Hamamatsu, Japan. 25th November 2014.
It rained. Then rained some more. And then in case I wasn’t quite convinced that it was a wet day, it poured down. Hang the expense, I headed straight for the Expressway. I just couldn’t face dealing with over 200kms of towns and traffic lights on such a day. So when I found my hotel in Hamamatsu I went into the well established routine of turning the heater on full blast and spreading my gear around the room to dry. I expected it all to be OK by the morning. Except the gloves. I didn’t expect those two sodden lumps of leather ever to be dry again. At least not in my lifetime.
Sadako-San had rung ahead to book me a visit to Suzuki Plaza, the factory museum. It was necessary to make a reservation although it was free. It wasn’t far away from my hotel although the factory complex surprised me by being tucked away between some railway lines. Nothing too glamourous about its location.
Be that as it may, the visit was very well worth it. Michio Suzuki was a carpenter who couldn’t get work because of the Russo-Japan war. So in 1909 he started making weaving looms, considered to be a lowly occupation at that time. He kept on improving his products but the business really took off when he invented a double shuttle mechanism which revolutionised the production of checked cloth. More improvements led to more success over the years.
Post WW2, wanting to take advantage of the growing demand for personal transport, he developed an auxiliary engine for bicycles, then developed complete motorcycles. Onwards and upwards, continuing to expand his product range into cars, light vans/trucks and outboard motors. He and his engineers seemed to be very good at spotting growth areas and developing products to fill them. I’m not sure, but I don’t believe they make weaving looms any more.
The museum is chock full of examples of everything the factory has ever produced. Of course all the bikes were very interesting but so were the small cars and trucks, as were the examples of future vehicle development – electric cars and bikes etc. There was a section showing how a vehicle is designed and modelled before going into production, including some cut-aways and some full scale clay models. There were plenty of school kids looking around this section. The next generation of Japanese engineers maybe?
The museum was very well laid out with dual language signs and soundtracks to the videos. I came away from there feeling proud to own a Suzuki! Doris felt right at home too.
A longish ride next day, to Osaka. So I got up early and got organised. Here’s a question. Do Sat Navs have a mind of their own? I think mine does. I was on the Expressway and rode past an exit to a different Expressway which was signed for Osaka, but which the Sat Nav hadn’t told me to take. Then it decided it meant to after all so it took me off the Expressway at the next exit and onto an ordinary road. After which it promptly tried to take me back on again! I ignored that instruction, Sat Nav had a rethink, then decided to take me straight on and we came to a road for Osaka which was a toll free Expressway. I was delighted. All’s well that ends well, but I’m sure there’s a ghost in the machine!
I wonder what would have happened if I’d followed that first sign for Osaka? What actually did happen was that a few kilometres down Route 25 my front tyre suddenly deflated, the bike went into a horrendous tankslapper and two seconds later I was sliding down the road on my arse! The truck behind me swerved and avoided me but just caught the rear end of the bike, punching it along the road a bit further before screeching to a halt. I was up on my feet in double quick time in case there was another vehicle coming down in my lane. The trucker was out of his cab very quickly too and helped me pick the bike up, ranting at me in the meantime. He calmed down when he realised I was OK and when I showed him my flat tyre. It all happened right next to an emergency pull in so we got the bike in there and everybody drove on. Except me. I was perfectly OK, not even bruised. But poor old Doris looked a bit worse for wear after her 90 kph slide down the road.
I walked around the bike and took stock. Some items were damaged but nothing that was going to prevent me riding on, fortunately. All I had to do was repair the puncture. When I got the tube out of the tyre I could see that it had let go in a big way. There was a big tear in the inner tube almost as if someone had got a knife and cut a lump out. No wonder it went down instantly. Remember, this was the new tube that got fitted in Russia, not all that long ago. Cheap Chinese crap. Oh well, nothing to do but repair my spare tube, fit it and carry on.
I’d finished the repair and was just putting the wheel back in when a police patrol turned up in a van, big enough to fit my bike in. It seems someone had called them when they saw me come off. I got them to help me refit the wheel then set about re-securing everything ready to go. Not so fast! Having been kind enough to help me out the police now reverted to type and told me I couldn’t ride on the Expressway because I didn’t have a Japanese number plate. ‘Not safe’ one of them told me. I think he probably meant ‘Not legal’. He said I’d have to come off the Expressway and travel on the ordinary road. But I was ready for him! I flourished my carnet with its Japanese Customs stamps, my Japanese insurance certificate and, finally, the printed off copies of my IDP. The poor guy didn’t stand a chance and conceded defeat without a fight. I was free to carry on. They kindly put my old tube in their rubbish bag and waved me away, smiling.
Sae had told me of some places to visit in and around Osaka but in the end I didn’t really feel like it. I needed to deal with the after effects of my body/bike/baggage co-efficient of friction experiment. The report needed writing up. The science community couldn’t be kept waiting! You can translate that as meaning that I needed to spend the time fixing my bike and organising some replacements for the damaged parts. Somehow it managed not to rain for the next two days so I was able to get stuck in with glue, cable ties and gaffer tape and make everything reasonably presentable and waterproof once more.
