Kansai Scene Magazine


Forty-seven or bust

One man's quest to visit every prefecture in Japan

There cannot be many people who have visited all of Japan's 47 prefectures, let alone many non-Japanese, yet Australian Nick Clapham, a former resident of Osaka's Kyobashi area, recently managed this achievement - and what makes his story even more impressive is that he toured every prefecture by motorcycle.

Nick's fascination with Japan began at an early age. As a young child growing up in the 1970s, he enjoyed studying geography and says he was particularly interested in Australia's Asian neighbours:

"At that time Asia was synonymous with poverty, but there was one exception to the rule, and that was Japan. It was then becom- ing one of the world's richest countries, and even as a child I was acutely aware of the difference between Japan and the rest of Asia - not only in terms of its wealth, but also its culture."

His interest in Japanese culture grew, and after graduating from university he found a job teaching English in Japan. Arriving here in 1999, he enthusiastically set about exploring the country. Travelling by train and bus, he had visited almost 40 prefectures by 2004. By that time though, he had become frustrated with the limita- tions of public transport. Wishing to get off the beaten track more, Nick realised that buying a motorbike would be the best way to gain the freedom to travel wherever and whenever he pleased. Getting his own transport was clearly the next logical step in his quest to see as much of Japan as possible, but this presented him with a difficult challenge.

"I had never ridden a motorbike or even driven a car, so before I got my bike I had to go to a Japanese driving school," he says. "And like many things for foreigners living in Japan, that's a very long and tedious process."

The first hurdle to overcome was a series of 53 compulsory lectures in Japanese. "It was really advanced stuff and I couldn't understand much," Nick recalls. "But I had to attend, so they gave me a copy of the textbook in English."

"It was funny being the only foreigner there - the lecturer would be talking away in Japanese, and then he'd suddenly say, like 'you in the back, turn to page sixty-five.' You'd hear this single English sentence, and the entire class would turn around and stare. That was quite a strange experience!"

Despite lacking the language ability to learn much from the lectures, Nick's English-language textbook proved invaluable. His determination to get a driving license motivated him to memorise its entire contents; as a result he was able to answer all three hundred questions correctly on the written test to gain a perfect score.

After the written test came three hours of first aid training, followed by twelve hours of practical riding lessons. Then came the practical test, which he failed on the first attempt. On his second attempt, Nick passed the test, and was able to buy his first motorcycle - a 400cc Suzuki Skywave scooter - finally gaining the freedom to explore previously inaccessible areas of the country. He then began touring the prefectures he had already visited more extensively, and travelling to the remaining prefectures he had never been to before. Last year he made it to his 47th and final prefecture, Okinawa - a place he originally had no intention of visiting.

"The main factor that put me off initially was the difficulty and cost of getting there with my bike. But in the end, I realised that I couldn't truthfully say I'd been everywhere in Japan until I'd been to that last prefecture, so I took the ferry there from Osaka." As with Hokkaido, Nick found Okinawa to be quite different from Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku: "With Hokkaido, it's the wide open spaces that set it apart from the rest of Japan. In Okinawa's case, it's the culture."

"To be honest, I don't really class Okinawa as part of Japan. Geographically and politically it is a part, but culturally it's as much American and mainland Asian as it is Japanese. But I'm glad I made it there, as I now feel I've been everywhere worth visiting in Japan." Having toured the length and breadth of the country, Nick has fully experienced the variety of Japan's geography, from beaches to mountains, from idyllic hamlets to sprawling metropolises. The highlights of his travels are too numerous to list here, although he does cite Nagasaki as his favourite place due to its cosmopolitan atmosphere and spectacular setting. He advises anybody interested in seeing the best this country has to offer to get their own transport.

"If you have your own bike or car, you can go anywhere. All you need is a good atlas, a guidebook, and a tiny bit of language ability so you can arrange accommodation," he says. "Japan's a great country to drive around, even for beginners. The roads are well-maintained, signs are in both English and Japanese, and people are usually very helpful if you get lost." He does have a few gripes about travelling around the country though - namely the expense of toll roads, although these can often be avoided by taking alternative routes. Another complaint he has is about the restrictive speed limits, which, he claims, Japanese drivers routinely ignore.

Nick also complains about the volume of traffic on the roads, especially in cities, but notes, "That's when having a motorbike really comes in handy. At every red light you can just go up to the front of the pack."

A few minor grumbles aside, Nick describes his experiences of living and travelling in Japan as overwhelmingly positive. Shortly after his trip to Okinawa, he finally moved back to Australia, having seen more of Japan in his nine years here than most Japanese people see in their lifetime.

Since returning to Australia, he has bought a 650cc Suzuki V-Strom motorbike and has begun touring the country with the same level of determination he demonstrated in Japan. He intends to travel to every major Australian city or town on his motorbike - no mean feat, considering the country is twenty times bigger than Japan.

Text: Nick Hall • Photos: Nick Hall, Nick Clapham

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Readers wishing to find out more information about discovering
Japan by motorbike should check out the Kansai Riders group: