Japan…as Seen by an American Motorcyclist

An Oriental Tour

By Bill Montgomery, Photography by Bill Montgomery

From the April 1935 issue of Motorcyclist Magazine

This last Fall a friend and I had the pleasure of a trip to the Orient. Through the services of the American Express we arranged for two motorcycles with which to tour Japan. We sailed upon the “President Coolidge” and after two weeks at sea arrived in Japan to find two Harley-Davidson machines awaiting us on the. The trip across was enjoyable but nevertheless the two motors looked good to us and fired our ambition to get started upon our tour.

A guide at the dock told us we would have little trouble in getting to Tokyo, a mere 21 miles from our landing place at Yokohama. We made a fine start, for Yokohama is not too large and the traffic situation was fairly easy to grasp. We saw a few signs in English which directed us toward Tokyo, and, they were the last we saw until we got into Tokyo.

The road leading out of Yokohama was fine-about 100 feet wide, concrete, and had double street car tracks down the center. There were plenty of safety zones to avoid, but those were the least of our troubles. Pedestrians held no fear of cars or motorcycles and seemed to place the burden of carefulness upon drivers and riders. They would dash suddenly across the street whenever the idea struck them. Time after time we were forced to slam on both brakes to avoid hitting someone, and more often than not it was to save a grown-up rather than children.

Signals were much the same as in America, hung from overhead cables. However, there were about six lights; one to get ready, one to get set and the rest for all the fine shades of going or stopping.

As far as we could see, as strangers, there was no division between Yokohama and Tokyo. The wide street just kept on going and we kept on following it. On each side was a continuous line of shops, all selling the same things. I still don’t see how one makes any money with all his neighbors selling exactly the same wares.

On the whole ride to Tokyo we saw not one gas pump. This seemed odd for there were many cars and motorcycles. Many of the cars were new Fords; most of the motorcycles seemed to be English makes and with sidecars, if you could so name the flat car contrivances they hauled along loaded with china and furniture. The economy of motorcycles seems to appeal to the Japanese. All the stores use them for delivery purposes instead of trucks.

We finally wound up in the city we were seeking but that road was the longest 21 miles I had been on since I once crossed Nevada. Once within the city it took us two hours to hunt up our hotel. That accomplished we pulled ourselves together and set out to see the town. Tokyo isn’t so large but what you can comfortably review it in a day, without rushing. We even toured the palace grounds. That is, we toured what we were allowed to. No one is permitted nearer than a mile to the palace.

The city was very clean the streets being washed twice a day. This very cleanliness, though, was the cause of a slight accident. Not satisfied with plain water, the city employs the use of soap as well. The street washer had just passed by when my friend and I turned a corner out onto the wet soapy street. My friend’s motor hit the slick surface and went into a waltz which left him sitting in the middle of the road twiddling his toes. To tell the truth I had a little trouble myself, so I didn’t get to see all of his act. Thanks to a safety guard the motor was okay, but the whole thing drew quite a crowd. It was one of those “Tokyo here I am” things, and Tokyo turned out to see and to wonder.

To help make things more interesting for us, the car drivers in that city seemed determined to drive as close as they could to us and then set their brakes. More than once we had scares for although there were many new cars, there were also a good many model Ts.

That night, after the surprises of the city and the scares of traffic we went to see a show that lasted two days. We stayed one hour. It may have been a swell show but it was lost on us. On top of that it was noisy and very stuffy. We found that they kept the doors locked during the show, opening them for five minutes at one hour intervals. At the end of the first hour-exit two Americans.

We found that we had to leave our motors out all night as there was no garage anywhere near us. They told us, however, to have no fear as we could leave them out a night, a week, or a year and they would still be right there because the Japanese are very honest and theft is unknown. I doubted that but my friend, Chuck, left his machine unlocked and sure enough it was there in the morning. In fact, before I left Japan I became a firm believer in the honesty of the Japanese people. Later we were many times to leave our machines parked far away from where we were staying and they never were molested.

During our entire stay in Japan we did not have one real breakfast. I think we missed breakfast and cheap oil and gas more than anything else. In the bigger cities we had meals similar to those at home, but somehow the meat and vegetables tasted different than we thought they should. And, as coffee makers the Japanese are good fishermen. It wasn’t until we got back on a boat headed for the U.S. that we found coffee which really appealed to our taste. It was necessary to buy bottled water. That was a bother and an expense. We eventually found that beer was cheaper and served the purpose nearly as well so we reverted to a beer diet.

When we went to Kobe from Tokyo-a 500 mile trip which is not as the crow flies but all around Robin Hood’s Barn -we took along a grill, two pans for heating water and for boiling uncanned food one frying pan, a coffee percolator and the necessary spoons, knives, etc. We were able to buy American canned coffee and a few vegetables so we stocked up well on these. Finding well stocked department stores with cheap but fairly well made goods, we took on other equipment. We bought two sleeping bags that I wish we had brought back with us, a toilet kit, a first aid kit, plenty of mosquito netting and two rain coats. These latter were a fine investment we found as we went further inland. The mountains held rain clouds and when it wasn’t raining there was a fine mist that was just about as wet.

