A Biker in Japan

Story by John Nomad// Photos by John Nomad
November 18 2015

Finding paradise halfway around the world

“John San, welcome to Japan!” the Japanese immigration officer said to me, bowing as he handed back my passport. He was impeccably dressed, with white gloves and white shirt, wearing a pair of round glasses; he politely invited me to wait in an office while they cleared my motorbike for entry into Japan.

I was in Wakkanai, a small fishing village and port in northern Hokkaido Prefecture. The Heartland Ferry had delivered me there in the early afternoon from Russia’s Sakhalin Island. I was exhausted from crossing the whole of Russia (10,500 km) and still recovering after a bad accident in Moscow. I was dusty and my bike gear stained and smelly, yet the Japanese officers treated me like royalty from the first moment. It was a shock after the hardships of the Russian crossing: their systems, the bad roads, the crazy truck drivers, the immense spaces and the challenge of it all, to arrive in Japan where everything was kicked up several notches, from civilization to safety, from hospitality to incredible places.

Welcome to Japan

JapanAfter the 10-minute custom clearance (insurance, customs papers, temporary importation and no carnet necessary, all done on the spot by one agent), I headed up the hill above Wakkanai, where I was directed by one of the officers to camp that night. It was a provincial park and there were many campers there, all Japanese, me being the only foreigner. I set up camp and tried to find the office to pay for my night’s stay. Someone saw me and said, “The camp is free, you don’t need to pay.” I couldn’t believe my ears! Everyone warned me about “expensive Japan” and I was prepared to dish out the cash at every corner. It was an interesting start to this journey.

With my camp ready, I was resting on the bench in front of my tent, watching the beautiful harbour and trying to enjoy the first moments of Japan, when an elderly gentleman approached, asking permission to sit next to me. He had a bottle of sake in his hand and two glasses: “Welcome to Japan,” he said, and within five minutes we were chatting about my round-the-world expedition and about his hometown, Nagoya, and the rest of Japan. In less than two hours, I was welcomed twice to this country, didn’t pay for camp and made a new friend over some amazing cold sake. My heart was beating faster. I had three weeks ahead of me and 2500 km to reach Shizuoka Prefecture, where I intended to visit the Yamaha factory, the birthplace of my Super Ténéré – with a start like this, who knew what could happen next?

I was awakened in the morning by the sun’s rays hitting my tent. I’d wanted to leave early that day and was already angry with myself for what I thought was sleeping too long. Turning on the GPS revealed it was only 4:15 a.m.! That’s impossible! I hear people talking outside. I got out of the tent to a bright and brisk morning, the sun already high; most of the campers were in the parking lot exercising or jogging or just chatting with each other. Now I know why they call this the land of the rising sun (and the rising people as well). Over the next few weeks, I got up with the Japanese at 4 a.m. and watched them jog, do yoga in the parks, walk or just drink tea while watching the sunrise. It became one of the many amazing memories I have of that impeccable country that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Take It All In

Japan Mountain I rode slowly through Hokkaido, because I wanted to take in all the beauty and because the speed limit in Japan is 80 km/h. I didn’t care about set destinations – my GPS was not working properly anyway. I just took the small country roads on the coast through incredible fishing villages, stopping for a meal when it occurred to me, without even asking what I was eating. The food was perfect, from the smallest convenience store where I bought precooked meals to the fanciest restaurants. The quality of everything is unbelievable. The cleanliness and standard of perfection is unlike anything I have seen in my life (I’ve travelled for 25 years, in more than 90 countries). The gas station attendants even wear white gloves, and they would wrap a towel around my gas tank so they wouldn’t spill gas on my bike. I kept thinking that maybe it’s because I’m a foreigner, but this seems to be the standard for everyone in Japan.

It took almost a week to reach Hakodate, the southern port of Hokkaido, which connects you by ferry to the southern island. I rode the west coast to Haboro, then to Sapporo, with my mouth agape watching so much beauty: rugged mountain peaks, blue in colour, sliced perfectly and aligned with other mountain peaks; morning mist lingering in the valleys lined with rice fields, mathematically arranged and impeccably clean. Waterfalls and rivers and mirror-like lakes surround very small villages, with houses that take you back to imperial times. Temples are hidden in the forests and are surrounded by bonsai gardens and red bridges over crackling brooks. It was hard to ride the bike through that much beauty and perfection. I only did 200 to 300 km a day, and then took two days to explore the area (compared to Russia, where I was doing 1000 km a day for 17 hours through remote places, eating and drinking while riding the bike for fear of stopping). Japan was a dream and I was afraid to wake up!

