Tour of Hokkaido, Day 14, Rishiri Island to Wakkanai

I’m camped under the quiet shade of some trees. The temperature is an agreeably cool and dry 21º. The vestibule flaps are rolled all the way up on both sides, and the tent door is open to an expansive view of Wakkanai town, all the way across to the other side of Soya Bay. But, there’s something else here that is totally unexpected.

Free-roaming deer.

I couldn’t have asked for a more inspiring place to spend the night, which makes free-camping Wakkanai Park the top campsite in my 2-week tour of Hokkaido.

I had arrived earlier from Rishiri on the 8am ferry, arriving 2 hrs 20 minutes later at Wakkanai. I’m alone again; the Denises enjoyed riding the Rishiri cycling road so much they want to do the whole 20 kms of it. I don’t blame them; I would too if I had an extra day to spare.

According to my trusty Mapple, the campsite nearest to town is just behind it. I take a closer look at it and I’m a bit confused. All I can see is a hill rising up, stretching almost all the way to the end of the town. My guess is it’s either on top somewhere, or over the other side.

A petrol station attendant gives me directions to the campsite after I show him the map. The entry point is behind a hospital, but the bush-covered sides of the narrow road that points upwards make me wonder if I’m on the right path.

Overgrown with bushes and deserted, this is actually the old road up to Wakkanai Park

A viewing tower at the top of the hill. I guess only hikers and cyclists use this road which joins up near the park to the new road.

On the way, I came upon this group of kindergarten kids and their teachers who assured me I was on the right track.

After that lonely ride up the deserted road, I’m greeted by a cemetery

The carpark and entrance to Wakkanai Park and campsite

Hilltop parks make the best campsites

chillax…

As always, my own personal pavilion comes into very good use

My marathon train journey begins tomorrow at 7am. I’ve got myself an empty Seicomarto box that, when cut, fits the sides of the bike bag perfectly. I’ve also made sure that when they open at 6am, there’ll be freshly made onigiri on the shelves. “Many, many..”, the friendly Seicomarto cashier assured me. Onigiri, many many of it, is going to be part of my food supply for the almost 15-hour journey by train to Haneda airport.

My dinner of sushi, tamago, fried chicken, real-potato french fries in a cup, and a can of Asahi Dry Black makes it almost a feast, by camping standards.

I stay up as long as I can to enjoy my last night in Japan. From inside my tent, I can see the moon, almost full, and in all its lunar magnificence; casting its golden glow on the night sky, over the bay and on the town below. The temperature has dipped down to 18 since the sun went down. As I slip inside my sleeping bag and zip it all the way to my neck, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of achievement and contentment, and the joy of having connected with this beautiful country — its culture, its heritage, its sights, and most of all, its people.

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Tour of Hokkaido, Day 13, Rishiri Island.

台風

Typhoon

Well, almost typhoon.

Waiting for Arnaud and Alexandra to finish packing so we could move house today, I chat with a hiker who, earlier, was forced to turn around halfway up Mt Rishiri because the wind was just too strong. I ask him if this wind is normal in Rishiri and he says no, this is the tail-end of a typhoon blowing in from the south. The tail-end of a typhoon?? I’m already reeling in its wake so I shudder at the thought of being caught in one that’s full-blown.

A distressing thought runs through my mind – will it get worse? And if it does, will the ferry be affected? I’ll have to check it out later, after we have settled in at Camp Yuni. I have to be in Wakkanai tomorrow because on the following morning I will be starting my marathon journey home on the first train out of town.

The new campsite is more exposed, with wide flat ledges of varying levels to accommodate tents. It’s all grass here, no goza; and the spectacular top of Mt Rishiri is just visible behind us, piercing the clear blue sky with its sharply tapered peak. In front of us, there is a gap in between the trees and we can see the sea, its choppy surface dotted with the white caps of breaking waves.

Yuni Family Campsite

We call in at the camp office, pay the 500Y per night fee and proceed to set up camp, picking a spot in the lee of a ledge, close to its wall to try and escape the wind. I spread out my tent on the groundsheet and clip in the poles without any problems.

But, before I can peg it down, the wind turns into a wicked gust and before I know it, my ultralight tent is sailing into the sky. I’m stunned, unable to do anything for a moment, just looking helplessly at the tent flying higher, then floating precariously near the tops of the trees fringing the campsite. But just as suddenly, the wind eases up, and the tent drops like a giant fruit from a tree, into the bushes about 10 metres away.

It is all very funny…if you’re a spectator.

Motorcycle tourers at the campsite. Small bikes, big fun.

…and just as tricked out as the big boys, including a cigarette-lighter charger socket.

The Denises are very comfortable catching up on their reading and baking themselves in the morning sun, so I make my own way to the ferry terminal.

My fears are confirmed. Ferry services cancelled today.

And tomorrow?

“Maybe”, the lady smilingly tells me in typical non-commital Japanese fashion. She gives me a telephone number and tells me to call at 7am to see if the ferry is running tomorrow. It’s for the ferry office at Wakkanai. If the wind eases up, the first ferry of the day will set sail at 7:30am or so. If not….

I slolwy ride back to camp a little worried. But I tell myself that I’ve yet to be in a touring-situation that couldn’t be resolved, including those that were out of my control; like this one. So I keep the faith.

Mt Rishiri may be the main draw for hikers but the island can boast of another, more unusual attraction – a partly elevated cycling road. We are in luck. Part of the 20km-long road runs just next to the campsite, with the entry point just a few metres from the campsite entrance. We decide to check it out later in the afternoon when it’s cooler.

But first, lunch…….then a snooze.

A huge bowl of pork ramen. 750Y

Ramen shop ladies. They were beside themselves, giggling like little girls when they saw a 6.5ft tall gaijin stroll in, his head nearly touching the top of the door frame. When Arnaud stretched his arm and touched the ceiling, his fan-girls were ecstatic.

