The black cab I’m in comes to a smooth halt next to the curb on the left side of the road.
Day One: Tokyo to Fuji
I reach for my wallet, take out my Visa, and pass it to the driver. With a smile and a nod he accepts it, swipes it, and hands it back to me. Once the formalities are out of the way, I stow my wallet and turn to get out of the car. Before I can even reach for the handle, the door flings itself open automatically. I step out to collect my luggage from the trunk, and as the driver closes it for me, I can see two smiling faces already waiting for me by the curb. It’s two of Harley-Davidson Japan’s PR/Marketing team, Takei Masaki, and Yuko Tokuda. They both greet me warmly and invite me inside the Shinjoku showroom. I’ve come to pick up a new Road King for my journey around Japan, but instead of the typical press unit I’d usually receive, they’ve asked me to take out one of their rental units. We sit down and go over the paperwork, some info on riding in Japan, and then they lead me outside to my bike.
Beforehand, I had some reservations about taking a rental unit – while I admit I’m spoiled, I’ve come to expect bikes to be in great condition when I pick them up for a story, and I haven’t come across any rental vehicles that I’d consider to be in anything better than working condition. The unit they’ve set aside for me is better than spotless, it’s probably cleaner than when it left the factory floor.
Getting out of Tokyo when you’re navigating using only a bluetooth headset in your helmet is about as difficult as you’d expect. I miss no less than five turns just simply trying to get onto the highway, about 250m from HD Shinjuku. Eventually I make it on, but I hope to myself that nobody noticed me passing the dealership three times over. Once I’ve finally made it onto the highway, my mind turns to wondering when Fuji will appear through the mountains ahead.
About an hour later, the highway bends to the left, I pass a closer mountain on my left, and Fuji appears from behind it. It’s immense, and far more beautiful than anything but your eyes can tell you. It dwarfs everything around it, and I immediately understand why it is iconic of Japan, and known around the globe. This moment is one that will never leave me, and in full honesty, I found myself weeping with joy as I got closer to it’s base, where I would be spending the night at a hostel. When I there I got to bed early, as my plan for the next day was to ride up to the fifth station at Fuji, and then onwards to Kyoto.
Day Two: Fuji to Kyoto
My route for the day was slated to be around six hours, including the ride up to the fifth station of Fuji, then a straight shot to Kyoto, so I didn’t feel all that bad about putting the kickstand up at 7:00am and heading towards the mountain.
After a short, and awestruck ride, I found myself at the entry gate to Fuji about an hour and a half too early, because apparently you can close a mountain, and it doesn’t open until 9:00am. As I realized this, I slipped through an opening in the barriers to turn the bike around, and got chased away by an enthusiastic security employee. This would pretty much set the tone for my next attempt to ride Fuji when it actually opened – myself alongside about 30 other riders I ran into at the entrance shortly before opening were all turned back at the first station due to weather. The ride was less than ten minutes, so I have no idea why they even let us through the gate in the first place.
After speaking to the security and being informed that weather just wouldn’t allow us to proceed, I walked back towards my bike to find it swarmed by tourists which had emerged from the ten-or-more tour buses that had parked closer to the station. Despite a group of 30-40 BMW GS1200 models, everyone only cared about the Harley – the BMWs were basically invisible. I spent the next 30 minutes chatting with the tourists, posing for photos, and letting them check out the bike. Unfortunately, the rest of my day wouldn’t be quite so glamorous.
The next four hours of my journey to Kyoto were spent riding down the highway into a headwind coming in hard off of the Pacific. Even at only 100km/h the wind was strong enough to push my helmet far enough back that the chinstrap had a chokehold on me. The journey to Kyoto, while littered with tunnels and picturesque nearly the entire time, lacked any twisty sections. I spent most of my ride hugging the tank as closely as possible, wishing hard for a windshield on the Road King. As entered Kyoto I slowed my pace, and breathed a sigh of relief – I planned on an early night and some rest for my tired back.
Day Three: Kyoto Runaround
Having put most of the long haul behind me, I had every intention of making my third day much easier on myself, with a few short trips around the city. Nothing more than maybe a couple hours of ride time. This gave me some time to figure out the local protocols for motorcycles, which included some legal lane splitting.
