Motorbiking in Kyushu
by Greg O’Keefe
A cool crisp morning with the sun dancing around us as we cut our way through to the top of the mountain on our bikes. The curves are anything but forgiving, and every single hairpin reminds us there is more to learn. Every road has a personality, some are friendly and open while others are tight and unyielding. Others start out narrow and then open up into a vantage point that just exceeds what you were expecting and you and your riding buddies found it. As we continue up we enjoy the ever widening view of ocean below us as we make it to the top. We find a perfect place to take a break. One by one everyone finds a spot to stop. The different engine sounds that had been mixed together on the way up wind down one at a time to give way to silence and the chirps and calls of the local birds. Helmets come off and reveal smiles of approval of the what they see as everyone looks out into the sun drenched ocean below. One of the riders takes out a drink he bought earlier that will no doubt taste better here than it would have in front of the convenience store he bought it in.
This scene is taken from a ride we took recently. The image of motorcycles in Japan for many may be scooters shooting through traffic or bikes squeezing between two buses. It just looks dangerous. Well, that is dangerous, but that’s not what I will be talking about. Japan has a ton of country roads that just beg to be ridden. In general, Japan is a centralized society and many Japanese prefer the convenience of city life over the country, so this creates an empty countryside just waiting to be explored.
Most of this article will deal with touring around Japan, but if you are interested in off-road, racing or other kinds of motorcycle activities there is a good chance you will find it in Japan. If you consult your local dealer, you will be surprise what they offer. Japan has clubs or groups that cater to all kinds of riding styles. Plus, motorcycling isn’t just for men anymore, the amount of women riders has been on a dramatic rise in recent years with many women’s riding magazines as well as women only groups, although I prefer a mixed group myself. Some of the best riders I know in Japan are women. Another note to make is the recent bicycle boom has many saying that pedaling a bicycle is a better and healthier way do all the things I am writing about. There are some arguments to be made, but the truth is you can’t compare sailing and swimming either. It’s just different, but some riders could use some more exercise.
With that said, before moving to Japan 15 years ago, I rode for eight years in the States and have been riding for six years in Japan with a total of around 200,000km under my belt (give or take a few) I still feel that I have a lot to learn about how and where to ride. I had been living in Japan for almost nine years before I got back into motorcycles and it was a big eye opener for me. I had been to the Japanese countryside many times by car, but most of it was destination driving. I had a plan to go to point A and point B and never really did much else in between, but motorcycles filled the in-between very well. Motorcycles, being smaller, give you easier access to some small more out of the way places than you may think to go to by car. Roads in the country get very narrow, so much so that if cars coming from opposite ways meet, one of them has to stop and pullover or in some cases even back up. Motorcycles get down roads like this with ease. On top of this, you can still go visit point A and B but the in-between is much more enjoyable.
I have also tried to capture some popular local routes on video which can be used as a reference to some of the places I mention later in this article. Combining my love for touring and video editing has made it even more enjoyable to ride. You can find my videos on Youtube at baikudokan1. Baikudo is a concept I have been working on for a number of years. The philosophy of riding mixed with that of martial arts, which I also enjoy. Plus, I can’t think of any Chinese character better to go with bikes than “dou” or 道which means the way of something while also meaning road or path. I won’t get into any details but the spiritual journey made in martial arts as well as control over one’s ego is similar to riding in many ways. I like to think of it as motorized meditation.
Taking the test
I will just give a quick overview of the riding test in Japan. There are several classes of motorcycle licenses, but the majority of people will take the middle (～400cc) or the large (400cc～) class. There are a lot of horror stories about the test out there, but the truth is if you put your mind to it and take it seriously, you will pass. Plus, you may be lucky enough to transfer your license over without having to take the test at all. Recently, some countries are allowed to transfer even the larger class over without having to take the test, please check if you are able to do this at your local testing area. I strongly suggest if you aren’t lucky enough to transfer over to take the large bike test only. Starting from the bottom, as some schools may suggest, costs a lot more and is unnecessary for people with riding experience.