The entrance of the cycling road just outside the campsite. Directly behind me, across the main road, is where the cycling road continues on towards the northern part of the island.

Almost 2o kms long — beautifully paved and very well maintained.

An elevated section of the cycling road. This one is about 50 m above the valley below.

After such an impressive ride, nothing less than an hour’s soaking in the hotspring of our favourite onsen will do. By now, of course, I can easily pass off as a Japanese, the way I conduct myself in the age-old ritual of scrubbing, cleaning and soaking in the hotspring. This will be the one pastime I cannot hope to enjoy anywhere else in the world.

Tsunami has wreaked considerable damage to our finances last night, so we agreed that dinner tonight will be a little more subdued, more like Seicomarto dining.

We make our way to town, and our favourite konbini.

Pasta drenched in ready-to-eat sauce, snacks, beer plus an assortment of convenience store delicacies turn out to be quite a fun feast. We dine inside the dark pavilion, with only our headlamps for lighting. All the while, the frigid wind is as blustery as ever. One of its gusts blows off a packet of half-eaten chips, spilling the contents on the floor. Those are very nice chips so Arnaud, who was enjoying it, cooly picks them off the floor and eats them. No waste.

2 am. I wake up to a strangely quiet sensation. I take a peek outside. Silhouetted against the purplish black sky, the trees are still, its leaves fluttering lightly. The wind is no more.

A sleepy ‘yippee’ and I go back to sleep.

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Tour of Hokkaido, Day 12, island hopping: Rebun to Rishiri.

There are thieves in the camp!

Small, black and winged — crows — raucous in their squawking, and daring in their approach; one of them with the audacity to crawl under the vestibule where my food, gas stove, pot and shoes are kept. They can’t see it but they can smell it.

They were all around, clamoring for the one bird that was bold enough to penetrate the human’s tent and grab the packet containing his breakfast with its beak.

Their cheering wakes me up with a start. Dawn has just broken, and the sky is still overcast. In my sleep-befuddled state, I unzip the tent door, then the vestibule, and give chase, cursing at it, “Come back with my food, you stupid bird!”

The greedy food-snatcher can’t fly off with the heavy load so it tries to peck at the food. At the very last second, just before I can pounce on it, the rascal raider flies off, leaving the food behind. I shake my fist at it in triumph. The food is intact. I still have my breakfast after all.

Later, when I’m cleaning up at the camp wash area, the feathered fiends come back again. This time, they succeed — they get away with a plastic bag of rubbish. When they realise they’ve been duped, they dump the plastic bag and fly off, leaving me to clear up the mess.

Damn thieves.

The entrance to the lake..not very inviting

At dinner last night in the open field under the stars, we had decided we’d go to Rishiri today, on the 1pm ferry. That also means we have a whole morning to chill out, so we take our time with breakfast. The lake is not swim-friendly; the lakeside covered with tall rush fringing the entire lake. Where we’re camped, there’s only a narrow gangway, likely for canoes. And the water is nothing like what I’ve experienced at Lake Toya or Lake Shikotsu.

Facility for washing — clothes, food, pots, bodies…

Camping in style, complete with deck chair. A true adventurer.

The owner of the yellow tent. Nice and clean BMW F800.

Entrance to the campsite

Campsite from the other side of the lake

Back to Kafuka

Nearing Kafuka, Mt Rishiri on Rishiri island is clearly visible across the sea

We stopped to chat with these friendly folk picking fish out of the nets.

One of the ojisans noticed that we were fascinated with the seagulls so he threw a fish at them to show us how greedy seagulls eat.

Waiting to enter the bowel of the ferry

Only one vehicle..

Rishiri is definitely more popular of the 2 islands. It’s bigger and better developed. At my suggestion, we make our way to a campsite about 3 kms inland. The Mapple doesn’t point it out but it’s 3 kms of gradual climb, not steep but enough to make us huff and puff a bit. Most of the road is shady so it’s not too bad.

We take note of a spa inn along the way, an impressive looking one. (spa inns are establishments that include onsen, accommodation and restaurants whereas day-onsens are just that – baths only with no other amenities)

Oshidomari, Rishiri Island

We soon reach Rishiri Hokuroku Forest Park – hot, sweaty and a little out of breath. We’re greeted by an impressive looking park office building, and a woman who can’t wait to get us to fill up the forms. The campsite is also the base from where hikers go up to the top of Mt Rishiri (2xxx m), which is what the woman thinks we’re planning to do. We tell her no, we just want to camp. So it’s 500Y instead.

The shady 3km all-uphill road to Hokuroku Forest Park

End of the road..

Hokuroku park office

The lobby. Feels almost like a resort than a park

Hokuroku had the cleanest and most sophisticated toilet of all the campsites I had stayed in so far

…including heated toilet seats. Impressive.

The campsite is the strangest I’ve been to yet. It’s covered completely with a kind of mat. It’s called Goza, and it’s woven from harvested rice stalks. It’s supposed to trap warmth when it’s cold, and keeps cool when the weather gets warm.

There’s a brisk wind blowing and it takes a bit of work pitching up the tent. The trees make a terrific noise, its leaves crashing about quite violently as the gusts pick up in intensity. I’ve never seen anything like this before. Hopefully, no delinquent branch breaks away and land on my tent tonight. That would be violent and bloody.

The campsite — fully covered with Goza.

A fellow camper…big bike, tiny tent.

Checking out the other campsite nearer to town, we are treated to a heavenly display of golden coloured clouds being blown across the sky in formations unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

Today’s outing at the spa inn makes it to the top of the list of most-enjoyable-onsens. It has 3 pools – one plain hot, another with bubble jets, and the last, in the outdoors. This outdoor experience is my first. It’s located outside a glass door, in an open-air but enclosed area, for obvious reasons.