While riding and driving in Japan is entirely civil for even novice riders, there seem to be a lot of unwritten rules that I simply wasn’t aware of. Scooters and bikes all seem to stick to the curb lane, rarely venturing to the right – being accustomed to using all lanes, I encountered more than one instance where a less-friendly driver wanted to nudge me back over to the left. A bit jarring at first, but after a while I figured I had gotten the hang of things. I rode along with increasing confidence as I ducked and weaved through the Kyoto traffic, wondering all the while how many traffic faux pas I was committing as I looked for a quiet place to take some photos of the bike. Despite it’s 812-pound curb weight, the Road King wasn’t any hinderance when navigating even the narrow residential streets of Kyoto.
Day Four: Rental Bike Roulette and Blind Corners
Today’s agenda consisted of meeting up with a close friend (and fellow Torontonian) to help him rent a bike, then head north of Kyoto to a scenic toll road for a 4.5hour round trip that rarely held a straightaway. It sounded simple enough on paper, but in reality things weren’t so straightforward.
Finding a rental motorcycle in Japan proved to be a far more complicated feat than my experience at HD Shinjuku had lead me to believe – firstly, the language barrier in the moto realm seemed to be significantly higher than any other industry I had come across at this point in the journey. After calling three different rental spots, and getting nothing but Japanese voicemails, we just decided to wing it and hope that the stock listings and hours were accurate on their websites.
I figured that we’d probably get lucky on the closest rental shop, so I rode over there to quickly check, only to find that they hadn’t opened yet; despite the sign on the window suggesting they would have been open an hour earlier. A local nearby saw me peering in the window and through some broken english managed to tell me nobody would be in today. So I geared back up and rode 25 minutes to the next shop, halfway across Kyoto, only to find it permanently closed. By the time I rounded the corner to the third shop, I had basically conceded to riding two-up, but our luck shifted and we found open doors awaiting our arrival.
By the time we wrapped up the paperwork, it was already almost 3:00pm, so we called it quits on our journey and set course for the nearest set of twisty roads north of Kyoto. Finding an alternate route thankfully took all of 38 seconds – the roads around Japan all look so promising on paper. We picked the squiggliest road nearby, and found ourselves at the start of the road within 20 minutes. As we headed upwards, out of the city, the road got seriously narrow, and equally technical. Blind, decreasing radius turns with barely enough space for a single car bombarded us for the next hour. I rarely managed to get the Road King out of first gear before having to slow down for a bend, or all-but-stop for an oncoming compact car that took up 85% of the road. The route still offered plenty of smiles, and provided no shortage of challenges as we wound our way towards a 1000yr old temple at the halfway mark. Despite this, I conceded that perhaps just looking for a squiggly road on a map wasn’t exactly telling of it being a great ride.
It’s 4am, and I’m being woken up by my girlfriend poking me in the ribs with increasing fervour. Apparently, our friends stayed up drinking and decided that we would all go to Fushimi-Inari to hike through the golden gates before sunrise. As one of the only sober people in the house, I decided that if I’m being woken up this early, the only way I’ll be happy about it is if I end up on the back of a motorcycle ASAP. I convinced her that this would be a good time for her first ride on a motorcycle.
While our route to Fushimi was just a few straight lines lasting around 20 minutes, the ride itself was special. It’s one helluva feeling to introduce someone you love, to something that you love, in a place that you’re both falling in love with. My heart was full long before we parked at the bottom of the shrine, waiting for our drunken friends to arrive in a cab. We spent the next few hours hiking through the thousands of tori gates to watch the sun rise over Kyoto.
After a long nap, the latter half of our day would find those with bikes heading north of Kyoto again, onto Highway 367, at the suggestion of the rental staff the previous day. Without any particular destination in mind, our plan was simply to head north on 367 until the sun started setting, then double back before it got too dark, or cold. Once we’d broken through the city, we still found ourselves in some local traffic, moving at barely the speed limit – I started to question what we’d been told about this route, and had almost concluded it was recommended strictly for the scenery. In five more minutes of this, I would pull over and try to find something less busy nearby. But, by minute four we had passed what would be the last small village for a while, and the traffic cleared like a parting sea for us.
