Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Motorcycle Diaries Part IV -- Hill and Mountain

May 12th 2007.

We have been invited to go on a weekend tour of Okayama prefecture with some members of the Kansai BMW owner’s club. This will involve an overnight stay at a traditional Japanese lodge near the town of Mimasaka, with a barbecue and lots of beer so it is not an unwelcome prospect.

Akira arrives at about 9 o’clock, riding an immense Harley-Davidson FXDP 'Defender' instead of his usual Yamaha SRX cafĂ©-racer. The final P on the serial type stands for ‘Police’ -- this is no ordinary ‘hog’ but a full-blown California Highway Patrol specification 88-cubic inch machine, equipped with siren and full red/blue front-end lights for flashing at people. It is built for high speed pursuit of villains and has solid rubber tyres which cannot be punctured by gunfire. To comply with the law, the siren has been disconnected and the lights cannot be flashed, otherwise it is petty much the pukka item. Akira promises me that I can have a go on it at some point over the weekend, but not just now as we have to meet the other members of our tour group, which involves a bit of heavy traffic.

At 10 o’clock we are having a coffee at Akashi Service Area and talking to the owner of the H-D, one Mr Fujita. He has owned this remarkable machine for a couple of years but never gets time to ride it, so he has decided to sell it. This tour is a good way of showing it off to potential buyers. Today Mr Fujita is riding an ancient machine which must be about 50 years old, a 250 cc single-cylinder Meguro, which was the cash-strapped company that Kawasaki Heavy Industries purchased for its know-how when they decided to enter the motorcycle industry, at the beginning of the sixties.

He casts admiring glances at my machine, which is a modern version of the first ‘big bike’ that Kawasaki produced. Three of the other four riders are on various BMW models, two of them traditional ‘boxer’ twins and one old K-series which has an in-line 3 cylinder car-like motor. The final rider sits astride a Honda CB 1300—a very serious piece of kit with a custom titanum exhaust system.

We depart at quarter past ten down the Kakogawa by-pass, which must be one of the most dangerous roads in the world, and try to stick together in staggered formation. After about forty unpleasant minutes we are pleased to be off this road and head on down the valley of the Ibo river towards the Harima seaside road. The Meguro begins to slow down and we all pass it, finally pulling up about half a kilometer later when we realise it has stopped. Akira and the ride captain go back to see what has happened and the rest of us dismount and I get to know them all a little better. I suppose the best way to describe us all is as middle-aged hooligans, who had motorcycles when younger because they were cheaper to run than cars, but have now gone back to them because they really are the only way to really travel and make ‘good’ time, in the best tradition of Robert M. Pirsig.

“...Plans are deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere. Secondary roads are preferred. Paved country roads are the best, state highways are next, Freeways are the worst. We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with the emphasis on ‘good’ rather than ‘time’ and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes. Twisting hilly roads are long in terms of seconds but are much more enjoyable on a cycle where you bank into turns and don’t get swung from side to side in any compartment. Roads with little traffic are more enjoyable, as well as safer. Roads free of drive-ins and billboards are better, roads where groves and meadows and orchards and lawns come almost to the shoulder, where kids wave to you when you ride by, where people look from their porches to see who it is, where when you stop to ask for directions or information the answer tends to be longer than you want rather than short, where people ask where you’re from and how long you’ve been riding...”

We hear the throaty rumble of the Harley V-twin and the three riders approach, thumbs up indicating problem over. Our next stop is at a promontory called Man-Yo Misaki overlooking the Inland Sea.

Akira explains that the Meguro was suffering from a loose electrical connection, which was easily sorted out. As there is little traffic on the Harima Seaside Road, he suggests that the next stage, as far as the town of Hinase, will be a good time for me to try out the Harley. He warns me to be careful of its bulk as it weighs nearly twice as much as my Kawasaki.

