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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Tokachidake Hot Springs to Biei "Potato" Hostel

Mark wanted to climb to one of the local peaks, but after climbing the 13% grade to the trail head at 1200m, we found overcast skies that had started to put rain on us. As we walked up the trail, I saw at an intersection that much of the area was closed anyway, but the path to some of the volcanic vents was still open. I had practiced quite a bit with my Vibram Five Fingers before starting the trip, but not enough to toughen my feet for a rough rocky trail, so it was slow going for me.

By the time we got to the vents, the weather had turned extreme, with cold rain soaking us to the bone. The vents themselves provided us with ample warmth, but once we left them to begin the descent, I was chilled.
Japan is a very forgiving place for outdoor types --- even though I was freezing by the time we got onto our bikes and went back down to our onsen (where we had checked out but left our luggage behind), a word with the staff produced fresh towels so we could sit in the baths to warm up.

It was 11:00am before we felt sufficiently warmed up to leave the onsen, but fortunately by then the rain had also stopped. Getting back into wet bike clothes was wince inducing, but no longer something that risked hypothermia. As a precautionary measure, I stuffed some advertising literature down the front of my jersey. That turned out to be unnecessary, though, since once we got to 966 the road turned up a little bit, and once I had to work against a hill I warmed right up.

We stopped here and there, including a short detour for views, but then began a spectacular descent with lovely views but grades and curves so gentle that we did noot touch our brakes at all! Once at Biei hot springs, we stopped at the visitor center (which did not speak English), made a reservation for the Biei "potato" hostel (recommended by Lonely Planet's guide). We then stopped for lunch at a hotel which served Korean-style hot-pot just like bibimbap, but without the spicy sauce.

On the tourist map there was a listic for a potato-chip factory, which Mark and Yana wanted to see. Since the way there was on an interesting-looking road, and the connecting road (237) to Biei was marked as a designated scenic road on the Mapple, I assented and we made our way to 824 and Bibaushi, which my Chinese-trained brain translated as "beautiful horse cow". The riding was glorious: the day was sunny, forcing us to ditch layers and put on sunscreen. The minor roads rolled gently up and down. It seemed at times that we were surrounded by nothing but lovely fields and rows of farms, neatly arrayed.

By the time we got to the intersection with 237, however, there was no sign of the potato chip factory whatsoever. We thus rode to Biei on 237 instead, which turned out to be an exceedingly busy road with way too much traffic. Once at the visitor center at Biei, we found a lady who spoke English and had an extremely helpful attitude. She explained that there was no such thing as a potato chip factory, and that the map had led many visitors astray! We asked about the next day's destination (AsahidakeHot Springs), and she immediately gave us a list of lodging. After we made a decision (mainly based on price), we asked her if she could make a reservation for us. She said she wasn't supposed to, since it was another town, but then proceeded to make the phone call for us anyway!

In any case, having her make the reservation was a good idea for us, since when we eventually rode through the local hills to get to the potato hostel, I discovered that our reservation had not been recorded at all! Not only were they unprepared for us (though they did have a room available), but they would not serve us dinner and the local restaurant was closed, since this was the first day of September. Eventually, one of the hostel staff members was roused up --- he turned out to speak fluent English (having worked for Japan Airlines in San Francisco), and after consultation with the kitchen, he declared that they could feed us dinner as long as we did not expect cyclist-type portions. Clearly, previous cyclists had emptied out their kitchen in a big way!

While doing research for the trip, Mark had found that there are gardens in the area that are really pretty year round. However, the gardens had a strict closing time, and I really didn't want to miss dinner either, so we compromised by setting a strict turnaround time. Heading from potato hill back towardds Bibaushi in the evening light introduced me to the best riding that Japan had to offer on this trip. The rolling hills were lit up with a lovely golden light, and if not for the impending darkness I would have had a hard time sticking to the turnaround time.

As it was, we got within 3km of the 4-colors hill and then turned around into a fading headwind, but not before I became determined to come back to Biei for more riding. Dinner at the hostel indeed included a potato. Our English speaking friend then explained that except for a very few items (tomorrow's orange juice being one example), everything served at the dining table was sourced and made locally. The ultra-fresh produce tasted great, and after dinner we made another laundry run before going to bed in our bunks.
72.3km, 1001m climbed (some hiking included in these stats)

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