Bye bye Hokkaido

I didn't really want to wake up today. The bed was nice, the ride was supposed to be short, so I figured I could lie in, but I somehow naturally got out before 8AM anyway. Today is exciting because I get try out my new really uncool hat!

So I headed out slowly, taking it easy until I got to the outskirts of Sapporo on the road that would eventually lead to Lake Shikotsu, when I spotted another touring cyclist. I caught up and we had a chat while cycling. Jack from Southampton had just begun his journey from Wakkanai and is on his way to Cape Sata, the southernmost point in Kyushu, where I ended my last trip 4 years ago. Since Jack was going the same way, we cycled onwards together and exchanged touring experiences along the way.

At some point I got a bit ahead of Jack and took a break at the roadside, when by chance I happened to examine my rear tire. SUDDENLY, SHOCK! The rubber on the tire was flattened and at many points just completely disappeared, showing the underlying threads. It's been a while since I inspected it this closely, but damn. I'll have to add this to my pre-flight checklist. I made a mental note to find a bike shop in Tomakomai before getting on the ferry.

Just before the lake we reached a junction where Jack was going to veer off to the far side of the lake, whereas I would stick to the road that heads to Tomakomai. We parted and I had a wonderful downhill bit right down to the lake, where I finally spotted some vending machines and a lovely lakeside restaurant. Good timing too, because I had all run out of drinks on this extremely hot day. Must remember to pack more tomorrow, because even my emergency water was nearly finished.

As I examined the vending machine to see what wacky drinks I would buy today, suddenly Jack appeared again.He changed his mind about his route and decided to head to Tomakomai with me. Excellent! So we had lunch together and cycled on for the rest of the day. The lakeside road was flat and offered great views, definitely one of the more scenic roads I've cycled in Hokkaido. The road down to Tomakomai was surprisingly nice in that it offered an actual separate cycling path. It was kinda long though.

In Tomakomai we parted once more at a convenience store, after I had located some bike shops nearby with my mobile wifi. It really is incredibly useful to have internet in these occassions. I cycled to the biggest shop, which was slightly further away, but they couldn't help me because my 26x.1.50 tire size is quite rare. So they pointed me to a giant big shopping mall a few kilometers away, which had a 'bicycle corner'. And indeed, the bike shop corner guy was able to help me out. He had exactly one 26x1.50 tire, and it looks a bit like it could fit on a tank. I was skeptical at first, but didn't really have much choice.

It took a bit less than an hour to fit the new tire, which I spent lounging around in Mister Donut, playing on my laptop. Yeah, that's the touring spirit.. When it was finished I took it out for a spin, and it feels really great. It's somehow more.. robust, now. I didn't get the tank vibe at all while riding, so that's great. Oddly enough, when I took the bike in it was still sunny but getting colder; when I got it back, it was completely overcast, a thick fog had appeared and temperatures had dropped from 32C at the lake to 10C at the seaside. Brrrr.

I headed to the ferry terminal, which was located right behind the shopping mall, but I had to cycle a bloody 2 kilometers the wrong way and then 2 kilometers back to get past a railway track. Shitty town this! Then, when I got there, in the middle of nowhere, full of heavy industry, in really creepy mist, it turns out I couldn't pick up my ticket yet since the counter would open three hours later. So I headed back 2 kilometers the wrong way and then 2 kilometers back again to the shopping mall, where I had dinner and am typing this blogpost right now. The mall is ridiculously generic and might as well have been in the UK. Oh well, at least it's warm and light and comfortable and not creepy and foggy and dark like the ferry terminal.

Hachinohe tomorrow! Rainy season might be coming :(

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2

Sapporo and some random thoughts

I have to admit, I've been to Sapporo two times before, and both times I didn't spent a lot of time in the city. All I did was merely hang out around the station and visit the obvious tourist spots. This time was the first time I visited Susukino and the area that the tram loops around in. Damn, what a city! It's quite huge. Susukino is stylish in some areas, sleazy in others, but always full of life. I can't say the copious amounts of bars and clubs suit me, but I find it interesting to see (from the outside) nonetheless. Myself, I'm more of a lonely 'eat your cocoichi curry and then go back to the hotel' kind of guy. For all the city-ness that Sapporo offers, I guess I'll be happy to leave it all behind and discover new camping sites along new seaside roads.

This is also the first time that I'm in Sapporo in good weather, and it does make a huge difference. Yesterday, cycling into town, seeing tons of people outside, on the grass, relaxing, cooling down, barbecueing, having fun, is just so much nicer than arriving in a cold winter town where everyone's cooped up inside. If only London could have some more sunshine days.. If there was a kickstarter for a weather control device I'd totally chip in.

