Japan Motorcycle Diaries #2: Heard this is a small country? Get ready to ride and find out



The author on his then “son” Yamaha DragStar Classic 400 and his biker friend’s Honda CBR 400 are seen in the city of Chiba ahead of a Hokkaido trip on Aug. 5, 2002.

“You know, Japan is such a small island country.”

A lot of Japanese people say things like this, modest and self-deprecating as they tend to be. But don’t believe a word of it. You could spend weeks on the road, exploring each region’s unique cuisine, culture, climate and people. And nowhere better epitomizes Japan’s internal vastness than its northernmost prefecture, Hokkaido.

Hokkaido’s wide spaces are truly inviting place for any long-term tourist or Japan resident on two wheels. It’s especially popular with riders in the summer and early autumn. I say “long-term” because you’ll need at least 10 days to fully enjoy the journey. I found this out the hard way.

I’ve taken two iron horse trips to Hokkaido. In the first, I spent two weeks exploring Japan’s largest prefecture, and it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my riding life. For the second, I decided to head for the Shiretoko Peninsula, a World Heritage area of ​​pristine natural vistas deep in Hokkaido’s northeast. But I only gave myself a week, starting from my home in Tokyo. For all you odometer watchers out there, that’s an about 1,500-kilometer trip. One way.

It took me three days to get all the way to Shiretoko. It was magnificent, but I essentially had to turn around and head right back, motoring a few hundred kilometers every day on average to meet my schedule.


An Aomori Nebuta Festival float is seen in the city of Aomori on Aug. 6, 2019. The author encountered the major festival on the way to Hokkaido. (Mainichi/Tatsuma Kasama)

When starting your adventure from the metro Tokyo area, you can zip up the Tohoku Expressway. If you want to push yourself, you can do the 700-odd-km stretch from the Japanese capital to the city of Aomori just across the water from Hokkaido in a single day. I did that on a 400-cc machine on my first trip, and though I have a Jack Kerouac-fueled love of touring, I must admit that this was a pain, both literally and figuratively.

You may wish to break up the northward journey with stops to sample the scenery and seafood of the Tohoku region. Alternatively, I would recommend taking a long-haul ferry. There are more than a few ferry lines connecting Japan’s main island of Honshu and Hokkaido. From Tokyo, the nearest departure port is Oarai in Ibaraki Prefecture, roughly 120 km away — an easy road trip. Information on this ferry line can be found at https://www.sunflower.co.jp/en/


This photo shows how motorcycles are transported on a ferry between the city of Aomori and Hakodate, Hokkaido, as seen on Aug. 6, 2019. (Mainichi/Tatsuma Kasama)

Once in Aomori, you’ll need to take a ferry across to the southwest Hokkaido city of Hakodate, which takes a little under four hours.

And here I will repeat my advice to take enough time to really appreciate all Hokkaido has to offer. Hakodate and the prefecture’s biggest city Sapporo look close on a map of Japan, but they’re actually more than 250 km apart. I was fooled when I first went, and it was this stretch that made me truly appreciate Hokkaido’s immense scale compared to the country’s other regions.

Flying into New Chitose Airport near Sapporo and renting a motorcycle there is an even easier way to focus your adventure on Japan’s northlands. As I wrote in the previous Japan Motorcycle Diaries installment, there are many rental shops across the country, including branches of Rental819 in Sapporo and by the airport.

So now you’re in Hokkaido, it’s time to enjoy the unique biker culture, climate and what I think is the best thing about the place, the food.


A decommissioned train-turned-free rider house is seen in a park in the town of Okoppe, Hokkaido, on Aug. 9, 2002. As there was a public bath and many eateries in the area, the night spent here was pretty comfortable. (Mainichi/Tatsuma Kasama)

First, there are many cheap accommodations called “rider houses” dedicated to two-wheel travelers, both bicyclists and motorcyclists, along the prefecture’s major routes. Riders stay a night, or maybe multiple nights to explore the area and, typically, enjoy a drink and a chat with the other guests. Even if you do not speak Japanese, you can have a good time talking with them in easy English. You share a hobby and a lifestyle — bikes — so they tend to be very friendly.

It’s the same even outside rider houses. When bikers pass each other in Hokkaido, they often raise their left hands in greeting. This gesture is commonly called “yaeh,” but it is not a Japanese word. I do not know where the term came from, though one theory has it that someone misspelled the English word “yeah” and it just caught on in the local biker community.


The monument for “Japan’s northernmost point” is seen at Cape Soya in the city of Wakkanai, Hokkaido, in this June 15, 2015 file photo. (Mainichi/Hiroyuki Tanaka)

About the climate, summer in Hokkaido is shorter compared to the rest of Japan, and there are wildly different microclimates across the prefecture as well. August temperatures in Sapporo regularly reach the high 20s Celsius. The eastern and northern parts of the prefecture, however, can be cool even in mid-August. When there, I was surprised to see the mercury limp up to just 13 C — a late Tokyo autumn — and heaters were on at rider houses. So, you’ll want to bring warm jackets even in summer if you explore the east and north. And it’s worth going, for Shiretoko or to stand on the island’s northernmost tip at Cape Soya.

Though the cape does not have many things to see, it is a chilly tourist hotspot even in winter, when the temperatures can drop to minus 10 C. There is also a famous breakwater at Wakkanai Port near Cape Soya.


Jingisukan, a Hokkaido specialty of grilled mutton and veggies with soy-based sauce, is seen in Sapporo on Aug. 7, 2019. The dish is usually cooked on a convex metal skillet. (Mainichi/Tatsuma Kasama)


A bowl of rice topped with sea urchin (about $25) is seen in the town of Rausu, Hokkaido, on Aug. 9, 2019. (Mainichi/Tatsuma Kasama)

Lastly, just about any food in Hokkaido is delish. While I love jingisukan, a grilled mutton dish cooked alongside veggies with soy-based sauce, the seafood is especially superb. My other Hokkaido favorites include a bowl of rice topped with sea urchin and salmon roe, and chanchan-yaki: salmon and veggies sauteed with fermented soy-bean paste. If you are OK with raw seafood, I beg you to try the rich, melty perfection that is sea urchin. Any local sushi restaurant should have good sea urchin on the menu, and it will only make you want to come back and gobble up Hokkaido again.

(By Tatsuma Kasama, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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Tatsuma Kasama is a Japan-born motorbikaholic. A high school encounter with the 1969 American road movie “Easy Rider” changed his life, as he fell madly in love with the motorcycles ridden by the hippie protagonists played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. His own past rides were a Yamaha Jog-Z, Yamaha DragStar Classic 400, Kawasaki Zephyr 400, and Harley-Davidson Street Bob. He is now the proud single dad to a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy 114.

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I would love to answer questions you may have about riding motorcycles in Japan, and would like to hear about your own experiences of any two-wheeled tours you’ve taken here. If you don’t mind being mentioned in upcoming articles, please send us your thoughts via the contact form:

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