Kako ii!

As a Japanese-American, I’ve always taken special interest in racers from Japan who visit the States to try their hand at Supercross or the AMA Nationals. And why not? Though I am probably less Japanese at heart than the guy who works at the local teriyaki bowl restaurant, it is hard not to secretly root for a guy who has eyes that look just mine.

With the exception of Akira Watanabe-who won the 125cc World Championship in 1978-Japanese riders have not made a significant mark on motocross racing outside of Japan. One might assume that with the Big Four manufacturers residing on its shores, Japan would crank out champion after champion in motocross, but truth be told, Japanese racers are far more competitive around the globe in other forms of two-wheeled motorsports. Still, for motocross fans around the globe, the All Japan Motocross Championship Series is of great interest, mostly because it is here that we can get our first glimpse at the machines of the future. Without the production rule that limits the machinery in the AMA series, MFJ teams are allowed to field exotic works bikes and pre-production units in National competition. Furthermore, in addition to Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha, Japan is home for companies like Yoshimura, Shoei, Arai, Dunlop, Bridgestone, Keihin, Showa and Kayaba; all companies that play important roles in motocross around the globe.

BON VOYAGE

I’ve been to Japan several times, but I still look for an excuse to visit every chance I get. In this instance, my curiosity was sparked when I spotted an unusual set of Yamaha plastic in the N-Style design room. Though they tried to deny the fact that it was a set of plastic for a Japanese works bike, I could tell by the Jubilo graphics on the shrouds that it was for a Japanese race team. (Jubilo, you see, is a soccer team owned by Yamaha in Japan…)

Within hours, I had my tickets booked to attend the opening round of the All Japan National MX Championship Series opener at Meihan Sports Land, just north of Osaka. Anyone who’s ever flown to Japan from the States knows that it is a brutal 12-hour flight, so I extended my stay to eight days in order to separate the pair of miserable flights by as many days as possible. With the help of Garth’s brother Bret Milan, who is the Racing Coordinator at Shoei helmets, I was able to coordinate a visit to one of the company’s factories in Ibarigi early in the week. After several dozen e-mails, I was also able to hook up with a couple of old friends and arrange not one, but two days of riding! Bags packed, I headed to LAX full of eager anticipation…

Sunday, March 27

The flight on Japan Airlines flight #60 was not as miserable as I had feared, though my strategy of staying up all night beforehand didn’t pay off with a 12-hour nap. Instead, I played video games on the in-flight entertainment system, drank four mini bottles of red wine and ate four bags of chocolate pretzels while trying to fall asleep. Hell, I was even wearing a neck donut, Davi Millsaps style!

Monday, March 28

When you fly to Japan, you actually lose a day, because their time zone is 16 hours ahead of SoCal’s. I left on Sunday afternoon and arrived in the early evening on Monday, just in time for dinner. After checking into the hotel, I met up with Hiro Mizushima and Seiya Yamazaki from Shoei for a quick bite to eat before turning in for the night. Hiro is President of Shoei Safety Helmet Corporation, the American branch of the Shoei Corporation, and lives in California full-time. We dined at a restaurant that specialized in yakitori, small appetizer-like sticks of meat and such that closely resemble shish kebab, and the food was heavenly.

That night, I had my first experience with what would eventually become one of my favorite things about Japan: the butt-washing toilet! Though I have experienced them before, it’s been a few years, and I’d forgotten about the simple pleasures of a high-tech Japanese throne. As I sat dn and discovered that the seat was warm, my first thought was that the maid had made a deposit in my room just before my arrival, but I soon discovered that the seat was heated. Nice! That’s when I remembered what the extra buttons on the side of the toilet were, and decided to utilize the oh-so-convenient butt washer. Well, let’s just say that the spray pressure of the nozzle is adjustable, and I neglected to notice that it was on its highest setting. I have no doubt in my mind that the stream of water that blasted my hind side was strong enough to remove the warning labels off a Yamaha YZ’s rear fender. As I yelped and jumped up off the toilet, a powerful stream of water continued to shoot up and wash the ceiling.