Cycling observation: concentration is a powerful force. In the mornings I am energetic and fully focused. The mind hardly wanders and I notice a lot of things. After a while my mind starts to wander and I think of any random thing totally unrelated to where I'm cycling right now. The wandering usually stops after a good lunch break or if I put on some music to help me stay focused. Eventually, if it's a long, tough day, my mind no longer has the energy to wander. I'm just so tired that all I can do is focus on the road. I know it's time to stop cycling when I stop spotting potholes or rocks, but for 90% of the days I've reached a good stopping point before my mind becomes that sluggish. Not sure where I'm going with this, I guess I'm just observing that it's hard for my brain to concentrate on a single thing for 8 hours a day.

Generic observation: sometimes I do things that I know are bad and/or stupid, yet I do them anyway. For example, passing a conbini despite needing supplies and knowing that there won't be another one any time soon, yet I stubbornly cycle on instead of cycling back for a few seconds. Same thing happens for side roads: some of them obviously lead to nowhere, yet I try them anyway until the end rather than turn back at an earlier point. Vice versa, some side roads are obviously better, yet somehow I don't take them. Why? I have no idea. It's like my brain is stuck on a rail and can't change course. This effect used to be a lot worse, but the GPS and offline maps have lessened it a lot this trip. Also, it applies to food: wandering into a restaurant I know is going to be overpriced or meh, yet somehow not being able to stop myself. "Can't be arsed to exert self-control"-syndrome, I guess.

Hokkaido's heat wave is still full on, and tomorrow is going to be a crazy hot day. So naturally, instead of taking it easy and taking the straight road to the ferry, I'm going to take an indirect route and climb 600 meters to a mountain lake :D. It should be the perfect test for my new very uncool hat. The ferry leaves at 23:59, so it's not like I have anything better to do. Speaking of which, I totally failed at bike maintenance today because the heat made me lazy, and the one decent bike shop that was nearby was closed for inexplicable reasons. So I'll deal with my bike tomorrow at the ferry port. I'll have plenty of time to waste there anyway.

I can only hope that the rainy season will stay away for a couple more weeks..


Posted in Spirit of Japan 2

Bringing it home

Cycling feels odd if you've already decided your destination, your route and the amount of effort you're going to expend. It will without a doubt go different than you think. Today I always wanted to be 10 kilometers ahead of where I actually was. The stretch of tunnels that started yesterday continued until well after the camp site, and every time I thought I was done with it, another tunnel appeared. I'm glad I pushed hard yesterday, today would have been terrible if I had to do the entire stretch of tunnels in one day. I modified my rear light to be more noticeable, but had to get off the bike several times to turn it on and off. I also had to get my coat out for the long stretches of tunnel which were really really cold: all the more so because the temperature outside has been creeping up to 25-30 degrees, and it was actually bloody hot today. FINALLY.

The road went up and down a fair bit. I wasn't really bothered by it until around lunch time, when my stomach started feeling weird. I didn't actually identify the feeling as hunger, but it went away after eating a meal, so I guess it was related. After checking the stats on yesterday and today, it turns out that I did half the distance of yesterday, but the same amount of climbing. Tougher than I thought.

I'm not sure what's up with Hokkaido, but every day more and more people are trying to kill me. I've had two more near-death experiences today, this time not even near a tunnel, just out in the open road. Both were identical to yesterday's one: an oncoming car overtaking some other cars without taking cyclists into account.

The first one still scares the shit out of me because I didn't see it coming at all. It was on a steep uphill, and I was climbing, kind of zig-zagging up the hill, still fairly on the side. When I'm climbing I tend to look down in suffrage, and occasionally look up to see how much I've got left. But the next time I looked up, a car was already wheezing past me with not too much space in between.. I didn't even have a chance to avoid it. All I can say is: mother fucker, if I could identify you, I would scare the fucking shit out of you with my gaijin smash.

The second one happened on a flat road right after a downhill, and I was coming down at 30-35kph on a road where cars are allowed to do 40. Yet again, some bastard car slips out of the convoy to overtake, but this time it's far away, the road is fairly wide and I've spotted him well before he reaches me. So I scared the shit out of him by staying in the middle of my lane for as long as possible while keeping eye contact. A bicycle playing chicken with a car, that's probably not the smartest thing I've ever done. It just really pisses me off when cars don't treat me as a proper road user. So, consider this an awareness campaign.

