I did a couple motorcycle tours up to the Fukushima area; one a while back and one more recent. The Bandai-san area is maybe the best place for spirited motorcycle riding in Japan these days. Why the best? After the disasters of 3/11, they opened up all of the skyline toll roads with one major change; no fee. In the past, to spend a day looping around the scenic mountains and lakes would have cost about $50. Worth it, though. Free is more worth it.
For Motorsport enthusiasts, the local Ebisu Circuit provides a lot of events, mostly geared at drift racing. Unfortunately, the dudes I know who are into that are all military, and they do their stuff on American Monday holidays. Since I work in the Japanese system, I haven't had the chance. Whateva.
This will be the last appearance of the KTM 690smc. Now that she's not part of my life, I can talk some shit! Turns out this wasn't really a good bike for my style. The 690smc is a rich guy's second bike, no question about it. Super fun around town, and great on twisty mountain roads, but horrendous on the long haul. Driving from Tokyo to Fukushima, a mere few hundred km, was butt-cheek torture. Add to that the lack of luggage options, other than some very pricey custom racks, and this bike turns into the most expensive impulse buy of my life. Good thing it was stolen!
Ideally I would have a three-car garage with half a dozen KTMs in it. Naw, I am a one ride guy.
Anyways, we geared up with the latest in protective riding clothes and hit the countryside roads!
Hey local ladies, whatcha selling?
Pickles! I forgot what these were exactly. Some sort of root vegetable imported from South America that grows well in the arid (ish) mountains of the area.
Always hit up the onsens. Luckily, we had some Japanese people in our group who wanted to go. Not to talk shit, but the majority of the dudes I ride with are borderline homophobic, and getting naked in a hot spring with other dudes is totally too gay for them. That's a quote.
Burgers on the other hand . . . manly meat for manly men!
Let's talk about charity for a sec.
This is the Dog Run Cafe. The trauma on lives in Northern Japan after the triple disaster of 3/11 takes on countless forms. One of those is with animals. Many, cats and dogs especially, became instantly homeless. Of those (fortunate?) pets that weren't tied up or confined inside, many took to roaming the streets. The stories of vagabond bands of dogs, pigs, and even monkeys searching for what little food remained are common.
A large area, some 20km in radius, is a restricted, no-enter radiation zone. Luckily, there are groups like the Japan Cat Network and people like Susan, the owner of this sanctuary for lost animals. After securing red-tape bound permission to enter on a regular basis, they bring food and try to capture some of the strays.
We stop by everytime we are in the area with donations and our legs. Yes, this is a one-woman operation here, and the dogs sometimes just want to go for a walk.
Check out their donation page if you can, it is a very worthy cause. There are a lot of truly horrible stories about animals in Fukushima, and this is one organization that is really making a difference.
And this old lady has some bomb-ass juice!
Kanpai! This is how motorcycle riders do it . . . with grape juice.
Thus ended my one tour on the KTM 690smc. The ride home was painful, but a wise man once said that there is no progress without struggle. I guess that applies to the condition of my ass.
Hold, on, another KTM? Yeah, so fast forward a few months. I made a visit to the bike shop to say hi, and they had just got bought back a 2010 KTM 990 SM-T. My dream bike. Super Moto styling, a larger tank and luggage for touring, and plenty of orange. These things are very expensive in Japan. Twenty large is about right for a new one. A little out of my budget.
They told me to borrow it for a week.
I can do that.
I had actually planned on my annual attempt at hiking the Northern Alps, but with zero of my friends accepting my facebook hiking event invite, I cancelled and went riding instead.
Essentially I drove north on the expressway to Gunma, then over Mt. Akagi and up to Nikko. From Nikko, up to the Oze area. From there, a straight shot to the Bandai area. Great ride.
The gaudiest roadside soba shop I've ever seen. Yes, that's a foot onsen.
After a day of Gunma's east side, I rolled into this lakeside onsen town to camp. This is my new favorite camp spot for motorcycle touring.
The camp field was free, I think. Anyways, I didn't pay, and I couldn't find a place to pay, so I don't feel bad.
Seriously, this spot was tranquil. If you have the cash, there are some attractive looking hotels in the area.
On the way to Oze, I really, really wanted to eat here. A middle-of-nowhere joint serving only whatever the owner has hunted. Deer, bear, boar, all on the menu. They were closed that day though. Bummer.
I'll settle for this. Gnochi-like dumplings in a local mushroom soup. Fantastic. And the view:
Heading on the only road west, I ran into this guy:
What a dick! Dude scowled at me and wouldn't say one word. Yeah, I understand that the road is closed for some reason, but you are just standing out here in the middle of nowhere by yourself and you can't give me the courtesy of human speech? It's not like I was trying to sneak my way past. Anyways, congrats on being a jerk.
I turned around and found an overpriced campground for the night. I almost never pay for camping, and have no problem sleeping in a park or field. I don't leave a trace, so the world isn't affected, even if it is against some kind of unwritten law about free camping in Japan. I thought that this camp had an onsen attached, but it didn't. $20 for a one night use of their empty lot.
Because of the turn-around, I had to search for a late dinner. Plan ahead, all the soba shops in the area close at about 5pm. Seriously slim pickings. This was, of course, the middle of nowhere, and the only indication of possible food was a light in the distance, across a small bridge and down a smaller alley. Turned out to be one of the best 洋食 spots I've been too. The town is 檜枝岐, the restaurant あしたの天気 - Tomorrow's Weather. The shop has a massive herb garden, and everything is full of fresh vegetables and herbs. And they are open late.
I wonder if I could have camped in the herb garden?
Next stop, Kitakata. I wrote about this ramen mecca here.
No sake for riders, but I took a bottle home and drank it with a friend. Excellent stuff, it is no surprise that Kitakata nihonshu is some of the best in the country.
Ice cream time!
Ice cream made using salt from a local mountain hot spring.
Free camping for the night. The KTM 990 SM-T has a GPS unit, and in Japan it is common to just enter a phone number to get to your destination. An hour later and I was at . . . the phone company's main switching station! An hour later and I was at the right spot.
Keep a paper map in your bag.
Then I hopped on the expressway home. The 990 SM-T is capable of cradling my posterior ever so gently, and the ride back was no problem. Also, the cruising speed is more than 120kph, which the 690 had trouble at.
Should I destroy my savings and pick up this sweet machine?