This year’s review is a quite different. Well, the whole year was „different“. Maybe you noticed that the heading is not called „motorcycling review 2020“, but „a 2020 review on two wheels“. There is a reason. It has something to do with a small virus that changed many plans, also mine. It had planned to do a trip to the Western Balkans with my mate Stefan in June, visiting all the white spots on my imaginary maps. But this trip had to be postponed like so many things.
First, it started quite normal. End of January, I visited John’s gathering at the Pottal Pool House. I took the Chunnel train Friday evening and stay at the same cozy Inn in Thurnham like the year before. In the morning it was very cold and I had to de-frost the BMW before I could set off. With rising temperatures in sunshine and the heated gear, the ride to Cannock was a piece of cake. When I arrived at the roundabout next to John’s house, I thought I heard a starting jet plane. What the…? Before I entered the yard, it occurred to me what was going on….surrounded by some 50 bikers, John had started his „Easy Rider Jet“ moped. A curiosity. Impressive. Madness. Fun.
I met a lot of known English riders and had a lot of nice talks. I stayed for the night at John’s place and his hospitality was very generous as usual. The next morning, I returned home, not knowing that this weekend was my only multi-day motorbike trip in the whole of 2020.
Suddenly, the pandemic kicked in and just before Belgium went into lockdown, I did a final short ride with the „6“. Over the next weeks, I kept myself busy with a hilarious attempt to paint the panniers of the old Pan and another cowl for the one seater. I had found one in ebay and wanted to replace the one with an auxiliary tank. Do you know „oil change for men“? It slowly turned into this…
After the grinding and filling of the panniers, I applied a layer of primer, I realised that I had ordered the wrong colour!
Right, I had to order the correct primer and topcoat paint. After the base layer and the top layer, I realised the the colour was not the correct tone.
Bad quality. I ordered ANOTHER set of spray cans from another supplier, this time the colour should be right. I applied another layer of base paint. A first layer of top paint. And then happened what had to happen. Dust, flies and paint tears made the parts look like….. dung. I ordered special products to grind down of all the imperfections. Another top layers (several). Looked good.
However, the last step (colourless varnish) did not seem to have worked properly, maybe the hardener did not do its job. Anyway, the job was finished. Looks ok, but I could have carried the parts to a professional painter, saving a lot of time and money. But, as I said, it was like an oil change for men….
I did a nice test ride with Pan. In June, I did a test ride with the cleaned XBR. In the following months, I did two short day trips to Luxemburg (I wanted to see some winding roads) and one quick ride to the Netherlands. And…..that was it. This was the motorbike year. Less than 3000 km. Never in my whole life since I was 15, I had done less kilometres in a year. Thank you, SARS-CoV-2!
In April, the article about my trip the Japan was published in „Motorrad Classic“. Very nice. It does not happen very often to see your face in a magazine.
This could be a short post, but remember, the article is about „two wheels“.
I always liked to cycle a lot, but in 2020, I was on fire. I cycled more than ever. During the last Christmas holidays, I did a lot of cycling in the mountains north of Valencia. When I climbed up the mountains on my old, but trusted Stevens hybride bike, an idea ripped in my brain: what about an e-bike? My intention was to cycle more to work, and this should lower the bar to cycle more and more often. One thing was clear: I wanted to have a speed pedelec (max. speed 45 km/h). I did a lot of research and tested extensively two brands: Stromer (the Swiss cycling equivalent to Mercedes-Benz) and M1-Sporttechnik (the Bavarian cycling equivalent to an Audi Sport Quattro S1). In the end, I ordered the M1 Spitzing, for a number of reasons. The bike is a multi purpose tool: I can blast to work if I want, or I can ride off-road on single trails. It is a full suspension, top-notch mountain bike with premium parts. The most powerful motor on the European market. AND it is produced 7 km from my Bavarian home place. Named after my favourite home mountain area, I had no other option than buying it 🙂 .
But first, I needed to order and wait for it. In the emerging COVID crisis, I cycled a lot with my old Stevens bike. I am using the Komoot app a lot, but this year I started to discover a lot of mountain bike routes in Belgium. Crossing the nearby border to the Netherlands wasn’t an option for most of the year, so I did a lot of cycling in the provinces of Antwerp and Limburg.
As I publish a lot of trips on my Komoot page, enriched with comments and nice pictures, I collected a lot of followers and points. Over the year, I visited lots of very nice places and routes.
Finally, I received by new bike on April 24 at noon. Wow, what a sight! I managed to get one of the last bikes of the old series that still has a higher top power than the newer „Evolution“ model.
I had to wait until after work to make my first test ride. I set off for a ride on the nearby mountain bike track. In the next hour, I blasted 28 km through the forest on small and large tracks. What a performance! Breathtaking! I was flying over the bumps. Deeply impressed, I returned home. Hmmm, I should still go to the grocery store. Why driving if I could take the new bike? Grab the backpack and take off, it’s only 30 minutes until they closed. I zoomed down my dead end street and wanted to turn around the corner. What happened next seemed like a film in ultra slow motion…to my surprise, there was an oncoming car in my trajectory!!! I did what I was used to do on my old bike: full slam on the breaks! While this might be a good idea on a hardtail bike with hydraulic rim breaks, it it is a very bad idea if the bike is equipped with brutal, hydraulic, four-piston disc breaks. Add this to a still unadjusted, too low damping suspension, and you get the perfect recipe to turn a kinetic energy of 9500 J directly into rotational motion, ultimately heating temporarily the impacted surface of the street by an estimated 1.2 degrees centigrade.
During my flight, I realised that the car was….a police car! F……k!!! I remembered that my bike did not have a road registration yet, there was only an empty number plate holder…meaning I was riding a not road legal vehicle….damn! After my salto, I quickly picked myself up, picked up the bike and leaned it against a wall with the empty number plate holder facing away from the two policemen who got out of the car, asking if I was alright. I mumbled something like „yeah, alright, no problem, I’m fine“….“but you’re bleeding“…“Oh?“ I touched my chin…indeed, the pulsating pain correlated with a big patch of blood in my hand. I felt in my mouth that at least two teeth were damaged…„ah, no problem, that’s nothing!“ I wanted to keep them away from the bike. „Can we help you?“…“Nono, I’m fine, I live not far from here in this street“….“Should we bring you home?“ Hell, no! „Thanks a lot, but I live 50 metres from, see, there, down the street“. They seemed convinced and wished me well…I pushed the damaged bike back home. Next stop hospital, emergency room. In the middle of a corona crisis, fantastic!
In the next two hours, I filled in the papers, by bruises and scratches were treated by some fantastic professionals and the big wound on my chin was stitched with three stitches. I also established contact with a dentistry help line, arranging a corona test and an emergency appointment at the University Hospital of Leuven.
Back home, I had a look at the poor bike: the control display shattered, the left break lever brace broken…the bike needed some thorough fixing!
Meanwhile, at the butcher, the young lads in the dental faculty in Leuven chiseled the smashed tooth out of my jaw. Yes, they chiseled. Pulling didn’t work, apparently they didn’t have a cutter…so they chiseled like some berserks. BAM – BAM – BAM!!! A traumatic experience, not to be repeated.
So the start with the new bike was suboptimal and I had to wait ten weeks (!) until I got it back from the dealer. In the meantime, I did more riding with my old Stevens. My bruises healed slowly (my right index finger still isn’t fully recovered) in the meantime. I understood was was going on: I had slammed so hard on the brakes that my chin smashed against the handlebar? lamp? and split one molar tooth completely and ruined another one partly. The latter could be saved, but the smashed one required a pontic later in the year. My first buy was a full face helmet, the bike’s top speed merited good protection. I had found out that the inner shell of the old helmet was completely smashed, gulp!
Later in the year, I got more and more protection. If you really want to blast on bumpy tracks with a 30, 35, 40 km/h or more, you better want to protect your head, knees, elbows, shoulders, back and chest. In November, I got me a closed downhill helmet with googles. Snugly for very low temperatures around the freezing point. I also invested a lot in optimising the outfit of the bike and the rider. As I had basically no expenses for motorbiking, I could afford it easily.
I finally could ride more advanced tracks and I was enjoying it. For the first time, I had a top notch full suspension mountain bike. AND the most powerful e-bike on the European market. A fantastic combination! In the past five and a half months, I rode a lot with it, in total 4300 km(!). As it was my intention, I commuted to work a lot (that’s some 28 km per day) AND I discovered a lot of new tracks in north-east Flanders. In September, I finally convinced MJ to do some long-distance touristic weekend rides together. We did a ride to Leuven and one to the Maas at the Eastern Belgian border. Each of the rides was a 160 two-day roundtrip and we both enjoyed it a lot. To be repeated next year!
I found out that I could push the range of my battery with a low speed. Now I know that the range depends if I go in „Hooray!“ mode (range 35 km) or in „Snail“ mode (range 90 km), anything in between is possible, depending on the riding style. Later in the year, I got me a second battery, from now on, I don’t have to worry about my range and just can have fun. And what a fun it is! Most people think that an electric bike rides on its own. Very wrong. The more you push, the more power you get back. You don’t realise how much you are pushing yourself. Very often, I arrive panting at work although I thought I had an easy ride.
The bike just asks for more, more, more. Pretty much like a juicy KTM motorbike. And it’s fun, fun, fun. Over the year, I lost quite some kilos without getting knee pain from stressing the joints too much under high load.
As some normal holidays were impossible, I spent twice two weeks at my someplace and did also some nice rides there, taking the „Spitzing“ bike to the Spitzing Mountains. I enjoyed blasting up the mountains. Unfortunately, too many stupid bikers have ruined mountain biking there and biking is only allowed on fire roads. But still, you can get up to visit some huts and have some fantastic views.
At the end of the year, I have to conclude that I did some 3000 km on motorbikes and some 6000 km on the two bicycles! I’m sure there will be better motorbiking years again, but I definitively want to keep up the strong biking performance, it has given my fitness a boost that I want to keep.
Here is what my Komoot summary says.
I add some of the best cycling pictures of this year as well:
For all the non-German speakers: here is the English translation of the text:
Of course, three decades connect, and the man would never give up his half-litre bike. Nevertheless, nobody thinks that Robert Koeber decided out of gratitude to make the pilgrimage to Kumamoto with an XBR 500. Across Russia to the Japanese Sea, then ferry, finally photo in front of the Honda plant. No, this Bavarian does so many crazy things with his motorcycles that the Honda shouldn’t think too much about it. Perhaps its origins were just an excuse to finally go to Vladivostok by land – and then across the Japanese Sea. After all Koeber has, among other things, an old Honda Pan European and a posh BMW K 1600 GT and acknowledges with a smile: “If I want to arrive somewhere for sure, I’ll take the XBR.”
So it is in his good books? Even before the Far East trip, this judgment was based on well over 350,000 kilometers together. Correctly read. 350,000 kilometers, collected on countless alpine tours, extensive trips through nearby and distant countries. The old lady had even traveled to North America, but more about that later.
So Japan then. The idea had been conceived while studying a world map many years ago, but had to wait for various reasons, until it finally materialised in spring 2019. One of the bureaucratic monsters that unfortunately affects any long-distance trip was that Japan does not allow motor vehicles registered in Germany on its roads. But it does accept them from Belgium, and that’s a solution, because Robert now lives and works there, and so he sacrificed his 32-year-old number plate. Otherwise, he trusted the tried-and-tested set-up, to say: a fully standard engine, but ventilated by a new Mikuni flat slide carburettor, a standard fork, Ikon struts and a massively reinforced frame. Not to forget the taller handlebar of a Honda Bol d’Or and the lush day-long seat, a part custom-made by the US specialist Russell that even takes into account seating position, size and weight.
When he leaves on May 30th, Robert is not alone. As planned three years earlier, the Englishman John Young, an old hand on an almost as old Triumph Trident, accompanied him. The men know each other, are friends. “Otherwise you can’t do that, trust is important.” The planned trip is ambitious, 17 days should suffice to get to Vladivostok. But John has to admit that this tight travel plan overwhelms the Triumph as well as himself at this point, and trust pays off even in such hardships. He doesn’t need to spend a lot of time to explain himself, he just quits in Moscow, amicably. Until then, crossing the border into Russia had been the greatest adventure. Waiting over twelve hours with a growing fear of possibly not being able to cross. The road conditions east of Moscow would soon be entertaining.
The XBR knows that. Syria, Namibia and Malawi are not exactly known for consistently smooth asphalt. These and many other countries in the Middle East, Europe and Africa have taught Robert that long-distance travel does not require a large enduro. “But a light, frugal motorcycle.” A simple system, the monitoring of which has became second nature, the mechanical sounds that are as familiar as your own breath. Actually a matter of course since motorcyclists have gone on long journeys, unfortunately this has been somewhat forgotten, because electronic assistance systems nowadays promise comfort. Until the first fall, when the whole cart goes on strike just because it has lost a turn signal.
Can’t happen with the XBR. But it also needs tyres, and because of the tight schedule and the expected thin workshop network, Robert drags two complete wheels through Siberia. He carries spark plugs, hand levers, clutch cable, speedometer cable, brake pads, ignition coil and CDI box on spare parts; He can leave the rocker arm and camshaft at home: Because the valve stem seals had to be replaced shortly before the start, he has a clear view of the condition of the cylinder head. If anything, the XBR engine can cause grief in the sophisticated control of its radially arranged four valves. Most likely a rocker arm or the camshaft itself. But not with this engine …
And anyway: Even with the rocker arm completely ground away, this XBR has already brought him home. He has never ever broke down with it since 1987. It was a used vehicle, two years old, just a few kilometers. The student Koeber had still enjoyed the test ride with a nominal 44 HP, but as he only had the small license, the power had to be reduced at first. Little by little the money borrowed from the father was paid back. The XBR fits. It also fits while studying chemistry, because nothing ever really broke, the Bavarian-born was able to spend the little money he had left in the Alps. He finishes the first 100,000 km five years after the purchase, and needed another seven for the second.
When Robert reached Lake Baikal on June 9, 2019, the speedometer of his XBR was almost four times around. The two of them pull off between 700 and 800 kilometers a day and are fully on schedule. The system works, in the evening the XBR gets around 0.2 liters of oil; when the road is smooth, it is allowed to run at a good 110 km/h and feels extremely comfortable. Only the carburettor that overflows from time to time is a bit worrying. And sometimes the construction site density or long deep gravel sections. They can mess up the average quite a bit, then it will take longer to the planned hotel – and writing the blog. “Actually, I’ve always written a travel diary,” reveals Robert, but this time he takes it very seriously and reports on the latest news. Maybe because so many – “Often over 700!” – are following his trip?
In Vladivostok, horse and rider take a short break, the ferry via South Korea to Japan only leaves in three days. Time enough to take care of the good Honda and mount her spare wheels. So it would not have been necessary to drag them along, because there are plenty of workshops in Japan.
„Well, not really.“ The experienced long-distance traveler has to smile. “Just because you don’t need a part on a trip, you can’t leave it at home. Spare parts work like insurance. “Okay, we understand. This time Robert needed insurance against broken speedometer cables somewhere behind Krasnoyarsk, which he booked with the wheels under necessary expenses. And he tells his followers right away that the old Comstar wheels, including the worn tyres, have landed in a scrap yard in Vladivostok.
