HOKKAIDO CYCLETREK '99
PART THREE: MAN AND SUPERMAN
Frank: "You'll never get all that stuff on the back of your bike. I'm gonna
stand here and watch you try."
I took inventory. One mountain bike, not well maintained, with balding tyres, pedal hinges starting to rust from all the rain, and more oil going onto my right calf from an unguarded chain than between the gears. Accessories included a spare innertube, patch kit, and tyre-removal tools should disaster strike--all stuffed into a new little pouch below the saddle. Attached to the frame was a tyre pump next to a liter water bottle. That was the naked shape of my hoss.
But the key to the journey would be the equivalent of the cart. A new bike rack, maybe the size of a large sneaker sole, resided over my back tyre above the mud fenders. On that I was going to improvise and pile "the impossibles" using only bungee cords.
First on went my backpack--a daypack affair with spare shirts, shorts, footwear, jacket, undergarments, and toilet paper (called APP or "All-Purpose-Paper" by the Scouts--for you can write on it, clean up a mess with it, start a fire with it, staunch a wound with it, and--oh yes--even wipe the bodily essentials with it) all wrapped up in separate plastic or ziploc bags. Thrown in for good measure was a mess kit (meaning cooking and eating utensils to you tenderfeet out there), and thrown outside in the front and side pouches were pen and pencil, phone numbers and money, ID in case I run into some pusillanimous police or they find my corpse, toiletries, and Michener's fat and juicy CENTENNIAL. This, after looping both the shoulder and waist straps around the saddle seat neck to make the pack falling off impossible, I bungeed it to widen the rack's carrying power.
Second on was my tent. It was a four-man dome, and as such was over a meter-long and 50-cms-circumference sausage that made the bicycle wide and top-heavy--not to mention hellish to dismount without ballet lessons.
"You sure you need that tent, Dave? If you had saddle bags on the sides of your tyres, you're fine--that tent would help provide a low center of gravity to stabilize things. But you don't. Like that you can't do any acrobatics, and you don't want to get clipped by a truck."
"Too right I don't. But I have no idea where I'm going, much less where I'm going to sleep tonight, but I'd sleep better with it. I can't meadow-crash every night. I'll run the risk," said I, centering it and lashing it down atop the pack, right behind the saddle.
Last on was my lightweight sleeping bag--a wonderful goose-down Sierra Designs bought by my dad about 40 years ago--and despite it leaking feathers it has become a family heirloom. I had slept in it during rain and snow, and felt warm even when frost had condensed on the outside. Packed in a drawstring waterproof sack, I bound it down in the cornice above the pack and behind the tent, with two short bungee cords crossing it. Within the X I put my well-worn Mapple map, a can of Pringles, and my two-liter leftover Aquarius PET bottle for spare water (for those of you out there with experience of extreme dehydration in the wilderness, you'll understand why it is far, far better to overcompensate no matter how heavy it is).
I snaped the bungees to make sure there was no slack anywhere, then shook the bike vigorously and saw that the lashing neither let anything slip nor let things go off-center. I was euphoric at my ingenuity, but let's give credit where it's due: the bungees, French-made and costly at our Hokkaido outdoor outfitter, Shuugakusou, were veterans of our Eurotrek backpacking days (again, see http://www.voicenet.co.jp/~davald/essays.html#eurotreks; if you have enjoyed this tale so far I promise you will enjoy that even more), and had never yet frayed, come unhooked, nor lost their elasticity. One can never rave enough, as you can tell, about trustworthy and well-used equipment.
And with that, I was all set. As the Police sang, "That's all I own."
"Impressive packing, Dave. Well done. Enjoy yourself. I must say I envy you."
"Because, as you said, you have no idea where you're going. I'm going off to Obihiro with Kumiko to spend Obon with her family, and as much as I will enjoy myself there, I would be thrilled to be embarking on this kind of journey. You have complete freedom--as much time as you like to go anywhere you like, and the only impediment is your pedal power."
"I'm glad to see you're being so votive, Frank, but to be honest, I'm scared. I'm in the middle of nowhere, hardly any civilization in any direction, so no matter what I'll have to pedal for hours to get anything or anywhere."
"Any ideas where?"
I slipped the map from the bungee cords and unsheathed it from a garbage bag. "Continue along Kanayamako lake until I reach the town of Ikutora, then avoid the main roads by going up this odd side road here. The topography does indicate a gentle uphill, and I think it's going to be paved. I want to avoid gravel and steep hills today at all costs until I really understand my own pace."
"That might not be too easy, kiddo. No matter what, from here you'll have to cross mountains to escape them. Then what? This road takes you into a bottleneck valley with only one road out."
