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Japan Motorcycle Diaries #1: Welcome, tourists! Hop on a two-wheeler

The author's Harley-Davidson FLFBS Fat Boy 114, which he calls "son," is seen in Tokyo's Koto Ward on June 19, 2022. The original exhaust system has been replaced with one from Dutch maker Dr. Jekill & Mr. Hyde. (Mainichi/Tatsuma Kasama)

"Almost heaven, Ibaraki Prefecture, Mount Tsukuba, the Tone River and the Pacific Ocean" ... If I were John Denver, I'd have started "Country Roads" like this (though I admit it might not have been nearly so popular). Why? Not just because I'm from there, but because the area near Tokyo encapsulates much of what makes Japan a motorcyclist's paradise.

    Avid motorcyclists know that just riding -- anywhere -- is exciting, but diverse landscapes add spice to the experience. About three-quarters of Japan is covered in mountains. But there are different terrains and their eye-popping views to enjoy -- from country lanes to urban highways, and from wickedly winding hill roads to breezy seaside jaunts -- within day-trip distance of any part of Japan.

    And 'tis the season to hit the road here. Riding under blue skies, cooled by the rush of the wind, feels heavenly as hell. But before you start your engine, I'd like to share some practical information for inbound tourists looking to see Japan two-wheeled style.

    Some motorcycles particularly popular among European tourists are seen at the Odaiba branch of "Rental819" in Tokyo's Minato Ward on June 15, 2022. The branch usually has roughly 60 motorbikes for rent. (Mainichi/Tatsuma Kasama)

    James Worth, who works at "Rental819" (the number 819 is reminiscent of motorcycles in Japan because it can be pronounced "baiku" -- bike -- in Japanese), a motorcycle rental shop chain here, told me that Japan has traffic rules and systems that may differ from other countries -- from road signs and speed limits to licenses and "Electronic Toll Collection" (which is basically the same as E-ZPass in the United States) -- but the business provides tourists with such essential information.

    Luckily, Japan is one of about 100 countries and regions that have signed the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, meaning that international driving permits issued in a majority of countries are valid here.

    Strictly speaking, however, an international permit alone is not enough. It must be accompanied by a valid license issued in your country, and your passport.

    Got those? Good. Now you're street-legal in Japan. Next, do an internet search for "rental motorcycles" with the name of the city you are visiting. You can find more than a few rental shops in Tokyo alone. With 152 branches across the country, "Rental819" is one of the largest rental motorcycle businesses here. And it is definitely tourists-friendly, with an English website explaining things to be careful of when you ride Japan's roads.

    Alan Kyu, manager at the Odaiba branch of "Rental819", is seen in Tokyo's Minato Ward on June 15, 2022. "The 18-meter-tall Gundam statue and bags from the plastic model shop near here are pretty popular among tourists from other countries," he said. (Mainichi/Tatsuma Kasama)

    I visited the Odaiba branch of Rental819, accessible from central Tokyo and apparently popular with foreign bikaholic tourists before the pandemic. They say that they can get just about any bike you want ready if you make a reservation at least three days in advance. And they don't charge any cancelation fees, even if you cancel on the day due to bad weather or some other good reason.

    Worth said, "We've had this cancelation policy since the business's foundation about 15 years ago, because almost the entire staff all the way up to the president are motorcyclists, so we understand riders."

    You can check their rental rates at their English website at www.rental819.com/english.

    You may be nervous to ride in a foreign country, as I was when I first did it in the U.S., but please do not worry. For example, you may not be used to riding on the left side of the road, but it's really a minute difference once you get used to it. And, having visited major cities in Asia, North America and Europe, I would say the road traffic here is calmer and easier to follow than in a lot of places (no guarantees, though).

    However, using motorcycles for sightseeing within Tokyo has its drawbacks. Parking is limited and costly, especially in the city center. So, I would suggest that short-term tourists rent motorcycles to get out to the surrounding regions -- where public transportation is comparatively inconvenient -- on trips of one to three days, or rent bikes elsewhere and enjoy meeting the people and taking in Japan's rich and richly diverse regional cuisine and culture.

    That said, just wandering around on a motorcycle in one of the world's biggest cities is also a pretty good feeling. Two good drop-by spots in Tokyo are Jonanjima Seaside Park in the capital's Ota Ward, and Odaiba Seaside Park in Minato Ward.

    Outdoor barbecue pits and a group enjoying a picnic are seen at Jonanjima Seaside Park in Tokyo's Ota Ward on June 11, 2022. (Mainichi/Tatsuma Kasama)

    Jonanjima Seaside Park is one of the two most popular aviation enthusiast hangouts near Haneda Airport because, depending on the wind direction, airplanes fly low right over the park before landing or just after takeoff. The aircraft lovers with their super telescopic lenses are almost as interesting as the planes themselves.

    This park is so popular that the spaces for cars in the parking lot are almost always full on sunny weekends, but motorbikes can always find a spot, and for free. Also, the park has barbecue pits and public toilets (though the latter do not live up to Japan's reputation for sparkling clean facilities). Another reason to ride here: despite being so close to central Tokyo, there is no train station near the park, and buses are few and far between.

    I have visited the park almost 100 times over the past few years, and I would say that good times can be had there even just renting a low-price scooter instead of a super machine, picking up some picnic food at a local supermarket, and settling in for a barbecue. The park has a small shop renting outdoor barbecue equipment, but meat and veggies are available there by reservations only.

    Skyscrapers are seen behind the Statue of Liberty replica and the Rainbow Bridge from Odaiba Seaside Park in Tokyo's Minato Ward on June 9, 2021. (Mainichi/Tatsuma Kasama)

    Then there's Minato Ward's Odaiba Seaside Park, right in front of the motorbike rental place mentioned earlier. Seeing a big city's bright lights is always better from the outside than inside, and this park is just the spot to catch that glittering vista. The night view of Tokyo Bay, the Rainbow Bridge and waterside skyscrapers is especially superb. So, if you rent a motorcycle at the shop here, return it in the evening and have some drinks at the park while taking in the sun setting behind the high-rises. There are also a bunch of restaurants and bars along the park with nice views. But don't get this sequence screwed up: DUI laws are extremely strict here. Even a sip is against law.

    In the following installments, I'll suggest more destinations and top up the practical information. Please stay tuned.

    (By Tatsuma Kasama, The Mainichi Staff Writer)

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    Tatsuma Kasama is a Japan-born motorbikaholic. A high school encounter with the 1969 American road movie "Easy Rider" changed his life, as he fell madly in love with the motorcycles ridden by the hippie protagonists played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. His own past rides were a Yamaha Jog-Z, Yamaha DragStar Classic 400, Kawasaki Zephyr 400, and Harley-Davidson Street Bob. He is now the proud single dad to a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy 114.

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