Edelweiss Bike Travel Tour | Turning Japanese

Teutonic touring in the land of the rising sun

Perfectly in synch, we rip along the serpentine coast road, sound waves bouncing off the earthen walls, white-capped waves crashing into rocky outcroppings as the sun breaks cover over the ocean.

This may sound like an epic pilgrimage up Pacific Coast Highway en route to Laguna Seca for the USGP, but something's awry-the sun doesn't rise over the ocean off the California coast, it sets there.

This strafing mission actually took place in Japan, during an Edelweiss Bike Travel Tour. A new country on the Austrian company's slate, this so-called "scouting tour" was the trip's final dress rehearsal.

Our route criss-crossed the main island of Honshu, which is roughly 800 miles long with 3400 miles of coastline. That's more than four times the length of PCH.

Plenty of Japanese motorcycles have passed through my garage, but I never dreamed of actually riding in Japan. This far-off land just wasn't on the radar until a call came down from Motorcyclist headquarters. "Um, let me get back to you," I blubbered, failing to mention that this assignment would leave me MIA for my girlfriend's birthday and the housewarming party for which I'd just mailed 50 invitations.

Without trepidation, the homecoming soire was rescheduled, Sabine's birthday party was canceled and she got a plane ticket to Japan instead.

Entanglements untangled, we were up, up and away on a 14-hour flight from New York to Tokyo. En route we crossed the International Date Line, literally jetting into tomorrow, and landed in another world, 10 time zones from home.

At the hands of a white-gloved driver in a whisper-quiet, natural-gas-burning shuttle, we arrived at the first night's swank digs, the Hotel Ibis. Following the Edelweiss itinerary, we flew in one day early to reset our body clocks and enjoy a rest day in this ultra-modern city.

As per the welcome packet given to us at check-in, we arrived promptly at 7:01 p.m. for our first group get-together. Much to our surprise, we walked in on a veritable Oktoberfest. Our very international party included 13 German-speaking folks, four Americans and one Dutch woman from Kenya who lives in New York: Sabine. We're told that future Japan tours will be all-American affairs.

The balance of the U.S.-based contingent was quite diverse. Terry is a retired RN from Vancouver, Washington, who rides a Honda CBR1100XX Blackbird, practices Taekwondo, trains dressage horses and plays Nintendo. She told us she quit nursing to join a role-playing group. We liked how that sounded, but were afraid to ask what it meant. Also joining us were Randy, a jovial Japanese-American building inspector from Southern California and Bob Henig, the witty owner of Bob's BMW in Maryland.

Most of our new European friends spoke better English than we did German, and for the rest we had Edelweiss head honcho Werner Wachter and tour guide Claus Lazik to translate. Trained as a geographer and geologist, Claus has worked with Edelweiss for nine years, in Europe, Dubai, South Africa and China. Our local guide was Jun Yamada, a freelance motorcycle journalist and riding instructor.

Irony of ironies, instead of saddling up on Japanese bikes, we picked up an array of German BMWs at the importer's office. There, Sabine and I were united with a silver K1200R Sport.

High-tailing it out of Tokyo via the Tateyama Expressway, we were soon transported to the countryside, which Sabine said reminded her of northern Kenya. Through lush greenery and bamboo forests, the first lunch spot was at the summit of a mountain range connecting Mt. Otsukayama and Mt. Motokiyosumiyama. Try saying that 10 times fast.

Over the next eight days we discovered many stunning natural sights, but what most fascinated me was the multi-hued tapestry of Japanese life. Along the roads we experienced the visceral sights, sounds and smells of this proud, resourceful nation.

From the outskirts of larger cities to remote villages, it appeared that Japanese citizens are mandated to raise small vegetable gardens or tend rice paddies. Architecture was varied: There were big houses and small ones, indigenous styles intermingled with Western-influenced dwellings.

Sporadically, there were small family cemeteries, sometimes outside car-repair shops or close to houses. They seemed odd at first, but became quite charming, the ultimate way to keep one's family close.

Plodding through the countryside in the saddle is all well and good, but this was first and foremost a motorcycle trip. Convenient, then, that Edelweiss served up a great mix of mellow cultural experiences with more adrenaline-inducing sightseeing missions taken at higher speeds.

The Izu Skyline was the perfect venue for such a dance. Unlike U.S. toll roads, this pay-to-play route featured super-smooth tarmac that undulated, climbed and dropped down a mountain ridge for miles.

Although Izu didn't begin with a green flag and end with the checkers, Toyo tire signs were so perfectly placed we felt like we were riding on a roadrace circuit. Turns out the route is part of Toyo's proving grounds. The only things missing were brake markers and painted curbing.

Fortunately, it wasn't necessary to know the local language to navigate around the country, but a taste for fish was required. Each day began with a bountiful breakfast buffet of Japanese and American staples. Sabine didn't stray from local fare, consisting of miso soup, sashimi, seaweed, vegetables and seafood salads. Like most in our group, I switched it up, mixing poached salmon into scrambled eggs and nibbling on sushi.

