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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Why you should not tour like Piaw

I've been a long time self-supported touring advocate. I am one for several reasons. First of all, I think it's more fun --- being tied to an itinerary never is fun --- having to ride some miles because some other guy wrote it down on a piece of paper never really appealed to me personally, and the days when I had to ride 100 miles on a guided tour despite not wishing to go that far annoyed me. Secondly, it's far more ecologically friendly and economically friendly to the country you're visiting. Cycle touring is extremely eco-friendly. But it's not as eco-friendly when you're supported by a support van with all your baggage, enough gear to fix everybody's bikes, and SAG you as well if you needed it. It's far more economically friendly because by its very nature, you'll end up staying in villages that the big tour groups can't stay at (they're too big), or in the country B&B that only locals get to.

A major side-effect of ending up staying in the country-side is that you have no choice but to interact with locals. This year in Hokkaido, we experienced that as we met fewer and fewer English speakers once we got out of the touristy areas. You get to meet the local culture "up close and personal", and you have no choice but to speak the language. My Japanese improved dramatically as a result.

Finally, it's cheaper. The typical Japanese tours charge $300-$500 a person a night. We were getting away with $50/night. With costs that low you can stay for longer, and still occasionally splurge on a mountain top hot spring. You just can't beat the value for dollar when you're self-supported.

The incident that changed my mind and prompted me to write this essay, however, was what happened in Rausu. In Rausu, we visited no less than 5 B&Bs, only to be turned away, because our party (even Japanese-speaking me) was obviously foreign. It's not that the Japanese are xenophobic (undoubtedly some are, but few xenophobes would get into the hospitality industry anyway), it's because far too many foreigners have showed up without an understanding and appreciation of local culture and norms, and then throw a fit when the family-run Minshuku (B&B or mid-end lodging) serves them food without a menu, family style. Even Lonely Planet writes this about Rebun-to:
A few of the more attractive minshuku here no longer accept foreigners, a casualty of the fact that many foreigners did not understand they had no choice in what food was served. (Lonely Planet Japan: Hokkaido)

I'm afraid going forward I'll have to attach another requirement to folks who wish to tour with me: they'll have to be culinary flexible. Those of you who know me personally will undoubtedly say, "Wait a minute, Lisa's Vegan!!" Yes, but she also comes from Chinese culture, where it is far more rude to make a fuss about the meal your hosts serve you when you're visiting their homes than to just eat it and grin and enjoy it. She's had to break her dietary rules when traveling with me in Europe, because many places in Europe have similar dining provisions (show up at lovely Rosenlaui, for instance, and there's no dinner menu. You can request a vegetarian meal in advance, or you can eat what they make)

I was explaining this to a friend of mine, and he asked about substituting materials. It turns out that in France, for instance, this is considered rude and something only rude Americans would do to a French Chef:
Americans believe the customer is entitled to have a meal his or her way. The French, deeply admiring of the culinary profession, are more willing to submit to the chef---you never hear Parisians asking if they can have it without the garlic, with no salt, or made with lemon juice instead of vinegar---and are brought up to believe that any restaurant meal follows the same script... (From Hungry for Paris)

This doesn't mean that if you're vegan, ova-lacto-vegetarian, or whatever, that you can't tour. It just means you can't tour like me. Not only would you annoy every guest house you stayed at (and you'll triply annoy them if you can't speak the language), you would probably end up not getting sufficient nutrition to keep riding and have a terrible time. If you have many dietary restrictions (and I know people who do), then the Backroads and Trek tours are for you. They cost more, and you'll never have an adventure, but that's what they're for --- you'll be cocooned in your own corner of America as you travel the world, but if that's what you need, that's what you need!

Ultimately, if you don't have the culinary, linguistic, or mobile flexibility (as Mark has observed, I hardly ever avoid something just because I can't ride over it), touring like I do is unlikely to be fun or interesting for you. Worse, you could end up spoiling a location for other visitors who are more flexible with their diet or language, so please don't tour like me if you can't just sit down with your host at a guest house and eat everything.

Thoughts on Cycling in Hokkaido and Japan

I really enjoyed the Hokkaido trip. It's a truism of cycling that cycling brings out the best in the people of the country we visit, and in the case of Japan, the people are just amazing. No matter where we went, folks were helpful and kind towards cyclists. From visitor center receptionists to B&B hosts, they exhibit a curiosity and friendliness that just blew me away. The drivers are polite, and the food is amazing. What really surprised me was how cheap everything was! My brother had told me that he lost weight in Japan because he could not afford meat. Well, I guess if you stay in Tokyo all the time in Japan that could very well happen. Once out in the rural countryside, prices drop dramatically, and Japan becomes cheaper than Europe! A typical night's stay was 5000 Yen, including dinner and breakfast. And the typical dinner served was comparable to restaurant food, so you're not getting short-changed at all. In many cases, you would be asked whether you would prefer a Western option for your meals. We rarely tried it since we preferred Japanese food anyway.

The food is very healthy --- lots of fish, rice, vegetables, and not a lot of red meat. You won't get a whole lot of milk and cereal, and you have to like seaweed. The portions (especially at lunch) can be quite small. On the other hand, I like having a small lunch. On my European trips, I resist stopping for anything other than a supermarket lunch because not only is the service slow, you usually have no choice but to get a big meal that bloats you and makes afternoon cycling bog down. Not in Japan. You can order the biggest meal on the menu, and not only will the service be very fast, you won't feel bloated! The flip side, of course, is that you'll have to snack a couple of hours later. I don't think any cyclists would be disappointed by the need to do so, since convenience stores are plentiful, and the snacks are delicious!

The roads are clean. We never got a single flat tire that could be attributed to Japanese roads. There were times when cracks across the roads were very annoying though --- I think those happened at the expansion joints, and the regularity is very jolting.

The frequent Onsens (Hot Springs) means that if you ever get hypothermia, you can just hop in one and get warm. This means you can be more free to take risks with the weather, if you know you have an Onsen coming up (or near by).

The biggest penalty, however, is that the riding outside of Biei/Furano is not very interesting. That's because as with many islands, there are frequently only one road from one part to another, so everyone has to use those roads, cyclists/motorcyclists/drivers. So those roads are crowded, noisy, and not very much fun to ride. But the worst part is that the Japanese don't build roads over their mountains! Most of the roads go up into the mountain and then don't connect to anything on the other side. This puts a serious damper on getting to great views and scenery on the bicycle. And of course, the roads that go around the mountains are boring: straight and long, frequently with head-winds. I am unlikely to do another bicycle tour in Japan because of this (a car or hiking oriented trip would not be out of the question), but the cultural experience of doing it once was great! Bear in mind that I'm a very spoiled cyclist, having spent too much time in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Alps. I don't consider the California Sierras pretty, for instance, and Yosemite doesn't bowl me over any more. The perils of being a world traveler is that you'll always be comparing places to one another, and for cycling, it's really difficult to beat the Bay Area and the Swiss Alps.

