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Area: 3,77,975 Km2
Currency:Japanese yen (¥) (JPY)
Road Length: 1,215,000 Kms
Roadtrip name: The Great Japan Roadtrip
Distance: 7,600 km
Route: Tokyo > Nikko > Lake Chuzenji > Bandai Azuma Line > Yamagata > Lake Towada > Oma > Hakodate > Sapporo > Wakkanai > Cape Soya > Lake Abashiri > Lake Kussharo > Hakodate > Lake Tazawa > Akita > Mt. Chokai Blue Line > Niigata > Matsumoto > Shirakawa Go > Kyoto > Kochi > Shimanto > Beppu > Cape Sata > Kanoya > Nagasaki > Kitakyushu > Hiroshima > Adachi Museum > Osaka > Ainokura UNESCO Village > Mt.Fuji > Tokyo
Part 1: https://bit.ly/2yBzisy
Part 2: https://bit.ly/2VXJxPO
You can find a more detailed infographic based map of Japan at the bottom of this article.
Ride on: Right side
Metric System: Speed is in KM/H and temperature in Degree Celsius. Fuel or gasoline is measured in litres
Best Weather: Autumn (September to October)
Machine: Ducati Multistrada : 1198.4cc | 150 bhp | 119 Nm | 220 kg (kerb)
The Multistrada 1200 was a wonderful motorcycle. There was a reason why it was our go-to motorcycle for so many kilometres through so many roadtrips. Right from the engine to the geometry, it was a near flawless motorcycle and an experience which is almost impossible elsewhere.
The engine was lifted off the 1198 superbike. The valve overlap though, was revised. The motorcycle was tuned more for road because the 1198 was meant to slay racetracks… of course. Yet, 150 horsepower meant that the Multistrada 1200 was no slouch.
While the ergos and the visual bulk stated otherwise, the Multistrada was a fantastic handler. It was nimble and could really tackle corners with so much poise and confidence that it almost feels like a superbike. That confusion disappears after a few 100 km because on the Multistrada, you aren’t aching all over and keep going.
Another one of Multistrada 1200’s great features was the electronic suite. It was way ahead of its time. Ride-by-wire, Ducati Traction Control, and so forth. The S variant even came with Ducati Electronic Suspension. This allowed the rider to change the character of the motorcycle on the fly. And no, we aren’t referring to just mapping changes either.
The different modes altered power delivery, torque delivery, suspension settings (1200S) and traction control level. So it wasn’t about a slightly altered feel. It was about changing the whole character of the bike to a degree where it felt like a different bike altogether. And to think that it could all be done on the fly and monitored via the massive screen… 2010 wasn’t ready for the MTS!
While everything worked predictably well the electronics were especially helpful in Japan. There was ice, there was snow, there was rain and there were leaves, so many of them, on the road. The electronics work in harmony to make sure that the motorcycle remains upright and we never felt that the motorcycle was out of control. It proved itself to be a fantastic tool for a trip like this.
Sponsors: Shell Advance Oils. RS Taichi. Ducati Japan. Oakley India. Oakley japan.
“It can’t be pulled off!” we wrote to a Japanese acquaintance in New Delhi. “If the only reason is language, then give it another chance” – he replied. That’s just what we did, and boy, are we glad…
After researching about Japanese roadtrips for a few weeks, we had given up. The language was the biggest deterrent, but there were a few others as well. For instance, if one were to get waylaid riding a country road with no common language. Japan does not have GPS in English. A phone would be rendered useless because of the incompatible airwave standards.
Then there were the expensive expressway tolls. The biggest hindrance was the lack of any substantial literature on route framing. There was only fragmented information spread across the internet. Collating that information into a coherent motorcycling route would mean, spending more time in front of the computer than on the road! And still, end up guessing.
