Tour of Hokkaido. Day 5, Lake Toya to Lake Shikotsu

Early morning, Lake Toya

Breakfast — coffee, hot noodles, 7/11 bread rolls and a magnificent view of the lake.

I wake up feeling very contented but, I’m also feeling very tardy today. I’m loath to leave my little piece of paradise. How could anyone so easily leave after settling in here? Worse, I’m not even sure where I want to stop for the night – the onsen-town of Noboribetsu, Lake Kuttara, or Lake Shikotsu, which is abt 116 kms away.

6.30am. I’m on the road heading towards Orofure Pass, and the first stop for the day – Noboribetsu-onsen. It’s going to be slightly more arduous today, with a longish climb of about 20kms, with the pass being the highest point of this entire tour at 900+ metres.

The sun is already up but nothing is open at this hour except vending machines. I need to replenish my water supply for the morning. I take a chance by getting a bottle of Pocari Sweat for the time being.

This region seems to be famous for its fruits – peaches, plums and tomatoes, in particular. One such shop fronting a farm is open, and laid out in open boxes is a tempting array of the fruits.

‘100 Y’, the friendly lady manning the store replies when I point to the fat peaches. Hey, that’s cheap, I thought. So I ask for one. I’m not sure how to eat it; it looks so good I just want to sink my teeth into it, skin and all. But the lady gestures that it might be more civilised to peel it first. She offers to do it for this ignorant gaijin. Peachy.

I bite into it and the juice explodes all over my gloved hands and mouth, dripping onto the floor as well. It’s sweet and tart at the same time; ambrosia. Peach lady is very happy that I’m enjoying her fruit. All I can say to her is ‘very good, very good!”

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Freshly plucked from the farm just metres away — juicy plump peaches, plums and tomatoes

100Y each, inclusive of complimentary peeling

Outside the fruit shop — my first encounter with Hokkaido’s most feared animal: the Black Bear, complete with a very undignified shawl.

Sated with peachy goodness, I continue into the hot sun. More and more farms appear on both sides of the road. The climb starts.

Dreaded tailwind. No cooling effect. Water running low.

I spot a little cafe in the middle of nowhere offering a very English sounding ‘tea and cakes’ menu written on a signboard outside. But it’s closed. There’s a Japanese lady outside unloading stuff from her SUV.

‘Sumimasen’ (excuse me). She turns around and shrieks at the sight of me in surprise. I apologise profusely for scaring her and bring out my water bottle. ‘Mitsu?’ (water?). She smiles knowingly; I’m probably not the first idiot cycle-tourer who ran out of water on the road to Orofure.

She returns a little later with my 2 bottles. She hands them to me but not before showing me that she has added some ice to it. Heaven bless her. I take a photo of her but she’s shy and tries to wave me away. I can’t thank her enough. The kindness of people I meet on the road never ceases to amaze me.

My good water samaritan

‘Here you go, iced water for a hot day’

The sun is shining in all its blazing glory. So are the sunflowers lining the roadside across the cafe, their bright yellow, cheerful faces radiantly beaming at passers-by. It must have been lovingly planted and nurtured by the kindly lady who gave me water.

As I continue on my way, mashing the pedals in slow progress, I hear a motorbike coming up behind me, its engine laboring as if under heavy load. It’s Honda girl with the Harajuku hair, the same one I had met at Oshamanbe Park campsite. She passes and shouts at me in unintelligible Japanese. I only hear an encouraging ‘Ganbaté neh!’ as she disappears round a corner. The last thing I see of her is her 2 big boxes containing her kitchen and living room sitting high on the backseat.

Still no photo of her.

Ganbaté means ‘go for it, keep your chin up, hang in there, do your best’ or something encouraging like that. It always cheers me when someone says that to me.

At the midday hour, I reach Orofure Pass, and prepare to fly down the long downhill. With a loaded Bike Friday (as with all foldies, I suspect) coasting downhill at speed requires full concentration, corners must be handled smoothly, no sudden shifts. At least I don’t have to worry about potholes – they just don’t exist in Japan.

Average speed going uphill: 5.4 kph, practically walking speed

Almost there, just 4.6km more to the pass.

This region is part of Shikutsokoya National Park

At Orofure Pass

A seemingly short downhill run later, I arrive at a junction. I take the left one and head for Noboribetsu-onsen. The area is pock-marked with numerous hotsprings so understandably, it’s quite touristy.

I ‘m considering staying here for the night, but there are no campsites here, so I ask at the Tourist Information office about other accommodation. After the making a few calls, the man tells me that the cheapest room is 8500Y, including dinner and breakfast. That would be about 2 weeks worth of campsite fees. So I decide to give it a pass. The onsens here must be very nice, but it’s still too touristy for my liking. So, after a lunch break at 7/11, I head on down the road, which is still on a decline, towards the coast and the town of Tomakomai.

Welcome to Noboribetsu…it’s hot as hell here

Another devilish welcome. Notice they all carry clubs?

At the centre of Noboribetsu-onsen. Ji Go Kudani literally means ‘hell’

A walking trail just outside Noboribetsu.

