Full Circle

A road trip across Japan fueled by cooking oil and biodiesel, and sparked by a love of the ocean, proves oil and water can mix.

Everybody loves a good road trip. I’d venture to say most Outdoor Japan readers have at least pondered the idea of touring Japan. Others have probably ridden local trains using the "Seishun 18 Kippu" (special 24-hour rail pass for all local trains), or perhaps mounted their motorcycles and camped in open fields.

Sturdy souls may have even set out on their own bicycles – entering into the true realm of human-powered enlightenment. Although my heart was ready for such an adventure, something had always kept me from going.

When I did finally make up my mind to plan a trip across and around Japan, three years had slipped away before I knew it. I finally did get up and go, and now some time has passed since I returned from the epic journey. It seems I hadn’t had time properly to reflect on my time on the road until now, partially due to the initial joy of completion and the sinking feeling that my goal had been met.

Now that two years have distanced me from my memories, I find myself drawn more than ever to the photo album of my trip.

This is the story of my travels.

My six-month adventure covered more than 18,000 kilometers, taking me north from Kagoshima in Kyushu all the way up along the Japan Sea coast to northern Honshu and then on to Hokkaido. My journey back home led down the Pacific coast, crossing over to Shikoku and then back to Kyushu.

The trip lasted through summer, and days were filled with surfing and taking pictures, allowing me to show to as many people as possible my collection of photos of waves, surfing and nature. In fact, my passion for photography was the reason I had moved to Tanegashima eight years ago.

When I first set foot on the island, I was accompanied by my wife and dog. Once it became time for our Japan road trip, our expedition party had swelled to include two children and another dog, expanding our ranks to four humans and two canines.

The children would soon be old enough to attend school and wouldn't be able to take extended vacations. I realized we couldn’t put the trip off any longer.

GREASED LIGHTNING

It was clear we’d need a large vehicle to accommodate the six of us. The search ended up taking six months, when I finally laid my eyes on an old television satellite truck, perfect in that it would easily store plenty of cooking oil.

Cooking Oil? We weren’t planning on setting up a mobile catering business (although upon reflection the idea seemed intriguing). No, after stumbling across a story in a Patagonia catalog, my grand design was to fuel our truck using alternative fuels. The decision was made rather hastily, however, and we hadn’t considered the trials we would face as a result.

Until I actually purchased the truck, the trip through Japan had seemed more like a daydream, but now the die was cast. I named our new ride "Moonbow." In the evening, the moon reflects off the rainbow-like lines of primary colors highlighting the sides, which gave birth to the nickname.

As a man, getting my hands on a large cruiser such as this brought me immense pleasure, but with it came equally great pressure. As one would imagine, fueling an engine with cooking oil is no easy task. Were it that simple, folks would have taken to this long ago.

Upon researching the subject, I discovered heating the oil prior to feeding it into the engine was a necessity. Unfortunately, when the engine was cut and began to cool down, the cooking oil would begin to harden and lock things up. It soon became apparent we would not be off to the glorious start we imagined.

At some point soon thereafter, I ran across an article suggesting running clean fuel through the engine prior to shutting things down to wash away the cooking oil. I set about creating a supply of biodiesel from the cooking oil with the hope of using this to wash away the normal cooking oil before killing the engine.

Additions to the truck included a heater for the cooking oil and a separate fuel tank and control switch to move between the two types of fuel. My knowledge of biodiesel in general was limited—not to mention my complete lack of experience in making it, the science of molecular arrangement, ph-levels and chemical reactions—and there was no one around to ask for instructions.

To compound matter, I had to fit all the equipment into the truck. I was truly up the creek, but I made the commitment to tour Japan on cooking oil, and there was no turning back.

ALL OILED UP AND NO PLACE TO GO

The days remaining until departure began to dwindle. As part of our life on the road, I was also planning to showcase my photo collection wherever possible, so I also had to filter through eight years of snapshots to put together a 30-minute presentation using a projector.

I lost myself in the photographs and spent an inordinate amount of time on the presentation. Somehow during this time, I had put together a small machine which produced 20 liters of biodiesel and gave it a short test run. To my delight, the engine ran fine, so I went about putting together a 200-liter system. Without further testing, I loaded the four of us, our two dogs and our worldly possessions into the truck and left the island.

We crossed over from our home on Tanegashima to Kagoshima and drove leisurely along the coast using the biodiesel. Everything was going as planned. Upon exiting a small village, I flipped the switch and began drawing from the tank of cooking oil. The engine stuttered and spit, and the truck came to a rest in mere minutes.