Tuesday, March 29

After a one-hour drive into the Japanese countryside, we arrived at Shoei’s plant in Ibarigi. Upon first glance, the Shoei factory didn’t seem like all that much, but once inside I was completely blown away. Compared to other helmets, Shoeis are among the most expensive and most copied. Well, boys and girls, there is a good reason for that. During the two-hour tour I was given of the manufacturing plant, I was repeatedly shocked at the attention to detail and backbreaking work that goes into producing each and every Shoei helmet. Did you know that aside from a machine that laser cuts the eye ports and bottom edge of the raw shell, every Shoei helmet is made by hand? From the guy who hand-lays the fiberglass into the mold to the worker who bags and boxes the final product, the time and effort that goes into making every single helmet is impressive, to say the least. The Ibiragi factory pumps out 600 helmets per day. Though the quantity may not sound like much in comparison to some other helmet manufacturers, seeing them built from scratch, by hand, makes that number seem amazing.

I was excited when they invited me to try my hand at installing a set of graphics on a helmet. Now, being pretty good at installing bike graphics, I was confident that I’d be able to complete the task at hand with an acceptable level of success. Boy, was I wrong! The decal installation process is methodical, and requires a delicate touch and plenty of patience; two things that I am not famous for. After ham-fisting up the graphics process repeatedly, I finally finished the V-Moto I was decorating and was told that it would be finished up and sent to me as a souvenir. Well, unless they go back and retouch my work, that is gonna be one crooked-ass Shoei, that’s for sure!

Speaking of the V-Moto, which was introduced earlier this year as a mid-level off-road helmet, I had the honor of being the first journalist to take delivery of a VFX-DT, the high-end version of the V-Moto. The VFX-DT features different shell material, a revised ventilation system, upgraded interior padding and has a lighter overall weight. Though the model it is replacing-the wildly popular VRX-R-was a favorite among riders everywhere, the VFX-DT is sure to pick up where its predecessor left off.

At the end of the tour, I was able to observe the helmet testing process. Prior to the trip, Bret informed me that I could send a couple of helmets ahead of time to see how they stacked up to the Shoei product. Though I’ll leave the brand and model names out of this story, let’s just say that although all the helmets we tested passed, neither of the lids I sent to Japan measured up to the V-Moto and DT in the impact and penetration tests. To say that my entire day at Shoei was an eye-opener would be an understatement, and I have a completely different feeling when I now slip that VFX-DT onto my head.

Wednesday, March 31

Back in the early 90s, I became friends with a Hitoshi Machida, a Japanese college student whose family sent him here to complete his higher education between motos and races at the track. After graduation, Hitoshi returned to Japan, where he now helps run his family’s tea company and driving school businesses. I was happy to see Hitoshi as he pulled up to my hotel in his new Toyota Tundra crew cab with a shiny new Honda CRF250R in the back. After driving a little over an hour, we arrived at MX Village, a decent-sized course that offered four different tracks. Strangely enough, the stock CRF250R we shared was only legal to ride on one of the courses. Sound regulations in Japan are quite stringent, and as a result, the machines themselves come equipped with 98db mufflers right off the dealership floor. Even more interesting, though, is the fact that when you buy a new four-stroke motocross bike, you are also given a complete spare exhaust system that can bring the bike’s exhaust note down to 96db! At Off Road Village, three of the tracks that were located closest to other buildings required you to install the choked-up pipe. After looking at the header pipe’s tiny diameter and the nickel-sized opening in the muffler, I decided that riding with the “loud” pipe on the farthest track was not such a bad option. The course itself was much better than I expected it to be after hearing Hitoshi’s horror stories about non-prepped Japanese tracks.

Though dry and ungroomed, the track I rode on featured many fun jumps and cool rhythm sections. The most interesting aspects of the track, however, were the moats that were dug in between each lane. Apparently, it rains so often in Japan that such measures are required to keep the tracks open after a downpour. All I could picture in my head as I rode was overshooting a corner and submerging Hitoshi’s new bike in a moto moat! Alas, both of us made it through the day unscathed, and I even managed to conquer all of the jumps, despite being terrified of becoming injured while abroad.

After our ride, Hitoshi drove me to the offices of TransWorld Japan, which wasn’t too far from the Harajuku fashion district that has been made popular by Gwen Stefani’s new solo album. TransWorld Japan, you ask? That’s right, though it is a completely separate company that licenses the TW name; the first issue of TransWorld Motocross Japan is right around the corner and set to debut in May. Anxious to meet my Japanese counterparts, I spent a few hours discussing magazine content and editorial strategies with the TWMXJ staff. The Editor, Takeo Yamada, sports a huge afro and a funky style, while his Associate Editor is the FMX aficionado on staff, and is the Japanese equivalent to a Metal Mulisha member. (Metal Murisha, perhaps?)