All in all, my conclusion is that Japan/Hokkaido is an ideal country for the novice tourist, or the cycling tourist who is out of shape and/or afraid of mountains. It is filled with polite people and drivers, clean clean roads, fantastic food, wonderful hot springs and lots of places to do good hiking. You might not find the cycling memorable, but the people and the culture will be unforgettable!

Touring Hokkaido Tips and Resources

The biggest tip I can give you is to not fly United Airlines to Japan. They've recently revised their bike policy to be $250 each way, so no matter if their prices are $100 less than ANA or JAL, you come out ahead with ANA's policy being that bikes are free! But even if United revised their policy, ANA might be the way to go anyway. As mentioned during the trip reports, ANA gives bikes (and their enclosing boxes) the white glove treatment. I can't emphasize how rare and unusual this is! Not only were the boxes intact and fully functional on both ends, they were positively immaculate! I have never seen bike boxes handled so well and so carefully. ANA deserves all the business cyclists can give them. Note that if you book with ANA, you also get a free rental cell phone. This is a big deal, because American cell phones don't work in Japan, not even the world phones! Even my international blackberry does not provide Japanese service. Fortunately, all Japanese phones have internet capability (though it's very costly --- they charge by the byte!), and you'll get your phone # ahead of time so you can tell all your family what number to call.

For the trip proper, here are some resources:

  • Touring Mapple (Scroll down the web page for directions on how to buy). I like the Touring Mapple but I find it frustrating as well. First of all, the recommended accommodations are always worth checking out. They are reasonably priced, and always worth the stay. But the map itself is geared towards motorcyclists, which means there is no elevation information at all except for passes. Nothing for towns, nothing for lakes, nothing for any points of interests. As a former Michelin map user, I find it extremely frustrating. And don't get me started on the scenic markings. They are used very sparingly, and unfortunately, are not an indicator at all as to whether the road is good for cycling, since frequently, the road is busy as well! Compared to the Michelin "green" markers, these are useless. Finally, no street names are available, only highway numbers. This makes it really tough to figure out where you are in any kind of built up area. Overall, it's still worth getting, but I'm quite disappointed at how useless it is for cycling.
  • Japanese Garmin Map download I used a GPS unit throughout Japan, and this was the only source I found for Japanese maps. While the information was complete and more or less accurate, I had some frustrations. First of all, only Romaji is available for viewing. This means that correlating locations with the Touring Mapple is difficult, since the Touring Mapple only has Kanji (which I can read but not pronounce!). This means that before the trip, you'd better have every interesting way-point already on your unit. Again, road names were not available, so it drove me nuts sometimes trying to figure out whether we were at the correct location. Finally, every tiny portion of a town has its own little name, which was too fine a granularity for bike touring, since it crowded out useful ways that dynamic routing could work. The times when it did work it worked spectacularly, but it was definitely way too hard to use.
  • B&B guide We did not have this, but it would have saved us time and money and would have been 420 Yen well spent! All the quirky B&Bs we stayed at, including (Drum Kan and Lapland) are listed here, with many more that we wished we had know about. The prices are incredibly reasonable, and very much worth the stay. Highly recommended.
  • Lonely Planet has pick & mix chapters for all of Japan. I bought the one for Hokkaido (for about $3), and if you have a Kindle DX you can send them e-mail and they'll give you an unlocked version that you can load on the DX. Unfortunately, I didn't find the guide all that useful. The problem with Lonely Planet is that they are geared entirely towards the "backpack" tourist who goes by bus and train, so tiny towns get short shrift. I don't use them for Europe, but had a really hard time with information about Japan otherwise. It's worth it for the price, just don't buy the whole book.
  • The best time of year to go for a Hokkaido tour is probably late spring, May or June. It would probably rain more, but the pictures I saw of the Biei/Furano area in Spring look stunning, with snow-capped peaks and the flowers in bloom. It'll be a little cooler, but since the Hot Springs are all up in the mountains, that makes climbing them for the Hot Springs all the more worth while.
  • On the Move in Japan: Despite having had a year of University Japanese, my Japanese was more than 17 years old and unused by the time I went to Japan, hence I bought this phrase book. The important key is the katakana/hiragana table, along with very useful phrases often needed by travelers. The food section is very comprehensive. Very useful, and I referred to it far more often than I thought I would.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: House of Suns

House of Suns is Alastair Reynolds' latest science fiction novel, not set in any of his other universes. The book itself is written from three perspectives. The first, introduced right from the start, by Abigail Gentian, a girl born far in the novel's past, who is the progenitor of one of the great lines, the Gentians, who are composed of multiple cloned individuals (called Shatterlings) who explore and trade throughout the galaxy over eons, with only occasional gatherings to sync-up and exchange information with each other.

The other two perspectives are provided by Gentian shatterlings: Campion and Purslane, two companions and lovers who are on what seems to be a routine mission en route to one of the gatherings. Despite the shatterlings being clones, each seem to be individuated enough to have a distinct identity, and throughout the story we have no problem conceptualizing each shatterling as a distinct person and personality --- as the plot progresses, we get the distinct impression that Campion is impulsive and flighty, while Purslane is considered and pragmatic.

The universe that Reynolds' builds is intriguing. For one thing, almost all the sentient races encountered were once human, so his vision is one of humanity splitting itself (and experimenting on itself), rather than the multi-species cultural visions so prevalent in other science fiction. Another theme (common in many of Reynolds' novels) is that FTL travel does not exist in this milleu, and everything on a galactic scale takes a long time. I really enjoy this theme in particular, because the sense of scale it provides is immense --- Reynolds' really shows that the common theme of FTL travel is just a crutch for novelists who can't plot around it (we currently live in a relatively small world, but it used to be that voyages in sailing ships took a long time, and historical novelists like C.S. Forester had no problems building plots around that).

As the plot unfolds, we learn of one secret after another, including a mysterious line known as the House of Suns. Eventually, when the big reveal happen, we know enough about the universe to be surprised, but the logic behind the reveal is also sound --- Reynolds has left enough clues for the reader not to feel cheated. What I really like about the novel, however, is that even after the reveal, lots more happen, including a relativisitic chase and battles (and nothing that reprises anything else of Reynolds' I've read), as well as an AI/Robot war which I found readable and fascinating.

Unfortunately, Reynolds does write himself into a corner with this novel, and can only extricate himself through an almost literal Deux Ex Machina. I found the ending strangely unsatisfying, but perhaps if you liked the ending of 2001 (the movie, not the novel), you would also enjoy this ending.

Despite the disappointing (to me) ending, I still recommend House of Suns as an entertaining novel full of interesting ideas.

Review: Born to Run

Born to Run is Christopher Mcdougall's book about running. It brings together several threads: the first is about the Tarahumara runners --- a tribe in the backcountry of Mexico that seems to be culturally adpet (and adapted) to distance running. The second story is about the scientific aspects of running --- Mcdougall's thesis is that human beings were made to run, and not just sprint away from predators, but long distance running --- the stuff of which ultra-marathons are made of. Finally, the third thread brings together some of North America's Ultra-runners (including ultra-legend Scott Jurek) in a running race with the Tarahumara runners on their home turf.