The road opened up into exactly what I had been hoping for this entire time. Long, empty sweepers, cutting through the mountainside. The road surface is perfect, the corners have full visibility, and I roll onto the throttle hard – pushing the Road King further and further into each apex. For the next 45 minutes I rode as fast as I could, unleashing everything the bike had, until my mind could no longer keep up. We pulled off to the side of the road and recharged by the river with a few snacks before turning 180-degrees. I felt absolute zen as we wound back towards Kyoto. Just being present in that moment, watching in my mirrors as the setting sun cast a golden glow on the cherry blossom petals the bike kicked up in its wake, was enough.
Day Six: The Ride of My Life
We’d overslept and it turns out that our Airbnb’s cleaning lady was here, and her three-year-old was going to help her out. Halfway in a daze, I got up and hurriedly began to pack up the bike. I’d be heading from Kyoto to a small town on the southern coast, Kumano.
Once the bike had been loaded and we’d handed back possession of the Airbnb successfully I began to plan my route. I punched in my hotel’s address and Google Maps provided me with three wildly different route options. The shortest routed me east almost directly to the coast, where I would follow the highway all the way down from there – four hours. The next took me westward, through Osaka and then along the western coast, southbound – four and a half hours. The third looked like a straight shot south, inland, nearly direct to Kumano – five hours. I zoomed in, and watched the route reveal more and more bends as the map became more detailed. I had to search around for a couple of minutes before I could find a straightaway. I quickly checked street view on one twisty section and saw a smoothly paved road with shoulders as wide as lanes. “This is the ride….” I muttered to myself, and started navigation.
The first 30-45 minutes were nothing spectacular, and found me on the highway into and out of Osaka, with a few stops (some on the side of the highway) to tell Google Maps that I did not, in fact, want to take a shorter route. It was actually really annoying – Google decides to automatically re-route you whenever it finds a shorter route if you don’t tap a button to tell it otherwise, which is pretty difficult to do while riding.
Once I’d finally passed the point where Google accepted that I was taking the long way round, the joy began. I entered the mountains and the roads turned into pure bliss. They were far better than I had imagined during that brief scan on maps/streetview – the pavement was pristine, the traffic almost non-existent, and the straightaways? Well, those were almost all exclusively found in tunnel form and usually lasted less than a minute. So when I wasn’t blasting around wide-open corners with great visibility, I was screaming through a tunnel and feeling the exhaust notes bouncing off the walls around me, hitting me hard in the chest.
It’s hard to put into words just how perfect this ride was – there was nothing I wanted to change. No part of me wondered about how much faster I could have done this on a sport bike, but I quickly reminded myself that I would have lasted an hour at the most before having to stop, and I’d have to severely cut down on clothing/camera equipment. Further to that, I wouldn’t really have been able to fully use the bike – with the Road King, I was able to squeeze every last drop of performance out of the engine and brakes.
After a couple of hours my stomach reminded me it was well past lunch time and I would have to feed it soon, so I started to keep an eye out for signs of life in the mountains. As I rounded a bend coming into a small string of houses, I saw a “Cafe – Open” sign and grabbed the brakes hard and pulled over to the right side of the road, barely stopping in time. After parking up the bike I headed inside and found, to my delight, motorcycle paraphernalia just about everywhere inside. After some translated conversation with the owner and his family, I learned that he also had a Harley (a Sportster) and he’d only opened up just over week ago – I was his first customer on a motorcycle, and he was thrilled. I looked out into the mountains as I ate, and before leaving let him, his wife, and daughter take some photos with the bike. It was one of the best meals I had in Japan, and my encounter there felt fated almost. The best road, the best ride, the best food, the best day.
This had been the ride of my life, and my heart knew it. The six hour journey played back in my mind as I sat next to the river, giving serenity back to the mountain pass after the sound of engine had all but completely shattered it.
I woke up to catch the sun rising over the Pacific and was filled again with euphoria, but also the nagging reminder that I would have to start making my way back to Tokyo today. This was the beginning of the end of my journey, the turning point I had dreaded long before I left Canadian soil. I still couldn’t help but feel grateful for all that Japan had given me already, and as I wound my way up towards the temple at Nachi Falls, with “The House of the Rising Sun” blasting inside of my helmet, I again found myself weeping with joy.
