Japan is one of the most beautiful, exciting, and rewarding places to ride a motorcycle. Scenic mountain roads are around almost every corner, the roads are wonderfully maintained and vary from being just a few feet wide in some back alleys to multiple lane highways that stretch across the entirety of the nation. Although this experience is one of the best a biker can undertake, the process of obtaining a bike and legally riding it is difficult at best. Use this guide to better understand how to buy a new or used motorcycle, or simply rent a bike!
The most obvious yet confusing aspect for most foreigners driving in Japan is the fact that Japan is part of the approximate 1/3 of the world that is right-hand drive, and conducts their business on the left side of the road. Although this fact is very apparent, it is a strange and unusual experience for most of the foreigners who are driving in Japan for the first time.
However, aside from this fact, the rules of the road in Japan are very similar to those in other countries, with traffic lights that follow the format of green (blue if you ask the Japanese), yellow, and red, as well as right-of-way for pedestrians, and distinct signage that is pretty self-explanatory.
Japan does however have lower than average speed limits (measured in Kilometers not miles) that have been known to be much slower than most foreigners are accustomed to traveling, as well as extremely harsh policies regarding drinking and driving.
Violations of any road rules result in points that are tacked onto your license, with more severe infractions resulting in more points for you. This is one instance that you do not want to get as high a score as possible, because after 15 of them on your license, you’ll find your way back on your feet and utilizing the famous Japanese public transit network.
Motorcycles in Japan
Another note to point out is that Japan, like most of the world, allows motorcycles to operate in between lanes. Lane-splitting, filtering, white-lining, whatever you choose to call it, is used very frequently and if you don’t feel comfortable brushing up against cars and trucks, you might become an obstacle for the other people traveling on two wheels.
In Japan, motorcycles are more a mode of transportation and a sound fiscal alternative rather than a lifestyle or a fashion statement (as it often is in Western countries). You will frequently see workers zipping by on scooters that appear to be going faster than physically possible, small displacement bikes flooding through gaps in traffic, and bikes parked on the side of the road bravely taking all that Mother Nature has to offer.
Rarely will you see bikes over 400cc, with 250cc being one of the most popular options as they are the biggest sized motorcycles that are exempt from the two-year inspection. This rarity of large displacement bikes is also attributed to the fact that there are few places where one can truly utilize a liter bike; the geography, congestion, weather, and other natural barriers all add up to make smaller vehicles the choice of reason.
New Motorcycles in Japan
Buying motorcycles in Japan can be a daunting task; the bureaucracy involved is truly outstanding and the paper-work can quickly overwhelm any person who wants a vehicle in Japan. The easiest yet most expensive way is to simply buy a new motorcycle from a registered dealer.
Every large manufacturer has a dealer-network within Japan, with more exotic dealers such as Ducati having few dealerships in only major metropolitan areas, and Japanese manufacturers pricing their models significantly lower than the market prices abroad.
There are a few dealers which carry nearly every brand, and have been go-to options for foreigners such as Red Baron Japan, SCS, and one of the largest online bike sites, GooBike. These dealers also carry an even larger selection of used bikes.
Red Baron Japan Gotanda
Hours: 10 am – 8 pm
Phone number: 03-3280-1261
English Website: Red Baron Japan
SCS Motorcycle Sport Shop
Hours: 10 am – 7 pm
Phone number: 03-3815-6221
Website: Sato Credit Service (Japanese)
English Website: Goobike
Used Motorcycles in Japan
If you are on a budget or just don’t feel like dropping large amounts of cash on a bike, buying a used motorcycle in Japan is a relatively simple process, and using a dealer that carries used motorcycle inventory helps with this procedure exponentially (an excellent online directory for used bikes in Japan is webike).
In addition to used motorcycle dealerships, there is always the option of buying one from a private seller. However, with this choice you must obviously know someone trying to get a bike off their hands. There are online sites to help scour the islands of Japan such as craigslist, and more worldly avenues such as eBay. Keep in mind that importing any vehicle into Japan is both a difficult and expensive process, with fees often approaching the cost of the vehicle.
When you finally locate the perfect bike for yourself and thoroughly check it out to make sure it meets your expectations, the familiar sea of paperwork begins. Again, unless you are using a dealership or a shop (who will gladly help with this process for a small fee), the bureaucracy is overwhelming at best. Some of the steps you must go through are registering the bike and taking the bike through a biennial inspection called “Shaken”.
Shaken: The Dreaded Japanese Vehicle Inspection
Also known as “shakken” or by the official name “Jidōsha Kensa Tōrokuseido”, it is an exhaustive and comprehensive vehicle inspection that is only mandatory on vehicles over 250cc. This inspection must be renewed every two years and is infamous for inciting headaches and causing anxiety attacks.
Some items the inspectors check are obvious things such as exhaust systems, tire life, brake lights, high beams, and blinkers, but there are also some less-expected items which these sleuths are determined to find; front light direction and intensity, exposed bulbs, bike dimensions, and even fork length all fall under this category.
Realistically, the process is no longer than a few minutes, but failure is very common for motorcycles and older vehicles. Additionally, there is a considerable amount of documentation, forms, and fees to pay.
The easiest method to go about this is to take your motorcycle to a local shop or mechanic and have them complete this process for you. However, this method takes much longer and is considerably more expensive than doing it yourself because there are often repairs completed that are not necessarily imperative to pass the shaken.
If you choose to go through this alone, you will save a considerable amount of money, but at the cost of your sanity (until you do it a few times). When all is said and done, once you pay the mandatory insurance (Jibaiseki Hoken), pay the weight tax (Jyuuryouze), pay a few other fees, and of course once your pride and joy reaches the approval of the assessors, you can finally breathe a sigh of relief.
Renting a Motorcycle in Japan
Of course if you want to save yourself all the time and hassle, or simply don’t plan on staying in Japan for a great length of time, then renting a bike is an excellent way to carve through the mountain roads (touge), cruise next to the ocean, and have a heat stroke sitting at a stop light in Tokyo.
Although finding a motorcycle to rent in Japan is much more difficult than in other countries, it is not impossible. The prices of renting a motorcycle in Japan are a little high, but if you want to go out for a day or a weekend, it won’t break the bank.
Many companies that rent motorcycles don’t speak in English nor optimize their websites in English, but one that does a good job of this is Japan Bike Rentals. In terms of selection, SCS has a good range of sizes and models to rent aside from their services in selling new and used motorcycles.
Traveling Within Japan: Motorcycle versus the Train
Japan is about as close to a motorcyclist’s paradise as one can get; sprawling urban playgrounds, a mountainous island surrounded by scenic views of the ocean, curvy small roads that wind through the countryside, and not to mention a hot bowl of ramen and an onsen waiting at the end of your journey!
Although the process of getting on two wheels in Japan may be one part daunting and one part frustrating, the reward is well worth all of the hassle and all of the headaches.
If any of you have any good, or bad, experiences while riding in Japan or moving from two feet to two wheels, let’s hear about it!