Living The American Dream In Japan With Suzuki
By Mike Emery
There are opportunities as a magazine editor that simply cannot be passed up. Such was the case a few months back when an e-mail from Editor in Chief Donn Maeda asked, "Do you want to go to Japan next month?" I didn't know why I was being asked to go, but I did know that I was about to visit to a country that I have been hoping to for quite some time. Then came the assignment: I was going to be bringing my photo bag and a fresh set of gear to ride a 2018 Suzuki RM-Z450, one of the most highly anticipated new machines of the upcoming model year. Well, sort of. When the final itinerary came through from Suzuki's Chris Wheeler (US MX support manager), I read that I was going to test a true "works" factory 2018 RM-Z450WS model. At that moment, I wondered what I had gotten myself into! Between this once-in-a-lifetime ride, a trip to Sportsland Sugo for the All Japan National Championship, and a factory tour of Suzuki, I already had my bags packed and at the door long before I left. It was time to turn Japanese for the week!
Thursday, June 1 - LAX to NRT: Upon arrival to the familiar scene of LAX's international terminal, the (not so amusing) amusement park-style line to security is always reminiscent of the excitement a trip like this brings. This particular journey called for a total of four bags that indicated maximum fun was coming: gear bag, suitcase, camera roller bag, and my trusty backpack. But none of that mattered after I had checked half of them and took the elevator up to the Japan Airlines Sky Club--the first sign I was about to embark on an incredible trip with the kind folks at Suzuki. After enjoying the entire spread of free offerings from the club, it was go time to board our giant Boeing 777 plane that seated over 300 passengers and was set to fly a total of 11 and a half hours into the future (Japan's time zone sets them 16 hours ahead of our Carlsbad, California, base). Let's do this.
Friday, June 2 - Tokyo Arrival: After existing in my plane seat for over 11 hours and sampling a few very random plane meals along the way, we made it just in time to dump our gear bags where Suzuki arranged to have them shipped to the place we would need them--an epic move by the trip planners! An hour train ride into the downtown Tokyo station and a small walk brought us to our hotel for the next two nights.
With enough time for our first dinner with the half-assembled crew of journalists (Ricky Carmichael and a couple others would arrive the next day), we ventured out into a small restaurant nearby. One key thing I personally do when I travel anywhere is eat the local food and soak everything in; it's what makes everything fun for me--for better or for worse! That being said, I ingested some mystery foods on this trip, and to this day I still don't know what they were, but for the most part I enjoyed some of the best meals I've ever eaten. Friday night's meal was nothing scary or unique, but it did include assorted fried things on sticks that were hard to identify, yet still damn tasty. With the wind out of our sails from the travel, it was bedtime after a quick first night out in Tokyo.
Saturday, June 3 - Tokyo Drifting: It's a lucky feeling to be able to travel the world on a work trip, and especially lucky when the organizers of the trip allow for a full day of wandering with the only obligation being a dinner at night. Welcome to our Saturday, and we had all planned as a group to cruise the city on foot. A few things immediately stood out about Tokyo: Everything is very clean, and the people are especially polite and quiet. The nature of their culture is a stark contrast from what we're all used to in the States. Rad architecture, historic temples, beautiful greenery, and a lot of people were seen enjoying a perfectly sunny 70-degree day in the city. A pit stop was necessary at the staple specialty coffee shop called Blue Bottle Coffee, which recently expanded from the US into Tokyo. This was one of many highlights on the 12-plus-mile stroll, along with stumbling upon some group karate training at an old temple and seeing a 2020 Nissan concept supercar downtown. You need some serious time to soak in what Tokyo has to offer, and I am certainly heading back for a proper vacation to do just that!
Sunday, June 4 - 4:00 a.m. Live US Pro Motocross/Sugo All Japan National: What do motocross journalists do on the other side of the world when live Lucas Oil Pro Motocross is on from Thunder Valley? Set our alarm clocks and watch it at 4:00 a.m., obviously. A crew of us all huddled around a laptop on Sunday morning--Saturday afternoon in Colorado--to see the first motos unfold on the live web stream before grabbing our bags, breakfast, and train tickets to head to Sendai. It was funny to think that we all collectively preferred watching live coverage of the racing back home over sleeping--a telltale sign we are all a bit addicted to the sport.