So, with our 74s loaded down we headed for Kamakura-33 miles away. That was to be the last city where tourists are promised hotel facilities. After that it was to be “come what may.” The road out of Tokyo was fine, wide, without street cars, overhead train crossings and with all the latest in gadgets and signal lights. We left at 9:00 A.M. figuring that we would be at our destination by not later than 1:00 P.M. The road went five miles and then suddenly turned into a cowpath. A car was ahead of us. The driver seemed to know where he was going, which was more than we knew, so we followed him. After some time at that pace we were encouraged by a sign which said Kamakura so we kept on. When the car which was piloting us met another there was considerable backing of one or the other until a place could be found wide enough for passing. There was a 3-foot ditch on each side which made the maneuver the more difficult, but they always managed to make it. We were glad we had motorcycles-give ‘em to me every time.

We went through tiny villages, passed huge fields of rice, saw a few factories and much of the time paralleled a rail-road. In the villages the children played in the streets and we were necessarily very cautious.

About 2:00 P.M. we went over a hill and there below us was the city we were seeking. Situated on the ocean and dotted with huge shrines, it was very attractive looking. The hotel turned out to be fair. The food was more to our taste than at Tokyo. We stayed three days visiting shrines and looking at the other sights. The citizens were very proud of their china factories which were the last word in neatness and very well equipped with machinery. They showed us through many.

Getting pictures was very difficult all over Japan. More than once when Chuck tried to take pictures of our motors he was stopped by some one of the many patrols that are everywhere. We did finally get a picture of our motors but on the same film was a shot of a battleship. When we left Japan the film was taken away from us. When we tried to get shots of a huge image of Buddha we had to shoot and run. Incidentally the picture business is odd in other ways. We were able to buy 12-exposure films for 25 cents but had to pay $2.00 to have the same developed.

We found the shrines and temples very much the same. The Shinto shrines are very bare and with no idols. The Buddhist temples have the great images of Buddha in plain sight and are very interesting. These two religions have the largest following, although there are many others in Japan.

Our next objective was Kyoto, supposedly five days and 350 miles away. After the roads we had just been over it seemed to us as though it should take a week. It was about 100 miles to Kobe. From there on the road turned out to be excellent.

Our first night out we looked for a place to camp but could not find one. A farmer took us in (no daughter) and let us have a room.

At least it was a room if a space four feet by eight feet can be termed as one. We unrolled our sleeping bags and were about to go outdoors to do some cooking when the farmer’s son came in with a huge dish of rice, tea and a kind of cake. Germs there may have been but we kicked all thought of them overboard and fell to. We were too tired to worry much about cooking. The next morning there was more tea, hot water to wash in, towels and a newspaper. The paper being printed in Japanese didn’t add much to the prospects for the day. The rest was welcome enough. Of course to the Japanese, tea is breakfast. To us there was something lacking and that we managed to supply by making some coffee and boiling two eggs which we found. We dunked tea cakes in the coffee, smacked our lips over the eggs, and gazed at the Japanese newspaper.

From there on we ran into so much rain that camping out was hardly possible. All the way along we found people very hospitable and with all of them as with the first described, tipping or paying was out of the question. We felt guilty not being able to pay for a place to put our sleeping bags; but bore up under the disappointment as well as we could.

Bathtubs or showers were unknown and we never found a lake that didn’t have swimmers in it. For a while we were kind of up a tree but finally our desire for a bath overcame our modesty and thereupon we just went in “natural.”

We hit some roads that were about six feet wide and full of ruts from ox carts which traveled them during the rains. Most of the time we rode single file. We met a surprising number of people on foot or riding horseback. The sun soon dried up traces of rain and the dust was terrible. On our third day out I had a puncture. Luckily I had material to repair it with. If I hadn’t have had we would surely have been sunk.

In each town there would be a gas pump for government officials. We were able to buy from them. There was no air or battery service. Oil was harder to get. Once we found American canned oil-at three bucks per. Someone was making a neat profit.

When we finally hit the coast again it was most welcome. We could swim every day and as the tides were not high we could camp on the beach. We ceased to worry about our motors which we parked on a highway nearly a mile away. They were always there next morning. About 100 miles from Kyoto we were agreeably surprised with paving. We made the city in five days. There was a really fine hotel there and thus we were afforded an opportunity to get all cleaned up. Then we set out to study the town. It was most appealing to us of any we were in. It is located in a large natural bowl and surrounded by beautiful green hills. While the city is very old it has many new buildings. It is in the center of the government fortifications for the southern part of the island. Of course we were unable to take pictures, or to buy any.

The stores were the best there of any we saw, especially for silks and such things. Being without packing space we were unable to make any purchases

After four days we visited Nara where the famous deer are. They are in a big park and are so used to tourists feeding them that if a handout is not forthcoming they nip you-nipping in a spot that is rather difficult to describe in writing. There are thousands of deer there, all under government protection.

At last we got back to our boat. We still had China and the Philippines ahead of us. Of course the ship was a bit of the U.S.A. and very welcome after our trip of roughing it in the heart of the Japanese island.

As we thought back over the trip a number of interesting things were recalled. Nowhere had we seen tennis courts, for instance.

The Japanese did not seem to go in for sports but instead played checkers and a game of theirs that is similar. In the big cities we were impressed by the dance halls where the latest in jazz music was to be heard. The cost was four cents per dance. The girls were all marvelous dancers, being able to go through any steps tried. One couple did a tango just like it might have been their native dance. The floors were fine.

When in the cities, with gas as high as 75 cents, it was cheaper to use rickshaws. When I turned my motor back in it had gone 501 miles running perfectly on what was no easy trip. W e enjoyed our motor tour, we had seen the “home life”-we had seen plenty.

China and the Philippines? Well, those are two other stories.

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By Bill Montgomery
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