-05-2013, 03:03 AM||#5|
Ride Alaska & Beyond
Joined: Nov 2009
Days 10 - 13
A short night is followed by strong coffee early in the am. It’s getaway day for the youngest member of our group who is being forced to return to the real world and will fly out of Narita later today. After putting her on the bus to the airport we saddle up and head north as two. With great weather and more of the Japanese alps wonderful roads, it appears that the gods have vetted our
riders, deemed them fit and finally lifted their daily trials. However, it was not to be and they thrust a downpour upon us which eventually forces us to slide into the hotel and it’s welcoming hot baths early.
Starting at 37101km
Up and out the door gives us two hours of terrific, twisty riding and leads us to a large freshwater lake which provides a scenic place for a mid-morning break. Leading onward, Ura-bandai lies in front of us. A motorcycle’s paradise with its endless twisty roads on top of the plateau. All this leads to the Mt. Zao area and its “iron pot” caldera. Notoriously fickle about showing itself as it resides so high up in altitude, we strike gold as the weather is clear and she bares her wares for us. With this sight as a sign and being so late in the day now, it’s clear we will avoid the gods wrath finally. Alas, within minutes of these thoughts improperly creeping into our heads, they hurl a thunderbolt at us,
literally. They tease us by allowing us onto our bikes before unleashing a thunder and lightning storm with another deluge of rain.
We scamper for shelter in the office of the nearest building with nowhere
to gain protection for our steeds. After cleaning up, we decide to wait it out, only to have the building staff inform us that they are closing in 20 minutes. But, holding out to the last minute with the staff politely ushering us out into the driving rain seems to work, and just at the moment the building closes,
the rain ceases and we are allowed a pleasant ride into Sendai the remainder of the way.
Starting at 37396km
Knowing that the afternoon will be spent in the tsunami affected area, and most likely a bit of a heavy trip emotionally, we decide to start the day off with something uplifting. A visit to a 1200 year old temple complex housing caves that ancient Buddhist monks caved out to sit in an contemplate the
meaning of life in. Inside of these moss covered wonders sits numerous Buddhist statutes, lying in the same place for centuries. The complex also boasts the freshly restored mausoleum of the former ruler’s, which is spectacular in beauty. Topping it off is a museum housing artifacts recovered from the area including scrolls, screens and numerous pieces of pottery. All are in incredible condition.
After a brisk lunch of local muscles, deep fried as only the Japanese can, we move Eastward around the fabled Matsushima Bay with its countless pine tree covered islands, long the inspiration of poets for because of its beauty. On the outskirts of Ishinomaki, we start to see signs of what could be Tsunami damage, but it could also simply be a run-down area. As this area is protected behind a 100 kilometre peninsula jutting south, it doesn’t seem plausible that the Tsunami would reach this area with any force. All doubt is removed after we stop for gas and have a chat with the attendants who tell us not only did the water reach them at the station, which lies 500 meters away from a heavily fortified shoreline, but it came to the top of their station roof, three meters above the ground!
After crossing the root of the peninsula, we come to the first openly exposed area to the Pacific ocean and are startled by what we see. At first, we barely even notice the damage as it appears just to be an open area with lots of grass growing. But, we quickly begin to notice the barren roads which run through these grassy areas. After gaining an elevated view, all is laid before us and the force of the water quickly becomes evident. Nothing remains in this city. The water has removed everything and sucked it back out to sea. All the debris has been removed and all that remains are the concrete foundations where homes and businesses used to be. It resembles a new sub-division under construction, where the electric and road infrastructure is put in first, and awaits the construction of new homes. The area looks very similar to the images I saw when visiting Nagasaki and Hiroshima in that absolutely nothing remains except the tangled wreck of a few buildings yet to be hauled away.
Also quickly coming to our attention is our ability to navigate this former city. All signs and landmarks and some actually roads, that we would normally use to maneuver through a city are gone, replaced with a view handwritten signs, but offering very little information. Fortunately, my experience in the area and Japanese ability kicks in and we make our way northward up the coast, continually encountering barren patches of land that used to be villages. It is a somber day.
Starting at 37587km
With no accommodation available along the coast, as most of it no longer exists and the remaining portion is consumed by the masses of reconstruction workers who are now the only inhabitants of the area, we were forced to return inland last night to procure some. While highly inefficient, it is the only way to travel at the moment and an hour is spent returning to the coast. We begin in the former town of Ritsuzentakata, which became well known for its losses. While having a 10 meter high tsunami wall along its shoreline for just such a disaster, its electronic closing mechanism failed and the local firemen rushed to close it manually, but could not do so in time and all perished.