I seat myself in the wide tractor-like single saddle, heave it upright and flick back the side-stand. It is very heavy and I struggle to get it in a position to start the engine. I take a minute to check out the unfamiliar control layout as the rest of the group depart. The left hand filler cap of the famous ‘twin’ tank is in fact a dummy, doubling as a gas gauge. There are separate left-right direction indicators on each end of the high-set bars, separate light switches for the headlight and pursuit lamps, a horn and a kill-switch and a starter button. I switch on the ignition and press the starter--but nothing happens which is somewhat disconcerting. I check everything and try it again and again, trying to remember what Akira said, feeling more and more foolish as the minutes tick by, until Akira and Mr Fujita appear. ‘Clutch!’ he yells, glaring at me through his full-face Shoei.

Ah--that was it. Silly boy, the devil is all in the details…

I depress the clutch lever, push the starter and the huge mill rumbles into life. Getting it down the winding track back to the main road is somewhat entertaining as my left boot is not used to the strange toe-heel action of the gear lever, and the weight of the thing is fearsome, just as Akira warned.

Once on the open road, it does not appear to need gears at all with the immense torque that the Milwaukee V-twin mill has. We pick up speed and the whole feeling changes. The bike is very well-balanced and is particularly nimble through the curves, which is surprising. I keep up with the ride captain with very little effort, a relief after the initial feelings of terror. A most amazing motorcycle.

I recall a conversation I had some time back, on the Akashi ferry with three very tidy leather-clad young ladies who all owned Harley-Davidson Sportster machines.
‘Why do you choose the Harley over Japanese bikes? They are very expensive...’
They thought for a moment and came back with the reply -- ‘Harley has soul...’.
At the time I thought it was just a cute bit of marketing by the H-D corporation, but now I am beginning to understand what they were on about. Yowza, what a rush. My mind begins to entertain improbable and immoral fantasies about buying this particular machine.

At the town of Hinase we stop for lunch, which is a welcome break. I have anago teishoku which is a local delicacy based on conger eel. I mention that the Japanese anago is of a size not much bigger than the normal river eel, but in British coastal waters the things grow to a formidable size, the world record being a female specimen caught off the West Country which weighed in at 62 kilograms and then some. One of the reasons is the large number of wrecks which litter the sea bed due to two bouts of submarine warfare in the 20th century, which provide welcome habitat for them. My banter is regarded as a fisherman’s tall tale at first, but Akira assures them that I am telling the truth. He has seen the evidence…

After lunch, Mr Fujita asks me what I think of the Harley and recommends that I stay on it to enjoy the high speeds of the Okayama ‘Blue Line’ which is a scenic route like the Ban-Tan. I accept his offer, partly out of the desire not to appear wimpish. It is a bit of a handful…

However, before getting to the Blue Line we have to get out of Hinase, which involves a lot of low-speed traffic and the Harley is not good at this kind of thing, nor at the narrow country roads which follow. Once we are on the Blue Line the Milwaukee iron comes into its own again, but at the Ippon-Matsu service area I almost beg Akira to take charge of it again. It is just too much work most of the time and there are not enough roads in Japan where it can be enjoyed at its best. I tell Mr Fujita ‘Thanks--but No Thanks’ and he gives me a wry grin of understanding.

After this we leave the coast and head into the heartland of Okayama, which is aptly named as Hill-Mountain with its spectacular scenery. Before arrival at our destination we stop for a break at a roadhouse. After a while we attempt to set off again, but Mr Fujita finds that the kick-start lever has jammed on the Meguro, necessitating a push and bump-start. I begin to wonder at the risks involved in bringing such an ancient machine on a tour like this. Later on, the Meguro is repaired again, by Akira, with onlooker's commentary and unhelpful hints. Some things are the same the world over…

The lodge we are staying at is in a gorgeous bucolic location encircled by greenery, and has plenty of customers this day with about thirty members of the Kansai BMW owner’s club in attendance, as well as our group. The evening sees a sumptuous meaty barbecue of Yagyu beef and simply loads of bottled Asahi beer which gets everyone in a good mood, lots of good craic going on. I am well pleased that I came on this trip, having made lots of new friends.