Nevertheless, it had to be done. Like most youngsters, we grew up surrounded by a lot of Japanese goods. Gadgets like Nintendo Game Boy, electronics like Sony TVs and cultural gems like Origami & Bonsai. But most importantly – Japanese cars and motorcycles. Motorcycles like the Yamaha RX100 and Kawasaki Bajaj Caliber were so common, that bumping into one was inevitable. Heck, for most of us, we even learnt to drive on a Maruti Suzuki.
The trip was decidedly happening, no matter how badly we fared. By ‘badly fare’, we mean on parameters of photographs and videos. The only available source was English commercial guide books like Lonely Planet, which might be useful for the average tourist or backpacker, but not for a roadtrip like this.
This was our first visit to this small country, which had enchanted the world. Its techno-wizardry and work-ethic culture are legendary. There are so many things to look forward to. Before we knew it, we were meeting a man from a place called Kawasaki. Our hotel was in a place called Hayabusa and there were cartoons instead of legible characters everywhere! This was it, we were in Japan. The eight-hour empty ﬂight landed in Tokyo early morning local time on the 29th of October 2012.
The first hard learnt lesson was that Japan has excruciatingly expensive taxi fare, especially from the Narita International Airport to Tokyo, which is 80 km away. In order to save money, it is advisable to learn to use the phenomenally complex Tokyo subway system although you will probably need the help of the kind people and guards. This is, after all, described by Wikipedia as ‘the world’s most extensive rapid transit system in a single metropolitan area’, and we used it to get to Ducati Japan’s office.
The first few kilometres in Japan were in Tokyo, at night and made a few tips evident, most important of which was to stay away from two-wheelers that ride like they are about to commit ‘harakiri’! The first two days of the trip were spent in Tokyo.
The world-famous Shibuya Crosswalk is supposed to be the busiest in the world, with hundreds of people crossing at the same time, when the traffic lights are red. The whole place has an amazing energy about it. If you like video games, try The World Ends With You (www.theworldendswithyou.com) for the Nintendo DS and iOS devices. This is an RPG set in Shibuya, Tokyo.
“Haru (a photographer based in Tokyo and a good friend) and we decided to see if we could manage some photos with the Multistrada (MTS). The only condition being, that we had to push the MTS across the intersection, with pedestrians and a switched-oﬀ engine! That’s a big deal, for it’s a 300 kg bike (fully loaded). However, we ended up doing it 4-5 times, while Haru took shots of us from Starbucks, and also followed us on a couple of crossings. It was difficult, avoiding so many glaring people, though none of them felt oﬀensive!”
The first riding day and our third in Japan, was a ride to Lake Chuzenji via the Nikko Toshogu Shrine. This was the first shrine and ‘tourist spot’ that we visited. There were a lot of people even on a weekday. One has to buy tickets to enter. The shrine is quite reminiscent of the temples in India. It has lots of religiously significant structures, along with a tomb at the end of a long ﬂight of stairs. The setting is beautiful, in what appears to be a forest. Strolling through the shrine, it started to rain on our first riding day which was, in hindsight, a foreshadowing of the incessant rains to face throughout our trip.
The approach to Lake Chuzenji is via some fantastic curves, ﬂanked by trees in fall colours. That section also has the Irohazaka Slope (mountainside). That road has 48 hairpin bends and is a delight to ride, even in the wet. They have each bend matching one of the 48 characters of the Japanese alphabet! The beautiful Ryuzu Falls can also be seen en route.
Despite the lack of availability and high prices in some hotels, we managed to find a traditional Japanese hotel with strange (but typically Japanese) decorations. They had things like aliens and monsters, made of metal scrap along with strange paintings. One idea is to try looking for the Hotel Minshuku Kofuso. Minshukus are Japanese “bed and breakfast” lodgings.
The next day consisted of a ride to the first of the ‘16 Best roads in Japan’ (see Route section of the guide) – The Bandai Azuma Skyline. Roads in Japan often have the suffix ‘line’, unlike other parts of the world. Makes sense, a road is literally and technically a line on the map after all! It was a little too late into the season to see its famed fall colors. Most slopes were barren. While descending on the northern end, we rode through barren and rugged mountains that appeared to be straight out of Ladakh.