The trail follows a stream of milky hot-spring water. The air is steaming hot and pungent with minerals and sulphur

It’s 2pm. I decide I’m going to make a dash for Lake Shikotsu and end my day there instead. I had seen a picture of a solitary tent by the lakeside, a very compelling proposition to camp there if ever there was one.

I have to hustle. There’s still some 70kms to go.

As I reach the end of the downhill, the road levels out and joins national highway 36, a coastal road which is flat, busy and uninteresting – for all of 30 or so kms before I have to take a sharp left and turn into route 141. It’s already 5pm by the time I hit 141. I’m hungry. The 7/11 lunch is long gone.

I’m riding into a suburban area, mostly all houses. At a major traffic light crossroad, I see a 7/11 and stop for a quick meal. 15 minutes and I’m on the road again. I can’t afford to rest too long.

Route 141 is what the Touring Mapple calls a prefectural road. This one is sparse of traffic and inhabitants, and offers only one constant type of greenery on both sides; nothing inspiring, just plain greenery

The road climbs gently. After a while, it’s still climbing. I had started from 0, sea level. But now it’s 100m.

200m. 300m. 400m. Still climbing.

The sun is setting. The air is cooler, and noticeably dipping downward ever so slightly.

There’s almost no traffic now.

Route 141 to Lake Shikotsu, green, boring and uphill all the way to the lake.

440m. The elevation tops out. I have been climbing for almost 17kms, at a faster pace than usual all the way from the start of 141. The lactic in the legs is starting to bite. I’m trying to outride the setting sun. The road is now almost fully covered by a thick canopy of treetops growing towards each other from opposite sides of the road, making it even darker. The lake can’t be too far, so I risk it and continue riding in near-darkness.

It’s much colder now, and the road is pointing downwards but I press on, shivering slightly from the cold. After a while, I have to stop and put on my rain jacket. It’s just too cold to continue without some kind of windbreaker. I reach a T-junction and keep a lookout for signs to the campsite. From my map, it looks like I’m not too far from the lakeside. I continue on an anti-clockwise direction.

Nothing.

It’s now dark and I have no choice but to stop and fix my lights. I’m not liking this. It’s hard looking for campsites in the dark, especially when the signs are almost always in Japanese.

It’s now a national road, Route 276; wide and smooth, but there are no streetlights. It’s still trees and more trees on both sides without even a glimpse of Lake Shikotsu, and no human habitation anywhere.

A group of teenagers are riding on bicycles on the opposite side of the road, coming towards my direction. I ride across the road and wave them down. They’re don’t know where the campsite is but they tell me there is accommodation in Shikotsuko spa, about 2 kms down the road.

I concede defeat. No lakeside camping tonight. The map shows a Youth Hostel where the onsen spas are located. That’ll have to do. At the very least, I’ll be able to have a hot shower. After a night in the airport and 3 nights camping, I realise it wouldn’t be too bad to have a proper one after all.

The entrance of Shikotsuko Youth Hostel. Highly recommended

At the entrance of the hostel, a man is just making his way out and on seeing me, he greets me with a ‘Dozo’, and points me towards the main door.

It’s 8pm. There is no one in the lobby save for the receptionist. She’s the second kindly looking woman I meet today. She wears a sort of bandana over her head, and her name is Yukiko Higama. After checking in and paying the 4,700 Y, inclusive of breakfast, she helps me with my baggage to a 8-bed dorm and tells me it’s all mine for the night. Lovely.

Then she takes me down the corridor and shows me where the toilets and shower room are located. She also tells me that showers are only open from 5pm—10pm. That’s a little weird, but I keep quiet.

After wandering in the dark, almost getting lost in a strange place, and not knowing where to sleep for the night, it’s always a huge relief to be suddenly welcomed into a friendly establishment, never mind how simple, or how swanky it is. The warm welcome makes the day’s mis-adventure seem all worthwhile again.

Yukiko Higama-san. She wouldn’t be out of place in the reception of a 5-star hotel

The reception of the hostel. I was allowed to park my bike at the shoe-cabinet.

The 8-bed dorm room that was all mine to enjoy

All that bedding just for one person. The pillow is filled with Sobagara, the empty husk of the Soba (buckwheat) seed, from which Soba noodles are made. Surprisingly light and airy, sleeping on it was an enjoyable experience.

What Soba seeds look like

After unpacking, I am ready for my hot shower. It looks like a communal shower, with a wall of cubbyholes with little baskets to keep your stuff. I start to undress. A caucasian man comes in to shower as well. He also proceeds to undress…..all the way down to his birthday suit!

Woa! I’m about to share the shower with a naked man? Then it occurred to me.

Onsen! So, that’s what the little pool in the shower room is. A tub of hot-spring water. Who would have guessed that this youth hostel offers an in-house onsen?

Anyway, it means I have to go starkers, too! It’s virtually the law. Can’t go in otherwise. So, I peel off everything and go in.

The other guy is already showering and scrubbing himself, a mandatory prelude to soaking in the tub of hot-spring water.

