Muroran

Yet another weird name appears. Well, weird to those familiar with Japanese names. Muroran, it appears, is derived from an Ainu word, hence the unfamiliarity. Before delving into Muroran's oddness, let's recap the day.

I was expecting it to still be raining when I woke up, but fortunately it was only slightly cloudy/foggy and even reasonably warm! I set off maybe a half hour later than usual. I'm trying to maximize my 'warm daylight' time. So far I've been getting up as early as possible to give myself a safety margin in case I can't find a place to sleep or am delayed for whatever reason. But now I kind of know what I'm capable of, even when mountains hit, and since the temperatures are dropping as I go further north, it's time to lose a bit of that margin in favor of higher temperatures.

My expectation for most of the day was yet another long, straight, boring road along the coast with nothing of interest along the way. For the first hour or so that turned out to be quite true. The road was very wide, with a cycling area easily wide enough to let trucks pass at full speed. Which led me to an astounding thought: trucks are my friends now! With no traffic around me in the open plain of the road and its surroundings I topped out at around 23-24kph as a stable speed. Whenever a truck would pass, its wake would push me along very nicely and easily up to 27kph for a minute or so. If several trucks passed in sequence I could easily go faster (at the same level of exertion). A new discovery. I should write this stuff down.

Fortunately this truck drafting didn't last long because the road turned into something more interesting: a mountain road! I hadn't seen one of those in a while, and was also still slightly cold so was actually looking forward to climbing a bit. It was a good road to climb. Never too steep, very much surrounded by nature with no human intervention anywhere. There were some narrow tunnels, but not enough traffic to make it an issue. And the best part: the downhills were smooth, wide and windless! I really enjoyed the downhills today. It hasn't been often on this trip that I could go down a mountain at speed without having to worry about road conditions, traffic, wind or falling off. Excellent.

This type of road continued for a while until I reached Date, after which things became a bit more humanish. More buildings, more things and a really cool bridge that I was unfortunately not allowed to cycle because wind. I cycled on and reached Muroran around 3PM. Just the right time to find a hotel and do some laundry. Finding a hotel turned out to be a near-problem, as 3 out of the 4 hotels that I marked were fully booked. Not quite what I expected on a random Thursday in Hokkaido. Fortunately the fourth one had a room left.

After laundry I headed out for a walk around town. The town is.. peculiar. It shares that same feeling of all the other towns in Hokkaido: the typical Japanese amenities (chain hotels, restaurants, shops) are kind-of there, but are very few. It's hard to tell if that's because they're only just up-and-coming or if they used to be there and are now all shut down because everyone moved away. Muroran definitely has that abandoned feel to it, despite being an active town with lots of people around. It's an odd contradiction. It's like the town is getting ready to disappear but the people living in it haven't realized it yet. Someone else wrote a more detailed blogpost about Muroran detailing the odd feeling that this place gives you.

There's more. The heavy industry areas look fascinating on Google Maps but seem hard to reach since they're blocked off by train routes. The buildings look massive and impressive from the street. Bigger than anything else around. Also of interest are the odd people warehouses; a Russian-like architecture of disinterest. I wonder how these got here; did the Russians actually build them in some distant past, or did the Japanese when this was just a mining town? As the aforementioned blogpost confirms, Google is of no help and the English-language web can only guess at the reason.

I managed to control myself enough to walk past the only 'default' restuarants available, the KFC. But as I walked on I realized that I had precious little choice left. Suddenly I noticed a picture of an unagi don (eel on rice) and walked in to a random restaurant. It turned out to be one of those really local places, run by old people on the side cause they have nothing better to do. I always find these places kind of awkward because I always end up being the only one there. The wife took meticulous care to provide with a nice cup of tea, a pair of chopsticks and a wet hand towel. By the time the menu finally came out and I saw the prices it was just too awkward to walk out of there without eating anything. That said, they really only had two choices. So I ended up paying 2200 yen for some eel because I felt too awkward to walk out without ordering anything. I played with my phone the whole time in silent protest.

That kind of underlines what I don't like about these towns: they don't offer you the choice of an anonymous meal. If you go to KFC or any chain restaurant, or even one of those local places that actually has customers, you can just eat and be left alone or even leave if you don't like things, and it's all fine. The local places are nice if you're in the mood to start a conversation. I had a great time at a local fish shop in Yudanaka, where I was the only customer and had a good chat with the owner about tourism and the history of the city. But if the owner is not talkative then you just sit there feeling awkward for half an hour. Side note: the soba place I visited for lunch was also a local shop and was bloody brilliant. Curry soba is a thing, and it is awesome. Also, the soba place actually had customers and the owner didn't try to rip you off. So there. I should've just gone for that KFC..

I'm doing a good pace lately. I can do 80 kilometers easily with some mild ahead-planning to sort out potential hotels or camp sites, saving me time at the end of day that I would otherwise spend searching for places where I don't get kicked out of. I made an exception today and reserved a hotel in Chitose. Tomorrow is going to be sunny and nice, and the area I'm heading into is quite built-up so no chance of camping. Also, it's a Friday, so without a reservation I might end up having to sleep in a park somewhere. After Chitose I'm hoping to head north without passing through Sapporo. I've seen Sapporo twice now, and it's not worth the detour to visit a third time. I think I can be in Wakkanai before the end of May. Awesome! :D

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2