Japan: A Rider’s Secret Paradise

Text: Luke Swab • Photography: Luke Swab

Believe it or not, being a motorcycle journalist is hard work. Especially under trying circumstances. There are rarely second chances. It’s run and gun, get the moment now—or never. I had the time of my life working this project in Japan, and now, here on the plane, I’m trying to bring my pulse back down to its resting heart rate.

When asked last year to be the photographer for a MotoQuest tour in Japan, I jumped at the opportunity and immediately cleared my calendar of pesky things like work and responsibilities. Those things will always be around, but a request to ride and shoot photos in Japan is not a phone call I get every day.

Meet & Greet in Hokkaido

The tour is located out of Sapporo on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. The name may ring a bell for beer drinkers, but for motorcycle enthusiasts it is the ultimate trifecta of empty roads, hospitality, and stunning beauty. Japan has a lot of avid motorcyclists, and this is the place they ferry their bikes to when they can get away from work. Phillip Freeman, the founder of MotoQuest, lived on Hokkaido for two years as a JET (Japan Exchange Teacher) participant. He spent his free time exploring and mapping routes, so he knows the region like the back of his hand. He also understands the culture in ways that visitors only glimpse. He has put in his time here and it really shows in this tour. 

My trip begins with a personal pick up and greeting from Phil at the Sapporo Airport. Riders slowly trickle into the hotel, and the next evening we all meet for introductions and head off for a group dinner. They bring out plates of meat for you to cook on a little grill at the table, an activity that quickly breaks the ice among strangers. 

Picking up the bikes was about as easy as you can imagine renting 10 bikes at once can be. The Kawasaki W800 I had requested by email was lined up with all the other bikes prepped and ready for the adventure ahead. However, there was no luggage on it; but one mention of that to Chie Okamoto, Phil’s right-hand helper and support driver, and she had the problem sorted in minutes. 

Rain and Ramen

With everyone geared up and dark skies rolling in, we take off in a light rain heading east toward the mountains of Furano. As our group settles into formation, I assume my position right behind Phil, as he’s to let me know when to buzz ahead to set up for taking photos. This tour is scheduled to coincide with the tail end of the rainy season every year. Usually, it’s dry and sunny and all the flowers are blooming in the fields, but this year winter overstayed, and the first few days had a lot of rain, which clearly shows in the beautiful, green mountainsides and stunning fields of lavender. Half of our crew was prepared for rain; the other half wasn’t. I was in the latter camp, so when we pulled into our lunch spot for the day, nothing sounded better to me than digging into a big hot bowl of ramen. With ramen and hot tea served all around, we soon forget the cold rain as impressions from the ride emerge. “Did you see that fox?” “It’s hard to drive on the left side of the road.” And as they chatter, I sweep into action, catching the laughter and excitement of our first day. This is going to be a fun ride.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the May/June 2018 back issue.