After a thorough scrubbing with the provided shampoo and body soap, I’m ready. The caucasian is already inside the tub, a little towel on his head and eyes closed in obvious bliss.

I climb into the tub; the water is just bearably hot, with the unmistakable hint of hotspring minerals and sulphur wafting up the nose. Sheer pleasure. If my legs could thank me, it would.

After a while, I’m cooked, so I end my first onsen of the trip, feeling like a freshly boiled piece of meat. The hot-spring water has a way of calming you down and washing away every bit of stress in your body. Before I leave the shower room, I scrutinise an ‘onsen etiquette’ placard on the wall. Very educational.

I take note of the fact that one should always sit when scrubbing down oneself, so as not to splash water on your neighbour (which I failed to observe). Stools are usually provided for this purpose. I also learned that if you carry a small towel with you, it must never touch the water in the pool, and should be draped on your head or left outside the pool (which I also failed to observe).

Getting ready for onsen. On the left is the sliding door to the bath.

Inside, steaming hot; the tap that supplies the hot-spring water runs non-stop

Onsen do’s and don’ts for men

and women…

Cultural lesson over, I make my way to the lobby to get a cold beer from a vending machine. Since I arrived in Japan, I have not contacted my wife in any way, but with wifi available in the lobby, I settle down with my beer and fire up Skype on my iPad. Wife is relieved that I’m haven’t become roadkill yet.

It’s been a long, hard day, and I’m thinking it would be nice to stay here for one more day. Sleep comes easy. The moment my head touches the strange but surprisingly comfortable pillow, I’m dead to the world.

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Distance today: 116 very strenuous kms
Distance to date: 339 kms

Tour of Hokkaido. Day 4, Oshamanbe to Lake Toya.

A church built by Batchelor, a temple so old it’s the first one in Hokkaido, and a lake that’s actually a volcanic caldera – today’s ride should be a little more captivating than what the past 3 days have been dishing out.

Breakfast at 5am. I finally get the good night’s sleep that has evaded me. The quiet and peace of Oshamanbe park has played a big part in that. I feel good today, too. The old legs are raring to go but first, coffee.

I brew a cup of freshly ground Guachoca El Salvador (flown in fresh all the way from Kuala Lumpur) with the Aeropress, and break out the packet of 7/11 bread rolls filled with little pellets of red-bean paste. Breakfast is slow, like everything else around me. Nothing and no one seems to be going anywhere. Actually, all the other campers are still in their tents.

Best thing to start the day touring with

The weather looks very agreeable this morning. So far, I’ve had nothing but ultra-violet days under clear blue skies. Sure it’s hot, but I can’t really complain. Folks back home have to contend with the annual Sumatra haze, not the best thing for your health when you’re cycle-touring.

The weather is so agreeable I make another cup of coffee. I’m not in a hurry. The projected distance today is less than a hundred kms, and that includes the bit of detour for sight-seeing at Usu Bay, just outside Toyaku.

While I’m packing up, the Japanese cycle-tourer with the Brompton is walking towards the wash area, a toothbrush in his mouth, with flecks of tooth-brushing foam speckling his lips. I’d already seen this spectacle before. It’s definitely a time-starved morning practice among the Japs.

He saunters over to check out my bike, toothbrush still in his mouth. He recoqnises the bike and makes appropriate noises in Japanese to show his appreciation. I find out that besides the Brommie, he also owns a Tikit. A foldie fan with an interesting stable; he probably has other foldies as well but I didn’t ask due to my Japanese language deficiency.

After we’re both packed and ready to leave, I call Brommie-san over for a photo-session. I ask Honda Girl to shoot us and she obliges. Honda Girl is an interesting-looking specimen, almost Harajuku-like in her appearance, so I ask to have my photo taken with her as well. Unfortunately, Brommie-san handles a bike better than he can a camera, and I find out later that night that Honda Girl will never feature in my blog.

We chat for a while, asking the usual questions. Again, I pull out the Mapple to show them where I’m going. I hear familiar words – ‘Up down, up down…’ These people don’t speak much English but when they do, they bring you down to Earth very quickly. Yesterday’s ride was relatively easy so today must be the day of ‘up down, up down’ reckoning. My friend from Onuma knew what he was talking about.

Oldies on foldies

A backpack and a Brommie front pannier holds everything. Very compact.

Out of Oshamanbe, the coastal road is flat. But not for long. Soon, the climbs start. The sun is unforgiving, baking up a stifling atmosphere, made worse by a tailwind in some sections. I hate nothing worse than a slow tailwind on a long slow climb. There’s no cooling effect. You ride, you sweat, you start to melt.

The map can be very misleading – the road leading from Oshamanbe to Toyaku hugs the coast. But the reality is the coastal terrain is hilly, and most of it not inhabited as well. That means no kombinis. I only have 2 bottles of water. Not enough for a ride like this.

Flat, and hugging by the coast… for now.

Fox crossing.

Dozo…if you please.

Workers in the tunnel make sure that I pass through safely

Looking back at the hilly terrain I had just ridden through

Up down, up down, up down, up down – there are 4 major climbs.