The next day starts early with a traditional breakfast of rice, fish, miso and pickles. I take a post-prandial stroll outside and check out some of the views.

At 10 o’clock two members of the Mimasaka Fire Brigade show up and give some of us a lecture/demonstration of Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation and also the use of the Artificial External Defibrillator device, in case we ever come across an emergency situation at the roadside. I hope I never have to use the knowledge I have gained, but it is another reason to be pleased I came along.

After lunch Akira and I set off along Route 429 which crosses the spectacular Shibiki Toge pass back into Hyogo Prefecture. It is simply some of the best motorcycling I have ever done, in fabulous scenery and I resolve to come back and do it again some time. Unforgettable…

We stop for a break at Ichinomiya Onsen while we wait for Mr Fujita and the others, who set off earlier in the day to tour southern Tottori. They experienced the emergency treatment lecture last year. The hot-spring water is soothing to tired muscles and minds and we have a good soak and chew of the fat in the outdoor rotenburo bath, putting the world to rights. The water is salty, not as harsh as sea-water but definitely saline. We are miles from the ocean; there must be halite in the rock strata that the spring water percolates through.

When our companions finally turn up, somewhat later than expected, Mr Fujita is riding pillion with the ride captain. The Meguro has finally given up the ghost with a clogged carburettor and has had to be abandoned back up the road, for later retrieval and repair. Mr Fujita tells me his next move is to buy a Kawasaki W650 like mine. He has fallen in love with Black Mariah. Been there and done that mate...

We finish the day in our traditional manner, over ramen noodles and kara-age chicken, plus some gyoza dumplings which are the speciality of the road-house chain.

We have done over a thousand kilometers in less than a month, which means that Black Mariah is presently off the road, waiting for a new Dunlop TT 100 to be fitted to her rear end. This will be the third time for this exercise, at just over 24,000 km on the clock.

Many more happy trails lie ahead, I am sure. She has adequately filled the hole left in my life left by having to give up kendo. I'll be back…

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Motorcycle Diaries part III

-- Over To the Fourth Country --

Golden Week is here again and our dromomaniac motorcycling tendency along with it. This year we have decided to have a crack at Muroto Misaki in Kochi prefecture on the island of Shikoku, the smallest of the four main islands in the Japanese archipelago. The ‘fourth country’ is a liberal translation of the name Shikoku. I spent the first two and a half years of my married life on Shikoku, but that was in Matsuyama in Ehime Prefecture at the western end of the island. Kochi Prefecture straddles the southern portion with its gorgeous sweep of Tosa Wan and the capes at each end of it, Ashizuri Misaki to the west and Muroto Misaki to the east. When we lived there, Shikoku was not connected by bridge to the main island of Honshu and there were no expressways so a 360 cc twin-cylinder two-stroke van with a top-end of 65 kph was quite adequate transport.

How times change. In the short space of a quarter-century three bridge systems have been built linking Honshu and Shikoku and once over there, a choice of three expressways awaits the intrepid road user.
Our journey begins at 8:15 on April 29th, a national holiday celebrating the late Showa Emperor’s birthday. It used to be known as ‘Green Day’ for some reason and the plans to resurrect the former name were a topic of bitter debate for some time in the National Diet. Something about reference to the Pacific War, it seems.…
This year it is a Sunday so ‘Showa Day’ is actually the following day, given as a holiday in lieu to make up the ‘Golden Week’.
The weather is warm and bright and we are swiftly down to Tarumi Junction and its masses of grey concrete which make up the approach routes to the Akashi Straits Bridge. With its centre span of 1991 meters this is currently the world’s largest suspension bridge and it certainly feels like it as we accelerate up the ramp and feel a fairly stiff crosswind blowing up out of the Inland Sea.

Due to the high toll fee, I don’t normally use the bridge unless it is to show it off to someone who has never seen it, and then only to the first service station/exit at Iwaya. However, we have our sights further afield this year and go straight on past, down the two-lane blacktop at a steady hundred and ten kph. Black Mariah is turning over at about 4000 rpm at this speed and she feels relaxed, with plenty of poke in reserve if necessary. We have spectacular views of Osaka Wan on our left and then as the highway cuts across to the west of Awaji island, equally spectacular views of the azure Seito Naikai, dotted with little fishing vessels. As we approach the mountainous southern end of Awaji, I notice four or five large wind turbines in rotation, making use of the almost constant airstream.

