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Yamanashi: July

It had been planned and chalked into the diary months ahead of time. Brother Rob was coming to Japan for 2 nights only. I`d cleared the scheduled, wiggled my way out of work commitments, booked a ryokan, checked the bikes over and loaded up a new experimental route into the GPS unit...

Brother Rob has been flying with the airlines for closing in on a decade. He`s visited Japan over 10 times and has been just about everywhere else on the planet, but a bike trip in Japan was yet to be checked off his lifetime `To Do` list, and the request was "the more off-the-beaten-track the better". And what a better way to do it than with a couple of GS series BMWs. I gave Rob the 650 and took the 1150 for myself...well I am the elder brother after all.

Rob getting a feel for the 1150

After a comparatively quiet first night spent catching up over boatloads of sushi and barrels of chilled Japanese beer, we hit the hay with grand plans of a 6am wake up and a 7am departure. Miraculously, for once things went as planned. July can be pretty hot in Tokyo, but at 6am it was fairly cool and there was just the odd cloud in the sky. After a quick fuel stop in Shibuya, we made our way west to meet the Kanetsu Highway - the only highway out of town not connected to the central Shuto highway, meaning it`s a little harder to get to and hence the highway I least use and know least about.

Once on the freeway, the city suburbs started to fade away and wide-open spaces took their place. The bluetooth intercom headsets were clearly working a little too well, because while we were `shooting the breeze` doing 100km/hr and at a distance of about 200m from one another, we completely blew past our exit. Such is the technology of these headsets. You forget you`re even riding, as your bluetooth partner chats away in your ear, bringing news and stories from home.

Almost immediately after leaving the highway, we found ourselves twisting our way through a cool mountain forest along roads that seemed to seldom see the sun. Then we were promptly spat out the other side into a little village with old farmhouse shacks on either side of the road. The occasional old lady was hunched over, pushing or pulling her load by the roadside or tending to her crops in the fields. Rob was puzzled as to why it was always the little old women that seemed to be doing all the work. Perhaps the men were inside preparing dinner I added!

Temple somewhere in the middle of Yamanashi

The prefecture we were riding through is called Yamanashi (meaning mountain pear in Japanese). We didn`t see too many pears on the ride, but we certainly saw some mountains. Through valleys, along streams and then up over a mountain pass and back down to another valley, another stream and another little village...and more little old ladies. We passed by a few lookout points, but by now the sun was high in the sky, humidity levels were rising and the sky was a little too hazy for good viewing. A young Japanese couple were just leaving as we arrived at one lookout, but they weren`t driving, they were jogging, and in the heat of the midday sun...up hill. We figured the fella was a lifetime jogging fanatic and he`d convinced his new girlfriend to take up the same sport. From the look on her face as we passed them on the bikes, I`d say she was just about ready to find a new guy with a new hobby.

Our lunch stop was at a place called Okutama, located in the Chichibu region on the Tama River. I`d plucked the exact restaurant off Google Earth and the GPS took us in with pinpoint precision. As it was the middle of summer the parking patrol looked like they were on duty and I expected to be hit up with a parking fee to be allowed to park in the middle of nowhere. But the parking attendant was obviously more interested in the magazine he was reading than leaving his makeshift hut to extract a few hundred yen from two scary looking foreigners, so we were thankfully left alone to park for free.

Our view of the Tama River from the restaurant in Okutama

The water looked too enticing not to jump in, so before eating we decided to walk upstream a little and throw ourselves in. White water rafting without a boat, with just a pair of flip-flops extended ahead to steer you by the rocks can be quite a rush. Refreshed and chilled by the icy waters, we ordered up some hot soba noodles, taking our time so that our bluetooth headsets had some time to recharge. The public vending machine was connected to the only powerpoint we could find, so we made sure we didn`t unplug it for too long. It was a choice between two fully charged bluetooth headsets or warm drinks for the guests at the restaurant. No one seemed to mind, or perhaps they were too polite to say.

The afternoon`s ride took us deep up into the hills of Chichibu National Park, past Okutama Lake and to roads that we virtually had entirely to ourselves. The twists and turns became almost hypnotic and minutes went by where I completely lost track of time and lost my sense of awareness completely, or perhaps gained awareness completely. I`m not sure exactly which. It left me wondering how the ride had so drawn my mind into the moment that all else had been pushed aside...all other thoughts falling silent and paling in comparison to the ride.

The ride

Once over the last of the hills it was down to the highway, not to join it, but to pass under it on our way to our final destination - Mt. Fuji and Lake Kawaguchiko. We had a choice here between the main road or the hills with the views. Rob wanted the views, so up we went. At the top we found an awesome restaurant nestled into the hilltop, with lots of outdoor seating, but devoid of any life whatsoever. Fuji wasn`t out today, so the guests had all stayed away. Another place I`ve noted down to revisit another day.

We pulled into our ryokan an hour ahead of dinner, which allowed us a chance to put our feet up for a while, and it was around then that I noticed that Rob had managed to bring a bout of the flu with him to Japan and it was starting to take hold. By the next morning he was weezing and he had a flight to be catching and working on that evening. Cutting our intended course a little short we headed for the highway by way of Lake Yamanakako. More great riding here, but by this time the focus was on a coffee and getting brother Rob back to Tokyo on time and in a somewhat acceptable state for his evening flight. By 10pm that night I would be soundly tucked into bed, whereas Rob`s flight would just be taking off, so he wouldn`t be catching any ZZZZs until lunchtime the following day...and with a fever...ouch! Who said being a flight attendant was all fun and games.

Rob just managing to survive 100km from Tokyo

A shot of Starbucks coffee at the first highway rest stop had us wired for the final 100km back to Tokyo. As a result we were back in the big city in record time. Apart from a little traffic just 1km before our highway turn off, it was an ultra smooth ride back into town. I always love the ride back home flying between all the high-rise office buildings, especially on a weekday, when I can see everyone working at their desks while I`m enjoying the freedom of the ride. At any other time Rob would have loved it too, but by this time he was near delirious and I was just glad he was managing to stay on the bike.

All in all it was a great trip. Next time, I`d put in a request for Fuji views and a flu shot, but who ever said life was perfect. For those interested in the well-being of brother Rob, I can gladly say that he survived his little ordeal, even though he did spend a week suffering in bed when he got back home. Last time I saw him, he was rambling and foaming at the mouth like a mad dog, so I do feel a little for the passengers on the flight that day. I`m sure more than a few of them got the fish instead of the chicken, but I`d say they were lucky if that`s all they got!