Finally I reached the outskirts of Sapporo, and I figured it would be short ride into the center. But holy crap, Sapporo is huge. It took another 10-15 kilometers of suburban traffic light crawls in the blistering hot sun before I even came close. Finally I got annoyed and took a break in a park. When I continued cycling I happened across a giant outdoor & sports store, which was exactly what I needed. I bought an extremely uncool hat that will hopefully protect from the sun a bit better than my silly sweaty cap, and some tent pegs, because I somehow bent two of them and I was already one short. Also: bug spray. Bugs have been smashing themselves in my face en-masse today, it was just ridiculous. I couldn't cycle 5 minutes without feeling a bug smash into my cheek, nose or eye. The bug spray won't help with that, but at least I can spray it on my panniers and my clothes, because those damn bugs have been hitchhiking a lot.

The ferry is booked! Wednesday I will return to Honshu on an overnight ferry, and then proceed to cycle my way down to Tokyo. Tomorrow is a 'break' day, although I've got a bunch of shopping, bike maintenance and (goddammit) taxes to do. Probably for the best since my face is red as a lobster and could use a day away from the sun..

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2

It's all good.

The day did not quite turn out as expected, but mostly for the better. It's been a long, long day. But a great one.

I'm a manic control freak, so I've been checking the weather for various areas in Hokkaido almost every day. The main reason that I didn't choose to go north to Wakkanai via the route that I'm currently going south on, is that it consistenly had the highest wind speeds of anywhere in Hokkaido. The going south bit is a bit unexpected, and I figured I would have to endure it for a mere three days, but I definitely wasn't looking forward to another full day of bracing the winds. Yesterday really took a lot of strength out of me.

Luckily, when I woke up, the sun was shining, the world was warming up and magically there was hardly any wind! Sigh. Just when I was ready to hate Hokkaido completely, a superb day like this shows up.. As I left the ryokan the owner lady came up to me and put a bag full of lunchy goodies in my hands, all carefully wrapped so I couldn't tell what they were. So nice!

Today has been two roads, though kind of only one: the 232 later turns into the 231. It started out hilly with lots of needless ups and downs, then later started hugging the seaside a bit closer, becoming quite flat. There were some towns along the way, and to my great satisfaction they all had conbinis in them. I'm starting to reach civilization again! It's about damn time too, the north was just too boring. The closer I got to Rumoi, the better it got.

Of course a bug just had to fly right into my shirt. I wasn't sure if it exited or went past, so I had to probe my neck area with my finger since I was cycling fairly fast and didn't want to look down. As I pushed and prodded I realized that a) there was indeed some kind of bug there, b) I had disintegrated it with my prodding, and c) the damn thing stung me right in the tip of my index finger before disintegrating. Bleh! The spot was numb for the next hour or so, but I can't see any evidence that I was actually stung..

It took me the whole day yesterday to do 90 kilometers. Today I managed to do it before lunch. There was hardly any wind, and it was coming in from the side, so I wasn't taking advantage of that, but I guess my body was a lot more comfortable today not having to exert so much effort against the wind. It's excellent training, I can tell that my whole body is getting stronger, not just the leg muscles. Meanwile it's happily burning away all the fat. Maybe that explains why I'm not actually that hungry. It's either that or the gigantic lunch the ryokan lady packed for me: it turned to be two massive onigiri, two eggs, a little packet of salt and some pickles. That, combined with some conbini sides, was enough for lunch and dinner.

Since I was fairly early, I skipped the first camp site I had planned to stay at and went on 20 kilometers for the second one I had marked. It was at this point that I realized that I had planned the worst possible cycling road in the entirety of Japan, and I partly Openstreetmap for that because it's just really really crap at indicating anything useful. Google Maps is so much better for Japan, but alas does not allow me to use it in an offline way the way I want it to. Shame, because I'd totally buy a Google Map of Japan for offline use, especially if it had search functionality and/or distance calculation. Which, by the way, my offline Openstreetmap doesn't have either. Too barebone.

The road was terrible for cycling because it was full of tunnels! It started with an easy one, but then another one, and another one, and another one. I've gone through at least 10 tunnels today, most of them longer than 1 kilometer, and the longest one was 3 kilometers long. WHAT THE FUCK. What's the point of having a scenic ocean road if you're going to build fucking tunnels all along the way? Much shitness! They weren't nice tunnels either: no bicycle/pedestrian area, fairly narrow lanes and sometimes very poorly lit. Oh, and there were construction works going on in some of the tunnels, reducing them to one direction, with construction workers flagging and whistling for cars to pass or wait, so I held up a lot of cars while I passed the construction works..

And so we come to my worst moment of the day: I nearly died! To no fault of my own, I might add. My front and rear lights were turned on and clearly visible in the tunnel. My cycling strategy in tunnels is fairly straightforward: if the tunnel is wide and there's space for cars to pass me without straying into the oncoming lane, I stick to the side as much as I reasonably can and give them space to pass. If the tunnel is narrow and there's no oncomers, I also stick to the side. But if the tunnel is narrow and there's oncomers, I cycle right in the middle of the lane to make it very clear to the cars behind me that it's unsafe to pass. I also do this well in advance before they get close to me so they have to react.

