The All Japan National MX Championship Series gets underway this weekend in Kumamoto, Japan, and for many motocross enthusiasts around the globe; this is one of the most exciting races of the year. Though much of the pre-production testing that goes into developing new motocross bikes goes down in the United States, Japan is where the machines actually get race tested and seen for the first time. Though the super-exotic works bikes of the past are far and few in between these days, the MFJ series is where new technology and pre-production bikes live.
As American journalists, making our way to the Japanese Nationals is a challenging affair due to the fact that renting an automobile for transportation is not only cost prohibitive, but navigating the roads and highways is a near impossibility for foreigners. Navigating the complex web of metro trains and bus lines is a must, and knowing someone in Japan who can help you is almost a requirement. Though having experience in the subways of NYC is beneficial, the Japanese metro system makes the Big Apple look like child's play.
Thankfully, I've made a few friends in Japan through the years, and I've visited enough times to know my way around. [Insert "blending in" joke here…] Still, this is my first trip back in three years, as Brendan Lutes braved the voyage in 2010, and the earthquake and tsunami tragedies of 2011 not only made travel to Japan a risky affair, but also postponed the series kickoff for several weeks. In the weeks leading up to my trip, some investigative work leads me to believe that this weekend's event could be a gold mine as far as cool bikes are concerned. Be sure to check in both here, and on the TransWorld Motocross facebook on Saturday!
The flight to Japan is a full 12 hours, and there's no way that I'm going to invest that much suffering on a plane for only a few days in the country. That said, I always enjoy a few says in Tokyo beforehand. Several years ago, Gwen Stefani drew international attention to a trendy neighborhood with her "Harajuku Girls" hit single. Though there have been years where I've seen some truly odd things in the alley known as Takeshita Street, the fashion trends in the area seem to have calmed down dramatically. Still, no trip to Japan is complete without a visit to Harajuku.
One of the newest additions to the area that I was most excited by was a Volcom store. Tokyo Volcom features everything that you'd find at any other Volcom store around the globe, but I was hoping to find a T-shirt emblazoned with the store's logo on it. I was excited when I found what I was looking for: a shirt with the Tokyo Tower, a samurai and some Japanese cherry blossoms on it, with a huge Volcom Stone plastered across all of it. I was crushed, though, when they only had sizes small and medium left. Since Japanese sizes run so small, I likely would have needed a XXL, anyway. I was shocked to spot one of Nico Izzi's old Bell Moto 8s on display in a glass case near the front door. Pretty cool!
Outside the Shibuya train station is one of the world's most popular intersections. When the lights flash green, thousands of people cross in five different directions, every three minutes. You really have to see it [and be in the middle of it] to understand. If you saw "Lost In Translation" with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, you probably already know what I'm talking about.
For a few weeks in spring, the Sakura—Japanese cherry blossoms—bloom and people come from around the globe to indulge in the festivals held in the flower's honor. [On a side note, Nick Wey has these tattooed on his forearm arm and says that, "The tattoo artist told me that this was like a gangster tattoo in Japan, son."] Earlier this week, I took a trip to Ueno and spotted a ton of the trees in Ueno Park, which is laid out, smack-dab in the middle of the city. Ueno used to be known for its abundance of motorcycle dealerships and accessory shops. When I first came to Japan in the 90s to cover the Tokyo Supercross, I spent hours and hours walking the streets of Ueno, checking out all of the cool foreign [to me] gear, parts, and accessories. Sadly, I was only able to find a couple motorcycle shops this year, and neither of them had anything resembling a motocross bike on the showroom. Contrary to what one might assume about Japan, motocross is not very popular in the Land of the Rising Sun. In fact, in order to purchase say, a Honda CRF450R, you have to special order it from a Honda shop, then wait several weeks, of not months, for it to arrive. Though this is the country that manufactures four of the five top motorcycle brands and two of the best helmets in our sport, the participation levels here are disproportionately small.
