This article is out of date. Please go to my home page for newer ride reports in Japan as well as information about rentals, hotels and food.
Riding a motorcycle in Japan was something I had wanted to try for some years and now am very happy to have succeeded in doing.
The roads were as I had thought - fantastic for riding and actually beyond my expectations. Despite some rain I have to rate it as some of the best riding I have ever experienced.
But I am getting ahead of myself, I shall try and give a overview and hopefully some useful details for people who may also wish to ride in Japan.
Following on from my last post I decided on a selection of roads in the Nagano Japanese Alps as my main target and around Mt Fuji as a secondary target if the weather was good. I sourced where to ride from a best 100 roads magazine shown in my previous posts - however I noticed in the newsagents there monthly motorcycle magazines that are focused on best riding places with a best 10 roads in each area so I purchased a couple and a good 'motorcycle' road map of the areas I would be riding in.
I had made a firm booking for motorcycle rental before flying out despite the weather forecast being rain and just hoped for the best. I rented a BMW 1150R from Kokubo in Hachioji-shi a suburb of Tokyo which lies a fair way out to the west. I chose them so as to avoid riding in the more busier areas closer to Tokyo's centre. Besides BMW's they also rent Buells and Harleys however they don't speak much English. The paper work you need to fill out is in Japanese only and you would need someone to assist despite it being a one page simple name, contact details, international license details, vehicle being rented and sign here procedure. You naturally need to present passport and international license. Cost was about $150 a day with full insurance, smaller motorcycles those 400cc and below are much cheaper as is weekly rental.
I was given a document that I was told to present to police upon request and gather it to be some sort of statement about the vehicles registration/safety certificate. It was teeming down with rain but with a forecast of improvement so I travelled back to where I was staying with the hope of a break in the weather. Riding a new to me motorcycle in very heavy rain with poor visibility in another country and feeling cold water leaking in my jacket at upper chest area I did for a moment wonder what the hell I was doing however there was too much focus needed so I was unable to dwell on things for long until I was safely back by which I had already decided it was better to try and fail than to just sit and wonder. Worse case scenario was it would be too wet and I would not get very far.
It rained heavy on and on and on, well so much for my original plans. Eventually I left Tokyo having lost a day and still under cloudy skies. Oh well my moto is better to try than sit and wonder. I chose then to ride straight out of Tokyo on the Chuo Tollway skipping Isu which I had wanted to ride and aim for the alps. All the major highways in Japan are toll roads and rather expensive however they get you quickly to places that take much longer on slower local roads. Here are some photos of the Chuo expressway, the speed limit in Japan is 40kph in built up areas and 50kph everywhere else (yes even the countryside) and 80kph on the expressways. However I noted at 100kph I was still getting passed frequently and the fast lane was moving at an average of 120kph which I soon moved into and where I then stayed. Elsewhere I just rode to suit the conditions and in the towns you wont get much above 60k, in the mountains you can ride as the road dictates.
I ran into rain within an hour and stopped outside one of the many huge highway tunnels in the mountains west of Tokyo to put on my wet weather gear. Exiting the mountains the weather improved and I stopped at one of the many highway service centres you will find on the Japanese highway network to get out of my wet gear and grabbed a quick coffee and took a photo of the valley looking back to the range.
I continued to Suwa and exited there. I found navigation was reasonably easy. Most of the roads are numbered much like in Victoria here and other countries and most road signs are also in English. My greatest worry had been navigating without a GPS however this really turned out to be no trouble at all, still I would not want to test that in one of the Japanese mega cities or a long tour at this stage.
I found there are a lot of full service petrol stations still in Japan where the attendants come to fill your tank and you will need to be able to say two things "man-tank' meaning full tank and 'hi-oct' meaning premium. There are also full auto petrol stations and these are a bit tricky. You need to insert money into machine, then select correct pump however they are not always clearly marked as to which one is premium, and then after filling select a button to get your change which comes from another machine centrally located in the middle of all the pumps. Best to go for the full service stations which I decided to use exclusively after trying one of these automatic stations to save a cent or two per litre and getting rather confused.