Upon arriving, we are again met with a vast openness. With not a single house and only a handful of reinforced concrete buildings remaining, little tells that people existed here. Only the massive mounds of material, separated into steel, wood and various other matter, give hints as to the city that used to
exist here. Again, barren roads and electrical poles are all that dot the landscape, along with an out-of- place vending machine, standing in the midst of nothing. We visit what was the downtown area and the massive sea wall that had been the town’s protection. Even now, near high tide, it rises more than 4
meters above the water level and is hard to believe that water was able to crest it. It also becomes clear while walking along parts of it that once the water had pushed inland and finally began to be sucked back out to sea, that it had been able to get underneath the massive concrete structure and destroy the wall. Enormous sections of the former wall now dot the immediate shoreline as witness to the water’s unstoppable strength.
Along our travels, we encounter a Japanese researcher who explains to us he has been travelling north up the shoreline, taking samples of sea life to see what has returned and what impact the nuclear disaster has had upon them.
As we need to consume much time travelling to the coast in the morning and back inland in the evening for accommodation, we push onward, going north up the coast. We are met with identical scenes at virtually every cove, areas wiped clean with only mounds of rubble and home foundations serving as evidence that life existed. We come across one such cove which had a naturally elevated road and we stop to take a picture. An elderly woman in her house, mere feet from the road, leans out her open living room window and strikes up a conversation, noting our interest in the scene below. She tells us that while the water came up to the road, it did not breach it. She describes the scene and how everyone ran to the staircase next to her house to escape the water. When pushed for information about what existed below, she surprisingly says nothing.
The town had the foresight 8 years ago after a previous tsunami scare to abandon the lower portion of the village and move to higher ground. Very
few were lost comparable to other villages of comparable size.
More to come soon!
Click here to find out all about our upcoming Japan trips:
Japan: Hokkaido Explore http://bit.ly/mqjapanhokkaido
Japan 3 Island Tour: http://bit.ly/japanthreeislandadventure
|12-06-2013, 03:45 AM||#6|
Ride Alaska & Beyond
Joined: Nov 2009
Days 14 to 26
Starting at 37818km
After two days making slow progress going out to the coast and back to see the tsunami damage, we need to put some kilometers under our tires to get to our destination tonight, the opening night of the Aomori Nebuta Festival. After a spirited batch of highway riding, we head hop off and head for the glorious roads and spectacular views on top of the Hachimantai plateau. Accompanied by the traditional millions of dragonflies and drawf bamboo found above 1000 meters, we zip across the top of the mountain, enjoying the views that 1600 meters of elevation provides. Upon descending, we head for lake Towada, small natural lake possessing beautiful views and a depth of over 300 meters.
After a brief lunch in the quaint little town on the lakeshore, we chose to brave the Oirase road, home to a lovely stream with attractive rapids, numerous waterfalls and virtually every 65 year old woman in Japan admiring and clogging the already small road. Several hours of twisty roads eventually spites us out of the mountains and onto the plateau housing the city of Aomori.
After freshening up, we grab a cab and head for downtown, wanting to arrive early so to procure a prime seat location. As we arrive, the police are beginning to shut down the streets for the evening’s parade. We position ourselves strategically and manage to grab a prime seat, only to have the
police move us and everyone else back to where they desire. As no one is really in the mood to do so, the line retreats very little and the police soon give up knowing the hopelessness of the situation.
At exactly 7:10pm, under perfect skies and a pleasant temperature, thunderous fireworks announce the beginning of the evening and instantly the sound of piccolos and taiko drums fills the air. Hundreds of floats, the small based on corporate logos and the large epic battles between samurai and beast, begin to move down the wide boulevard. The largest of the floats are the most spectacular and the focus of the festival. Paper wrapped around a wire frame and perfectly evening light underneath tell tales of Japanese lore. The amount of time needed to both design and create such floats must be incredible as the detail of them is mind-boggling. Underneath these floats are two dozen young men, who respond to the crowds’ volume. When they cheer loudly, these youth are driven by their leader to spin the float and move it almost into the crowd at a rapid speeds. They then kneel the float down in front of the appreciative crowd for a close-up look. After what seem like only minutes, 8:30 comes and fireworks again signify the end of the evening.
