Motorcycling in Kyushu – Autumn Guide by Greg O’Keefe
Be sure to read Greg’s first article, published here in April 2013
We had been riding down a narrow road for which seemed like hours. To our left was a green mossy wall of rocks and to our right was a river playing hide and seek with us as we slowly carved our way through the mountain pass. This particular road didn’t allow speed. The turns were narrow and sharp. It’s also known for logging trucks coming from the opposite side, speed was not on the menu. The air was cold, but much warmer than it was earlier that morning. We wore neck warmers and thicker than usual gloves. The thought of a nice hot spring to reward us at the end of the day made the cold easier to bare. My wife, who was riding tandem, pointed to the first small group of trees changing color. The patch of trees wasn’t very big and being from New England myself, where we pride ourselves on beautiful Autumn leaves, I expect beautiful foliage to stop me in my tracks. For the meantime, the bike’s engine was sucking in the cool air and running smooth even at slower speeds. Just as I was getting my fill of the smallness of the road, my claustrophobia was instantly cured when we finally exited the narrow pass into a road lined with fiery autumn leaves. I slowed down to prepare to take our first picture of the day. I had been officially stopped in my tracks. Another year gone by, but another great riding season ahead.
The Autumn arguably the best riding season of the year. The temperature is perfect, the leaves are changing color and everyone can wear those leathers they had hanging in the closet over the Summer. Everyone is out and about on their bike. The afternoons can be around 22 degrees, which is perfect for riders. Although, it can be be colder in the mornings and in elevated areas. You also see more classic bikes this time of year. The hot Summers can be brutal on an older engine, so some classic bike owners hold out for the cooler months of Autumn to take their precious out for a jaunt.
These recent years I haven’t even ridden half of what I used to. I had averaged 18,000k a year before I started my PhD, but have only been able to pull off half of that in the last three years. My bike is three and a half years old and only has 38,000k. Most of the year I prioritize my research over everything, but this time of year is like a sickness for me. I can’t wait to get away from the glare of my computer screen and just get out on the road.
Sometimes the hardest part of any ride is just deciding where to go. Some people hate making plans and just love to go out and ride. That’s fine. Although, in my case, one of the reasons I ride is also to shoot video and take pictures, so finding different places to stimulate the old (not that old) brains cells and take some decent pictures is part of every plan. The decision of where to go and how to get there is something that can hold many people from just getting out to newer places. Plus, the timing of the day can be tricky. The later you leave in the morning the more car and people traffic you will face. Finding backroads to get around the busy places is also part of the fun, but finding those roads isn’t always easy with a map. The length of the road on the map can look short, but back roads in Japan could take two or three times longer to ride through even though the distance isn’t very far. I personally use a map, but GPS are also very popular. Many experienced riders use both. The GPS can tell you where you are at any given moment and good ones also mark off gas stations, restaurants and places to stay, but tend to lead you to main crowded routes. Maps are easier to see all at once and can make it easier to remember routes. I use the Touring Mapple for motorcycles. It’s all in Japanese, which can be challenging for some, but the route numbers are very easy to follow. I also use a compass once or twice a year when I get really lost. Which brings up another good point. Getting over the fear of getting lost.
I have found getting lost as the greatest part of rides. Some people hate it. In general, always knowing where you are going is safer and can be fun. But a good ride through a wooded area which is seemingly endless, but in the end leads to a place you have never been is a good feeling. Of course, it can have a bad ending and it often does. I rode with a friend last Spring for two hours just to have to turn around because of a four kilometer stretch of road in Itsuki was covered with snow and ice. It was very unexpected seeing it was 15 degrees in Fukuoka that very morning. Turning around and going back was painful at first, but on the way back we passed areas that we didn’t stop at before. We ended up taking the best pictures of the day on the way back. It also helped that we could talk through bluetooth headsets to pass the time. In Japan, many Japanese riders like to have an itinerary for the day. I have even seen rides when they pass out maps and plans for the whole day at the start of the ride. Personally, I do have a goal when I go out, but it often changes due to traffic, weather and road conditions. The headsets make it easier to discuss changes with everyone, so no one gets confused or frustrated with changes.
I usually do ten minutes of route prep the night before I even go out the door. It can save time and help limit the use of crowded roads. Looking for routes that take you around the long way may take an extra hour or two to your destination, but if the roads are new to you, the extra time is worth it. In many cases, it doesn’t even feel like it was very long. I do take the highway, when the route requires it, but I only it use for saving time. Also its a good habit to have some alternatives routes just in case of construction or washed out areas, which isn’t uncommon once you leave the city limits. I have come across many washed out roads, some are passable while others are a total loss. Just a quick tip: If you see a sign for a closed road, the opening allowed at the sign is usually the size of the road a head. So if the space for a small K-truck is open next to the sign, that usually means you will be able to get through on a bike.