The very same day, we did another ‘must-do’ road, the Zao Echoline, just before the city of Yamagata. However, this mountain road was completely engulfed in fog and it was pitch day dark by 4 PM. Due to the drastically short days, the kilometres per day also had to be cut.
A roadtrip like this is tough, primarily because of the weather.
Going from the city of Yamagata to the foothills of Mount Hachimantai, as you approach the mountain road, it gets unbelievably windy and it becomes a struggle to hold on to the bike while riding at acute angles. A lone officer on the road stopped us. He made an X sign (a sign for NO) and explained that it was snowing and the road was closed ahead. It took a great deal of strength and resolution, to turn the bike around in the almost hurricane conditions. Last we rode in conditions close to these, was over the Rimutaka Ranges near the windy city of Wellington, New Zealand. This was way oﬀ the charts and scary too!
Battling the fierce wind, we could feel it easing oﬀ but once on the highway, the winds returned and it was impossible to ride over 40 km/h. It was a miracle that we didn’t veer oﬀ into another lane or fall. This continued for 50 kilometres or so. We reached Lake Towada that evening. The roads around the lake were beautiful and ﬂanked by colourful trees. The countless wet leaves on the road made it dangerous, but amazing to ride, almost as if riding on a road made of leaves!
On the ride north from Lake Towada to the ferry port of Oma, even more hellish weather lay waiting, culminating into a hailstorm. The roadsides were heaped with fresh snow while there was a lot of hail and wet leaves on the road. Again, it was a miracle that the fully loaded Multistrada didn’t slide. The ABS and DTC ensured a safe ride.
Catch a ferry from Oma to the town of Hakodate in the island Hokkaido and you will see why this island is one of the must-dos and worlds apart from the rest of Japan. Hakodate was the first city to be opened to foreign trade, way back in 1854. The inﬂuence of western culture, evident in Tokyo, started from here. It is also the main port of entry to Hokkaido. If you happen to be there on a clear night, don’t miss the view from Mount Hakodate.
From Hakodate, it’s a northward ride to Sapporo, which is the fourth largest city of Japan and the largest in Hokkaido. There, we visited our first Ducati showroom in Japan, stepping out with a pair of Dainese Gore-Tex waterproof gloves, which was badly needed, due to the incessant rains and cold. With winters fast approaching, it was important to complete Hokkaido and head south, where it was supposed to be warmer. The Multistrada console hadn’t yet seen temperatures over 15 degrees.
From Sapporo, we moved to the city of Wakkanai, which was just 30 km before the northernmost point of mainland Japan – Cape Soya. For the first time in Japan, the bike enjoyed the sun and blue skies! We rode alongside a lot of windmills on the highway, after taking oﬀ-road detours!
Hokkaido was relatively less populated and there was scant traffic on the expressways. The Tone Channel is a dead straight road along the coast, near the city of Wakkanai. Along this road is the volcanic Mount Rishiri, giving the place a surreal look.
Cape Soya is the northernmost point of Japan. Though technically, it is Bentenjima Island, which is 1 km northwest. On a clear day, one can glimpse a Russian island, which is just 40 km from there.
After ticking this oﬀ from the list of checkpoints, we noted another, the southernmost tip of mainland Japan – Cape Sata, which was 2800 km south, without any detours. To put things in perspective: Cape Soya, the northernmost point, lies on the same latitude as Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia and Cape Sata, the southernmost lies along with New Delhi in India. Quite a diﬀerence! People think that Japan is small, it isn’t!
A couple of roads that we wanted to do in Hokkaido, were snowed out and closed. The remaining days in Hokkaido were spent riding in the bitter cold rain. The missed photo opportunities made this the best and worst roadtrip, simultaneously! We took a ferry from the town of Hakodate to Aomori, skipping a few hundred km of road that we had previously covered on our way to Hokkaido (See Map).