As it stands, TWMXJ is set to be 60% translated content from the original, and 40% original Japanese content. Takeo asked me to participate in a photo shoot with him for his editorial column in the first issue. I suppose the idea behind the setup was something along the lines of “The TransWorld Motocross editor vs. The TransWorld Motocross Japan editor,” as they had us posed on a table as if we were arm wrestling. When I joked that no one would be able to tell who was who since we both had slanty eyes, my humor was completely lost in translation, and my comedy fell upon deaf ears. I about crapped my pants when the photographer asked me to pose with “more intensity.”

Thursday, April 1

With an open agenda on Thursday, I decided to visit the Harajuku district that I had spotted on the way to TWMXJ. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that I spent the better part of that afternoon cracking up at the outlandish style displayed by the Harajuku locals. One of my favorite things were the “fashionable” haircuts that many of the young Japanese men favored. Now I’ve had some pretty ridiculous haircuts in my day-including the rice bowl jobber I’ve got going on right now-but I can’t neglect to mention the Duran Duran cuts sported by almost every Japanese male under the age of 30. Everywhere I turned, I thought I was caught up on the set of one of MTV’s videos from the 80s. In fact, I spotted an entire magazine dedicated to different versions of the bad rock and roll mullet at a newsstand. It was excel Hitoshi as he pulled up to my hotel in his new Toyota Tundra crew cab with a shiny new Honda CRF250R in the back. After driving a little over an hour, we arrived at MX Village, a decent-sized course that offered four different tracks. Strangely enough, the stock CRF250R we shared was only legal to ride on one of the courses. Sound regulations in Japan are quite stringent, and as a result, the machines themselves come equipped with 98db mufflers right off the dealership floor. Even more interesting, though, is the fact that when you buy a new four-stroke motocross bike, you are also given a complete spare exhaust system that can bring the bike’s exhaust note down to 96db! At Off Road Village, three of the tracks that were located closest to other buildings required you to install the choked-up pipe. After looking at the header pipe’s tiny diameter and the nickel-sized opening in the muffler, I decided that riding with the “loud” pipe on the farthest track was not such a bad option. The course itself was much better than I expected it to be after hearing Hitoshi’s horror stories about non-prepped Japanese tracks.

Though dry and ungroomed, the track I rode on featured many fun jumps and cool rhythm sections. The most interesting aspects of the track, however, were the moats that were dug in between each lane. Apparently, it rains so often in Japan that such measures are required to keep the tracks open after a downpour. All I could picture in my head as I rode was overshooting a corner and submerging Hitoshi’s new bike in a moto moat! Alas, both of us made it through the day unscathed, and I even managed to conquer all of the jumps, despite being terrified of becoming injured while abroad.

After our ride, Hitoshi drove me to the offices of TransWorld Japan, which wasn’t too far from the Harajuku fashion district that has been made popular by Gwen Stefani’s new solo album. TransWorld Japan, you ask? That’s right, though it is a completely separate company that licenses the TW name; the first issue of TransWorld Motocross Japan is right around the corner and set to debut in May. Anxious to meet my Japanese counterparts, I spent a few hours discussing magazine content and editorial strategies with the TWMXJ staff. The Editor, Takeo Yamada, sports a huge afro and a funky style, while his Associate Editor is the FMX aficionado on staff, and is the Japanese equivalent to a Metal Mulisha member. (Metal Murisha, perhaps?)

As it stands, TWMXJ is set to be 60% translated content from the original, and 40% original Japanese content. Takeo asked me to participate in a photo shoot with him for his editorial column in the first issue. I suppose the idea behind the setup was something along the lines of “The TransWorld Motocross editor vs. The TransWorld Motocross Japan editor,” as they had us posed on a table as if we were arm wrestling. When I joked that no one would be able to tell who was who since we both had slanty eyes, my humor was completely lost in translation, and my comedy fell upon deaf ears. I about crapped my pants when the photographer asked me to pose with “more intensity.”