The first story almost defies belief. What surprises me (even when it shouldn't --- I know ultra-marathon cyclists first hand, and they definitely don't get the same kind of attention Lance Armstrong gets, medically or in the press) is that with a tribe full of people who do amazing feats of running, there hasn't been a medical/scientific research team going in there to measure attributes such as VO2 Max and doing comparative studies against say, the well-known Kenyan runners (who've proabably been studied to death). Nevertheless, Mcdougall weaves a great story about a group of Tarahumara runners who showed up at the Leadville 100 and beat everyone else (with the winner in his 50s!) with style, all wearing nothing but sandals they made for themselves out of worn out tires and string.

The second story is about running and footwear. There are several points that Mcdougall bring out to bolster his thesis. First of all, only humans gather around in big groups voluntarily to do sports of massive endurance, whether it's a marathon or a double century. That endurance isn't an accident --- physiologically speaking, humans can dissipate heat better than any other land animal, and even more importantly, humans enjoy these endurance sports. Unfortunately, the other points that Mcdougall discusses aren't as compelling. He discusses persistence hunting, but then admitted that it wasn't something easy to do, and it took a while to find a tribe in Africa that could do it. Even so, it's not practiced by many tribes --- hardly compelling evidence that running was the way humans ran down their prey and got lots of protein to feed that huge brain that we carry around. Then, there's the discussion about how modern footwear is bad for you. However, there's no discussion whatsoever about what's good for you. I've tried the Vibram Five Fingers, and I don't think they're any better for me in avoiding foot pain, or even going fast. I think it would have been a lot more convincing if, for instance, Mcdougall actually did a study about how Tarahumaras constructed their running sandals, why they did it the way they did (they certainly don't do bare-foot running, and my guess is in any kind of rocky country or scree, barefoot running will destroy your feet), and gotten a physiologist, doctor or other scientist to distinguish the important characteristics of good footwear. But perhaps expecting scientific thinking from a journalist would be too much. Then there's the discussion about running technique. He visits Eric Orton, a fitness coach, and gets the following response: "Should I get orthotics?" "Forget the orthotics." ... "How about yoga? That'll help, yeha?" "Forget yoga. Every runner I know who does yoga gets hurt." That intrigues me. Yoga's been frequently prescribed (and over-prescribed, I think) for cyclists. But there's no follow up, no explanation at all about why Orton doesn't think Yoga's a good idea. All in all, this segment felt incomplete, as though Mcdougall suddenly lost interest in the subject and abandoned the book (or threw in other filler) just when it was getting interesting to me.

The final story about the running race just felt out of place to me. Sure, I like a shoot out as much as the next guy, but ultimately, just once race isn't exciting to me. His reportage of the Leadville 100 races were as exciting as the Tarahumara race between Jurek, Barefoot Ted, and the other cast of colorful characters, but it's also clear that he spent so much time on the North American racers that by contrast, the Tarahumara racers got very little coverage. While Mcdougall is a great sports writer, this was not the best part of the book for me.

All in all, I enjoyed the book, and definitely, if you're a runner or have an interest in ultra-marathon running, the book deserves a read. But I guess a really readable layman's treatise on the actual physiology of running and how humans move will have to come from another writer. Recommended with caveats.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Tour of Hokkaido 2009

On August 25th, Yana & Mark Ivey, Brooks Sizemore and I did a Bicycle Tour of Hokkaido (the northern-most big Island of Japan). The ride totaled 1532.3km of riding and 15,300m of climb over 18 riding days, during which we got 2 flat tires, neither of which could be attributed to the condition of Japan's roads. (All tracks were recorded by my Garmin 76CSx, and you download all the tracks in a zipped package)

This is the index page with day-by-day trip reports and will collect all the photos when they show up.

The original solicitation letter got enough attention to go ahead, and due to plane ticket pricing and other timing issues, we settled on an August 25th departure.

We used the Collaborative album feature of PicasaWeb to mix all our photos together in chronological order:

Brooks Sizemore's Pictures

Review: Roku Soundbridge

After the prior disappointment with the Logitech Squeezebox, I decided to give the Roku Soundbridge a try.

To be honest, I wasn't expecting much. The vacuum fluorescent display looked cheesy, even on Amazon's web page, and the remote definitely wasn't the snazzy WiFi-compatible one that the Squeezebox had.

The good news is the packaging is very nice. Not nice the way Apple defines it, where unboxing is supposed to be an experience in itself, but nice in the way that I like it --- the plastic box snaps open, pieces aren't wrapped in fancy packaging, and it comes with all the cables I wanted. Even the power plug plays nice with my power strip.

Unlike most dedicated audio systems, there aren't RCA jacks but instead there's just a 3.5mm mini plug. That didn't bother me, since I already had one of those plugged into the receiver for MP3 players, phones, etc. I already had a Firefly server running on my NAS, so I plugged it in and turned it on.

The setup process is intuitive and easy, and really short. Select language, region, time zone, and the wireless network. Then the system reboots itself, and automatically picked up my Firefly server! Sweet! Streaming 320bps VBR MP3s, it sounds great, and I can't complain. It even displays the Japanese song titles on my Miyuki Nakajima tracks!

The downside is I have to create playlists on my Firefly server instead of just importing it from iTunes or Media Monkey. I can live with that. I paid $165 on Amazon's web-site just 2 days ago, but it looks like the price has gone up. Even at $199, though I'll give this little machine an enthusiastic 2 thumbs up. Highly recommended!

Yes, I'm aware that the Soundbridge is an orphaned product, but seriously, if I got 3-5 years out of it, it'll be money well spent. Maybe someone will steal the design and make a clone. Something this good deserves a second chance.
[Update: Greg says you can buy the Soundbridge at Roku's store for $130. At that price, it's a steal.]

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


We arrived once again at Hotel COM's lobby, retrieved our bike boxes and proceeded to disassemble our bikes in the lobby and put them back in the boxes. We ran into other cyclists while we were doing do, and they were impressed that we had spent 3 entire weeks riding in Hokkaido. Characteristic of the Japanese, we were told that our rooms wouldn't be ready till 1pm, but by the time I was finished packing the bike at 12:15pm, they had a room for us.

We had time enough to take a shower, run downtown to Sapporo for lunch, and take the Moiwa-Yama ropeway to the top of a local ski mountain to see the sunset and Sapporo lit up at night.

The initial thinking was that we'd wake up the next day, check in all our baggage, and then take the train back to Chitose (5 minutes) for brunch. But when we went to check in everything at 9:30am, we were told that our original flight to Narita had been cancelled, and we had to take an alternate flight to Haneda airport, transfer to Narita on a bus, and then board our SFO flight from Narita. That led to us getting onto a 10:30am plane.

The whole morass went surprisingly well (perhaps not surprising, since the only person I've ever heard of who was disappointed with Switzerland's efficiency was a Japanese woman) --- we were handed envelops with cash to buy our bus tickets with, our bikes were checked and again treated with white glove treatment by ANA, and the bus transfer went well.