The next place worth mentioning on the way down south is Lake Tazawa. This lake is known for its natural beauty and its almost perfectly circular geometry. It has narrow and beautiful roads, carpeted with leaves, around the lake. There is a huge Torii-gate, along with a couple of other beautiful monuments and statues lined up on its shores. Don’t miss the ring road around the lake, if you are nearby!
In an attempt to conquer Mount Hachimantai, although there was no blizzard and we managed to ride towards the peak, we hit a roadblock. Again! Lots of snow being cleared by heavy machinery, ahead. That place was jinxed! The next road on the list was the Chokai Blue Line. That road ascends to 1150 meters, oﬀering spectacular views of the snowy Mt Chokai.
On Route 292 (Shiga – Kusatsu Road), as the ascent started from the northern side it got cold, with snow on either side of the road and a few kays later it was all snowed out.
There were a lot of non-functional ski lifts overhead, across the highway. The trees were white and it felt like Christmas!
However, further up it was impossible to proceed, because of snow and ice. There were a few cars, but moving very slowly, as conditions were steadily deteriorating, to being blizzard-like. The Multistrada console showed “ICE” and a ﬂashing thermoboard on the road showed -1 degrees Centigrade! There a strange thing happened. While standing on the snowy road, a yellow figure emerged from the slopes of the mountain and skied towards us! He was bamboozled to see a motorcycle in those conditions. He spoke English and advised to turn back, before disappearing into the white slopes. Surreal!
The next destination was the famous city of Kyoto. World’s 11th Most Liveable city according to a study and the 8th largest in Japan. This city was also on the American hit list for the Atomic bomb. But it was removed by the then Secretary of War of the USA since it was where he had honeymooned! The city of Kyoto has 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines! It was inevitable that we visited the best!
Before reaching Kyoto, a visit was made to the UNESCO world heritage region of Shirakawa-Go and Gokayama. This region has several villages with houses in the Gassho-zukuri style, which means ‘constructed like hands in prayer’. The traditional houses’ steep thatched roofs resemble such and are built to allow snow to roll oﬀ the roof. The Ogimachi village in Shirakawa-Go was the biggest and tourist-iest. However, despite the many tourists, it looked like a village straight out of Asterix!
An impulsive decision on the last day of the trip involved a stay in one of the remotest Gassho style villages! Kyoto was beautiful. Our first visit in Kyoto was to Kiyomizu-Dera (Temple) at night. It was lit intelligently and despite the tourists, it was serene. It is set amidst lush greenery oﬀering a spectacular view of Kyoto. This temple was built in 778 AD and it had been burnt and destroyed many times, giving its exquisite looks.
The Ryōan-Ji Zen temple was the second. The temple garden of Ryōan-Ji is considered to be one of the finest examples of the Japanese rock garden. The rock gardens emulate natural landscapes, to aid in meditation. Gravel is raked to form ripples in the water; stones symbolize waterfalls or mountains. It is an interesting concept, but they are usually small and disappointing after visiting Kiyomizu-Dera. Having said that; if you are in Kyoto, don’t forget to see this!
There is also the Fushimi Inari temple, which is wonderful and one of the most beautiful man-made religious places to exist. The highlights were the passageway, made up of hundreds of wooden Torii- gates and the wishing wall. There we drew a biker’s face with Rossi 46 and hung it, along with thousands of other drawn faces, each a reﬂection of someone’s unique personality!
Since the beginning of the trip, it was a wish to dress as a Samurai or Ninja and have a photoshoot with the Multistrada. We contacted an establishment in the city of Otsu, near Kyoto, called Samurai-Kembu which gladly accepted the request. There, we were pleasantly surprised to meet the father and daughter duo, who teach various Samurai moves, especially for Japanese festivals. There was a wide choice of colours and style for the Samurai costume replete with a sword! Needless to say, it added that ‘local’ touch to the road trip. The picture with the Samurai’s daughter is one of our favourites.
