This is an attempt, after a couple of months' vacation from writing, to "lace my fingers and crack my knuckles", so to speak, and limber myself up for the inevitable essays this autumn. It is also a personal challenge--to see if I can tell a story that holds interest even when the subject matter is neither particularly Japan-analytic nor a mother lode for material. This is not the first time I've tried this--I did okay with two other travelogues (EUROTREK 96, at http://www.debito.org/residentspage.html#eurotreks, and AMERICATREK 97, at http://www.debito.org/residentspage.html#americatreks). Let's see how I do this year.

What happened: I have recently been bitten by the biking bug, and two weeks ago took a six-day Tour de Hokkaido on my clunky Giant brand Mountain Bike. It was extremely satisfying from a personal-accomplishments point of view. Let's see if I can convey that in writing:


(Sorry--you'll have to look at a Hokkaido map if you want to get an idea of landscape, but the day's trek entails crossing two mountain passes, then flatland, ending with a challenging uphill to the Taisetsu-san foothills)

It has been a balmy summer for Hokkaido this year, with temperatures in the thirties celsius even in the mountains--perfect weather for collapsing from heatstroke. And here we were, my friend Frank and I, loosening up by the Katsurawako lakeshore and getting suntan lotion smeared on our backs by Frank's helpful wife, Kumiko. "I'll drive up and meet you near Biei town, at the Shirogane Onsen campsite. Okay?" It was about ninety kilometers as the karasu flies from here. Frank nodded that that would be okay. Fortunately she didn't ask me. As stoked as I was feeling at that moment, I had never biked over ninety kms in one day, and never around the types of hills that Frank was proposing we start inching up in the near-noon heat.

For the difference between these two mountain bikers was clear from a single glance. Frank, a constant cyclist, forsakes public transportation for pedal power even in wintertime when ice is out. Here, now stripped to the waist and looking like Freddie Mercury in a streamlined rippling bike helmet, he could do a hundred k's and not even breathe hard (his best in one day was 200 k's). Meanwhile I, a fat lump on a metal frame, was a prime candidate for the Furano Heso Matsuri (where people paint faces on their guts and cover up their arms and heads, then march down the street like giant mushrooms bearing nipple eyes and belly-button mouths; the most surprising thing about this festival is that it is NOT unique to Japan), wearing an old geeky styrofoam helmet that made me look as if I had scalped Humpty Dumpty and crowned myself with the trophy; I was such a wuss, afraid of catching sunburn or the derisory glares of any passersby at my love handles, that I refused to cycle topless. We saddled up, bungee-corded down on our bike racks anything that wouldn't belong in Kumiko's car trunk, and Kumiko waved goodbye to Adonis and Bacchus as they departed in the direction of Furano.

"It's only a little ways uphill, Dave. Lovely scenery. I've done this road before and it's not too difficult." Sez you, I thought. About an hour into the roasting roadside uphill zephyrs, my head was pounding as if I had just come down with a case of Ebola and was ready to crash and bleed out. "Frank, I'm going to need a water break. I'm getting dehydrated."

"Dave, you're not dehydrated. You're just outta shape."

"Really? But I've been training for this. Cycling upwards of 100 k's a week for the past two months. I even stayed up all night cycling down to Sapporo and back a few days ago--ninety k's in one day--my personal record thus far."

"And how many steep mountain roads in the heat of day did that include?"

"Uh, none, actually."

"You're outta shape, Dave. Drink your water and we'll rest till you recover. There's a tunnel up ahead which we'll go through when we're damn good and ready. You'll like it. Lotsa downhill once outside with a stream at the end. We can have a dip."

A little bit of the Nestea Plunge backward into a pristine Hokkaido river sounded just the cure. After Ebola subsided about fifteen minutes later, we flew down a mountainside at around 50 kph and scouted out the riverbeds. "How about this one over here, Dave?" Frank, who did not share my fear of deep or murky water (he must not have seen JAWS or CREATURE OF THE BLACK LAGOON at an impressionable age), was soon scrambling down a hill, avoiding the scree and jumping in, bicycle shorts and all. I was about to join him when

it started raining.

And not just one of those little misty-eyed showers that would feel oh-so-nice on this torrid day. The darkness of a developing thunderstorm enveloped our river valley and pelted us with sheets of rain. Lightning, with nondelayed deafening thunder chaser, flashed about us and rumbled on cue Hollywood-style, punctuating our every sentence across the stream with deadly drama. BLAAAAMMMM!


