Epic Rides: Touring Japan On A Harley-Davidson Motorcycle

This Route Has Tolls. And Sake, Sakura and Sushi

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Latitude: 35.669 N

Longitude: 139.643 E

Imagine a place where the Department of Transportation posts radius information before every tightening radius on the expressway. Or one that mounts convex mirrors in every blind corner to reduce head-on collisions…even in the backcountry! Sound like a rider’s paradise? It is!

In the land where the Z-car was born, ingenuity and craftsmanship lead around every corner between points A and B. This is a journey through the land of the rising sun, pinched between opposing traffic on the right and cyclists to the left. Why anyone would choose to be here with four wheels is hard to understand—this place is built for motorcycles!

Japanese road signs
We understand "slow down!"©Motorcyclist

Gaijin in a foreign Land
In advance of my visit to Japan, in doing my research on licensing needs, rider restrictions, parking regulations, etc. for a motorcycle tour in Japan, I found an online forum of foreign-born (Gaijin) riders living in Japan and figured that to be the perfect resource for local information. So I made a date to meet up with a few of the members to ride together and share tall tales from across the seas. Little did I know they would put together a small gathering of riders, a few roads, and a collection of climates to test me. Seven hundred kilometers later I'm returning to Tokyo after nearly 16 high-speed hours in the saddle… But that's less in miles right? Either way, it was one hell of a day ride!

Japanese toll machine
Smile, you're on camera.©Motorcyclist

After nearly three early morning hours southwest along the Tomei Expressway, almost all the way to Nagoya (incidentally, a $43 toll!), I’m late due to a burning automobile pileup that blocked all four lanes. The group I’m scheduled to meet (at a 7-Eleven) is unfazed by my late arrival and moves north toward Nagano before I arrive. Before I find them along Route 362, however, I stumble upon Japan’s largest tengu mask in Haruno and stop for some photos. It’s there that I learn more about the local-born father of the Z-car and first president of Nissan Motor Corporation USA, Yutaka Katayama, and his namesake road. Mr. K. lived to the ripe old age of 105 by the way—talk about cheating death in every run over these mountain passes!

Modern day samurai rides his neo-retro iron horse (motorcycle) into urban battle.
This modern day samurai rides his neo-retro iron horse into urban battle.©Motorcyclist

A few kilometers later, there they are, stopped for a snack at a random intersection, this one connecting to Mr. K.’s road. Hurried through long-distance hellos and rider introductions, we’re collectively on the throttle again. No problem; we’ll talk later. We’re here to ride, after all. Four minutes later I’ve flipped this mass of touring machine from one floorboard to the other about a thousand times. In a flash I’ve seen more of the rural Japan in one morning than I had in the previous week under the glass-and-steel landscape of Shinagawa and Minato-ku.

The Giant Buddha in Kamakura.
The Giant Buddha in Kamakura.©Motorcyclist

If not scenic and beautiful, and possibly toll-laden, they’re some of the wildest roads I’ve ever ridden, winding along rivers and streams, taking 120-degree turns like we take in oxygen. Single-lane roads (and single-lane two-way tunnels!) switch to freshly paved two-lane roads and back again to one within the same 500 meters.

While the pace was brisk, the Harley-Davidson Ultra held on, scraping floorboards and pinging from a poorly selected fuel fill-up. High-test fuel is best for this American machine, but figuring out which pump was which proved somewhat tricky. Like in the state of New Jersey, attendants will pump your gas for you, but they don’t always speak English. Muttering “super” in English sometimes worked. “Supreme” worked in other places. In Kanagawa, however, the young girl pumping gas knew neither of those words but quickly whipped out a smartphone and Google Translate to aid this obvious tourist. Hiragana to English, “Which type of oil would you like in your bike?” Please no oil in my tank! Packing my own smartphone and app combo, we traded a few phrases and learned she knew “high octane.” Yes, please! And before I throttled off she typed and translated again with a smile, “Harley? Cool!” Oh, the saving grace of technology; give me a data plan and I can go anywhere!

