Riding the Japanese Alps

Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by oVTo, Jan 13, 2019.

  1. oVTo

    oVTo n00b

    Joined:
    Aug 27, 2009
    Oddometer:
    5
    Location:
    Mass, U.S.
    First trip report. It's just an overview of our experience of renting and riding in Japan with a few vignettes. I don't know if there's a rule here about cross-posting, but I have posted this trip report on a local moto-forum as well.

    Last spring my son spent a semester in Japan and my wife and I decided to visit him. The trip included a few days in Tokyo, visiting Kyoto, Hiroshima, and few other places by train. Best of all was a week riding an R1200GS in the Japanese Alps. Our ride was on the cusp of June/July, which is when their weather turns from rainy to hot. We had some heavy rain, and some heat, but not enough of either to whine about. Except for maybe the typhoon, but that was after we finished riding. Late spring and early fall may be the best time of year to ride, much like our home area of New England. Too close to winter and the best roads may be closed. In the summer, the roads are busy with vacations, hotels are harder to book, and it can get pretty hot.

    Friggin' typhoon! (ok, no more whining).

    I've been to Japan for work a handful of times so I had a good idea of what to expect. It was already one of my favorite places, but I never had a chance to really explore. This was my wife's first trip. I'm very lucky that she genuinely loves riding pillion and exploring via motorcycle. Most of our vacations include at least some time on 2 wheels.

    We picked up the rental bike in Tokyo. The night before we left, we dropped by to finish paperwork, review the itinerary, and load the bike. I won't violate forum rules by pimping the vendor, but PM me if you're considering renting in Japan and you'd like the name. Every part of the experience working with them was great. It felt a lot more like finding a new friend than conducting a business deal.

    They had programmed the GPS for the whole trip, including options for shorter/longer routes on a few days. The routes were customized in a few places for things we wanted to see, and they were great. We'd spend a few hours in the mountains, drop down to a village or two for a while, then back into the mountains. There was a nice variety of terrain, road types, and scenery. They also made the reservations for each night. The hotels included dinner and breakfast and the variety of places we stayed made it even more interesting.

    Traffic is on the left side of the road, but it wasn't my first time on the 'wrong' side and I got used to it quickly. The idea of riding on the unfamiliar side of the road is more intimidating than the reality of doing it. It's no big deal.

    The trip started by following our new friend through Tokyo. It was raining a bit and traffic slowed as we reached the tunnels. We split lanes at a healthy clip, which was a bit nerve-wracking riding a new-to-me fully loaded bike. But I figured the bars were probably wider than the side cases, so as long as the bars fit between the cars we'd be OK. About 30 min (?) later, we left the tunnels and Rodger turned back to Tokyo. We were on our own. The rain stopped and we slabbed it for an hour or so, then exited the highway and pointed the Beemer towards the mountains.

    Sorry about all the IMG tags, I'm not sure how to get rid of them.

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    The valleys are dotted with small villages and the roads are mostly straight or long sweepers when running alongside a river. In the mountains, there are miles of switchbacks not unlike the European Alps.

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    As you get deeper into the mountains the buildings and traffic almost completely disappear. The roads narrow to almost single-track, with tight hairpins. There are mirrors in most of the hairpins to check for oncoming traffic. Ignore them and it could get ugly very quickly. Most vehicles have their lights on in this area. That helps for spotting them before committing to the corner. When they didn't have their lights on, the car or truck was much harder to distinguish from the lush foliage, making the corner a bit more interesting. Caution and very, very late apexes are highly recommended.

    On the bright side, sometimes we'd ride for hours without seeing anyone. These are mountain roads - rock walls on one side and steep drop-offs on the other, with occasional rock slides and gravel. There's fencing/netting on many of the cliffs to keep the rock slides to a minimum. You would not want to make a mistake here because you wouldn't be found for a long time. Overall, the roads are as good as any I've ridden, and better than most.

    In this picture, my bike is in a small wider area to allow vehicles to pass. The road just ahead is more typical. It can get really interesting passing oncoming trucks on these roads.

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    The length of each day's ride varied. Sometimes we rode from breakfast to dinner with just a couple brief stops. Other days we spent a few hours doing touristy stuff like Matsumoto Castle, the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, and the Zenkō-ji Temple in Nagano. Then we'd ride.

    The first night we stayed in a ryoken, which is a traditional Japanese-style hotel. It was like stepping hundreds of years back in time. The ryoken had onsen baths, which are pools filled with water from volcanic hot springs. Nearly all onsen baths are separated by gender, and there is a tradition for preparing oneself for a bath. It can be a bit intimidating the first time. But after a long day on the road there is nothing more relaxing than an onsen.

