The Sunday Social with Shinji Kazama

Published: 21 May 2017

Shinji Kazama (66) is the only man to have ridden to both Poles and he also set a world record by riding higher up Everest than any motorcyclist had ever been. He was born in 1950 and first rode his brother’s motorcycle when he was 14.

“I tried to ride it up to the top of a steep hill,” Kazama says. “I had gone 150m and couldn’t ride any further so started pushing it and when I reached the top I thought ‘What a view!’ I was fascinated by the view from the top of the hill and so I became obsessed with riding a motorcycle in nature. That view remains in my memory.”

When did you first come up with the idea of riding to the North Pole and why did you want to do it?

"I first thought about it when I reached the finish line in the Paris-Dakar Rally in 1982. I often used to think deeply about the attraction of riding a motorcycle when I was editor of a motorcycle magazine in Tokyo. I thought the attraction of riding a motorcycle is actually the attraction of nature.

"To me, the horizon is unique and interesting - I feel an irresistible attraction to the horizon. My reason for participating in the Dakar Rally was to meet the horizon of the Sahara and I was finally able to reach it. But when I reached that horizon I felt that I had to get out - I felt a vague sense of terror about remaining in the same place."

Was it difficult to get permission to ride a motorcycle to the Poles?

"I was able to get to both the North and South Poles without permission. Anybody could enter the Poles freely back then."

Which trip was most difficult – the North or the South Pole?

"The South Pole was more difficult but the North Pole trip was a lot colder than the South Pole. It was -54°C."

Why did you choose a Yamaha TW200 to ride to the South Pole and what modifications did you make to it?

"The Yamaha TW200 was still under development at the time. Honestly, it is best to ride on a caterpillar on snow and ice but for me it had to be two wheels. A motorcycle is at a big disadvantage on snow and ice because it's supported by only two points so I chose the TW 200 because it has very wide tires. The modifications I had to make cost 14 million yen (around £190,000 in today's money). All of the parts had to be modified in order to function properly in extreme cold."

What were the biggest problems you encountered with the bike during your two polar trips?

"On the North Pole trip I was riding along and suddenly the front wheel fell into the ocean. If I had fallen in, I would have gone to the bottom of the ocean, which was about 6,500 metres (over 20,000 feet) deep at that point. And it was so freezing cold that I just couldn't have done anything about it at all."

Did you ever get accustomed to the cold or was it something you had to constantly battle?

"I didn't get accustomed to the cold. On the contrary, there were moments when I feared for my life. I couldn't even stand when the temperature went down to minus -45ºC in March. A banana becomes as hard as a hammer and a plastic bag becomes a spray of mist and then completely disappears when the temperature drops below -26C. The coldest temperature I rode in was -54C."

What clothes did you wear when you were riding?

"I was wearing clothes made of Gore-Tex with an inner cotton lining that was also being used by an expedition to the Himalayas and which could tolerate extremely cold weather (Dacron cotton by Dupont). I prepared clothes from various materials - sleeping bags, fur, tent canvas, woollen socks, woollen gloves, a woollen face mask etc. I needed to take a lot of stuff.

"I learned that the clothes made by natural material such as fur and wool were the best for protecting yourself in extremely cold weather. Also, the tyres I used on the North Pole trip were mostly made from natural rubber because if I had used normal ones, the blocks on the tyres would have come apart due to the cold.

Did you encounter any polar bears?

"Fortunately I didn't meet any polar bears but I saw the tracks of one in the snow. I didn't have a gun with me but for sure it's better to have a rifle or a .45 Magnum just in case of emergency."

Was there ever any danger of the ice breaking?

"The iced surface of seawater is called 'new ice', just like with asphalt. I wanted to ride gracefully up to the North Pole but actually I had to push my bike a lot when we were on ice. Salt water ice usually does not break easily so I would say that ice with a thickness of around 20cm should be able to hold a motorcycle. But most of the ice we traversed was only about 10cm in thickness."

How did it feel to know that you were the first human being ever to reach the North Pole on a motorcycle?

"I was so exhausted that I think I reached the North Pole mostly by chance in the end! Honestly, my only thoughts were “I don’t have to push my bike anymore! I just wanted to go back to my warm home as soon as possible."

Did reaching the South Pole feel like more of an achievement?

"Five years after I reached the North Pole, I also reached the South Pole. My heart filled with pleasure that I had reached the two Poles by motorcycle. I told myself “I conquered the earth with a motorcycle!”"

Did you ever feel scared when you were so far away from civilization and completely surrounded by ice and snow?

"Rather than feeling fear, I could not help but love the human “civilization” that I usually don't feel anything for. I felt nostalgic seeing all the shapes and colours of the aeroplanes that carried relief supplies to me. Perhaps fear goes away when people become extremely sad and isolated."

What if you had been badly injured? How would you have got help?

"As soon as any emergency occurred I was supposed to contact the base camp which was located about 1,700 kilometres away. A chartered rescue flight was scheduled to come if I could wait for about half a day. But the charter flight fee is serious - I would have had to pay the airline for a round-trip flight and it would have cost 8 million yen (equivalent to £112,000 in today's money!)"

