Courtesy of Shinji Kazama

The Remarkable Resilience Of Shinji Kazama

Both poles, the summits of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Fuji and most of Mount Everest, Paris-Dakar—he’s ridden motorcycles there

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hinji Kazama wants to ride a motorcycle on the moon. It is the kind of thing a 5-year-old might say, or a billionaire. It’s a goal that, if uttered by anyone else, would have us laughing. But Kazama isn’t anyone else. He has ridden motorcycles to both poles, the summits of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Fuji, and much of the way up Mount Everest. Twice. He was also the first Japanese national to compete in the Paris-Dakar Rally, later won the race’s 500cc class, and survived a collision with a truck on another attempt. History has proven that Shinji Kazama’s ambitions are not to be scoffed at. Kazama will turn 68 this year, a fact that doesn’t seem to slow him down. He’s coached his son, Shinnosuke, in the Dakar Rally for the past five years, and is personally planning to compete in a car in 2020 and on a motorcycle in 2021. Between now and then, he needs to convince his injured left knee to bend to 90 degrees.

Shinji Kazama riding Mount Everest on Honda TLR200
Shinji Kazama in full attack during an ascent of Mount Everest aboard a Honda TLR200. Kazama sought glory on Everest twice, reaching 19,701 feet in 1986.Courtesy of Shinji Kazama

Kazama was born in 1950. Bikes took him early, and he blended his passion for motorcycles with a love of nature, summiting a 1,640-foot mountain near his hometown when he was 14.

“The mountain slope was quite steep, not a mountain that was easy to climb with a motorcycle,” he recalls. “I tried a number of routes and pushing my bike. When I arrived at the summit, it was evening. A dazzling air and a refreshing breeze played over my cheeks. I found the sparkling Fuefuki River in the distance, and below was my hometown. I remembered tremendous fulfillment and satisfaction. This was the original experience and original scenery of my adventure.”

Shinji Kazama at the North Pole
Left: The extreme cold, wind, and exposure on the North Pole expedition meant Kazama was forced to perform near-constant maintenance and repairs to his TW200. The going sometimes was as slow as 10 meters an hour.
Right: Kazama celebrates his conquest of the North Pole on a Yamaha TW200 with Yamaha TY250 two-stroke power.
Courtesy of Shinji Kazama

Kazama does not exude the frenetic energy you get from the Guy Martins of the world. He’s frank and realistic, candid about his fear of freezing to death or being eaten by a polar bear. Maybe most surprising is the fact that, for someone who’s done what he’s done and seen what he’s seen, he doesn’t feel suffocated by everyday life. He’s not afraid of dying quietly of old age.

“What I learned through several adventures is that ‘daily life’ fosters dreams, ‘daily life’ supports dreams”

“What I learned through several adventures is that ‘daily life’ fosters dreams, ‘daily life’ supports dreams,” he says. “A wonderful adventure will be brought up for the first time with wonderful daily life, family, society, and friends.” Even so, Kazama says, nobody is going to hand you the opportunity to run away when your office walls start to close in.

Shinji Kazama at 1982 Dakar Rally
Kazama takes a juice break next to his Suzuki DR500 during his 1982 Dakar Rally campaign. Kazama was the first Japanese national to finish the race on his inaugural try in 1982; he won the 500cc class in ’84.Courtesy of Shinji Kazama

“At first, everyone thinks that their way of living and actions are not ‘I am being forced,’ but are their choices,” he says. “My motorcycle expeditions were mostly long-term, which cost a huge amount of money, but I wanted to go there all the way.”

Even if “all the way” means “all the way to the moon.” In a strange twist, Kazama’s humility is matched only by his confidence in technology and a thick vein of bravado.

“I think that there is no place I cannot go by motorcycle. Even though technically impossible now, technology evolves indefinitely,” he says.

Kazama doesn’t have a religious or philosophical dedication to bikes. He initially set out to show people in Japan that motorcycles are viable transportation, that they are not just the domain of the tattooed, drunken woolly mammoths made famous by Marlon Brando and Hunter S. Thompson.

“Riding a motorcycle is often seen from the world, the general public in Japan, with cold eyes,” he says. “I tried to show the validity of the motorcycle by my ideas and behavior.”

That desire nearly cost him everything. In 2004, racing a Dakar Rally stage in Morocco, Kazama collided head-on with a 10-ton, 750-horsepower big rig competing in the event’s truck class. The accident left him hospitalized for 14 months and required 18 surgeries and 500 stitches. It nearly claimed his left leg.

There was no guarantee that he would get around well enough to do another few Dakars, let alone aim to ride a motorcycle on the moon.

Shinji Kazama at the North Pole
Kazama coaxes his TW along an ice sheet flanked by his support team. The water was so cold that rescue would have been impossible had he gone in.Courtesy of Shinji Kazama

“I have not overcome [the injury] for 14 years. In the case of many people with disabilities, it seems to take 10 to 20 years to reset the wounds of the heart. I do not like giving up, but it may be sometimes important to give up in such a case,” he says. “Although giving up is not permitted for dreams, resignation is important [to keep from] envying others. I was able to learn from having a disability.”

His injury led him to become an ambassador for the Bone and Joint Decade, spreading awareness with increasingly difficult treks. In 2009, he drove a Subaru Forester from the top of Africa to its southernmost tip. In 2010, he and three others rode motorcycles, bicycles, and dog sleds from the southern tip of Chile to the top of Sweden on a pole-to-pole excursion.

Shinji Kazama at the North Pole
Odds weren’t the only thing stacked against Kazama on his trips to the North and South poles. Huge voids in the ice threatened to swallow him and the bike while frigid weather compounded his exhaustion. Here, judicious application of throttle was the only answer.Courtesy of Shinji Kazama

The man seems unstoppable like the physical, concentrated force that compels all of us to ride. But long before he began summiting the world’s highest peaks, racing through the planet’s most challenging terrain, and putting motorcycles where they’ve never been before, Kazama’s motivations were much simpler.

“The secret...is that I liked the bike more than anything. And second, I tried to convey the excellence of riding motorcycles to the world in my own way,” he says.

shinji kazama at south pole
“I think there is no place I cannot go by motorcycle,” Kazama says. “Even though technically impossible now, technology evolves indefinitely.”Courtesy of Shinji Kazama

It’s a succinct summation of why any of us ever straps on a helmet and slips off down a winding road to nowhere, or a new length of jagged single-track. Forget the twaddle about the Zen of man and machine, or the higher purpose of exploring what it really means to be free. Shinji Kazama has spent his life in the pursuit of doing something that he enjoys. That’s all the motivation any of us should need.