Once in Narita, we had plenty of time to buy lunch, look around and spend the rest of our cash. Unfortunately, between Narita and San Francisco, my Canon G9 went missing. That was very sad as I had no pictures from the last week of the trip as a result!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Lake Shikotsu "Lapland" to Chitose Airport

We woke up in the morning to a fine clear day. I looked around outside, and then came back in to explore the little cabin. That was when I noticed a little guide selling for 400 Yen. It contained listings, phone numbers, web pages, e-mail addresses and directions for every quirky B&B in Hokkaido, including both "Lapland" and "Drum-Kan". Leafing through the pages, I saw themed B&B's like the India-themed one, and various athletic themed ones as well. They were all very reasonably priced at 5000 yen/person/night with 2 meals. If only I had noticed something like this at the start of the trip! Well, you learn something every day.

The breakfast was beautifully laid out and had lots of toast,
From Hokkaido
so by the time we left (at a very tardy 9:00am), we were extremely well-fed.

The ride to the airport started with an easy 6% climb that was over in 5 minutes and then we got to the bike path and rode down the bike path easily. The entire day was spent climbing yesterday, and the bike path this time was smooth sailing. It was so straight that Mark and Yana spent time shooting videos and taking pictures. What a ride! When we finally go off the bike path, we discovered that indeed, the path we had ignored yesterday was indeed the correct entry-way to the bike path. It was indeed a very pretty bike path, and I enjoyed the part that was separated from the road.

We got into Chitose at 10:30am, and followed the directions to Highway 36. It was only 3km before we saw the familiar fences that we climbed over last time, but this time we eschewed the fence-hop in favor of carrying our bikes up a pedestrian bridge, coming down the other side, and riding up and down 2 ramps to get to the entrance to the airport. Once onto the airport thoroughfare, we had no problem renegotiating the airport tunnel, finding the entrance to the departure lobby, and riding up to the curb and getting our bikes inside.

Our bike trip was over.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Yubari Forest Youth Hostel to Lake Shikotsu "Lapland"

We woke up to cloudy skies, but at least all our laundry were dry. We would not need to do laundry for the rest of the trip! Having spent all our remaining cash last night on our stay at the Yubari Forest Youth Hostel, our first stop was to find an ATM. Backtracking to 274 got us to a 7-11, and once again we filled up with snacks and cash.

Since we were a day ahead of schedule, so we had flexibility. Since I did not fancy another ride into Sapporo, I showed Yana and Mark the choices: we could ride down to the Pacific Coast, or ride over to Lake Shikotsu, which was part of our original plan but got jettisoned due to the weather. Yana made the decision: Lake Shikotsu.

The remaining part of 274 wasn't very wearing, since all the hills were behind us. But Mark and Yana seemed to be worn out by the previous day's efforts, so I had to stop once in a while to let them catch up. Right past a big long bridge, I took a long wait and saw a Japanese cyclist riding by with a green Carradice Nelson saddlebag and a matching Giles Berthoud handlebar bag. That was the first saddlebag tourist I'd seen all this time in Japan other than ourselves.

Past the bridge, we pulled into a parking lot that had restrooms, and ran into a bunch of club riders just preparing for a ride. We stopped and had a friendly chat --- they were fascinated by Mark's self-made fender, and my GPS mount and GPS-unit. They started giving us packets of strange-looking Japanese food, and I had to reciprocate by giving them my last pack of Clif Shots. I hope they thought it was a worthwhile trade. I told them we were going to Lake Shikotsu, and they told me that there was a bike path all the way from Chitose to the Lake, which sounded great.

From there on, the ride to Chitose was straightforward, with signs pointing us towards the city. Unfortunately, as we got close to Chitose at 337, the traffic got much worse. I scratched my head over this, since there was an expressway, but then realized that the expressway was a tollway, while the local roads were free. I plotted an alternate route on the GPS and got us into Chitose via a less-traveled route.

Once in town, we saw several big box retailers and a little restaurant that looked surprisingly packed. A stop to examine it showed it to be a Sushi-boat place!
The timing was right so we called for a stop and ate there. Each seating position had its own little tea-tap, and it wasn't just sushi that made the rounds --- we also got fried chicken, mini-hamburgers, mousse and cakes. It was like dim sum, and the food was really good, if expensive (as you might expect from being so close to the big city).

After lunch, we visited the big box retailer-looking supermarket, and finally found sunscreen for about 600 Yen. It was even SPF 50 too, and given that the sun had come out, we immediately applied it and rode on to our last night of adventure.

Navigating the city was easy: we looked for 337, and then followed it to Highway 16 towards the Lake, which was well-signed, being part of a National Park. The bike path, however, wasn't as well signed, and when we saw the entrance it was headed in a completely different direction, so we ignored it on our first visit, since Highway 16 didn't seem that bad. Of course, right after that Highway 16 got a lot worse, with big tour busses passing us on a 2-lane highway with a divided median. As soon as we crested the first big hill, I looked right, saw the bike path next to the road, and immediately rode over to it.

The bike path looked like every other example of why bike paths are a bad idea: the path was strewn with leaves, sand, and dirt, since traffic wasn't sufficient to keep it clean, and it would be too costly to regularly clean all 25km of it. If this was a German bike path, it would be strewn with glass from beer bottles, but it being Japan, we saw not even a single wrapper or other bit of litter, so the riding proceeded without any incident.

When the bike path ended, we followed the signs to the main touristy area of the lake, and there got to the information center. The place looked like a tourist trap, though, complete with lake side ice cream shops, plenty of food, and a parking lot that charged visitors (though not cyclists). We settled on the recommended lodging on the touring Mapple, which was a place called Lapland. We then tooled around for the area, eating ice cream and enjoying the sights (including Hokkaido's oldest railroad bridge, which had been dismantled and brought here as a museum piece), before getting tired of it all and riding over to Lapland, which required climbing back up the hill, heading over to 276, and riding down the hill via a bike path that was very well maintained and fast (6% grade).

Lapland turned out to be a nice looking country cottage. They did not have showers, but just like Drum Kan, were willing to drive us to the Hot Springs (where we had just ridden from) where we could pay 600 yen each to use the baths. We did precisely that.

My guess is that when you have short notice visitors, you don't have much time to cook, so you throw together a BBQ. Thus we had our final Jingus Kan dinner at Lapland.

We had gone 88.2km that day, and only climbed 535m, but the trip was almost over. The ride to the lake was almost completely uphill, so we knew tomorrow would literally be downhill all the way to the airport, and did not object when told that breakfast would be served at an unusually late 8:00am.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Shintoku "Drum Kan" to Yubari Forest Youth Hostel

Despite last night's forecast for rain, we awoke to sunny skies and another delicious Japanese breakfast. Since the weather was nice, we were not at all tempted to keep the ride short, but instead went for the longer route around the mountains with less traffic. After saying farewell to Drum Kan, we rode north on 718 which would then linked up with a side road that brought us to Highway 38, which we would then follow to the top of Karikachi pass. But first, we had some shopping to do, having exhausted all our supplies, including all our sunscreen! A visit to the local drug store, however, granted us only expensive sunscreen options that were really intended as cosmetics, not athletic use, with prices that even Yana, the most desperate for sunscreen amongst us could not stomach.

