Well, where to start?
Where can you tour in December? No…Where does one want to tour in December? Mmm,… Where does someone like JamesK go touring in December? Better but… Where shouldn’t one go touring in December? Yep, that’ll about do it!
..it is long winded and loaded with mistakes so no knit-picking, just come along for the ride!
JamesK and I had been thinking what to do or basically where to go for the final weekend of the year and various places were bounced around but JamesK had already been everywhere this year so we were hard pressed to think of anywhere unique and of course he was all out of ideas. However, especially in a riders’ paradise spoiled for roads like Japan, there is always somewhere new or interesting to ride. So, time to don thinking cap. And after about 3seconds, you know what happens when you don’t think things through enough, right?… :stir: You have stupid ideas! Well, JamesK and I are not new to ideas bordering on stupid and where do you draw the line between stupid and crazy-cool anyway? Mmm, still having a problem with that one but we did have the opportunity to ponder that in a snow encrusted SA on this one and came to the conclusion that if you fail, it’s stupid and should you succeed where others discounted, discouraged and even ridiculed then that is crazy cool…maybe, or something like that.
So, our ride was to start on december 29th and on the 26th, after procrastinating for weeks, I suggested we try going as far north as possible on the expressways and of course J said “Sounds good. What time?” This wasn’t crazy cool, it was likely to be crazy cold!
Well, Thursday after work and looking at the road conditions, which ought to be taken into account considering the unusually cool weather this year and things didn’t look good!
The 1st pic below is for snowchains(purply highlights), accidents and road closures. The 2nd pic shows snow chains and heavy snow. I took the screen snaps tonight and they don’t look as bad as they did that Thursday.
But we had been making many salutations to the weather Gods and the weather cleared Friday and the roads seemed to be clearing and opening up by Friday night so…
Saturday morning, climbed out of bed at a very reasonable 7:30am, packed the tank bag, tailbag and a winter sleeping bag. What went in the bags? This and that but most notably, 20packs of stick-on hot packs. Good for heating where heated jackets and gloves can’t, like the legs and just in case we hit a snag…
After all that stuffed in the tail bag it was breakfast time. When riding with JamesK on an expressway jaunt it is best to load up on adequate sustenance!
Then on the road at 8:30 to James’ place. Unloaded the FZ1 and climbed aboard the FJR for a short stint to the bike rental shop. Yep, wanted to ride something a little more … or less stressful if we were going to be doing a highway jaunt. So, a VFR1200 was ordered up for it’s superior cruising range and just to sample Honda’s take on the hyper tourer type bike. Having heard disappointing reports of the jp-spec VFR, it had to be a re-import but could only find a DCT. I’m a big fan of the athletic endeavour needed when shuffling gears to extract the most from the ride and was not a fan of auto-technology. The DCT has no shift peddle or clutch…how would that work? Well, it is loaded with tech, which I dig and with 160 horses from its V4 it ought to provide enough excitement.
Just getting it moving takes some learning and dexterity of the digits…
After figuring out how to get the rubber rolling we were away and onto our 1st stop 10 minutes away. A combini for some rider fuel and fitting the tank bags power and essential power cable for the heated jacket and gloves. That done, we hit the road.
The expressways rolled by. Chuo, Ken-O, Kanetsu and the Kita-Kanto. Some way into the Kita-Kanto and with 203km showing on the VFR’s meter the reserve started to flash. Mmm, interesting. Indicated to my wingman a refuel was in order so fuel was in our scopes. The interweb blurbs mentioned 300km range when cruising which is what we had been doing. Maybe the reserve was huge like those blurbs had also mentioned. Luckily, 45km into the reserve, a sign came up saying fuel in 5km. Fwhew! Unluckily, the exit for the Tohoku came up in 3.5km! 17 odd kilometres later I was pushing Honda’s finest north to the mobile refueling ship USS-FJR. Must’ve sounded like a hideous or ridiculously cheap phone sex session with all the panting and puffing and vile cursing I was spewing down the intercom to James. Luckily, he came to help with the push as Honda’s finest is also it’s heaviest ever VFR! And for his effort, he got a mouth full of fuel that repeated on him all day and into the night. Sorry mate! I still don’t know how you didn’t explode while smoking. Heheh, I was watching and waiting you know!
A splash from J and we were on the crawl still on the search. A couple of corners later a sign came up saying 16km to KamikawaSA. Mmm, we’d put in a little less than a litre and needed to go 16-17km. Could it make it. On a long ride, we think about various things and a good way to pass the kms is calculations: averages, time and range. So, the numbers were crunching and I really wasn’t sure but was sure that 70km it should and it did! It took 17.83Litres in its 18L tank so we were close. We took this opportunity to take a late lunch lunch and watering as it was our 1st real stop.