Although, even those with experience need to prepare themselves to be challenged on the test. Everyone I have ever met is confident before the test, but the skills required for the test are not what many foreign riders are used to. Japanese are famous for creating detailed tests with loads of minute details, but if you focus on the goal everything will be all right. The narrow bridge, the railroad bumps and the slalom all have specific ways to be done. This can be learned and practiced. Most of the horror stories are from people who didn’t go to a school. They will have unspeakable trouble and could fail the test a dozen times before passing. I personally tried to take the test without going to school and after failing twice I went to a local school and rented a bike for five hours. I have to be honest, I was better for it. I passed on the next try. It was just about having the right information. If someone is willing to learn, they will pass. It also isn’t rare to pass on the first time after going to the school. For details check out the links below.
Once you have a bike, especially a larger one, it would be a shame to limit yourself to just local riding in the city. Get a good map or GPS and just go. I prefer a map myself. GPS are great to get you there, but often put you on roads that are for getting from A to B. Maps give you a broader view of where you are heading. The Mapple book for touring is a great little book. It’s small and comes in volumes for different regions of Japan. Of course, it’s in Japanese, but many of the roads are numbered and the scenic routes are color coded. If you do read Japanese, it gives you information on points of interest in the areas you are touring in.
I prefer smaller groups of two to five bikes. Riding with large groups can make the journey less personable and slower. Everyone understands this when they try to fill up 30 bikes at one time or try to order lunch together at a restaurant. Although, on the positive side larger groups do allow you to meet new riding partners.
You will meet different types of riders with different goals. Some are into food or taking in the sites, but mostly what I do with my friends is ride as many beautiful roads as possible. We try to find roads that offer a view with as few cars as possible. Sometimes we even pack a bento and bring it with us, so we can eat it somewhere in the countryside and just take it slow.
Really, riding for us is more about areas than a specific spot. There are sites to see in the areas I mention in this article but if you are looking for some sweet roads then these may be some good suggestions for you. For those who feel less confident riding out into the country, as I mentioned earlier, your local dealer is a great place to start. They will most likely have seasonal group rides that anyone can join. Most dealers also break the group up into beginner, intermediate and advanced riders which can be translated as slow, fast and faster riders. Some of the sponsored group rides often go to the same places again and again, so I personally recommend building up your own knowledge of some areas you want to visit. This is where the true excitement is.
View Fukuoka Motorbike Guide in a larger map
A perfect place to start is The Handa Plateau in Oita. It offers some of the best riding in Kyushu. It is also a spot where riders from all over the country come to visit. The Handa area is most famous for the Yamanami Highway. The roads in this area are phenomenal for motorcycles. If you have an adventurous spirit, taking some of the unmarked roads will often lead you to spectacular views of the mountains from all different angles. Plus, the deeper you go, the fewer people you will see. Anyone who has lived in Japan knows that finding time alone is a valued commodity. One suggested stop in this area is the Dream Suspension Bridge (Yume no turibashi). This is one of the longest suspension bridges in Japan at 390 meters long with a 173 meter drop below. It spans over Naruko-gawa gorge. You will need to fight through crowds in the Autumn, but other seasons are usually fairly open. I suggest to come from the Yamanami highway side, because the tour buses come from the Rt. 40 side. No Waiting is one of my policies.
On the map, Yamanami Highway is seen as Rt.11 stretching from Yufuin to a finale of a panoramic view of Mt. Kuju with a high probability of seeing smoke rising up from the volcano. (seen in Yamanami highway video) This is a road that is a must for all riders. After the spectacular shot of the volcano, you get an unforgettable ride over Mt. Kuju, which is just twisty heaven.
On the other side of Mt. Kuju a whole new area opens up. Following Rt.11 over the mountain it leads you to Senomoto. Senomoto is kind of a center to many different routes in the area and also a gathering place for bikes. You can take a break and check out some of the bikes. Plus, if you are lucky the little convenience store on the side sells freshly baked bread in the morning. After taking a break, you have to decide which way to go. Kurokawa hot spring is to the west on Rt. 442, while Taketa city is to the east going the opposite way. While going straight leads you to Aso region which is where the world’s largest caldera can be seen or should I say experienced.
