Riding in Japan

You don’t have to travel far in Japan to experience its wonderful landscape. Even restricting yourself to Central Honshu will allow you to experience everything from countless twisty mountain roads, the majestic Japanese Alps, and coastal roads with an exquisite view of the Sea of Japan and brilliant shades of green in the tranquil countryside.

Riding my new-to-me Honda NSR250, I embarked to see as much of the country as possible in three short weeks. I will admit that the NSR250 is a bizarre choice for touring. It’s not the cheapest bike to run, and an aggressive seating position also meant aching wrists and shoulders were a near daily reality. That’s okay – I didn’t mind. There are thrilling twisty roads scattered all over the country.

Malinda with her new-to-her Honda NSR250.

My tour of Japan started in Yamanashi where I picked up my NSR250.  This is the region of the Fuji Five Lakes, around 120 kilometres from the Tokyo city centre, and it was a good place to get used to Japanese roads because it’s not heavily travelled. There are many hot springs, known as Onsens, in this region, which provide a brilliant way to unwind after a day of riding in 35-plus degrees Celsius.

After getting more comfortable with things like riding on the opposite side of the road and the foreign road signs, I was ready to take on a twisty mountain road on my way back to Tokyo. Mount Mikuni, near Lake Yamanakako, was my introduction. In addition to the sharp turns, there is also a drop in elevation of about 600 metres in less than five kilometres. It feels like flying headfirst down a mountain.

Tokyo traffic

Honda’s NSR250R

The NSR250R is a two stroke V-twin street bike that was introduced by Honda as a street legal replica version of the NSR250, which was introduced in 1984 to race in the Grand Prix motorcycle world championship.
The earlier generation of the street bikes quickly amassed a following within the Japanese racing community as it was the easiest of the two-strokes in its class to de-restrict. Honda had capped the maximum output at 45 hp at 9500 RPM, which was still impressive for a bike of its displacement. However, the unlocked ECU presented the option to significantly increase (and in some cases up to double) the horsepower, garnering it a cult following.
There were four generations of the NSR250, produced from 1987 to 1996. Although the Honda NSRs have been out of production for at least 23 years, the demand for all the models remains high, especially the later generation SP models.

I had to return to Tokyo, but despite all the horror stories I’d heard about its traffic and the complexity of the street signs, I did not find either to be a particular hurdle.

Yes, the traffic is bad, but not much worse than most major cities. Also, you have the option of lane splitting: it’s a legal grey area, but not something enforced by the Japanese police. However, I am told that if you are caught with another violation, they will charge you with lane splitting in addition to that violation.

Contrary to what most people believe, you do not have to lane split when riding in Japan. Most of the motorcyclists I saw did, but I also saw many others who didn’t. The only thing I will say is that when you are presented with the option of lane splitting or being stuck in traffic that is barely moving, you would be surprised how easy the decision becomes.

City riding can still be enjoyable, especially at night with the elaborate use of illuminated billboards. It doesn’t really matter if you can’t understand the language. Almost all the signs on the highways running through Tokyo include Roman characters, though the urban highway system in Tokyo is so complex that neither Roman characters nor Kanji are much help, and I hear this from native Japanese speakers as well.

Your best bet to navigating this confusing knot of urban highway is to bring a good GPS system. In my case, I relied pretty heavily on Google Maps’ GPS system, and with a Japanese SIM card, it turned out to be a very reliable and inexpensive solution.

A gently winding road in the Japanese countryside, mostly empty of traffic.

Out in the country

Heading north toward the coast from Tokyo, I rode for my first time on toll roads which, in Japan, are privately owned and expensive. You will likely need to take a toll road that is owned by more than one company, which means exiting one and going straight onto another. I believe my 240-kilometre trip to Nagano cost in the ballpark of $62 Cdn.

One piece of advice is to avoid the lanes that are marked “ETC” (which stands for Electronic Toll Collection) unless you have access to a toll card.  Also, bring lots of cash. Some of the toll entrances are machine-operated only, and in most cases I found that only cash was accepted as a method of payment regardless of whether there was an attendant or not.

Route 406, west of the city of Nagano. Watch out for blind turns!

