Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Motorcycle Diaries, Part II

There is a welcome late-Spring holiday period in Japan known as ‘Golden Week’ when four national holidays fall close to each other and most companies allow their staff to take the intervening periods as paid vacation. This period is usually marked by a national collective surge of dromomania when everyone seems to be on the move somewhere. Airline and train reservations are made months in advance for travel to foreign climes or other exotic destinations which means the experience is usually horrendously jam-packed. I once experienced this ‘Golden Weakness’ at first-hand on an Inland Sea ferry from Matsuyama to Kobe. There were so many people on board that conditions resembled those on an 18th century slaver en route from Guinea to New Orleans, and I had the distinct feeling that the vessel would capsize at any moment. To make matters worse it rained in Kobe for 72 hours straight and the return journey was just as bad, if not worse. Once bitten--twice shy, and nowadays I usually stay at home in Golden Week and leave the rest of the madding crowd to do as it will. It’s a good time to get jobs done around the house as the round tuits miraculously become available at this time, and a good time to simply relax...
However, since I took up motorcycling again, I have usually taken an extended day-trip in Golden Week to some far-flung domestic place of interest. In 2005 I journeyed north to Amanohashidate,the ‘Standing Bridge of Heaven’ on the north coast of Kyoto prefecture together with my riding partner, Akira. This year we went in a similar direction but then headed westward to Tottori to see the famous coastal sand dune there. This journey was attempted In September 2005, but had to be abandoned half-way due to torrential rain. Bearing this in mind, we studied the weather charts most assiduously prior to our trip and postponed it once due to an outside chance of rain in central Hyogo. However, the forecast for the following day was fine and clear and so it was we set out at 07.45, in bright sunshine.

The Log: Wednesday May 3rd...
We head due west towards the town of Inami and cross the Kako river before heading north towards Kasai and then west again to the town of Kodera. At this place, ‘Fragrant Temple’, we are to join the Ban Tan highway which is a toll-route from Himeji to Wadayama and roughly bisects the prefecture south-north. It is a great time-saver, though somewhat expensive, and we have decided on it so as to make our journey feasible in one day.
Before joining the Ban Tan and its sustained high speeds, we stop at a Seven-Eleven 24-hour convenience store to fortify ourselves with caffeine. I check my fob-watch in the manner of Phileas Fogg--08.40. A timely break in the journey.
Canned coffee imbibed, we emerge from the store and go through the painstaking sequence of getting ready for riding. Stow wallet in marsupial pouch, fasten waist belt. Knot silk scarf, zip up jacket. Unzip jacket, retrieve ear plugs. Insert ear plugs, re-zip jacket. Take off sunglasses, place on seat. Fit leather face-mask, put on helmet. Open visor, put on sunglasses. Zip up jacket sleeves, put on gloves. Take off one glove, find keys in jacket side-pocket. Put glove back on, get on bike. Ease off main-stand, insert key & start engine. Elapsed time--about one minute.
It is a right faff getting ready for riding, but if I don’t do it just so I have to stop, sooner or later, and fiddle with something.
For some reason, Akira is always much faster than me at getting ready and is invariably waiting patiently, with his single-cylinder Yamaha thumping away rhythmically. I normally hear it burst into life after a single kick, with a harsh bellow from its megaphone exhaust cone at about the same time as I can’t find my keys. Today though, something is not quite right. The engine has not started and Akira is working up a bit of sweat as he belabours the kickstart lever. I notice a thin dribble from a drain-pipe forming a puddle below the engine and smell the sickly-sweet odour of fresh gasoline. The carburettor is flooding and he has to switch off to let the excess evaporate. This is a little disconcerting, but Akira, sanguine as ever, is not unduly troubled. As he is an engineer and knows more about such things than me, I put the worries away. About five minutes later, the Yamaha fires up first kick and we are away.
The clouds are huge and white between wide stretches of vivid blue sky and the morning is warming up fast. I begin to regret donning the face mask, but am glad I brought it along as the evening air will be cool. There is a fair amount of traffic on the Ban Tan but it is all moving at a fair clip. It mainly consists of large, spacious saloon cars, usually with a family ensconced. May 3rd is a national holiday, Constitution Day, and is followed by two more so most people are no doubt going to make a long weekend of it. There are no farmers in small white pick-up trucks, which I am thankful for. Abominable drivers to a man, these characters are invariably smoking a fag with the right hand while jabbering into a mobile phone in the left and specialise in sudden manoeuvres with zero use of the indicators. I generally avoid them like the plague and am gratified to note that that when I see one it is always on one of the country roads which run alongside the Ban Tan. The highway itself is a little unusual, in that it consists of a single lane in each direction which means overtaking is a risky business for a motorcycle and mostly impossible for a car. In days gone by the road was a turnpike, with toll gates at frequent intervals staffed by grey men with mournful expressions and hacking coughs. You seemed to be forever slowing down or pulling away. Nowadays the system is smoother, you pick up a card at the entry point and present it at the exit whereupon the required toll is flashed up on an illuminated display. The staff seem healthier too, maybe they smoke less or maybe the exhaust gas is cleaner than it once was.
Before very much longer we are at the northern limit of the Ban Tan, near the town of Wadayama. While we are paying the toll, Akira’s engine cuts out and I smell the gas again. The carburetion problem has not gone away, but it appears that it only manifests itself at idle as the engine has been performing happily at high rpm. Akira looks a little more worried now and decides to find a filling station in order to assess the extent of fuel loss. We do this in the town of Izushi after an unbelievable ride over a switchback mountain road. Akira has taken this diversion in order to avoid traffic in larger towns en route. Follower rather than leader now, I am pleased that to note that the Yamaha does not appear to be losing any more fuel, except at a standstill. In the broad valley of the Maruyama river, at a rural filling station we confirm that the leak is evident but not substantial and should not be a reason to abandon the trip. We are almost at the Sea of Japan, as far north as we got last time and we move on, hoping it is the best move. Gasoline prices are very high at present and it should really all go into the cylinder, not onto the road.
I have stopped checking my fob-watch every time we stop, and estimate time by the position of the sun in the sky. We have decided to visit the site of Genbudoh which is on our way, near the village of Akaseki in the district of Toyooka. The name literally means ‘Basalt Cavern’ and is a most spectacular sight with its hexagonal columnar jointing and contorted strata of igneous rock. It was formed about a million and a half years ago by an outpouring of lava which formed hexagonal crystals as it cooled.