Before we know it we are off Awaji and crossing the Naruto Bridge onto Shikoku and Tokushima Prefecture and before very much longer we have paid our tolls at Naruto Interchange and have pulled up at a Lawsons combini for some caffeine nourishment. I feel a twinge of pain in my back and shoulders and realize that sustained high-speed riding on an un-faired ‘naked’ motorcycle involves considerable physical input. The canned coffee goes down well and we go outside to check the machines. Readers of this blog will recall that last year, our first stop came along with the realization that Akira’s Yamaha had an intermittent fuel leak which was not a welcome development at that stage. No such trouble this year as since that time, the machine has undergone major overhaul work, involving a rebore and head skim/valve grind, carburettor purge and fitting of an industrial-strength oil-cooler in engineer’s blue. The two bikes draw admiring glances from jealous car-drivers. They are _cool_ I must admit...

Then it is off into fairly heavy traffic on a four-lane road leading into and through the city of Tokushima. There is no margin for error as buses, trucks taxis and private cars jockey for position, switching lanes at will. Fortunately, our way to the south on Route 55 is well sign-posted and requires no right or left turns as it proceeds directly through the heart of the city. We are soon across the Katsuura River and the traffic thins considerably as the landscape changes, from commercial outlets and fast-food joints to flooded rice paddies with sparse green shoots of transplanted rice poking through the muddy water like whiskers on a teenage chin. Sometimes we pass a farmer hard at work on his rice transplanter machine, a most weird-looking tractor-like device with high ground clearance and skinny cast wheels, laden with trays of rice shoots. Also, flying proudly from many farmhouse buildings are the gorgeous koi-nobori, the carp streamers which indicate that there are children in the household. Always good to see, these bits of eye-candy form an essential part of the Japanese springtime experience.

As we approach the town of A-Nan I notice three immense, towering, tripod smokestacks and wonder what kind of facility they serve. The road takes a sharp detour to go around the industrial estate and it turns out that they are part of a power generation plant, all battleship-grey steel and dark brown ceramic insulators. There is no smoke emanating today, but the whole place has a sinister cast to it and I am pleased to be away from it as the land begins to rise.

We have picked up a travelling companion clad in natty leathers, riding a very smart Honda CB400 tricked out in streetfighter style. We have fun dicing it with each other through a series of ascending curves and then down the other side through the small town of Mi-Nami to follow a single-track railway to the town of Mu-Gi. The lad on the Honda takes his leave of us here with a cheery wave and we do not see him again.
Now I can smell the sea, or rather the Pacific Ocean, and we soon catch sight of it as the road hugs the coast winding past a series of spectacular inlets, with basaltic grey sandy beaches. It is a lovely road for motorcycles and I begin to feel a deep sense of relaxation and oneness with the universe.

I am rather harshly reminded that relaxing on two wheels is never a good idea, when one of my bĂȘtes noires -- a farmer in a small white pick-up, suddenly pulls out in front of me, gabbling into a mobile and puffing on a gasper, true to form. He gets a sustained blast on the klaxon and rude signs with the fingers as I overtake, but continues on his way oblivious as we enter Kochi Prefecture, tossing the fag-end out in the slipstream for good measure. What a prat...

