It didn’t take years of riding experience to tell the situation was getting out of control. Traffic shot down the narrow highway like a river at flood stage, and we were swept along like so much flotsam and jetsam, knowing that the moment we slowed we would be plowed under. The big trucks pressed in around us, following far too close and even sweeping by us in our own lanes if we dared to leave them enough space to crowd by, the lug nuts on their wheels spinning furiously away mere inches from our shoulders like the teeth of a grinder in search of fresh meat. The further we went, the greater my sense of foreboding became. We needed to get off the road now.
To be honest, I hadn’t been too excited about taking the trip to begin with, but when my good friend Peter, a tall, lanky Australian I had met shortly after arriving in Japan, suggested we take our bikes out into the countryside in search of adventure, I had acquiesced. I had introduced Peter to riding, after all, and had even helped him buy his first bike – a black and grey Yamaha FZR250. It was only natural that once he had a few months under his belt that he would want to take it on some sort of trip, and, reluctant as I was, I felt honor bound to go along.
August in Western Japan is amazingly hot and humid. The summer sun beats down with an almost tropical intensity, and the heat had taken a toll on us as we had crossed through the mountains and found our way to the world famous Suzuka circuit. I had driven the track in almost every video racing game I had ever played and was familiar with every inch of the course, but I hadn’t realized that it was actually just a part of a much larger amusement and water park.
Peter and I spent the day alternately baking in the sun as we watched teams practice for the 8 hour race and cooling our bodies in the various water attractions, looking for all the world like two stark white polar bears in a sea of brown-skinned girls. When the park finally closed, we bought bento box dinners at a convenience store and spent the night in front of a small fire on an isolated beach.
The next morning we ran south through Mie prefecture, the sun once again roasting us inside our own skins as the roads became progressively smaller and more rural. Finally, when we could go no further, we spent the night next to our bikes in a rented parking space in a gravel parking lot on an isolated spit of land near a place called Cape Goza. The night was miserable. The air hung thick and humid above the rocky surface of the parking lot while overhead flickering white florescent lights made it impossible to sleep. Mosquitoes assaulted us in endless waves and, although we slept in fits and starts through the night, we found no rest.
At first light, we mounted our bikes and headed towards home. Knowing that I could not take another full day of being exposed to direct rays of the fierce summer sun, I determined we should get there as soon as possible and examined my map for other options. On paper, at least, the highway had looked like the perfect short cut, a smooth, unbroken line that passed tantalizingly close to home. But it was, we soon found, a narrow, rutted stretch of road that was positively filled with huge trucks, each one going as fast as it possibly could. For a while Peter and I did our best to keep up the pace, but the truckers were relentless, crowding in on us whenever possible, making close, dangerous passes and then whipping back over into the slow lane with bare inches to spare. After 30 minutes I understood. To remain on this road was to risk death, and so, when the McDonald’s sign hove into view, we exited as quickly as we could.
Within a mile of the restaurant, the road narrowed and the town fell abruptly away. The mountains closed in around us and the forest grew thick and impossibly close. Ahead, a raccoon or perhaps a tanuki, the famous Japanese “racoon-dog” took offense at our sudden appearance, glaring at us before turning and stalking off into the underbrush. Our momentum slowed as the road twisted and rose as it followed a swift flowing stream, and beneath a canopy of tall pines the heat of the day began to abate. The misery of the previous night and the danger of the morning fell away, and we were rejuvenated as we swept north into the unspoiled mountains.
The road twisted then dipped and suddenly, as we came around a corner, a line of stopped cars appeared ahead. It was an odd sight: one moment it was just us alone in the wilderness, and now we were at the end of a traffic jam. Would the wonders of Japan never cease? Obviously they were waiting for something, so we pulled up and stopped at the back of the line. After killing our engines and removing our helmets, Peter and I took a long look at the situation.
Ahead a large truck pulling a low-boy trailer carrying a piece of heavy construction equipment had bottomed out on a hillock and was blocking the road. We dreaded turning around, but it looked like the problem wasn’t going to be solved soon, and we both knew we were too exhausted to spend hours waiting. Desperate, we rode to the front of the line and took a closer look at the situation.
Sure enough, there was a space, not big enough for a car but large enough that our bikes could both squeeze through. So, while everyone else stood around looking disappointed, we put our bikes through and were soon running down the backside of the mountain range thoroughly enjoying ourselves on the wide-open road. Perhaps a dozen miles on, we intersected with the east-west road my map showed, a road it turns out I knew well from my earlier explorations, and we made the rest of our trip home in good time.
As we rolled back into the city of Kyoto, I gave Peter a wave and split off towards the air-conditioned splendor of my tiny, one-room apartment. Here, on the roads I knew in the town I regarded as my “own,” I unerringly made my way home and parked in my usual spot alongside the scooters in front of my building. The trip, I realized later, had been a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that had shown me both the best and worst parts of Japan: the heat of the city, where people will quite literally run a person over to save 30 seconds of travel time, versus the rugged back country, where people move at their own pace and where even if the road is blocked, you can still find a way forward as long as you take the time to look.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for nine years, Jamaica for two, and spent almost five years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A longtime auto and motorcycle enthusiast, he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.