According to the posted information, its three chambers run to an extent of seventy metres, though entry is forbidden. A million and a half years is a mere twinkling in geological time, but Japan is still a young country in those terms. Its most famous symbol, Mount Fuji, is merely a dormant volcano and is widely expected to erupt again this century. The last time was a little over over two-hundred and six years ago. Frequent earthquakes, especially in Tokyo, remind us of the power beneath our feet. As I write, a slight tremor has rattled the windows and caused our Yorkshire Terriers to bark out a warning. In Japan, it is never far away...
Before we head on towards our next stop, we take a look at the small Genbudoh museum and gift shop. There is a most impressive selection of lapidary and fossils, but the thing that catches my eye is a marker up near the ceiling, higher than I can reach. It indicates the floodwater level reached after the archipelago was ravaged by typhoons in 2004. Fully ten of them made landfall on mainland Honshu that year, but this area took a particular clattering. It is a sobering thought, on such a fine and sunny day...
Akira gets the Yamaha going first kick, which is reassuring. His machine must be all of twenty years old now, a single-cylinder SRX 600, described by the motoring correspondent in the Daily Telegraph as ‘the best British bike that the Japanese ever made’. Akira has owned it for about 18 months now and I have never seen him happier.

The last machine he owned, according to him, some fifteen years prior to this one, was a Kawasaki Z1300, an immense liquid-cooled behemoth with its six cylinder engine transverse across the frame. He tells me that it weighed around 350 kg dry and near half a ton when stocked with its vital fluids. It must feel a bit like swapping a bull elephant for a quarter-horse. The superior power-to-weight ratio of the Yamaha makes it quicker off the mark than my twin-cylinder Kawasaki W650, and it is usually not until we are past 60-70 kph that the extra horsepower shows itself and I can get past him, should I be so inclined. Today he leads the way and we move on down the picturesque wooded estuary of the Maruyama River on its approach to the town of Kinosaki, famous for its hot-springs and rugged coastline. Here there is a slight delay as there is a line of cars and buses awaiting admittance to ‘Marine Land’, a somewhat cheesy amusement park with performing dolphins, penguins and other non-native marine creatures for tourists to ooh and aah over. I remember that my two eldest children enjoyed themselves there about fifteen years ago.
Today we have our sights set further afield, and we are relieved to be clear of Kinosaki and on the coast road to Takeno, our next port of call. The road clings to rugged cliffs of dark igneous rock which the pounding sea has carved into fantastic shapes. I catch a whiff of the ocean’s salty tang and feel a sense of exhilaration. This is more like it. This is why we came this far.
We round a final curve with a precipitous overhang and catch sight of Nekosaki, a long promontory which is reckoned to resemble the profile of a crouching cat. This is the fishing port of Takeno with its wonderful bay and curving beach of gleaming white sand, which seems like an opportune location to stop for lunch. The sea front is quite crowded and we are quite fortunate to find a single parking space which will accommodate the motorcycles. There is some kind of festival procession in progress which explains the crowds.
Over lunch we discuss the Yamaha and its carburetion problem. I venture the possibility that it might be caused by the float chamber sticking due to accumulated gasoline residues and advise Akira to try and find some Redex petrol treatment. He has never heard of this product and I realise that it is a very long time since I have seen any. My old Morris Minor used to like it anyway, two shots in the filler neck once a month before filling the tank seemed to keep it quite happy and rolling around the streets of London. Maybe there is an ersatz Japanese equivalent available.
We go outside and record our visit on digital memory stick. It is very warm now and I am anxious to get back in the wind before the sweat begins to pour down my cheeks.