He no longer needs them. In addition to its Japan-XBR, there is still an almost new one with only 3000 kilometers, another with a really brisk 600 engine and lots of parts. Once it became clear that this Honda belonged to him, Robert struck time and again. And so there were always good engines that he only had to install. His number one XBR is currently running, blubb-blubb-blubb, with engine number six. “The engines never went, but the new ones just ran better.” And he immediately added that a good buddy had made over 155,000 kilometers with the first engine.
In Japan, he has to discover that the bikers there pay more attention to Yamaha’s SR than his beloved Honda. No problem, he dived into the breathless collection of cultural and historical impressions anyway, experiencing enchanted landscapes, Japanese warmth and perfection, enjoying wonderful food. “A fabulous travel destination full of polite people.” In between, he still pursues the goal of his trip: The XBR 500 is supposed to see its place of birth, the large Honda plant in Kumamoto. Robert would love to visit the factory and did some research on the way. This is theoretically possible, but requires a written application months in advance. In Japanese. His attempts to arrange something via Honda Germany had resulted in deep frustration with the Offenbachers. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers on site remain unaffected by his history and long journey, and so he glances to the factory just as wistfully as the XBR. No entry.
This journey took a full 40 days, and since October the Honda is back in Belgium. Mileage: 384,000 km. A brand new engine is stored next to her parking lot in Robert’s garage. So the story will continue, of course, and preferably again to North America. To the Iron Butt Rally. No, to THE Iron Butt Rally. Robert already contested in such a scavenger hunt with his XBR in 2002 and was immediately enthusiastic. Planning, discipline, perseverance – everything made for him. The old guys will remember that the legendary Scout trophy once fascinated many leather butts in Germany. Iron Butt works in a similar way: Between some more or less distant waypoints, there are destinations whose documented visit brings more or fewer points.
The mother of all Iron Butt rallies is held in the United States and lasts eleven days. You have to be invited to it. Because Robert and his XBR already were successful in Europe, they were allowed to start in 2013 in the hopeless class. If you want to win, drive Pan European, Gold Wing or Yamaha FJR. Robert just wanted to get there at the finish, be a finisher, and he gave it all: changing tyres had taken him many hours, finally he could leave Pittsburgh. He paused at the Mississippi, and at some point he looked for a hotel. There was none. When one popped up, he was wide awake and continued. A storm kept him awake in Wyoming; when he got off his day long seat in Salt Lake City, he had rode 3500 kilometers in one go. He arrived at finish without being an official finisher due to a lack of sufficient points, because at some point the transmission went on strike and only knew third gear. On his XBR! On THIS XBR. When it was over, all the gears came back little by little. Nevertheless or precisely because: the XBR owns him one.
The motorbiking review 2019
This year was dominated by one big trip, the one to Japan. But some other things happened as well, although in a more limited way: when you spend almost six weeks on a big trip, there is little time left for other things. But that’s all right.
If 2018 was a K1600GT year, 2019 was a XBR500 year. The „beast’ rolled only 10.000 km this year. This is not a problem, it means it stays longer „fresh“ and if I would do every year 36.000 km like in 2018, the nice new bike wouldn’t stay nice and new. Instead, I did some 20.000 km on XBRs, more than in many years.
As I had committed myself to develop and run a 12 hour Magic12 rally in Belgium, I started in winter and spring to scout and visit the rally locations. The plan was to include a lot of weird places in the rally. In this process, I discovered a lot of bizarre spots in Belgium, these were funny trips.
I used my ST1000 Pan European for the first time since 2017 for these trips. I had fixed all issues after the Iron Butt Rally in 2017, at least I thought. I had placed a new after market fuel pump, but the bike was running too rich, in the end it even „extinguished“ the sparks. Well, it turned out that the pump built up too much pressure and as it didn’t fit into the hose, the pressure restrictor could not be used. Thanks to Johannes and his provided original pump, the bike was running fine again.
In March and April I was busy with preparations for the Japan trip: as Japan does not allow German registered vehicles into Japan, I had to give up my 32 year old classic number plate and ask for a Belgian one. What a sacrifice. But as it turned out later, this was necessary to get the trip done. I had to build the tyre rack for the XBR, one of the most ingenious and crazy ideas I ever had. Thanks to Stefan, the problem of the smoking XBR was resolved last minute and the big trip could start.
Just before the trip, I attended my 9th Brit Butt Rally in May. After winning the previous four rallies between 2015 and 2018, I wanted to have some fun and go to Scotland. This wish materialised and my cunning plan included going to Inverness, Skye, Fort William before returning to Wales and England. In the first 12 hours, I was well following the plan which in retrospect should have resulted in another win this year.
However, a leaking front tyre on the K1600GT destroyed this plan as I had no electric pump with me (’tis broken). As regular inflating did not work well, continued riding in the rainy Highlands was not possible. I called the day early in my pre-reserved hotel in Fort William.
Martin Buck gave me his electric pump, this was so much appreciated. Some phone calls revealed that I could not get help from a tyre shop until two days later. This meant the rally was over, the objective was now to return to the rally HQ. Cold-heartedly, I increased the tyre pressure to over 4 bars (80 psi) in order to get to Glasgow. Quite breathtaking, riding like this on wet Highland roads. In Glasgow I inflated again. At the next service station on the motorway, I discovered that a huge oil puddle was forming under my bike which resulted from a run-over kerb of a petrol station in Fort William where I had spotted a pump. This was the end of the trip for the BMW. The famous John Young rescue service jumped in action and some hours later, we loaded my bike in his van; I took his bike, retrieved my luggage from the rally HQ and returned to Belgium on his bike. John delivered my bike to the local BMW service in Wolverhampton where it received a new oil sump. It was also discovered that the root cause was a not perfectly fixed tyre valve, I had my tyres changed just before the rally. When I was in Japan, John brought my bike in this van to Belgium and picked up his own bike. In other words: WOW!
I have written enough about the fantastic trip to Russia and Japan this year, but here is the recap again. If it wouldn’t be such a long trip, I would like to repeat and visit the Northern part of Japan as well. The XBR arrived late in Antwerp, but it arrived in considerably less time than in 2017/2018, i.e. in three instead eight months. With papers this time.
Back at home, I finally finished the project to get my grey „Café Racer“ XBR500 on track. The bike had received a 600cc motor, a new Mikuni sports carb and a big, open sport air filter in lieu of the big, bulky air box. New, stylish indicators needed a new electronic relay. Now I wanted to pass the „HU“ („MOT“) for the first time in 12 (!) years. Choosing the right station (young examiners have no idea of old motorbikes anymore) and attenuating the mighty sound coming from the air filter (with the help of a towel) were key in obtaining the needed sticker. The bike was in an excellent shape for the next trip: another XBR-Alpentour in the Alps (obviously).
From 1994 to 2014, I had organised a yearly XBR-Alpentour in August, ranging from four to ten riding days per event. After a decline in participant numbers, I stopped in 2015. This year, my old friends and I decided to revive it again and to do another tour together in the Northern Italian Alps, just the highlights of the Trentino and Veneto. Great roads, great biking, great company. The only downside was that we had to deliver Mario to a hospital with a broken clavicle on the last day. This was a bit of a bummer, but he’s already back on track. The sporty, grey XBR ran fantastic, what a fun! It felt indeed like in the old days.
After a lot of final preparations, I acted as rally master for the Magic12 rally in Belgium. I hosted Bob Stammers who introduced me into electronic scoring with his software. The rally lasted 12 hours, only on Belgian soil, had individual starting points and a common finish on a boat where we also had dinner and the ceremony. Apart from some hiccups (nothing ever runs perfect), the rally was a success IMO and I received good appraisal from participants. The rally was overshadowed by the accident of John Young on his Triumph Trident in Antwerp the day before the rally; he had also broken his clavicle, in a painful way. During the rally, the rally team sorted out his repatriation to England and arranged the storage of his bike in my garage.
Three weeks later, I participated in the smallest rally in the yearly rally calendar: the eight hour Jorvik Rally in Yorkshire. I wanted to participate at least once successfully in a rally this year. I could kill two birds with one stone: I rented a big van, put John’s Trident and my XBR600 in there and returned John’s bike. The next day, I participated in the rally. I was quite nice to ride with the small XBR through the scenic Yorkshire backroads. When the rain was gone and the roads got dry, it was real fun! The finish was located at the famous Squires Café. The little XBR won its first rally, but the motor already its third. Power is not decisive in short rallies, agility is much more of the essence.
Back in Belgium, I started the planning for the next Alpenbutt Rally in 2021 when something very unexpected happened. Out of the blue, I was confronted with a wave of allegedly very negative feedback about the rallies I had organised as a rally master so far. Allegedly, they were so bad that the future of IBA Germany’s rallies was supposed to be in question. It sounded as if all my contributions to the work of the IBAG in the last years were a total disaster.
I know that nothing is ever perfect and that you never can please all people. I was aware of some shortcomings that should be improved and had plans for it. I am always open to constructive criticism and had always been super transparent about the rally planning in detail. I had always announced to make demanding rallies so no-one should be surprised when they actually are….demanding. The wave of positive feedback I had received, especially for the Alpenbutt Rally in 2017, had been so overwhelming that no grumpy hecklers can take this away.
However, what took me by surprise was the negativity, aggression and breach of trust I was confronted with. I am always prepared to discuss anything in a fair and open way, but when things turn sour, intimidating and personal, that’s where it ends. That’s the moment when you have to take a decision. And there was only one option: to stop any activity for the IBA Germany. So no more organisation of rides or rallies for me. No more Alpenbutt Rally. Enough is enough.
It is not a look back in anger. I had invested a lot in this during the last years and it was fun while it lasted. I realise now how busy these activities kept me in the last five years. It’s time to move on and to close a door behind me. Let’s look forward.
could not materialise, I rented a new BMW 1250 GS for two days. I rode up and down my favourite roads at the Costa Brava and its hinterland and had a great time. At a certain point, I got „sea sick“ after surfing through myriads of fantastic bends. It is understandable why the GS has won the „Alpenmasters“ trophy by MOTORRAD so many times. A very balanced motorbike that is a very good compromise for different riding styles and roads. I really enjoyed it. But it is also clear that there are better bikes for this kind of roads. It’s its versatility that makes it so attractive.
Back in Germany, I managed to get the HU (MOT) for my 2000 km, collector-item, brand-new looking and riding XBR500, for the first time since 2004 (it’s basically only standing in the shed)! And I managed! I rode some 200 km with it, more than in the last 18 years. It’s fantastic to ride with this bike when everything is working perfectly and has the feel of a bike fresh from the plant.
And this was already the end of this year’s riding for me. No winter riding for me currently. Anyway, it should be time to get my gear in order. All of it needs a thorough wash and some repair (I burnt my trouser legs on the XBR).
In late October, I got a visit from Fred Siemer, a known journalist from MOTORRAD CLASSIC. He visited me a whole day and asked me lots of questions. Thanks to choice from mainet.de for arranging this contact. Fred plans to write an article about the XBR’s trip to Japan this year. Let’s see what comes out of it.
So what’s on the menu for 2020? Well, I have realised one thing: from 1994 onwards, I was always busy arranging some great motorbiking for others, be it the Alpentours, IBA rides or rallies. I like to share my knowledge with other people.
In 2020, it is the first time that I have no plans for this. My calendar is absolutely empty. This opens completely new possibilities! In the long term, I still want to visit South America, but let’s focus on Europe first. There are still some white spots on the maps, countries that I haven’t visited with the XBR yet. I decided to call these places the „missing 15“. They were left aside up to now, so let’s make it an objective to visit them all, without a time limit. Countries include: Albania, Andorra, Belarus, Bosnia-Hercegowina, Cyprus, Estonia, Iceland, Kosovo, Malta, Moldavia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Portugal, San Marino, Ukraine.
Riding with a XBR500 to Japan – a résumé
When I sat in front of a world map some 15 years ago and asked myself which travels I should add to my bucket list, a journey to Japan came to my mind. As I prefer to ride and not fly to distant places, the route was basically determined – there is only one direct route to Japan – and it leads through Russia, passing Moscow and the Lake Baikal, leading to Vladivostok at the Pacific coast. Another idea was to bring back the XBR to its home place. It seemed something obvious.
A higher priority had to trip through Africa, I wanted to do this first. The third trip was a journey through South America, this is the one that is left now.
It took many years to make this happen, but now it’s over. Let’s have a look back what has happened in these 40 days. 40 days are an important number in mythology, many famous trips of askesis and alleged enlightenment took 40 days. During the actual journeys, you encounter a lot of situations when you say to yourself: ‚I need to remember this!‘. However, many of these little anecdotes get lost along the way. Often they are forgotten or later not deemed important enough to make it to a daily report. There is also the daily pressure to write a report in the evening, sometimes you’re just too tired to remember everything. When you’re travelling alone, you can maintain a daily reporting schedule. What really drives you then is the pressure that you run into a back log of reports, and that’s what you want to avoid. In order to note down the impressions during a trip, I had been thinking of a technical solution based on speech-to text recording while riding, but this has not materialised yet.
Let’s approach this look back in a Japanese or German manner, properly structured, in an organised way!! LOL
In contrast to the trip to Africa in 2011, my preparations started rather late and in a relaxed way. After a series of long distance journeys in the last 15 years with no or manageable problems (Syria and Lebanon, Tunisia, Oman and Iran, Ironbutt Rally in USA and Canada, Kenya to Namibia), I had apparently gained so much confidence in the XBR, that I felt very relaxed about the upcoming adventure. I would have liked to do more testing kilometres before, but the set-up was well known, except for the tyre rack. This was the part that I was most nervous about. Luckily the problem with the valve seal popped up just in time and I’m so thankful to Stefan that he could make some time and help me fixing this. Apart from this, the making of the tyre rack (thanks to Heinz for his help) was the most time consuming preparation.
For the rest, I was carrying lots of spares I knew that I would not need them, but, just in case….it could be a show stopper when a small part breaks down and you cannot replace it.
The change from the German to the Belgian bike registration was tedious, but necessary. Without it, I could not have started nor ended the trip. This bureaucratic procedure absorbed much of my attention in the months before the start.
My decision to leave a lot of luggage at home was absolutely right. I had already some overweight due to the spare wheels, but the riding was so much better. I could wash part of my clothes, so carrying only a small selection of clothes is absolutely sufficient.
So this low level of preparation was absolutely appropriate.
The performance of the bike
Well, what can I say…Could it be any better? The only ‚repair‘ in 15.000 km was a worn speedometer cable, one lost and one loose bolt! OK, one bolt of the rack I could not tighten, but it didn’t matter. The biggest nuisance was probably the occasionally leaking carb, but this is an after-market part and should not have given me this problem, after all it was new. As long as its happened only occasionally, I tried to avoid opening the carburettor.
The gear box is XBR-untypical clunky, but it is doing its job! The rest….close to perfection. The oil consumption was ok, in the midrange with 5 L in 15.000 km. It’s an air-cooled one cylinder motor from 1985 that was pushed through Russia, not at top speed, but not very smooth either.
The motor did what a XBR motor does all the time: its job. Steadily and reliable. I treated it with care though. Not so much out of consideration for the motor, but for all the other parts.
What surprised me more was the quiet suffering of the other moving parts that are not related to motor or transmission. Wheels, bearings, the frame and above all the suspension took a million hits. The bike had seen worse roads, but it was the sheer quantity of bumps, potholes, ramps and gravel that put the shocks under great pressure. I’m really impressed by this. I’m using reinforced after-market IKON shocks, but still, they are more than 90.000 km old and deserve some proper maintenance now.