Where’s a vending machine when you need one?

Prayer answered.

4 vending machines appear, and gratefully, some shade to escape the broiling sun. I need a fire extinguisher. An ice-cold Coke does the job – I’m seriously burning up. A bottle of Pocari Sweat follows to replenish lost body salts.

Life-savers

After a bit more slogging in the heat, I roll down a final decline and enter the seaside town of Toyaku, which looks like another small town I’ve seen so far. They all look alike, right down to the welcoming flowers on the sidewalks.

A 7/11 lunch is on my mind. Hot noodles, bento, ice-cream, cold drinks, coffee – great motivators to pedal a little faster.

Toyaku town

Sightseeing time. I to detour to Usu Bay, about 4kms north of Toyaku. First up is the Batchelor church, not one that’s exclusive to single men, but the one founded by missionary John Batchelor in the late 1800s, and who translated the bible into the Ainu language (the Ainu are indigenous to these parts of Hokkaido). It’s a rugged looking church, built on top a hillock, with a gravel footpath leading to the front door, looking just like it was more than a hundred years ago. It’s an active church, still being used but nobody’s home, so I can only peek through the glass on the door.

Usu Zenkouji temple is just less than a km away and I locate it easily enough. The temple and its surrounds look the part of ‘the oldest temple in Hokkaido’. Thatched roofs, time-worn timbers, beautiful gnarly trees with bonsai-like branches. A peaceful place to meditate on one’s karma, if one is a Budhhist.

Usu Bay

The Batchelor Church

You can’t drive up to this church

Usu Zenkouji, a beautiful specimen of Japanese temple architecture

Prayer petitions outside Usu Zenkouji

Lake Toya is next. I double back towards Toyaku, locate the road that swings sharply east, and there before me, the bane of my cycle-touring …., is a tunnel opening. Worse, the sign says 1.9km. And that’s just the first one. I come out of the cold, long tunnel thinking ‘ok, that’s the tunnel done’. But I was in for another tunnel shock – this time it’s 1.7km. I’m getting tunnel-phobia, made worse by the fact that both are on a slight incline. Finally, I get out of it and breathe a huge sigh of relief.

Soon after, Lake Toya comes into view. It’s magnificent, dimpled with a small island right in the middle of it – Nakajima Island.

I’m almost done for the day so I cruise at an easy speed, enjoying the lake air and atmosphere. Toyako town is a bit touristy. My plan is to stay the night at a Touring Mapple recommended campsite. Another visit to a 7/11 for supplies and I’m ready to end the day.

The first of 2 long tunnels before Lake Toya.

Lake Toya

I can’t locate the campsite on my first attempt. So I retrace my tracks. This part of the island is only lightly inhabited so the road is a bit sparse of traffic. I spot a promising looking dirt track on my right. It slopes down and forks left and right, following the lake edge. But, the entrance is blocked by an official looking barricade.

Dutifully, I sidestep the barricade, ride down the trail and follow the one on the right, if only to see where it leads to. I ride about 100 metres and come to a small clearing fringed by slender trees. A small opening leads down to the lake’s edge, it’s waters gently lapping the pebble-filled mini-beach. I see remnants of a fire in the middle of the clearing.

Only one thought crosses my mind.

Forget the recommended campsite.

This is it. As perfect as a campsite can be. The setting sun is beaming its dying rays on this prime camping spot; the ring road is quite a distance away. No one can see me. And the fact that the trailhead is barricaded from illegal entry by vehicles is quite reassuring. I catch myself on that thought: illlegal. It’s hard not to laugh out loud, but who cares. No one can hear me.

The tent is up in no time. A swim in the crystal clear waters of the lake is obviously next. All the while, the setting sun is slowly turning a golden yellow-red. I’m out of adjectives here … but cycle-tourers who wild-camp know exactly what and how I feel right now, encamped in a little piece of cycle-touring heaven on earth.

All I can say is ‘Thank you, Lord’, with a very big grin.

No entry…except for non-motorised, foldable 2-wheelers with panniers

Beautiful trees at the back of the campsite

Lake Toya is among 2 of the clearest lakes in Japan

My little Shangri-La ..

A fire, a setting sun, a hot dinner, a cool evening, a cosy tent. Life should be so good…

8.45pm. I’m waiting for the finale to close a near-perfect day. It should be happening any time now.

9pm. From across the lake, where the town centre is located, the daily summer evening’s fireworks display explodes in wondrous colours, lighting up the sky. Again, and again. It’s a grand one, lasting almost 20 minutes. I sit on the rocks by the water’s edge, enthralled by it all.

My heart feels like exploding with happiness, too. It would be very, very hard to top such a stupendous day.

There is plenty of dry wood around. I will be very warm tonight, and not just from the fire.

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Distance today: 79 kms

Distance to date: 223 kms

Tour of Hokkaido. Day 3, Onuma to Oshamanbe.

4.30am. The day is already dawning???

Welcome to the Land of the Eager Rising Sun. It’s summer after all; people get to play harder and longer. The summer sun only sets at around 7.00pm. Great for cycle-touring. But I’ll have to get used to sleeping, and waking up, earlier than usual.