"Well, if I coast downhill on that one road out I'll hit Route 38, and then comes the watershed. I'll have to choose either straight south along these deserted roads around the mountains to Tomamu, or get ambitious and take Route 38 over to Obihiro."
"Obihiro? That IS ambitious. That's a good 90kms from here, and then where will you be? Nearly 200 kms from Sapporo on the other side of the Hidakas. Trust me, you don't at this stage want to cycle back over mountains like those."
"I might not have to. I'll see how I feel when I reach that fork. As you said, complete freedom. Thanks for coaching me this far." Thus ended practically the last conversation I would have for the remaining days of the Cycletrek.
DAY THREE, SATURDAY, AUGUST 14, 1999
I cycled over the flatlands of Kanayamako lakeshore and felt my legs loosening up. My last breakfast with other humans was taking effect, and in the morning mountain sunshine my initial anxiety about orienteering problems slowly softened to mere curiosity about the next curve. Life was slow, the scenery (always compact in Japan, compared to the American West) take-innable, and there was a slight tailwind which I never begrudge.
I arrived at Ikutora about an hour after I set off, which isn't a town or even a village--just a little speck on the map--with a train station linking Furano with Obihiro. But it's precisely this station which makes this stop mentionable. Last year, Ikutora was one of jillions of nowhere hamlets in the outback, but this year it became one of Hokkaido's biggest tourist draws. Why?
Popular culture. There is a big box-office movie out now in Japan called POPPOYA (with explanatory-only kanji of TETSUDOUIN, or "Railway Staffer"). Japan residents might have seen its emotive poster with ever-manly star Takakura Ken standing stoic amidst the snowflakes. Guess what--the station filmed, called "Horomai" (perhaps an amalgam of Hokkaidoesque place names "Horomui" and "Habomai") was Ikutora's. I found the station building a rum tourist draw--a horizontal two-story shotgun-shack relic that was, like most nonreligious wooden structures up here, left unmaintained, paint-faded, and weathered-dingy, looking like all things old in Japan apparently should.
It would probably remain that way. Just as I got there, two JR tour busses ejected their contents and flash bulbs went off beside the rail-stop placard, a leftover from the movie plunked right out in front, screaming "HOROMAI". I had even thought I was at the wrong place before I found a tiny sign, tucked away at a corner of the station, which whispered it's real name. I thought it a bit pitiful: like Norma Jean Baker and her world-famous pseudonym, Ikutora was going to be caught in a perpetual time warp, unable to be renovated despite all the revenue coming in for fear that the amateur paparazzi would stop paying attention.
And that was it. No more to Ikutora but this box by the rails. "Tourists: fools and their money", I thought. But then again, I haven't seen the film, so more fool me for not understanding the frenzy. I cycled on.
Two hours later I had well and truly left Hollywood behind, which was not conducive to lunch. By the time I reached the end of a long but gentle incline into the hills, I realized that this higher-altitude valley really did not, as the map promised, have anything at all to speak of. No convenience stores, no food outlets, and hardly any houses within a couple of miles of each other--which was why I was glad to be packing water. But what it did have were fields, fields, and more curvaceous fields on land that looked as if it had been uncleared even ten years ago. Carrots, beans, corn, and sugar beets abounded, and where there's crops there's lunch. I walked into a field and pulled few tubers up (carrots, I mean--who eats beets, anyway?), slapped them against my leg to knock the dirt off, and munched. Never fresher. A few beans and a complement of potato chips later, I pushed on into the worsening weather and coasted down to make the trek's pivotal choices.
By the time I reached Route 38, I was already a bit sick of cycling--in these elements, anyway. Over three days I had faced just about any weather that summer was going to deal: searing heat, savage thunderstorms, walls of rain, heavy headwind that savored slicing speed in half, and now, today, cold fog and drizzle. The lowest-impact weather for cyclists is cloudy with no wind, and I pined for it, but it would rarely be there for me on this trek. Now, standing on the side of a national road, I saw it was either straight and flat to more of the same ole drizzle in Tomamu, or left and up but out of the mountains over Karikachi Touge Pass. Straight meant no cars but dank all day. Turning meant uphill in heavy traffic, and weather that was going to get worse before it got better. But at least I would escape these infernal mountains.
I looked at the map--only 10kms to the pass. Then it was a long downhill into lord knew what.
What the hell, I thought. In shorts, tee shirt, and sandals, I got onto the busiest road in the area and threw caution to the wind.