But this time my near-death experience was not thanks to a car behind me: there was a row of about 4-5 cars coming towards me, still quite far away, and no cars behind me or in front of me on my lane. Since there were no cars in sight on my end, I cycled near the middle of the lane to ensure that I was clearly visible, but obviously that wasn't enough. Near the end of the convoy of cars appraoching me, one car nipped out and started overtaking the others! What the fuck! She (yes, it turned out to be a woman) should have clearly seen me as my light was on and we happened to be in a clearly lit part of the tunnel! She was approaching rapidly, and for a moment I thought/hoped that after seeing me, she would do the sensible thing: brake, and get back in lane.

BUT SHE DIDN'T DO THAT!! She just kept pushing on in my lane, and I had to get right in the gutter real fucking fast. In an instant fit of rage, I managed to get all the way to the side immediately and stopped my bicycle. I then somehow found the time to shout in anger at her while holding up my middle finger right in her face as she passed my bicycle way too close for comfort. I seriously hope she gets her driving license taken away. I couldn't do much else but fume internally and get on with cycling, so that's what I did. But goddamn, what a shit driver that was. My fuming was so strong I cycled at least 3kph faster in rage for the next 30 minutes.

Many tunnels later, as I reached my second designated camp site, it turned out to be crap. There was nothing else around, and the 'camping' area was some very small patches of grass right at the side of the main road. I was still after-fuming and full of rage energy, so I cycled on even more.

My rage stopped soon after though, when I spotted a beautiful waterfall on the road side. As I stopped to take photos another cyclist came in from the opposite direction: an old man on a Giant Great Journey! I'm not sure if he was entirely sane, though. When he approached me, he started shouting really loudly, and his volume never really went down much. Maybe he was deaf from the tunnels. He asked me "WHERE YOU FROM?! WHERE YOU GOING!?!". I answered him twice in Japanese before he realized that I could speak Japanese, and then things went slightly smoother. The guy was 66 years old! And still doing a cycling trip. I can only hope that I'm as fit as he is when I'm that age. I told him that the road ahead was crap and full of tunnels, and he said that the road behind him was the same, but that there's a really nice camp site another 20 kilometers away. Perfect.

I reached the camp site fairly late, but it did turn out to be beautiful. It's huge, has a conbini in front of it and a perfect view of the nearby mountains. Oh, and it's near the beach, which is just 1 minute away. Absolutely brilliant. If I can keep going to sleep and waking up at places like this, on days like this, I will be a happy man for the rest of my life.

My body hurts all over, but it's a familiar hurt. More of a general tired-ness, really. Yet despite that massive difference in distance and even amount climbed, my body feels better than it did yesterday. I'm not as tired. For some reason, the first thing I did with my 'free' time after finding the camp site was to cycle around town and see if there was an internet signal anywhere for my mobile wifi device. Alas, I'm still not quite back in civilization just yet. But Sapporo is 70 kilometers away. I can reach it early tomorrow, and then see if I can book a ferry for the next day. Or take a break day, which may or may not be mandatory depending on how the ferry booking goes. Oh well, it's all good.

On days like this, it's all good.

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2


Today was tough. Mentally tough. Full-body tough. I had a massive headwind all day long. It started out incredibly bad but slowly became more tolerable, though it never got the point where I actually enjoy cycling. The weather report was a total lie. It reported a sunny day, max temperature up to 28C. Instead it was cloudy, foggy, dark and occasionally rained. All this wouldn't even bother me that much if it weren't for that goddamn wind. It's so frustrating and tiring to deal with wind. I had to lean in to it a lot today and ended up hurting my back on one side. I think it's just a muscle ache which should pass soon, but it's the same thing I felt when we were cycling to Wakkanai, also with insane winds. The gusts of wind are so strong that they just rip the handlebars right out of your hands, pointing your bike in a bad direction, so you've got to grip the handlebars tight, tiring out your fingers. Ugh. Many times ugh. It took me 1.5 hours longer today to cycle the same distance I did to get to Wakkanai. That's quite bad.

It's not the first time that I've had a day like this in Hokkaido, although this was the first full day of bad wind after Akita/Aomori. The weather really isn't very good very often. It's quite bad, quite often. Most of the roads vary from tolerable to nice when it's sunny, but everything looks crap when it's cloudy and gloomy. Combine that with the fact that if you cycle in Hokkaido, you pretty much commit to seeing the same scenery for at least half a day, and you come to the conclusion that you'd better pick your days right or else just stay home. I really would not recommend anyone to cycle in Hokkaido, not while there's so much more convenient Japan around to be cycled. Go to Kyushu instead. Cycling in Kyushu is nice. Cycling in Hokkaido is a challenge, mostly in how much boredom and bad weather you can tolerate.

