Tour of Hokkaido. Day 6, Lake Shikotsu to Sapporo

‘So sorry, is full house today’. With a genuinely apologetic, sad-to-see-me-go smile, Yukiko-san has just nixed my plan to stay here for one more sorely needed rest day. I feel great, but the exuberance stops where my legs begin. They are very, very tired.

I slept very well last night. I had left the window, as there is neither aircon nor fan in the room. The temperature had dipped a little early in the morning but I was comfortably cocooned under a blanket in between freshly laundered bedsheets. And the Sobagara pillow … I wish I can take one home with me.

Outside, it’s raining, a soft soothing whitenoise coupled with the patter of waterdrops on the leaves of the tree, and the soft rumbling of thunder rolling across the misty grey heavens. It doesn’t dampen my spirit at all.

I feel very at home here.

I make my way downstairs to the dining room where a few other guests are halfway through their breakfasts. The oba-san in charge of the kitchen greets me with a warm ‘ohayo gozaimas’ and asks me to sit. She trots back into the kitchen and comes out with my breakfast.

I find it hard believe what she’s serving me is hostel food.

Breakfast room, warm and toasty in winter

The other youths having breakfast with me

More like hotel food — a neat scoop of potato salad on a bed of fresh leaves, a cheerful sunny-side-up egg done just right, a slice of ham and a quartered tomato, accompanied by a glass of delicious Hokkaido milk. There’s also free-flow coffee and all the thickly sliced bread I can eat. All this for only 700Y; cheap by Japanese standards.

After breakfast, and after being the given the bad news that there’s no vacancy today, not even a bed in a shared dorm, I reluctantly trudge back to my room and start packing. It’s still raining, and I all I really want to do is snuggle up with my new friend – the lovely Sobagara pillow.

10am. Miraculously, when I finish packing my panniers, the rain stops and and the sun slowly creeps out from behind the clouds. A divine sign, perhaps? At least it will be a cool ride today. I’m also cheered up a bit by the thought of the distance to Sapporo – just under 50kms, although I’m a bit wary of the description of the route. Yep, it’s ‘a little bit up-down, up-down’. But, I reckon it should be manageable at a relaxed pace.

Yukiko-san is ever the caring host, not only seeing me out but helping me with my panniers, and even offering to take the obligatory guest-in-front-of-hostel photo for me. I ask her to take one with me too. I shall always remember her kindness.

The road that rings the lake is a very scenic one, snaking its way towards the hills in the direction of Sapporo. The sky is still overcast and the air is cool. Like Lake Toya, Lake Shikotsu’s water is lucid, but here, its amazing clarity is tinged with a hint of greenish-blue. I can just imagine how magnificent camping by its lakeside would have been like last night.

Road repairs, and the ever helpful road-safety marshall, but the guy in the video below is the hardest working…

Cyclists riding in from the north, probably Sapporo. All of them, including the cars, had to wait for me to pass.

Today, I achieve a new record in pedalling speed – 4kph. Walking is definitely faster. It’s Granny’s day out.

As I ride up, and down, the hills, Lake Shikotsu from afar is mesmerising. I stop a few times to enjoy the scenery; I will probably never come this way again, so I make it last. This hilly segment is not inhabited but I’m kept company by alpine-like trees on both sides of the road.

Climb starts

The road to Sapporo

At noon, I reach the outskirts of Sapporo, at the town of Makomani, I stop for lunch at Sunkus, another convenience store chain. It’s a first for me. In Japan, you can always count on the kombinis here to offer reasonably fresh food, so I pick a rice with chicken pack and ask the chubby cashier to make it ‘hotto’. It’s been quite a cold ride, and the air is a bit chilly from the lack of sunlight, so a hot cup of coffee should help warm up my insides. Sunkus is one up on my favourite kombini, 7/11, when it comes to coffee; they use coffee pods, which tend to stay fresher. It’s not too bad, and I feel alive again.

Sunkus kombini on Google streetmap:

I’ve never seen a happier convenience store employee than this Sunkus cashier

My Sunkus lunch: Rice with fried chicken, and mayo for that creamy touch

A Kuerig coffee machine, using coffee pods

It’s fast relax alright

From Makomanai, I’m supposed to ride on the cycle path along the Toyohira River, which will lead me all the way to the city. After a few false leads, I finally locate the entrance of the cycle path. Coming into a city, it’s always a stressfull exercise when you make the transition from quiet roads and fresh air to gridlock and exhaust gases. And if you get lost, which you inevitably will, the stress level goes up a few more notches.

Not knowing how to exit and get to Ino’s Place, the backpacker hostel I intend to stay tonight, I stop a young female cyclist for help. She doesn’t speak any English but she is very helpful. She calls the hostel with her phone for clearer directions and then relays them to me as best as she can, in Japanese and hand signs. Good enough.

After wandering through some busy roads and backlanes, I finally found the place. Ino’s Place is a cosy little hostel, and I mean little. It costs me 4000Y for a small 10′ X 8′ private room, with a 1000Y key deposit. I vow to make this the last hostel I stay in for the rest of my trip. I realise I’m much, much happier camping among God’s nature – free and unencumbered by locks and keys, cramped 3 X 3 foot-square showers, and the generally less friendly city folk.

Ino’s Place, as seen on Google streetmap

While I’m here I might as well visit a Japan Rail madugochi (ticketing office) to reserve my seats for the Wakkanai to Tokyo return leg which is expected to involve some serious train travel. I take a bus to the nearest JR station, Shiroishi Station. Reservations done, I hop on a JR train to Sapporo central, located in the busiest part of the city for a walkabout and some dinner. I’m making full use of my JR pass.

This JR girl was properly impressed and clapped her hands when I told her I’d started riding from Hakodate. She booked the best seats for me for my return journey from Wakkanai.

At central Sapporo station, I try to find my way around the maze of corridors and people that lead in 4 compass directions. It’s busy, busy, busy. Outside the sprawling station, I spot a small traditional ramen shop. It looks inviting so I cross the road, goes in and the first thing I hear is jazz trumpet playing from the speakers. Cool.

I spent some confused minutes trying to decide what to eat. I choose their most popular dish – pork ramen at 650Y, and a side dish of gyoza dumplings, 450Y. Free-flow ice-water is free. The evening is quite cool so the steaming hot bowl of ramen warms me up. The gyozas are hot off the griddle as well. My fellow customers are slurping their way noisily through their bowls of ramen. They look like harried office workers on their way home. This is probably their dinner; cheap and filling.

I see one guy almost at the end of his bowl of ramen, chopsticks still moving from bowl to mouth, hand the waiter another ticket. Waiter comes back seconds later, with a bowl of plain ramen for the customer to add on to what’s left of his soup. Carbo-loading. Minutes later, the guy gets up and leave, as harried as ever.

Little ramen shop smack in the middle between huge modern buildings

The menu

The cashier

The lone waiter is a guy but I could swear he sounds like a girl… see video

Gyoza

I have decided. I’m going to skip the Sapporo to Asahikawa segment by bike. I will take a train to Asahikawa instead. That way, I will have more time to ride around Rebun and Rishiri islands, a ferry ride away from Wakkanai. With my JR pass, I don’t have to worry about cost and schedule tomorrow. After breakfast, I’ll just ride to Shiroishi station, ringku the bike in its bag and sit out the 2-hour train ride to Asahikawa. The legs will have enough time to fully recover and I will have enough time for island exploration later.

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Distance today: 54km

Distance to date:393km

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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