Back on the road and with some rethinking on fuel strategy decided, we were northbound. Temps were steady from 10° down to 3°. Somewhere around Fukushima the sun fell over the horizon and somewhere around Morioka a brilliant almost full moon lit up the snow capped mountains around us. Actually, it wasn’t just the mountains as the roadside had slowly been gathering winter’s dandruff on it’s verges since just north of Sendai. It was a welcome change of scenery from the desolate winter browns and baldness to the south. @235km from our last stop, we pulled into Choujahara SA for the 2nd fuel up and the VFR was doing better on the economy front with as the reserve was engaged only a couple of kilometres from the SA.
At the SA we took some light snacks and warm drinks. Think it was around 5° there. A big plus when highway hauling in Jp is the variety of PA/SA and not knowing what you’re going to find. This stop was no exception as there was a rather rotund man frying and powdering donuts while his sidekick flogged takoyaki. Never one to turn down donuts I had to have one. When James came back from his warm little sitdown and forage inside he had a quizical look at my hand at which I gestured to the van nearby. “Donuts?” “Uh huh.” “Real donuts?” “Yep, sugared and all.Not bad actually..grab me another while you’re there would you.” he nodded and was soon back with 4 steaming donuts. We nodded our appreciation to Ren & Stimpy in the yellow van of dough who seemed to be shutting up for the night. Just in time! Not long after, the little guy sprung up outa nowhere with a big bag of donuts for James. A very welcome surprise! So we slowed down the coffee and fed up. Man, they were good…Homer Simpson good. Ah haha!
North of Morioka the expressway starts to climb and swing west through the Hachimantai area. Whenever heading north, I enjoy this section as it winds, climbs and cuts tunnels through a course mountainscape weathered by the extremes of the inland north. It’s a pretty good and challenging road, too. 😉
It climbed and the temps fell. And fell and fell down to -1° . Ok, ice is made at 0° , right? Then down to -3° and James had to stop. Couldn’t blame him actually as the white was worth a pic or 2 but the PA was a bit dicy. Actually J, if your ears were burning, it was because I really didn’t want to head into that under-equipped snow glazed little PA.
Back on the road and just when I started thinking about wild and extreme possibilities it took a big dip and then the extremes seemed plausible! Finally, cresting a range, the VFR’s temp gauge bottomed out at -8° . Then a roadside temp sign showed -7° . Cold enough for me! They say they use some freaky chemical to dramatically lower the freezing point of the water/ice/snow on the expressways. How dramatically? In what concentrations? And how about the top layer of water flowing across the sub zero roads… Why didn’t I make time to research this more seriously? Stupid is besting crazy-cool at this stage. Never mind, soldier on, the VFR has ABS, big footprints, traction doobawackies and…soldier on!
About 30km earlier the reserve had started flashing so fuel was needed within 35km but we were moving slower so maybe 40km. Typically, we can find fuel every 50-60km on the expressway so there was still time, I thought. Around 50km into reserve, notified J that an expressway exit was imminent as we hadn’t seen any signs for fuel coming up in the next 20km. Running out of fuel was not an option as no fuel means no power which equals no heat and taking off all my gear to put on all 35 remaining heat packs would likely be an exercise in snap freezing followed by uncontrolled shaking until thawed and then a slow warm all the while trying to flag down a passing car while J puffs away on warm cigarettes encased in warm’n’safe’s finest! At 58km into reserve with 296km since last refueling, we exited at Kuroishi in search of fuel!
Getting to the toll gate was ok. But ETC in the tankbag didn’t work. Rolled through, pulled over onto a white encrusted bylane. Looked across at J and he wasn’t leaving the tarmac for anything. But he had to as the thin black strip of grippy stuff ended about 10m later. Then the toll troll was on us and easily dispatched with a greating and handing over the ETC card. He soon returned expressing surprise that we’d trecked in from Tokyo earlier that day and on bikes! We asked about fuel on the expressway in these parts and apparently there isn’t any on the northern stretch when northbound! Really? Well, there is a serious lesson as to why prep is vital on long runs. Well, we needed gas and he pointed the way so I was off. J trailed slowly behind.
The next 3km was a…lets just call it a big change. James later described it as something he’d NEVER do again which is saying something! Eyes shooting everywhere trying to stay on the thin stips of black, x-raying for ice, trying to be as gentle on the controls as possible and just staying positive and focused we made it to a Mobil GS. Now, this GS had a flap over the bowser pump thingies intended to keep snow/ice/freezing rain off I guess and made from that see thru rubber sheet. You know, the pliable stuff? Nothing pliable about it at -6°! J thought he was going to snap it off! It was then I noticed that my tankbag cover was the same and that even though the phone was being fed power from the bike, the battery was below 10% and falling..no phone = no tunes or more importantly, emergency calls.
