I just completed a 6 day tour to the Tohoku region and despite some discomfort from my previous broken collar bone I had a wonderful time exploring the ever beautiful Japanese countryside.
My original idea was to take a ferry up to Hokkaido and ride back but I thought it might be trying to do too much with the way my arm had been on the failed Ireland ride so I decided to make that a ride for next year. Doing a loop up from Tokyo meant I was always able to just slab it back on the expressway if I felt not able to continue.
Besides motorcycle touring magazines there are a series of dedicated motorcycle touring atlases in Japan called Touring Mapple. These have a wealth of information about best routes, sights and places to eat and stay. I cannot read Kanji but you can make out a fair bit with the symbols and the best roads are highlighted so I picked up the version for the Tohoku region and started planning my route.
Day one Kanagawa to Fukushima
There are a couple of holiday weeks in Japan. Golden week is in Spring and Silver week is in Autumn. These seem to coincide with good weather periods but naturally are also the busiest times to travel so I decided to chance the week before Silver week and then a typhoon arrived and caused serious flooding just days prior but I was able to go anyway and aimed at riding about 300km north on the expressway past most of the flooding before trying some regional roads in Fukushima.
Getting set to depart. My garage. Two wheels only.
I see a lot of electric vehicles on the road now. Most everywhere has EV power points.
I still came across some flood damage and some roads were closed or washed away.
After this my imagination was thinking of movies where they say ‘the bridge is out’ at the last minute. Fortunately there was ample notice. I hit the detour butting on the Garmin which achieved nothing, it suggested I go back a little way then do a U turn and come back and jump the river ala Evel Knievel and ride on my original route – what kind of detour is that? Ha-ha you have to just laugh. Garmin really are the most rudimentary navigation at times. I better stop before I start my usual Garmin rant. I decided to just go roughly ‘as the crow flies’ north and this sent me off on a road I had not planned to ride but it turned out to be a lovely valley of forgotten communities and sweeping roads – just the thing I like the most.
Rain was threatening but I took some time to stop and enjoy the rural views. All the photos look a lot better enlarged so go ahead and click on a few. As you can see initially I fell back into the ‘put the bike in the photo’ mode forgetting I wanted to move on from this. It is the trap most every motorcycle blogger falls into so I shall try and tone that down but I have to show you one more taken in one of the many snow sheds you will ride through in Japan. I took some time out to look around a small rural train station (I spent most of my former life in that industry) and decided to get a bit arty with the camera.
I ended up just getting rained on lightly the last 10 minutes which was no challenge for my Alpinestars Andes touring outfit (review here) despite the flaws I previously noted.
I found the ride with GPS app does a neat route map so I will include these as a screen shot for quick reference in future.
Day 2 Fukushima to Yamagata
Next day did not start out promising weather wise but it was not raining so that was all that mattered. I wanted to do more photography this ride so I stopped at Inawashiro lake despite the gloomy conditions to see what I could do.
Then up Mount Bandai to look down to the lake from the excellent riding Bandai Gold line road.
Next riding the Bandai lake line which I was delighted to find is a sweeping road that suits the FJR much more than the tight closed in roads which are really hard work. New camera at last in use this trip but the standard jpeg photos it produces are rather poor. I shot some things multiple exposure as may be obvious (and a bit artificial) but a lot of other scenery came out very dull and lifeless from the Lumix LX100. I hope Panasonic sort this out with a firmware update soon as at the moment it can only take decent photo in raw but lacks a good raw convertor.
From there the western descent of Bandai mountain on route 459 is excellent and I was exploring some small towns bypassed by the main roads and stopped to change gloves as the day was warming up and by chance arrived at a halt next to this pole and overlooking this lovely rural scene.
Later I ended up at another road closure, this time not related to the typhoon but simply some older roads where a newer road has been built. In Japan some old roads that perhaps have been duplicated with newer better road if not servicing anything can be barricaded. Abandoned roads and buildings are plentiful due to the shrinking population.
