HOKKAIDO CYCLETREK 99
"Now just take it easy today, Dave," said Frank. "We aren't going
to set any land speed records. Just loosen up as you pedal and all will go well."
"Great," said I with just a hint of sarcasm, as I tried to stretch my calves that stubbornly remained taut in any limb position. Despite the cooperative weather--it was clear and starting to get just a tad humid, I was trying not to be negative about things. It was second thing in the morning, we were running late enough to turn breakfast into brunch, and camp had been broken efficiently only through Boy-Scout ingrained habits, not careful planning. A further drag was that I was developing a rather nasty case of prickly heat under my arms and belly paunch, not to mention an acute allergy to hills. "So how is the terrain today, Frank? My legs are not in the mood for anything steep."
"You'll like it." He brought out our Mapple. "It's downhill all the way into Biei, and the whole Biei area is in my opinion the nicest area of Hokkaido. Rolling hills all around, dirt roads with no traffic, and overlooks that will take your breath away. Then we go south to Kami-Furano, Naka-Furano, and Furano proper before the valley funnels into mountains. Then it's about 20 kms or so to our next campsite, Lake Kanayamako, in the middle of some small peaks. We should get there before sundown tonight."
"Thanks. But I need to know how much uphill we got."
"Just a little. At the end."
"'Just a little'? You said the same thing yesterday when we started. You sure you aren't just saying, 'only a little farther' to keep tired hikers from griping?" This is an old Boy Scout trick. "Kumiko, does your husband often underestimate degrees of difficulty?"
"I'm afraid he does," she confirmed.
Frank: "Dave, listen, the uphill is not all that bad. There will be nothing even remotely like that bike up Tokachi Dake last night. Promise. There's only one serious challenge. What did you say was your record for distance travelled in one day ?"
"Well, we're probably going to be beating that, so pace yourself."
DAY TWO: FRIDAY, AUGUST 13, 1999
THE FULL STRETCH OF THE SAN FURANO VALLEY
We got lotioned up and I exchanged my swampy sneakers for my sandals, and wearing nothing but bicycle shorts we hit the road. It was a joyful twenty minutes of straight downhill--no lights, few cars, pine trees wafting scent, and Frank and I trading places to see who could coast fastest (my weight provided a distinct advantage). We got maps from a local visitor center, turned off the main road long before we reached the town outskirts, and prepared ourself for the local eye candy.
As much as Frank underestimates toil, he was definitely not underestimating Biei's beauty--it is quite breathtaking. There are two areas of hundreds of squre kilometers to explore: the "patchwork" ("patchiwaaku"--where customized fields of differing crops intersect with perhaps deliberate care over hills intercoursed with windbreaking trees) and the "panorama" (same katakana--with vistas that are constant photo-ops). I don't know if this arrangement is through central planning (it's so objectively gorgeous you almost have to detract from it by seeking conspiracies), but no two adjacent fields have the same crop, nor the same texture. The gold waves of wheat, the choppy tops of carrots, the unkempt dwarf Christmas trees (with ornaments) of asparagus, the green and white-chocolate flower field batter of potatoes, the imprisoning walls-and-bars of corn planted in some places on 10% grades, the gaiety of swivelling sunflowers, and even scraggly lavender that was off-season but still looked pleasant all crowded together--and smelled even better. Even the harvested or replowed fields gave us color contrast in stubby-haystalk yellows and barrel-and-mummy browns. No matter which direction we looked, there was wave upon wave of fields and trees all backed up by distant mountains (the usually snow-capped Taisetsu Range to the east, the unnamed but still demarcating range to the west) which were, unlike Sapporo's, not being egregiously skisloped or stripmined for profit. Intersperced farms were well-tended (as most in Hokkaido are, surprisingly), with flowers in just about every driveway--as if a qualification for being a respectable rural wife was to keep something in bloom all summer. I don't recall much rice (the hills make paddies difficult, so flat Furano specializes in that), but I wasn't complaining. Neither were my legs. We were alternating coasting and pumping with every kilometer, so even the occasional dirt-road diversion or wood-grove wildcat chase held so much promise around the next curve that curiosity overruled the nerve endings and kept the blood-sugar levels aloft.