Inside my already bright tent, I hear ducks on the lake, squawking, flapping their wings and crashing into the water as they land. I hear birds warbling, gladdening my soul with their morning songs. There’s nothing like God’s wonderful creations doing what they do best. The air is cool and fresh – everything is just the way I like it waking up in a campsite near water. As I open the tent and look out, I see a light morning mist shrouding the water and the little islands nearby.

Magical.

It’s very hard to leave but I remind myself that I’m stealth-camping so I have to make tracks soon…just in case.

By 6.30, the sun is already up and over the horizon, and I’m all packed and ready for the day’s ride. I’m famished, too. And I’m bent on finding that elusive 7/11… if only to enjoy a hot breakfast there.

No sign I was ever here…

I make my way to Onuma town. There’s no one on the road. Houses and shops are still shuttered. As I ride into the central part of town, I realised what an idiot I had been. On the way to the campsite, I had turned right at the town’s main junction yesterday evening but had gone straight instead when I went back looking for the 7/11. I can almost kick myself for such a silly mistake, one that had cost me a hot meal for dinner. But, I console myself that it’s easy to be disoriented in the dark, more so in an unfamiliar town.

I reached the 7/11 and the first item on my shopping list is – a can of butane gas. I’m not going to be caught out again tonight. The store guys are very helpful, one of whom literally flutters about nervously in an almost-motherly manner. I think he has less testosterones than the average man.

7/11s are great places to stop by when you’re on the road in Japan. They try to offer every convenience that makes your time on the road so much more bearable; with fresh food, both hot and cold, and even freshly brewed coffee, which I simply cannot pass up. Most of them also offer clean toilets.

A welcome sight, always.

Dinner, followed by breakfast, followed by coffee. Some of their instant noodles even come with a piece of tempura-like fritter.

And good show to you too, guys. You da best…

I make use of their hot water flask on the counter to cook the noodles that I had bought the day before, 2 bowls of them. I’m having dinner and breakfast. Noodles down the hatch, I get a cup of coffee and sit outside in the morning sun, too contented to move just yet.

An elderly Japanese dude on a mountain bike pulls up. ‘Ohayou gozaimasu’, we greet each other, me in my limited Japanese. He goes into the store and comes out with a drink in his hand, walks up to me and chats me up. I reply enthusiastically with ‘Hai!, hai!’ and the lop-sided conversation soon veers towards my destination for the day.

I bring out my Touring Mapple (which, incidentally, is completely in Japanese) and proceed to show him. My plan is to ride to Kuromatsunai, ride through the Beech Forest and then double back out onto route 5, head for Oshamanbe and camp there for the night. Oji-san (uncle) proceeds to give me a blow-by-blow description of my intended route. The only words I understand very clearly are ‘up down, up down’ as he gesticulates with his finger on the map. He is very encouraging.

Anywhere in the world, bikers speak the same language.

To get to Mori, the first town enroute to Oshamanbe, I have to retrace part of yesterday’s route, past the lake and all the way to the tunnel exit. With the lake now on my right, it’s a slow climb but my new friend is playing the good Japanese host. He rides behind me all the way to the junction and shouts goodbye to me as he turns left and is swallowed up by the tunnel in the direction of Hakodate.

My friend from Onuma makes sure that I’m on the right road

I continue on route 5. The scenery doesn’t improve. I decide that I will skip Kuromatsunai after all – there’s a 17km climb off the main road to reach the town. I’ll stay on 5 and head straight for Oshamanbe instead. I’m still feeling a bit knackered from the last 2 days; not enough sleep, and the old engine hasn’t warmed up for more serious cranking yet. I reckon that if I arrive at the campsite early, I’ll have more chill-out time to recover properly.

I reach the coastal town of Mori, and the sea becomes a constant feature on my right. Route 5 is quite busy; cars and trucks of all sizes pass me non-stop. But I have little to worry about. The drivers are very civil and patient. They overtake by driving almost to the other side of the road. And if it’s not clear on the other side, they just slow down behind me and wait. No one honks, not even the slightest peep.

I like this country.

Destination: Oshamanbe

All-wood shelters like these are common features of Japanese roads, likely to protect travellers from harsh winter winds and snow

A historic site along the way — Enomoto’s army.

A Shinto shrine

Lunch at … 7/11. In my 2 weeks here, I developed a taste for Megmilk — 500ml cartons of milk/orange juice mixture, deliciously thirst-quenching with vitamin C and calcium.

Like magic, the dehydrated piece of tau-pok-like thingy revives itself into a real piece of chewy tau-pok-like thingy. Delicious…

My all-time favourite dessert — ice-cream by Morinaga, filled with ….

…tiny bits of ice flakes and smooth ice-cream. When you hit the centre, sweet, thick condensed milk oozes out … just the thing for meltingly-hot afternoons when your tongue is swollen with thirst. I could never get enough of this decadent dairy delight…

3pm. The outskirts of Oshamanbe. I’m making good time. I turn off route 5 onto a quiet country road, pass the golf course landmark that I think will lead me to the campsite. There is very little traffic. It looks like farmland I’m passing through. Huge round bales of hay wrapped in black plastic dot the bald fields. The funky smell of fertiliser permeates the air; not heavy, just enough to remind me that I’m in the rural countryside.