J wanted a break and I was keen to warm up my nose in the combini down the road so off we went. Now, I reckon riding in these temps at speed is much better than slowly if you have heated gear. Why? Visor fog! At speed, with the nose vent cracked and directing a little air on the visor the fog is kept at bay. Going slow, the only option is to have it cracked. As I sit here now 3 days later, my nose is still a little spotty.
Anyway, back to the ride. I pulled up to the combini and another white encrusted carpark. So, deploying the TCX snow pods on ends of each leg, the VFR made its way gingerly and without event to a non-dramatic parking in the line out front of the combini between all the snowchain equipped 4 wheeled heater boxes. Dismounted, trying not to slip, turned and where was J? Not out front or behind the snowbank between the combini and road. But he was about a km down the road edging his way back to the expressway. Damn it! Well, nothing for it. No warm nose or coffee for me. Maybe at the next PA?? For now, just get back out there and stay with the FJR as seperation is as great a danger as bike failure or a drop in these conditions. Out of the carpark, across the ice between lanes with a wiggle into the middle lane which was mostly clean and unabled me to almost catch J but then I had to get back across to the left lane to enter the expressway and there was a rather large island of snow and ice to be traversed there. So, slow to a stop, angle the ride to 45° deploy snowpods and procede like a snail. Ok, front wheel up and over ice burm and then the reaeaeaear whohoho-traction control-spining and stop! 90° from where I’d started and thankfully still upright! How does traction control/ABS even work at such slow speeds? I was in the right lane but facing almost the wrong way. Back and forth, back and forth and keeping the boots in the thin strip of tarmac, it took a while but we were moving again and up the entrance ramp. Then the ETC failed again! Cold or what, don’t know as it worked again later. But the toll troll was back again and dumbfounded but the idea of us returning to the expressway let alone headed north. I asked if the road was open and safe. He said yes but advised we take a rest at one of Kuroishi’s hotels which were good and close as it was almost 11pm. Good advice which made me chuckle as time is insignificant when on a mile munching ride. Eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, sleep when sleepy and ride ride ride!
Anyway, I had to make a decision at that point as I had no phone and had to catch J. Which way had he gone? North or south? I guessed north as he doesn’t usually give up so north bound it was. A little after the split north, his tyre tracks could be seen snaking and weaving over each other but in a smooth enough arc. After the climb onto the expressway, by the snow wall in the entry lane, there he was puffing away like a train and snapping photos. We decided on a rest stop there. It was flat, ice free and quite a sight unhindered by flood lights. The snowscape, illumintaed by the fullish moon and a cold black winter sky full of cool white stars around it. Tried to get the phone going again to no effect and before my fingers froze and fell off, gave up and got the gloves back on. It took about 1/2hr before the pain faded and a short while later my index and middle fingers felt almost normal again. Was glad they were back.
At 11:15 we rolled through the Aomori toll gates and had reached our goal! 850+km in around 11.5hrs. Considering the conditions, not bad.
Check the ice barrier
Turning it around, we were headed back and just getting back through the toll gates with its island of ice at the threshold was a real adventure. The VFR drifted a bit and hooked up just in time, again. Such a good little VFR that one 😉 Anyway, thru the icy northern gates and riding into the silvery white snowscape again, the temps were dropping as we climbed and shot in and outa tunnels. Not really shot as we’d slowed to @70km/h. Now, that’s not usually a problem but the lower speeds had the visor fog back and screen cracked. The nose was so frozen it was burning again and I took to an open and close method counting to a hundred on each shift. When J pulled over I was in frozen appendage mode and didn’t realize till we’d stopped what the reason was.
I laughed and something icy fell on my tongue. So, the tongue went out for a lick around to investigate and…SNOTcicles! My moustache and beard were friggin frozen with salty snotcicles! I was quite elated at this as I’d never experienced it before on the bike and tried to share my enthusiasm with J but he couldn’t make heads or tales of what my frozen lips and chattering teeth were saying 😀 It’s quite a unique feeling to have a toasty core and paws but a frozen face. I don’t recommend it!
Anyway, we did manage to agree to stop at the 1st gas station we saw and take a break. I’d remembered seeing the only one on this stretch on the other side on the way up, a big orange Eneos sign glowing in the snowscape. Target locked, keep on trucking… rolled in there @70km later to find a small warmed room full of humming vending machines of all descriptions. None to nutritious but lots of hot stuff so shacking fingers digging through frozen change and I soon had tall a hot mocha doing the 90second tune thing along with hot soggy potato chips, a couple of hotdogs and then another mocha.
and parking? Snow overhead and ice underfoot!