On Facebook, someone posted about the interesting Chinkabashi Sinking Bridges in southern Shimanto over the Shimanto River. These bridges don’t have any railings and get submerged in heavy rains when the river level rises. In those conditions, it is impossible to discern where the road is. The reason these bridges were made was ‘to oﬀer the least possible resistance to the ﬂowing river’. We were able to ride it in perfectly good weather but it was scary! We continued south, en route stopping at a town named Kochi, which is also the name of a famous South Indian city! In the south, the landscapes and mountains were lush green, which gave it a tropical look.
After Kochi, another ferry takes you from Uwajima to the city of Beppu. There, we resumed riding, towards the southernmost point of Japan, visiting a garden en route. It had animals and other creatures cut out of hedges against a mountain backdrop.
On that day we encountered our first volcano eruption! It wasn’t burning lava, but a lot of dense ash and smoke plumes came out of Mount Sakurajima, which is one of the symbols of the Kagoshima region of Japan. This mountain is your best chance to witness live volcanic activity,
Reaching the southernmost tip of Japan, you will have ridden through a lot of sparsely populated highways. It is on the same latitude as Delhi, that for the first time we saw temperatures of over 20 degrees and experienced humidity in Japan. One more important checkpoint was ticked oﬀ the ‘to-do’ list. However, a few important ones remained: the cities of Nagasaki & Hiroshima and Mount Fuji.
Since childhood, we had read about the two cities that were nuked in the 2nd World War and seen that haunting black and white image of a mushroom cloud in all our history books. We finally visited those cities. The first being Nagasaki. Nagasaki appeared to be a beautifully developed city. It’s difficult to believe that it was ﬂattened by the A-bomb in 1945. The visit to the peace park and its memorials, especially the Hypocenter was a powerful emotional experience. This single bomb killed 75000 and injured many more.
En route to Hiroshima, we stopped at one of the most unique places. It was a hotel at the Kitakyushu Airport, adjacent to a beautiful over-water bridge. Ducati Hiroshima was the second Ducati showroom that we visited in Japan with a warm welcome. Close by is the Atomic Bomb Dome and the peace park. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is a must-visit, which educated us about the history leading to the bombing and its aftermath. That too, from a relatively neutral standpoint.
One of the most moving stories you come across is that of a girl named Sadako Sasaki, she popularized an ancient Japanese legend named Senbazuru, which means a thousand origami paper cranes. This legend promises anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish. Sadako was exposed to atomic radiation in the bombing of Hiroshima. Sasaki soon developed leukaemia and at age 12, inspired by the Senbazuru legend, began making origami cranes with the goal of making one thousand. However, she died before she could complete them. There is another version that says she did complete but continued making them, as they didn’t save her.
The famous Adachi Museum of Art in Shimane prefecture of Japan is quite a detour from Hiroshima, but we had heard so much about its gardens that we had to see it! The paintings and artefacts there were fantastic. It exhibited diﬀerent Japanese painting styles, including hints of anime. The garden was spectacular, with its painstakingly worked grass, hedges and waterfalls punctuated by the fall colours.
Having done 7000 km till then, ridden in snow and through blizzards, braved incessant rain and cold, seen active volcanoes, touched the northern and southern extreme motorable points, visited shrines and temple seen Nagasaki and Hiroshima, visited Japan’s top-ranked garden
and museum – what else remained in this pocket rocket of a country?
Staying in a traditional UNESCO world heritage house, in the quaint village of Ainokura! After a great night there, amidst what felt like a Gaulish village straight from Asterix, we rode to Tokyo via Mount Fuji. The clouds cleared in time, to get a glimpse and photos of its peak.
It was one hell of a roadtrip. The challenges presented by inclement weather made it tougher and exciting than hoped for!
In the last couple of days in Tokyo, we visited some ‘must-see’ places for gadget and technology freaks like ourselves – Apple Store in Shibuya, Yodabashi Electronics Store (all of 7 stories!) in Akihabara and bought some hyper-realistic fake food from Kappabashi-Dori!