The brisk wind has noticeably picked up in speed. It’s quite surreal, like something out of a Kurosawa movie. The trees outside the wall are swaying hard, the leaves rustling very loudly in the wind. The air is noticeably chilly and it’s very comforting when I slip into the warm pool, leaving only my head exposed to the chill.

Sufficiently warmed up, I try the pool with bubble jets. It’s very nice, and it’s hotter. After a while I move into the quiet pool next to it. The hour slips by unnoticed. It’s time for dinner.

We cruise the streets of Oshidomari looking for a restaurant. By now it’s getting dark, and most of the shops seem to be closed. Finally, we turn a corner and come upon an ominously-named establishment by the name of Tsunami, promising its patrons a resort dining experience.

Inside, it looks more like a resort – more accurately, its canteen, one with a bar. The loud and ruddy faced diners at the only other occupied table could easily pass off as workers in the back-end of a resort. There is another man at the bar, chopsticks in quick motions shovelling food into his mouth. I’ve yet to see a Japanese eat with finesse, only with gusto. I go over for a look to see what he is eating – some kind of pork with rice dish. “Very good”, he says.

The surly-looking wife of the friendly blonde-haired boss didn’t look like she was having a good day. She served us our drinks without a smile – very un-Japanese.

We decide to go for the real thing – fresh, handmade-on-the-spot sushi. Blondie suggests we take the set, and without asking the price, we said ‘ok’. We sit back and relax with our beers as he flurries about the counter, shaping the sushi, one after another with rapid ease. I’m salivating.

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Blondie, the boss of Tsunami, making our dinner

The menu, not that it makes any difference to us.

My most luxurious meal of the tour

The dinner of a 10-piece sushi set each, together with beer, costs us about 10,000Y. Not cheap, but I suppose it’s not exhorbitant either, considering the quality and taste of the sushi.

After that wonderful resort dinner, the reality of an anti-climactic 3km uphill ride back to the campsite hits us like a Tsunami. The warm feel-good buzz is gone with the by-now-howling wind as we make our way back to camp … in the dark, with only my lights showing the way for both our bikes.

We knew without a doubt that tomorrow, we’ll be packing up and moving down to the other campsite that’s nearer to town. A good time in town only to be negated by a 3km climb uphill is not my idea of a recommended campsite.

The other campsite is called Yuni Family Campsite. And the best thing about it? It’s only a 2-minute walk to the spa-inn opposite.

Back at camp, my tent is shaking and shuddering in the wind. I find it quite unnerving – the noise, the dark sky, the constant fear of a tree falling down and flattening me. I find it hard to sleep. In the middle of the night, a loud flapping wakes me up. One of the tent pegs have come loose. I re-peg it and crawl back inside my tent.

I wonder how the Belgians are doing.

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Tour of Hokkaido, Day 11, Sarufutsu to Wakkanai and Rebun Island.

Soya Misaki, or Cape Soya, is only 30 kms away. Wakkanai, another 30 kms from there. Easy.

But first, breakfast at Seicomarto! This one is just about a km away, along the road to Wakkanai. It’s 6am as we make our way there, and the sky looks like it could be unleashing its contents at any time.

Step inside a Seicomart and the first, and last, thing you’ll hear is ‘Seicomarto, Seicomarto, Seicomarto…’ The jingle is set to loop, endlessly. It’s effective, too. I know because every once in a while, I sing the words out loud. At least they make up for assaulting us with its cheesy jingle by offering decent food to cycle-tourers like us.

After breakfast, Arnaud and Alexandra are worried that they won’t have enough time to replace the spokes and make the 2pm ferry, so they set off ahead of me.

The coastline is more scenic than what I rode through yesterday. I’m glad I decided to this last bit today; I prefer to take it easy, going at my own leisurely pace and stopping whenever I feel like it.

Wave-breakers..

From the road, I spot some ladies slicing up freshly caught octopus so I ride in for a closer look. They’re amused that anybody would want to photograph them, squid being so common in their diet.

Pretty big octopuses

Soya Misaki comes into view soon enough. It’s a very small town, more like a village; a very touristy village. It’s sole claim to fame is a little structure that marks it to as the northenmost point of Japan.

It’s a busy day at Soya Misaki. Tourists on busses, motorcycle tourers, cars and at this moment, a lone cycle-tourer. I wait my turn to get my picture. The tourists from the bus are being herded to a spot in front of the Cape Soya structure to have their group photo taken.

View from atop Soya Misaki park, just across the road from the ‘northernmost point of Japan’ structure.

This is it, after almost 800 kms, Cape Soya. Can’t go any further north than this and still be in Japan.

Busloads of tourists waiting to have their group shot taken

including a camera crew shooting some travel video. The guy with the monkey on his back is the host…

Motorcycle tourers … Looks like Honda Girl isn’t the only one travelling with her kitchen and living room.

Across the cape, 40 kms straight north as the crow flies, is the Russian island of Sakhalin. Its influence on this part of Japan is apparent. As I get nearer to Wakkanai, road signages are in both Japanese and Russian.

Wakkanai is bigger and busier than I thought it would be. Its strategic location probably makes it an important port – to Rebun, Rishiri and Sakhalin islands.

I notice that the temperature has been holding steady in the low 20s; lovely for all-day riding, especially with the sun behind the clouds. There’s also a constant wind blowing in my direction.

I ride around the town a bit, checking out the train station from where I’ll be Tokyo-bound, and also the ferry terminal, from where we’ll ship out to the 2 islands.

As I ride back to town from the ferry terminal, I see the Belgians. They happy … and they’re not happy. They tell me they’re 10,000Y poorer but, the wheel is very solid now. I suppose when you’re the only bike shop in town, you can charge a premium on spokes. 10,000Y = RM400/USD133/SGD163 … for 4 spokes.

So, there are unscrupulous Japs after all. Never thought it would be a bike shop.

