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.

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Distance today: 40kms.