Karikachi pass was gentle, like many other Japanese passes. Unlike other Japanese passes, however, it's not surrounded by other tall mountains, so we got great views of the plains below, which unfortunately were captured on my camera which got lost. At the top there was a viewing platform with a poem, and a big touristy looking building with souvenirs, gift shops, and ice cream. Mark and Yana managed to find a new flavor to try, but I don't remember what it was.

Descending 38 to the intersection towards 1117 didn't take very long, and once we got onto 1117 the traffic indeed died down to a trickle. Looking at the map again, I finally understood why --- the automobile expressway only reached part way through this section of the mountains, which meant that anyone in a hurry to get to Sappro would bail out earlier and take 274. That meant that 274 got most of the traffic, leaving 1117 and 136 largely untraveled.

1117 wove a delicate little pattern with the railroad tracks, and climbed gently, though in spurts. By the time we got to the last freeway exit, though, we started seeing signs of major construction. It looked like there was a project to finish the expressway all the way to Sapporo, and when it's finally built cyclists would probably have the choice of 274 or 1117, depending on their taste for mountains.

Lunch was at a nondescript little town that served a nice Gyoza set menu. After lunch, our old nemesis the headwind showed up again, but this time we had a gentle rolling descent on our side, and so the next few miles towards Shimkappu went really quickly.

At Shimkappu, the tourist information office informed us that our original destination at Hidaka, while it had Hot Springs, did not actually have accommodations. Upon hearing this, Mark said, "Let's just go to Yubari while the weather holds up." That seemed like a great idea, so after a call to Yubari confirmed that they had space for us even though they were full (which I was sure was a misunderstanding on my part), we got on our bikes and headed on to 136 which became 610 after a tunnel.

610 turned out to be the best option, since it dropped us off onto 274 400m into a 600m climb, and as predicted the traffic was heavy. Convoys of cars and buses would pass us, and while the shoulder was adequate, some drivers were less competent than others, and any extra time spent was not appreciated. Finally, at the crest, we waited for a break in traffic and zipped down through a series of tunnels separated by bridges, which granted us lovely views of the valleys and hills around us --- except that we were pedaling too furiously trying to stay ahead of traffic to really appreciate it. This was the only time during the entire trip that I used my 49x11 gear.

After a while, it became apparent that I was doing too good a job staying ahead of traffic --- I was ahead of Mark and Yana by quite a bit as well! They eventually caught up when I stopped but in the mean while I could see why --- there were large convoys of army trucks and APCs on 274, and since they drove very cautiously (thank you!), as long as we could stay ahead of them or leap frog them a little bit, they did a great job keeping the traffic behind contained and let us ride traffic-free. I was so glad to see the Japanese Self Defense Forces being so polite on the roads.

The remaining charge towards Yubari was not difficult by any means, though I could imagine it being quieter and less traffic'd. Nevertheless, I was glad to be doing it when the weather was dry and we had ideal visibility --- doing it in the rain would just add more pain. But there was still one more surprise for us. At the intersection with 452, waw a sign that said Yubari town center, 16km. That was a surprise, but a quick map check quickly showed us that Yubari Forest Youth Hostel was less than 4km from where we were.

This time, we saw plenty of signs pointing us at the Youth Hostel, since we were coming from the direction most people would drive from. Arriving at the hostel at 5pm, we had ridden 133km and done 1547m of climbing, not as much as before, but all the climbing was loaded this time. Upon discussion with the hostel managers, I discovered why they said they were full but had room for us: they could give us the little cottage we had spied last time! What a nice place! It had a living room with a fire place, and a loft for beds.
I don't think you can mention Yubari Forest Youth Hostel in the same breath as any other youth hostels I've ever been in. The bath, surroundings, and dinner was as good as before, and though we were tired, we did not feel fatigued at the end of the day. In fact, I felt stronger than ever, indicating that this ride was working as intended --- easy enough to make me stronger and stronger during the tour, rather than breaking me down and leaving me a wreck at the end of the trip.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ashoro to Shintoku

We started the day under cloudy skies and heavy traffic but dry roads. The route out of town, 241 was filled with heavy trucks, and despite the second lane used for slower traffic uphill, it was still a noisy climb. Once we approached Ashoro Lake, however, the traffic eased up, and we were able to enjoy the descent without much noise. Looking at the map the night before, we found that we had basically two choices: we could ride North on 38, or South on 274. The northern route had several short passes, and the southern route had a taller pass at 1020 meters. Neither route was obviously better, so we deferred the decision till later in the journey.

When the opportunity present itself, we got off 241 and onto highway 771, though not without missing the turn-off and having to double back. 771 was calmer, but once again there was the persistent headwind, which was getting quite strong as the day went by. We pace-lined all through the ride on 771, but it was a relief whenever trucks would pass us and we would get a brief respite from the wind.

By the time we got to 133 where we had to turn South, we were all more than a little bit weary. Fortunately, right at that moment, a lunch place was spotted and we got a chance to eat Soba. The day had warmed up, so despite the wind we were quite warm. At the tourist information place indicated by the map, we found once again an unstaffed office with just a computer telling us the weather forecast. Since we didn't know any better, we decided to ride on ahead towards Shintoku, where there was a recommended hotel. At the intersection with 718, however, we saw a few rundown buildings but no sign of a town, or a hotel. A passing pedestrain did tell us that there was indeed a hotel in the area, but Yana looked around and decided that this town was too dead for us to stay anyway. "I'll pull us all the way to Shintoku proper if I have to."

Well, I wasn't going to let her do all the work, so we took turns pacing over to Shintoku anyway. As we left the intersection, however, I pointed out to Mark the hotel --- it was just past the intersection and had a Kayak out front announcing the hotel. Nevertheless, Yana looked quite determined and was hammering for all she was worth, so we gave chase. We passed a lovely forest and some farmland on the way to the train station at Shintoku, and once there found the information office. I asked in the usual fashion about lodging, and the lady gave me a list. We picked one and she called. Oh, she said, they're full because of this golf tournament. So we picked a second one. That was no good either. As we tried one place after another, it became obvious that this was not a normal golf tournament --- it was a ginormous one that had not only filled up Shintoku, but also the next town over! We started wracking our head over possibilities, such as locking up our bikes and taking the train over to a different place to sleep. Our tourist information office, in the mean time, became a flurry of activity, as more and more of the office was recruited to make calls on our behalf, until the entire office was making phone call after phone call, trying to get us lodging within a reasonable distance.

Finally, they announced with glee that they had found the place for us! It turned out to be Drum Kan, the place we had passed 9km ago. Well, turning around was easy, as the headwind we had been beating against all day gave us a huge push up the hill, and we were there in less than 20 minutes!

Pulling into Drum Kan's driveway immediately told us that the place was different. First, there was no less than 9 guitars visible from the outside, and a full-scale drum set as well.
Secondly, when we were asked to fill out the tourist cards, in addition to the usual details, they also asked what our favorite song was. I then pulled out our touring map and asked the owner, otsu-san what route he recommended, he pointed out that there was an alternate we entirely missed which would be relatively traffic free! After all that, he said to us that he and his brother would drive us to the Hot Baths, and we would get to soak in the hot baths.