The quietness is a nice change from the busyness of the highway. I can hear the reassuring hum of the slick tyres as I pedal along. Soon, I reach the end of the sealed road and it turns into a wide dirt trail flanked by trees on both sides. This must be a very rustic campsite. Great.

A dead end. A deserted house. Bad map-reading skills.

But I enjoy the detour. The cool of the shaded trail is a welcome respite from the harsh sun. Why didn’t anyone turn this place into a campsite? It would have been brilliant.

If only all wrong turns were this nice.

I make my way back to Oshamanbe town but I still can’t figure out the way to the campsite. I consider the option of riding to Kuromatsunai but think better of it. It’s almost 5pm by now.

As I stop by the roadside, three cycle-tourers come into view. They’re lightly loaded and moving very fast. I wave them down. The first one thinks I’m waving hello and does the same, zooming past me and flashing a wide smile. The last guy realises otherwise and stops. Sweat is pouring down his face and he wipes it off with that other item that all Japanese men seem to carry – a white Good Morning towel.

They’re college students from Niigata, a city on the western coast of Honshu, and they’re heading for Sapporo. Right now, they’re on their way to the Oshamanbe train station taking a shortcut to the next town. I pull out my Mapple, shows him the campsite and explains my predicament. Immediately, he whips out his mobile phone and proceed to locate the campsite for me.

The Niigata boys

It seems I have ridden past route 141 leading to Oshamanbe Park, where I’m supposed to camp for the night. He goes 1 step further; he calls the park just to be sure. The lady on the other end gives him the directions. And in answer to my questions; no, there’s no food there but it only costs 500Y a night.

I’m back in business.

Cheered up, I stop by a nearby 7/11 for supplies and continue on my way. It’s now almost 6pm, still bright enough to reach the park in time to leisurely set up tent and prepare a hot dinner.

I reach the park soon enough, but not with a bit of climbing. It’s actually a public park, quite a big one. In Japan, most parks are open to campers with tents, but not campervans. Oshamanbe Park is very well kept and the prospect of camping here lifts my spirits immensely.

I see only 4 other tents – one with 2 young students whose car is parked nearby on the road, 2 motorcycle tourers camped next to the stream, and the last one is another cycle-tourer (I see a glimpse of a folding bicycle inside the tent’s vestibule. The owner is inside but makes no attempt to come out even after seeing me push my bike in.

Entrance of Oshamanbe Park

Park office

A lovely campsite for the princely price of only 500Y (that’s RM20/SG$8.16/USD6.50). I like my tent next to a bench; it’s so much more convenient when cooking. The A-hut structure has stainless steel basins for general washing. Me, I took a discreet bath there, and also did my laundry.

The red tent on the right belongs to a girl riding a white 70cc Honda, carrying 2 big boxes with her entire kitchen, chair etc etc. I’m very impressed. Speed is definitely not a concern for her. The light green tent in front of the pavilion is a Jap cycle-touring on a Brompton, who I get to meet the next day.

Not a bad day today. Not eventful either. I set up my tent and prepare to rest for the night.

Tomorrow, my destination is Lake Toya. I’m looking forward to camping by the lake again.

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Distance today: 104 kms, Lake Onuma to Oshamanbe Park.
Distance to date: 144 kms

Tour of Hokkaido. Day 1 and 2, KL to Tokyo to Hakodate.

11:30pm. Haneda airport, Tokyo.

‘Arigato gozaimas’. The sole Japanese among the Malaysian cabin crew bows as I make my way out of the plane. Charming.

Tour of Hokkaido has officially begun.

Haneda is nowhere as big as Narita but still, it’s a long walk to immigration and baggage-claim.

By the time I roll my trolley into the arrival hall, it’s past midnight. All public transportation, except taxis, has ceased for the day. Now I know why some of the Jap passengers were running. They were trying to catch the last train to Tokyo, and beyond the city. Otherwise, it’s an uncomfortable night at the airport, which is what I’m already preparing myself for.

It’s going to be a long day.

But first, a midnight snack. Asking around, I locate the only convenience store in the airport, a Lawsons, on the ground floor. I see hot food at the checkout counter. I pick a taufu, a hard-boiled egg and what looks like a meat dumpling. The cashier spoons them into a styrofoam bowl, and generously bathes them with the hot soup they were idling in. I also pick up a chilled Suntory beer to accompany the hot food.

Yong Tau Fu this is not…

There are travellers camped out on benches here and there, some stretched out asleep. I hear snoring from a generously sized man with his face covered with a white towel. I pick my own corner to enjoy my little meal. 3 young girls behind me are engaged in animated chatter, continuously punctuated by howls of laughter as they recount some hilarious incident. Bad choice of hangout for me. After a while, I take my trolley and move to a quieter spot and try to get some sleep.