Was it really necessary to carry two entire wheels through Russia, carry the extra weight and risking a fall on slippery roads? In retrospect: no. But still my thinking was correct. I had assumed that the tyres would last until Vladivostok, but the decision was subjected to a rigorous prioritisation. This is also the basis for good rally results: What are you top priorities? Getting to Vladivostok in little time without the risk of a huge problem due to a lack of tyre changers or flat tyres in Eastern Siberia? There you go!
Splitting the team
John asked me some years ago if he could join the trip and later he changed his part to a RTW trip. I welcomed him as a team member as I knew he is a tough guy and has proven his endurance in a lot of rallies and trips. We have always good conversations and get along with each other very well. This is an important point when you go on an adventurous trip. Group dynamics can destroy any party but the personal component was on track in this team. His bike had finished the Ironbutt Rally in 2011 and proven its durability.
However, it was some months before the trip when things did not go so well for him. You can plan things for years, and then life takes a different turn. The circle of life is something nobody has control over and fate always strikes at the wrong time. So John had other, more important things to do that kept him busy in the weeks before the start of the trip. Not only was he delayed in looking after his bike, but also his mental balance could not be unaffected. So the last weeks before the set-off were not optimal for him. It was worrying me a bit as I knew that we had a tough ride in front of us, we had no other option than to catch the ferry in Vladivostok. This was quite some psychological burden for me, but it was even more for John.
During the three and a half days we rode together, I noticed that this was not the normal John Young I knew. He was quickly physically and mentally exhausted and the tough part of the trip had not even begun. I tried to cheer him up and hoped that he still would find his way into the trip, getting into the flow.
I know that it must have been a tough decision for him to pull out so quickly, but I know it showed great quality. He assessed his situation, considering the performance of his bike and took the right decision at the right time. This is an important quality of long distance riders to know when they have to pull the plug. It’s never an easy decision, but there are more important things in life that play a role. An exhausted rider is a danger to himself and to others. During the rider meetings of the Ironbutt Rally, riders are strongly reminded that they are not alone in this world, it’s their families and loved ones who want them to return safely. So when a rider takes the difficult, but correct decision to pull out, it shows great responsibility. I know that John also did not want to affect my trip as well and I am very grateful for his consideration. This trip together did not work out, but there will be other opportunities.
It is normal to be nervous before large, adventurous trips. You don’t know what is ahead of you. You can read about it, but you’ll only know when you finally get there. For this trip, no gravel roads were planned, but I had heard frightening stories about the roads in Eastern Russia. That was a reason of concern for me. My bike is small and carries a lot of weight. Its luggage rack is reinforced, it has the best front and back suspension you can get for this bike, but every material can only take a certain amount of physical stress before it breaks. Slippery surfaces were also a big concern, the front wheel could lose grip and any fall, as small as it fight be, could be the end of the trip. Remember the priority setting?
In the end, roads were much better than expected in Russia. The construction of the trans-Siberian highway has made a lot of progress and road surfaces improve every years. There are still a lot of contraction sites, but they will be gone in the next year. New ones will come, but the quality of roads improve quickly. The part between Ulan-Ude and Vladivostok was a nightmare, but now most of these 3000 km are quite ok and no problem for adventure bikes. My XBR may be adventurous, but one has to be careful though.
As expected, Japanese roads are excellent, also in the mountains. The only annoying thing is the slow traffic in urban areas, it is very safe, but painfully slow. Motorways and rural roads are ok though because nobody respects the ridiculously low speed limits of 40 or 50 km/h on normal roads and 70 or 80 km/h on motorways.
My initial plan was to go in August/September. The reason was to have warm temperatures in Siberia and avoiding the humidity in Japan. However, John could only go in June, so we set the start date to end of May. It could have been much worse, very cold in Siberia and permanent torrential rain in Japan during the rainy season. However, it wasn’t.
There were a few cool days in Siberia, some rainy, but I never had a whole day of rain. In Eastern Siberia, temperatures were ok. In Japan, it was very warm and humid. The first days were quite nice, but then the rainy season started. Rain was not too hard and lasted only for some hours. It could have been much worse.
So overall I think I was quite lucky.
Well, the priorities were very simple during this trip:
- Don’t fall.
- Stay healthy. (this is linked to 1.)
- Have fun.
I am very happy that I accomplished all of them. Despite many critical situations, I managed to keep the bike upright and the black side down.
I stayed healthy, Mr Montezuma could not find me. I am even healthier than before.
And I had a lot of fun, saw and experienced a lot of new things and made the acquaintance of great people.
5 L motor oil
~ 0.8 L chain lube
One motor oil change
One speedo cable
Three Russian tickets with ‚supplementary‘ fees
One Japanese warning
A whole travel budget well spent
Lots of new people met
Highest number of daily visits of my blog ever (724, July 2nd)
Problems (‚challenges‘ in Newspeak)
Well, very little actually.
The border crossing into Russia. The 12.5 hours set my own new personal record.
The annoying theft of my left side cover in Nizhny Novgorod. Had no consequences.
The aggressive watchdog of the hotel in Ufa. Escaped.
The horror road avoiding Kasachstan. Stayed on the bike.
The loose and broken luggage rack. Solved, I carried cable ties.
The rumble in the jungle in Ulan-Ude. I carried imodium.
The supposedly failing gearbox. It wasn’t. M10 key is your friend.
The unclear situation at the drop-off. As usual, it all turns out fine.
The people along the way
Although I crossed seven countries during the ride, there are only two where I truly met people: Russia and Japan. I’ve spent over five weeks in both countries so I it is safe to say that I gained a little insight into the mentality of the two countries. It is of course only scratching the surface, a first impression. Overall (as usual), I met a lot of nice and friendly people along the way, in line with the famous quote of Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I try hard to remember negative encounters and it is really difficult. Hmmmm…my stolen side cover in Nizhni Novgorod…the bloody watchdog in Ufa….the unfriendly ladies in the hotel in Sayansk…same for the hotel in Skovorodino…some ladies in some petrol stations in the Russian east…cheating petrol stations near the Baikal…the Japanese bus driver that shouted at me “あと!!! (ato/later!)” when I got on the bus and made three attempts to pay for a ticket without understanding that you had to pay when leaving the bus. But….I think that’s about it.
On the other side of the balance, however, there are many nice memories of meeting people such as…the Austrian bikers in Lithuania…the people in the queue at the Russian border…little chats with Russians at the petrol stations….chats with Russian riders…Alexandr from Moscow on his ST1300…the super-friendly receptionist in Krasnoyarsk…friendly pedestrians…lots of friendly waiters/waitresses…Yuri, the great fixer from Vladivostok…Tatiana and Ryo, two perfect fixers from DBS Ferries…Timoteo, the Spanish-speaking Russian in Vlad…the Japanese hospitality in ryokans…Japanese bikers…the people from Café Tippel…Japanese British car drivers…the mechanic from the Bike Bomber garage in Hida…the staff of Ryokan Yatsusankan in Hida…the papermaker in Ainokura…the taxi driver in Matsumoto…the policemen in Tokio….Aki and Toru from the “Desperado” bar in Tokio…Mrs Omiya and Mrs Takada from DHL in Nagoya…Ryo the bike guide in Kyoto…Seung and Rosalind from Singapore…the chef from Kashin in Kyoto…Professor Hidenaga-san from Tokyo…just to mention the most obvious.
Except the “grumpy” part between Ulan-Ude and Chabarowsk, people in Russia were very friendly and helpful. The attitude of the Japanese is just fantastic! Outstanding kindness and hospitality. Everyone tries very hard not to annoy other people, this is very relaxing. Interacting with other people is all about respect.
The food in Russia was quite good. I enjoyed the soups, the dishes, even in the Far East it was all right and had I no reminiscence of the behind-the-iron-curtain kitchen back before the fall of the Berlin wall.
Japan is paradise for foodies. It seems that Japanese think all the time about food, food, food. It’s everywhere, in different forms and levels, but always good. You can spend lots of money for fine dining or just have some simple, but delicious street food. Staying in ryokans means you have to skip lunch, the very elaborate breakfast is equivalent to a full English breakfast, only so much more delicious and sophisticated. The dinners there were always surprising and showed a reference to Japanese aesthetics. Many different styles and dishes offer something for everyone. The quality is ranging from good to outstanding. Freshness of ingredients is unmatched.
This blog exists for a while, eight years so far. There have been peaks of interest during longer trips (Africa, the Ironbutt Rally in 2013 and 2017), but I had not expected such a wave of visits, comments and positive feedback! A lot of people seemed to be pleased with it and I could see that there were not only regular, returning visitors, but also a spreading of the reports to the vastness that is called “the internet”. Much to my surprise, I received a lot of positive to enthusiastic comments from readers, especially from native speakers. This is very flattering, because I think that my English leaves a lot to be desired as I can’t express myself in the same way as I could in German, I am missing a lot of eloquence when writing in a foreign language. But a lot of the readers seem to have liked it, so I take notice with a pleased humbleness. Thank you all very much for your feedback!
Most memorable moments
The moment when 750 min of waiting time were over and we could finally leave the Russian border post…
The short visit to the Red Square in Moscow, having successfully made a picture…
Saying goodbye to John in Moscow, knowing it was the right decision for him…
The moment it rained for the first time in Russia on a terrible road and my adrenaline reached new heights…
When I realised that my “plan” for Russia was realistic and I could ‘pull this one off’…
Crossing the Volga in Nizhni Novgorod…
Riding through the endless taiga with grassland and birch trees…
Dealing with Russian policemen…
Leaving the horror road in Бердюжье (Berdyushye)…
Seeing the Lake Baikal for the first time…
Crossing the Amur River in Chabarovsk…
Riding 400 km of the last 700 km to Vladivostok in permanent alert mode…
Looking down on the Zolotoy Bridge in Vladivostok…
First view of the Japanese coastline…
Leaving the harbour in Sakaiminato…
Walking through the Peace Park in Hiroshima…
Eating Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima…
Visiting Miyayima island…
Riding around Shikanoshima island…
Eating Teppanyaki in Fukuoka…
Arriving at the Honda factory in Kumamoto…
Talking to the family of Café Tippel…
Riding in the caldera of Mount Aso…
Riding through the Iya valley on Shikoku island…
The oil change in Hida…
The stay in the ryokan Yatsusankan…
The thatched houses in Shirakawa-go and Gokayama…
The valleys in the Japanese Alps…
Ginza and the Tsukiji market in Tokyo…
The fun with Aki and Toru in the Desperado bar…
The successful goodbye to the XBR…
The ride in the Shinkansen…
The walking and cycling through Kyoto…
And many more!
A ride of a lifetime. Like my previous big journeys in the last 13 years, without any big issues. I arrived back home well rested and relaxed. This is due to a good planning, a careful execution of the plan, the absence of bad luck and a reliable motorcycle that carries you anywhere you want to go. Compared to what could have gone wrong, a perfect outcome. Before the trips, the adventure always seems so overpowering, but in retrospect, it was so easy to do. This is probably the broadening of one’s horizon that Mark Twain spoke about. With every journey, the world gets a bit smaller, but more familiar.
Saturday: My hotel provided a very elaborate breakfast – it is a small hotel, but they put a lot of effort in details, such as breakfast. Not too big, but prepared with quite some inspiration. A good start into the day. I had booked a guided bicycle tour for today. I went to the main station and had some trouble to find the meeting point, but I arrived on time. There was only another couple from Singapore, Seung and Rosalind. Our guide was Ryo, a young student from Kyoto who does these tours frequently. Her English was very good as she had spent 6 months in Canada.
On the program were to visit to a Buddist and a Shinto temple plus the ‘Philisopher’s path’. In fact she showed as a little more. Her explanations were very good and we learned a lot. Seung and Ros were also travelling in Japan for two weeks and it turned out that they were also adventure bikers! Seung was even planning to do his first Ironbutt ride in Malaysia.
A bicycle is the perfect vehicle to get around in Kyoto and there are lots of them. We went also to an aqueduct, built some 100 years ago in “European” style. It is something exotic in Kyoto.
Our guide Ryo told us many things about the city and some details that were very interesting. For example, she suddenly stopped at a vending machine like you see one at every corner in Japan, they are everywhere. But this one was different. It contained booze. That’s new! One of only two in the city. Very interesting for teenagers.
Luckily it was cloudy, but the humidity and going uphill let the sweat flow again. After the Philopher’s path (where an ancient philosopher used to walk to his faculty), we stopped for some tea and local sweets.
We passed by another temple as we got closer to the touristic area. I asked Ryo if the ladies dressed in Kimonos in the streets were locals or just tourists who rented a kimono. She said “100 % tourist!”
We went back through small roads to the place of the bicycle rent. This was really a nice and very informative trip in good company! Seung, Rosalind and I decided to have lunch together. Thanks to Ryo for the good guided tour!
We three went to the station and found the restaurant recommended by Ryo closed. But there are restaurants in abundance, so soon we were sitting in a cooooooool place and ordered good food. We chatted for more than two yours about motorbikes and our trips.It was great fun. And of course they both ride Honda! They had been already to the Honda museum in Motegi that I deliberately had left out. Well, you can’t have it all. We exchanged our social media locations and said farewell.
I bought some souvenirs and was impressed by all the different fancy shops. Well, I’m easy to impress, I’m just a hillbilly, haha! I walked back to the hotel and had a well needed shower. I planned my last real dinner in Japan. All the good places were north of the station, but I was not in the mood to walk a lot again. But then I discovered a place very close to the hotel. A family-run business with classic Japanese Kaiseki cuisine and excellent reviews. Let’s go there!
It was really classic, taking off shoes, a small place and I got a place at the counter, directly opposite of the the chef, a young lady and her father who were preparing the dishes in front of me. The place was full and the lady seemed stressed and tired, but both prepared the dishes with great routine and dedication. I ordered the big Japanese dinner, after all it was my last Japanese dinner of the trip. It was really great food and great fun to watch its preparation.
Next to me there was a man at the counter and I started a conversation with him. It turned out he was an ophthalmologist and professor who gave a talk at a conference in Kyoto. He presented some work on drug delivery using drug-releasing contact lenses. Very interesting. I told him that I also had worked once on novel drug delivery systems and we had a good conversation topic.
As I had ordered the large dinner, I was the last guest in the restaurant. I had a conversation with the chef and it seemed she finally could relax, having a funny talk with me. I told her that I was impressed by her good English, having in mind that she never had left Kyoto. She told me that she was not the boss here. Her boss was her father. And her father’s boss was her mother! I praised her good food and she was very thankful, this honours the cook. It was a classic farewell in the street, with waving and bows. An excellent choice.
Sunday: I had another good breakfast and checked out. I walked to the station and left my two bags in a locker. I took the metro and visited the Nijo-jo castle. It is an UNESCO world heritage and played an important role in the history of Japan. The centuries under the Shogun power and the samurais started and ended in this castle.
In the old palace rooms, no pictures could be taken. Inside the palace are several masterpieces of Japanese art, most notably the painted screens of the main chamber. In this room the shoguns met the daimyo (high-ranking warlord-administrators) who sought an audience. The screens were painted by artists of the Kano school and employ rich colors and large amounts of gilt to depict flowers, trees, birds and tigers. They were meant to impress. Also in the palace are the famous “nightingale floors,” which were designed to squeak when steped on and thus alert guards to any intruders.
I walked around in the garden started to melt again. In a ‘rest area’ I bought a green tea ice cream, so I could enjoy the freshness of the air condition.