After lunch, we head back to Oshidomari, the port from where the ferry sails the 2.5hr trip to the further-away island of Rebun. As cyclists, we have to push our bikes into the belly of the ship. The bikes are tied up and we make our up to the top.

Ferry terminal at Oshidomari

Tickets for both bike and rider

880Y for man, 670Y for bike

Economy class.

Located at the front of the ferry

Take your pick of corners

These aunties can really yak … from port to port, a good 2.5hrs.

Second-class

First Class — can’t even get a glimpse of it

Berthing at Kafuka port on Rebun. The biggest and slowest goes first.

No scratching on deck

Wakkanai-bound vehicles

On the road to Lake Kushu Campsite.

We reach the port town of Kafuka on Rebunto at 4.30pm and straightaway, we head north to a campsite on the northern tip of the island at Lake Kushu. There’re only 2 sealed roads on Rebunto; 1 hugging the right side of the island from tip to tip, and the other a shorter one heading straight across the island from Kafuka.

We need supplies for the night and tomorrow morning, so we all started singing – ‘Seicomarto, Seicomarto…’

It’s just 2 kms from Kafuka town. We are very happy to see it because I also get to indulge in an ice-cream, and Alexandra gets her daily fix of Megmilk. After introducing the milk to her, she can’t seem to get enough of it.

It’s about 20kms to the campsite but the ride is not going to be a breeze – there’s a nasty headwind putting the brakes on us. I do the smart thing … I tuck behind the tandem and enjoy the draft, all the way to the campsite. But the captain and his stoker are not making it a ride in the park for me; they’re going at a faster clip than I’m usually used to on a loaded tourer. I’m just inches from their trailer, barely drafting in their slipstream. Any further and I will be sucking the wind, not their wheel.

Signbboard spotted just before the campsite. I’m still trying to figure this one out.

Entrance to the campsite (shot taken the next morning)

It’s almost dark when we arrive at the campsite. I can’t make out whether it’s a public park or a private campsite. There are no trees, so it’s likely private. There are only a few campers, their tents mostly in the middle of the campground. I speak to one them (they’re university students) and she tells me it’s 600Y. That’s the highest I would have paid so far so it must be private. But the camp staff doesn’t seem to be around so we pick a quiet corner near the lake’s edge and set up camp.

It seems Rebun offers more to hikers than cycle-tours so we decide to go to the bigger island of Rishiri and spend 2 days there. Apparently, there’s an elevated road on the island built exclusively for bicycles. Very intriguing. I can’t wait.

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Distance today: 80 kms

Distance to date: 806 kms

Tour of Hokkaido, Day 10, Utanobori to Sarufutsu

We slept on the wooden floor last night, sheltered from the cold wind swirling around the exposed hilltop outside. It would have been quite chilly camping.

The sun is already streaming through the windows, brightening the cabin with a golden hue. The light is beaming on my face, making it impossible to continue sleeping. It’s 5am.

It’s a slow, lazy breakfast this morning. I’m keen to reach Wakkanai today, and then take the ferry to Rebun or Rishiri island first thing tomorrow morning. I figure I can do 129km and maybe reach Wakkanai before sunset, since it’s riding on a coastal road which, logically, should be flat all the way; headwinds not withstanding. It’s also the last segment; so no more serious mileage after today.

Please feel free to use the house.
Please fill in your name, address and number of pax.
Please keep the center clean and take the garbage home with you.
Please turn off the lights and windows before you leave.

Please do not use the power points.
The circuit breaker will be thrown and the lights and water can’t be used.

We set out at 8.30am; a bit late by my reckoning but we were taking our time, enjoying the cabin and the atmosphere of Lavender hill. The morning view of the land below is stunning.

The rest of the day’s ride can be synopsized into one word – ‘uninteresting’, with the exception of my first live sighting of a Hokkaido fox, when we rode around a bend and suddenly came upon one in the middle of the road.

A Hokkaido fox on the run

I half-wished a bear would just jump out and energise our day

Counting the number of arrows that indicate either an incline or declining slope in the road ahead.

I have miscalculated the distance to Wakkanai. It’s 150km, not 120km. Arnaud and Alexandra decide that they will take it easy and camp at Sarufutsu and push on to Wakkanai tomorrow instead. Their decision is made simpler by the fact their rear wheel has 4 broken spokes, which they hadn’t realised until I commented on the way the wheel is wobbling unnaturally. The nearest bikeshop is in Wakkanai so they have no choice. They have to nurse it all the way there.

I’m undecided. If I push it, I should be able to barely make Wakkanai after sundown. But I’m not sure, and I’m not too keen on locating campsites in the dark.

We reach Sarufutsu just after 5pm and I decide to pack it in for the day. That way, I’ll be able to take my time when I reach Cape Soya, and the rest of the ride to Wakkanai, 60km from Sarufutsu.

Sarufutsu is a fishing village, but oddly there’s a sort of a park (the first tree-less one I’ve seen) with a hotel, and an open field with an amphitheatre.

We ride in to the park building and find out that the campsite is anywhere on the open field behind the amphitheatre. We also find out that there’s an onsen in the hotel but … only for hotel guests; lowly campers excluded. Bummer…

Sarufutsu campsite

Hotel on the left, park office on the right.

We’re hungry so we head for the hotel’s restaurant, but it’s closed until 7pm.

We decide to visit a Seicomart nearby and stock up on water and some food. They’re open by 6am so we decide we’ll come here for breakfast instead of at camp. We trying to make the 2pm ferry to Rebun but before that Arnaud needs to get the tandem fixed, so it has be an early start tomorrow.

We go back and set up camp and wait for the restaurant to open. Meanwhile, we’re craving for a proper scrub in the shower and a long soak in the hotspring tub. So we decide to go anyway… quietly, and hope for the best.