Before I get into some suggestions about some Autumn routes, I would like to mention the importance about dressing for the ride. Protective clothing is of course, of utmost importance, the next step is prepping yourself for temperature changes. The cold mornings can be bone chilling while the afternoons are often on the warm side. Also, elevated areas do get colder and should be adjusted for at around six degrees celsius per 1,000 meters. Having a jacket with vents to open when it gets warmer is a good idea. Some people choose to wear layers that you can peel off as the day goes along. The choice of gloves you use is also an important factor. Cold hands are not only uncomfortable but also dangerous. This goes for being cold overall. When you are cold on a bike your vision can become shorter and naturally start to focus downward. I have seen many people try to tough out the first two hours of cold, trust me it’s better to be ready for it than rely on your toughness to get you through. Toughness should be used out of necessity and shouldn’t be part of the plan. You can always avoid the cold mornings by leaving later, but you will be subject to more traffic which slows you down and puts a damper on the fun. Surviving the cold mornings should be part of the game plan.
Recommended Autumn Routes Near Fukuoka
Raizan and Komyozenj
If you are living in the Fukuoka area, popular Autumn foliage spots like Raizan （雷山）or Komyozenji (光明禅寺) in DazaifuI are easy to get to and could also be good for a short ride on your motorcycle. In this article I would like to lay out some suggestions for full day rides to several major routes for Autumn touring. I have also provided an online map that may help. These are all popular places with Japanese, but not many non-Japanese go, because they are a little out of the way. But when it comes to bikes, a little out of the way means just more riding fun. The suggestions below are all day trips, but I will also give a few recommendations for overnighters at the end of this article.
View Autumn Touring in a larger map
A great place to start is in Kikuchi in Kumamoto. It offers a beautiful place to view the changing leaves. There are several ways to get to Kikuchi, one way is to take route 442 from Yame Interchange which will also have some changing leaves along the way around the Hyugami Dam （日向神) area. Continue onto route 387 to Route 45 also known as the Kikuchi Aso Skyline. The road taking you through Kikuchi will lead you towards Aso and provides a fun filled curvy route that will keep you awake and test your riding skills. You can also stop in the parking area near Kikuchi Keikoku (菊池渓谷). Then walk along the fast rushing waters of the river to get a closer view of the foliage before moving onto Aso. The water is very clear and is ranked as one of the best 100 in Japan. There are also areas where you can walk out on the rocks in the middle of the river. The Yonjusanman Waterfall (四十三万滝) is also a site to see. It’s a great place for hiking and taking pictures. There are also some small food stalls and a restaurant as well at the mouth of the park area. The road continuing after Kikuchi Keikoku is the Kikuchi Skyline which has an elevation of around 800 meters, so temperature changes could vary from four to five degrees compared to the weather outside your door if you are coming from the city.
Next up is Hikosan, or Mt. Hiko, which is located on the border of Eastern Fukuoka Prefecture and Oita prefecture, is probably one of the most famous place for changing leaves in Fukuoka. It is a popular hiking spot for many Japanese. It is also considered a very spiritual place and as of last March has a decent toilet to boot. To get to Mt. Hiko many riders will take Rt.500 starting in Akizuki passing by the Egawa Dam and Koishiwara, which is famous for pottery. When you finally reach Mt. Hiko you have several options. You can explore the many tiny roads in the area, which can be a serene experience or a knuckle grinder depending on how you ride. The hairpins are plentiful so be prepared to have fun. If you are into local roads, the ride up to Aburagi dam on Rt. 418 at the foot of the north side of Hiko-san can be a blast. Aburagi Dam is said to host the ghost of a headless middle school girl, so keep your eyes on the road. If you plan to stay around Mt. Hiko, it would be worth while to take a quick ride on the rail car to the top or a long walk up the stairs if you can handle it. The benefit to walking up would be to see the smaller shrines on either side of the path. You can always walk up then take the rail down. The altitude causes the leaves to change a few weeks earlier than other areas, so plan accordingly. If you are just into riding, you can continue on RT. 500 to Yabakei.