My ride starts from Hakodate on the island of Hokkaido. But first, I have to get to Tokyo station, by the first train out of Haneda — the 5:17am monorail, then a change at Hamamatsucho station for the Yamanote line train. At Tokyo station, I have to chill out for an hour or so waiting for the Japan Rail Pass exchange counter to open at 7:30am. Once I get my 14-day unlimited-train-ride JR pass, I’m good to go.

On more trains.

Friendly JR Pass Exchange girl… speaks with an American accent

The first segment is from Tokyo to Shin Aomari on the northern coast of Honshu by a bullet-fast Tohoku Shinkansen train – the Hayabusa. This sleek, smooth and silent missile on rails takes a mere 3 hours to cover 717 kms, with speeds that top a blistering 320kph. Going past stations, everything is just a blur.

From Shin Aomario, I transfer to the more sedate Limited Express Super Hakucho bound for Hakodate, a 2-hour ride, one hour of which is spent rumbling through a 53-km undersea tunnel. 2pm. Super Hakucho glides into Hakodate station.

By now, my shoulders and arms are stretched to breaking point. My right arm is lugging the Bike Friday in a bike bag, my back holds a dry bag inside an Ikea bag with my tent, sleeping bag and Thermarest mat and pillow; my left arm is carrying 2 panniers in another Ikea shopping bag, and, slung across my stomach is my handlebar bag.

The Limited Express Super Hakucho. Definitely not as sexy as the Hayabusa.

On the Super Hakucho, they impress passengers with this little placard which reminds you that you are now travelling in a very long tunnel which is buried under a lot of water some 240 metres below sea level. Impressive.

 

The Limited Express Wheelosopher, fully laden and slow as a turtle. The smile is about to be wiped off my face. I have to stop, put everything down for a few seconds before I can continue…

I am the antithesis of the average Japanese traveller. When it comes to luggage, size is everything to them. Small, and preferably on wheels. Mine is neither. I draw a few bemused looks from Japs as I struggle from point to point.

It takes me more than an hour of leisurely assembling to get the bike together. All the while, it’s busy, busy outside Hakodate station. Colours and sounds are exploding all around me. It’s some kind of ‘matsuri’ happening. Summer madness hasn’t waned just yet, even if it’s the weekend after Bon Odori, Japan’s most rioutous summer festival; and even if it’s scorchingly hot under a cloudless blue sky.

Groups of young men and women dressed in anime-like costumes and hair to match stride across the square in orderly lines, snaking away in differrent directons to do their thing. I hear spirited singing and shouting over the speakers from different corners.

I’m already loving it.

Outside Hakodate Station

Ready to hit the road. The bike bag is now neatly folded into its own little bag and tucked under the handlebar behind the handlebar bag.

By the time I’m on the road, the matsuri is over. I point my bike north, stopping at more traffic lights than I care to count. The Japs wait patiently at every light – on wheels or on foot. It’s unthinkable, and uncouth, to ignore or beat a light, even if there’re no cars, motorcycles, bicycles or humans around.

My stomach grumbles at me to look for a ‘kombini’, or convenience store. Kombinis are as ubiquitous as vending machines; they’re everywhere, even in remote corners. At the next 7 Eleven, I get my lunch of a packet of buns and a 2-litre bottle of Pocari Sweat.

I ride pass Red Pines which flank both sides of the road. They’re impressive specimens, tall and shady with limbs that stretch out confidently in all directions. They look like they’ve been around many times longer than I’ve been alive. But they’re the only things that capture the imagination. It’s a surprisingly bland landscape of cookie-cutter Japanese houses that come in only a few predictable colours and shapes.

Beautiful old Red Pines line the road to Onuma.

My target for the day is an easy 40km ride to Lake Onuma, and free camping by the lake. I’m looking forward to neutralising the restless hours I spent at the airport.

The road begins to climb gently. With surprising regularity, I see passing motorcycles loaded with gear for touring. They wave and nod as they pass by, kindred spirits on the same road to different adventures. Motorcycle touring is big in Japan. So big they have maps designed just for this particular pursuit – the Touring Mapple series, very popular with both engine- and pedal-powered tourers. I have mine as well – the Hokkaido version, complete with every detail that the tourer requires, from recommended campsites to onsens to locations of the nearest kombini.

As I crest the incline, the open mouth of a brightly lit tunnel yawns into view. The road inside is on a slight decline, just the way I like my tunnels, which are my biggest bugbears when I’m cycle touring. They are usually wet, cold and with only a sliver of a shoulder to ride on. The tiniest car coming up behind always sound like a mammoth truck coming down on you. And when it roars pass, the turbulence of the air caused by the vehicle shakes you just enough to rattle your nerves. I don’t usually dawdle in any tunnel.

Out of the tunnel and past a traffic light, I turn right onto a road that immediately dips downwards towards the lake. Glimpses of the lake peek through the trees. My spirits soar. Coasting down the road in the cool of the evening with the sun setting over the horizon, I’m excited by the prospect of my first night’s camp in Japan.

