The Long Ride to Japan – Day 40 – Back home and a look back
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.
Glad you enjoyed it, glad you made it home safely! Welcome home, in your Vlakke Land, in your Stille Kempen…
Why did you have to register your bike in Belgium?
Registered vehicles of contracting states of the Convention at Geneva 1949 can be driven in Japan. That’s not the case for Germany or Switzerland.
I did not know that
It’s been great to read your blog, Robert and to see Russia & Japan from a different view. I like your reference to Mark Twain and you really should not feel that you have to apologise for your use of English – it is excellent.
Enjoyed your blog well done and well written.
Jeden Tag habe ich Deine Seite besucht und auf neuen Berichte gewartet, ich war schwer beeindruckt! Danke für Deine Mühe.
Thanks for taking the effort of writing so many daily reports. Really enjoyed being on the road with you 😀
On to the next!
Congratulations!!! Well done Robert! An amazing trip and stories!!!
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