We found a scooter-modifying garage in Tokyo with some massive scooters completely pimped out with lights and electronics.
The culture, people and technology of this small but incredibly wealthy (in all senses of the word) country has left a very strong impression and we learnt many things to be carried through life. Whether we want it or not, we will be surrounded by impeccable Japanese products, Sony Playstations, Suzuki cars, even that Casio calculator and the camera too! Japan transcends the world and our lives. It was a privilege to have experienced it the way we did…
The lack of any English language resource on the web, specifically about road tripping pan-Japan, led to the decision to pen this down. We hope it will positively influence bikers’ decisions about touring in Japan.
If you have toured a lot of countries, you will realize that Japan is unlike any other. You will be exposed to a phenomenally rich culture, excruciatingly slow expressway speeds, mind-blowing technology and beautiful landscapes. It was a privilege to have done this country in such an in-depth manner, which few people might have done. Here are the most important gems we picked along the way.
This guide is non-exhaustive and based on our experiences. It is sprinkled with facts of course. But you will have to handpick whatever affects your agenda and make a custom itinerary, using the resources given here.
Please keep in mind that some advice might change with the season that you are planning to ride in. We rode in November, which was the fall season.
The quality of the overall experience depends on choosing the right time to go. Even the cleanest freshwater lakes seem drab on an overcast day. November was supposed to be a little late, but perfect to experience the fall colours across Japan.
However, the amount of rain we encountered was just too much.The numbing cold, made worse by heavy rains. There’d be twice as many photos and footage had it not been for the incessant rains. Another issue was the drastically reduced daylight hours, riding at the fag end of summers.
On an overcast day, we had to quit riding by 3.30 PM. By 4 PM it used to be pitch dark and bitterly cold. Since we were doing pan Japan and going to a new destination every day it was impossible to plan while keeping the weather in mind.
Even the forecasts changed if you wanted to plan 3-4 days in advance. A few roads were closed due to snow, at that time of the year. Roads like Bandai Azuma skyline had barren trees. That means the coloured leaves had already shed. In some places like Lake Towada, there was colourful foliage.
Choosing the bike
Japan has narrow roads and lots of traffic. Therefore a motorcycle is more apt than a car. One which is not too big, agile and offering a lot of luggage space. One can easily rent a car, from the airport and drop it at the same place or in other cities.
The motorcycle of choice for us was the Ducati Multistrada, this time in Titanium Grey. Personally we loved the colour, even more than red. It gave the bike an ‘industrial space-age’ look and there was an inkling that the photos would be better.
The nice people at Ducati Japan had prepared the bike with a Ducati Performance edition red trim, Garmin Zumo 660, the main stand and the three-piece set of cases.
The only issue with the bike was that it was too loud and we often had to take care not to start it in a residential colony, early in the mornings! But that’s what makes Ducati what it is!
Decking the bike
The bike had a tank bag, a pair of panniers, and a rear top case along with a small backpack.
The tank bag carried a Canon 5D Mark II, 70-200mm f2.8 lens, a 14mm f2.8, and a
24-105 mm on a Canon 7D body.
The backpack held a few important things, the passport and driving license. It also backed up as a lens carry bag so that we could leave the tank bag on the bike. The rear top case had a medium-sized backpack, containing all electronics and cables along with the laptop and an iPad.
Overnight, we would take the bag out and dump the helmet and gloves in the top case. The side panniers had clothes, along with other essentials like tyre puncture repair kit and an air compressor, that could run off the mini cigarette lighter type socket on the Multistrada.
Expressways in Japan can be expensive. In fact, they are expensive! Couple this with a taxi and you are looking at spending lakhs of rupees! Approximate tolls can be calculated here: www.navitime.co.jp/en
The bike had a great device known at the ETC (Electronic Toll Card)Reader. This was installed beneath the seat and served as an electronic tag for the expressway. It was indeed one of the most useful devices on the Multistrada, saving a lot of time and energy that would have been wasted in paying tolls, and skipping the ‘lost in translation’ dilemma!