Two more days and I'll be in Sapporo. After that, one day of scenic cycling, or a quickie to the ferry if the weather's crap. We'll see.

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2

The northernmost point

Last night I cycled around the town of Hamatonbetsu, hoping to find a cafe or restaurant where I could recharge my electronics, but there was absolutely nothing. The few restaurant-like places all looked extremely local and weren't open yet, so I returned to the camp site. Later I wandered into the Wing hotel next to the camp site where I had a nice onsen and a very good Hotate meal. I felt like congratulating myself :). In the end the camp site cost me 200 yen, the onsen 500 yen and the meal 1200 yen. Still twice as cheap as the cheapest business hotel.

When I woke up the wind had completely died down and lake Kuccharo was beautifully still. Unfortunately my tent let me down again, and the inside was filled with moist droplets, some of which had dripped down on my sleeping bag, which was slightly wet on the top. Sigh. Since no one was around yet I dragged my tent out of the shadows, dumped my sleeping bag onto a picknick table to dry and put my tent up-side-down with the wet sides facing the sun. I had no food left for breakfast so I just stared at the lake while I waited for stuff to dry. Sleeping bag note: the thing doesn't work very well if you're sleeping on your side. The butt bit is very thin. Best to force yourself to sleep on your back and get used to that. Oh yeah: ants. Ants everywhere. So annoying.

While waiting for stuff to dry I checked the offline map and found an interesting tiny road that ran north along the lake and beyond. After stocking up at the only convenience store I checked it out, and it turned out to be a beautifully smooth former railroad line! An excellent start of the day! The cycling path was straight, flat and hardly went near civilization, so I saw a lot of nature. I couldn't help but feel as if I were cycling in Holland, on a proper cycling path next to a lake, with similar trees and bushes. There's a Dutch theme park in Kyushu called Huis Ten Bosch in Kyushu, but that's an utterly ridiculous misrepresentation of Holland. This north part of Hokkaido is a lot more similar, and kind of made me miss my lake in Holland and cycling around it.

I kept following the railway path north, but eventually it started getting narrower and narrowed as foliage encroached on the path. I had to plough through the last kilometer or so before reaching a road again. The path continued after that, but was completely overgrown. I optimistically shouted a war cry and proceeded to storm the foliage, but had to give up after 50 meters because it was just too thick and showed no signs of letting up. So I took the road from there and eventually ended up at the seaside again, near a convenience store. I didn't need supplies so was planning to cycle on, but then I spotted another touring cyclist having a break there, so I went in to buy a drink and had a chat with him. Kenta, a Japanese guy a bit younger than me, was also headed to Cape Soya and was eating his breakfast. He didn't seem too eager to cycle together, so I went on ahead. He said he'd catch me up and/or see me at Cape Soya.

So I went on by myself along the desolate coastal road. There wasn't much traffic but the winds were insane. They were partly in the right direction, but came in sudden gusts and were hard to deal with. About halfway the road climbed up steeply out of the cover of the cliffs and I had to cycle with a massive side wind for a while. I nearly got blown off my bike twice and had to go really slowly, leaning massively into the wind to stay upright. Eventually the road started to go down again, and the remaining bit to Cape Soya was flat and not too windy. Great!

The northernmost point of Japan, Cape Soya, as the wikitravel article says, is commemorated by a "largely uninspiring" Northernmost Point Monument. I bet that whoever wrote that article didn't CYCLE ALL THE WAY ACROSS FUCKING JAPAN TO GET HERE. For me the monument was a marker. It means: from now on, things will get easier again. I've reached the coldest point in Japan. I've faced mountains while less fit than I am now. I've made mistakes in camping that I won't be making again. The training period is over now. I can return as an experienced touring cyclist. It's my graduation day!

As I sat next to the monument contemplating life and the lack of open restaurants in the area, Kenta showed up. Naturally there was much rejoicing and photo taking. Then two other cyclists showed up from the other direction: a German guy and a Japanese guy. The Japanese guy had a sign on his bike saying that he was traveling since 2012. Impressive.  The German guy, Karsten, had just finished Japan from south to north. So there was even more rejoicing and photo taking. Cape Soya might not be much of a monument to visit if you're coming by bus or by car, but for touring cyclists it surely is one the holy grails of Japan. It was great to see so many of 'my kind' gathered together in one place. We're a rare kind, touring cyclists. Best to treasure these moments.