I took the metro and went back to the station. I entered a place where they make Otonomiyaki, Kyoto style, different from Hiroshima’s. But tasty as well. I got my bags and embarked the Shinkansen. It was Sunday, so the train was pretty full ( I had no reserved seat). I was sent to the correct wagon by the conductor. By the way: when the conductor enters or leaves the wagon, he/she bows first. I have met quite some different conductors in my life…
In Nagoya, I had to change trains, the stations are even separated. Finally I arrived at the Nagoya airport again and walked to the same hotel I was three nights before. In the restaurant, they had only American food….not bad, but what a contrast to the last two weeks!
Tomorrow morning, I will fly back to Europe and a fantastic trip will come to its end. As I will spend a lot of hours in the seat during the flight, I plan to write a bit of a summary of the trip.
I was nervous this morning. After breakfast and check-out, I had to ride 40 km to the harbour to drop-off the XBR. There was not enough petrol in the tank and I feared that the bike was losing much petrol with the fuel tap in reserve mode. When I was about to take off, it started to rain. I went back to the reception and took my rain suit out of my luggage that will stay here for two days. There was a petrol station and I decided to put five litres in the tank. This was way too much but I had clear priorities: number one – get to the warehouse. Whenever I stopped, the carb was overflowing, so I rode opening and closing the tap all the time. I could ride in normal tap position and it seemed that the carb lost less petrol. I rarely had to switch to reserve during this trip, so I rode mostly with a half-opened tap to avoid the overflowing. After 30 km, I realised that the carb was holding the juice again – I would arrive with too much Petrol. I had been instructed, to my bewilderment, to drain the fuel completely. DHL had suggested to drain the petrol at a station next to the warehouse. My request was received with astonishment by the staff at the petrol station. I asked if they would have a jerry can for the petrol, they could keep it. Their comment was that this is illegal…
Well, I went to the warehouse, I could take care of it later. There was already a employee waiting for me.
I explained him the problem and his comment was that it had to be sent as a dangerous good. Well, that was exactly what I wanted to hear. He explained it to the DHL people on the phone. I had to park the bike in the warehouse , disconnect the battery and remove the number plate (?). I received a call from DHL that the vessel would have to be changed. Well, fine with me. Then I had to wait for the ‘customs number’ after the processing of my case in the system. The employee and I had a long talk, his English was very good as he had worked in Chicago. Finally the paper was ready and he accompanied me to customs, some 100 m away. There, my contact officer was already waiting. My passport and
carnet de passage received the necessary stamps. In the meantime, another officer friendly asked me about my trip. Both officers showed me the way to the bus stop in front of the building and wished me a good trip. What a service and treatment! When I think of certain European custom officers….
I took the bus and 40 minutes later, I arrived at a metro station. I had to change the train once and then I was at the Nagoya central station. I bought a ticket for the high-speed Shinkansen train to Kyoto. The ride was very interesting. Everything is super organised and efficient. The acceleration and speed of the train through urban areas is impressive.
In no time I arrived in Kyoto and checked in my hotel near the station. It’s a small, not expensive, stylish and new hotel. Very chic. I decided to go for a walk. But first I needed some food. Some ramen in the station. I walked through the small streets of Kyoto, passed shrines, rivers and shops. I even got as far at the hip quarter of Gion where the tourist density increased and where you can see women in Kimonos. I even spotted one Geisha (actually a maiko). Gion is the Japanese centre of the Geisha culture. A lively quarter with narrow alleys, shops, restaurants and traditional buildings.
A bit of an open-air museum. When after three hours my feet told me that they had enough, I took the metro back to the central station. I needed desperately a shower. After some rest, I went for some dinner in a Yakitori bar, eating some weird skewers (I remember chicken skin and other funny body parts). 100% authentic.
My room has a little kitchen and a washing machine so I could wash some clothes which means I will have clean gear for the flight back.
In the morning, the rain was pattering against the window. I checked the rain radar: a large rain front was moving over my area. If I waited long enough, it would pass by. So I had a late, very traditional Japanese breakfast. When I had packed my luggage, indeed the rain had stopped. Not need to put on the rain suit. The road was still a bit wet, so I rode carefully. It was only a 260 km to Nagoya and another 50 km to the hotel at the airport. After 30 minutes, I was already riding on the highway. The tricky part on this day was to arrive at the hotel with the right amount of petrol left in the tank. I was instructed to have no fuel left in the tank at drop-off, so I had to time it wisely. At a point, I was approaching a service station with petrol and the next announced was 65 km away. Hmmm, that’s maybe a bit far. Maybe I should stop here and think it through. The bike seemingly had heard my thoughts and was running out of petrol. A quick shift to reserve did not work immediately and I had to stop on the exit lane. Finally the bike started and I made a short break and decided to fill 7.4 L in the tank. I had 100 km left to Nagoya, another 50 km to the hotel and a 40 km the next to the drop-off point in the harbour.
The time was right to approach Nagoya: no traffic, expressway to the centre and few red lights. I found the block where I had to meet the people from DHL. It took me 30 minutes to find the right entrance. I first thought I had found the Marunouchi building – until I found out that every second building in the area was a Marunouchi Building. Finally I met my contact persons, two friendly ladies who checked my papers and gave me very detailed instructions for the next day. I will have to deliver the bike, wait for a customs number and walk to the customs office. Plus some telephone calls. The tricky part will be to deliver the XBR without petrol. And get to the station to take a train to Kyoto. As I can’t stay until the customs inspection, they will ship in a dedicated container for the XBR only. No crating needed which means I can leave the panniers on the bike.
I rode the last 50 km to my hotel at the airport where I will leave on Monday. It was carefully chosen because I can leave my luggage there and travel light to Kyoto. I also spotted a car wash close to the airport where I could wash the bike a bit. Some 15 km before the hotel, I had to switch to reserve. 4 km later, the bike would sputter again and stop.
What’s going on??? Luckily, there was a petrol station opposite to the junction where I investigated the problem. Maybe there was some water in the tank? I removed the petrol line and wanted to collect some petrol with an empty water bottle. No petrol was coming out of the tap. Hmmm? I opened the lid….there was petrol inside, right? I used the light of the mobile phone….well, I had to conclude that the tank was empty. This was impossible! I just had switched to reserve! Was there a problem with the tap? I filled up 3.5 L, this should be more than enough. When stopping at red lights, I noticed that the carb was overflowing massively. It occurred to me that I rarely had to switch to reserve during this trip. I stopped at the carwash. Again, the bike was massively losing petrol! For the last 7 km, I had to close the tap when stopping. But finally I found the hotel at the airport and checked in. I had a look in the tank again….a lot of petrol was missing, I’ll have to buy petrol again tomorrow! Right now it seems to me that the bike might be losing a lot of petrol during riding, even it is not in idle speed. Does it have something to do with the tap and the reserve position? Anyway, I have 39 km left to the harbour. In the worst case, I have to open and close the tap periodically. Maybe the XBR wants to tell me that she is tired and wants to go back home now? We’ll master this last challenge tomorrow.
After a well deserved shower, I entered the airport terminal for I had a brilliant idea. I could buy some cheap suitcases and put everything in there, without the need to find another solution to have only two pieces of luggage plus the motorbike gear. I bought two big suitcases, the cheapest special offer I could find (horrible colours), but it seems that this is an elegant solution. I hate to spend 15 hours in stinking motorbike trousers. But now there’s no need for that, I packed already the suitcases and it seems everything will fit.
I notice that I didn’t take any pictures today, well only one from an orange Baumkuchen I had as a snack. But this is really not very spectacular. I booked a guided bicycle tour in Kyoto on Saturday, it will be good to do some exercise again.
So tomorrow has to challenges: getting to the warehouse and getting from the warehouse to Kyoto Station. But I think I will master this test as well.
Monday: I left Matsumoto with a clear stop in mind: the Hakushu Distillery on the way to Tokyo. Of course I had done my on-line reservation for the guided tour and I was there in time after hour of riding. When I was at was at the ticket counter, it was concluded that I was a driver and could not participate actively in the whisky tasting at the end of the end. Well, we’ll see, I was thinking. I had to download an app to follow the tour in English. It was a classical whisky distillery tour: ingredients, mashing, fermentation, casks, ageing. Some things were particular: the situation of the distillery in the woods, the large distilling room and the large warehouse. I estimated space for 20.000 casks in there. My estimate was confirmed, but the distillery has 15 warehouses with room for 200.000 casks.
That’s an incredibly high number. When we entered the tasting room, there were no glasses for the “drivers”. So they did take this seriously! What a bummer! But it got worse: in the adjacent bar, one could order all the old whiskies (18 and 25 years), but no purchase for “drivers”. Aaargh! Und adding insult to injury, all whiskies were sold out in the shop! How is this possible?? So many casks and nothing left for a little shop? This was disappointing!
I returned to the parking. The lady from the ticket counter came to talk to me. Her English was excellent as she had worked in New Zealand. We had a good talk. She understood the problem, but the distillery was bound by law that no alcohol would touch my lips. Well, case closed, let’s get out of here.
I went back to the highway and rode towards Tokyo. I stopped at a large service area and had some good noodle soup there. My initial plan did not work – I had planned to visit the National Museum in the afternoon, but I realised that it was closed on Mondays. Hmmmm. What could I do instead? Well, I could visit the Hamarikyu Gardens instead, this was planned for the next day initially. I was surprised that the highway to Tokyo’s centre was so fluid. Maybe the early hour helped a bit. It was a bit tricky as the sat nav always wanted to send me on the shortest route. Finally I arrived close to the gardens, but there was no place to park. Finally I found a spot in a corner and walked to the entrance of the gardens. Humidity was around 90 % and streams of sweat were flowing. I strolled through the beautiful garden that contrasted with the surrounding skyscrapers.
I returned to the XBR and rode to the hotel. I followed the sat nav’s instructions and at a junction, I turned right. At the same moment I heard a loud voice shouting via a loudspeaker. When I had finished the turn, I heard massively loud sirens in the back. Hm? What’s going on there? I rode on, calmly. Only two more turns to the hotel. The sirens came closer. The sirens were behind me. The loudspeaker talked again. I turned around.
The cop was talking to me! I stopped around the corner. The police car behind me with flashing lights. The two cops tried to explain me (with the help of an app on their phone) that I shouldn’t have turned right at that crossing. Oh, really? Hm, I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware. Yes, it was forbidden between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. And then started what I hoped never would happen. I had to present all my papers. Driving licence, international driving licence, its Japanese translation, my passport, the carnet de passage, its Japanese translation, my Belgian registration, its Japanese translation, my Japanese insurance…The officers looked at everything, trying to understand all the documents. It was clear that they never had such a case and were overwhelmed by the situation. The younger officer was very polite and excused himself. They needed to call HQ and check if I was allowed to ride Japan. Oh vey! Well, of course, but they were apparently confused by the German/Belgian mixture. I was content that I had changed the bike’s registration to a Belgian one. Assuming someone manages to enter Japan with a German bike, this would be a total disaster. But I was confident that everything was in order and tried not to smirk too much. The officer was very courteous and asked for my patience. I tried to explain the situation a bit. Slowly, very slowly the cops understood the Japanese papers. In the end, they were satisfied with the information. I explained that I had not seen any sign. They told me that I was very important to respect road sign. Yes, of course, officer. Very much. In the end they gave me a warning, I said sorry for having wasted their time. We bowed several times and I was free to go. My hotel was only 50 m away. There was no place to place to stop, so I stopped on the pavement. I entered the hotel and hoped that the passing cops wouldn’t mind that I had stopped there. But there were no sirens again.
Punch line: I checked the next days twice, there was no sign! Only for the direction where the police car came from. The cops were wrong, haha. They would have lost their face!
I checked in and brought my luggage to the small room. It was a small, but new hotel with very friendly staff. I wanted to park the bike. Er, motorbikes cannot enter. What? But I had booked the hotel because it had a parking. Motorbikes cannot enter, we had informed you. What? Well, yeah, AFTER I had booked the non-refundable room. Great. They had suggested a parking, but could not reach anybody. OK, I take care of it myself. All parkings I found in the area were not suited for motorbikes. Finally I left the XBR next a small parking, but still on the parking’s premises. When I returned to the hotel, I had developed a bad conscience and asked the staff again. They (finally!) explained me that their suggested parking was a parking for motorbikes. Aaaaah! I went there (500 m) and it was a complicated system with a long lock and a payment terminal. I didn’t understand the machine (only Japanese) and left the bike there. In the hotel, they explained me how it worked. I walked back and put the lock around my lock. I walked back and FINALLY could have a shower! It was late and as the hotel had no restaurant, I strolled around in the hip quarter of Ginza. In the end I chose a foodbar with the kitchen in the centre. I had some good meat in soy sauce, but that was not enough. I noticed that the famous Kabuki-za theatre was just next door. But I was too little time in the city to watch one of its long plays.
I had a beer in an Irish pub (only Japanese, that’s strange). In the whole quarter, there were many European food places. But not for me! In the end I went to a famous ramen chain restaurant from Fukuoka. When I was there, I tried teppanyaki and not its famous ramen. Well, then I needed to try them here in Tokyo! And they were delicious, with roasted pork. So the day had found a good end, after quite some hiccups.
Tuesday: I had no breakfast in my hotel, but went to the famous Tsukiji market. The famous fish auctions have recently been relocated to another quarter, but the wholesale market stays here in Ginza. It is quite a lively, funny place, lots of shops trying to attract tourists with delicious snacks or proper restaurant food. I tried some fish yakitori and some Toro sashimi. I walked criss-cross around the market and found the halls with the fish mongers. In the end, I chose a restaurant and had breakfast/lunch: some bluefin tuna and sea urchin. It’s definitely not something for everyday, also seen the endangered status of the fish, but once it’s ok to try it here. I walked around again and slowly the market filled with tourists, time to get of there.
I walked through the shine and glitz of Ginza and its shops. I crossed several shopping malls to cool down a bit. It was not the temperature, but the high humidity that made me sweat like a….well, you know. All luxury brands were present, several times. Some malls had nice ideas like a book shops with fine food or nice Japanese pottery. But I resisted to buy anything, as a matter of principle. My luggage is too big anyway and I’ll have to reduce it before I fly home.
The quarter is bustling with activity, work and shopping, shopping, shopping. Consumerism to the max. Interesting.
I walked to the adjacent Imperial park where the Emperor’s palace is located. It cannot be visited, only the public part of the park. I wandered around and took some pictures. Slowly I walked back to the hotel, with a break in a coffee bar (air condition!). It was a long and interesting walk today. You feel a bit like a classic naturalist, studying the exotic behaviour of distant tribes. The staff at the hotel was very nice and printed some papers I will need for the drop-off of the bike in Nagoya.
I went to the little onsen in the hotel and dressed up, I had reserved at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Finally my clothes bought in Vladivostok would come into play. It was still casual, like the place itself. Two tables and one counter where the chef prepared the dishes. Many little dishes were served. It was all very good, of superior quality. Well, the source for this freshness was only one kilometre away. First-class ingredients next door. But to be honest, today’s dinner would not merit a star. It seems that Tokyo is flooded by Michelin stars. 149 of them I counted. That’s…. a lot. But no regrets, I was a good meal.