Driving to the baths took us through town, and realized that if we had looked North away from the intersection, we would have seen an entire street full of commerce! There was even a street fair! "How could we have missed all this?" said Mark. Sitting in the beautiful hot bath, I could only reflect on how different I felt from the disappointment and dejection at the train station just barely 90 minutes ago to the soothing feeling of being clean and relaxed in a hot bath.

But the evening had not even started! When we got back to the house, out came the hot plate, the sauce, and the rice. Big bowls of vegetables and meat magically appeared, BBQ sauce and beer was passed around, and the Jingus Kan was prepared.
We ate and we ate and we ate. Then we ate some more. The food was plentiful and delicious, and we were hungry. We did not need any kind of desert by the time we had cleaned up all the bowls, and even then, our hosts kept checking to make sure we had eaten enough.

To cap the evening off, our host and his brother got out their electric guitar and drum-set, and played us a concert right in their living room.
What a show. Mark identified the music as Surf Rock, but when they came out with an amazing rendition of My Little Runaway with just drums and guitar, I was stunned. By the time they finished off their 45 minute set I had to pick up my jaw from the floor.

Now they turned the tables on us, and showed us a songbook to see if there were any songs we knew. When the only Beatles song in the book wasn't one any of us knew, they looked disappointed. I guess we weren't with-it enough. Then I spotted If we hold on together, a song that Lisa taught me many years ago when we first met, so I sang that while they accompanied me on the guitar.
Once they knew I could sing, there was no stopping. We went on to perform Anzen Chitai's 悲しみにさよなら (Kanishimi ni Sayonara). Being a Chinese person in Japan is like being the opposite of an illiterate person --- I could read the songbook and knew the meaning of all the words, but I could not pronounce them, so Otsu-san would whisper them to me as they came up, though I could not keep up in many cases. We found more songs that I knew by Miyuki Nakajima, so I tortured Mark and Yana some more with 悪女 (Akujo) and 時代 (Jidai).

Nothing today had turned out like we expected (we rode 98km and climbed 806m), but it was one of those magical, serendipitous days that you could find only while cycle-touring adventure style. If you ever visit Hokkaido for any reason, and might be in the area, bring your musical instrument, and call (or write) for a room at the Drum Kan, and pay them a visit. It will be a highlight of your visit.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Teshikaga to Ashoro

We woke up to a partly cloudy day and a Western style breakfast.
I had originally planned for today to be the day we'd climbed Lake Mashu and then just move down the road a little bit to Lake Akan. But looking at the cloudy skies, it was just as well that we grabbed the opportunity to visit Mashu yesterday.

The ride over the Lake Akan turned out to be quite a climb, however, going up to about 700m before descending 200m to Akan itself proper. During the descent, there was some construction, and this stood out because the construction crew rather than employing people, decided to employ a robot to signal drivers to slow down for the construction work! It was the funniest thing I had ever seen. Lake Akan itself wasn't visible from the road, but I got a glimpse every so often. Once into the resort, we found the bus depot and there found an information center where the lady told us where to eat.

We rode into the resort proper, and saw the lake proper. It was very pretty, but the entire shore-front had been commercialized, with high rise hotels practically crowding all the available frontage. We found the lunch place and ate well, fortifying ourselves for the actual pass of the day, Ashoro Pass at 645m.

Ashoro pass, however, turned out not to be terribly fearsome, since we had done most of our climbing by getting to Lake Akan at 400m. If not for the sign at the top, I would have missed it and kept going, since the descent, such as it was, was very very gentle. In fact, it was so gentle that by the time it petered out, we were almost 30km down Highway 241. You could probably do this descent without brakes and without your hands on the bars if there wasn't any traffic to create turbulence.

Ashoro, however, turned out to be an expansive town. Most of it is farmland, so every 10km, you'd pass some sort of boundary, and you'd see signs saying, "Upper Ashoro", then "Middle Ashoro". The road undulated a bit, but not enough to change the scenery very much. By the time we got to Ashoro proper, we were quite demotivated and bored. The touring map had recommended lodging about 22km (and a short climb) away, but when I asked Mark and Yana, it became clear they did not feel like riding further.

We rode into the train station, where we got a list of lodging in Japanese. Showing them to Yana, she picked the cheapest lodging available, which turned out to be one we passed by on the way into town. Upon arriving, we would discover this to be a mistake. Our bikes were parked in the garage, which was very nice, but that was the extent to which our Ryokan was nice. The rooms smelled funny, and there was no flush toilet. Fortunately, we had picked the no dinner option, choosing to eat out. We went to eat at the local sushi and sashimi place which was excellent, but still left me hungry.
So we walked around some more and I found a tempura place which left me feeling satiated.

Regardless of the condition and the smells, we ended up sleeping well, having gone 96.3km and climbing 1128m.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Rausu to Teshikaga

We woke up to sunny skies, ready for a long ride that would take us to Teshikaga. The day was bright and sunny, and with memories of yesterday's difficult descent a distant memory we were ready! The Western side of the peninsula was flat, and I wondered for a bit as to whether the Eastern side would be similarly flat. The answer was no. As soon as we left town, we began to climb. It didn't go on for very long, but we were soon at a good height, and started a descent that went through no less than 4 tunnels! I forgot to switch out my sunglasses and in the middle of the fourth tunnel, I discovered that I couldn't see at all. All Japanese tunnels up to that point had been brightly lit. Fortunately, right on the edge of my vision I could see the edge of the sidewalk we were on, and therefore made it to the other side without incident.

The first 49km went really quickly, and we made a restroom stop in Shibetsu just before the 244 turn-off. The place turned out to be a market for souvenirs, with stuff we could taste and try before buying. We tried almost all the chocolate we could find, and then bought the melon chocolate which we found to be really really good. Buying that brought us a discount (the stall owner asked us where we were from and where we were going and decided to give us a break) and a gift of a snack. It was tough to not devour all the chocolate at one go, but we managed to leave some for the next rest stop.

We said goodbye to the coast and started heading inland on 244 before turning off onto the minor road 774. By staying onto 774 and 775, we hoped to stay off the main roads for a while and avoid heavy traffic. This worked. The terrain at this point developed into rolling hills, with several stream and river crossings every kilometer, so while none of them could be called a climb, the grades together with a consistent headwind made for much slower going than the coastal portion of the ride. We stopped again for a second rest break, and then a little later discovered why 775 could not take us directly to route 13: it turned into a little dirt road, just past an intersection for a Hot Springs called "Retirement Cow"! (At least, that's what the Chinese characters translate to)

No matter, we plotted a course to Highway 13, but when we got to the intersection, the road sign said Highway 31. We shrugged it off as a typo in the map we had, but a few kilometers later, the road signs switched to saying Highway 13, so it was only that particular sign that had a typo (of course, if we were in Italy, we would have not even considered that any map would be consistent with signage or directions!). We stopped for a lunch at a rather nice looking place right after the 243 intersection, and had a lovely lunch.

