Today marks the first of the last. My final push to reach Wakkanai has begun. The strategy evolved quite a bit, with the plan changing gradually. The first plan was really simple, and took shape after having cycled the windy coast lines of Honshu: "No more coastal roads". That led me to find the 'easiest' road, the one straight from Asahikawa to Wakkanai. But it goes through mountains a lot for over 100km, so finding a stopping point for that night would be difficult. The next version had an earlier stopping point and a very tough day to reach the east coast. Later I found a useful site which recommends a very scenic cycling route from Asahikawa to Wakkanai, which happened to nearly match my plan but provided better stopping points for the night. And that's how I ended up at Lake Shumarinai tonight.
The 'nanimo nai'-ness (nothing there-ness) of Hokkaido really showed itself today, with my path taking me off the main road north and onto largely unused indirect roads.
The morning began in Asahikawa, where, for the first time on this trip, I had an actual proper breakfast in a cafe, rather than just grabbing a quick bite from a conbini before heading out. Then I stocked up my supplies at the conbinin and bought lots of drinks, water, breads and onigiri. I needed to plan ahead for at least 3 meals and one overnighting before I'll reach another town again. After some repacking I set off onto route 72.
I had expected a climb up to 300-350m, but the road kept on going up until 450m at a fairly steep angle, quite wearing me out. At the top there was a little crappy parking lot with some toilets, and I took the time to dry out my clothes which were all sweaty from the climb. It was surprisingly warm and not too windy, although it was quite cloudy for most of the day.
The downhill was excellent, and took me down about 200 meters into an open plain. There were tons of bugs around, so I tried putting on my glasses again, even though they made me sick the last time I used them. This time it was a necessity though, so I had to get used to it. The glasses really warp my field of vision: everything far off still seems the same, but everything close by seems further away, so it makes me feel as I'm really tall and meters above my bike and the road. Really, really weird. It was okay-ish as long as I kept staring into the distance.
With the first half of the day finished, I cycled across a largely empty plain with perhaps a few houses every few kilometers, and hardly anyone around, cars or human. Soon I pulled into a small town which offered, to my surprise, an actual restaurant! I turned in and had my lunch there, leaving me with tons of food for tonight and tomorrow. As I was eating my soba, another white guy suddenly appeared and asked "Are you the other cyclist?". Why yes, yes I am. Have a seat. What an incredible coincidence to find another touring cyclist who would also happen to pass by the same town in the middle of nowhere for lunch.
Derek, my new Canadian friend had already finished cycling to Wakkanai and was currently on his way back, and he happened to be doing the same route that I was doing. He probably found the same website. He came from where I was planning to stay tonight, and I came from where he was headed, so we exchanged some useful information and shared our travel stories. It turns out he started out in Osaka and did almost the exact same route that I did to get to Wakkanai. His trip was but a preparation to a much longer New Zealand adventure. The country keeps appearing in my life, I must go there some time.
It's great to meet a fellow touring cyclist. It's easy to tell they've been through the same troubles and the same wonders as I have. Derek had the same issues with the wind, the same issues with changing tires, and somehow way more issues with the weather. He talked about frozen tent zippers locking him in, and camping out during a rainstorm getting all of his electronics wet. I shiver at the thought. I guess I've really been quite fortunate (so far). Derek said I was the first white guy he'd seen in weeks. I guess he was lucky enough not to run into any 'murican soldiers. More on that some other time.
One thing I am quite fortunate in is that I'm able to speak Japanese. It's quite possible and even easy to get by without it; even just speaking English will get you a long way, but knowing how to ask where things are is just so incredibly useful.
We talked for quite a long time, and I really enjoyed our chat. If I'm perfectly honest, I enjoyed it was more than my encounter with the English teachers yesterday, simpy because Derek was in the same position that I was. And at least we could both agree that there really isn't much to see here in Hokkaido. Because there really isn't! Today I cycled 30 kilometers on a mountain road that offered hardly any views, any traffic or any variation. Then I cycled another 45 kilometers through a lovely valley between two mountain ranges, but again with no variety whatsoever. It's just a long, endless, straight road with virtually no traffic on it and no people along the way. And the strange thing is, I think I'm starting to appreciate it.
Hokkaido does have a particular charm, and its charm is exactly what I didn't like at first: the fact that there's nothing there. It's utterly peaceful and quiet, at least if you get lucky with the weather and there's no wind blowing in your face. But parts of today I really enjoyed: not much wind in either direction, no traffic, no people, the whole world all to yourself. Music didn't seem right so I enjoyed today's ride in silence.
It was about 15:30 when I turned into the side road leading up to the camp site at the edge of Lake Shumarina (I keep forgetting that name..). It was quite easy to find, and there were a few cars there, with a bunch of people fishing at the lake side and one or two people doing day camping. I think I might be alone here tonight though. I really hope no bears show up. After setting up my tent I asked a fellow camper if there were any showers, and she pointed me to a building in the distance. The showers were of the 100 yen variety, and quite frankly insanely luxurious for a camp site like this in the middle of nowhere.
It's starting to get cold now. I still saw many patches of snow on the road side on the way here. It's kind of strange because daytime temperatures get quite close to 20 degrees, yet there's still snow. According to Derek the weather at the coast and in Wakkanai will be worse, so I'd better prepare myself. The warm gloves and neck warmer are already in use, I wonder when I'll have to switch to the winter hat.
Three more days!