From here down to the cape the road is blissfully quiet with very little traffic, apart from the odd bus or like-minded motorcyclist. I begin to see signs written in katakana phonetic script advertising something called hoe-ru uotchingu and wonder what on earth it can be. Then I see a water spout a few hundred yards offshore followed by a grey-black humped shape and finally the tail fluke of a surfacing whale. Whale-watching for tourists has now replaced killing them for food and profit in this area. Kochi was at the centre of the Japan whaling industry until the IWC moratorium a quarter-century ago. There have recently been calls from some sources to re-establish commercial whaling as there is evidence that some species like the minke have recovered their numbers sufficiently to sustain it. These calls are countered by shrill opposition which to my mind is more based on emotion than logic. The reality is that when whale meat was seen as a cheap and invaluable source of protein in the post-war decade, Japan was a country impoverished by its reckless charge into the Pacific War and its aftermath. Times have changed and no mistake. A whole generation has grown up never knowing the taste of whale meat. Japan can afford to import anything it wants nowadays. I have tried whale meat just once and was not impressed with its oily texture. I am pretty sure that any attempt to re-establish commercial whaling as a going concern will be doomed to failure, on the grounds that there is no market for the meat, apart from as dog-food which would be disgraceful. No-one in their right mind would choose oily whale over juicy Australian or US beef.
I am tempted to stop and watch the whale myself but the cetacean is moving away from the coast and is soon lost from view.

We round the final bend and a sign announces our arrival at destination. I insist on a photo as proof.

There is but one place to eat, so we go in there and enjoy spaghetti bolognese which is not bad. After repast we take a walk on the rocky shore. Akira comments that the scenery is exactly the same as on the other side of the Pacific in California. I decide to estimate where old Hernando must have sat in Panama to inspire the words of John Keats.

Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Afterwards, we remount and set off on the return journey. We have been studying the map and it looks like Route 193 will provide an interesting detour on the way back to Tokushima. This involves retracing our path as far as Awakainan, where the farmer nearly got me, and then turning left up the valley of the Umibe river.

At first this seems like a great idea, for about half an hour we are haring along a deserted winding country road with a great surface and gorgeous mountain and mixed-deciduous forest views. However this soon comes to an end and the road narrows to almost a single track with passing places. It also begins to wend up wards through dense cedars and the available light is cut down sharply. We keep going,onward and upward with a short 10 km detour to take a look at a famous waterfall, the Todoroki Taki. Unfortunately there is hardly any water in it, making the experience feel a bit like the pub with no beer. By the time we get down from the mountain my shoulders and biceps are aching from the effort of controlling the Kawasaki at low speeds along narrow roads strewn with fallen rocks and my nerves are shot through with the terror of wobbling past sheer drops with no guard rail. We have been at it for about 105 minutes but have only covered about 50 km as the crow flies. Madness...

At the first hint of civilisation I locate a vending machine and quench my raging thirst. Akira says he’d like to do it again sometime...

If I wasn’t so tired I’d have a good mind to laughingly fell him with a right cross...

The next leg of the journey is considerably easier, along the winding course of the Naka River in valleys of deep green. There is not much water in it though, and a considerable amount of silt deposits. In a few places hydraulic excavators made by the company that employs us both are at work in attempts to dig out the watercourse. Maybe they are going to dump the silt in the sea, where it really belongs. We soon see the reason for all this -- a dam. This is a problem which is becoming more and more evident each passing year. There is only one river in all of Japan which does not have a single dam along its course, which is a real shame. That fortunate water course is the Shimanto-gawa in southern Kochi Prefecture. I’d like to see it some day but there has been no time this trip. The state of the other rivers is no dam good at all...

At dusk we pull off the road in the township of Uragawa, to have dinner at a roadhouse. This comes in the form of miso-ramen and deep-fried kara-age chicken and has never been so welcome. Hunger is definitely the best seasoning of all, and no mistake.

After retracing our course through the neon-bright city of Tokushima and back over the bridges along the expressway to ‘our’ island, I bid goodbye to Akira. As I pull up outside our house at 21:15, I check the odometer. 13 hours and 570 kilometers is a new single day record for me--and it feels like it. It surely does...

Newcastle United are slouching to a miserable mediocre mid-table position in the Premier League, looking likely to finish with a record low points total for the club. The end of the season 2006 – 7 can’t come quickly enough for me. At least there will be derby games with the Mackems next season as Sunderland are guaranteed promotion either as Championship champions or runners-up. All I can do is pray for more scoreboards like this...