Pushing on afterwards we finally found a consistent climb that at the top of it, dropped us down towards Teshikaga. Once in Teshikaga, a quick stop at the train station brought us an information agent who taking a look at the Westerners in my party, decided that she would send us to a place that could serve Western Food! (All without telling me, of course) Thus it was that we ended up at Pension Bario, at the corner of 241 and Mashu Lake Hotsprings.
The place was very cute, and had its own hot springs that we could use 24 hours a day, but given how nice the weather was, we decided to ride up to Lake Mashu. When the owners of the B&B heard that we were going to do so, they immediately raised their fists and said, "Gambette!" One might surmise from this that it would be a tough climb, and one would be wrong. Without a load, the climb up Highway 52 to Lake Mashu was easy --- the Lake was only at 668m, and Teshikaga was at 200m. This was no tougher than Old La Honda road, even if we had already ridden 80km that day. The grade was gentle, only steepening near the top, but we had an incredibly strong South wind, which made it a wash.

The scenery today, however, made us very glad that we had skipped Lake Mashu earlier to pick it up on the second go around. The evening light was golden, striking both fields and the lake, and granting everything a glorious golden light.
From various vantage points near the lake, we could see Lake Kussharo as well. As clouds moved in, crepuscular beams came through the clouds and lit up patches of the landscape around us.
It was spectacular and moving. Unfortunately, with the wind, it was also getting cold very quickly, so after visits to both vantage points, we descended in a hurry to get to the hot bath and then dinner.

At the bath, I noticed that a lot of the visitors were laborers, washing up after a hard day at work. Anyone who's observed a Japanese person take a bath knows in his heart of hearts why the Japanese are the cleanest people on the planet: they really scrub down! You or I might think that we scrub down, but by the time a Japanese person is done scrubbing, you can be sure that every surface skin cell has been scrubbed off! While sitting in the outdoor bath, I started talking to one of them, and when he found out that I was actually a Chinese person from America, he complimented me on my Japanese.

Pension Bario served a Western dinner, but very much with a Japanese interpretation. We had a lovely soup, then a full size steak, and then in a very cute desert dish, fruit, ice-cream, and chocolate cake all at once. On top of that, we had amongst our plates several small dishes with corn, salad, and other vegetables. The meal was delicious, filling, and very satisfying.

Having ridden the longest day of the trip (143km and 1309m of climb) right after the shortest day of the trip, we slept well.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Utoro to Rausu

We woke up to a light drizzle, but nevertheless still felt optimistic enough to leave for the nature center. The nature center was where the bus to Kamuiwakka Falls leaves --- since the Falls was supposedly warm, it was something that Yana looked forward to sitting in. I got up to the nature center with no problem, but Mark and Yana got detained by some deer, making it to the nature center with no time to spare for the first bus of the day.

The bus ride wasn't interesting --- if the weather would have been better, we probably could have ridden out to the falls instead of taking the bus, but since it was raining and dirt roads are no fun in the rain (especially if the fork is making strange noises, as in Mark's case), the bus seemed like a good idea. Kamuiwakka Falls, however, was a disappointment. The waterfalls are indeed warm, but are by no means hot. With a cold rain coming down, they were at most 24 degrees C, hardly worth changing into a swim suit for. On a clear, sunny day, they might get up to 26 degrees C, which would make it an interesting place to swim, but not really a hot springs by any stretch of the imagination. I didn't even bother changing into my swim suit, but Mark decided that he might as well do it anyway.

When the bus came back, we got on it and headed over to the 7 lakes area, which was also similarly disappointing. The boardwalks would take you out to the views of the lake, but it wasn't a particularly pretty lake.
By the time we got back to the nature center, it was 11:00am, and the rain was really coming down hard, giving us a perfect excuse for sitting indoors and having lunch.

Unfortunately, even lunch did not make the rain go away, so we put on our rain-gear, and slogged up the hill. As far as hill climbs in the rain goes, it was only mildly unpleasant --- my rain cape kept me warm, and the bike made slow but steady progress. As I approached the summit, I saw that the weather was clearing, and so prepared myself for what should be a pleasant descent. Boy was I wrong! The rain lessened but the wind picked up dramatically. I had a really hard time getting my rain cape off because of the wind, and during the change-over my glasses fell off and the nose-piece was picked up by the wind and blown away, never to be seen again.

I began the descent does, with only a lightweight jacket, and immediately started feeling chilled. I took the descent slowly, and got whipped and moved about by the wind. I had no choice but to take the lane, since at any moment a gust of wind could pick me up and move me 3 feet one way or another on the road. The scenery was gorgeous though! There was an amazing rainbow that stunned folks enough to stop their cars and shoot.
To make things worse, I encountered the only asshole driver in Japan on this descent --- a truck driver who would refuse to over-take on the other lane, but rather than sit patiently behind me, would lean on his horn despite seeing that the entire situation was already difficult for me (those gusts were pretty obvious).

I started shivering from the cold --- for a 700m descent, it was taking me far too long to get down the hill. When I got down to 200m finally the wind gave me a break and I could get down to the National Park visitor center and get in and sit in the warmth. Nevertheless, I did not stop shivering for 1/2 an hour. Mark and Yana eventually joined me, and we then proceeded down towards Rausu to look for lodging using the lodging listing the visitor center kindly gave us.

The first place I went to said they were closed. So did the next 2. When I finally found a Minshuku, I was asked to wait while the receptionist checked to see if they were taking customers. I observed the receptionist look outside at Mark and Yana, and realized that it wasn't a coincidence that all the places we visited were closed --- they did not want to take foreigners. The Lonely Planet guide had mentioned this --- apparently, enough Americans and other foreigners have arrived at various guest lodges in Japan, and not realizing that the meals are fixed (no choices in what you get for dinner --- they cook and you eat, just like at mom's house), have thrown fits or asked for their money back. The Japanese, being polite people, would solve this by refusing to take future foreigners as guests, even if they were (like us) entirely capable of downing a Japanese meal without complaint, and would indeed prefer the Japanese meals over any western choices! I felt like apologizing for Americans (especially picky American vegetarian/vegan/ovo-lacto-vegetarian types), but clearly that would do no good --- the damage had already been done.

We eventually found a big hotel near the water which looked expensive on the outside but turned out to be quite reasonable in price (well, ok, 6000 yen a night a person is still not cheap), and booked just rooms for the night. They gave us separate rooms, and the views out of the windows were quite nice.
Ironically, all this riding around and looking for lodging had warmed me up, and the sun had emerged from the clouds. We took our showers quickly, and took advantage of the hair dryers to dry out our shoes, then went outside to look for food.

Mark felt like getting some Sashimi, and I was of a similar sentiment. We visited 4 places within 2 blocks of the hotel and ended up picking up a sashimi place run by a husband and wife --- the wife would take orders and the husband would cook or slice it up fresh.
It was pricey, but the presentation and the meal was great. I asked for desert at the end, and the wife look puzzled for a bit, and then said she would make some potato mochi, which also turned out to be excellent!