I could think of nothing other than the filter clogging up, so we changed out the part, switched the supply line back to biodiesel and, after what seemed like an endless turning over of the engine, the truck came to life with a belch. We again set out on our journey.

Although we had made it past this first hurdle, fundamental miscalculations had clearly been made. I had put all my energy into the idea of running the engine on cooking oil but had given very little thought to filters clogging up after 10 minutes. I had taken the time to boil the used cooking oil, allowing it to sit overnight, and then skimmed off the top layer with a stocking. However, what appeared to be clean cooking oil was not up to the task.

I then set about trying a variety of ways to ensure the oil was clean, including cooking it throughout the night as well as draining it through a coffee filter one drop at a time (the latter producing one liter after half a day). No matter the method, the results were the same. Ten minutes driving on cooking oil was all we could get. This didn’t bode well for the trip and, after a week, we still had not left Kagoshima.

THE ‘SAGA’ CONTINUES

The cooking oil adventure had run aground on a hidden reef. My equipment allowed me to make 15 liters of biodiesel in one batch. However, I figured on five minutes of idling prior to cutting the engines, which meant we would have to continually make biodiesel in order to keep our boat afloat.
To make matters worse, the glycerin byproduct from the biodiesel quickly filled up our storage tanks, and there were no vendors who would take it off our hands. The bus was soon filled to the brim with un-“ditchable” amounts of liquid, leaving little room for cooking oil. Just as I was reaching wits end, I heard of a surfer in Saga who made biodiesel from cooking oil. Our course was set; destination Saga.

Midway to our first goal, we ran into some surfers in Kumamoto who were interested in seeing the photo collection, so we held our first exhibition. Meeting kind people such as these folks put new wind in the sails of my family’s somewhat sagging mood.

We finally made our way to the surfer in Saga who truly saved the trip with his knowledge and willingness to lend a helping hand. He also introduced us to SEBEC (www.sebec.co.jp), a company specializing in biodiesel fuel production machines, who in turn introduced us to a community of users throughout Japan. When our biodiesel tanks ran low, we stopped by one of the local producers and received not just a fill-up, but encouragement as well.

All was not perfect, though, as the unexplainable sudden engine stops continued—in the middle of tunnels, on one-lane highway construction zones and on bends in the road—in places you didn’t want to stop. I should note none of these occurred when running on biodiesel. Rather, I was still hung up on proving we could run on cooking oil alone, testing the concept many, many times, each ending with a failure somewhere in the plumbing.

Despite our trials and tribulations, we finally entered the final phase of our journey and during a stop in Tokyo were introduced to a researcher who showed us a centrifuge. Giving this a whirl with the cooking oil, we were amazed to find the engine ran smoothly. All those clogged filters were now just a fading memory. With the help of this and many other kind souls, we finished our 18,000-kilometer cooking oil trip around Japan.

ROUND ABOUT

I don’t’ want to leave you with the impression the whole tour was me stubbornly matching wits with the cooking oil. Our life on the road was a daily delight, waking up every day in an unknown land being the greatest treat. We spent most nights either in a park or near the ocean, and our daily routine began with a morning sojourn followed by breakfast.

My children, a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, living “the Life of Riley,” found it necessary to try out every piece of playground equipment before we departed. Finding fresh spring water was another enjoyment of ours. We searched out these springs using maps and relying on the help of locals.

We hit the sightseeing hot spots and, of course, stopped for surfing when waves washed ashore. With the scent of cooking oil billowing from our exhaust, we made two turns around Hokkaido, then headed back toward Tanegashima.

In the end, we were able to showcase our mobile photo exhibition 53 times. It was a successful completion of our simple goal, to reach as many people as possible through our images. With that in mind, we projected the photos in people’s homes, on the beach, in surf shops, in bars and anywhere else someone would allow. As a result, we made friends throughout Japan and experienced for ourselves the kindness strangers offer to travelers.

As the trip ended, thoughts of another tour ran through my mind, as well as the joy looking back on six months with my family and the varied emotions that come along with such an experience. The initial inspiration for the trip came from looking through eight years of photos.

From the waves and spray, to the rainbows, moon and sun, it seemed as if “round” things abounded. As we rounded a corner toward home, I noticed my wife’s stomach was becoming a bit more “round” as well. This was the perfect souvenir to round out the trip, and one which has now grown big enough to begin standing on its own.