Broken parts included the rear light, bottom section of the mudguard, and number plate. Missing, presumed squashed, was the extra rear light I’d fitted and the reflector off the mudguard. Heroically wounded was the right hand pannier, some other bags attached to it and the RH tank pannier. My riding jacket had a huge tear in the right arm and ditto the trousers in the right leg. So, to summarise, a poor quality £10 inner tube was looking to cost me around £1,300. I was seriously pissed off!
I ‘borrowed’ some rubbish bags from the hostel and put them inside the pannier. I had been given a very thick plastic bag by one of the policemen to put inside my tank pannier (still in use now in fact). The impact from the truck had caused a securing bolt for the rear luggage rack to pull through the plastic mudguard and I didn’t have anything large enough to pad it out. So I walked around the streets near the hostel looking for something to use. In the end I made a spacer out of the bottom of a tin that hot coffee from the vending machines comes in. It worked a treat and is still there now. Fortunately I have friends in New Zealand who were happy to let me use their address to have some replacement panniers sent to, as well as some items from the UK which would replace other damaged parts. Recovery from a damaging incident was well under way.
My onward plans also needed some attention so I took the opportunity to contact the Korean shipping agent whose details I ‘d got from the Horizons Unlimited website. Wendy Choi was very helpful and I was able to firm up my plans to the extent that I could go as far as buying my plane ticket from Seoul to Auckland. I finalised my booking with DBS Ferries too. This proved to be an expensive and bureaucratic exercise. I had to pay for the privilege of riding on their roads and also for insurance. None of which was cheap. In fact a bike cost more to insure than a small car. It was necessary to supply the ferry company with copies of my IDP, not yet received but I had the scanned pages. No IDP, no ferry ride. These things are never simple are they?
As a break from all this spanner and lap top work I did have a ride out to look at the floating Kansai Airport, one of Japan’s modern marvels, but I didn’t fancy paying the toll to get along the road leading to it. I found a fifty five storey hotel close by and went up to the 50th floor, thinking I’d get a good view of it from there. Thick mist covered the bay. Oh well. I can take a hint and decided it was time to move on.
I was heading to Nagoya to call on Tsuyochi, a guy I’d met at the hostel in Berlin. It wasn’t far from Osaka so I kept to the ordinary roads at first, enjoying the sunshine. I was desperate for some chain lube. My automatic chain oiler had packed up and my very, very worn out chain needed some TLC. I stopped at a bike shop but they didn’t sell any. However the guy there did come out and lube my chain for me. How kind! Further on I came to another small, one man bike shop. I asked him if he had any lube and he said yes but would I mind waiting until he’d finished servicing the scooter he was working on. No problem. I sat around a bit, reflecting on how good it was to find people working on a Sunday but also sorry for them that it seemed to be necessary. After a while I wandered round the shop and was surprised to find it crammed with race bikes. About five racing bikes and four road going Bimota race replicas, amongst which was a track ready Ducati. What kind of a well kept racing secret had I stumbled on here? It turned out the owner was Ohita Makoto, who raced Bimotas in Japan under the team name of Funky Mates. On the front of one of the bikes was a winner’s trophy from a race at Suzuka circuit in 2003.
One of his friends turned up on his BMW GS and once Ohita had finished servicing the scooter he made coffee and we sat around and chatted. At one point his wife and seven year old son came past and he said ‘Good morning’ to me. How cute. I was happy to buy some chain lube from Ohita and he also supplied me with a much needed spare front inner tube. This one had Dunlop on the box and although it may still have been made in China, at least the name gave me some confidence that it wouldn’t explode at high speed!
Eventually I took to the Expressway and when I stopped at the services I was amazed to see about ten Honda CB750’s roll in. All of them were in pristine and original condition and looked fabulous. It was clear they’d been restored to a very high standard. Even though I was walking around them, taking photos, I was disappointed that none of the riders came over to talk to me. Japanese bikers are like that although I’m not sure why. Natural shyness?
I hadn’t booked any accommodation in Nagoya. I was assuming I’d be able to stay with Tsuyochi. Sleep on his floor, if nothing else. Unfortunately not possible. When I saw his tiny flat I could understand why. Not only was it just a one room apartment, it had boxes and boxes of CD’s and DVD’s stacked floor to ceiling. Tsuyochi is a Peter Gabriel fanatic. He collects everything he’s ever recorded, of any kind from everywhere, and he spends all of his holiday time travelling to different cities around the world to see him in concert. That’s why he was in Berlin when I was. In fact he recently lost his job for daring to take holiday time to do so. It seems that having an interest outside that of your company is still frowned on in Japan, for single men at least. I could relate to it all as I’m very close to someone who feels the same way about Eric Clapton. But she’s not quite so single minded as she shares her affections with her football club too.
Tsuyochi said his flat was bigger than those of many who live and work in cities such as Tokyo. The room was about two metres by four, and he had a separate kitchen and bathroom too. How any kind of flat could get any smaller was beyond my imagination.