How difficult was it to ride on ice for such a long journey?

"It was so hard I almost died! I had to push the motorcycle, day after day. It could take an hour to go one metre but then in the next hour I might go 10km. The schedule for those journeys could not be predicted at all and there is nothing as painful than a trip in -50ºC that you don't know when it will end."

Did you ever fall off your motorcycle?

"Rather than falling off the motorcycle, there were many times when I could not ride it at all due to the deep snow or because of big rocks all over the surface of the ice. Most of the time my trips to the Poles were just pure hell, pushing my motorcycle."

How many hours did you ride for each day?

"In April, the sun in the Arctic is continuously above the horizon for 24 hours a day but I decided to divide my daily schedule into three parts. I spent eight hours riding my bike then I used the other eight hours for sleep and rest. The remaining eight hours were spent preparing for my trip in the morning or setting my tent up and preparing for rest at night. I tried to set a regular behaviour pattern."

Did you know you were featured in the British TV show 'Pole to Pole' with Michael Palin in 1992?

"It was a great honour to be interviewed by Michael Palin for the Pole to Pole TV series. I felt pleasure that he has the same values in creating travels and romances as I have."

Was riding up Mount Everest even more difficult than riding to the poles?

"It was a different type of difficulty. In the deep snows of the Arctic and Antarctica I had a very rough time because very often I could not ride due to the tyres being buried in the snow. On Mount Everest, where the oxygen concentration is low (it's only 40% compared with normal oxygen concentration), the power of the motorcycle dropped to 40% as well. So I had a hard time lifting and pulling the weight of the motorcycle."

You reached 19,701 feet on Everest. Is it possible to go much higher on a motorcycle?

"Above that point the rock face is sheer vertical. I repeatedly experienced fainting and collapsing. I tried to be calm and waited until my breathing got better each time while I kept pushing the motorcycle with full power in thin oxygen until that point.

"I even had to resort to pushing the motorcycle to the upper part of the mountain, like I did at the Poles. Eventually I told myself “I have worked hard enough. I will forgive myself for stopping here.” I finished at 19,701 feet. I may have gone a little more."

What was the hardest part about riding up Everest?

"The most difficult thing was just to keep riding towards the top of the mountain while maintaining the motivation to continually overcome altitude sickness and decreased physical strength. Since we knew from the outset that I could never actually reach the summit of Everest on a motorcycle, it was an adventure of fighting with myself and constantly asking myself “When will you put an end to the challenge?”"

Why did you choose a Honda TLR trials bike for your Everest trip?

"Because it was very light and the body was extremely slim and also because it had a quieter exhaust sound than the two-stroke TLR."

Is there anywhere you would still like to conquer on a motorcycle?

"The next goal is to ride on the moon on a motorcycle! At first I was just a boy who liked motorcycles very much, then I started thinking “Why do I like motorcycles?” I learned that the answer is this: the attractiveness of the motorcycle is the attraction of nature. In order to see such attractive nature, I rode my motorcycle to the horizon all over the world and my slogan was always 'Shoot for the Horizon!'

"The Sahara Desert was wonderful, especially as I could see 360 degrees of horizon view, but I wanted to explore the ultimate horizons. It took five years to stand on both the North Pole and the South Pole where all horizons intersect at a single point. I could see only north from the South Pole and I could see only south from the North Pole.

"By the way, ordinary time does not exist at the Poles because all the international datelines converge there. At the Poles I had reached two points on the surface of the Earth that are 'sphere surfaces' so they're different from a simple horizon and I thought to myself 'The North and South Poles are the terminal stations of my motorcycle adventure.'

"Immediately afterwards I started to think that I would like to see the whole spherical body of the Earth in its entirety and, since then, I have dreamed about going to the moon with a motorcycle. The human imagination, and dreams, are eternal."

Can you still ride now or is your leg too badly injured?

"I can't ride as well as before because my left knee and ankle are disabled and don't bend well and my feet can't rest in the usual position. Even though I competed in the Baja 1000 mile race in America last year and the year before, my physical challenge is still ongoing. But I'm planning to participate in the Dakar Rally next year."

What bike do you ride now?

"I currently own about 20 motorcycles but my favourite is my Yamaha WR450."

Does riding on a normal road feel very boring to you now after all your adventures?

"As long as I head to a place with a dream then I enjoy riding motorcycles anywhere. It is the best feeling - to run like the wind!"

How do you spend your time now and where do you live?

"I run my own company in Tokyo and work on social contribution activities and new adventure lines throughout the year. I also manage a non-profit organization called Chikyu-Genkimura. In January 2019 or 2020, I have a huge adventure project where we will gather people with disabilities from all over the world and take them to the South Pole with ice sledges. Recently, I just built a house on the hill of my home town in Yamanashi prefecture. I often spend time there with my family."

Which of your achievements on a motorcycle are you most proud of?

"To be honest, they all rank about the same but I would say the trips to the North and South Poles are my greatest memories."