Three of us, Karsten, Kenta and I cycled the remaining 30 kilometers of coastal road to Wakkanai together. The winds were at times quite insane, and progress was slow. Our faces got sandblasted quite a bit, and sand got in everywhere. But it all didn't matter. We did it. We were done! It turns out the three of us had another thing in common: our love for Sukiya. Much to my surprise there was a Sukiya in Wakkanai, and we ended up eating and talking together for a long time, eventually joined by a mysterious Irish touring cyclists who also had some brilliant stories to tell. The traveling spirit was absolutely with us today.

When we finally left the restaurant it was slowly getting darker, and it was starting to get cold. Kenta left to find a coin laundry place, Karsten went back to a rider's house to prepare for his journey back to the ferry, and I wandered around town to see if there was any reasonably cheap hotel available. It didn't take long to find an acceptable one, and near the station too. Not that there's much around here: I wandered into the main shopping street later that evening and everything was closed. The only interesting thing I saw was a fox, who sat stubbornly in the middle of a side road, not budging even when cars and people passed it. I think the Japanese people are too kind to wild animals, it's not teaching the animals to stay away from humans.

So, I'm done! In retrospect, the three-day consecutive camping days were among the best of the trip. The routes were interesting (although long), and the camp sites memorable. The lack of internet was hardly noticeable, except for one thing: the weather report. I found it really useful to get accurate weather info before setting out each day. It tends to be quite accurate. Still, a minor inconvenience. Even without access to the weather report things will work out.

What now? I've accomplished my goal, sort of. I've reached the northernmost point. As far as the trip 'definition' goes, I could hop on a plane or a train and head back home right now. But that just doesn't feel quite right somehow.

I have to cycle back.

"When in doubt, choose the option that is the most fun". Lugging my bike around in a bike bag is absolutely not fun. Cycling is fun! So let's cycle back. To be honest I'm quite done with Hokkaido so I won't be going to the east. Temperature is no longer an issue, it's plenty warm here, but wind and general lack of change is. You'll pretty much stay on only a few roads each day, with nothing much changing along the way. I'd rather cycle straight down to Sapporo and then catch a ferry back to Honshu from Tomakomai. Where in Honshu, I'm not sure yet. Right now my mind is set on starting from the top, but I'll formalize that decision later, after I get to Sapporo. Hopefully the warm east coast of Honshu will provide me a good opportunity to do PADI on the way.

I feel like I've only just gotten re-used to touring cycling. I'm at the prime of my power, in the perfect location. I can't let this moment go to waste.

.. and I should lose some more weight >_<;

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2

A ridiculous coincidence and a windy lake

It feels like cheating to type this post this early, but it's 14:15 and I'm done for the day. I've had an incredible traveler's coincidence today, so let's start with that.

I met Hou-san again! Hou is a Chinese guy who lives in Kanagawa, maybe half an hour from Atsugi where I used to live. I first met him 4 years ago when I was cycling in Kyushu and we were both on the same ferry to Yakushima. I ended up hiking with him for two days and spent some time with him when I got back to Kanagawa.

I already thought I saw Hou's self-built camper van three/four days ago, on the way to Asahikawa. I waved at the car from behind but couldn't tell if it was Hou's car or not. I couldn't catch up either, nor did I have his contact information, so I just shrugged it off and went on.

So, imagine my surprise when that same camper van was parked on the parking lot of the camping site that I was planning to stay tonight! Of all the ridiculous coincidences I have with this guy.. There was much rejoicing and much catching up :). It turns out Hou and his family zig-zagged across Hokkaido a lot already, and after going past Wakkanai they ended up here and were now headed for the east. Somehow, magically, our schedules allowed us to be in two locations in Hokkaido on two different days at the exact same time. Brilliant!

Yeah, that was my highlight of the day really. There were roads. More roads. Straight roads. Flat roads. Hilly roads. All with nothing of interest on them. Pure nature and the like. It was nastily windy this morning when I headed down from the mountain hut, and it was suffering for the first hour or so. After that it was suffering from the uphills rather than the wind, but finally the road changed into a fast downhill and I even got the wind on my side for the latter part of the journey. Excellent!

I'm staying at the shores of Lake Kuccharo, at a legitimate camp site. I cycled through the entire site and couldn't see any coin laundry facilities, so I was about to decide to go to the nearby hotel and ask for their price, but then I spotted a coin laundry place, and next to it Hou-san's camper car. When he recognized me he immediately invited me and shoved a bowl of delicious Chinese food in my face. So nice.

While the family was having their afternoon nap I set up my tent and did some laundry, which is now drying. The tent was still quite wet when I first set it up, but it dried in ten minutes thanks to the massive winds at this camp site. I hung the laundry on my tent which hopefully won't take too long to dry.

Since I'm done for the day, I'm planning to cycle around town a bit and maybe find a cafe or restaurant where I can recharge my electronics, because it's been three days now since I've seen a charge point. The mountain hut from yesterday kindly provided lights but they made very sure not to put a power socket anywhere.

