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