I was thinking about having a whisky before hitting the sack. There was no bar in my hotel. I checked Google. There was a bar very close called ‘Desperado’ (cozy whisky bar). Sounded good. I entered the small bar where there was only the bartender and one couple. They left soon. Well, I sat at the counter and started a conversation. I tried his suggestion from Hokkaido. Good! We chatted a lot, also about my trip and then I needed to try the Hibiki 21 years. Excellent. The bartender laid the Japanese Tarot cards for me and concluded that my future looked rosy, I only needed to have an eye on good communication. OK, this can be arranged. Aki had worked at a big luxury hotel, but has now started his own business, this bar.
And then the late evening took a funny turn. A new guest arrived. It was Aki’s (the bartender’s) friend Toru. We discovered that we had many common interests (motorbikes, wine, music taste) and had really a good laugh. I tried another secret tip from Aki. Some other friends came and went and the conversation became more and more hilarious. Toru knew the German singer Nena and her armpit hair. Why was this hilarious? Well, not because Nena was very ‘natural’ (and why not?), it was the very detail a Japanese guy remembered after almost 40 years. They invited me for a glass of wine and we discussed the wine subject. Then a new guest showed up. According to his accent, I correctly asked him whether he was Austrian (no, not Australian!). Touché! And then Aki and Toru were very generous inviting for some more rounds of whisky. It was great fun together, but at a certain point I called it a day, I knew it was already very late and I had things to do the next day. I said farewell to he guys, it was really good company laughing together with two great Japanese fellas!
Wednesday: I woke up at eight with a heavy head. Not a bad handover, but I lacked some freshness until the evening. I packed my stuff und fetched the bike. I could have left without paying, but so what, I had parked there and why not pay your dues. It was again hot and humid. I quickly mounted my luggage in front of the hotel and rode to the Ueno quarter. I rode along a road that choice had suggested to me. Many motorbike shops should be there. But as Aki and Toru had already told me, things had changed. There were only few shops left and no parking space. So no stop there. I went to the National Museum and visited the highlights of Japanese Arts section.
You could spend a whole day and more there, but I still needed to go to Mount Fuji today. So I decided to enjoy only the great section of the highlights. But it was worth it. I was striking that delicate artefacts were produced in Japan when Europe and its artists were still in the grip of the dark Middle Ages. Some drawings from the 14th century were so realistic and comic-esque that they seem to be from the 21st century. Great paintings, calligraphy, sculptures and other things.
When I returned to the bike, I found a paper, probably a parking ticket. Well, no parking spaces, but if nobody is bothered….I left Tokyo (after some detours, my sat nav is really stupid here) and headed Westwards again. I stopped at the Mount Fuji Museum and visited the exposition, a good documentation of the history of the iconic mountain and its role for the Japanese people.
I had planned to ride half-way up, but as it was cloudy, I decided against it. Well, I only had to get to the ryokan for today. I tried to get a view on Mount Fuji, but when I finally found a good spot, Fuji-san was in the clouds. A pity.
I had the usual programme, arrival at the ryokan, friendly welcome, check-in, Yukata and a long bathing session in the onsen. After that, buffet dinner. No Kaiseki today, but I had to find out for myself which kind of species I ingested today. The place is less chic than the last ones, but everything is there that you need. And the price is ok.
I received a message from the Japanese contact person of DHL who seem to have some problems to get my shipment on track. Now they told me that the customs inspection can only happen three days after I will have left the country. But they need the passport for the inspection. Well, no. The German HQ confirmed that there will be a solution, but the Japanese section is struggling. But hey, that’s their problem not mine. I will visit their office tomorrow in Nagoya, let’s see what they tell me, haha.
As I had a ‘rest day’ in Matsumoto, I was in no hurry in the morning. The rain radar told me that the rain would disappear in the course of the morning. And indeed, when I stepped out of my conveniently cooled hotel, sun was shining which pushed humidity to some felt 110 %. I had a good idea in that moment. Why walking to the Matsumoto Castle when there was a taxi in front of the hotel? So I had an entertaining ride through the city with a communicative taxi driver. At least I would be bathed in my own sweat some time later and not immediately.
Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan’s premier historic castles. The building is also known as the “Crow Castle” due to its black exterior. The keep, which was completed in the late sixteenth century, maintains its original wooden interiors and external stonework. It is the oldest wooden castle of Japan and listed as a National Treasure of Japan.
Together with many other visitors, I queued to climb the steep wooden stairs. Many instructors surveilled this actions so that nobody did anything stupid. The preparations to defend the castle were very thought through, when looking at a wooden castle I wonder why nobody would set fire to it. Was this considered unsportsmanlike?
It is a well-preserved castle but in contrast to European medieval castles, rarely anybody seemed to live there, I seems it had more a purely defensive role. It was getting hot now and I walked back to the hotel through some back roads of central Matsumoto. At the wine festival I tried a Japanese Sauvignon Blanc and was a bit under-impressed.
In the hotel, I checked my options for the afternoon. It seemed that the weather would remain stable. There was a sculpture park called the Utsukushi-ga-hara Open-Air Museum on the top of a mountain that was 30 km away. Sounds interesting, let’s go!
When I was climbing up the mountains east to Matsumoto, I noticed two things:
- sunshine disappeared and clouds rolled in
- the XBR ran richer and richer.
This is not a surprise per se, as clouds tend to gather in mountains, especially at high altitude and carburettor-driven combustion engines lack oxygen in higher altitudes. It was remarkable that this started already at the bottom of the mountain. This points to a totally dirty air filter that really needs to be exchanged. However, from today on, I will go down to sea level and the remaining 650 km can be handled by the bike. Despite the low weight without all the luggage, I went very slow. Finally I reached the top of the mountain at a 1959 m altitude, the highest point of the whole trip. And there the clouds were pushed away partly like a curtain. What a view on the valley. The views are surely spectacular in good weather, but this was impressive. I parked my bike at the big museum entry/restaurant/souvenir shop complex, paid my ticket and walked for about one hour between 350 sculptures in a fantastic landscape. I let the pictures speak for themselves. Slowly, clods rolled in and the curtain was closing again. I bought a snack and started my descent. When I was standing at a junction reflecting if I should go the same way back or take another route, a Japanese biker in Jeans on a SR500 talked to me. He suggested going the same way back. One kilometre later, I knew already this was a bad decision. It started to pour down as I was at the backside of the mountain. Too late to put on the rain suit. Patience. I noticed that my back tyre slipped a lot and I went extremely careful. At the next junction (it was pouring down massively), the SR rider asked me if the XBR was losing petrol. The colourful puddle below my bike said yes. Aaargh. Bloody carb. It does not happen often, but it does.
After some long 15 km, the rain stopped and it got warm again. Yet I was totally soaked on the exterior, this would enrich the flavour of my hotel room again.
I noticed that there were vineyards right and left to the road. The funny detail was: it was cultivated in the Pergel technique like it is traditionally used in Southern Tyrol. I looked it up and actually this system is called Tanazukuri in Japan.
In the hotel, I made some plans for the following days – I will go to Tokyo tomorrow where I will stay two nights. Another night close to Mount Fuji and then I will approach Nagoya where I will drop off the XBR.
I had selected a Yakitori restaurant tonight, however it was closed. I needed to improvise. There were a number of interesting bars with Japanese bar food, but without a menu in picture or English, I would be a bit lost. Well, anything can be arranged. I found finally a bar with an interesting menu:
The mackerel was quite good, the skewers however….I needed something else. Next door was the wine festival were I purchased a Merlot and some Gyoza that were quite good.
Tomorrow I will leave rural Japan and enter the Moloch called Tokyo. As I said earlier, I’m not a big city guy, but leaving it out completely would be a pity.
I woke up early today. Yesterday I was so tired I couldn’t finish my report. I wrote it before and after (the rich Japanese) breakfast. Just before the allowed check-out time, I left the ryokan. To my surprise, it was cloudy and dry! For today, no sightseeing was planned apart from the scenic mountain ride. I rode down to Toyama and even rode on the highway for a while. I had to cross the outskirts which was painful as usual. But when the road turns into a mountainous road, things change. The road went uphill in a river valley, mountain tops were in clouds. A nice road again. It seems I have adapted myself to the low speeds here. It was thinking that I will have to re-adapt again when I will go on a tour in the Alps with some mates in August. But that usually goes very quick.
After two hours, I reached a junction high up in the mountains. It was time for a short stop. I purchased a local milk as a drink which was very good. When I wanted to throw away the cardbox, I had the same problem again: Japanese seem to dislike waste bins. They are so difficult to find. Looking at the mountain tops in clouds, I had a premonition and put on the rain suit. A wise decision. Although there was a shortcut via a tunnel to Matsumoto, I wanted to go the long way over the mountain. I wanted to ride once over a mountain pass in the Japanese Alps!
Soon the rain started. As it was still early, I wanted to do a little detour over a mountain plateau. Slowly I crawled higher and higher. The rain really set in and I saw some LED announcements in Japanese…hmmmm…no idea what they mean. Then a little man jumped out of his cabin and indicated me ‘closed’. I made the sign for closed (crossed arms)? Yes, closed. Then he ran back to his cabin and came back with a laminated paper. The access was for buses only, no cars or motorbikes were allowed!
I had to laugh. A mountain pass that is only accessible for….buses??? Crazy Japan! I had to go down in the heavy rain. At the junction, I could have chosen the easy route via the tunnel. But I was stubborn and wanted to ride a Japanese pass! And so I did. I was pretty alone on that road. I reached 1800 m altitude and many hairpins led back to the main road. Soon the rain stopped and I was riding in the dry again.
Finally I reached Matsumoto and arrived at the hotel Buena Vista (!). I checked in and parked the bike in the garage. I was wearing the rain suit, but you still are a bit damp. I was not smelling like a wet dog. No, I was smelling like a pack of wolves after a week of rain. But there’s little I can do to mitigate this olfactory insult. Well, I gave it a try. In the small hotel room, there was a pump spray of odour killer. Let’s see if this helps a bit. After a needed shower, I walked to the centre. Quite a lively, modern town with lots of European, ‘exotic’ places. I discovered a wine exhibition on a square. Wines were divided into ‘red’ and ‘white’ and ‘light bodied’ and ‘full bodied’.
On the opposite side, some stands served exotic food, like Spanish or German or Italian. Funny!
It smelled not so bad, but I had something else in mind. According to Tripadvisor, there was one top Sushi bar in town. I want to try many different food styles and I didn’t have Sushi so far. So I walked through the more quiet part of the centre and finally found the very small bar Sushiten. I entered the tiny place and was offered a place at the counter. I ordered a sushi menu and some sake. The sushi was prepared by an old lady who must have passed her 75th birthday a long time ago. She was treated by the young waitresses with great respect. The sushi was maybe not high-end design, but the quality and and taste were fantastic. So Japan ruined European sushi for me as well.
The good-bye was very friendly and the old lady was very charming when she waved and shouted ‘bye-bye!’.
After another sumptuous breakfast, I prepared my luggage. Everybody of the staff asked me if the motorbike was ok. Yesterday, I thought it was a good idea to place the jacket in the shelter of the XBR for drying – but it wasn’t. The humidity was so high that the jacket was still damp. It paid my bill, grabbed an umbrella and walked round in the town of Hida. This ryokan was really outstanding, very welcoming staff, good facilities and fantastic food.
It was raining a bit, so I returned soon to the ryokan and set off with the XBR. The Garmin proposed a different route than I had expected, a more direct route over the mountains. Well, I had lots of time, I thought, why not. After 15 minutes, it stopped raining, maybe this route was not so bad! But half an hour later, I was stopped by a big, closed gate. I seemed to be a closure for winter, but maybe something had happened up there. I turned around and remembered that the alternative route I had seen in the valley below was also closed.
Luckily, there was a little detour and I could continue my ride to the West. There was no traffic, roads were ok, mountains were covered in clouds and I was riding next to a long barrier lake. This was not so bad! The deep green water was totally quiet and lay there like a mirror. My sat nav however, brought me the news that I had to do a 40 km detour, as I had to get to the entry of the highway going south. There was no other possibility to go north. But as I said, I had a lot of time, today’s itinerary was very short and there was only one (or several) planned stop to visit some old houses along the way.
These houses form part of the common UNESCO world heritage of the Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama. Located in a mountainous region that was cut off from the rest of the world for a long period of time, these villages with their Gassho-style houses subsisted on the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. The large houses with their steeply pitched thatched roofs are the only examples of their kind in Japan. Despite economic upheavals, the villages of Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma are outstanding examples of a traditional way of life perfectly adapted to the environment and people’s social and economic circumstances.
It started to rain again, I got nicely soaked. But when I reached my first stop in Shirakawa-go, the rain had stopped and would not return the whole day. A sensation of dampness remained though. I parked the bike and noticed immediately that this was a touristic place. Loads of tour coaches, lots of people. I noticed that I stayed away from mass tourism since the Red Square in Moscow. Not my cup of tea. I visited the Folk Museum where some typical Gass-ho houses with their typical thatched roofs were located.
The Gassho-style houses found in the Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are rare examples of their kind in Japan. Located in a river valley surrounded by the rugged high-mountain Chubu region of central Japan, these three villages were remote and isolated, and access to the area was difficult for a long period of time. The inscribed property comprises the villages of “Ogimachi” in the Shirakawa-go region, and “Ainokura” and “Suganuma” in the Gokayama region, all situated along the Sho River in Gifu and Toyama Prefectures. In response to the geographical and social background, a specific housing type evolved: rare examples of Gassho-style houses, a unique farmhouse style that makes use of highly rational structural systems evolved to adapt to the natural environment and site-specific social and economic circumstances in particular the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. The large houses have steeply-pitched thatched roofs and have been preserved in groups, many with their original outbuildings which permit the associated landscapes to remain intact.
I walked around in the village where many international tourists stumbled around. I had already noticed that many Chinese tourists visit this area in the mountains.
The village was nice, but let’s move on. Some 25 km down the road I stopped at Suganuma and I am glad I did not miss it (almost I did). What a contrast! Only a very small village, but precious! Embedded in the surrounding mountains, it appears as a little gemstone between the mountains. And there were only fey tourists. No busloads.
Only after 8 km, the last of the three world heritage villages was waiting for me: Ainokura. Like Suganuma, it is a small village where actually people do live. There is an occasional shop or a small restaurant, but that’s it. I walked around between the houses, admiring the thatched roofs that are almost one metre in thickness.
I had a little snack in a little shop and decided to visit a papermaker. They make hand-made artistic paper there, really beautiful work. But nothing of it would survive five minutes in my panniers. So I bought two nice paper covers for chopsticks. I chatted with the owner and when I had revealed my trip to him, he was laughing and shouting “crazy! crazy!” He also took a picture of me, saying that would be for his facebook page.
I walked back to the bike. I only had another 25 km to go to the ryokan. What a relaxing ride today! But in the end it turned out a very beautiful day, and the historic villages are really stunning. I went on the National Route 156 that follows the Sho River. Some marvellous views there.
I checked in and of course my first action was a walk to the onsen. The stench of my biking gear gets worse every day, when I open the wardrobe….you don’t want to know. As there was nobody inside, I took some pictures.
I took my time in the bath, it was still early. Even without my beauty case, it is easy to bring yourself in shape, a lot of items are provided in the changing room.
What can I say, the Kaizeki dinner was very good again, but I put only one picture after yesterday’s overload.
After dinner, I started to write the report, but at 10 p.m. I had to stop. The bathing and the dinner (and the sake?) did their job and put me to bed.
I had asked for a late breakfast at eight. I stayed in the same place so why rush things. The breakfast, however, was fantastic. In quality and quantity. I am sorry for the mass of food pictures today, but the food in this place is exquisite.