I've got 92 kilometers to go until Wakkanai. A bit more than half that to get to Cape Soya, the northernmost point of Japan. If I'm lucky the wind is with me and it'll only take a few hours. If I'm unlucky the wind will blow in my face the whole day and I'll be lucky to get there around dinner time, depending on when I set off. It's the final day, but the trip won't be won or lost there. If anything, yesterday was the big push into the unknown: the last unplanned day. Tomorrow will be the finishing touch.

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2

Even wilder

What a day. 90+ kilometers and I hardly saw humans, cars or junctions. It's.. different, but I guess you could call it a success.

A success is definitely not what I'd call camping last night. It started raining after dark and didn't really let up until well after the sun came up. My tent was drenched of course, and what's worse, the inside was completely filled with water drops, and the slightest move would set them off which would make them drop down on my lovely 'must absolutely definitely keep as far away from water as possible' down sleeping bag. So I managed to do a Mission Impossible style wake-up and managed to evacuate myself and most of my things before settings off most off the water drops. Thus I was left with a drenched tent that I needed to pack ASAP so I could set off and start cycling.

So I shook off most of the water, put some towels inside, wiped off some more, and put the tent on its side to dry while I had breakfast and packed the other stuff. It's pretty much a routine now when camping, unfortunately. The tent really doesn't do rain well at all. I managed to get it fairly dry though, and hopefully squeezed out the rest when I rolled it up. So I was left with two drenched towels, which I put on the outside of my bags to dry off while cycling. Yay, camping..

The ride around the lake turned out to be quite up-down-y, just like Derek mentioned yesterday, and I used up a lot of energy. Fortunately my halfway point was an actual proper town: Bifuka! (Or: Beefcake, as the little voice in my head likes to call it). I wasn't expecting much from it because I had done my research, and only needed to stock up for dinner and breakfast the next day. Much to my surprise there was a 7-eleven! In the endless emptiness of Hokkaido, a 7-eleven is salvation. I stocked up and had lunch there, since the whole town seemed pretty dead and it was still before noon. You really can't expect much from Hokkaido..

The afternoon's road was just that: a single road that would go on for dozens and dozens of kilometers with hardly any turnings. There was some mild change in scenery though, and a very nice bit in the middle that constantly sloped down a little so it made for great progress. It was quite warm today and I sweated a lot, but on this road there was a ridiculously long tunnel that was just freezing cold inside. Way way colder than any tunnel I've ever cycled.

The main 'attraction' on this afternoon's road was a place called 'Truck Land'. In Japan, 'torakko' means tram, so really it should be called 'Tram Land'. It was utterly uninspiring and I didn't even bother to try. If your only attraction within 50 kilometers is a place called 'Truck Land' then your island sucks.

The best part of today was by far the nature. When you're on the only road going through a natural park/area, all you see around you is pure, unspoilt nature. Gorgeous forests, mountains, streams, you name it. Lots of wildlife too. I saw two really huge foxes today. One of them was in the middle of the road and stared at me for a while while I took its picture. Then I tried to get closer and it ran away. The other one ran away before I could manage to take a photo. I also saw a very jumpy springbok-like creature but it was also rather shy of strange humans on bicycles. And one squirrel.

The bugs were out in full force today, hopefully proof of the weather actually getting warmer and staying warmer. I had to wear glasses a lot today to save my eyes. At one point some flying creature got into my under layer via my neck. I felt it and maybe crushed it without stopping, then shook my shirt a bit hoping it would fall out. Since I didn't notice anything afterwards I thought it was all taken care of, but when I changed clothes just now my undershirt had a live wasp in it! It was half-crushed already, but it seems like I got lucky there. More bug horror: right at the end of the day when I was nearing the campsite it started to get very cloudy and the thunderbugs came out in swarms. I had to cycle through them going downhill at speed, and they got stuck in my clothes and in my hair. Ugh.

So yeah, rain. It had been sunny or mildly cloudy all day, but right at the end the weather comes to ruin your fucking day. I managed to reach the entrance to the camp site, or so I thought, just when it started pouring down. I took shelter under a covered bike rack and waited for it to pass, which it soon did. Then I found out that the camp site was another 1.5 kilometers ahead, on top of a fucking hill because why would life make it easy? The inclines were 11-12% for the most part, and then some impossible percentage on the last bit where I just had to get off and walk up.

The camp site turned out to be quite small, and I wasn't really looking forward to setting up my tent on wet grass when more rain might show up. Fortunately there was a mountain hut right at the summit of the hill, with a beautiful outlook on the valley below. Apparently it's ok for people to freely use this hut to cook, stay warm, eat and so on. It has toilets, a wood heater, some tables and a small kitchen. Right after I settled down at one of the tables, a massive rainstorm broke out. I am so glad that I didn't try to set up my tent earlier.