The great thing about riding in Japan is that each day on the bike felt unique. If you prefer a more relaxed ride rather than flying through turns hanging on for dear life, there are also countless opportunities.  Approaching the prefecture of Nagano via the Joshin-etsu expressway from Tokyo offered a spectacular view of the Japanese Alps. This was probably the most scenic route of my entire motorcycle trip, with the northern Alps to the west and the coast of the Sea of Japan to the north.

I think I got carried away by being right in the thick of it because I decided to ride toward the Alps on the winding Route 406 out of Nagano, as a detour to the coast. However, when I got there, I found the road was not in the same immaculate condition as the roads I’d become used to.  It was extremely narrow and lacked lane markers, which caused motorists to gravitate towards the centre of the road as they came around the tight turns.

A tight squeeze on Route 406. It’s not as bad as it looks – traffic drives on the left in Japan.

It also became very obvious by the number of commercial trucks I saw on this road that, although I had deemed it a twisty luxury, there were people who were clearly using this road to go about their day and get from Point A to Point B. It is good to practice extra caution when you are on the smaller roads and highways outside of Tokyo.

Twisting and turning

This was especially true on the Irohazaka Winding Road in Tochigi prefecture, around 170 kilometres from Tokyo. The road connects the town of Nikko to the mountainous region of Okunikko; it’s upwards of 1,300 metres above sea level and its 16 kilometres feature 48 hairpin turns, one for every letter of the Japanese Hiragana alphabet, and two more thrown in for good measure. It’s split into uphill and downhill routes, separated at the top by the Kegon Falls and a small village with restaurants and shops.

The Irohazaka winding road in Tochigi prefecture. Yes, that really is a steep drop, but fortunately, it’s one-way with no oncoming traffic.

I could see the road steepen as I twisted my way through the tight hairpins. Riding such a light, nimble bike on this road felt like one of those retro Manx TT Super Bike arcade games with all the exaggerated leaning back and forth, except this was in real life! The changes in elevation felt even more pronounced going downhill, and the drop is so rapid that you can literally see the road underneath you before you even enter a turn.

The turns on Irohazaka are so tight and steep that you can see the road below before entering into the turn

The nice part is that traffic on the Irohazaka Winding Road flows in only one direction, so you do not run the risk of a head-on collision if you take a turn wide. However, this also means that once you’ve committed to this route, you are committed to the full 16 kilometres. During my first run at Irohazaka, I found myself in possibly the only scenario where I could imagine wanting to turn back: rain. Forty-eight hairpins on a slick and foggy road turned this into a white-knuckle ride.

Sunshine after the rain

I was in Japan in September, the official typhoon season, but I was graced most days with beautiful sunny skies. Locals assured me that a typhoon will typically hit an area really hard for a day or two before moving on, and when it does move on, there won’t be a single cloud in the sky. During my trip, one big typhoon hit and I remember waking up around 1 in the morning to sounds of violent winds and torrential rain. However, by the time I woke up again several hours later, it had been reduced to nothing more than a drizzle, and by the afternoon, I was riding off under completely clear skies.

A rice field in Fukushima prefecture. Such flat areas are less common – some 70 per cent of Japan is mountainous.

And the motorcycle? There are more practical bikes than a Honda NSR250 to tour on, but it was a very interesting experience to take the bike out of its racetrack element and see how it performs. I thought that at best, I would have a cool experience with some cool photos, but in the end, I got a lot more out of it.

I was very impressed by how it handles, whether in quick maneuvers through the congested streets of Tokyo or the tight turns around a mountain. And I enjoyed seeing Japan on it, aching wrists and shoulders and all.

Malinda pauses to stretch her aching wrists and shoulders on a scenic road near the Bandai Asahi National Park, on a detour to Fukushima.

2 thoughts on “Riding in Japan”

  1. Right on! I spent a few weeks driving our chase vehicle (a miserable Nissan Serena minivan) while my brother, Scott, ripped around southern Japan on a new Kawi Z900RS, while we filmed a miniseries for TV there. Most of the time I was green with envy, but dressed in full gear (ATGATT) in weather that crested 40-degrees (plus oppressive humidity) it didn’t always look like my brother was having the most fun. NSR250R must be such a fun bike!

  2. “I believe my 240-kilometre trip to Nagano cost in the ballpark of $62 Cdn.”

    Still less than half what the 407 ETR crooks will charge you per km.

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