From Suwa I rode north and climbed my first mountain road destination, The Venus Line:
I found my way out of this storm and into the town of Chino only to see more storm clouds and hear lots of thunder overhead so I pulled into a Dennys family type eatery where I sat for about 2 hours drying out and having a long late lunch and a couple of coffees until the storms and rain had stopped. After this it was too late to try another road so I went to find the place I was staying that night the Motive Lodge, which is mountain lodge catering to riders. The owner, Mr Morita has a web site with some of the best rides in Japan which is how I found the lodge. (I sort of try do the same with my blog for Australian roads however I wish I ran a rider lodge like he does) I found the place easy (another worry I had needlessly prior) so with some time to fill I took a look about the area and stopped off for a beer and rest at a local shop. (you can buy beer anywhere in Japan, even vending machines at reasonable prices)
After a day in saddle which I rode through two storms I was ready for a hot shower, now of course Japanese love baths and hot springs in particular so I was able to relax in a huge hot tub outside the lodge listening to the water rushing past a nearby stream - superb. I had to dig deep to try and communicate with the lodge owner as my Japanese is rather poor but two people with a love of riding and motorcycles we got by despite the language difficulties and I enjoyed a hearty dinner and relaxing in the inn's dining room which had a huge collection of Japanese motorcycle magazines. This place fills up on weekends with many riders from Tokyo coming up to ride the alpine regions.
It rained heavy again that night however the next day it was clearing with the sun shining - woohoo! I bid the Motive Lodge farewell with an nice early start and riding along the start of the Venus Line from the Lodge I had one of those rare moments when you feel a real joy inside and think how wonderful it is to be alive and stopped to take in the fresh clean air and think which way to tackle the days riding. I had planned to have completed the Venus line day one and then been north to Shiga Kusatsu by now and be ready wrap up by returning via route 299 and then ride around some of Mt Fuji including a ride up the Subaru-Fuji line road to finish however the rain had put me a long way behind, too much of course to try catch up so I decided to simply ride to Shiga Kusatsu and return via some more of route 40 which forms another part of the Venus line and if time permitted try take in another road I had thought to ride in the area called the Panorama line.
After a false turn I found route 59 on the return and what a gem of a road this was, one perfect sweeping hotmix corner flowing into another and another, then I retraced my steps to route 94 which I was hooting along when my steering went very heavy and I realised I had a flat tyre on the way. I remembered seeing a petrol station at the start of the range so I rode back down as fast as I could before the tyre was completely flat and made it there with not a moment to spare.
Lucky the owner operator of this tiny rural petrol station went completely out of his way to help me phoning the bike rental shop back in Tokyo who gave a mechanics number who he then phoned and within 30 minutes someone was on the job and determined it was the valve so a simple matter to change over since same tubeless valves are used as in car wheels. Good thing BMW's have a centre stand which allowed the front wheel removal with ease. About an hour and half and I was repacked and on my way.
I then had to skip the Panorama line due to the lost time but didn't feel bad given the great assistance I had received to get on the road again and that I could have easy had been stuck on the top of the mountain on route 94 instead. I stopped for a quick bite to eat at a convenience store and for anyone going to Japan these places are your friend, you can get a good lunch or even a hot dinner for a few dollars and while you would not touch food in Australia from similar style shops it is basically impossible to get bad food in Japan. I'm embarrassed thinking about the Japanese tourists that come out here used to great food and service everywhere at 1/2 our prices and what they experience here.
A convenience store lunch (minus the bit I already ate) about $3.00, the iced coffee about $1.00 _ yes Australia has become very expensive
After a small rest and coffee I went looking for the other part of route 40 to skip going back through Ooya and by sheer chance when about to give up found I had turned down it when looking to turn around. I followed this road and it was a bit tricky with no route numbers in a couple of intersections however got past that to what is I guess the first section of the Venus Line and what a great ride it was. Lots of sweepers before exiting a heavy forest to start the climb up to the upper part of the Venus Line which I wrote about above.
Happy to have ridden these two roads and out of time I turned for Tokyo back on the expressway and got to see a nice view of Mt Fuji on the way back. Wow its really high, the mountains at the base are 2000m jobs then it simply towers above them like they are foothills.
I had originally planned 3 days covering more roads but in the end was happy to have not suffered 3 days of rain and learned a lot while still enjoying a few superb roads. These alpine areas have little traffic weekdays and have a low law enforcement presence. Japan offers great food and friendly helpful people and it is one of the safest places on earth to visit. Of course there is the history and culture to explore as well as great shopping for consumer goods at 1/2 our prices. Fuel and bike hire was slightly higher than here, however food, beer, accommodation is much cheaper and of a high standard. I shall definitely return to ride more of Japan in the future.