Side note: Garmin speed sensor issues again! I just can't get it to work properly. At first, when it broke, it just reported half the speed of the actual speed, but now it's started showing random numbers. Going downhill fast? Sure, maybe that's about 70kph, whatever. Climbing in a gear that you know the speed of already at your rpm: why not take off 4-5kph and leave you guessing? It's utter and utter shit, this speed sensor. The fucking thing has GPS data at its disposal, for fucks sake. All the damn thing has to do is occasionally re-sync its speed measurements with the GPS and it'll be fine. Or even better, forget about the wheel sensor altogether and just report GPS speed. It might be a bit slower than real-time wheel measurements, but at least it will be accurate. But you can't have that because then you can't get cadence information. Pretty crap, Garmin. Just like your website by the way. The least you can do is correct the measurements after upload, but nooooo. If it's recorded as crap, it stays crap.

There were tons of camping opportunities along the roadside today. I was following a river for most of the day, so the riverbed offered ample opportunity for camping. Failing that, I'm north of rice country now, so there's many patches of grass ready to be camped on. There's nobody around of course because this is Hokkaido. A third option would have been any one of the many abandoned buildings I saw today. In the countryside here it appears that maybe half of the buildings are collapsed, and of the other half a lot of them are abandoned or at least very poorly maintained. Concentration of population, and leaving large areas of emptiness in-between. Japan is really good at that.

I've got a relatively easy day tomorrow, to get to lake something-or-other near the coast, after which it's a straight-up ride to the northernmost point. Two more days! And then I'll have to decide how to get back..

(Post-night update: the mountain hut was by far the creepiest place I've ever stayed in. From now on I'll try to stay in more conventional places. It really doesn't pay off to find hidden places, expected places are better.)

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2

Into the wild

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!

Posted in Spirit of Japan 2

One with the bike

After cycling every day for a month, there's so many things I wish I could convey to others about cycling, and touring in particular. But words don't convey anything, the only way to understand is to do it yourself.

  • That feeling when you approach a minor hill at speed and manage to use your power to get up it without shifting down.
  • The satisfaction when you've been going up, down, up, down all day, slowly climbing, and finally at the end of the day it turns into a windless downhill just when the sun breaks through the clouds.
  • That moment when you reach a conbini after a huge hill, sweaty and tired, and everybody just looks at you in wonder, and you're just too tired to even care.
  • The feel of the bike when you're nearing a traffic light, and the weight of the trucks has made the asphalt stand up on the edge of the road, and you zigzag on and off it to feel how high it is to decide which side you should be on.
  • Pulling up to a traffic light and trying to time it just right so that you don't have to come to a complete stop before the light turns green again.
  • The smug satisfaction that comes from overtaking the same car/truck several times when there's several traffic lights in a row.
  • The 'brace yourself' moment when it's a windy day on a narrow road and an oncoming truck passes you at great speed, the gust of wind nearly knocking you over.
  • The reverse moment when the road is wide enough for a truck going in the same direction to pass you at speed and you try to catch as much of its wake as you can.
  • When you seat yourself firmly in the saddle after a lunch break and realize that your butt doesn't hurt because you've gotten used to your bike.
  • Quickly reaching under your saddle to turn on your rear light when approaching a tunnel.
  • Awkwardly reaching under your saddle for five seconds to turn off your rear light after a tunnel.
  • When it's actually quite cold and windy but your cycling efforts are exactly enough to keep you warm.
  • When there's rubble on the road and you know exactly which bits not to hit and zigzag around them with perfect timing and confidence.
  • Checking behind you to see if your luggage is still there, after every minor bump.
  • Slightly jumping up and down on the saddle while looking down at your rear tire to see if it might have gotten softer, after every minor bunp.
  • That downhill moment on a relatively quiet road when your speed and concentration suddenly increases and you start taking a wider line to ensure that you have enough space to maneuver safely in case of an emergency stop or evade.
  • The nod you give to a truck driver for making a very polite pass. You'll never know if he saw it.
  • The fifth time you hear a truck rapidly approaching behind you on a narrow road, and you decide to take a very wide line to prevent him from passing because the previous four trucks cut you off rather dangerously.
  • The scenery when you decide not to take a tunnel for a change, and the side road turns out to be beautiful and quiet.
  • The feeling of being rescued when you're near the end of your strength and switch from progress mode to search mode, and happen to find the perfect restaurant/conbini/camp site.
  • And my favorite one: the feeling of the warm wind blowing on your face after a huge descent from chilly cold temperatures into a warm summer breeze.
You must cycle.

Posted in Cycling , Spirit of Japan 2 , Thoughts