The ETC takes in a smart card, which acts as a Credit Card. We paid Ducati Japan at the end of the trip. The toll receipts are easily printed off the web in one go and total is calculated and presented neatly on one sheet of paper.
A lot of our route involved expressways, that is substantially faster than normal toll-less highways. This is despite the fact that most of the expressways have a speed limit of 80 km/h.
Being on a motorcycle helps since most of the speed cameras are facing the front to catch
cars and are not motorcycle oriented.
However, this doesn’t mean that you can (or will) flout the road code. Not only because it is wrong, but also because of the unmarked police cars which you might overtake. Most of the Japanese drivers stick to the prescribed speed limit. Driving a Maserati at 80 Kmph on a four-lane empty expressways takes years of Japanese inspired patience and self-control!
But we also came across cars, which would be over speeding by a substantial margin. It is OK to go with the flow. We were even passed by cars doing 150 km/h or more, on highways where the speed limit was 80.
But as mentioned, most Japanese stick to the rules. On a powerful and heavy motorcycle, it leads to serious loss of concentration and grogginess on empty and long expressways. We could break it, by riding faster or tailing a fast car. There was no way around that.
The road quality is generally excellent, but usually, roads are narrow, even the expressways. Often the expressways near big cities like Kobe, experience long traffic jams. In this scenario, it is OK to take your bike along the side shoulder and bypass it. But be slow. We did not encounter any rules against it or any cop for that matter. But in 8000 km of riding, it was done many times, following other two-wheelers as well.
Some etiquette and things to take care of
• It is okay for you to ride along the shoulder and stand ahead of the first car at a traffic light. Just be ready to push off as soon as the light turns green.
• It is okay for you to weave in between lanes of parked traffic up to the front.
• It is not okay for you to honk.
• It was surprising to see the audacity of the riders especially on maxi scooters. They don’t fear overspeeding or lane cutting. Next were the taxi drivers, always in a hurry. Most cars seemed to follow the rules. However, the two-wheeled species left us breathless, as we did not expect them to ride like this, in a city that was thought to have strict rules. As if to sustain the disbelief, we even spotted two mini scooters in a crash with a car, on one of Tokyo’s main roads. Don’t attempt to follow or race them.
• The taxi doors, especially in Tokyo, open and close automatically for the customers. If you are riding through traffic, be wary of this. Else, be ready to be slapped by a giant iron hand.
• You should keep your eyes open for instructions about road etiquette.
• Tokyo is very congested. This means parking is hard to find. There are no free parking spots in Tokyo. Paid parking and even more so, private parking, is expensive. This is not a problem in the countryside.
• Fall season sees a lot of leaves on the country roads making them very slippery. Take it slow. Another issue is that fallen wet leaves stick to the underbelly and exhaust. They burn slowly giving out a lot of smoke.
• Roadtrips in Japan may include a lot of sailing on ferries to cut short the distance travelled by land or to navigate between islands. Plan your journey accordingly.
Japan has a lot of accommodation options. The traditional Japanese ryokan (inn) has Japanese style rooms with tatami mats and sliding doors. These rooms are practically empty and have two or four low ground chairs with a low table. The mattresses and linen are tucked away in a sliding door cabinet. This gives it a clean look. You will have to sit and work on the tatami floor mat. It is nice for a while.
The western style hotels are aplenty. Chains like Toyoko Inn, Smile and APA are business hotels that are relatively cheap and provide conveniences of parking and Internet which people like us require.
Minshuku are Japanese style “bed and breakfast” lodgings run by a family, while Ryokans are traditional Japanese style inns with Japanese style rooms. Hotels in big cities might ask for an additional fee to park your vehicle, but they might waive the fee if you tell them it is a motorcycle.