:zomby: It was cold and I began to think we must look like energy starved zombies staggering around fumbling with simple things, groaning and devouring all in our path.
20minutes later and we were feeling a lot better! Better enough to do some helmet/visor maintenance and gear adjustment. 35min later we headed over to the gas stand where a stunned pair of pump monkeys couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Hehehe! Once the fuel started flowing my guy was all questions about tyres, iceban and heated gear. Seems they don’t get many riders up there this time of year and I soon realized why when confronted with the exit from the GS. It was an ice rink! Better stick to the white bits! J had negotiated it already so the VFR followed the FJR’s footprints back to the safety of the expressway and the next leg.
We made it 125odd kilomtres down to HiraizumiMaesawa SA and I was running out of steam. 3:30 am and we’d been on the road for 16hrs, it was the deepest point of our natural sleep cycle and it was cold and energy draining. We agreed on a sleep. Taking our sleeping gear, necessities and valuables inside we found a typical smaller SA food court come souvenir shop come vending machine storage area. There were a handful of customers and again we got the odd looks. I don’t think it was the location or that we were bikers as much as the lifeless eyes and excess luggage. Yes people, we’re moving in! 10min later we were dozing. A couple hours later, the TV was blaring, lights were on full fluresence and an annoying little bug of a man was buzzing around “Ohayo Gozaimas”ing his hordes of adoring regular 6am Sunday customers! I awoke precariously perched on a chair, upper body splayed out over a table and head on arm in a reservoir of slobber. Warm and safe, with the scent of SA food on the air, I proded the blood starved lower limbs into action and groaned to my feet. We had a ride to finish!
Woke J, had a big feed, topped off the tanks and hit the road again.
Didn’t take long before the rain started. Not hard but persistent. Then it sleeted and pea hailed and even snowed lightly. It wasn’t pleasant but there was nothing for it as the weather forecast said it was here all day and it may thin around Fukushima.
This is when the VFR came into its own. the thing is a friggin rock! Steady as, comfy in a sporty kind of way and as nice a place as one could hope to be in, in such conditions. The screen worked well for me, difussing the air right on top to make a soft spot for the helmet and funneling some hard streams onto the shoulders to keep the weight of the wrists. The seat worked, too. To top it all off, in the slower colder conditions, it could definitely do 300+kms from a tank. I didn’t test it again but pulling into Nasukogen SA after doing the whole stint in D, the meter was showing 252 and reserve had only just come on.
No snow at Nasukogen but still we were the only bikes in the parking area. Come to think of it, we had only seen 1 other bike, a very brave young soul on a CB400SS in snowboard gear with a big backpack, sneakers and exposed socks the day before around Fukushima. Same routing, bladder purge, hot drink, snack, clean the visor and out onto the road in a soft drizzle. But this may just be our last stint as Tokyo was less than 200km away and rain was due in Tokyo in a few hours. As it worked out, James’ heated glove controller had gone on the blink and he needed to switch to his bulky winter gloves as the default 30% heat provided in such a case was nowhere near enough for the conditions and he had a serious case of frozen thumb and numb finger tips! My gloves had gone bad too around 100km back but the left one had warmed a little just before the stop. Thank you Honda for the heated grips! So anyway, our last stop was Sano SA. And Sano had plenty of food trucks, drinks and oddities to keep us entertsined until warmed and then we relaxed and were able to step back and marvel at what we’d seen, done and survived. I took stock of what the VFR really was and wasn’t and it was more than it wasn’t.
Sitting down on the curb to marvel, the headligh still confounded me. An after thought after crafting the easy on the eyes sides, an oddball screw-up or they ran out of money putting all the other sweet bits into it? Whatever the case, you don’t see it when riding and that’s what the this bike does soooo well. It provides a home for riders. A place were a rider can live, craft and relax. That’s what it did for me anyway!
Pondering done, the hanger bay doors opened on the USS-FJR as J went to work repairing my broken and shorted glove wire. Handy guy to have along that JamesK! Until he gets these out then best to keep your back to a wall
Back on the road, we marched into Tokyo and no matter what you say J, you intended to miss that turn and do the Shuto loop! No, no, no feeble excuses. What is heaven for you was more than enough for me. But thank you for taking us the extra distance to achieve a nice round 1600km!
So, if you were ever thinking of doing this, I hope my long winded and overly detailed catologue of our foibles helps you to make it a smoother one. But as James said, “I can’t recommend anyone try this and I won’t be doing it again till summer.”
See you on the road!