It’s a feeling I still struggle to describe, or even process months later. For all my life, Japan had been this place of mystique and wonder – always just out of reach, and always filling my mind with questions. Motorbikes had held a similar place in my childhood mind – equally incomprehensible and almost even further out of reach. I had finally been able to experience the wonders of a country that had felt like it was worlds away from me, and not only that, but I had been able to experience it from the seat of a motorcycle. As I wandered around the shrine and small village at Nachi Falls, I did my best to process these feelings before I had to start the long ride back to Tokyo.
The ride back to Nagoya would be about four hours, and the bulk of that time would be spent on that same highway I had taken from Fuji to Kyoto, albeit on a different section. I constantly hoped for a tailwind – going back hurt enough without adding a chinstrap chokehold to the majority of my ride. Sure enough, despite heading in the opposite direction, I had headwinds nearly the entire time. Exhausted, I checked into my hostel for the night, ordered a beer, and spent the evening playing video games. Tomorrow was my last day riding on Japanese roads – the best roads in the world.
Sipping my can of vending-machine coffee as I packed up the bike, I couldn’t help but feel a mix of sorrow, and excitement. Sorrow because once the engine turned over, it would be my last ride on the Road King in Japan. Sorrow because it had become my home away from home. Sorrow because of all the bikes I’ve had on loan, this one had grown to feel as if it was my own. Excitement because, well… the end of this journey meant I would be shark diving in the Philippines in a few days… but that’s a whole other story that in no significant way involved motorcycles.
My ride back into Tokyo was only a couple of hours, and save for a couple of select moments, mostly uneventful. The first of those moments was crossing paths with another Harley rider, piloting a hot pink sportster along the highway with her poodle laying across the tank, wearing goggles and a matching helmet, with it’s paws on the inside of the handle bars. The second of those moments was right when I got into Tokyo, and heard my GPS tell me “Take the traffic circle on the right” – I merged to the right, and found out that a “traffic circle” is actually this seemingly never-ending 3D roundabout that corkscrews under Tokyo with on and off ramps jutting in and out of it. It’s a glorious thing for a motorcycle rider – you’re essentially in a tunnel so you’ll hear your bike at full volume, and the turn pretty much never ends, so you’re in a constant lean. If my trip had been a sentence, this ensured it ended with an exclamation mark, not a period.
I pulled back up to HD Shinjuku and parked the Road King, taking a moment to say goodbye and check just how far we had travelled together: 1,665.3km. Not bad for eight days worth of riding – probably more mileage than some Canadian riders will put on in a season. I unloaded my things from the saddle bags and handed over the keys to one of the staff members who rolled the bike into their garage to give it a once-over. Immediately I felt that sort of sadness that comes only from saying goodbye to one of my own motos – watching it roll away as immediate regret sets in. Grabbing my bags I headed inside to pay my toll bill… which I was afraid of.
Japan’s highways are mostly toll roads, and they use a small RFID card for bikes in lieu of having to stop and pay manually, so I had no real sense of just how much I’d racked up in fees. When Takei plugged the toll card into the machine, it began printing a receipt that just kept on going. My toll charges were about $400CAD, no small amount, but still less than I had anticipated. They probably would have been close to double that amount should I have taken the “short” route to Nachi… less direct routes for the win! I paid my dues, exchanged a few pleasant goodbyes, and was on my way.
I can’t thank the good people of Harley-Davidson Canada, Harley Japan, and H-D Shinjuku enough for their help in making this crazy dream a reality. What started as a slightly-drunken plane ticket impulse-buy had become something far more than just an incredible experience. It was the trip of my life up until this point, and has raised the bar for all my future travels. It’s cemented a love for Harleys into my soul, and left me craving another taste of the wonders of Japan.
The Road King had been wheeled back out to the sidewalk by the time I left the dealership. With a tear in my eye I said one final goodbye to my home for the last week, swearing I would be back for her, the Road King had become my Queen. Japan is a motorcycle paradise, and its roads will forever be calling me.