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Saturday, September 05, 2009

Sounkyo to Bihoro

We woke up to cloudy weather that nonetheless was not raining, unlike the forecast provided to us the night before. We thanked our lucky stars, ate a quick breakfast, packed our bikes and proceeded to ride down to the 4km tunnel that had a sidewalk. The tunnel was extremely loud, especially since it also had big blowers to keep it ventilated, so we rode as quickly as we could through that tunnel, only to be faced by another two tunnels in rapid succession as we rode past Daisetsuzanko, a lake that we might have stopped to inspect if it didn't start raining then.

As it was, the rain was only mildly annoying. Fortunately, despite the general climb to 1050m that we were promised, the grades were level (or close to level) inside the tunnels themselves, so even though they were annoying we didn't have to live with them for very long. The Sekihoku pass was nothing much to look at, and we passed up the Ramen shop in favor of eating from our saddlebags.

The descent on 39 wasn't very exciting either --- even in the rain, it provided no challenge whatsoever, and actually had several retro-grades to slow us down. We rode past pretty Birch forests, but most of the road was filled with tourist traps (like a fox farm) and various Hot Springs.
We finally stopped for lunch near one of the Hot Springs at what appeared to be a food court, where I had some super-sized Soba (seriously, the amount of food you get at lunch isn't enough for a cycle tourist otherwise), and we used the bathroom. Looking at the map, I proposed that we push on to Bihoro for the night instead of staying at Kitami, but Mark and Yana looked at me skeptically.

Then began the long boring slog into Kitami. This wasn't bad, since we had a tail-wind, but I started this section with a flat tire with no apparent cause --- while I found the hole in the tube just fine, there was no corresponding one in the tire, and Japanese roads were in general so clean that it must have been some chafing at the interface between the tire and the tube. Secondly, as we approached Kitami proper, not only did the traffic get worse (we tried to use some secondary roads but the attempts proved short-lived and served only to slow us down), the traffic lights got more frequent as well, so despite the tailwind assist we were not making good time.

By the time we got to Kitami city center and found the tourist information center, Yana was definitely ready to consider riding to Bihoro. We were clearly now out of the usual touristy areas, since no one at the information center spoke English. I did, however, get a list of lodging for Kitami, and after we looked at them, decided to push on! I called the Bihoro Youth Hostel and made reservations, since I did not think we would make the information center there before it closed. I was informed that while we could stay there, there would be no dinner tonight. We then made a quick stop at a 7-11 for some snacks before riding over to 122 to Bihoro.

Getting off of Highway 39 was great, since now the traffic, while not exactly light, was no longer composed exclusively of heavy trucks and 18-wheelers. Furthermore, there was at least some rolling hills, so the monotony of the Kitami area was soon forgotten. We got into Bihoro at around 4:00pm, but took until almost 5:30pm to find the Youth Hostel because of an unexpected surprise: the town was having a street fair!
We found it while searching for the hostel, lost and wandering through town center. I missed a turn and that took us into a closed street where the smell of food filled the air, and we could hear singing. We were directed to park our bikes, and when we asked where the Youth Hostel was, the parking lot attendant shrugged and told us he wasn't from around here either.

Since we were hungry, we bought some food and wandered around. Mark and Yana, being obviously foreigners (and dressed in bike clothes to boot), got lots of extra attention, including gifts from some vendors. When they tried to order Crepe, the stall had to find an English speaker, and the combination of flavors they asked for caused no end of amusement! By the time we were ready to leave, we determined that this was the place to have dinner tonight, and asked when the fair was closed. The response was that it was open till 10:00pm, so that was great! Furthermore, while we were wandering around, the parking lot attendant had asked around and then drew us a map to the Youth Hostel!

We still managed to get lost anyway, but once at the hostel, quickly took showers, changed into street clothes, and walked back for a pick-and-eat dinner which included fried noodles, some roasted chicken, crepes, and (of all things), an Naan made by an Indian --- the only other obvious foreigner we saw.

By the time we were full and ready to to back to the hostel (and to bed), we were quite pleased that we had gone the extra 20km to Bihoro.

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