There are not many cars on the road that rings the lake. Onuma is a quiet little town. There seem to be more shops and cafes serving tourists than locals.

Never knew there’s such a thing as a Quasi National Park

There are 2 convenience stores, a 7/11 and a Lawsons. I pull into the 7/11 to get supplies for tonight’s dinner, and for breakfast tomorrow. The manager asks if I’m camping. I say yes and he shows me a typical Japanese sign for ‘no, it’s not open/available/happening’, by crossing his forearms into an Ultramanlike X.

Uh oh …

The campsite is closed, he says. But, he smiles and goes on to indicate that I can camp at any open space (I think). I collect my shopping and left the place. It’s getting dark, but I push on, determined to find the campsite anyway and camp there.

2 clicks down the road, I see the roof of a small pavilion with its structure below the road level as I turned a corner. It’s only a few metres from the lake’s edge, and a quiet spot for visitors of the lake, a little shelter with one low bench to sit and contemplate on the serene landscape.

Even by the fading light, it’s clear that this would be my stealth-camp site for the night. Situated below the road level, I’m somewhat hidden from view by passing cars, not that there are many. More importantly, they’re not lighting up the whole campsite with their lights as they drive round the corner.

It’s perfect.

Good to know that I’m safe and protected.

What more can a wild-camper ask for? Great location, great view, partly hidden from the road, and best of all, clean water to wash up with.

‘DO NOT RELEASE BLACK BASS INTO THE LAKE’ The Black Bass is a predatory fish that can threaten the lake’s ecosystem. It’s also not very tasty so not popular as a catch.

I move the bench to clear a space for my tent which is up in a few minutes. I haven’t had a shower since yesterday morning so the lake is very inviting. The water is cold but refreshing. Joy is a squeaky clean feeling after a day’s worth of body muck has been washed off. Now for a hot dinner.

I flip open a beer and take a well-deserved swig to celebrate the end of a long day. The stove comes out, ready for a roaring time cooking some noodles. And then it struck me.

No gas.

Killjoy.

I have forgotten to buy a ‘cassetto bombé’ (what the Japs call butane gas in a can). Small matter. I simply ride to town and get one before the 7/11 closes. I ride out into the night, with my bright Magicshine bathing the whole road white.

Cassetto Bombé! Every Japanese home has one of those compact cookers which use this type of butane gas. With an adapter, I’m able to use my multi-fuel stove with this instead. It’s cheap and available at every kombini.

I ride. And I ride. At some point, I know I have been going on for more than 2 kms, so I decide to turn back, thinking that I had ridden past it in my haste. Strangely, I see no signs of a 7/11, not even a switched-off signboard. I’m spooked. I refuse to to believe it, so I try again.

I just cannot find the 7/11, nor the Lawsons. And worse, all the shops are already closed by this time. But, no-dinner is not an option. I cruise by a touristy looking joint and went in to try my luck. No luck. Again, I was showed the Ultraman sign. ‘We’re closed’, boss-san says in Japanese. I gestured that I was hungry and needed food so I looked around and saw some cooked corn vacuum packed in plastic. That’ll do. I buy 2 and pay the astronomical price of 700Y for both.

Back at the campsite, I continue with my pathetic first-night dinner of left-over lunch bread, the rest of the by-now flat beer, and the sweet corn. I’m weary with the day’s travelling so I get ready for bed, choosing to thank the good Lord for bringing me here to this beautiful place instead.

Tomorrow will be a better day.

It always is.

========================================================================
Distance today: 40kms.

Summer Tour of Hokkaido

Summer’s in full swing in Japan. So are the countless Matsuris (festivals) taking place all over the country. And it’s not just the fireworks that’s sizzling the air. The weather is hot and humid with a chance of a few random typhoons blowing across the southern islands.

But I plan to ride in more agreeable climes — up north on the island of Hokkaido. 2 whole weeks of it.

I intend to camp as much as I can. I also intend to end every single day of riding by visiting an onsen  — sheer luxury for tired muscles; better still if accompanied by a nice dry Japanese beer while soaking away the lactic acid…

Camping at Lake Shikotsu, Hokkaido. I’ll be coming by here (pic stolen from some website)

But before I can even crank that first pedal stroke, I have to overcome a logistical nightmare — planes, bullet trains, express trains and … trains, just to get from Tokyo to the starting point of Hakodate, Hokkaido.

Alone, lugging a Bike Friday even if its folded in a bag, 2 panniers, handlebar bag, and a big dry bag holding my tent, a Thermarest mattress and pillow, and a sleeping bag which, thankfully, is a light one meant for summer temps — it all adds up to some really cumbersome hand-carried luggage. But once everything is on the bike… all that hassle will be forgotten.

Tomorrow, on a 3pm AirAsia flight, I will be on my way to Japan.

I can’t wait.

Below is the approximate route I will be riding — 1,000 kms, give or take a few sushi and ekibens; from the entry point of Hakodate all the way to the northernmost point of Japan — Soya Misaki, a mere 25 km swim from the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia. Should be a bit frisky up there.

(map courtesy of japancycling.org, an excellent site on cycle-touring Japan)