Nobody in the onsen pay us any notice. We luxuriate in the bath for a full hour. I suppose it was a bit of a naughty thing to do but we’ve only got a few days left in Japan, and nothing can compare to the sheer pleasure of a pre-dinner onsen outing; more so if dinner is fresh scallops lightly sauteed, accompanied by rice, miso and salad, and a glass of chilled, foamy Asahi draught beer. The luxurious taste of food and drink is amplified many times the way I’m feeling after the onsen – all stress, weariness, the day’s grime, gook and gunk has been washed away. I could easily get used to the onsen habit.

After-onsen smiles

Fresh scallops … exquisite.

The dew is heavy in the air. Must be the sea nearby. The tent is drenched, and the air is chilly but inside, I’m snug and dry.

Tomorrow, Wakkanai will mark the end of the long ride from Hakodate in the south. Tomorrow, we go island hopping.

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Distance today: 91km

Distance to date: 726km

Tour of Hokkaido, Day 9, Lake Shumarinai to Utanobori

I have this niggling feeling today that I may not have done the right thing yesterday. So, just to be sure that I leave this campsite as honest as when I rode in, I decide to ask the park staff (who happens to be doing his rounds in his lorry) whether camping here is free, or otherwise. It has just occurred to me that yesterday, when I rode off after asking for directions, he could have been trying to tell me to register and pay for camping.

He smiles at me and says ‘yes, 500Y camping fee’. I bow almost to the ground in embarrassment. I have learnt a very important lesson in Japanese culture. This man has given me considerable ‘face’ when he chose not to pursue me yesterday after I rode off, blissfully ignoring him.

Lake Shumarinai park office

Register and pay here. 500Y

As I leave the park office, a couple on a tandem, the same one from the campsite, rides past and says ‘hello’. Turns out they’re heading towards the same destination as me – Wakkanai.

A little later, on the road to Bifuka, we meet again. They had stopped at the little shop before the junction to the lake for breakfast. He is Arnaud, and she is Alexandra; they’re Belgian. We slip into easy conversation, riding 2 abreast without any worries since the road is sparse of traffic. They had started from Sapporo and their first leg was the very one I had decided to give a miss, but I’m vindicated with my decision. According to them, I didn’t miss much; they even had to camp in the middle of nowhere on one of the 2 nights it took to cover the distance.

Arnaud and Alexandra Denis

They decide to go with my suggestion of heading straight for the coast. And, on my recommendation of the Mapple’s recommendation of a campsite, we decide to end our ride and camp at Utanobori today.

The tandem and its trailer soon goes ahead of me. 4 pistons versus 2 means they can cruise just that little bit faster.

Soba fields

Soba fields after harvesting

They don’t just have wave-breakers in Japan; these are wind-breakers

A Hokkaido fox roadkill. Because of these creatures, which carry a nasty parasite, no stream is safe for drinking.

Cold and wet inside the tunnel.

A good sign

Near Bifuka, an old railroad has been converted into an amusement-park ride, with a passenger trolley driven by a lawn-mower engine (driver’s licence required, no kidding)

At the town of Bifuka, I meet up with Arnaud and Alex again. They’re inside a supermarket but I tell them there’s a 7/11 down the road so we make a beeline for it. I have sushi again, and ice-cream, and coffee.

7 km from Utanobori, I see a big signboard that I think is pointing the way to the campsite. I turn in and see a golf course, and a hotel opposite it. I decide to ask the reception just to be sure. I show him the Mapple, points to the campsite and he replies in English, ‘Ahh…go straight up…5 minutes’. Well, that was easy.

On the way, I see an onsen. Woohoo… I can have a proper scrub and shower and a good soak in the hotspring water. But first, I have to check-in.

To the campsite, just outside Utanobori

Onsen at Lavendar Hill park

Fure Ai No Mori (Lavendar Hill and campsite). I learn this much later, of course

Q: What does a cycle-tourer hate the most at the end of a long, hard day just before he arrives at his destination?
A: An upward incline of considerable grade.

The first fork in the road to the campsite. The owl does not want to look me in the face…I wonder why.

Damn, this can’t be happening…again.

I realise the receptionist meant ‘5 minutes ….. if you’re driving’

I shift into granny and crank my way up. I come to a fork and since I can’t read Japanese, I make an educated guess and go right. I creep up the road and I come to another fork, and since I can’t read Japanese, I make an educated guess again and go left, since the right one seems to narrow a bit.

I inch my way up and arrive at some kind of park, but it’s deserted and the entrance is blocked. It’s not looking good. I decide to continue on the road which is now pointing downwards. I coast down at speed and arrive at a fork, which looks strangely familiar.

It’s the first one that I passed through about 10 minutes ago!

Never mind, I’ll try again. I go right and granny up the 10% incline for the 2nd time. At the second fork, I go right this time and….. I’m greeted by another owl.

@*%$@*%#^&$%&*%##%&**#@#$#$#!!!

More signboards that tell me nothing

I come to another left/right fork. I see something on the top of the hill on my left so I go up. There are a couple of cabins but they’re locked. It doesn’t look like a campsite to me. I can’t believe this is happening to me. I come back to the fork, but the right one doesn’t look like it’s the way to the campsite. And so far, I’ve not seen one person or a single vehicle coming up this hill.

I’m totally demoralised. As if to depress me further, nature throws a wet blanket on me, with a light drizzle.

I throw in the towel and ride all the way down to the onsen. I’m seriously considering checking in to the golfers’ hotel, never mind the cost. At least, I’ll be warm and cosy tonight. I wonder where the Belgian couple is. Haven’t seen them since after Bifuka.

Outside the onsen, I see an oji-san unloading stuff from the back of his lorry. I decide to try one more time, because the Mapple hasn’t failed me yet so far, especially on recommended campsites.