This was now about 1pm and two nights of very little sleep I was rather tired and had a brain fade moment in a rest area car park and over went the FJR. This is the second time I have had it fall and so both sides are now scratched but not otherwise damaged which shows it is built pretty tough. The issue is the bike is so heavy that I struggle to push it backwards out of a parking bay and then it is also so top heavy and wide so your legs are splayed out and all that adds up to it being easy if not very focused to get the bike slightly off balance and beyond a modest point that would be fine with a lighter bike the weight of the FJR takes over. I tried to hold it and fortunately realised I would injure my shoulder and just let it fall. But I was in isolated spot at end of a road that was closed so no cars would be coming to help me get the bike back up like last time. I had by chance watched a video on how to get a fallen heavy bike upright made for the adventure GS crowd so used that method (back to bike, turn wheel etc) and it worked but I am not sure if I had a full fuel load and was on less favourable ground rather than a flat car park I would have managed to get it righted.
I was annoyed but then realised the bike was just scratched and I was able to continue the ride so really I should be relieved. And indeed I soon forgot about it. Partly because to be honest the FJR has been a disappointment (my ongoing review here) so I care less about it than I would normally a bike I own. If money was no object I would have already traded it but since used vehicles here have very poor resale value I’ve elected to just try make the best of things. Anyway apart from this the real reason my mind was elsewhere was soon after riding north from Niigata I arrived at the spectacular west coast with scene from the saddle per below.
So much beautiful scenery in just one day. Route info here.
Day three Yamagata to Akita
I really got lucky with the weather the next day. Leaving Tsuruoka I took the expressway for a bit and as often is the case with the toll roads in Japan this one sat raised up high above the country side giving me a magnificent view.
Next stop was Mount Chokai which like yesterdays coast road I had not read about in ride forums but saw it highlighted in the Touring Mapple and wow what an amazing ride.
My route then took me over some roads that were one lane and quite narrow and the FJR is really too big a bike for those kind of narrow tight roads but eventually things opened up again into some nice rural riding and pretty towns which in Japan often have flowers growing. Seeing this in each small town always brings a smile to my face, to be in a place where people take the time to do this and that others do not seek to ruin it. In Australia they would be trampled or stolen by idiots.
Next I went to Lake Tazawa. The ride around the lake is excellent, the water is so very clear and I stopped to see the girl of the lake on what was a warm afternoon and wanted to sit and enjoy the view with a soft serve ice cream.
Terrific ride then on to Odate with excellent mountain and rural views from the bike. I wanted to stop more and look into there being bears in this region but the light was fading after a long day so another time. Day three route.
Day four Akita to Iwate
Can there be anything better than being on a ride and waking up looking out the hotel window to see this. Blue skies and mountains ahead. This is living.
Actually I had not slept well since leaving home. Just my shoulder from the injury, no fault really of the hotel, I often stay at Route Inn when riding and they are an excellent Japanese hotel chain. Not the cheapest, about $50/60 a night but that is I think affordable compared to other countries and includes a massive buffet breakfast that means I can have a light picnic lunch. You also get free espresso coffee machine, lots of other extras like a laundry and undercover parking. It’s a pleasant experience. Anyway I set off feeling quite fatigued and did not stop as much as I should have. Regardless it was impossible not to enjoy the riding today with such great scenery.
The impossibly blue Lake Towada above, the turn around point of this ride.
The road north to Lake Towada is the Jukai line and there were a few motorcycles out so I knew it was going to be good and indeed it turned out to be a sweet ride of sweeping corners and views. Lake Towada was beautiful and hard to capture in a photo but the water was so clear you could look down from the shore to watch fish swimming around and jumping out of the water, which I sat and enjoyed for awhile feeling quite at ease. The roads looping around north west of the lake were also excellent but I did not take any photos as hard to find a point that offered a view that captured the feel. Part of my route again turned to narrow tight forest road which was very pretty but a bit of a challenge on the FJR. Leaving the lake I rode back south to my next highlight for the day Mount Hachimantai which was far more spectacular than my feeble photos above suggest.
After this I got confused with the route and ended up missing an important bit. The GPS quite rightly thinks ok you want to continue so moves to the next part of route and by time I realised I was a long way on. I normally would have turned around but feeling well tired already from the constant effort to get the heavy FJR around the tight curves I decided since it was 3pm already to keep going. When riding Japan the limit (off the expressways) is really about 300km in a 8 hour day if you want to be able to stop at all. It is so tempting to add a little more when used to higher average speeds in my home country.
The last mountain pass for today would have been a magnificent view back to Mount Hachimantai if not for the sky being filled with smoke. Many farmers were burning rice fields – I thought this would be banned in Japan, the air was like what I might encounter in Thailand or Philippines. Maybe the farmers ignore? Day 4 route.