So I needed a place to stay. We went on the internet and located a small hotel in the centre of the city. Cheap, small rooms. Not en-suite but with the usual hot plate water heater, so good enough for a couple of nights. Mitsunori-San had very kindly forwarded my IDP to Tsuyochi. It had arrived at their place an hour after I’d left so finally I had this all important document in my hand.
I’ve mentioned already the difficulty of finding addresses in Japan. The internet gave us the hotel’s address but even Tsuyochi, Japanese and in his home city, couldn’t find it. The address took us to roughly where it was but then he had to ask around. It wasn’t in the street named but was nearby. No wonder my GPS mapping struggles! I don’t stand a chance.
Tsuyochi and I found a cheap place to eat that evening and the next afternoon he showed me around the city centre. There were some nice buildings and shops to look around and I wanted to post some stuff back home, so he helped me with that and also with getting some paperwork printed off. We found another cheap place for a meal that evening too and once again I was pleased at how easy it is to find good, tasty food at these quick service restaurants.
Tsuyochi is a very nice guy and I enjoyed chatting to him about life, the universe and everything. He hopes to get work in Italy, where I believe he may have a young lady tucked away somewhere. He was a bit coy about that! He speaks excellent English as well as Italian, and I hope everything works out well for him. It’s one of the gret things about travelling, the way that chance meetings can develop into friendships.
But I needed to move on. Sae had put me in touch with an old friend of hers, from university, and he’d invited me to stay over. He lived in a small town near the Suzuka race circuit. It wasn’t very far away from Nagoya and I was there by lunchtime.
Hiroshi is a chef in a restaurant which serves Matsusaka beef. This is considered to be one of the top three types sold in Japan. It comes only from female cattle, who enjoy a beer stimulated diet, massages and music therapy. Who could resist an offer to eat such soulfully raised food?
So once I’d changed out of my riding gear we headed down to his restaurant where I was introduced to everybody. This is another meal that’s cooked where you eat it. In the middle of the table is a gas fired barbequeue. The meat, covered in a sauce, is cut into thin strips and is delivered to you raw. You put it on the griddle and cook it to your taste. It comes with rice, salad and sauce and was absolutely delicious.
We chatted away while we ate. Hiroshi’s father used to wok for Honda and he spent his childhood in various foreign countries. Crucially, he spent five years at high school in America so speaks excellent American English. He says he hasn’t spoken it for twenty years but you’d never guess. He changes his job every three years or so in order to learn new cooking skills. His ambition is to open his own restaurant. He agreed with me when I reckoned he wouldn’t be seeing much of his family after that. I’ve noticed that the Japanese work very long hours and business owners even longer.
After lunch we went down to the nearby Suzuka circuit. It would normally have cost 1,700 Yen to go inside but Hiroshi rang up an old friend who worked there and she came out to take us inside as her guests. Yuko used to work at a restaurant with Hiroshi but now she’s a recruitment officer for the circuit. Outside of the circuit proper is a large themed funfair, great for families and, no doubt, for profits. As we walked under the tunnel into the circuit itself I must admit I felt a bit of a thrill. These places have a certain aura, even on non race days.
Yuko took us up into the grandstand where seats for a big race would cost over £300. There were some cars on the circuit but they were only car club members who’d hired it for a race day. We walked down to the pits as well, and although there was nothing much happening there it wasn’t hard to imagine what they’d be like on a race day. Suzuka hosts Formula 1 cars, Moto GP and the famous Suzuka Eight Hours Motorcycle Endurance Race. I could quite easily picture Ohita Makoto hurtling along the start finish straight on his Bimota.
Back at Hiroshi’s house I was introduced to his wife, Haruna, and his three young boys as they came in from school. Ruca – 10, Kiwa – 8, Itaki – 5. They were full of fun and laughter. Hiroshi had prepared some questions in English for them to ask me, which helped to break the ice. He then prepared a fabulous Sushi meal, helped by the two older boys. I got the impression they were keen to learn their father’s skills. Itaki got me involved in one of the games on his tablet in the meantime.
After eating we played some card games and an amusing word game that I played with Kiwa. He would say a Japanese word and I had to say a word in English that began with the letter with which his word ended. The loser was whichever of us first used a word that ended in N. It seems there are no Japanese words, except proper nouns, that start with N. I lost several times. Hiroshi was keen to see some of my photos of Japan, especially the food I’d eaten, and also of Sae’s parents, whom he’d never met.
Next morning, before I left, I went with Hiroshi to his kids’ school where the two older boys were running in the annual race around some nearby streets. In was blustery and cold but Hiroshi and Haruna were pleased because it seems the boys massively improved on their places compared to last year.
After I’d packed and changed they led me out to a petrol station next to the Expressway that would take me onwards.
It had been a fabulous visit with a great family. Hiroshi and Haruna were wonderful hosts and I loved meeting their kids and enjoying the family love, affection and fun that was flowing around.