Appreciation of Japan's past in culture and architecture contrasts with its modernity.
Appreciation of the past in culture and architecture contrasts with its modernity.©Motorcyclist

Getting There
While many experience jet-lag problems traveling west, I was lucky not to have experienced the "up all night" problem made popular by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation. Hopefully you get ample rest as well, as this is the land from which the fastest production motorcycles on earth derive, and you'll need it—though I do wonder if anyone actually rides those bikes on Japan's roadways.

The natural beauty of Japan.
The natural beauty of Japan.©Motorcyclist

It’s easy to buy a flight to Tokyo’s Narita airport, but how does one get from there to a seaside ryokan in a remote part of the country? The Narita Express train will get you into the city in about an hour, for roughly $30 depending on the exchange rate and the vendor through which you book. Get yourself a local data SIM card at the airport as well—very helpful! I pre-booked one to meet me at the airport post office, but last-minute deals cost nearly the same. Locally, if you plan to get off the motorcycle and see the city on foot, a prepaid Suica card will get you everywhere on local buses, trains, and subways for a similar pay-per-distance scale seen on the national highways. They can even be used to swipe-pay at 7-Elevens and many electronics stores.

Speed limits in Japan.
The “flow” tends to go 100 kph, with motorcyclists riding about 120 to 140 kph depending on their willingness to test the system.©Motorcyclist

Japan is generally inexpensive to travel around, just not to live in. Land is scarce and expensive, as is transportation, but the common first-world traveler can find Japan quite familiar—if you know what it’s like to dine out in Los Angeles or New York City. Five-dollar lunches and $15 dinners are easily found, as are cheaper eats (as well as over-the-top ones) if you want them. I was relieved to find how simple it was to roughly make the currency conversion in Japan. At the time of my trip, the current exchange rate allowed for the simple migration of the decimal point two digits to the left. So 5,000 yen simply became (roughly) $50. That made travel in a land where not one sign in any of their three character sets (kanji, hiragana, or katakana) would look anything like it had a Latin root so much easier to tackle.

Nothing like a good bowl of ramen.
Nothing like a good bowl of ramen.©Motorcyclist

It’s not all raw fish and ramen when it comes to getting a bite to eat. They have Denny’s and McDonald’s and Subway for the meek. But who travels halfway around the world to eat something you can get at home? With a strong language barrier and steep learning curve, learning to bow (the handshake equivalent) at least your head and to say “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you very much), will get you everywhere. “Sumimasen” (excuse me) helps as well, especially when you need to ask for a check at dinner. Tipping is not accepted, by the way—service is an honored, often lifetime, profession. Score one for the budget traveler or math-challenged rider.

Whatever brings you to Japan, riding a motorcycle there is a must. It’s a little less like paradise in the urban centers of course, but the roads and rules of riding in Japan make for an incredible experience. If you’ve come to work, look beyond the gardens and toward the 5,000 miles of highways and onto their back roads.

Japan is an amazing place to visit… especially if you like getting out of your comfort zone with both language and food.
Japan is an amazing place to visit… especially if you like getting out of your comfort zone with both language and food.©Motorcyclist

Saddle Up, Partner
Most visiting riders rent and ride day trips outside the city to see the resort towns huddled at the foot of Japan's iconic Mt. Fuji or to see the Giant Buddha in Kamakura, about 30 miles south of Tokyo.

With a brand-new Harley between my legs, often tripling the engine power of passenger cars and delivery trucks on the same road, it’s a scramble to find my way out of the city without a GPS or map taped to my tank. Describing the roads of Tokyo as a bowl of spaghetti (or ramen) makes it sound perhaps smooth and predictable. Instead, they’re smooth and free of the potholes, but they’re far deeper than that bowl of ramen—with overpasses, underpasses, tunnels long enough to make you forget the time of day, and tunnels with turns, camber, and elevation changes to boot. Then there are the tolls. If you find yourself riding for more than five or 10 minutes without putting a foot down, you’re on a toll road and will be paying for the privilege to ride it soon enough if you haven’t already. And you will again.

