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Tuesday, March 7, 2000

Wanderlust and a pair of steel wheels

Staff writer
MOTORCYCLE VAGABONDING IN JAPAN, by Guy De La Rupelle, contributions by Owen Stinger. North Conway, New Hampshire, U.S.: Whitehorse Press, 1999; 255 pp., $19.95.

With city centers in permanent gridlock and the availability of train and bus service decreasing in direct proportion to the distance from urban areas, one of the best ways to see Japan is on two wheels. It's relatively easy to get a motorcycle license; you don't need a special parking permit, and operating costs compare favorably to train fares.

Best of all, you become master of your own destiny. No more waiting for the bus or train, and any destination is within reach, no matter how far off the beaten path. You also make a lot of great friends.

Sweeping down unknown roads and being suddenly bathed in unanticipated beauty is part of what makes motorcycling utterly addictive, but getting started in your explorations can be a bit intimidating in a foreign land. That's where "Motorcycle Vagabonding in Japan" comes in.

Author Guy De La Rupelle, with assistance from fellow long-term resident Owen Stinger, eliminates much of the fright factor by shedding light on all facets of biking in Japan using a blend of fact and philosophy.

The factual side of the equation is well covered: places to buy or rent bikes; good routes and destinations; affordable lodging and camping locations; suggestions on where and what to eat; equipment lists; and even a glossary of useful Japanese phrases.

While some of the information is geared toward those new to Japan and/or riding, even old hands in both scenes will find a wealth of practical travel information.

Suggested readings are also helpfully included at the end of most travel sections for those who want additional information on a particular region.

Rather than try to cover the Japanese archipelago from top to bottom in the manner of most travel books, De La Rupelle chooses instead to feature a collection of tours in various parts of the country.

For him, it's always been the places most people consider to be "too 'wild,' too quiet and peaceful, too secluded," that have had the highest "pleasure per kilometer" ratio.

So giving little more than a passing nod to famed tourist locales like Kyoto, which he acknowledges are already well covered by other books, De La Rupelle sets out on the road less traveled, visiting historic towns in the Japan Alps, Ainu villages in Hokkaido, weathered fishing villages on the Noto Peninsula and a multitude of other places off the beaten path.

Every book worth its salt has a guiding philosophy; "vagabonding" forms the heart of this one.

Webster calls a "vagabond" someone "having to do with, or living, an unsettled, drifting, or irresponsible life." But for De La Rupelle, it's "an old and venerable concept" that worships freedom and thirsts for discovery, the kind of spirit that won the American West. It's a pity poor old Webster never got to ride a motorcycle.

Unencumbered by the fixed schedules and rigid itineraries of train-bound tourism, motorcycling for De La Rupelle is the travel equivalent of a jazz jam: A basic plan exists but you make most of it up as you go along:

"You ride so much that you forget about looking for an inn but you come across an old shrine down some gravel road. The door is not locked and you unroll your sleeping bags on the tatami mats, cook up a warm meal and drift off into a deep sleep.

"The next day, in a fishing village, a family bids you to come into their 100-year-old home and share tea with them. 'Yes,' they say, 'you may sleep in the old cottage behind the house.' "

Much more than an efficient but sterile guidebook in the traditional mode, "Motorcycle Vagabonding in Japan" in its best moments suggests "Lafcadio Hearn meets Lonely Planet."

Setting out for sacred Dewa Sansan in the footsteps of poet Basho Matsuo to meet the famed "yamabushi" ascetics of Japanese folklore, De La Rupelle writes:

"A heavy blanket of humidity hangs in the early Chiba predawn darkness, and I already feel beads of perspiration begin their descent on my chin. . . . I am tired from last-minute packing; there's always that one little item you just know you must have and it is precisely that item which will play hide-and-seek with you for hours until it is safely stowed away in some compartment."

Describing a precipitous climb to a shrine on Mount Yudono, Dewa Sansan's holiest peak, De La Rupelle recalls:

"Some flights of stairs, carved into the mountain, are downright vertiginous, like nothing I have seen in Europe. . . . The path narrows even more and there are iron or steel ladders affixed directly to the rock face of the mountain. I feel that I cannot go on and my knees are shaking. Behind me I hear 'Sugu, sugu!', 'soon soon,' and I gather up my courage and continue forward."

Honoring the tradition that forbids writing about what is seen in the shrine, De La Rupelle quotes Basho:

Yudonoof which I may not speakwets my sleeves with tears.

The book has a few flaws. Though published in 1999, prices for gasoline are already outdated, as is the yen-dollar exchange rate used.

Rustic black-and-white photos are sprinkled throughout the pages. Unfortunately, De La Rupelle's love for his bike leads him to plant it in the middle of just about all of them, often spoiling excellent shots.

The Izu Peninsula is given only brief mention, despite the fact that it's only a stone's throw away from Tokyo and is packed with striking vistas and curvaceous roads.

His explanation of the motorcycle-license classification system omits the "kogata" class for bikes between 51 cc and 125 cc, and the "chugata" class is mislabeled "shugata." However, these are quibbles at worst.

De La Rupelle says his goal was to inspire people to get out of Tokyo and soak up the beauty and adventure Japan has to offer. Has he succeeded?

Well, I'll leave that to you to figure out. I've had enough of being cooped up in front of this computer. I'm going riding!

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