Yabakei (耶馬渓）is one of those places that few foreign visitors go to just because it is so out of the way, but it’s very popular for Japanese. If you are riding a bike there you are in for a decent ride. Yabakei is located in Oita Prefecture beyond Mt.Hiko. The roads through and around Yabakei are small country roads that sometimes require a little technical riding but also are decorated with spiky rock formations on top of the ridges around the roads throughout the area. This makes for an interesting backdrop for the ride. To get to Yabakei from Mt. Hiko many riders continue on Rt.500 to Rt. 496, which hosts the Sarutobusentsubo Gorge(猿飛千壺峡). That’s a mouth full of a name, but it also has some decent Autumn foliage as well, which can make it worth a quick stop. A loose translation would be the gorge of a thousand flying monkeys. I have never seen monkeys there but a deer has run out in front of us before. Moving on, Rt. 496 intersects with 212 which you want to take north east or I guess you could say a left from Rt. 496. By this time, you may need to take a break, the Yamakuni Rest area is a good place to stretch your legs and they have a fairly good Yakiniku lunch as well. After continuing on RT.212 take a right onto Rt. 28. This is the main road through Yabakei. Rt.28 is about 20 or 25 kilometers long and has an amazing change of scenery as you go. About half way down this road at the 15 kilo mark or so you will be in ShinYabakei (深耶馬渓) or Deep Yabakei. This is the area that will hold some of the best foliage viewing around. It’s also the home to Hitome-hakkei(一目八景), which are rock formations that will be surrounded by changing leaves. There are also some tiny shops and restaurants in the area to check out as well. Hitome-hakkei are the most famous of the rock formations but there are many in the area, which you will see as you ride through. Some of the rock formations are said to resemble certain animals: a dog, a fox and a turtle. Although, it can be like finding shapes in the clouds, it just depends on how far you let your imagination go. I know there is a man at one of the local rest areas who has a pet wild boar. I can assure you it doesn’t require any imagination to see it, just bravery to stand near it. Moving on, even though Rt.28 is the main route in the area, there many roads to check out if you are in the area. If you are into seeing some roadside Autumn foliage, then check out Maple Farm Road. If you just want to ride, check out Rt. 27 to Rt. 387 which will take you back to the bottom or southern part of Rt.28 from Yabakei. Also, Rt.43, which starts from the Yamakuni rest area mentioned earlier is also a great alternate road from Rt.28 during busier times of the day, but is a quaint country road that has a flavor all of its own.
The climate in Kyushu is fairly warm and limits a lot of the Autumn foliage to the mountainous areas, but it just makes it all the more refreshing to go venture out to see it. Riding a motorcycle to these places can be a lot of fun, if you are a beginner you may want to ride with a partner or two. If you had your motorcycle license in your country but have yet to take the test here, give it a try. A lot of fun is waiting for you in the countryside.
The day trips above are really only scratching the surface of what there is to see. I have kept the routes here reasonable but there are many small roads that lead to places that are like a different world. All it takes is to turn onto them. If you are into overnight trips I can give a few quick recommendations. Unzen in Nagasaki is a great Autumn ride. Especially in and around Nita Pass (仁田峠), but this can be a hard ride to do in one day from the Fukuoka area. The Ebino Plateau in Miyazaki/Kagoshima changes later than other places because it is in the Southern part of Kyushu. Ebino offers mountain roads lined with changing leaves which is difficult to pass up, but it would be a least a two day trip. It also sport a cool mountain lake at the top. If you are into seeing some foliage around castle ruins. Oka castle offers just that. Only the foundation of the castle remains after it was removed in the Meiji Era, but the contrast of the old castle walls and the red and orange leaves can be a great place to picnic. Finally, if you are into DEEP mountain roads, Gokasho-Heike-no-Sato （五家荘平家の里）is the place for you. It not only offers a chance to see some colorful scenery, but also to witness the Yokagura. The Yokagura is a traditional representation of how Japan was formed. There are different places in the Kumamoto and Miyazaki area that offer chances to see the Yokagura, but this event is held outside at night in a torch lit area. It’s a great atmosphere and worth seeing at least once.
On a final note, veteran riders know this already, but if you are venturing out for your first long ride, always remember to ride with people you trust and can communicate your riding style to each other. Never ride beyond your limits. Every time you do, you are only causing unnecessary stress to yourself. I always say to myself: “one bike, one mind”. Which means that you make all your decisions and bare all the responsibility yourself. This basically means to know where you are going even if you are not the leader. The fear of separation from the group can cause a lot of stress and make people push themselves too hard. I have found the best way to eliminate stress is through the use of bluetooth headsets. The solitude of riding and not talking to people is something, some riders don’t wish to give up. They will need to communicate more during rest stops, but bluetooth enables riders to explain situations and discuss route changes as well as pacing and speed disparities. I prefer the immediate communications bluetooth headsets offer. It seems expensive at first, but may be a better investment than a new chrome gas cap cover. I am often up the front of a small group of riders and it helps a lot to have the collective group discussing the route rather than some jughead (me) up the front making people do u-turns for half the day.
If you are looking for people to ride with, please consult your local dealer or watch for Fukuoka Now meet up events for riders. Most dealers have scheduled rides and events for beginners and up. It’s also a good place to meet people that you may not otherwise meet. Over time you will create your own group of riding friends. There is also an option to rent motorcycles if you don’t own one. You can check out some links in a previous article here.
Best of luck to you and I hope to see you out on the road. Ride safe, Ride fun.
by Greg O’Keefe Be sure to read Greg’s first article, published here in April 2013
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
• Touring Mapple
• Bluetooth headsets
• Google Maps link for Autumn routes
Kyushu Moto Guzzi and Magni Rally – October 19
Peace Ride – October 5