On to the first official stop of our trip's itinerary: Sportsland Sugo! Getting to this race via the bullet train was almost as fun as the action on the track. Cruising north out of Tokyo aboard a train that averages around 160 mph is something to experience. From there, we hopped onto our official Suzuki PR tour bus and we arrived at the famed circuit just as IA2 (250 Class) moto one was going down. The word I would use to describe my day at Sugo as a photographer is "confusion." Not to say I didn't understand the format in which they would be racing, but I was out of tune with their time schedule, class names, and only knew a few racers. I felt like it was the first time I had ever shot a motocross race. The colors were beautiful, the track was an insane mix of natural elevation and rugged, untamed ruts, and I truly enjoyed shooting these talented riders go at it, Japanese-style. When the final checkered flag flew, the winners of the day were Yosuke Watanabe in the IA2 class and Makoto Ogata in the IA1 (450) class.
The highlight of the day for the Japanese fans was the presence of Ricky Carmichael, a guy whose legendary status is present everywhere he goes. Ricky was the main attraction at intermission, and he spun a couple laps aboard his own 2017 RM-Z450 before hopping on the works RM-Z450WS model for another couple fast laps. What struck me at the end of the day is the fact that human emotion and facial expressions are the universal language, and without understanding a single lick of Japanese, I snapped a few photos that tell the whole story without one word. That's what I love about photography. A bus ride into Sendai to our next hotel was next, and a 10-course meal that offered a full journey through the flavors of Japan was washed down with red wine and all-time bench racing and conversation between the group. We were feeling it, and this was only the beginning--the big day tomorrow!
Monday, June 5 - 2018 RM-Z450WS Test, Fujisawa Sports Land: I'm going to be really honest here, people: I was damn nervous leading up to what would be the most exciting day of the trip for me at Fujisawa Sports Land. Let's figure this out...I'm a photographer, specifically the photo editor of this magazine, I ride at an intermediate level, not nearly as much as I'd like, and Suzuki was going to let me ride a true "works" race bike? Did someone make a mistake? All jokes aside, let's dive into the process of how a test like this goes and touch on the amount of pressure I created and put on myself.
Step one: Arriving and actually finding your gear bag that Suzuki shipped over.
Step two: Gearing up (with completely brand-new everything, boots and all) and understanding the day's itinerary. We were all to ride the stock 2017 RM-Z450 they had on hand first. We had three laps to learn the track, and then one by one we would all hop on the works bike for our photo session.
Step three: Acclimate. Let's be honest, three laps on a brand-new track in preparation to ride a $100,000-plus motorcycle is not enough, but I made it work and sent the relatively steep/big tabletop on the last lap. Phew!
Step four: Photo time! Suzuki was kind enough to provide a photographer to shoot everyone, and as I sat on the bike when it was my turn, I realized I was entering territory most people never get the chance to enter and it was time to send it. Kidding, but all of the nerves actually quickly lessened as I pulled away from the notably nervous-looking race team technician who adjusted my levers. I immediately noticed my feet stuck to the razor-sharp foot pegs and headed to the selected corner for my photo. A few passes and I knew that my "test" ride to come would be a good one--this bike was insane. The group headed to lunch after the sessions were done, and all I could think about while I ate was how excited and nervous I was to spin some complete laps on the all-new machine.
Step five: The official RM-Z450WS test. With each editor to be given five total laps on the bike, I knew that would be plenty to gain a solid impression. Carmichael was nearby conducting a special all-Suzuki RCU School, and he happened to be under the awning with me as I set the levers and sag with the technicians. "Hey Ricky, it's RCU--you got any tips for me?" Ricky smiled and said, "Keep the shiny side up!" Solid, RC, solid. Now if I could only go out there and do five percent of the whip (see: poster) he just cranked out off of the table in front of the entire RCU class and Suzuki staff on hand.