We retired early that night, having been exhausted by the day, despite having only ridden 37.5km and climbed 902m.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Kotan to Utoro

We woke up in the morning to a light south wind and drizzle. Yana wanted to see Lake Mashu, but with the weather the way it was, the beautiful water clarity the lake was famous for would not be present, nor would the climb be present. We decided that we would loop back on the way to Sapporo to take in Lake Mashu and hope for better weather.

We rode past some touristy areas, but before long had to stop to shed clothing because despite the cloudy skies, with a tail wind it was quite warm! The plan today was to ride up Highway 52 to 391, but after that leave the main road as quickly as possible and head in the general direction North-East. In Kawayu Hot Springs, we spotted a free foot-bath, where locals went to soak their feet.
The climb up 391 was very short, especially with the tail wind, and we were soon on our way! The descent was longer, but still straight and even though there was a light drizzle, we were very comfortable as the drivers were very friendly --- one car even passed me with all the passengers waving at me.

At the intersection with 805, we made a sharp right turn up a short hill (which shielded us from an otherwise head wind) before heading North-East again with the same tailwind. With the tailwind, we made great time, stopping only for photos of the faraway mountains.
At Kiyosatocho, we spotted a bike shop, and stopped to see if the shop had a fork for Mark's, which was starting to make strange noises. There was not much point taking it apart without a spare fork handy, so when the shop owner showed us that he had only one racing bike and it was much too small for the fork to be of use to Mark, we decided to just nurse that fork along and eat a supermarket lunch instead.

Japanese supermarkets are great for supermarket lunches, as they usually sell bento boxes, sushi, and drinks. In addition, if you buy something that needs to be heated up, there's usually a microwave past the cashiers that can warm up the food. They are also generous with things such as plastic forks, and of course, the ever-present disposable chopsticks.

We followed the signs to Shari, and near the train station found an information center. Since there was still a tailwind going, we took a quick check to see how far it was to Utoro, and when the number came out to be about 40km, we decided we would go for it. Unfortunately, the road out of Shari towards Utoro (334) drove us right into a sidewind, which we had to run an echelon in order to cope with. This would have been a problem on such a narrow busy road in America, where drivers won't know what an echelon is, but Japanese drivers were so polite that we felt comfortable doing so.

Once the road made the coast we knew we were in the clear, since the wind now aided us instead of hindering us.
We took turns pace-lining, and it was easily one of the fastest 30km I've ever ridden on tour, stopping only to see the sights such as the waterfalls and the streams falling into the sea.

By the time we got to Utoro it was 4:30pm. Utoro was a surprisingly large town, and the lady at the information center spoke English. When asked to put us in a Minshuku, she put us in the one named "The Captain's Home", which turned out to be a low-priced, high-volume Minshuku with only one bathroom/shower despite having 6 rooms. Since we were early enough to explore the town, we opted out of the fixed menu dinner.

Surprisingly enough, many of the restaurants were closed, so when all was said and done we walked quite a while before settling for Oyako Donburi with Salmon and Salmon Roe, which turned out to be excellent, if not 100% filling, something easily remedied by ice-cream and snacks at a convenience store.

We realized that we had only about a week of touring or so left, so we got out the map and started working backwards from Sapporo to see if we could make it., By assuming that we did 100km days, we had just enough time to revisit Yubari Forest Youth Hostel (which we loved and still had fond memories of) before heading over to Sapporo airport, provided we made it over the pass to the East side of the peninsula tomorrow. The forecast was for poor weather tomorrow but since the other side of the peninsula was but 40km away, we felt quite certain that we could do so with plenty of time to spare.

97.9km, 472m

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Bihoro to Lake Kusharo

We woke up in the morning to a standard Japanese breakfast. We moved slowly, partly because of the long day the day before, but also because we knew that today would be a short one --- into Akan National Park. The morning was very clear, but as we rode onto 243, the safety warnings flashed Low Visibility Ahead. I wondered how bad it would be, since at the bottom of the climb it was actually warm enough to take off our jackets for the climb. As we entered the Park, however, the fog indeed set in, so much so that by the time we reached the top of the pass, we could barely find the visitor center!

A leisurely lunch at the visitor center (which turned out not to have a staffed information booth) and the fog lifted so we could finally see Lake Kussharro beneath us. Despite the fog, the lake looked gorgeous --- serene as though it had always been there.
The descent was as usual gentle and easy, even on wet roads --- I joked that you could start a Japanese tour with 1mm of rubber left on your brake pads and not even wear out half of that after 3 weeks. We first saw a large swanky western style hotel, and then took the turn off to Wakoto Peninsula to see how the lodging look as it started drizzling on us. Despite the drizzle, however, we did not like the looks of the lodging in that area, and turned back out to head towards the Youth Hostel.

The Youth Hostel was OK, but wanted 6000 yen a person, at which point a hotel for $20 more a person started to sound attractive. Sure enough, as we followed Kussharo Road around the lake, we soon came to the Ainu Museum at the Kotan, and past that a hotel that looked more than reasonable when we saw the rooms. They offered an Ainu meal as part of the dinner service if you were willing to pay more, and given that I hadn't had one already I chose it! The map also said that the free open air bath was nearby, and indeed just around the corner I spotted the sign that said open air bath!
Well, a soak in the bath was just what we needed to warm up a little bit, so after I read the rules we stripped down and went in. There was already someone in the bath, but I guess the Japanese don't make a big deal out of public nudity in the bath, which while segregated by gender, was completely exposed to the lake.

Mark wanted to ride around (or hike around) the Wakoto peninsula, so we rode back there and did a loop around. While the first and last sections of the trail circumnavigating the island were ridable and even fun, the mid section was not --- it wasn't just that the trail was steep in sections, it was also that the bridges were slippery even when walking in mountain bike shoes, and there were many stairs in some sections. To make things worse, there were quite a number of blood-sucking mosquitoes, and I felt eaten alive. After a while, I just went for the fastest possible speed and got off the Wakoto trail as quickly as possible.

Having explored enough for the day, we went back to our hotel to enjoy its wonderful views of the Lake.
The baths inside the hotel were wonderful --- set on the second floor and overlooking the Lake with grand views all around, along with music and verses extolling the virtues of open-air baths.

Even the baths, however, did not adequately prepare me for the quality of the meal. Mark and Yana, who did not choose to upgrade, got a magnificent Jingus Kan. I got a 14-course meal, starting with a hot-pot of cabbages and tofu, and with a new course arriving every 3 minutes. Each individual course was quite small, but the presentation and flavor was as you might expect of the Japanese --- just about perfect. Here's a picture of the venison dish, for instance.
The portions were carefully controlled so you couldn't over-indulge in one and then not have room for the next delight, yet by the time I finished the meal I was quite satisfied.
Yana remarked, "Not only is the food great, it is so incredibly healthy. No wonder we don't see any obese people around." Indeed, all through our trip, everyone looked like they did not spend their days sitting in cars and offices. Then again, in Europe, that's true as well.
69.3km, 680m