The Big Island

Japan Travel I took the ferry from Hakodate to Aomori, on the southern island, and arrived in Aomori during the evening. There was no camping available, so I headed for the city centre and a high-rise hotel. I was reluctant to ask the price of a room, because everyone I saw was in impeccable suits and dresses and I looked like an alien from another planet, wandering around in my riding gear. I stepped inside and immediately everyone – from the four receptionists to the rest of the people in the lobby – stopped what they were doing and turned to me and bowed at the same time, welcoming me to the hotel. I was embarrassed, but it was too late to back out. I went to the first lady at the reception and in a very low voice, asked the price. “Our rate is 68 dollars per night, including breakfast, but we can give you a room for 48 dollars (4800 yen),” she replied in a soft, respectful tone. I was shocked yet again, especially when two men came and waited by my bike while I unloaded my dirty bags and then carried everything up to my room, without asking for a tip (there is no tipping in Japan), then bowed as they left the room. By contrast, when I arrived in Canada with my bike from Japan, I was refused accommodation by nine hotels in Calgary, at midnight, because my credit card had expired (the new one was waiting for me in Montreal), and they rudely showed me the door. I ended up in a crappy motel, smelling as bad as it looked, with holes in the blankets, for $99 plus tax, no breakfast. So much for “expensive Japan.”

This type of situation became the standard for the rest of my riding through Japan: from the old lady in a restaurant who was so embarrassed that she didn’t speak English that she offered me my dinner – amazing ramen (Japanese noodle soup), sushi, rice and drinks – for free, to the six-year-old girl who ran after me in a gas station with five cereal bars and a juice box, saying, “Gift for you,” to the free gas in a gas station in Sakata, and the many other instances where people went out of their way to make me feel welcome. It wasn’t necessary for them to do that; I would have enjoyed Japan nonetheless, but this proved to me over and over again how spectacular this country is and how special its people are.

The Road Home

From Aomori, I headed south on the coast again to Sakata and then Tokyo (where I rode my bike right in the middle of the Shibuya junction, the biggest pedestrian crossing in the world), followed by Lake Yamanaka in the village of Yamanakako, near magnificent Mt. Fuji, which stands 3776 metres high. I spent four days here enjoying Japanese food festivals and attending music concerts, and – being the only tourist in this village – was welcomed by all locals like a rock star. It helped to be riding the Super Ténéré, which is not sold in Japan and is made for overseas export only. The moment people saw me on a foreign-registered bike, and after finding out how far I came to reach the Yamaha factory (39,000 km from Zambia, Africa, to here), I was an instant celebrity and they showered me with gifts. I stopped several times at different Yamaha dealers on the way to ask for directions to a hotel or for advice on where to eat, and every one of them helped me immediately, driving in front of me to the hotel or restaurant. I felt no danger through the entire expedition, no one who wanted to steal my bike or gear, no violent behaviour or attitude. Even though the country is one of the most advanced countries on the planet, the Japanese are minimalists in the best sense of the word, taking time to listen to ancient music in their temples and to respect and uphold customs that come from times immemorial.

When I arrived at the Yamaha factory in Iwata, Shizuoka, I was greeted by Kenji Takizawa, the general manager of Yamaha export division. He was riding a 20-year-old Yamaha VMAX, a beauty of a bike that was running impeccably. He took me to the Oguni Shrine, a remote sanctuary in the town of Mori in the mountains of Shizuoka Prefecture, where a special ceremony was held in honour of my expedition. The monks surrounded my bike and bowed while well wishes were bestowed upon it. I was in awe of the reverence and respect these people have for their customs and how simple and unassuming they are when performing 1000-year-old rituals. After a spectacular Kobe beef dinner with the Takizawa family (Saori, Tomo and Yudai), I spent the night in their home, thus experiencing a true Japanese way of life. Early in the morning, Kenji and I jumped on our motorbikes and rode to the Yamaha factory, where I was welcomed by dozens of executives with flowers and gifts, and then taken on a tour of its Communication Plaza and two factories.

Everyone treated me royally, and when I stepped into the factories, my heart stopped: it looked more like something from a Star Trek episode than a factory! Robots were moving to and fro with parts and materials for the assembly lines, thousands of people in huge lines putting together the various products, from snowmobiles to outboard engines to motorbikes. I followed the Yamaha R1 assembly line and, from zero to completion, it took about eight minutes for each bike. At the end of the line were hundreds of bikes waiting for the packing and shipping department to get them ready for different countries. I met engineers, designers and executives, and all in all, I was surprised at how humble these people were, even though they are the geniuses behind amazing machines that give the rest of us such great moments of pleasure and freedom.

Exceeding Expectations

When I left Livingstone, Zambia, for my round-the-world trip in November 2013, Japan was a very far away destination and it seemed very unlikely that I would ever reach it. Arriving at the factory that created my bike, 39,000 km from where I started, was a feeling that could hardly be described in words. Japan proved to be the greatest experience I have had from all points of view: the landscape, the technology, the food. But most of all, the hospitality and generosity of the Japanese people I met exceeded all my expectations.


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