"Gochisousama", said I, as the waitress took my licked-clean ohmori plate of katsu-curry rice away. I was sitting at Karikachi Touge where, as usual at Hokkaido mountain passes, there is a rest-stop, selling drivers the skewered deep-fried potatoes and other treats that will clog their arteries as they drive. But I wasn't driving. I had made it all the way up here on goddamn pedal power! Soaking wet and shivering from the fog outside, I had stridden into the restaurant-slash-gift shoppe determined to stuff the blast furnace called my stomach with as much fuel as possible. I was almost through a medium size bag of nori-shio potato chips, was unwrapping my second bar of chocolate, and was three deep into a 18-cookie packet of Oreos. I didn't seem to have surprised anyone when I asked them to leave the pitcher of icewater on my table. All super-caloric, all fuel, and absolutely no guilt. This stuff would be burned off long before it would have time to clog or congeal.
I was triumphant. For I had just technically crossed the Hidakas. The road up had not been as bad as expected: The incline was constant but hardly steep (smart since anything steeper would mean cars sliding in heavy snowfall), and the fog a nuisance but not worrisome since, with road shoulders over two meters wide, I could cycle well out of the reach of trucks. More steeling were the motorcyclists, of which there were dozens at any given hour on this road, who were giving me waves and clenched fists of "Ganbare" as they went by in both directions. That mattered. It was not the old city-style "Ooh, a foreigner on a bike--wonder if he's a Mormon" curiosity waves. These waves were from fellow travellers braving the elements like I, only much better off with rain gear and internal-combustion engines. I was doing this the hard way, and I felt respected for it. I gave them satisfied-superman fists back as I pressed on.
It had taken an hour--only an hour--to reach the top, but the confidence I had garnered on this stretch of 10 kms was indispensible. For here I had finally understood my pace. As I tidied up my remaining fuel and felt the rush of it coming online, I looked at people as they walked in: "Alright, you lead-footed fatsos, I may be fat too but I'm an athlete now, and it may be a lot harder for me to cover the same distance as you will, but I will cover it," in a strange glowering-but-too-fagged-out-to-be-belligerent euphoria. I was a machine. Strains of the lead guitar of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" were on endless loop, and I felt like I could do anything, go anywhere--nothing stopping me but the forests. That was what Frank's concept of "Freedom" was to this fatigue-addled mind, and the consequent confidence would enable me to make my pipedreams into self-fulfilling prophecies.
Realistically, of course, this is a rather extreme-sports mindset, which probably made me a prime candidate for the Darwin Awards. But there I didn't care. Darwin don't bike. I saddled up and cycled, fog-blind and screaming, down the 45-minute straight downhill into the Obihiro plain.
The subsequent settlements I passed were a blur, because I was now trying to make time. The fog and drizzle had given way to regular cirrus clouds, which remained cosy to the peaks as I left them behind. Went through Shintoku, a barren town where even the pachinko parlors are boarded up and the only draw is handmade soba and convenience stores for passersthrough. Left I went onto a high plateau where cows, potatoes, and grain silos provided the senses with length, width, and depth. Spent the better part of an hour trying to find a road that would dare cross the angry and indecisive Tokachi River, and realized that dark would soon be approaching and I'd better make some plans. I steered my bicycle in the general direction of Obihiro and wondered what that would bring me.
Well, as Obihiro is well-away from the Hidakas, it was not bringing me anywhere fast. After entertaining desultory thoughts of calling friend David in Obihiro (nixed because he was unlisted) or even tracking down Kumiko's home number (nixed because I knew not her maiden name), I found myself near dusk in a town 20kms from the Big O called Memuro.
I spy: A sign to Kawakita Onsen. Only one km up the road.
"Why not?" I declared to nobody, "The biggest advantage Japan has for itinerant travelers is the fact that we can have a bath just about anywhere." I cycled up to The Onsen in The Middle of Nowhere and walked in.
"Hi. Is it possible to have a bath without being a lodger?"
"Sure is," said the cheerful hotel manager, who was in a good mood due to the timing: peak season in Obon. Which meant:
"Of course, you don't have a room, right?"
"Right. We're all full up. Sorry about that."
Actually, that was good news. "Well, it just so happens I cycled here and have a tent. Would it be okay if I pitched it in your back yard?"
He looked as if he hadn't entertained that request before, but without any compunction he said, "Sure. Out back is fine with us. Fine with you?"
I had a look and it was perfect. The site was twenty meters from the front door, with deep-pile fresh-cut grass surrounded by shrubs and rock gardens. I said yes please and noted that I would love to have some dinner here after my bath. He smiled, seeing how much of a windfall I had become, and charged me only for dinner and the soak, a windfall for me back.
And that was it for the day. I had a bath that was too hot but a shower that was lake-warm. I had meal of fried seafood donburi and a large beer. I had a sit-down in the lobby under taxidermed trophies that would not look out of place in PSYCHO. And after a brief read of Mitch before realizing I just could do nothing more ambitious than loaf or sleep, I headed out to the feather-full tent and caught the Z's.
After the 96 kms I had done that day, my bivouac at Kawakita Onsen was the nicest night on the trek.
NEXT: Due south, to the coast.