This delicious meal provides enough energy for the whole day til dinner. I needed to look after the bike. I removed the sprocket cover (that was attached so effectively in Novosibirsk). One is always prone ‘to hear the fleas coughing’ as the German saying goes, i.e. imagining all kinds of things based on a vague sound. I had a critical mind but in the end I had to conclude that the sprocket, the chain and the transmission output shaft seemed to be ok.
So I rode to the recommended garage called Bike Bomber that was 4 km away. The mechanic seemed to have waited for me and I tried to explain him my conclusion with many gestures. When I touched the shift lever…..it was moving! WHAT?
The shift lever was loose! Of course I had thought that there was something wrong with the gearbox! The bolt was quickly tightened, but I asked him to do an oil change. He did it right away. The garage was small, but his equipment was astonishing: SNAP-ON tools everywhere. He was a nice guy and we did a little bit of chatting while he was quickly doing the oil drainage.
The oil indeed resembled liquid tar. Unfortunately, he did not have the right oil filter, but the new oil should do some good to the motor and gearbox. I asked him to put 20W50, he asked back and I explained something like ‘it’s an old motor’. He immediately understood. He had inspected the motor quickly and within a fraction of a second he had seen that the carb was not original, hehe. I did a quick test ride and of course the shifting was better with a fixed lever, but I think it was a bit better than before. It is still quite clunky for a XBR gearbox; BMW Boxer riders would consider it smooth. But it changes a lot of things. I paid my bill and said good-bye to this friendly lad. So I could do an excursion to the town of Takayama that was very close. It started to rain now – rainy season was finally here! I went first to a museum village that was located outside town. This was really a nice place; old building from the region had been disassembled and put up again at this place.I chose the long walk. Everywhere, good explanations in English were given.
The history of the houses and the daily life of the farming people were explained. It was a tough life up here in the mountains, with bitter winters. Some professions were explained and artists showed their work on display. I was interested in wood carving and the exposed pieces were fantastic. In the shop, there was the artist….sleeping with a knife and a piece of wood in his hands. This would have been a fantastic picture, but very disrespectful at the same time. It was raining strongly now and I checked the internet for options. There was a funny museum in the town, displaying all kind of artefacts from the Japanese 50s and 60s. Sounded good. But first I had to enter the centre. This was difficult, as all parkings explicitly excluded motorbikes. In the end I simply parked the bike in a side street where it didn’t bother anybody.
This was fun. Outside, I was still pouring down. I strolled through the shopping lane with all its shops, galleries, bars, cafés. I tried a Hida beef skewer (street food) and one of the many ice cream cup variations of a shop, I think mine was based on soya milk and red beans. Rain wouldn’t stop so I went back to the ryokan. Finally I had time to do a long visit to the onsen, without the time pressure of a riding day. I tried all the different pools and tubs, indoor and outdoor, and proved the provided sake.
Then it was time to think of a plan. What to do? I concluded that the XBR would be ok to go on. It will be raining a lot, but maybe less in the first half of the day. And if I ride only three to four hours a day, visit interesting stuff along the way, put on the rain gear, then the weather will be bearable. I booked another ryokan for tomorrow and a hotel in Matsumoto for two nights. After that, I could visit Tokyo and the Fuji region. The distances are not very big, so I can always change the plan and return easily to Nagoya. So the cancellation of the bike trip has been cancelled.
And then dinner waited for me. I had ordered Sukiyaki yesterday: cooking meat and vegetables in a sweet soy sauce at your table. But there was much more…it started with some appetisers:
I had ordered a tasting of premium sake from the region. They were all excellent!
Then it was time for the highlight: Sukiyaki!
What a delicacy!
I took me quite a while to write today’s report, the extended bathing and the long dinner….
Tomorrow will be a short riding day with some sightseeing.
Late at night, I had reserved a charming ryokan in Hida in the Japanese Alps. 570 km away on the shortest route. That sounds a lot less than the days in Russia, however riding in Russia is much faster. I was in the middle of the beautiful Iya Valley and needed to get to the motorway first. I had a very typical and good Japanese breakfast at 7:30 a.m. Of course the bike was already prepared, but I didn’t dare to go to breakfast with my dirty biking gear; the smell is climbing on the ‘nastiness’ scale. I was wandering if I should return to the Koboke Canyon and head north to central Shikoku and heading east, deeper into the Iya valley. I would have to ride on very small roads again and cross the mountains. The problem was that I needed to arrive at 6 p.m. latest in the ryokan. In the end I asked myself why I came to Shikoku. Right, because I wanted to ride on the mountain roads! So eastwards I went. The landscape was very scenic and indeed the road turned into a single-track road that climbed up the mountain. I was passing a lot of roadworks and I was impressed how much work the Japanese invest even in these small roads. I got closer and closer to the clouds, but at an altitude of 1500 m I reached a pass.
The next hour meant endless bends and corners, mostly on a single track. Finally I got to the central valley. Here, the basic problem of my Sat Nav showed up again. As Garmin does not provide a maps, I had some opensource maps installed. The map itself is brilliant. However, the information linked to the roads is not available. That means the device does not know what is fast and what is a slow road. So it sent me on the slow national road when there was a quick expressway running next to it. I have to take the clever decisions. Finally I managed to get on the expressway, but the Garmin did not know a bridge and wanted to send me on a 200 km detour. But there are a number of huge bridges that connect Shikoku with Honshu. The largest looked like the Golden Gate Bridge and was really impressive. I can’t stop to take pictures on the bridges. The wind gusts from the side were hefty, one almost blew me off the bike! The large bridges are very expensive, but the next toll booth took me by surprise…for 90 km of toll road, I paid…60 Euros! I think that I paid something like 150 Euros in tolls today. Wow. Expensive. But the national roads are unbearable. In Kobe, I encountered some traffic jam and was surprised to find a service area right in the city centre, under all the elevated highways. A bizarre place. I managed to order some sweet-sour dish ( always looking for new dishes) which was quite good. Although the information was given in Japanese only, I understood that from tomorrow on, there will be road closures in Osaka due to the G20 summit. I was lucky, being one day too early. I made good progress andiIn the vicinity of Gifu, the sat nav sent me on the national road. What a pain! At a certain moment, I noticed that changing gears had changed. Normally, after having shifted gears, you feel a resistance in the lever. This was gone now…what does this mean? Is the gearbox starting to fail??? I remembered the Iron Butt Rally 2013 when I had to pull out because of a clunky gearbox. I could still change gears, but it felt different. The gearbox did not like city traffic since Russia. The basic problem is that I did not know how old this motor/gearbox is. You simply assume that it coincides with the odometer reading, but this needs not to be true. The fact that the timing chain starts to rattle a bit at cold motor temperature, indicates more a mileage of 70.000 – 90.000 km instead 40.000 km. XBR gearboxes are normally rock solid, but you don’t know what previous owner(s) have done to it. So I was shifting gears very carefully. I managed to guide the XBR back to a highway up to the mountains. Good! I had already feared that I would have to ride 150 km on this crowded road. After a while, I stopped at a rest area and checked the oil level. Well, I could top up half a litre. When I left the area, gears shifted very hard. Hmmmm…..not good. Luckily I had only 45 min to my destination. Hida is situated in the Japanese Alps and luckily I saw them still in a bit of sunshine – tomorrow the rain season will catch up and one week of rain starts. It will be heavy rain here tomorrow, so my plan to do a little bit of sightseeing will be washed away.
I arrived at the beautiful ryokan and was welcomed very warmly. It is a very elegant house with very friendly staff. The man who had shown me around does not work here anymore, but he spoke good English, so maybe they asked him to come. When I told him my problem, he called some mecanics and gave me some suggestions. I had thought of an oil change – until I heard a strange noise from the sprocket when I pushed the bike. I had no time to investigate – this will be a job for tomorrow, it will be a true rest day, as an excursion would be too wet.
I had a quick visit to the bath with its beautiful rotemburo (outdoor pool). Just in time ready for the excellent kaiseki dinner (Japanese gourmet food). I had many delicious dishes, but the highlight was the Hida beef. It is derived from Kobe beef and equally exclusive. I was sitting at a Western table (thank you) in my own compartment. Later I tried the massage chair in the lounge. A very elegant and welcoming place.
So what’s the plan? Well, in the worst case, I’m only 200 km away from my final destination in Nagoya. If no miracle happens, I’d just have to ride down to the coast on the highway. I’d park the bike at the Nagoya airport and rent a car there. In a week, I’d ride the bike to the harbour and drop it off there. Two days later, I’d return the car and fly back home from Nagoya airport. So this could happen. Let’s see tomorrow. If it would still be nice weather, I’d maybe risk it and ride on. But it makes no sense to ride around in the mountains in pouring rain with a sick gearbox. The XBR has performed outstandingly well in the last 14.000 km. She met the objective of getting to Kumamoto. The rest is only an extra.
Last night, I was checking my options of the ferries from Kyushu to Shikoku. All options led to the same conclusion: I needed to skip breakfast for it was only served at 8 a.m. The best connection was the ferry at 9:45 in Beppu. It was a 1:20 min ride to the harbour. And I still needed to buy tickets. At 7 a.m., I packed the bike and paid my bill. I explained the problem and was offered an early breakfast at 7:30. Hmmmm, ok. I ate very quickly, but I still needed 15 minutes for it. But at least I could still make it to get t the ferry.
It was a lovely morning again, I rode through the mountainous landscape, passing rice fields and forests. There was little traffic and I made good progress. At 9 a.m., I reached the coast and Beppu came in sight. I entered the town, but there was no sign to the ferry. I decided to follow the sign to the port. Here, there was also a total lack of information, at least in latin letters. I used Google Maps on my phone and found the right ship. I entered the terminal and had a ticket in 15 minutes. The bike’s front wheel was fixed with a clamp, I haven’t seen this on a ship before. I went to the passenger lobby and had a relaxing crossing, watching the great scenery, checking internet, reserving a ryokan for the night, drinking, eating. I discovered a massage chair and cleverly invested some 200 Yen (1.5 Euro) for a 15 min massage. Brilliantly invested money.
I introduced the accommodation in the sat nav and followed it almost blindly. 12:30 and only 200 km to go. The next hours were very scenic, they reminded me very much of the Southern Alps, like the Trentino, for example. These are the XBR’s favourite roads, from normal mountain roads to very winding single tracks in the forests. It was very slow at times, but these were the roads why I had come to the island of Shikoku. A perfect afternoon. Roads were perfect.
I made a rest break and forced me to sit down and drink something. Ryokans expect their guests to arrive early, but there was plenty of time left. I changed the route and did an extra detour through the Oboke and Koboke Canyon in order to enter the Iya Canyon from the north. A fantastic ride, like back home in the Alps. Though the mountains are different, more lush and green.
I arrived in Nishiiyayamamura Kanjo at a quarter past five, in a small valley between high mountains. The check-in went quick and soon I put on my Yukata and walked to the bath. This one had a bubble bath and a very nice little outdoor pool with mountain views. As nobody was around, I took some pictures.
In my room, I needed to come up with a plan. Tomorrow would be the last day without rain. Forecast predicts rain for a week now. I even checked the options taking a long-distance ferry to Hokkaido because there, less rain is expected. But it will rain as well, only much colder. So I decided to ride to the Japanese Alps, I found a nice ryokan there and would have booked for three nights, however only two were available. Well, unless you take the royal suite and pay five times the price. With two nights, I can make some excursion in the next morning, hoping that the rain will only pour down in the afternoon. Then I could enjoy the onsen in the ryokan. After that, we’ll see from there. Maybe some city visit. Tokyo, Osaka, anything is possible.
This morning, something unusual happened: I overslept. That means, I woke up after seven o’clock. But why rush it. Now I’m in vacation mode. During breakfast (again a large buffet selection), I got some news with problems of my airbnb guest back at my home place. That needed immediate response and kept me busy for a while. And the keys of the mobile phone keyboard seem to get smaller and smaller. In the end I left the hotel only at 9 a.m. I opted for the (expensive) urban expressway, but it would take me out of the city quickly. I was heading south, in beautiful sunshine. The trip’s highlight was only 100 km away – the Kumamoto Honda factory where the XBR was built in 1985.
This was one objective of this trip, seeing the place where the XBR came from. In the past weeks and months I had tried to establish contact – but I couldn’t. The respective websites are in Japanese. There is a ‘homecoming” event in October and I wrote a message to the e-mail address – no response. I wrote a message to Honda Germany – no response. I called Honda Germany with two questions: where was the XBR built and how to establish contact. I received a message back: we are sorry, this information is not known to us. “Are you really telling me’ I wrote back, ‘that Honda does not know where its motorbikes were produced?’. A while later, I got another message: ‘the motorbike was built in Kumamoto’. ‘Yes, thank you very much, and is there a way to establish contact the factory? I’d like to visit it.’ Silence. Roaring silence.
Some two weeks ago when I was in Russia, I discovered that a lady offered tours through the factory via airbnb. I contacted her. She explained to me that the information was only available in Japanese and reservations had to be made at least one month in advance in Japanese via fax or letter. Impossible for foreigners, that’s why she offered this tour. She contacted the factory, but no free places were available anymore. I nevertheless wanted to give it a try, maybe there is a way….
I stopped at a rest area and wanted to buy something to drink. I stopped next to three Caterham Super Seven and an old Mini Cooper. The owners were curious and started a chat….you know…from where, how, when…I revealed the facts bit by bit (the itinerary, the bike’s mileage, the concept) and they were more and more impressed. When I told them I did Hiroshima to Fukuoka yesterday (300 km), they were impressed as well. So you can imagine how a 13.000 km long trip must sound to them. They were really nice people and we had a good laugh. I had a look at their British cars as well, that’s not something you would expect here. Finally we said good bye and I started the final approach to Kumamoto.
I had no trouble getting to the factory, and there it was, THE sign to be photographed. I approached the entrance, parked the bike and walked to the security booth.
The security guy did not speak English, but another man in a Honda suit asked ‘reservation?’ I denied. I explained that I’d come a long way from Europe. ‘Yes, I know’ he said. No chance. The last hope vanished with a puff. Ok, I had at least tried it.
What’s next? It was later than expected, but at least I had more time for the second highlight of the day: the Mount Aso volcano. I introduced a GPS waypoint and set off.
This was disappointing, of course. It would have been great to enter the site, at least out of curiosity. But it was not the guard’s fault. Kumamoto is one of many production sites and the guards have clear instructions – entry only with a reservation. They are just doing their job. But I felt I was mad at Honda Germany – their customer relation management is despicable! When I bought my XBR, Honda was market leader for many years. Now it’s rank three to five with only half the market share than BMW. Coincidence? BMW has the less reliable products, but excellent after market management. I think I’ll have to write a “nice” letter to them when I’m back home.
I rode on back roads through a green landscape – rice fields, grass land, fields, trees – and soon I spotted large mountains on the horizon. I got closer and closer to Mount Aso, the mighty, largest active volcano in Japan. The views got more and more scenic and suddenly I realised I was going downhill again – this was the ridge of the large caldera. As I learned later, the caldera of this ancient super volcano is 25 km long and 18 km wide! And this is only the part that collapsed. My next destination was the mountain road to the active crater. But what was this? A German flag?? “Holahoo”? A German looking house with a German flag? Hm, I was behind my plan, but this looks interesting….Let’s check this out! I entered the frame house in German style – so this was a Café…
I greeted the lady in German, but she didn’t speak it. English went quite well. The next hour was making a very nice and lovely acquaintance with a family that dedicated their life to German products. The couple told me that they are travelling every year to Germany for 15 years already, mainly to Seiffen in the Erzgebirge. It is known for its wooden figurines, mainly produced by turning. In Germany, the objects are mainly sold in Christmas markets.