Kurokawa hot spring is a great place to stay over night, but day trips are also possible. The traditional setting of the area creates a great place just to take a walk and relax and if you like hot, springs Kurokawa is one of the best. Taketa city has the Oka Castle ruins which covers a vast area. Just walking along the old walls makes you realize how enormous the old castle was before it was dismantled in the Meiji era. Cherry blossom viewing as well as the Autumn foliage are great times to visit the ruins. Taketa city is also famous for very clean water. Some of the rivers in the countryside are extremely clean. Just sitting on the rocks and eating a bento may be worth the trip. (end of Takachiho video).
If you choose to go straight to Aso from Senomoto you are also in for a treat. The Aso area is basically the center for touring fanatics. There are endless roads, including cow paths that few bother to venture down, that are excellent for just getting lost in the environment around you. A couple of musts would be Daikanbo, the Panorama line and Mt. Aso.
Continuing on Rt. 11 and taking a right onto Rt. 45 will lead you to Daikanbo. Daikanbo is a vantage point that overlooks the green and brown checked fields below. It makes for great pictures and a place to take a break from a long ride. This is also a place where bikes of all makes, shapes and sizes gather. There’s a really good chance you will see bikes that you just normally don’t see. Everything from vintage to high end sports bikes. Many Japanese riders may seem a little stand-offish, but if you start to talk to them you will be surprised. Knowing Japanese helps, but sometimes the love of motorcycles is enough. They say love, music and math are international languages, but I would like to nominate motorcycles for the fourth spot on that list.
If you continue on Rt. 45, and turn south onto Rt. 212, the road will snake down into the valley that you just viewed from Daikanbo. It offers some fun twists along the way. Follow Rt. 212 to Rt. 57 then a quick left onto Rt. 111, also known as the Panorama Line. You can enjoy riding along the Panorama line all the way until Mt. Aso. Right before you get to Mt. Aso you will pass Kusasenri, the mountain lake. If you are up for it you can shift over from your bike to a horseback ride around the lake. I usually opt to ride my bike more. The road to Mt. Aso, which is an active volcano, can sometimes be shut down due to the volcanic activity, so bring your gas masks if you have them. This road has appeared in numerous motorcycle ads and movies. It’s definitely worth a run down.
If you continue, the Panorama Line will take you through the hills and down into the Minami Aso area. When you get to Rt. 325, take a right and ride for a few minutes. For those interested, there is a Texas Roadhouse on the right called The Strong Boss. The food is pretty good. Across the street is a motorcycle club house called Aso Rider’s Base. If you wish to join, the yearly fee is ¥3,000. You get access to an open tatami room upstairs where members with sleeping bags can crash for free. Plus, you can usually park your bike inside. If you get in good with Nakamura-san he may let you use the kitchen, especially if you cook something for him. It’s not the Ritz, but it’s a cool place to stay over and meet other riders. Plus, you have access to some of the best roads in Kyushu. They have warned me that they don’t provide services in English, but will try to fill in the gap with “feeling”.
Kyushu Motorbiking Tips
The truth is this isn’t even scratching the surface of what there is to see, but these are great places to start. Plus, if you need some more ideas, check out my videos on my Youtube channel. You may get a couple of ideas from there. Those who are willing can travel easily around Kyushu and other parts of Japan with the use of ferries to get you over to Shikoku or up to Hokkaido. There are also affordable places to stay, which I will give some links to, but you can also camp and get along on the cheap. Although, campfires aren’t allowed, but the light of the vending machine should be enough. Also, be aware that more animals exist in Japan than you think, so pack food accordingly if you camp. Even in Fukuoka I have seen wild boar in Iizuka, a big family of monkeys on Mt. Raizan and plenty of snakes pretty much everywhere. Finally, don’t forget to talk to the people along the way. You can get a taste of how nice some people are, by checking out the end half of the video when I lost my phone on Hachiman-dake in Saga and someone found it, turned it in and gave it back to me. I’m still in shock from that one.