Meanwhile I was trying to strip off my supersaturated shirt from behind only to have it rip at the collar and tangle me up. I looked down and noticed that the riverbank I was standing on was full of washed-out willows, precisely where a storm a few weeks ago in Hokkaido had swept through--which meant that I was on prime Kanagawa real estate for a flash flood. "WHY DON'T WE JUST VACATE THE PREMISES IN GENERAL, FRANK?" But the current climate was unforgiving of such verbosity. I waved him out and up the hill, and we scrambled over the scree with lightning all around reminding us of how mortal we all are.

Remounting our bicycles, we realized that this dip by the road had cost us a decent chunk of time, and being in the middle of nowhere we couldn't just wait for things to come to pass. "Ignore the rain. Let's go up the next mountain pass. It should take us out of the storm, and anyway, we aren't grounded. No self-respecting storm would strike a bike helmet as abominable as yours, Dave."

So up we went for the next hour over to the next pass, where Frank was ready to confront one of his pet fears for a change:

"This is it, Dave. We go through these tunnels and we're on the other face of the mountain ranges--away from the Sapporo side and on the Asahikawa side. Only one problem: these futhermucking tunnels are about three-and-a-half kilometers long, have no real road shoulders, and might be jammed with traffic as it's the first day of Obon. So while we're eating Sunday-driver exhaust, we can enjoy the fear of some truck clipping us from behind--or something that sounds like a truck amplified by the tunnel and barrelling down upon us. Anyway, the point is I hate tunnels. Let's get through this one as fast as possible."

Frank revved me up with some "Trail Mix" (a collection of dried fruits and granola which he and I, Eagle Scouts with plenty of carbohydrate-fueled training, gobbled up natsukashily), and through we went. My odometer read a steady 30 kph, which meant (one has plenty of time to calculate when biking for hours) we were going a kilometer every two minutes. So, as is a mathematical certainty, we popped out of those tunnels about seven minutes later, gasping in the sweet mountain air again, and gaping at how dry this side of the mountain range was; not even a drop of the wet stuff had fallen. We had thwarted the thunderstorm and all those heat-or-rain Katsurazawako gremlins that were conspiring to make cyclists regret they had saddled through their domain!

Or so we thought. As we passed through Furano (famous for expansive fields of lavender), we realized that the storm was not through with us yet. And how. Going downhill after taking one of Frank's "traffic avoidance" long-cuts, we saw a real--I'm not kidding--wall of rain completely obliterating one side of the Furano valley. The side, by the way, that our long-cut was taking us directly into.

And it hit us. I had never known what Forrest Gump had meant by "Fat Rain" until then--and it was the first time I had ever seen Texas-sized chunks of water in Japan. Smacking and raking our bodies--it was the first time I had ever known unfrozen rain actually to HURT as it came into contact--we were still going downhill but now absolutely blindly--swerving to avoid cars that had stopped from too much precipitation at once and trying not to hydroplane (we were wearing "slick" mountain-bike tyres) over the inevitable puddles. I opened my mouth to let out a rodeo-style YAHOOOO!, only to have it come out a gargle. Mouths weren't any use anyway--the rain actually *stung* our lips, and we had to curl them inside our mouths, as if we were kids mimicking toothless old grannies, to make life tolerable. Rain was coming at us from all directions--even from below as our tyre fenders couldn't take the pressure and recycled the water upward. REO Speedwagon's "Riding the Storm Out" was on constant replay in my head. But it wasn't technically a storm. More like a rain massacre.

We turned left and headed north-northwest up the valley, towards Asahikawa, and eventually the storm subsided because we were outdistancing it. But the damage was done: we were sopping; my chain and deraileurs getting creaky from lack of oil, my sneakers were actually holding in the water (Frank had wisely worn sandals) and would never be dry again the whole trip. Nevertheless the mood of the survivor was now taking hold--we felt we were past the worst the day could throw at us. Frank was even smiling as we started making good time--the adrenaline and adventure had cancelled out all of my earlier exhaustion, and a tailwind boosted us through the flat country roads. "Steady 30 kph despite a slight uphill, Dave. We should be in Shirogane Onsen in no time."