I ride up to him and ask him where the campsite is. I tell him I can’t seem to find it, and that I’m about to die from exhaustion climbing up the hill twice. He says ‘yes, it’s up there…but further in’. Well, if it really is up there, I will die climbing up the 10%-followed-by-11% hill again, for the 3rd time.

I put on my best down-and-out cycle-tourer’s face and ask him if he can kindly send me up in his lorry? He hesitates a bit and looks at me. Ok, he says, ‘put the bike in the back of the lorry’.

Hallelujah, and thank you, Lord!

We set off up the hill. Oji-san is constantly downshifting and the lorry whines when it gets really steep at some sections of the road.

50 metres from where I gave up and went down the hill, we arrive at the campsite. I know this is it because I recall the picture of the campsite in the Mapple. There is only 1 tent there and I wonder if it’s the Belgians. We pass a building that looks like a typical park office, and I see Arnaud and Alex’s panniers and trailer…but no sign of them or their tandem. Very strange.

But the old man doesn’t stop there. He drives a little further on and stops in front of a log cabin. Without a word, he gets down, walks up the stairs, opens the door, goes inside, switches on the lights, comes back out again… and tells me this is where I’m staying for the night. And oh yes, it’s free.

I’m as speechless as the guy who just struck big on the lottery. From pauper to millionaire.

He helps me unload my stuff and I ask to take a photo together. Then he insists that he take shot of me in front of the cabin. I can’t thank him enough. I offer him a small token of money but he refuses it. I think I may have offended him. I seem to be bowing a lot today, and very low, too.

No more riding today

The elusive campsite.

After I bring everything into the warm and cosy cabin (I’m still in a state of disbelief), I decide to see what has happened to Arnaud and Alexandra. Their stuff is outside the park building which turns out to be a tree museum of sorts. My guess is they have gone to the onsen. I leave a note for them to join me in cabin.

When luck turns for the better, it’s best to simply be thankful. Today is one of those days which I attribute to prayers answered, as I am wont to do when caught in a sticky situation…not the first, and not the last. I realise that if I hadn’t given up, I would not have ridden back down, and I would not have met the old man, and he would not have helped me, and I would not now be staying the night in a beautiful log cabin on top of a hill, with a fantastic view of the valley below.

Sitting on the steps of the cabin, I can see the town of Utanobori below.

Sitting on the steps of the cabin, I can see the town of Utanobori below.

Inside the cabin; the metal contraption is a fireplace. Chopped wood is in a box at the back, ready for a cold night.

Complete with boys’ and girls’ toilets…but no shower. I took mine at the kitchen sink.

The kitchen. Gas stove provided, no gas. Lucky I have a ‘bombe’

Arnaud and Alexandra are back. As I suspected, they arrived earlier and went back down to enjoy the onsen. Apparently, they have a more detailed map with them which showed the road and campsite clearly. My Mapple, at 1:200,000, did not, only a general location.

They are very happy that we’ve got the whole cabin to ourselves. Before I arrived, they had planned to stay inside the musuem instead of pitching up their tent as the weather was threatening to misbehave. It’s also quite cold here…but not inside the snug and warm cabin.

Arnaud cooking pasta for dinner. They were kind enough to share some with me.

Kampai to another day with a happy ending

Part of my dinner

Tomorrow, we’ll be heading down towards the northern coast  of Hokkaido, and from there, it’s only 2 more days to Wakkanai, and almost the end of my journey. Tonight, we sleep well. Let it rain. It’ll be even more cosy inside.

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Distance today: 104 km

Distance to date: 635 km

Tour of Hokkaido, Day 8, Asahikawa to Lake Shumarinai

I’m on the road to Lake Shumarinai, my destination for the day, and hopefully, it’s another amazing campsite, sparse of campers, and quiet and overflowing with the sights, sounds and smells of nature. But first, I have to retrace my steps back to Asahikawa, but not on route 237; I take a quieter, smaller road that runs parallel with it.

It’s padi fields left and right – it’s all quite absorbing actually; the many shades of ripening green juxtaposed with the infinite blue of the sky, interrupted by puffs of clouds flitting across the heavens.

It looks like the oven is set to ‘roast’ today; crispy on the outside and tender on the inside.

The padi fields soon give way to the bland, suburban Japanese architecture. I do the stop, start, stop, start routine. Traffic lights. About a hundred of them, I think … just to pass through the city of Asahikawa.

Ishikari River

By the time I hit the outskirts of the city, breakfast has disappeared. But a good old Lawsons konbini comes to the rescue. I like this one – they have sushi, and fresh ones, too. I choose a pack that has 3 pieces of sushi rolls with bits of tamago inside, with 3 pieces of Inari-sushi (sushi rice in bean curd skin). My drink? Megmilk. Brunch is very satisfying – carbohydrate, calcium, vitamin C, sugar, protein and a dozen other unpronounceable chemicals.

My Lawsons sushi lunch

Brunch does not last more than 5 kms. Strangely, I feel like I haven’t eaten the sushi at all. I feel like going back to the Lawsons and devour another pack again. But I console my stomach by promising myself I’ll have a more filling lunch when I get to Horokonai.

Bland architecture soon gives way to bland scenery. More rice paddies. With some consolation sunflowers here and there to give it a bit of colour. There’s not much else to capture my attention, so I decide to ride into the rice fields.

I’m so engrossed with the boring landscape I ride past a junction I was supposed to turn into, by 5 kms. Back on the right track, the road begins to gently climb.

Yakult delivery lady. In Japan, the popular Yakult is delivered by these hardworking ladies carrying up to 3okgs of the healthy-gut probiotic drink to their neigbourhood customers…rain or shine.

I arrive at Horokonai when the sun is at it’s blazingly hottest. It doesn’t look like it now but Horokonai and its surrounds once recorded the lowest ever temperature in Japan’s history —  minus 41º C.