They sell a lot of these products plus served German coffee and….Baumkuchen! An old German speciality that you can rarely find for it is very time-consuming to make. They make it on their own and of course I had to try it. Delicious! Everything in this place was carefully selected, this was no tourist trap, only good quality items. Of course I told them where I was from and in the end we were watching promotional videos from my beautiful home area on the large TV. This was almost surreal. We had great fun in sharing stories.
When I told them about my trip, they were more and more amazed. Really very nice people!
I had to say farewell and when I left the parking, waiting at the road for the cars to pass by….I saw the three Super Sevens plus the Mini pass by into the other direction! What a funny coincidence! It took a while until I could stop laughing.
I got closer and closer to the volcano. The routing of the GPS in Japan is not brilliant, the sat nav always wants to take the direct route. I ignored it and had to find out that it had shown me the right way. It paid my foolishness with 5 km extra single track roads in the forest. Finally I was on the ascent to the crater. The XBR felt mountain air – that’s what she likes! The views were more and more scenic – often you can’t really put it in a picture – even in panoramic mode you can’t reproduce the ‘depth’ of the visual impression….wherever you look, there’s the caldera ridge. Finally I was at the junction to the top – but soon I had to stop. The toll road to the crater was closed! I had seen some smoke before and there was this helicopter in the air. Apparently, the volcano is waking up and it is too dangerous at the moment to get closer than 1 km.
Ok, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade!!!
Well, then let’s be a good tourist and go souvenir hunting! I purchased a small Kumamon, the happy bear from Kumamoto!
I walked outside and had another nice talk with a biking couple, she was riding a very pink bike! I mean, pinky-pinkish pink. Or just PINK!!! I see that the information about my trip sinks in when I show the GPS track, the eyes go wide.
A few km down the road, I visited the Mount Aso Volcanic Museum. Not hyper modern, but sufficiently informative to be appropriately amazed about the formation of this huge volcano. This must have been a really big BANG then! The pyroclastic streams covered a large part of the island of Kyushu!
I still had less pressure to arrive at my ryokan before five o’clock. The views down to the bottom of the caldera were spectacular again. Fantastic.
And from the bottom of the caldera, up to the ridge again. I followed some bikers on a nice, winding roads. But…they could go …a bit faster. I noticed that changing the spark plug was the right thing to do, but the bike still felt like running too rich. What could this be? Classic diagnosis procedure: what needs a combustion engine? Fuel, spark and – air. Maybe I should check the air filter.
I passed the ridge with a beautiful look back and sooner than expected, I arrived at my ryokan, a traditional guest houst with its own onsen (spa). I checked in and was first shown around, when I came back to my room, my luggage was already there. I went back to the bike and had a look at the air filter….indeed, it’s very dirty. Normally, I would have carried a spare one, but I left it at home when I reduced my luggage. As the filter is symmetrical, I turned it around, this should help a bit. I guess it is possible in this country to find a new filter for this bike. I mean, where else, if not here?
So I jumped in my Yukata and went to the bath (my bathroom has only a toilet). I tried first the small bath (after a thorough cleasing, of course), then I changed to the outdoor stone pool, next to the river. Ahhhh….relaxing…After that, I put on the jacket, changed slippers and toddled through the village, like many other visitors in town. It was a nice walk before dinner, very orexigenic.
Dinner was served in my room. As I was alone, I could stretch my legs under my table. I don’t know how I could do this, kneeling all the time. Then the food was served by very nice guy….dish by dish…and everything was excellent! I never had raw horse meat before, but it was fantastic. Classic top Japanese cuisine.
Tomorrow will be the last sunny day – everybody, including the forecast, tells me that the rainy season will hit later. I have a plan for tomorrow, but to escape the rain – almost impossible. I’ll need a good plan.
The breakfast this morning was smaller than the day before and more Western style. And you had a spectacular view over the Hiroshima peace park. I went relatively early, as I could see from the long queue when I left. Of course my bike was in good shape as I left it in the street the day before. It was Sunday morning and the traffic was noticeably reduced. It was a sunny morning, only a few more will come, then the rainy season will hit me after all. But today was a really nice day with highs at 25 degrees.
I only had to ride about half an hour until I reached my highlight for today, the historic shinto shrine on the island of Miyajima. I entered the ferry parking and had a chat with the elderly parking attendant. He was very pleased to hear my story. I had a brilliant idea that I would appreciate afterwards:
I left my helmet and jacket attached to the bike and could walk more freely. The crossing took less than ten minutes and I was glad that I arrived so early, I guess during the day many more (domestic) tourists can be expected.
I strolled along the promenade until I reached the iconic highlight og this world heritage site: the Torii (gate) located in the water. It is one of the most famous views of Japan. I passed several shines, among them the Itsukushima Shrine.
I entered many tourist shops, not that I was particularly attracted by them (although their products were not too bad), but I was in search for stickers for my panniers. Finally I found what I was looking for. As usual, shopping is very pleasant, the elegant kindness of the staff makes you feel very welcome. I continued strolling through the small alleys of the village and detected their main product: filled cookies/waffles called momiji manju. There were produced on the spot by big machines and sold in boxes. I purchased a single one to try them. Very good. On the way back to the ferry, I spotted some deers on the main street. I took pictures and was surrounded by them. They were of course in search for food ( no wonder, with all the cookie smell in the air). I started to talk to them telling them that I had nothing for them. This must have caused attention, because I was approached by a gentleman with a young camera team. He asked me where I was from and if we (in Europe would eat deer or rabbit). I affirmed this, they are quite tasty. He asked me what I thought about the deer in the streets in Miyajima. I told him that this was amusing, but they didn’t show normal behaviour in the village, for they never would get so close to humans. He explained me that the film team were his students and he was interviewing people about the deer situation in the village. I deduced from this that he wasn’t entirely happy about it. He thanked me exuberantly and I continued my walk to the ferry. 20 minutes later I was on the bike again. Today’s itinerary was very simple: get to Fukuoka, the capital of the southern island of Kyushu. It was another 250 km of motorway in front of me. I rolled at a 100 km/h and found time to stop at a service area again. I ordered some noodles with meat and omelette at a machine, paid and got a numbered ticket. As I couldn’t understand the numbers that were called, I informed the ladies at the counter and was served when it was my term. Good, simple food.
I still needed to fill up, but the attendants explained that there was no more petrol, I should try 30 km further down the road. I still had enough juice in the tank so this wasn’t a problem. Actually, it was a 40 km to the next station, but this wasn’t Russia anymore. My consumption was surprisingly low. After another hour, I enjoyed the luxury to stop for a coffee and another cookie. I wasn’t in a hurry. I thought about making a detour….checking the map….there was an island north of Fukuoka that looked interesting, let’s go there!. Of course I got stuck in the traffic when I left the motorway…I noticed that the XBR wasn’t riding as smooth as she should be….like before I nursed her for the first time in Russia. Maybe I had to do a bit of care-taking this evening.
At the tip of the island, I noticed a parking full of motorbikes and stopped there. With interest, I examined all the classic Japanese bikes. Café-Racer SRs or VT250Fs and all the lot. I was also a centre of interest and was the focus of questions and pictures as well. I guess they don’t see foreign riders so often. The Eastern side of the island was more rocky. I entered the interior and discovered a motocross track and a tower with great views on the coast.
But finally I wanted to get to the hotel. It took a while. Studying the habit of some bikers, I decided that I had to ride a bit more ‚normal‘ and did even a bit of filtering. Finally I arrived at the five star hotel. I had forgotten what a posh hotel I had booked, but the rate came with a large discount, so it was not so different from the previous days.
When you enter a luxurious lobby in your filthy and stinky gear, sweating and looking tired and noticed all the looks on you – priceless, haha!
I was shown my room and went back to the bike to park it in a large parking garage. Although I felt lazy, I forced myself to take care of the XBR – tighten the chain (first time since Moscow), fill up oil and scottoiler and exchange the spark plug. I was right – it was not brown but totally black. No wonder after all the dodgy Russian fuel and the overflowing carb. Tomorrow, the XBR should be running much better, just in time for her big her day.
I had a shower and cancelled my initial plan to go to the city centre for some local food. The hotel does not provide two or three restaurants, nor four or six…..No, eight different restaurants were located in this huge building! And then I had a (crazy?) idea….There was also a Teppanyaki restaurant..wasn’t this the moment to try it? With excellent Japanese beef…One thing was clear….this would be terribly expensive….but why wait? If I want to try many things in Japan, isn’t this one of the things you should have tried in your life? So I went to the Teppan. The menu was indeed…hmmmm….not exactly a bargain. I went for the less breathtaking menu, but ordered the premium meat. I was later told it was from Miyazaki (at the same level of Kobe beef). And then what to drink? No beer, of course. I asked for the wine list….excellent wines for sale…I saw La Tâche and Richebourg from Romanée-Conti and had a hard time counting all the digits….Well, luckily they also had half bottles and less aristocratic wines, a humble Gevtry-Chambertin was pricy, but without heart attack risk.
I was apparently the only guest today. With three teppans, this might look odd, but I am not in a big group anyway. So I sat at the hot plate, waiting for the spectacle to come…the cook was very friendly, showed me the meat and started the preparations. I was served appetisers and a salad (jellyfish!). The way the chef grilled the vegetables and later the meat on the hot steel plate was not a big show, rather more a cautious piece of art. It was a pleasure to watch. And then the steak and the vegetables were ready. Grilled to perfection. The meat ‘melts’ in your mouth. Exquisite. After this dish, he prepared a fried garlic rice and at the end was the Miso soup.
I was led to another room and was served the lemon curd dessert and a cup of good tea. And then it was time to pay the bill. I had basically dynamited a large part of my weekly food budget, but it was worth it. Would I repeat it? Well, not very soon. An interesting experience, but limited for special occasions. Such as a motorbike trip to Japan.
I had another Japanese whisky in the bar and started to write this report. Today is the big day for the XBR! She will finally meet her birthplace….
I woke up early, but I took it easy. So I arrived at 7:15 in the restaurant. By that time, it was already full and I (and more people) had to wait to be seated in a separate compartment. The breakfast buffet was outstanding, I had my phone charging in the room so I couldn’t take any pictures. An immense selection of Japanese dishes and snacks…plus a small Western section that was the exotic part for the Japanese. Impressive.
I applied finally a SmartPacking™ technique…One bag was prepared with stuff that I wouldn’t need for a while, which would reduce the luggage to be carried to a hotel room to only two pieces. The tank bag is then left in the empty pannier. I packed the bike and watched the armada of personnel (in suits and kimonos) wishing the guests farewell. A long bow until the guests are out of sight. As it was very cloudy, I went in full gear. I had decided to visit the Izumo shrine after all. The distance to Hiroshima was short, so I could “afford it”. However, I need 70 minutes for the 36 km to the shrine, the traffic is painfully slow. I remembered the information that Seven Eleven has ATMs for foreign cards and I filled up my cash reserves. The ATM had a menu in German and after each step, a pleasant jingle sounds. In the end, a voice said (in German!): ‘thank you very much for your visit, we are looking forward to seeing you again’.
Finally I made it to Izumo and parked the bike. A man in a suit asked me where I was from. He was also a biker and wanted to take a picture with me. The Izumo Taisha shinto shrine is the oldest in Japan, the largest, 24 m high building cannot be visited. There are smaller shrines for dedicated gods around it, it is said that once a year in autumn they get together here and have a party together.
I went back to the bike and decided that I would not cross the mountains on small roads, but on the ‘expressway’. There was some occasional light drizzle and it was already 11:30, later than planned. First I had to get to the expressway. It turned out that this was not a dual carriageway, but a normal road with separated lanes with a speed limit of 70 km/h. But at least it was not 50 km/h. I climbed up the hills with a very lush forest consisting of picturesque Japanese pines. At a toll booth I asked the clerk if there was a petrol station on the road, but he sent me down the exit where I was served at a station. First fuel stop managed without accident. I went further up and stopped at a service area. I was curious how they would look like, I read some good things about them. Indeed it was a nice area, with lots of sweets shops. I found a small restaurant and after some waiting time, I was admitted. We could not find a common language, but we managed. I ordered a delicious selection for about 10 Euro value. It was very good…if only German Autobahn service areas could provide meals that are half as good!
Up on the mountains I crossed a long tunnel and on the other side it was sunny with clouds. The landscape looked very nice and I was tempted to ride on these rural roads….however, I wanted to arrive quickly in Hiroshima and this would have slowed me down a lot. This was also the reason why I skipped to the sake town Saijo. I wanted to do the Hiroshima visit today, otherwise my plan for tomorrow might not work. I reached another motorway with four lanes. The indicated speed limit of 80 km/h was ignored by everyone and I followed Ryo’s advice to do what everybody else was doing. So I ‘pushed’ the XBR to a breathtaking 100 km/h – and she liked it! Finally breathing freely again.
I arrived in Hiroshima at 3:30 p.m. and passed by the iconic peace memorial, the so-called A bomb dome. I took a picture and rode 500 m down the road where my hotel was conveniently located. A small single room, but that’s all I need. The hotel has no parking, but I found a motorbike parking space close to the hotel. I had a quick shower and walked 100 m to the Hiroshima peace park. This is the area where on August 6th 1945, the first atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima. I visited first the peace museum where many objects and photos were exposed in a black tunnel. A large crowd of visitors moved from artefact to artefact, in depressed silence. The whole museum gave a very accurate background with a focus on the suffering of the people of Hiroshima. The pure facts are painful, but feeling the pain of so many people that died on this very spot is difficult to swallow. It is one thing reading about it and totally another being at one of the biggest mass graves in human history (besides the Nazi extermination camps or the Cambodian Killing Fields). What I found the most touching part in the museum were the drawings of the survivors. Where no camera was present, they recorded the horror after the explosion and tried to deal with it for the rest of their lives.
In the adjacent peace park, many memorials commemorate the event. It is a beautiful, solemn park. But at the same time a very sad place. It is hard to understand that 74 years ago, a 2000 degree hot plasma turned this place into an inferno. I walked to the river opposite of the peace memorial and sat on a stone, watching the building that was not blown apart when the bomb exploded over it. I sat there a long time, letting the impressions sink in.
I continued my walk and visited more memorial, for example the children’s peace memorial. It was a sunny evening and I watched the local people enjoying it. They have learned to live with the past and have turned Hiroshima into a vibrant city. Ok, let’s follow their example. I checked Tripadvisor, checking for good local food. Actually there was a very famous place nearby, Okonomiyaki Nagaya. Indeed there was a long queue in front of the restaurant. But they are known for Hiroshimas’ speciality, okonomiyaki.
After 25 minutes, it was finally my turn. As I was alone, I got the best place, directly at the teppan plate where the food is prepared. And soon mine was ready, of course with the local speciality: oysters! You add some sauce and mayonnaise à volonté, and cut the big thing with a metal spatula. Delicious! And the entertainment for free! I was eating quickly, the queue was still impressive. I walked down a shopping gallery and back to the hotel. Lots of interesting food places. I think this will be some interesting two weeks.
I went to the hotel bar and tasted two Japanese whiskys, Taketsuru 17 years and Yamazaki 12 years.
