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

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Tour of Hokkaido, Day 7, Sapporo to Asahikawa.

1:20pm. The JR Limited Express Super Kamui 17 from Sapporo rolls into Asahikawa Station in typical boringly on-time Japanese fashion.  1 hour and 20 precise minutes. 4,680Y (but luckily, all-inclusive with my handy JR Pass).

It’s still a cool, cloudy day. The station is surprisingly quiet. In minutes, the BF is ready to go. I’d taken note of a recommended campsite outside Asahikawa and that’s where I’m heading this afternoon.

For such quick commutes, I only fold the bike, remove the front wheel, and bag it. No problems.

Outside the station, I try to figure out the best direction and road to take. I decide to pop into a Koban (police station) nearby. They are very friendly and helpful, all smiles, unlike our generally dour men-in-blue. One of them even comes out with me to the junction and gives me clear instructions to my destination.

Google streetview, outside Asahikawa station:

The campsite is about 10kms away in a small town called Nishikagura. A short 2km on the 219, then left onto straight-as-an-arrow national highway 237.

Nice, friendly Japanese cops

It’s lunch time. This time it’s a Lawsons.

Complete with clean toilets.

I decide to go Italian for lunch. 398Y.

This is one of the few kombinis to offer a proper place to enjoy their food

And of course, hot coffee. Only 180Y.

237 is not too busy. Coupled with the agreeable weather, I take my time heading south-east towards Nishikagura. Along the way, there’s nothing much to interest me until I come upon one the many roadside shelters that I see on every major road. But this one is different. Someone had lovingly nurtured a flower-bed of dazzlingly bright plants and flowers.

White gloves, smartly pressed white shirt, shiny shoes — your typical Japanese uncle-on-a-bike

I crossed the road and stop there for awhile, just admiring it all. An old man on a bicycle comes by; stops, casually lights a cigarette and quietly observes me. ‘Konichiwa’, I say to him. He surprises me with ‘Where are you from?’. But my surprise ends there; turns out that’s about the only English phrase he knows. He’s a charming fellow and we set to having one those English/Japanese/sign-language conversations that I always enjoy with a local. Oji-san is still having a go with his English and tries to impress me with his reading skills.

‘Bee-ker-fer-lee-day’, he points to the BF’s sticker. Not bad….. I cheer him on.

‘Boo-look-so’, he points to the badge on the Brooks saddle. I give him a standing ovation.

Before we parted ways, Oji-san tells me exactly where the park and campsite is, about a kilometre down the road on the left.

I find it easily enough. It’s a small park, meant for the enjoyment of Nishikagura’s folks. I ride in and see a few tents but no sign of the campers. I call in at the park office. No one seems to be about. After I hello-ed, a man comes out and I tell him I’m camping. I ask him how much and he says it’s free. He points to the park and says I can camp anywhere. Brilliant.

The entrance to the park is located opposite the post office

To Nishikagura Park and campsite, 4oom.

Entrance of the park

It’s a beautiful park but highway 237 is only about 100 metres down the slope of the high ground that the park is located. The park’s trees block out much of the traffic noise so it’s not too bad.

I pick my corner, away from the other campers. It’s as perfect as any park campsite can be – partly shaded under tall trees, lovely moss and grass on the ground, a gazebo with table and bench, a drinking water fountain and, about 10 metres away, the toilet.

My very own private water fountain, kitchen sink, shower, laundromat … Water is icy cold though.

Before I set up camp, I make a dash to the Lawsons just outside on the main road and stock up for the night and tomorrow morning. I’m lookng forward to enjoying the rest of this slow, lazy day.

Noodles, beer, snacks and breakfast.

Warm, cosy lighting at night

Dinner. Cup noodles with real wan-tons!

Delicious.

Tomorrow, it’s a longish ride to Lake Shumarinai where it will be another night of lakeside camping which I’m really beginning to enjoy.

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Distance to day: 10 very lazy kms

Distance to date: 403km

Blue: JR Limited Express Super Kamui 17
Red: Bike Friday