HOKKAIDO CYCLETREK PART FOUR
(NB: I would like to say here how estatic I am that so many people have contacted
me to say, "What happened to the next installment?" Sorry for keeping
you waiting nearly a month for it.)
DAY FOUR: SUNDAY, AUG 15, 1999
COAST TO THE COAST
It was finally the perfect day for cycling. I burst soaking wet from my superheated tent (with Japan's silly time zoning and no seasonal "Summer Time" clock adjustment, a summer sunrise in Hokkaido is around 4:30 am, making a tent uninhabitable by 7:00), sprawling upon the dewy grass and waiting for my senses to return. I then did a few calf and thigh stretches with as little effort as possible--sitting on my legs Japanese-woman-style and letting my body weight do the rest. By now, fortunately, it was becoming progressively easier each morning to limber up, and doing a cops' spread-eagle-on-the-car-for-a-frisk using my bike frame instead of a bonnet, I gave my lower spine a satisfying crack and got my gear packed up in record time. It would be a good start to a day of discoveries.
MEMURO CHOU, HOKKAIDO
Not to be confused, as it often is, with *Ne*muro, Hokkaido's eastern outpost city in the middle of a peninsula parrying with a flotilla of former Japanese islands seized by the Soviets in 1945. Nemuro is a tough-looking port town making a living from fishing and shouting "give us back our land" slogans across the ocean (occasionally answered by Russian gunboats apprehending errant Japanese fishermen). Memuro, a couple hundred kms but a whole world away, is a much softer (as farming towns generally are, compared to fishing communities) unassuming burg, with a forgettable few intersections on the straightaway segment of Route 38 to Obihiro. However, Memuro's pocket-township betrays little about how expansive the place is--for its administration stretches from here to the Hikakas, ten kms east and thirty south, framed in by the Tokachi and Satsunai Rivers, comprising hundreds of square kilometers of Hokkaido's most flat, fertile farmland. Also some of the best biking you can find on one of the best days Hokkaido has to offer.
Leaving Kawakita Onsen, I found a Lawson Station convenience store that lived up to its name-- right at Memuro's main intersection and providentially across from spacious Memuro Koen. I picked up fuel and cycled over to fill my tanks amidst some relics: a grove of hundred-year-old trees shading a monument to Memuro's dead in the victorious 1905 Russo-Japanese war (The one which proved to everyone that Japan, after over a quarter-century of breakneck industrialization, was really a world power. The downside was that this war legitimized Japan's subsequent self-destructive militarization and wasteful imperialism that would ultimately engender Asia's distrust of Japan the rest of this century...).
But let's skip the difficult topics and be Japanese and talk about food: I had my now-regular breakfast of two egg sandwiches, two different varieties of chocolate, a yakisoba-korokke-egg-spaghetti-and-sausage sandwich (seriously, and it's scrumptuous), a liter and a half of Lemon Aquarius sports drink, and a few potato chips chaser. My stomach felt very heavy and oily, but I thought I would be able to reach a onaka-Nirvana when the gastronomic gaboomballs kicked in in a half hour or so. Besides, I would need to stock up--according to the map there would be absolutely no settlements, or main roads for that mattter, which would support a lunchtime stop. I didn't want to saddle my bike with spillable provisions, so I decided to stow it below. My guts can take it, I thought.
It was 10am before I finished troughing. Departing the park south to Memuro-eki, the last train stop I would see for days, I followed the train lines towards Obihiro for a couple of kms until I saw a southbound road that looked less traveled by. South I turned, remaining in this direction for days until I would run out of land.
As I said, this area is a joy to cycle. Although my roads used only by tractors and mini-farm-pickups, they were paved, straight, and flat. The timing was good--there was no wind to speak of, verdure reduced eyestrain, and the temperature was imperceptible. The only deleterious factor was a strong sun, and even that was tamed by high-altitude summer cirrus and roadside wind-breaking shade trees. But the area was not only pedal-perfect--it was prosperous. I passed by all manner of agriculture: cows, corn, hops (yes, the stuff used in beer), with the star staple being potatoes. Some farms had designating signs from Calbee, a huge Japanese potato-chip company, listing them as producers of spectacular spuds. I suddenly realized the synergy of producer and consumer I was representing--pedalling by powered by the very potatoes which may have originated only meters from me.
I was alone, with not a single human in sight or sound, and the solitude was liberating. Like the rock band America singing "A Horse With No Name", my skin began to turn red, I thought about refreshing riverbeds, and my mind drifted in all manner of directions.
One very convenient phenomenon fostered by cycling--that of gobs of time on one's hands without being bored, idle, or distracted--meant my mind could float, and it alighted on topics both earthy and silly: "Why do roadside construction workers that guide traffic all sharpen their eyebrows so fashionably?", "Why are manhole covers placed on city roads right where tyres have to run?", "Is the 'Legnum' car model another one of those confusions between 'R' and 'L'? If not, it's probably the most hideous name I've ever heard.", "Person A cycles twenty kilometers flat at speed x, while Person B cycles ten kms uphill at half the speed x and ten kms downhill at double the speed x. Would the average speeds be the same?" [They wouldn't.] Sheesh, here I was biding my time doing algebra and story problems! You know you've had too much education when your mind will never shut up, and wants to use up the slack by retaking the tests you hated in high school.