Today, I got to GO RIDING! Click over to page 2 to read about it…
Many years ago, I became friends with Hitoshi Machida, a teenager from Japan who was studying abroad in California. After he completed his degree at USC, he returned to Tokyo to run his family's two businesses, but we've kept in contact through E-mail, and more recently, facebook. Though he doesn't ride as much as he did when he was Stateside, Hitoshi still buys a new bike every couple of years and rides and races as his schedule permits. Back in 2004, he took me riding at a track called Off Road Village, and prior to this trip I asked him if he had time for another mid-week moto.
Today, Hitoshi picked me up at my Tokyo hotel and we drive two hours north to Moto Sports Land Shidoki, a large [by Japanese standards] facility that sits a mere 25 miles away from the Fukushima power plant. Yeah, that Fukushima power plant. When I questioned the radiation dangers involved in riding there, Hitoshi joked that I should simply avoid breathing his dust. "I also have a radiation detector that my father-in-law bought from Russia," he added. "We can keep an eye on the levels."
The track itself was amazing. In contrast to the hardpacked, roached-out tracks that I have ridden on in Japan in the past, the Shodoki circuit had a slightly sandy surface. A huge rainstorm two days prior also improved the conditions, leaving the dirt moist and tacky. The track is laid out on a mountain and features a ton of elevation changes, and thanks to the trees that surround the entire course; it almost feels as if you're trail riding. According to Hitoshi, Shidoki is open every day of the week, but after a couple racers were seriously injured a couple years ago, the owners have decided to no longer host competitive events. Furthermore, the course itself was tamed down, with all of the larger jumps removed. Even without doubles and triples, though, the course proved to be a ton of fun.
In contrast to a Thursday at a California track, Shidoki was empty. In fact, there was only one other rider besides Hitoshi and I, and he spent the majority of the afternoon doing figure eights around two orange cones in the pits. [It was hard not to laugh when I saw him actually go over the bars…don't ask me how he did it.]
One of the most interesting things about Moto Sports Land Shidoki is that you can rent dirt bikes there. According to Hitoshi, a motorcycle dealer in Tokyo sponsors the program in hopes of generating new enthusiasts and customers. Available for rent were Honda CRF150Rs, Yamaha YZ250Fs, and—oddly enough—KTM 250SX-Fs and 350SX-Fs. For 10,000 Yen (about $120 US), I rented a 2012 YZ250F that looked to be in fairly good condition.
Customers who don't have riding gear can also rent safety equipment, some of it new, some of it…interesting. As I filled out my bike rental form, I noticed lots of other bikes in a garage area. Since space is so limited in Japan, riders can pay to store their bikes at Shidoki, and there were plenty of bikes in storage! One of the most interesting was one that belonged to Koji Masuda, the most successful Japanese racer to contest the AMA series back in the 70s. When he retired at the age of 65 from HRC, his co-workers built him a hybrid machine that featured a CRF450R powerplant crammed into a 90s-era steel CR125R chassis. Hitoshi has ridden with him several times at Shidoki, and he said that Masuda-san told him that he preferred the flex characteristic of a steel frame.
When I took to the track, I was pumped on the layout, but I returned to the pits after only one lap to work on my rental bike. The front brake was non-existent, and the suspension compression clickers were set for an 80-pound beginner. After bleeding the front brake extensively, the power improved slightly but I'm not exaggerating when I say that the front brake on my mountain bike works better. The fork compression clickers were set at 18 out, so I went in to 2, and I stiffened the shock up from 12 out to 3. On the track, the bike felt a ton better in the corners and over the limited jumps, but getting the thing to slow down in the corners was a losing proposition with the anemic front brake.”]”
In spite of riding like a kook with no front brake, I had an amazing time and rode several good motos. It's hard to explain how cool it is to enjoy your hobby in a foreign country. I'm a lucky guy, and I know it.
Tomorrow, I'm off for Kumamoto, where I'm excited to see the best riders in Japan ride the most interesting bikes in the sport. I'm told that the country town of Kumamoto is famous for horse sashimi. That's right…raw horse. Needless to say, I don't think I'll be ordering the "special" on any menus…
Go to page 3 if you wanna take some GoPro laps with me around Shidoki, and see some more photos of the facility.