Little did we know that the Cosmic Joker was still calling the shots. We consulted our maps, saw a blue road sign in Kamifurano that said--no bones--"Shirogane Onsen", and, sure enough, it was only about 20 kms away. We had already done about 55 kms that day, so these last ones would be a mere trifle. "It's only a little uphill, anyway," said Frank.

I'd heard that one before. But take the road we did, and quite presently as the road sloped upward, the thunderstorm caught up with us yet once more, and we cycled through another shower that was hardly the same kind of cloudburst but a soaker nonetheless. Come to think of it, since we enjoyed the company of the same storm three times, the two of us had probably been rained on more than anyone in Hokkaido that day.

An hour and a half later, rain petering out as it rumbled on towards Sou-unkyou, we were still on the same road with no end or even turnoff in sight. The sun had come out and was going down behind us, the valley was misting its way into a more pleasant night than we would probably have, and despite the occasional roadside fox, snake, or white-tailed deer, our appreciation for Hokkaido's nature was being obscured by the ache in our legs and the relentless, plateau-less, uphill that simply would not release us.

"Just be glad you aren't crossing the American Rockies on your bike, Dave. You'd have this sort of terrain for a couple of weeks," said Frank at a valiant attempt at consolation.

I wasn't receptive. Ebola was now in all of my lower-level joints, I was numb in other nether regions, and I had steadily slipped down to the lowest gear on my 18-speed bike. "That low? You'd be better off walking, Dave. Dismount. I'll walk with you."

The creaks and groans that issued forth from me as I got off probably scared away any remaining wildlife, but walking utilized a different set of muscles and provided some relief. But our spirits continued to sink as the anticipation of the next curve only gave way to another curve, and another, and another, and even passing cars were forced to downshift on the incessant 6% grade hill. By now it was dark and the moon was the only thing keeping us company.

On the 84th kilometer, I had reached a very humiliating nadir. Frank, after several entreaties where he nearly had to bop me out of a daze, said he would push my bike too as he walked. So here he was, bike in each hand, myself alone, and still outdistancing me!

"Frank, I am doing nobody any good. I'll put my thumb out. When a car stops, you get in and go to the campsite to meet Kumiko. I'll stay and guard the bikes. Come back with the car and let's drive the final stretch. Okay?" Frank, not ready to be a victim of pride, agreed, and soon a person stopped and gave him a ride to Shirogane.

I collapsed supine on the roadside, shirtless, gravel and ants poking into my back, unable to move or do anything constructive except look at the dark side of the moon, feverishly wondering what the hell I was doing here and what this first day would portend for the rest of my journey. If I was going to burn out so easily, what would happen come Day Three of the Cycletrek, when Frank and Kumiko would drive on and I would pedal on alone?

Headlights and a fender eventually screeched to a halt above my head, and Frank helped me up and brushed off my back. My legs, which felt like they were splinted from my Achilles' to my spine, were most uncooperative as I hoisted my bike on their car rack and battened it down. When we drove what would be another ten hilly kilometers to our campsite (thank heavens Frank had hitchhiked!), we reached a foggy forest where we had to make camp in the dark with jokers and gremlins all around. Our tents were not yet up, Frank's camp stove went on the fritz (making our dinner of instant ramens a rather remote joy), and it was merely minutes before the camp office closed for the night and dry firewood could be bought. Running (yes, running, barefoot, over gravel--I lost my swampy shoes in the dark), I procured the happened to be the last unsold faggot and built a fire with wet tinder soaked with stove fuel. We soon got the water boiling and the nutrients coursing through our veins. When the chore of eating was done, I creaked my way back to the site, only to find that I had brought the wrong tent--not my tube pup-tent, but a four-person dome that I had bought new from Wal-Mart two years ago for my kids and had never ever even set up once. To add to the challenge, I had no flashlight. But out of the sense of exigency that takes over when life is narrowed down to a few avenues, I did manage to pitch it properly, if only through the sense of touch. But in my condition, with some senses on the blink and others working overtime, it was agony.

Zipping up the screen and unfurling my sleeping bag, I bade Frank, Kumiko, and the Cosmic Joker a hasty goodnight. For tomorrow would be more of the same. If not even more.

Dave Aldwinckle

NEXT: Day Two, the last day of Frank's stewardship.

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