To slack off more sanely, I started writing this Cycletrek in my head, searching for themes and wondering how I could convey the sense of adventure. There I realized the stylistic challenge that would await me: The device that I almost always resort to to keep my writings readable--a narrative--would be impossible. I had nobody to talk to! Fortunately I had plenty of slack to spend coming up with alternatives. It would be a very different kind of story problem.
Lunchtime approached, but I was not hungry. For a good reason.
Increasingly, my mind was being hijacked by inchoate bodily urges. No, not those. I mean the prospect of a really shick-ed wit. That overunctuous breakfast provided fuel with a hell of a lot of negative externality. In the end, like Tokyo, I was waiting for THE BIG ONE, a major-domo BM, and I don't mean all the Background Music playing in my head. But as an area with no fuel stop also means no pit stop, nothing in sight would a-commode-ate my request. No public buildings, no convenience stores. I contemplated knocking on a farmhouse door, but it felt too much like the setup to a generic Polack Joke ("Sorry, said the farmer, but the only bathroom we have left is in the barn..."). This Cycletrek was increasingly getting written to the tune of the toilet.
Lo and behold, as if by the divine providence that complements the Cosmic Joker on my travels, there was a portajohn sitting beneath some more shady trees right next to a local community cemetery. It was another perfect park for my purposes. Quiet, bereft of anything that walked on two legs, and juxtaposing a graveyard that was, thanks to this being the tail-end of Obon, wafting the Buddhist senkou green-stick incense--the world's most perfect deodorizer. I opened up the WC door and had a look. Wonderful! It even a fresh box of tissues beside the bowl! (Relatives visiting plots leave behind open cans of beer etc in case the dead want a drink, but this is ridiculous!) However, the john was not perfect, being a squatter-style (which, like Japanese breakfasts, are something I will never get used to no matter how long I live here). So for me to convert this loo into a sitter-style, I would have to dangle my legs outside. "No problem," said Mr Dave "Pragmatic" Aldwinckle, "having the door propped open will provide better circulation from outside and better reading light as I plan my next movement on the map." I set to work, spending the slack time doing drop-zone calculations to avoid the splashings from below.
But as I said, this was Obon, and Sunday at that, so people all over Japan were out hobnobbing with relatives at their final resting place. My cemetery was no exception. Out of nowhere suddenly appeared no less than five different families, and they just happened to have plots strategically placed a mere stone's throw from my resting place. My bicycle standing outside the outhouse was a impromptu beacon screaming that this bog was "OCCUPIED", and more and more people appeared to be lighting more incense than usual. I was also indisposed; it wouldn't have been quite so bad if the onlookers were only old baachan who didn't care what gender the bathroom was when they had to use or clean it. But no! All of the plotters had either vestal daughters giggling away, or small kids who didn't mind pointing. I sat there stranded, using my map more as a fig leaf than a guide. Still, I realized just how good-natured the atmosphere was when people started waving. I waved back.
Sheepishly shimatsuing, ("Ah, but they'll never see you again, so forget it.", I rationalized) I pressed on--further south, then looping east when I began approaching mountains again. I was looking for that river bed--the Satsunai River, which would signal the end of Memuro lands and bring forth short, shock valleys from rivers running north from the Hidakas to the Tokachi River. Fortunately, my legs, now emboldened by the hours of flatland warmup and the recent unloading, said that they wanted a little more challenge. Pleasure was over. Time for business.
I picked up the pace and put the metal to the pedal. Communities began to flash by as I hit main roads connecting Obihiro with the south. A local settlement named Naka-Satsunai, an intersection and little more, enabled me to get my bearings and some more potato chips. I then started down the only main road south in the area until I realized it was practically bumper-to-bumper with tourist traffic. After being spoiled all morning with solitude, I finally understood why Frank abhorred cars. Main roads are noisy, polluted, necessitate eyes in the back of the head instead of in front on the scenery, and full of traffic lights. So I turned off the road, headed north a kilometer, and followed deserted roads running parallel that tourists seemed not to have the sense to utilize.
Sarabetsu-son came and went over the duration of several kilometers, with farm after farm looking big, clean, and prosperous. Surprisingly, each and every one of these farms sported at the entranceway a very expensive-looking wooden sign: "SARABETSU" in Romaji, the family name of the farmer in kanji (they had an excellent jig-sawer for some of the more complicated characters), and the symbol of the village--an acorn with Disney-style gloved hands and shoed feet, giving us a happy face and a thumbs-up. Their taxes at work.
The refound solitude bred more deep thoughts: I started to notice that in Hokkaido, just about every single rinky-dink community has its own little mascot, and of those a dispropotionate number have something cartoony giving us a thumbs-up. Kuriyama, near where I live, has an acorn-headed nebbish on a bicycle giving us a thumbs-up. Kurisawa has a squirrel doing the same. My hometown, Nanporo, has "Kyabetsu-kun" (Little Cabbage Boy--because of the kimchee) doing, yup, a thumbs-up.
