Kids of speed: riding through Fukushima

Dailies, Galleries -


More than 6 months have passed since a massive tsunami tore across Northeast Japan leaving a wide swath of devastation. Houses and buildings are slowly being demolished and trucked away to be recycled or disposed of in monumental proportions. The residents are slowly picking up what is left of their lives and trying to rebuild some sort of new normality surrounded by the tatters of their former livelihood.

Photos: Kyle Drubek

Unsurprisingly, motorcycles have been an economical mode of transport for both riders and goods in the aftermath of the great tsunami. On a short visit to Sendai I talked about what role motorcycles have played in the past days and months with Hiroyuki Ito, a local  employee of one of the largest motorcycle chain stores in Japan.

Hiroyuki Ito (47) regularly collects motorcycles damaged or destroyed by the tsunami. His feelings on the disaster became apparent as tears gathered in his eyes while reflecting on the last few months.

In regard to bike sales Hiroyuki first pointed out  that post disaster sales went up for bikes and scooters under 125cc. Larger leisure bikes were less sought after than more practical smaller ones which could be driven with only a car licence (50cc and under).  “I do see more small bikes on the road now. They are more to get to work and around town.”

Initially very hard to find, gasoline was also scarce in the early months of the disaster. Motorcycles became an economical mode of transport.

Google Earth image of Arahama, Sendai before the tsunami.

Arahama, weeks after the tsunami.

The chain store he works for provides services such as de-registration and vehicle junking. A huge amount of bikes were caught in the tsunami and waterlogged leaving them useless, even for parts. On the day I met Hiroyuki, he had come to pick up a Kawasaki Estrella which had been submerged and rusted internally.  “Some bikes look fine, but when you open the oil drain there’s seawater inside. It only takes a short time submerged in seawater to make it useless.”

He says things are changing now but still difficult. “I’ve slowly seen more people go out touring over the last 2 months for fun. I think that people have finally calmed down a little and have the space in their hearts to enjoy themselves.”

The downside is that there are still many who disaster victims who are just making ends meet.

“I don’t think the people who lived near the ocean have that capacity (to ride for pleasure) yet, just the ones who are removed from the destruction and still have their houses and jobs. The ones who live near the shore are still fighting for survival, the man whose bike I just received has only just found a place to live. He probably won’t be able to go out and ride a motorcycle for a long time.”

With his job, house, and family intact, Hiroyuki was left relatively unscathed by the tsunami. However he is still very much affected by what has happened to his fellow townspeople. In a choked voice he expressed his feeling of helplessness to right the situation. “I wish I could do more, but just being a bike store employee, there really isn’t much that I can provide.”

Jason (right), and Tony view the toppled beachside treeline near Natori city.

The Great Disaster of Northern Japan has left a legacy of destruction that will take decades to clear and rebuild. With a death toll of over 16,000 and 4,600 still missing, the lost property and belongings are only a small sacrifice when compared to the human casualties. In the meantime, the rest of Japan is showing solidarity and support for the Tohoku residents. Buying  their produce and making visits to volunteer or just inject tourism money. One of the best ways to get there and enjoy the beautiful coastline has always been and continues to be on two wheels. The roads are clear so make it a part of your travel agenda to travel through Fukushima, Miyagi, or Iwate if you ever have the chance. You’ll be greeted with open arms and amazing hospitality.

  • Brammofan

    Thanks for sharing this story, Jason. Ever since the disaster, I’ve been following you closely on Twitter and Facebook and you’ve provided the closest feeling of being “connected” to the people and land of Japan for someone half a world away. Stay healthy and keep up the good work.

  • Brad

    Those aerial shots remind me of pictures of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Hard to imagine each of those little squares was somebody’s home.

  • Thom

    These stories and photos from Japan just keep breaking my heart . And now another storm is ravaging Japan , not to mention the ongoing Radiation Dangers etc etc .

    Talk about a country in dire need of a break . Soon !

    Two thumbs up to Jason though for having the cojones to be there as well as for the stories he’s sending

  • DougD

    Great read.

  • HammSammich

    Wow, really great report. Thanks for this.

  • Dumptruckfoxtrot

    This is amazing. Thank you.

  • evilbahumut

    Agreed. Great post.

  • Anders

    This is why I like HFL. Great story.

    • Jim

      I’ll second that. Thanks.

  • ontheroad

    Thanks for this.

  • Gene

    Kinda puts the MotoGP pussies in perspective.

    Great story. No one else has bothered to print anything like this.

  • Jason

    Thank you all for the kind comments! And as you sit reading this, I am cleaning up my flooded shop courtesy of Typhoon #15! But no worries it could be worse, it’s nothing compared to what we witnessed up north! Chin up, smile on the face, and make the future bright!

  • fikays

    Being born in Japan and having lived there for many years as the son of an American serviceman and Japanese Mother, this disaster breaks my heart. I still have my Mother and many, many family members living there.

    I can’t thank you enough for bringing this story to light….too many people have already forgotten and moved on to the next “thing”. Thank you.

  • Archer

    I just landed back in the USA four hours ago after two weeks all over Japan.

    Typhoon 15 was no picnic, but it was thankfully fast-moving and, as typhoons always do, it left a gorgeous day in its wake.

    Even though the electricity restrictions have been lifted (a few days early) in major cities, Tokyo is still amazingly dark at night. Even in Kansai, far from the disaster, there are signs everywhere reminding people to save power.

    Every Japanese person I know continues to do their part to help. Yes, life is returning to “normal” in most of the country- but the north coast is still an open wound.

    I just hope stories like this continue to remind everyone that this is far from over and the Japanese people still need all the help we can provide.

  • Corey

    What does Kids of Speed mean?

    Nice report.

  • zato1414

    The Japanese show great solidarity, we have nothing to complain about. After viewing the before and after pics, Hurricane Irene was a figment of our imaginations, I only lost some trees. Thank you for the article.

  • always_go_big

    Thanks HFL for tastefully keeping Tohoku’s challenges top of mind beyond Japan’s shores.