    This is me after a long day riding in the mountains -

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    And me after an onsen bath

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    The Beemer outside the ryoken. Looks may be deceiving, this place was awesome.

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    We spent the next night in a monastery. That was cool, but it was so quiet that it almost felt like we were trespassing. A quiet monastery, who'd have guessed? After that, we stayed in more western(ish) style hotels.

    On our last full day, we had a bit of confusion about the hotel we were staying in (my bad). After a long day in the mountains, we arrived in a small village and discovered we were not where we should be. A quick call to Rodger and he provided the name of the correct hotel. We punched it into the GPS and followed a nice minor highway for about 50km to the next hotel.

    As the sun was starting to set, we discovered I had missed the hotel's name by one letter. This hotel was fully booked with high school volleyball teams, and we were off for another 25km - this time to the right hotel.

    Back on the road as the sun set. A few km later, a family of monkeys crossed the road a short distance ahead of us as we turned back into the mountains. I picked up the pace knowing we were running very late, and the switchbacks fell into a nice easy rhythm as we approached the peak.

    A most spectacular nearly full moon rose in a gap between the blanket of trees. My singular regret of the week was not stopping for pictures. As I dipped the bike into the corner, my wife said, "look at the moon"! We agreed that instant of time, sweeping through the corners on perfect tarmac with no traffic, in ideal weather, in the moonlight, was one of life's perfect moments.

    We crested the summit and descended into light rain, finding the hotel in the darkness. The staff helped us unpack and fed us dinner (though we were two hours late). This hotel could have been on a lake in Italy, nestled in a valley surrounded by mountains.

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    One of the best parts was the food. I love Japanese food. Before leaving for Japan, it was my wife's biggest fear. But she was always able to find something to eat and became more adventurous as the days passed. She drew the line at fish heads and raw horse, but if all else failed there was usually a 7-11 nearby loaded with great pastries. Seriously.

    Dinner at the monastery -

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    The people we met were just as you may have heard about Japan, exceedingly polite and friendly. Even on my very best American behavior it was humbling and something I aspire to. English is not spoken as commonly as in many other countries, but it was never a issue. I wish I had known a bit more Japanese than the very basics (good morning, hello, thank you, etc).

    On the plane to Japan, my wife mentioned that we should focus on doing as much as we possibly could fit into a couple weeks because this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. By the end of the week on the bike she was already talking about our next Japanese vacation.

    If Japan isn't on your bucket list, it should be.
    #1
    MrBob, squadraquota and Suncoaster like this.
  2. KYwoodsrider

    KYwoodsrider Been here awhile

    Joined:
    Mar 20, 2006
    Oddometer:
    322
    Location:
    central KY
    I just retired from a Japanese auto parts company where I worked for the last 22 years.
    While I never had the chance to take a motorcycle trip I was able to visit Japan more than 20 times.
    During my trips to Japan I was able to attend a moto GP at Motegi, been to the Honda Collection Hall 3 times, been to Yamagata area several times and well as Fukarota, Fuji and a few other mountain areas.
    The people are great and it has to be the safest country in the world.
    #2
  3. Sarang

    Sarang Adventurer

    Joined:
    Apr 13, 2018
    Oddometer:
    50
    Location:
    Pune, India
    Wonderful read. I have been to Japan only once - in 1996. I was 8 years old back then. I have family there - an uncle and two cousins. This is a brilliant idea to ride the GS in Japan. Something which I will plan to do now.
    Thanks for sharing!
    #3
  4. Homer GSA

    Homer GSA R1200GSA 2008

    Joined:
    Oct 10, 2016
    Oddometer:
    443
    Sweeet!
    #4
  5. buenavides1

    buenavides1 n00b

    Joined:
    May 5, 2019
    Oddometer:
    5
    Location:
    Florida
    The food looks appetizing, and great sceneries you have there!
    I remember seeing a lot of Shiba Inu, messing with the
    drinkwell pet fountains in the park.
    #5
  6. rebel346

    rebel346 Adventurer

    Joined:
    Nov 27, 2007
    Oddometer:
    90
    Location:
    Riding somewhere
    Thanks so much for posting this. I’m actually in Japan right now. This is my first time here meeting my mothers side of the family. I retired in April and cannot believe that it has taken my whole life to finally get over here. The people and place are amazing. I’m definitely planning to come back and ride here.
    #6