It was a weird experience because all of the nerves disappeared with the confidence that the bike inspired via its amazing setup. Surprisingly, once I clicked the bike into gear, I didn't hold back at all. Equipped with a full-works race engine, hydraulic clutch, Showa spring forks with air-assist chambers, and a four-speed transmission, this thing was way more than any average rider or I need, but it was also insanely user-friendly. The power seemed to go on forever, and third gear was plenty around the entire track. The Suzuki had bottom-end to pull out of corners and endless top-end power that basically never signed off. The elevation of Fujisawa brought a few high-speed singles that sent you uphill, and the would-be harsh landings were made laughable by the works fork and Showa BFRC rear shock. I jumped everything on the first lap and actually felt like I got a good moto in before they flagged me off...Wait, I survived?! Epic. It was after I hopped back on the stock 2017 model that I could really appreciate the magical bike I had just ridden, and it wasn't until hours later that the events of the day really hit me. I had just ridden a factory bike, in the country that birthed that very motorcycle, with a solid group of people, at a beautiful racetrack. A post-ride celebratory dinner was in order, mostly because nobody crashed a factory bike, and it featured Japanese pizza, along with a few extracurricular rounds of sake with the crew to put the icing on the cake that night. None of us could have predicted what was in store for us next, though.
Tuesday, June 6 -Toyokawa/Takatsuka Assembly Plant Tours: The next morning after breakfast, a short one-hour flight out of Sendai brought us to Hamamatsu, Japan, also known as the birthplace of motorcycles. It was at the airport that I made another of my many pointless purchases of the trip, collecting snacks and fun miscellaneous items. Coffees, water, candy, and a two-pack of face masks later and I was set for takeoff. RC also saw the need for a mask, so I hooked him up and we fit both in with the locals. It was actually really funny how dumb we must have looked to everyone around us. Fun fact: The Japanese people wear these face masks when they're sick as a polite gesture to prevent others from getting sick. They also wear them to aid against allergies--now you know! Seeing Mt. Fuji out the window of the plane was surreal, and it was just more proof that Japan is insanely beautiful.
It's important to note that this entire area we were visiting had been the site of the 2011 tsunami that resulted from the strongest recorded earthquake in Japan's history, and it was crazy to think how far everything has come since that tragic day. To be here and be granted an exclusive inside look at the very place these Suzuki motorcycles are assembled is another opportunity that most won't get, and I was very excited to see a motorcycle actually come together. Their facility and state-of-the-art assembly line had plenty of things that they don't want other competing brands to see, so Suzuki hired a photographer specifically for our group to control what photos were shot. To say the building ran like clockwork would be an understatement, and the assembly line was comprised of a huge number of highly trained employees who had zero margins for error in their craft. Motorcycles are still almost entirely hand-built, and that's something that makes me appreciate the attention to detail these workers deliver. Our tour guide mentioned the percentage of mistakes out of the Toyokawa plant is almost zero. To witness a bike roll off the production line, fire up, and be run through the gears was like watching a newborn baby named Suzuki being birthed right before our eyes!
Back onto the tour bus we went for our second plant tour, this time of their Takatsuka factory, which is the location of Suzuki's engine assembly for multiple motorcycles--the RM-Z250 and RM-Z450 being our key points of interest. Watching the giant machines go through automation turning cast steel rods into finished camshafts and crankshafts, and then walking by more highly trained workers assembling the heads of the 250cc and 450cc engines just minutes later was indication that the operation is massive, and again, there was no margin for error. The next time you look at a motorcycle at the track or on the road, think about how every single unit is hand assembled--it's truly impressive. After our tour concluded, Suzuki not only had two of Ricky's championship bikes from his reign of dominance there, but also a huge group of factory workers who all gathered for a group photo. Good times!