This side of the island didn't disappoint. As the Hidakas began to force the arable land to hug the coast, I zoomed downhill to Chuu-rui Chou (try to imagine the kanji), famous for, um, believe it or not, a prehistoric elephant named the "Nauman-zou". A scientist, I assume he was German, named Naumann discovered this tusked mammal sometime around a hundred years ago. What this find says about land bridges and continential drift I didn't bother to find out. I was too busy seeing what this said about capitalism. In Chuu-rui his name is on everything: There is a Naumann center, a Naumann museum, a Naumann highway, and Naumann souvenirs. I swore I was going to smash something if I found any "Naumann Ramen", but I was spared that and kept on my merry way. The mascot of the town? You guessed it. A cartoon elephant smiling at you. And giving you a thumbs-up.
Next on the itinerary was Taiki Chou, a respite from Disney in that the mascot is a space shuttle! Appparently (the movie CONTACT placing Jodie Foster's launch site in Nemuro (with an "N") notwithstanding), Taiki is a proposed launch site for, I think, NASDA (Japan's version of NASA) when it gets enough pork for its own space shuttle. So, in anticipation, the town bristles with missiles. I considered looking for "Roketto Ramen", but realized I'd better get a move on. The sun was already behind the mountains, and I had another good twenty or so kilometers to cover before I could sleep or eat tonight.
I finally reached the coast, where I would remain for the rest of the Cycletrek, at 5:45 pm: Hiroo Chou, southern Hokkaido's most prosperous seaport. With enormous seaside silos for northbound Noukyou fertilizers and southbound agricultural products, it has the potential to become an international seaport if only Tokyo would allow it to have a Customs' clearance licence. As of now, Hokkaido's main import gate is reserved for not-nearby Tomakomai. This means that the Obihiro side of Hokkaido has to pay punitive trucking costs over the Hidakas if they want to import, and go through Tokyo if they want to export. Central Control seems to like it this way, so Hiroo and all its neighbors will remain ever more part of the outback.
But enough difficult topics. Let's talk about food. I had reached Hiroo Seaside Park, the only area to camp around here unless I wanted to rough it on a waveswept beach, and I was stucking farving. My blood sugar was so low I was ready to eat tree bark. But where was there to feed off around here? The camp abutted a decrepit-looking seaside tourist trap-cum-amusement park that was closing down for the day, and the only place left to eat was a noodle shop. As I pulled up to it, I saw its young manager reaching for the doorframe flag, which signals whether they are still serving, and take it down.
Regardless, I got off my bike as fast as my frame would let me and sauntered into the restaurant, unhindered by the manager only because he wasn't sure how to phrase a refusal.
Dave: "Could you please give me something to eat?"
"I'm sorry," said the manager, "but we're closed."
"Oh dear," said I. "Do you think you could squeeze in just one more person? I'll order something simple."
Manager: "No, really, we've just closed. Sorry."
Dave: "Okay, but where is the nearest place I can get a hot meal?"
Manager: "Downtown." Which is how far away from here? "About four kilometers."
Dave: "I'm sorry, but I came here by bicycle, as you can see. I just cycled 96 kms, from Memuro. There wasn't much to eat between here and there, so I'm really hungry. Since I'm going to be staying in the campsite next door, cycling 4 kms here and back is really going to hurt. Don't you think you could give me a little break?"
The manager was about to enforce the rules anyway when the woman in the kitchen, probably the manager's mom, said, "Hey, let him in. What would you like to eat? Can you eat soba?"
Dave: "Sure. What can you make that's simple and won't leave behind too many dishes?"
Mom: "A bowlful of hot soba. How's that?"
Again, divine providence. "That sounds just fine!"
Mom: "And we have some left over onigiri [rice balls] with katsuobushi inside. How many can you eat?" She gave me six. I sat down after a bow that nearly broke my back and began to feed my face.
Mom: "And we have a couple of sausages on a stick. Game?"
It went on the conveyer belt.
A few minutes later, after scrounging around the kitchen, Mom had rounded up another corn dog and three fried potatoes on a stick, and served them on a disposable plate with ketchup and mustard. Oh, don't forget that came with a big bowl of soba, with nori and pieces of chicken floating in the soup, with a dash of cayenne pepper just to be nice. I ate the soba as quickly as possible so as to free up the bowl, and wound up taking the leftover onigiri with me for a snack later on. Two stocking-ups in a day. On my way out I thanked everyone for their charity, for in the end that was truly what it was. They only charged me for the soba.
I should also thank them for providing me with my precious narrative. It was the only conversation I would have all day.
And that night, as I got the tent up and had another spell on a more private sitter-style (eating all that much at once had the predictable effect), I again felt the at-the-end-of-the-day biker's peace. The evening was spent walking around the full peak-season campsite, standing atop a cliff and watching huge waves rush in from the Pacific, taking in the public good of campers shooting off fireworks, reading a little Michener under a streetlamp until my eyes had had enough, and crawling into the tent for sleep that came before I even made it fully into my sleeping bag.
NEXT: Down to the South and Round to the North.