Day five Iwate to Yamagata
Day five I had chosen a route mostly from the Touring Mapple with no particular mountain pass or lakes to visit and was not sure what to expect but it turned out to be the best ride day of the tour. I like sweeping flowing roads these days. Not just because they suit my current motorbike but because I enjoy to feel a bike leaned over. Even riding slower on a big tourer there is a sweet spot at a modest lean that still lets you have the ‘defy gravity’ feeling. In Japan more roads are tight technical than open sweeping and I just don’t feel the desire to be working hard to ride on these sorts of roads like I used to when I was younger.
An odd thing riding Japan there are no corner speed advisory signs. Occasionally an arrow but mostly no warning other than the road suddenly has a corner. It is weird for me having grown up with every corner having a sign and also because roads vary in age and surveying style so the corner radius also varies a lot. It means unless you know the road well then you need to travel quite modest pace which doesn’t really bother me but still on this day it was nice to be on more open roads and I kicked back and enjoyed the ride and did not really take many photos. That was until I came across a Japanese corner ahead advisory sign! I thought what could possible warrant such a rare item?
Of all the curves I have ridden here this is not one you need much warning for but anyway riding this was icing on a an already great road and I wish I had some video of it as very nice bit of engineering in lovely countryside.
I have had some great spots I stopped for picnic lunch on this trip each day. Usually in a quiet parking area in shade of forests but today I really had a extra nice spot at start of Geibi river gorge. Checking the local tourist guide signboard for the Iwate prefecture I was riding through it looks to hold many interesting sites so I will be sure to return.
I had a remote mountain pass up next as I went to the Miyagi prefecture via Mount Kurikoma. There were a few signs about road closures (that I cannot actually read) and I was very uncertain if the route over the mountain was open. I could see numerous land slips as I got up higher in the surrounding slopes and had not encountered another single car. I almost was going to turn back but I reached a hot spring resort at a point near the top and then saw no road closed sign beyond so figured it must be open and indeed it was. The second half of this road is easy some of the best riding road I have found yet in Japan. Well surfaced with zero traffic and a mix of curves to suit any rider that went on for considerable distance. Sorry no photos I really had a day off the camera as while the riding was great there wasn’t any good view points and the weather had clouded over which with the smoke haze meant any photos would have looked lousy. But here is some boiling water coming out of the ground as a consolation. The whole next valley was filled with hot springs and quite interesting but alas the rain that had been threatening started light then turned steady so it was time to just make for my hotel. Day 5 route.
Day six Yamagata to Kanagawa
Last day forecast was rain. Leaving Tendo there was fortunately a break in the rain. I immediately cancelled my ride to the mountains to the west which I could see were shrouded in rain clouds but I toyed with the idea of riding over Mount Zao. Last time here the weather had been similar and on top of Zao I could not see a thing beyond a few metres in front of the bike in heavy cloud and I was reduced to walking speed. As I got closer it again looked lousy so I gave up and stayed on the expressway and hit the button for home on the GPS.
But out of the tunnels on the other side of this huge mountain range the weather was clearer and then riding south out came the sun!
I could not believe it and took a break over a coffee at the expressway parking area near an exit to see if this was going to last for any length of time then decided to try re join part of my original route. First I wanted to visit the beautiful Sankai falls (below) on the eastern lower side of the Mt Zao echoline (above). It really is a great view of multiple falls coming down the mountain and the scale is hard to see in this photo but try viewing it enlarged.
Next I was riding along the base of the range and came across a sign for a memorial and found this newly built memorial to the crews of three B29 planes that crashed into the mountain behind in fog during WW2. I also saw a sign for a suspension bridge and took a look there and as always it amazes me that such a thing exists in the middle of nowhere and goes to nothing on the other side. Lots of these seed pods on a very low traffic road mixed with water means I had to take it rather gently but is was a nice little detour with not another sole around.
By the time I reached Shichigashuku dam it was already lunch so I had to abandon the rest of my route so I decided to take a break there in the excellent visitor park with giant beetle (above) and then head for home. I got slack with the photos and reverted to the ‘ol bike in frame shots but I was just so pleased for the break in the rain I will let these couple slip in this post. I still had to get back to the expressway and by chance the shortest route took me over a road I had ridden the year before and past a abandoned cafe with a great view. I took some time out to dream about being based there with that peaceful view to enjoy every day before as if on queue the rain started appearing on the horizon so I hit the cruise control for the 400km back to the madness of Tokyo.
(Last day route but I only completed small part of it).