It’s almost certainly lunchtime. I ride almost to the end of town, less than half a kilometre long and I still can’t see any konbinis. I stop an old woman on a bicycle and she tells me there’s ‘something’ ‘over there’, just no konbinis. I ride back and find ACOOP, a non-descript little supermarket. It has food, that’s all that matters. And peaches.

Busy main street Horokonai

The only supermarket in town — A-COOP

I salivate just looking at the fruit. They’re big so I buy 2, for 200Y. But stomach is calling for something salty and hot so I pick a cup noodle and ask the sole lady cashier if she can give me hot water. ‘Hai, hai’…she runs to the back and comes out with a tall flask. I find out that this is the last place to stock up on food and water before Shumarimai, so I take the basket and go back to the aisles again – water, more noodles, snacks, bread, isotonic drinks. I’m adding on at least 3 kgs to the already heavy load on the bike.

I also buy some Takoyaki (little golf-ball sized Japanese snacks made from batter with minced octopus filling, cooked on a griddle with round depressions) from a stall located just inside the entrance. This is for later. I go back into the oven again, with less than 50kms to Shumarinai.

Fully loaded with water and food for tonight and tomorrow morning

By now, rice fields have given way to buckwheat, and the aroma of fertiliser is constantly in the air.

Welcome to Soba country.

After endless kms of soba fields interspersed by dull greenery, I arrived at the junction to Lake Shumarinai. I see some houses, and a little shop. Inside, there’s not much on the shelves; mostly picnic stuff and alcohol; obviously catering to campers at Shumarinai. No vending machines here either, but there’s a chiller inside. I cool down with a coke. The sugar rush is instant.

Q: What does a cycle-tourer hate the most at the end of a long, hard day just before he arrives at his destination? A: An upward incline of considerable grade.

Turning into a junction where a sign points to the lake and campsite, I see the road rise steeply. It’s not that long but it feels endless, and I’m expending precious calories. Cursing doesn’t help much with progress either.

Technically, Lake Shumarinai is an artificial lake, and the biggest one in Japan at that. It doesn’t look man-made though.

I pass a log-cabin and ask the man standing outside it where the ‘campyu’ is. He points to some trees by the lake edge. He also says something I can’t quite understand. I take it for granted it’s free so I carry on to the campsite.

Any hope of a quiet, undisturbed camp is dashed. There are campers everywhere I turn – family types, mostly. I ride around a bit, looking for a nice quiet spot, and finally settle for one. On my left, about 10 metres away, is an old couple in a van. On my right is a family who came by caravan, and a couple a short distance away chilling out in front of their tent, but still inside another gazebo-like tent with netting on all sides – city slickers averse to mosquitoes.

Kohan Campground, Lake Shumarinai

Campers on my left…

Campers on my right

campers, campers …

everywhere

My cosy little spot

I pitch my tent on a flat clearing. Suddenly – loud music!

Unbelievably, the old couple is doing the tango. The family campers are amused, taking photographs of the couple. The old couple is oblivious to the world around them – moving gracefully, their dignified heads held high as they pranced about the clearing.

Senior lovebirds doing their thing

About 5 minutes later, I hear a small lorry driving around the campsite, quite fast and impatiently. I can guess what’s about to happen. The driver zips in and out among the tents and finally stops at the old couple’s van. Politely, he tells them to can the music, and probably added that cyclo-tourists like me need their peace and quiet to rest from a long day’s ride. Old couple apologises and that is the end of the day’s excitement at Camp Shumarinai.

After setting up camp, I walk around a bit and spot a tandem with a trailer outside a tent. Cycle-tourers. The tent is zipped up and they don’t seem to be around. I go back to my tent and prepare my dinner. Takoyaki, noodles and a big fat juicy peach for dessert followed by dried sweet potato for snacks after. I wonder how I fit all that food in, in one sitting.

The family next door is having a BBQ. The father and tots are playing with fireworks, the parents shouting and gushing with pride and encouragement at their kids’ sparkling achievements. Inside my tent, I stuff my ear-phones a little deeper into my ears – Resident Evil 4’s Milla Jovovich is in fine zombie-exterminating form. I love mindless entertainment on nights like these.

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Distance today: 128km

Distance to date: 531km

Tour of Hokkaido. Day 6, Lake Shikotsu to Sapporo

‘So sorry, is full house today’. With a genuinely apologetic, sad-to-see-me-go smile, Yukiko-san has just nixed my plan to stay here for one more sorely needed rest day. I feel great, but the exuberance stops where my legs begin. They are very, very tired.

I slept very well last night. I had left the window, as there is neither aircon nor fan in the room. The temperature had dipped a little early in the morning but I was comfortably cocooned under a blanket in between freshly laundered bedsheets. And the Sobagara pillow … I wish I can take one home with me.

Outside, it’s raining, a soft soothing whitenoise coupled with the patter of waterdrops on the leaves of the tree, and the soft rumbling of thunder rolling across the misty grey heavens. It doesn’t dampen my spirit at all.

I feel very at home here.

I make my way downstairs to the dining room where a few other guests are halfway through their breakfasts. The oba-san in charge of the kitchen greets me with a warm ‘ohayo gozaimas’ and asks me to sit. She trots back into the kitchen and comes out with my breakfast.

I find it hard believe what she’s serving me is hostel food.

Breakfast room, warm and toasty in winter

The other youths having breakfast with me

More like hotel food — a neat scoop of potato salad on a bed of fresh leaves, a cheerful sunny-side-up egg done just right, a slice of ham and a quartered tomato, accompanied by a glass of delicious Hokkaido milk. There’s also free-flow coffee and all the thickly sliced bread I can eat. All this for only 700Y; cheap by Japanese standards.

After breakfast, and after being the given the bad news that there’s no vacancy today, not even a bed in a shared dorm, I reluctantly trudge back to my room and start packing. It’s still raining, and I all I really want to do is snuggle up with my new friend – the lovely Sobagara pillow.