Excellent drams. Part of the cultural programme, of course. I think I slowly get into the desired ‘relaxing mode’. This was my plan.
Wednesday: in the morning, I had a preventive shower in the hotel. Who knows when I would have the next opportunity for it. I put on my motorbike gear and grabbed my two bags. When I paid the horrendous hotel bill, I was hesitating if I should take a taxi to the port. But, I wasn’t that far and I was walking downhill. So why?
After 200 m, I recognised that my preference for walking was a bad idea. Yes, I was walking downhilll, but it was moderately warm. But the humidity felt close to saturation. In motorbike gear. When I finally reached the passenger terminal in the port, I was already drenched in my own sweat. Pacific climate.
After some investigations where to start the procedure, I entered the security check and passed customs and passport control. And there was the gangway! I entered the ship and got the key for the cabin. As I had feared, it was a room with four mats and sheets. SO this was my „first class’ cabin. Luckily no-one else showed up so I had it for my own. Later I learned that the difference to second and economy class is the fact that i) it’s only for four people and ii) it has its own bathroom. Very basic, but at least you don’t need to share it with everyone. Until the 4G network would fall away, I made use of it and had a noodle soup in the bar.
The promotion video of the Korean DBS company is in sharp contrast with reality. This is no luxury sea cruise, but a very basic and pretty run-down ship for budget travel. You can buy basic things, but compared to any European ferry, it’s only about getting to your destination. The Koreans who travel in families or large groups seem to enjoy it. At 6 p.m., there was an announcement about dinner that would start now. I bought my ticket for it and went to the „restaurant“. Well, feeding place would be the more appropriate term. Take your soup, a bowl with vegetables, rice and some chilli sauce, accompanied by a cup of water. In 20 minutes, everything was over, everybody gone (except me) and the place was cleaned again. Wow. Restaurant, yeah.
The whole day I was reading my large Lonely Planet travel guide, almost 1000 pages. I tried to get an overview on possible places to visit and itineraries to go. However, in the end it will depend on the weather where I will go. It looks that my plan to go south first will make sense, the weather seems to be all right for the first days. This means visiting Hiroshima and the island of Kyushu where the Honda production site of the XBR is located in Kumamoto.
In the evening, I had a beer in the bar (more reading) and walked around the ship again (not that there’s so much to see). There was music coming from the night club. There was music coming from there so I had a look. I watched the end of a live rock concert played by staff from the ship. Immediately, disco music was started and all the ladies and gentlemen (age 60+) rejoiced and jumped onto the dance floor. Amazing.
In my room, I tried to get some information out of the 10 Korean TV channels (impossible), read a bit more and switched off the light.
I had put three mats over each other, but after some hours, I woke up with a terrible pain. What was this? My back? No. It was coming from the left side. I don’t know what had happened, but somehow a nerve must have been pressed. For the rest of the night, I tried all positions to reduce the pain. In the end, I managed to get a little bit more sleep.
Thursday: after the announcement, I trotted again with the herd to the feeding place. No rice and Kimchi for me, please. Some corn flakes and a bead roll will do. And a cup of complementary water.
I realised that my mobile phone must have caught (a South Korean) signal again and loaded some messages. One of them was a message from my telephone provider that I had passed my data volume and extra costs were charged. But this was impossible as I had a package large enough for the whole trip. Despite the coverage, I could not check my data usage. Bloody Proximus!
I had received a message from a DHL coworker in Japan who are supposed to ship back the back. Giving the details about the drop off, he also mentioned that the bike would be transported a non-DG (dangerous good) only. WHAT???
This would mean that I have to drain petrol AND oil completely??? How am I supposed to do that? I seems that my experience with transport providers will be enriched by another tale. Aaaaargh!
While almost all the other passengers left the ship for a visit of Donghae in South Korea, I stayed on the ship as I had to change my cabin from first to second class. Actually, despite sharing it with other seven people, I had a proper bunk bed. The day was not very exiting, reading, a nap, eating, looking. Informed via SMS texting, MJ found out that South Korea does not enter my phone plan, so this was the reason of my connectivity and billing problem. I made acquaintance with a Swiss family and we chatted a lot. A wave of a lot of middle aged, very excited and loud Koreans embarked in the afternoon. For them this is apparently a sea cruise for fun. I overheard a Korean talking in English, saying that this ship was very old, it reminded him of the nineties. So this was not only my impression. I did not go for the Korean dinner at 6 p.m., but had some fried chicken later in the bar. I checked quickly the night club again – yes, the Philippines were doing their group dance and all Koreans were watching – and I hit the sack. I slept quite well until I woke up because of the heat. They must have stopped the airco!
Friday: I got up already at half past six and had a shower in the common shower room. Excellent. We were close to the Japanese coast and internet worked again. This was a relief, but it showed how dependent we have become on this little device. I had breakfast with the herd and packed my luggage. It was sunny, warm and very humid.
We disembarked at 9 a.m. and the Japanese passport control was very quick. The customs officer wanted to see everything, but he helped me to put the stuff back again. After the exit, Tatiana from DBS Ferries was already waiting. I had contact with her for many months and took care of all the paperwork that was now in front of me. She welcomed me and explained me again the procedure. First, I had to get the XBR out of the ship and into the customs zone. I noticed that the people who had ridden it into the boat had not closed the fuel tap again – luckily the carb did not leak!!! In the customs zone, the bike was inspected and luggage was checked. I was glad that I had changed my motorbike pants to some trekking trousers – the air was getting sticky now. In the waiting time, I had a chat with Tatiana, her service in preparation of this day had been really outstanding. The drug swipe test was also negative, so now the next step could begin. In principle, I needed to get a taxi and drive to the town of Matsue (30 km), where I needed to pick up a translation of my carnet de passage and a translation of my driving licence from the local branch of the Japanese Automobile Federation (JAF). However, Tatiana had arranged that a colleague would bring me there for much less money than a taxi (everybody’s happy!). My driver was a very nice guy (I think his name was Ryu, if I get the spelling right). The drive was quite long, so I got my first lessons about Japanese traffic rules. First of all, respect the rules. Speed limits are extremely low. 50 km/h in cities, 60 km/h outside cities, but often it is limited to 40/50 km/h. Japanese make Norwegians look like reckless drivers! After 40 minutes, we arrived at the JAF where all the papers were prepared, I just needed to sign everything. And we drove back. Ryo invited me for a coffee and gave me a lot of good (survival) tips. We had really a nice conversation. Back at the harbour, I needed to present the paper at customs again and got my Carnet finally stamped. Then I needed to pay all the fees and the motorbike insurance with Tatiana. I went outside to prepare the bike. A few minutes later, I got the green light. Tatiana and Ryo passed by to say good bye and I was free to go. What a fantastic service by both of them! If all imports would be that easy!
So I set off…driving on the left. I noticed indeed that riding in Japan is riding in slow motion. Slow. Sloooooooow. I will not cover great distances, but it will take time, that’s for sure. My first stop was the famous black castle of Matsue. It was on the way to the hotel. I had decided to ride in the trekking trousers, but as it started to rain, I put on the rain suit. I had troubles to find the parking so I found a place that I defined as a ‘parking’ and left the bike there. I walked up to the mighty castle. Built in the early 17th century, it is (apart from the foundations) made entirely from wood. There are several floors that one can climb and the view is great from the top. I was drenched in sweat again. Below the castle, there is a shrine and an old historic guesthouse for official visitors.
I only had 9 km to go to the hotel Katsuien Minami that is located in the Tamatsukuri Onsen (i.e. Spa). I finally found the entrance and was already awaited. I got a shaded place for the XBR and I was led into the lobby. There I made first contact with Japanese hospitality: under a lot of greetings and bows I was led to a table where I was served tea.
A young man in suit kneeled down in front of me and arranged the check-in. I booked already dinner as I read that these traditional ryokans (‘guesthouses’) serve good food. The place is run like a ryokan, but has the size of a large hotel. There is a large shop with local products, a beautiful garden with ponds, three different baths, a restaurant, (karaoke) bars…I was now welcomed by a young woman in a traditional Kimono who spoke good English and she showed me the room. She explained me everything and with great respect. My room is in traditional style, but with modern amenities, i.e. real beds and an own bathroom. I had a quick shower and dressed for my first visit to a Japanese onsen (bath). I put on the Yakuta (garment) and tied it with the obi (belt). Using the (much too small slippers), I toddled to the bath. I left my stuff in a basket in the changing room and entered the bath with my little towel. You wash yourself on a little stool. Then you enter the hot water in the pool. It is so hot that you only stay for a some minutes, but it’s quite nice, similar to a sauna. I washed myself again and went to the outer pool in the garden where dragon-flies flew on the water. There was some water from a fountain dripping into the pool – and it was very hot! Yes, you’re directly sitting on the Ring of Fire! A great experience – to be repeated.
At 7 p.m., I went to the restaurant and was attended by the same lady (probably her English is the best). She explained me the menu and gave me some tips how to eat what. What to do with the cook-your-own-soup-at-your-table, for instance. I had some interesting new dishes I did not know yet. The raw fish dish was served on ice and was super fresh, a delicacy!
Tomorrow will be a short ride to Hiroshima. I got the suggenstions from Tatianan and Ryo to visit the Izumu shrine at the coast. If it’s not raining, I will do that. I booked two more hotels. It seems that the weather will be good for the next days, but then rain will catch up. I’ll have to be flexible then.
Well, the last days were meant to be resting days – and that included blogging as well 🙂 This doesn’t mean that nothing has happened, quite the contrary.
Saturday: it was my plan to stay in the hotel, relaxing. And actually this was a very good idea. I was glad that I had gained one day on my plan as it was raining the whole day. I woke up early, like usual, but forced myself to stay in bed. I was woken up by a phone call by the reception at five to nine. If I still would come to the breakfast. Yes, of course. I only understood the next day why this happened. There are only few guests in the hotel and all had had their breakfast already. The buffet was put away and when I showed up in the breakfast room, I was served ALL the contents of this buffet in sequential order. That was a lot! But I got used skipping my lunch the last weeks so this should last until dinner. I returned to my room and forced me to be lazy. I used the laundry service. I studied possible destinations in Japan and watched Japanese television to get prepared for the next weeks. In the afternoon, it was time
to get working. As it was continuously raining, I parked the bike under a pavilion of a children’s playground where I found the perfect cover from the rain. I swapped both wheels and could even work seated, LOL.
Although I was wearing gloves, the work was very dirty as the bike was covered in a mixture of mud and oil. I took my time and in the end the bike had new tyres. I replaced the missing nut of the pannier rack and adjusted the wind shield. That was it. Not a very big service after 12.000 km.
Sunday: this time I got up earlier and all the mystery of the breakfast buffet was revealed to me. I had an appointment with Yuri, the fixer for the transport to Japan. At 10 a.m. I arrived at his office in the centre. With the help of the translation app I could get to his office. I did not know how much money I needed to bring so I carried all my remaining Rubles.
I had forgotten my Euros in the hotel and in the end after having calculated the sum of all the individual costs (passenger ticket in 4-8 person bedroom, custom charges, handling charges, and and and…), I was 300 Rubles or 4 Euros short. I would give it to him another day. We had a long chat and he told me some stories of other travellers he has dealt with. Apparently he organised the transport of a Swiss biker to Canada who got to Vlad in ten days and is attacking the world record for a fastest round-the-world trip (19 days, 4 hours, Nick Sanders). Other people will join me in the customs procedure on Tuesday.
I went to the south tip of the city where there is a small causeway to a little lighthouse. The path is so small that the waves wash over it. A funny place. The wind was very strong and many surfers enjoyed it. I wanted to go to the southern tip of the big island called Russky. To do this, I had to cross the big Zolotoy brindge and the even mightier Russky bridge. After some kilometres, the dual carriageway ended and a muddy, bumpy track continued. Now this was too annoying. But the real reason why I came to this island was a more sinister one. I spotted a small road into the woods and followed it. I stopped at a little clearing. This was it. This was the perfect place.
An illegal waste dump. I removed my wheels from the back and removed the special tyre rack as well. I noticed that the lower rack that is carried to carry the big aluminium box was broken on both sides, like once before. I had actually expected that. However the rigid set-up had avoided that this had turned into a problem. It would have been a miracle if nothing of the pannier/rack system would have come out of this unharmed……all these bumps….thousands and thousands of bumps, under the heavy load of the two wheels. I used some of massive cable ties to keep the broken rack together. There won’t be a large weight on it anymore, so this is not critical. I placed the stuff next to the other dumped waste and really felt sorry about it.
They had served me well, and I would abandon them just like that? Well, another fact is that I want to ride much more lighter in Japan, enjoying mountain roads and stuff. And the (expensive) transport back is calculated by volume weight, i.e. the dimensions of the bike do count. So, it does make sense….apart from the fact that I still have 10 rims lying around at home. Was it really necessary to carry the wheels? No, in retrospect no. But I was playing it as safe as possible. In the end, the result counts.
While I was still feeling sorry, the XBR appreciated the new freedom, breathing freely now. A few kilometres down the road was the large Oceanarium of Vladivostok. Why not spending the afternoon there. But first some exercise. It was a 1 km walk from the parking to the entrance. What? Using my own legs? Let’s see, I can do this….left….right…left….right….right….aaaaargh!
Slowly I realised the dimensions of this place, and I even had skipped the dolphinarium. It’s not only a large aquarium, but also a kind of science museum that explains in great detail the evolution of sea life and the respective habitats. Really impressive. I let the pictures speak for themselves.
What was left? Well, dinner in the log restaurant.
I needed to change hotel and move to the Lotte Hotel in the centre. It was booked for a long time and a cancellation was not possible anymore. John and I had booked it as a reward after the long trip through Russia. So I packed and left this kitsch palace. As I had a lot of free time, I decided to purchase some motor oil, I had used all of the oil bought in Novosibirsk. I located a shop near the centre and rode there. It was a small shop, but had a good selection of oils. I bought one litre of oil and went outside to the bike. The guy from the shop came outside, saw my bike and we started a conversation. It all took a funny turn when he mentioned that he was also speaking Spanish.
From there on, this turned to one of the funniest conversations I ever had on my travels. We talked in Spanish from this point on and probably the most funny thing in this situation was his Argentinean accent; he had spent part of his childhood in Argentina. His name is Timoteo and he had lived in many places, Spain, Montenegro and others, and now works in this motorbike accessories shop in Vladivostok! You can’t make this up. What a bizarre, but entertaining talk. He offered me his help should I need any.
I continued my ride to my new hotel. It is run by a Korean company and has all the facilities you would expect. Rather a sober interior, but elegant.
It was time for my planned shopping tour. I had deliberately not carried a lot of clothes, only some light trekking trousers and some t-shirts. I was clear that this was enough for this roadmovie-style trip through Russia. But in Japan, I want to dress up a bit. My plan is to visit nice restaurants as well. Showing up in biker gear is probably counter-productive. So I strolled through a shopping mall where I had some trouble finding clothes in my size. But at least I found something, quite impossible in Japan I guess (unless it’s a shop for sumo ringers). Three shirts, some trousers and a pair of shoes will have to be stuffed onto the bike. However, I come prepared. As this was all a planned move, I carry a light bag that can be filled with light stuff and will be attached on the rack where the wheels had been.
I walked down to the harbour and around the central square. I spotted a souvenir shop and went inside. I finally got what I wanted: two stickers for my motorbike panniers. But before I had to endure all kind of grades of horrors for tourists. The way to hell is paved with souvenirs.