About three hours later, we were in Biei proper getting our lunch from a convenience store. We sat down in a shady shrubbery in front of the Town Hall and began chewing the fat:
"Y'know, I almost bought land in this burg, Dave. On that hill over there, overlooking all the fields and Biei itself. Lots of people from down south come up here to escape urban sprawl and compression. They've got money, so land-price maps are full of spikes."
Since both Frank and I had looked into the Hokkaido land market in depth, we compared notes. Land in Hokkaido, predictably, is (pardon the pun) dirt-cheap. Urban plots elsewhere are sized about 40 to 60 tsubo (one tsubo is about 3.3 square meters) and run from 250,000 to 500,000 yen a tsubo. Here, huge rustic plots (300 to 500 tsubo) with access to water after slash-and-burn development (like Mikasa--60 kms from Sapporo) were going for around 5000 yen per tsubo. "But in Biei, the parcel we looked at was 250 tsubo for 8,000,000 yen, or 32,000 yen a tsubo. Pretty expensive, but this was prime real estate, top of the market around here."
I was mildly surprised. Where I live, Nanporo, which is about an hour out of Sapporo and very rice-paddy rural, we paid 80,000 yen a tsubo for full-amenity land (a real hard bargain when we found out later the market price for regular farmland was around 20,000 yen a tsubo). Still, this meant that residential parts of Biei, 30 kms from Asahikawa--and thus about as close to other Hokkaido outback outposts Obihiro or Kitami as it is to Sapporo--are more expensive than my town, of similar size and economic foundation. This despite Nanporo being a full 140 kms closer to Sapporo. Spike indeed.
"It's still a steal compared to Tokyo, so that's why people invest the balance in big beautiful homes. Just about every grove or hill around here has a lovely log cabin nestled in or atop it. The rich often buy a bessou [dacha] for the summer, but some lots have purchasing rules stating owners must build on it within five years and live in Biei all year round."
"So what do these carpetbaggers do for a living? This place can only support so many new farmers."
"Well, as you can imagine, bucolic Biei attracts visual artists--photographers in particular. So when they come here, they open galleries, pensions, and seasonal ice-cream shoppes for the tourists. Just about every promontory sports some kitchen-sink business, and all the major roads we will avoid today will have JAL tour busses darting around because of Obon. Biei is one artsy-fartsy and touristy town, I tell ya. Power to them, if it keeps this place looking so nice."
Frank here paused as he watched me feed my face. "Dave, wait a minute. You're not really going to eat all that, now, are you?"
At the Seicomart I had splurged. I had bought two fried-meat bentou box lunches, one sea-chicken onigiri chaser, a big can of Pringles potato chips, a 1.5 liter bottle of Pocari Sweat, a bag of Doritos, a bar of Crunky chocolate, and an egg sandwich. My eyes were probably not bigger than my stomach, as I was by now about halfway through the lot without slowing. "Yeah, I'm hungry. This'll all burn off today, right? We still have a long way to go."
"Yeah, but I thought you were going to cycle there, not roll on your stomach. That's far too heavy fare for me." Beanpole Frank had a mini-bentou, a couple of onigiri, a couple of carrots which he could not finish, a box of soft cookies, and a small bottle of juice (which he refilled with some of my Pocari in exchange for some cookies). "You think you can keep up?"
"If I can't, it won't be from lack of energy, I assure you. I'm not here to diet, anyway."
"There'd no point in doing so, Dave. You're not going to lose much weight on this trip. You're gonna get a lot of new muscle which weighs more than fat. So you eat like that and you might even have gained by the time you get home. But you'll be in much better shape no matter what. It's getting late. Let's jump on our bikes and put you to the test. It's another sixty to seventy k's to where we camp tonight, there are some hills to cross, and there's a strong headwind. Hope you're up to it."
I think I preferred Frank when he underestimated the degree of difficulty.
And so it went. It was very easy to see which way to go--just follow the mountain ranges south down the valley until they meet. Avoid the main truck arteries and take the farm access roads between the paddies. Once we got out of the hills of Biei (one hill into neighboring Kami-Furano and the landscape completely changes; it's like the California/Nevada border near Lake Tahoe), life was flat, and we could cycle side-by-side and spend the hours chatting on the way.