10am. Miraculously, when I finish packing my panniers, the rain stops and and the sun slowly creeps out from behind the clouds. A divine sign, perhaps? At least it will be a cool ride today. I’m also cheered up a bit by the thought of the distance to Sapporo – just under 50kms, although I’m a bit wary of the description of the route. Yep, it’s ‘a little bit up-down, up-down’. But, I reckon it should be manageable at a relaxed pace.

Yukiko-san is ever the caring host, not only seeing me out but helping me with my panniers, and even offering to take the obligatory guest-in-front-of-hostel photo for me. I ask her to take one with me too. I shall always remember her kindness.

The road that rings the lake is a very scenic one, snaking its way towards the hills in the direction of Sapporo. The sky is still overcast and the air is cool. Like Lake Toya, Lake Shikotsu’s water is lucid, but here, its amazing clarity is tinged with a hint of greenish-blue. I can just imagine how magnificent camping by its lakeside would have been like last night.

Road repairs, and the ever helpful road-safety marshall, but the guy in the video below is the hardest working…

Cyclists riding in from the north, probably Sapporo. All of them, including the cars, had to wait for me to pass.

Today, I achieve a new record in pedalling speed – 4kph. Walking is definitely faster. It’s Granny’s day out.

As I ride up, and down, the hills, Lake Shikotsu from afar is mesmerising. I stop a few times to enjoy the scenery; I will probably never come this way again, so I make it last. This hilly segment is not inhabited but I’m kept company by alpine-like trees on both sides of the road.

Climb starts

The road to Sapporo

At noon, I reach the outskirts of Sapporo, at the town of Makomani, I stop for lunch at Sunkus, another convenience store chain. It’s a first for me. In Japan, you can always count on the kombinis here to offer reasonably fresh food, so I pick a rice with chicken pack and ask the chubby cashier to make it ‘hotto’. It’s been quite a cold ride, and the air is a bit chilly from the lack of sunlight, so a hot cup of coffee should help warm up my insides. Sunkus is one up on my favourite kombini, 7/11, when it comes to coffee; they use coffee pods, which tend to stay fresher. It’s not too bad, and I feel alive again.

Sunkus kombini on Google streetmap:

I’ve never seen a happier convenience store employee than this Sunkus cashier

My Sunkus lunch: Rice with fried chicken, and mayo for that creamy touch

A Kuerig coffee machine, using coffee pods

It’s fast relax alright

From Makomanai, I’m supposed to ride on the cycle path along the Toyohira River, which will lead me all the way to the city. After a few false leads, I finally locate the entrance of the cycle path. Coming into a city, it’s always a stressfull exercise when you make the transition from quiet roads and fresh air to gridlock and exhaust gases. And if you get lost, which you inevitably will, the stress level goes up a few more notches.

Not knowing how to exit and get to Ino’s Place, the backpacker hostel I intend to stay tonight, I stop a young female cyclist for help. She doesn’t speak any English but she is very helpful. She calls the hostel with her phone for clearer directions and then relays them to me as best as she can, in Japanese and hand signs. Good enough.

After wandering through some busy roads and backlanes, I finally found the place. Ino’s Place is a cosy little hostel, and I mean little. It costs me 4000Y for a small 10′ X 8′ private room, with a 1000Y key deposit. I vow to make this the last hostel I stay in for the rest of my trip. I realise I’m much, much happier camping among God’s nature – free and unencumbered by locks and keys, cramped 3 X 3 foot-square showers, and the generally less friendly city folk.

Ino’s Place, as seen on Google streetmap

While I’m here I might as well visit a Japan Rail madugochi (ticketing office) to reserve my seats for the Wakkanai to Tokyo return leg which is expected to involve some serious train travel. I take a bus to the nearest JR station, Shiroishi Station. Reservations done, I hop on a JR train to Sapporo central, located in the busiest part of the city for a walkabout and some dinner. I’m making full use of my JR pass.

This JR girl was properly impressed and clapped her hands when I told her I’d started riding from Hakodate. She booked the best seats for me for my return journey from Wakkanai.

At central Sapporo station, I try to find my way around the maze of corridors and people that lead in 4 compass directions. It’s busy, busy, busy. Outside the sprawling station, I spot a small traditional ramen shop. It looks inviting so I cross the road, goes in and the first thing I hear is jazz trumpet playing from the speakers. Cool.

I spent some confused minutes trying to decide what to eat. I choose their most popular dish – pork ramen at 650Y, and a side dish of gyoza dumplings, 450Y. Free-flow ice-water is free. The evening is quite cool so the steaming hot bowl of ramen warms me up. The gyozas are hot off the griddle as well. My fellow customers are slurping their way noisily through their bowls of ramen. They look like harried office workers on their way home. This is probably their dinner; cheap and filling.

I see one guy almost at the end of his bowl of ramen, chopsticks still moving from bowl to mouth, hand the waiter another ticket. Waiter comes back seconds later, with a bowl of plain ramen for the customer to add on to what’s left of his soup. Carbo-loading. Minutes later, the guy gets up and leave, as harried as ever.

Little ramen shop smack in the middle between huge modern buildings

The menu

The cashier

The lone waiter is a guy but I could swear he sounds like a girl… see video

Gyoza

I have decided. I’m going to skip the Sapporo to Asahikawa segment by bike. I will take a train to Asahikawa instead. That way, I will have more time to ride around Rebun and Rishiri islands, a ferry ride away from Wakkanai. With my JR pass, I don’t have to worry about cost and schedule tomorrow. After breakfast, I’ll just ride to Shiroishi station, ringku the bike in its bag and sit out the 2-hour train ride to Asahikawa. The legs will have enough time to fully recover and I will have enough time for island exploration later.

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Distance today: 54km

Distance to date:393km