It happened once that the hotel even asked us to park the MultiStrada right at the front entrance for free! Your best bet is to use a combination of TripAdvisor and Booking.com, to book your accommodation. Hotels in Japan seem full all the time, or at least they were in November.
So try and book early. Sometimes you might also get an excellent deal, with a hotel chain like Best Western on booking.com. Most times breakfast is extra, however we used to buy from 7-11s. Also, most of the rooms are small, in many cases very small. However they are super clean.
You would be hard pressed to find more polite people anywhere else on the planet. However, polite by habit and being genuinely polite are two different things. Though not to suspect their intentions at all, at times, it just seemed too much.
There is the perennial phrase “Arigato gozaimasu.” It is a polite way of saying ‘Thank You’. This is usually accompanied by similar phrases, by each and every attendant in a grocery store or pretty much anywhere else in Japan.
These phrases were uttered many times by attendants, who did not even look at the person entering the store. Therefore, this is probably more of a cultural habit. Like people smiling at you as they walk past, in certain western countries.
That being said, the actions of going out of the way to help someone, does match up most of the time with the intentions that their polite phrases exhibit. A few times the guy at the front desk of a hotel would apologize profusely, when they were unable to communicate properly, due to lack of English knowledge.
We also had people help us out in Subways, grocery stores and petrol stations (We almost filled up the Multi- Strada with Diesel once. Oops!)
Tokyo has a lot of petrol pumps in which the nozzles hang out of the ceiling to save space. Throughout Japan you will find plenty of petrol stations, many of them completely automated.
Those will require one to navigate through a touch screen interface and pay using Yen notes or a credit card. In some, there will be an option, tucked away in a corner for ENGLISH language. However in the ones which don’t, it will be prudent to ask someone to help you out. You just have to tell them, ‘English’ and ‘Gasoline’ and they will understand.
You need to tell them whether you will pay by ‘Cash’ or ‘Card’ before they start filling. Most attendants understand the word ‘Cash’. Most of the petrol stations have clean toilets as well, but very few have adjoining shops like 7-11s.
Do not go by colour codes of the nozzles, as we have seen them interchange between different company gas stations. You don’t want to fuel your bike with Diesel unless you have one of those rare ones! The cost of petrol fluctuates around the world, but it was an average of 150 Yen or almost 100 INR per litre!
That’s quite expensive even by Indian standards. There are various oil companies in Japan, but the two most common petrol pumps that you will find are ENEOS and Shell. In fact in 1996 Japan had nearly 60,000 petrol stations! Over the years, due to various factors, like the economic bubble and compliance issues, the number has now reduced to half.
That’s still a lot, considering India has around 45,000 fuel stations as of 2012. The pumps which aren’t automated will have a courteous attendant carefully place the nozzle into the tank with a cloth (so the petrol drops don’t fall on your tank).
When you talk of Japan usually things like sushi and chopsticks come to mind. However, being on a roadtrip that involves a lot of photography and videography is akin to being on a mission.
The luxury of finding a restaurant and dining there is non-existent. The usual place for breakfast, lunch and dinner were the host of convenience stores. In fact, Japan has the largest number of 7-11 stores in the world. There are chains like Lawson and Family Mart.
There are more than 40,000 convenience stores based on the same format in Japan! Cheap and good food can be had there. Ready dishes like rice and noodles with curry will also be heated for you. Hot water is available in case you decide to slurp some ready-made cup noodles.
Bananas and Apples, accompanied with flavoured milk, made for the perfect cheap breakfast.
No matter what the time, there will always be a vending machine nearby, where you can get chocolates and even cup noodles!
If you think you have it all, you need to go around Japan, especially Tokyo.
• The toilet seats: They are like cockpits with buttons for water temperature and different kinds of sprays. Some of them even have a deodorizer button.
• Vending machines: These machines are present everywhere. We even found one on a forest road, near the isolated southernmost point of Japan.
• Fully automated parking: The fully automated parking is just as cool as it appeared in the Tokyo Drift. Unfortunately, they are very pricey.