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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Distance today: 104 km
Distance to date: 635 km