Traveling around Japan on a bike is one of the best ways to really experience the country up close, but safety should always be given a priority. Always wear proper gear for the type of riding you do and always check weather reports before you go out. Rain isn’t a problem, but typhoons and lightning are.
If you are interested in brushing up your riding skills, you may want to attend a training course at one of the tracks or courses out in the country. You can practice technical skills at HSR Kyushu in Kumamoto or racing skills at SPA in Oita. HSR rents out bikes so you don’t have to worry about putting the wear of practice on your own bike. Most major dealers will have access to such places. Don’t be afraid to ask. The one shop I know that has helped me in the past is Bypass Honda in Yokote near Ijiri Station. They book practice days at HSR Kyushu and racing days. Plus, they either ride out with you to the race track with your own bike or get a van to go to the HSR which provides rental bikes. This is a big help for anyone who is new this sort of thing.
The Journey is the Reward
Lastly, an important part of riding if you choose to ride with others is to pick the right people. Of course, the right people are different for everyone. I once was told by an experienced rider that people’s riding projects who they are. This can be taken many ways, but the most important thing is when you meet someone new, don’t try to mold them into how you want them to ride and don’t try to fit in with theirs style either. There are without a doubt people like yourself with the same riding style, plus some people are just better riding with others. Many Japanese riders as you can imagine make food and important part of the touring experience. Some people like big groups while other don’t. And some like speed while others like taking it easy and just enjoying the ride. It’s really up to you.
I really just want to say that if you rode back home and ever thought about riding in Japan, get started, you won’t regret it. Those who are new to motorcycles, safety is number one. Take your time and find some people you trust to ride with. But most of all enjoy the ride. The old proverb is true. “The journey is the reward” and you won’t know it until you do it.
by Greg O’Keefe
Greg is from Boston, USA, and works at several Universities in Kyushu, and is the owner of an English Conversation School in Fukuoka. He’s also a PhD student at Kyudai in the Social and Cultural studies department, researching the development of long-term Western foreign residents in Japan. Greg is an experienced motorcycle rider, and enjoys riding with his wife and friends. He likes to shoot and edit video, with experience at a studio in the States before coming to Japan. His aspirations for the future include making a full length documentary about riding in Japan. Greg also likes photography and is a 4th Dan in kendo.
Kyushu Motorbike Touring Videos by Greg O’Keefe
Check out Greg’s youtube channel here: http://www.youtube.com/user/baikudokan1
KYUSHU MOTORBIKE RESOURCES
We’ve put together a list of useful websites to get you started on your motorcycle adventure…
NOTE: The information presented here was gathered and summarized by Fukuoka Now staff from several sources. While we have done our best to be accurate some errors in translation may have occurred, or circumstances may have changed. We suggest you call in advance to be sure. If you notice any errors or changes please contact us and we’ll update this report. This was originally published in May, 2013.
• Noma Driving School
License Test Centers
4-7-1 Hanahata, Minami-ku, Fukuoka City
2-4-1 Hinodemachi, Kokuraminami-ku, Kitakyushu City
23-21 Niho, Iizuka City
1135-2 Hisadomi, Chikugo City
*License procedure info:
• Bypass Honda, Minami-ku, Yokote
• YSP (Yamaha (also has bike rentals))
• Lovers (Moto Guzzi)
• Freeman (BMW)
• Welltech (Ducati)
Parts/ Apparel/Service Shops:
They also have a wide range of rental bikes from different makers.
• Apparel Shops:
• Bosco Moto (Tosu)
• Max Fritz
• Freeman: Motorcycle Fashion
• Clubs and restaurants:
• Aso Riders Base
• The Strong Boss Salon
All above text and photos provided by Greg O’Keefe for Fukuoka Now (fn173, May 2013)