Have you ever noticed that people in the middle of long periods of wilderness exercise mentally decompress to the point where they are fascinated by even the most banal topics? Remember the movie CITY SLICKERS, where Billy Crystal spent the better part of a day on horseback arguing whether or not you needed a TV in order to record something on a VCR? That is not a fictional phenomenon. And as Kami-Furano melted into Naka- and just-Furano, we discovered that we had both been to Philmont Scout Ranch (where he was a Scout and I a Ranger), we both subscribed to National Geographic (and find the sugary country profiles and occasional reports fascinating, the Early-Man stuff dull as dust, and the photo-essays a mixed bag. Frank: "Sometimes they write stuff like, 'I finally crested the mountain and felt the spirits of thousands of years ago channelling through me'. What the author actually felt was the need for a candy bar."), we both are Michener fans, and we both came from high-attrition, high-pressure undergraduate institutions (I Cornell, he from the United States Coast Guard Academy; he told me--because I asked--about the seven missions of the USCG: Aids to Navigation, Ice Patrol, Search and Rescue, Law Enforcement of federal crimes (and any navigable body of water in the US falls under Coast Guard jurisdiction), Customs, Immigration, and Marine Safety). Told you it was banal. I won't write any more about it because you really have to have been there, but that's the point. The joy of wilderness-style exercise is that with your body preoccupied with staying in motion, your mind is perfectly happy to switch off the analytics and settle with simple data and lists and jokes to pass the time.
But by the 70th kilometer of the day, the headwind started to take its toll, and I began to lag and slow Frank down all over again. Fortunately, he had the solution. "Dave, you ever hear of 'drafting'?"
"I thought the Coast Guard didn't do that any more after Nixon."
"No no no. I mean following me close behind while I break the wind."
"Is that really necessary? Brown-nosing is one thing."
Frank under normal circumstances would have justly dismissed this as another typically-stupid Dave Aldwinckle joke, but now in wilderness mode he laughed and explained the dynamics:
"Haven't you wondered why racing cyclists in training all go single file so close together? It's because the head cyclist does all the work of cutting the wind and the rest benefit. Then another cyclist comes forward and relieves him. Follow me, get in close so that you are within my slipstream, and you'll find that you can keep up with a lot less work. That's 'drafting'. It's a simple matter of aerodynamics."
And it was true, of course. As long my front tyre stayed about 30 cms from his rear tyre, I could occasionally coast yet still maintain speed. It saved me. Thus for the next 30 kms we flew down to the funnel, squeezed into the mountains on the only road through them, and followed the riverbed roads across to a nowhere town called Kanayama, arriving there at sundown for the final hurdle--the last ten k's up to our campsite.
Nearby Lake Kanayamako is a reservoir formed by a dam, and like all dams, are upstream and uphill from the community they wish to serve. We had already broken my previous one-day distance record by a mile (several miles, actually), and to get to our beds we had to climb another hundred or so meters right away, then bike about seven k's along the lakeshore to the campsite in the dark.
"Can you do it, Dave?"
"Not much choice. Let's go." Wilderness mode again.
So we climbed, and the first 2000 meters were atrocious. I got the steep inclines that I hated, and Frank got uphill tunnels (which were put above the road to keep the snow off) that he hated. I had to dismount and walk my bike up again, but Frank pressed on to the top uninterrupted. Still, it was nothing at all like Tokachi Dake. Half an hour later, we were atop about as much hill as we were going to see.
"Okay Dave, it's pitch black out here with no streetlights, so you go first. The battery is dead on my bike lamp, meaning you with the tyre generator are the only one who can see if we are going to fall off the road into the lake. Show us what kind of a pace you can set."
And, Frank said later, it was a good pace. The chicken-skin hills of Biei had been good conditioning for the on-again/off-again spoon-handle hills of Kanayamako. I easily maintained around 20 kph--my typical speed when cycling for fun--with a newfound surge of Pringles-driven energy. We heard the chirp of bats, the barking of foxes, and felt the occasional bash in the face by enormous STARSHIP-TROOPERS-style beetles. And thus we soon found ourselves and Kumiko unscathed at a full campsite on the shores of the lake.
I wasn't in the mood to set up my tent again in the dark, so while Frank and Kumiko made their camp I visited the campsite's nearby onsen and restaurant for a good muscle soak and bowl of ramen. It was a clear night and there were no biting bugs out, so I rolled out my sleeping bag on the grass and decided to "meadow-crash". It was a good, simple end to a long day.
That day we went a total of 109 kms over hill and dale. This time, however, unlike the end of Day One, I was looking forward to more.
NEXT: Day Three, where I go on alone and decide
to get ambitious.