An urchin wants to know my name so I tell him it is ‘Terminator’ which seems to make him happy. We head west on Route 11, which later turns into Route 178, sometimes hugging the coast and little bays and at other times dodging behind headlands, all the time sharing the direction with a single track railway line, except when it dives into tunnels. It is an excellent road for motorcycles and what little traffic there is obligingly maintains a decent momentum. Eventually the San’in railway disappears from sight and we don’t see it again till we reach the town of Amarube. Here it crosses the road, far above us on an imposing trestle bridge built from iron. I recognize the structure and recall that it was the site of a horrendous train wreck in the late 1980s when a powerful gust of wind literally blew a 2-car train right off the bridge, to crash down on a small factory below killing several people. What an awful way to go...
The bridge was built in 1912 when the Taisho Emperor was on the Chrysanthemum Throne and Japan was on the up and up. It is a famous landmark and piece of industrial heritage, much beloved of train-spotters the world over.

However, the news is that the structure is due to be demolished and replaced by a modern pre-stressed concrete bridge, starting in August 2006 and to be completed by the end of the year. Maintenance of such a venerable structure is becoming too expensive and the new bridge will allow schedules to be maintained. There is little room for sentiment in today’s hard-nosed business world. The train service is sometimes suspended due to high winds (for obvious reasons) and this is inconvenient, as well as being a drain on revenue. The wind is light today, but I still have a nervous glance upwards as we pass under the bridge and continue on our way. Maybe it will be my last sight of the old Amarube bridge. Nothing is permanent but change...
Some time later on we cross the prefectural border into Tottori and I raise my fist in triumph. Finally made it here.
There is a bit of a hold-up as we wait to join Route 9, the main road from Wadayama, the Yamaha’s carburettor floods and the engine cuts out again. I can see from Akira’s body language that the novelty is beginning to wear off this little trait. However, it starts up again after a little while and we are soon gazing down at a vast expanse of sand--the Tottori Sakyuu.

It is easy to imagine one’s self in the Sahara Desert, especially with the camels for hire. Both the Arabian Dromedary and the Asian Bactrian type are available--at a steep asking price for a short ride. They even want 500 yen for a photograph of you beside the abominable creatures. At a distance of 20 metres I can still catch a whiff of their fetid breath and general stink and decide to pass on that one. My admiration for Lawrence of Arabia does not extend that far, thank you very much...
There are hordes of people here on this fine Bank holiday and we have a distinct advantage with 2-wheeled transport in that we can jump traffic queues and park where we like. A nice cup of Joe goes down well and then it’s time to look for souvenirs of the trip, light enough to carry on the pillion beneath the elastic mesh net. I am surprised to find pears on sale, thinking that they are out of season, but then I realize that nothing is ever out of season anymore, with modern vinyl hot-house farming. This is what I buy as these are the ‘expected’ souvenir from Tottori Sand Dune. Three of them for ¥1100, each about the same size as a 5kg shot, they just fit under the carrying net.
It is 15.30 and we have seen what we came to see so it’s on the road again. A short interlude at a self-service filling station while I work out how to operate the thing. The sun is shining directly behind me, making it tricky to decipher the digitized instructions. Eventually the gas tank swallows up ten litres of regular, for ¥1320. Not very much cheaper than a normal station with attendant service. I poke the otsuri button and my change appears in the form of a pre-paid card. The filling station is part of a nationwide chain, so it is a reasonable presumption that I can use the card at my local branch. We move on out on Highway 29, heading due south with the lowering sun on our right-hand.
As we head into the mountains, the glow of the sun and lengthening shadows give the landscape a surreal appearance. We are heading towards the To-kura Pass which will be another ‘first’ for me. The road winds ever higher up the valley and we see signs advertising ski-runs, which are out of season--thankfully. On two wheels in snow, this road would be a nightmare. The summit of the To-kura Pass is a neat double hairpin, reminiscent of the old Devil’s Elbow in Scotland, though considerably wider. It is somewhat cooler up here and I am glad of the face mask & silk scarf. Down the other side, just inside our home prefecture, we stop at a roadhouse near the mountain town of Haga. Fried chicken set goes down a treat, all the fresh air today has given us an appetite.
The sunglasses are put away for the final time today and we set off on the final stage of our journey. We have decided to avoid the city of Himeji and so the very last stage of the trip is the same as the first. We cross the Ban Tan highway at the town of Kodera and finally arrive home at 20.30. It has been thirteen hours and 440 kilometres--certainly the furthest I have ridden in a single day.

Ecclesiastes 3.1 ‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven’
We have discovered that the carburetion problem on the Yamaha can be alleviated temporarily by tapping on the float chamber. At first Akira was using a long crescent wrench for this, but now he uses a short rubber/nylon dual-faced hammer which I presented him with. This does not carry the risk of damaging the carburettor. I bought this tool about a year ago in a Daiso 100-yen shop, thinking ‘There must be something I can use this for’. Its purpose in the grand order of things has now been revealed...
The pre-paid card representing my change of ¥680 turned out to be usable only at that single filling station in Tottori. A neat little scam they have going there. Shame on you ENEOS Corporation...