Wednesday, June 7th - Ryuyo R&D Test Facility/2018 RM-Z450 Debut/RC Riding Session: Like clockwork, our Suzuki tour bus was at the entrance of the hotel to pick us up the next morning for the grand finale of what had been an insane few days in Japan. What was left? The official debut of their very special 2018 RM-Z450 production model, something no one in the world, aside from Suzuki employees, had seen before. It's definitely a privilege and an honor to be among the selected group of editors who will see a highly anticipated new bike release long before the public does, but that doesn't come without a long embargo agreement to sign. After reading about three words (who actually reads these things?) and understanding the date and time that we could actually release our coverage, I gathered that bad things would happen--something along the lines of five ninjas with samurai swords at my doorstep in California--if I leaked any of this before June 28 at 3:00 p.m. PST.
On to the bike! Seated in a conference room, we were met with the 2017 RM-Z model out in the open air, and next to it sat the 2018 production model beneath a blanket. Assorted parts were placed on tables throughout the room, and the almighty spec pamphlet came down in front of me--this was the meat and potatoes of the new machine all printed out right before my eyes. Showa spring forks? The first production bike to feature the Showa Balance Free Rear Cushion (BFRC) rear shock? Completely redesigned frame/subframe geometry? Race team-inspired re-style? More horsepower and torque? This thing looked amazing on paper, and moments later they uncovered the machine and everyone was pretty shocked to see how closely it resembled the race bike we had ridden only a few days prior. If Suzuki was looking to impress on looks alone, they hit the nail on the head--but this bike also made huge strides in the performance and handling departments. Since being the first brand to introduce fuel injection to their production model bike back in 2010, this much-needed update to the RM-Z450 is a bit of a rebirth into advancing their flagship motocross machine, and that's exciting for them as a brand, and for the industry as a whole.
After we all collected our photo and video assets and discussed our thoughts in the open forum with their engineering staff, it was demo time outside with Carmichael aboard the all-new machine at Ryuyo's test facility. To properly describe this track in one word, I think "brutal" is the best fit. Mind you, this is a R&D purposed circuit where riders run these bikes through all types of tests. Unfortunately, they wouldn't be specific about these tests, as it's all proprietary and top secret. Most of the jumps don't even have landings in hopes to properly abuse these bikes. Think of a California blue-groove hard-pack layout, but with overgrown green grass within. Wrapped around this motocross test track was an enormous paved racetrack complete with a 1.5-mile top-speed straightaway used for testing their street machines. Massive! When RC fired up the bike it was almost like time stopped and everyone on hand from Suzuki was witnessing their dream--the G.O.A.T. himself putting their pride and joy through its paces. Engineers and factory workers lined the track, some came to the windows, and their facial expressions said it all. It was an awesome way to see everyone on hand from Suzuki collectively show their pride in what they've created, and that's something you can't fake.
Wednesday, June 7 -Karaoke Bar, Hamamatsu: There's no better way to end a great trip with great people than having a traditional Japanese meal, complete with endless sake, amazing food, and plenty of laughs. From the freshest sashimi to most random foods I've ever eaten, including chicken hearts and raw squid, everybody was reeling from the past few days of fun. During the entire trip there had been talk of karaoke, and after dinner wrapped up, our wishes were granted as we approached our venue. It turned out to be one big room we rented to our group, and that was probably for the better, as the beer was flowing and the skill level of the participants was less than professional. I have two takeaways from this couple-hour session of shenanigans, the first being Japanese people take karaoke very seriously and are actually damn good at it. The second being everyone on this trip was down to give it a shot without any worry about how bad we sucked, and when Jason Thomas and a few others sang "My Hero" to RC, that was the icing on the cake. The headache the next day was temporary, but the memories remain! Kampai!
Thursday, June 8 -NRT to LAX: Like all good things, this weeklong journey in Japan had unfortunately come to an end. We took one last ride on the bullet train with a first-class upgrade via Suzuki, followed by a quick trip through the Tokyo NRT's Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge, which offered a fully automated beer dispenser--what?! Just like that, we were heading home. To realize what had just transpired the past week, somehow walk out of there without any injuries to myself or the group, and have the chance to share my journey within the pages of this magazine are all things I will cherish. A huge thank you is in order to the great folks at Suzuki along with everyone involved every step of the way. If you ever get the chance to visit Japan, take it from me: Go!
Want to see more about Suzuki’s all-new machine? Click the link below.