One of many temples in Japan.
One of many temples in Japan.©Motorcyclist

The center city beltway starts with the usual ante up (a $9.30 entry fee), upon which you would add a cost for the distance traveled outside that ring road, roughly $3 per mile for a motorcycle and $4 per mile in a regular car. The “ETC” above the tollbooth lane means they only take electronic means to collect the toll, i.e. Fastpass and the like. You’ll probably want the cash lane. From there, you’ll ride like the board game Chutes and Ladders to suburban neighborhoods and other expressways, the latter of course are also toll roads. In a city where even the commuter light rail system is built on pay-per-kilometer, so are the roadways, but they’re unlike any I’ve ever seen. Anyone remember the bright and blinking road furniture of the 1982 roadracing video game Pole Position with blinking armco and pointing paint stripes the turns? That’s what it’s like in Japan today, seriously. If you ride at night, prepare for possible hallucination flashbacks.

The oft-ridden day-escape from the concrete jungle is toward Mt. Fuji, and the toll to ride out there will be about $35 each way along the Chuo Expressway, for a two-hour journey each way, not counting traffic. Don’t even think about taking the surface streets. Save it for the lakeside drives and mountain passes surrounding the area.

Minibike on Japanese balcony
You can tell who's a rider in that complex.©Motorcyclist

One of the 77 active volcanoes on the island, and the tallest, is Fuji-san (last erupting in 1707) and its surrounding lakeside community, known as Five Lakes, has plenty of attractions both manmade and natural, from ancient footpaths to modern-day amusement parks. If you can find the time, book a night at one of the traditional Japanese hotels, or ryokans (think paper walls and frameless futons) for a deeper understanding of Japan. The onsen (or spa) is a way of life for tourists as well as the locals. Public, but gender-divided, baths still exist in many ryokans and can be visited as hotel guest or an hourly visitor. Swim trunks are forbidden, and a proper pre-bathing ritual keeps these spaces unique. There’s absolutely no better way to rest (and maybe thaw out) after a day’s ride than with a soak. Check in, zone out, and then go find dinner. Don’t expect high-pressure jets, by the way—that’s a foreign invention.

On the expressways, the posted speed limit is typically 80 kph. The “flow” tends to go 100 kph, with motorcyclists riding about 120 to 140 kph depending on their willingness to test the system. Speed cameras are there and easily visible, as are about 9 billion blind corners and nooks for a cop to hide in, yet luck tends to be on the rider’s side. Speeding drivers are ticketed in one of two ways: by front-facing cameras intended to capture the front license plates of a driver’s car (motorcycles do not have them) and by an approaching follow. So mind your mirrors and twist that grip with a smile. And if they do ever stop you, your language barrier usually dissolves the problem, as they prefer not to allow their pride to be damaged by not being able to process a foreign license and so they’ll let you go…if you’re lucky!

Book a night at one of the traditional Japanese hotels, or ryokans (think paper walls and frameless futons) for a deeper understanding of Japan.
Book a night at one of the traditional Japanese hotels, or ryokans (think paper walls and frameless futons) for a deeper understanding of Japan.©Motorcyclist

New York with Manners
Cruising past the clichés like the 10-story electronics stores and Sailor Moon outfits and the weird stuff like absinthe bars, robot burlesques, and the ubiquitous heated toilet seats, Japan is an amazing place to visit… especially if you like getting out of your comfort zone with both language and food. (Wasabi-flavored Kit Kat, anyone? How about apple vinegar?) In the end, a road is a road in any language, and you know what to do with those—keep the rubber side down and the experiences on the upside.

A brand-new Harley often triples the engine power of passenger cars and delivery trucks on the same road.
A brand-new Harley often triples the engine power of passenger cars and delivery trucks on the same road.©Motorcyclist

On my next visit, I hope to visit stunningly beautiful Kyoto and the Kawasaki Motors plant, maybe get a ride on the J300 scooter. More importantly, I’ll pick a warmer month. While April is perfect for Golden Week (a national holiday celebrating the birthday of Emperor Showa) and the annual cherry blossom festivals, it’s too close to winter for comfort and downright chilly. If not outright snowing! Nevertheless, it’s well worth the physical discomfort to view this gorgeous country—and meet its overwhelmingly kind and helpful inhabitants—from the best mode of transport there is. A motorcycle.