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