Original story from August, 2006
In Katano Japan, when your hosts asks if you can ride a motorbike, the answer is always YES – even if the last time you mounted such a steed it ended with you rolling across the pavement while watching your friend’s motorcycle skid by. Seeing true Japanese drifting in the mountains outside of Osaka is by far worth the risk.
Taking my word for it, Takashi and I sped off into the warm summer night in search of the infamous racing circuits. My transport, his father’s motorbike, ran beautifully all the way to the fuel depot–our first stop and just far enough to get my confidence up for the rest of the journey. Staying true to their formal and hospitable reputation, Japanese gas station attendants wear full-mechanic jumpsuits make quick work of filling up our small tanks. The scent of gasoline ignites my courage for the rest of the trip and certainly not taking time to chit-chat, we proceed.
With as much of a roar as our small bikes could muster, I followed Takashi through a few more winding roads–driving on the left for the first time in my life, until I could soon hear the whining screams of performance Japanese engines; I knew we must be close. Coming to a new, wider road ahead of us I could see the cars brooding, searching for the next race. We merged onto their path before pulling off to meet some other observers stationed on the opposite side of the road. Takashi spoke with them for a bit, far too fast for me to understand, and explained that the races were higher up the mountain and that if I wanted to go, we would have to ride our bikes on the track…
Knowing that I only live once, I agreed to go for it and we took off on our bikes, climbing steadily into the dark mountains. Suddenly from behind I could hear an approaching predator, fast and blaring with its electric blue headlights–our first visitor, passing us furiously to continue the circuit. Then came others, most far enough away to just be loud, one coming so close I feared the concussion would’ve put me into the grassy, gravel shoulder. But we persevered and reached a lookout point with the cars, and motorcycles, below.
I soon realized that the bikes, buzzing like turbo-injected hornets, were in a tight line formation and that only the lead bike had his headlights on! Takashi explained that headlights sap electrical engine power and so to add into the thrills–and to take a competitive edge, bike racers will turn off their lights when hot on the pack leader until they are able to overtake him. This shocked and bewildered me, and despite the inherent danger in this, I didn’t see stupidity, I saw bravery–the kind that isn’t exactly common in everyday modern life. It started to make many things about Japan make sense, the high regard of honor, saving face, and now these young men – the “swordless” Samurai, willing to perfect their craft above all costs…they inspired me.
Circuit racing, what I was observing, has apparently gained in popularity in these mountains over drifting because the police have studded the roads with reflective beacons to deter drifters from crossing the lanes (while sliding sideways). Now on many roads the goal has become having the fastest lap times, and not necessarily an actual overtaking victory. After a while more, Takashi and I decided to head home, it was after all late given my 2-hour delay in arriving to Hirakata-shi, not Hirahata as I mistakenly had done…
Taking a few pointers from my Japanese compatriots, I rode as fast as I could down the mountain roads even to the point of maxing out the bike (appx. 45mph). Admittedly–Takashi was a bit hard to keep up with. Everything was smooth sailing until close to his house there was what I saw to be a construction site on the road with strobes, flashers and men in reflective blue vests (actually a Japanese sobriety checkpoint). Takashi was stopped ahead of me and then allowed to pass, I cautiously rode up and after hearing something indistinguishable in Japanese I uttered “wakarimasen” (I don’t understand) and the officer chuckled “ahh…uhh…alcohol check…please blow here.” Though put off as an American by the involuntary breathalyzer, I was damn happy not to be arrested–Takashi later found out that I should have had an international driving permit to operate the motorbike. We arrived safely at his home and I ended what was one of the most incredible nights of my life–all possible only because I believed the idea that there’s a little Samurai in all of us.
Author’s notes: Takashi was a friend I met through HospitalityClub.org– a way to meet friends and gain free lodgings almost anywhere in the world. Katano, his town is nestled just east of the region between Kyoto and Osaka Japan. My stay with him included not only this biking adventure, but more motored tours to temples, towns and sushi spots–even a Japanese grocery store. None of it would’ve been possible without the generosity of him and his family. As for pictures, Tak and I agreed that camera flashes are not a good idea for midnight mountain racers.