Thursday, April 1

With an open agenda on Thursday, I decided to visit the Harajuku district that I had spotted on the way to TWMXJ. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that I spent the better part of that afternoon cracking up at the outlandish style displayed by the Harajuku locals. One of my favorite things were the “fashionable” haircuts that many of the young Japanese men favored. Now I’ve had some pretty ridiculous haircuts in my day-including the rice bowl jobber I’ve got going on right now-but I can’t neglect to mention the Duran Duran cuts sported by almost every Japanese male under the age of 30. Everywhere I turned, I thought I was caught up on the set of one of MTV’s videos from the 80s. In fact, I spotted an entire magazine dedicated to different versions of the bad rock and roll mullet at a newsstand. It was excellent.

That night, I packed my bags and boarded a bullet train headed for Osaka, where I would meet up with another old friend, Toshi Yasukawa from RS Taichi. Long-time motocross fans should remember the florescent yellow RS Taichi stickers that adorned most of the top pro’s helmets in the 90s, as well as the wild custom leather jackets worn by riders like Jeff Matiasevich, Jeff Ward, Jeremy McGrath and even Ricky Carmichael. These days, RS Taichi focuses its efforts on producing super-high-end road race leathers, as well as importing many motorcycle products from around the globe into Japan. RS Taichi also runs the factory Suzuki 125cc motocross team, much like Pro Circuit handles Kawasaki’s tiddler class effort in the States, and the SRM Suzuki race shop is located across the street from the main RS Taichi retail outlet.

As I checked into my Osaka hotel that night, I was overjoyed to find that my room featured an even higher-end version of the butt-washing toilet: this one had a butt dryer as well! That night I wished I had bought the Japanese haircut magazine, so I would’ve had something to look at it during my 10-minute sitting…

Friday, April 2

Toshi was able to pull some strings for me on Friday, and he lined up one of the SRM team’s practice bikes for me to ride at the nearby Osaka MX track. With works Showa suspension and a Yoshimura-tuned motor, I was really excited to try out Yoshiki Kitai’s bike, to say the least! Unfortunately, the track in Osaka required all riders to install their 96db mufflers, so the high-performance motor didn’t exactly run well with the lawnmower-sized exhaust installed. Still, I had a blast on the track, which was laid out on the side of a mountain and closely resembled SoCal’s now defunct DeAnza Raceway with its hard-packed terrain and numerous elevation changes. Like MX Village, the track was bone dry and ungroomed, but unlike MX Village, there were several other riders on hand. I had a spirited dice going with a skinny kid on a YZ125 for several laps, but an ill-timed mis-shift into a false neutral saw me fly off the track and over the bars. (Sorry, Yoshiki!) So much for playing it safe while overseas: at press time, my ribs still hurt.

After my ride, I spent the better part of an hour perusing the merchandise on hand at RS Taichi. I was blown away by the accessories they had on hand; especially the number of aftermarket exhaust systems that hung from the ceiling. In addition to the parts, gear, chemicals and casual wear, RS Taichi is also a dealer for all the major motorcycle manufacturers; even KTM!

Speaking of motorcycles, the machines on the street in Japan were always good for a chuckle or two. The most interesting were the large-displacement scooters-some as big as 600cc-that closely resembled butt-washing toilets when viewed from behind. According to Toshi, riding a big-bore scooter with a motocross helmet on is the current rage, replacing the older trend of hopped up Yamaha TW200s. Produced in the late 80s and early 90s, the TW200 was a fat-tired cross between an ATV and motorcycle. I saw dozens of them converted for street use and decked out with fat dirt track tires and high bars. (And to my delight, the riders were usually equally colorful!) The newest fad in two-wheeled Japanese transportation, though, is riding a motocross or off-road bike converted to look like a supermoto machine… What a waste.

Saturday, April 3

Meihan Sports Land has something for motoring enthusiasts of all sorts; in addition to motocross, road race and kart tracks, there is an area for car racing and auto drifting. The MX track is laid out in sandy terrain, and features several elevation changes and some man-made Supercross-style obstacles thrown in for good measure. Though the racers I spoke to about the track claimed that it was tight and small, the facility looked plenty good to me after the two tracks I had ridden earlier that week.

As expected, Yamaha had two aluminum-fram