Breakfast was followed by a (usually) brief meeting to discuss the day's itinerary. Although everyone was welcome to set off on their own, we mostly split up into two tour-guided groups. The only consistent exception was a German couple equipped with GPS. Armed with Claus' German directions translated into English, we also went it alone on a few occasions.

One morning, Sabine and I waved off the group so we could visit the Fuji-Sengen shrine. Located on a busy urban road, its long, cedar-lined entryway and slow-moving stream welcomed us to a peaceful oasis that was deserted save for the groundskeepers and monks. On our way out, a resonating ring of the gong broke the calm, preparing us for the road ahead.

We stayed in a mix of traditional Japanese hotels and Western-style accommodations ranging from modern five-star hotels to shared bungalows.

On bungalow night, we bunked with BMW Bob. While he gathered the evening's libations, Sabine pulled out mats and bedding to build a little "love nest" on the floor of our shoji-screened room.

At the other end of the spectrum was the Irozaki Resort. Upon arrival, a young, kimono-clad woman with a big smile served us peach tea. After removing our boots, we sat on cushions around a low, square table. She sized up our lightweight kimonos, or yukata, worn throughout our stay. Sweeter than the tea, she bowed and giggled a whole lot before making an exit.

Dinner was served in a private room with cushions on the floor surrounding two long tables. Each place setting had a first course of sweets, sashimi, salad, seafood noodle soup and, most entertaining, a live abalone wriggling in its shell above a hot plate. On cue, servers lit flames below the plates, and before the abalone could feel the heat, it was doused with sake. Once cooked, our little friend tasted like a chewy piece of octopus. More exotic dishes and dessert followed, served with sake and beer. We feasted on a similarly extensive culinary menu every evening.

The sun rose over the seaside cliffs on our final morning, promising a warm, sunny day and a great opportunity to shoot photos. Charging ahead of the group, we stopped along the way whenever creative urges beckoned. Finding ourselves alone after lunch, we rode along the Yuragawa River at a relaxed pace, taking in the warm autumn sun and lush green pastures-our last glimpses of rural Japan in the beautiful, waning light.

While we were posing for a two-up portrait near dusk, a minivan plastered with fire-department decals drove up. The driver cautioned us to turn around because the route was closed ahead for the wildly popular Fire Festival.

In my book, a road isn't closed until I encounter impassable obstructions. We thanked the kind man and forged on.

We soon found proof that the road was truly closed. Rounding a bend, we were greeted by the flashing lights of three police cars, a reflective barricade and a line of policemen with arms crossed in front of their expressionless faces.

While I documented the scene, Sabine explained to these fellows that our directions clearly instructed us to go down that road to the Brighton Hotel in Kyoto. Flashlights ripped from holsters, a trio of cops pointed wildly at their atlas in a fast-moving, round-robin discussion. No headway was made until the police chief emerged from the darkness with a hand-drawn map. "Bli-ton Hotel," he said, pointing to an X among lines and route numbers. Fortunately, a few key words were spelled out in our alphabet; enough to get us close.

We bowed in gratitude, mounted up and plunged down a steep set of hairpins in the pitch-black forest on a rough, narrow strip of asphalt. Unbelievably, road signs indicated that we were on the right cow trail. All alone with a half-moon high in the clear sky, we peacefully coasted through wide sweepers while heading back to civilization.

Following the chief's scrawls, we navigated through the city. Amazed by his accurate directions, we cruised past the Imperial Palace Gardens, hung a couple of rights and laughed when we passed police headquarters just before pulling into the hotel driveway.

No wonder the directions were so good.

Edelweiss is offering four Japanese tours this year: two in the spring, the rest in the fall. Make your reservations, bone up on Japanese history, hit the guidebooks and get your taste buds prepared for immeasurable amounts of sushi and sake. Prices range from $7030 to $10,430, depending on your chosen bike and accommodations. Contact Edelweiss Bike Travel, 800.507.4459,

Covering 146,000 square miles, Japan is a little smaller than California and one and a half times the size of Great Britain. About 75 percent of the country is forested yet it somehow has 731,683 miles of paved roadways.
Japan is a beautiful country filled with 127 million friendly people. Best of all, it's a motorcycling paradise-a mountainous island with twisty, well-maintained coastal and mountain roads. It's a shopper's paradise, too. What more could you want?
The Amida Buddha Diabatsu, or Great Buddha, is a bronze sculpture cast in 1252 A.D. Located in Kamakura, it survived a tsunami that destroyed the Great Temple in 1498. This temple wasn't rebuilt, so the statue has been outside ever since. It also survived an earthquake in 1923, which inflicted minor damage to its base.
It took a bit of time to get accustomed to driving on the wrong side of the road. Ever the good co-pilot, Sabine shouted, "Drive left!" more than once. Thankfully the big Beemer was maneuverable enough to avoid catastrophes.
We only exceeded the Edelweiss traffic quota once. Although lane-splitting is legal, in order not to lose any of the six bikes in our group, we crawled along in a bumper-to-bumper melee. We weren't amused at being passed by scooterists in suits, jackets flapping in the wind as they commuted to work.
We got directions from errant citizens, gas-station attendants, auto mechanics, firemen and even the police.