Starting at 38082km
While the previous night’s festival was extraordinary, it is merely the 2 nd best in Japan, with the most interesting to come tonight. Again, haste need be made to the city of Akita to make it, but time has to be first allocated to the Iwaki Skyline road. Ascending up Mt. Iwaki, this road boasts 69 perfectly symmetrical switchbacks within a 3 km distance as the crow flies, a motorcyclist’s dream and comparable to nothing else in the world. The highway again is the beginning of our day and within 2 hours we lye at the base of it, preparing for the ride of our lives. A mere 10 minutes later, all is over except the tales and regaining our breath. We are again greeted by our dragonflies at 1600 meters
along with the perpetual, stunning view out over the landscape of Japan.
After a brief “lunch” of cup noodles and apple pie, we push northward to the coast to begin the last leg of our trip. Hours of coastal riding along sweeping curves boasting lovely views out over the rugged coastline into the Sea of Japan finally deliver us at our hotel, where we repeat the previous night’s schedule and head downtown for the Akita Kanto festival, the best the land has to offer. We grab some reserved seats and sit down to enjoy the evening. But, as the sound of drums and piccolos again fill the air, the crowd rises to its feet to watch both man and child hoist strong bamboo poles housing dozens of lanterns, resembling a stalk of rice, high into the air. These contraptions then have additional lengths added to them and now reach heights nearing 10 meters in the air and easily weighing over 100 kg. Practicing since childhood, the adult males compete against one another and proceed to balance them in their palm at first and then moving to their hip, neck, chin, forehead and anyways else a sufficient ridge can be found. They are surrounded by children who are learning the trade under guidance of adults and under a smaller lantern load.
Occasionally, with the street lined with hundreds of these rice stalks, they either collide with one another or its operator loses his balance and they come crashing down, to the gasps of the crowd. With a very early morning ahead of us, we beat a hasty retreat to the hotel after the festival finishes.
The previous evenings festival enjoyment is not without a price, and that debt needs to be paid this morning. Needing to be on an early ferry more than 300km from our current location, we depart under a still brightly illuminated full moon at 3am. Pushing a rapid pace on the highway, stopping only for gas and to see a man about a horse, we arrive on perfectly on time and are able to board for our trip to Hokkaido where we will join the group tour that will take us around the northern most part of the Japanese archipelago for the next 10 days. Once we arrive, we realize as bikers that we have gotten the short end of the stick in terms of loading and unloading priority. We had to be the first on the ferry that morning, which also usually means you get to be the first off. But, this ferry is geared more towards cargo traffic than anything and our feeble voices are clearly lost in the wind, we will depart last. Now pushing 5pm, we press on and at our scheduled stop 60 minutes later, we find a small, local festival going on. Knowing we have dinner waiting and the responsibility to meet up with the rest of the group who are waiting patiently for us, we decide to stop only for 1 skewer of pork each and quickly return to our bikes to fulfil our responsibility. However………. One quickly turns to two, and then 5 and then, we discover smoked venison lightly dabbed in salt. Mmmmmmm……. We might be here for a while.
After deer, chocolate covered bananas as next followed by the local specality of massive slabs of pork on a 3 foot dwarf bamboo pole, roasted over an open flame. Also consuming additional time was watching the kakki gori eating contest which is shaved ice covered with various sweet sauces. What looked like a kilogram of ice was heartily devoured in minutes. Watching people suffer through the ice-headaches that follow was painful to watch, but amusing at the same time.
Seven pm rolls around, it’s dark and beginning to rain, perfect time to hit the road. Luckily, on a road without any illumination, we are fortunate to find a well-lit minivan travelling in our direction and happily ride his tail into Furano an hour later where we join the group for a well-deserved Kampai!!
From Day 17 to 25, we are on the Hokkaido Explore Tour led by Phil Freeman. Click here to know more about that one: http://bit.ly/mqjapanhokkaido
Niseko to Sapporo
Sapporo - Otaru-Niigata ferry
Our fellow riders are up early with us in Sapporo to see us off as we all go our separate ways. With the rest of the group heading home, we still have thousands of kilometres to cover in a short span of time. As Sapporo quickly disappears in our mirrors, the fishing port town of Otaru rises in front of us and by 10:30am we are stowed aboard for the 20 hour journey to Niigata. As most on this ferry are tourists and on vacation, unlike the first ferry we embarked on two weeks before, the facilities and type of passenger lend themselves to a merry atmosphere. Although nowhere near noon yet, many have already begun
their second beer under the sunny skies seeing us off.
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