Mailed Tuesday, 8 September 1998
After Africa I needed a more relaxing vacation, so I returned to a favorite mode of traveling, bicycle touring. I also figured that bicycling in Japan would be about as sharp a contrast to rucksacking in Africa as I could find. I was right.
I had wanted to cycle in Hokkaido for almost the entire decade I have lived in China, but things kept getting in the way: teaching, a Ph.D., academic conferences, and most notably several earthquakes in Japan, one on the very island I wanted to visit. Returning from Africa July 1, I gave myself 5 weeks to prepare for touring Hokkaido, Japan' northernmost undisputed island (the Russians co-claim several isles further north). My travel agent found me a half-price promotional ticket on Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong's flagship) that would fly me directly to and from Sapporo, the island's major city. That way I did not have to worry about working my way through the rest of Japan and I could especially avoid Tokyo's airport, the infamous Norita, for me the world's coldest and least tolerable airport, where I have logged in about a dozen hours in the transit area.
The first consideration was to get my bike in shape. The British-made Raleigh was purchased in 1975 in preparation for cycling in England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man. It had served me well, taking me across the USA (1983), up the coast of Portugal (1992), around most of New Zealand (1988) and parts of Ireland (1992) and Australia (1987-8), especially Tasmania. The bike had been stored at a friend's in Hong Kong. After retrieving it, I took it to a bike shop in Hong Kong where I had planned to get "everything that moves" replaced. That was until we discovered the frame had rusted and that it would be cheaper to buy a new, state-of-the-art bike rather than put new equipment on an old frame. So I pointed to a bike hanging from the ceiling and purchased it on the spot. It turned out to be a made-in-USA Trek (Fast Track 370, whatever that means). In size (about 22 inches), shape (road not mountain bike), rake, etc. the frame is almost identical to the Raleigh. Of course, there have been a lot of improvements in bicycles in the last quarter century: Allen Wrench mechanisms, cotterless cranks, gears that don’t slip (they click one to the next as opposed to slipping in [or out] at whim), and built-in niches and holes for racks, water bottles, pumps and the like. It has 3 gears in front and 7 in back, making about 11 useful combinations. The low gear is REALLY low and the highest gear is useful only when going down a 5% slope. All the tools I need for assembly/disassembly come in a folding kit that fits in the palm of your hand and weighs about a quarter kilo. I bought a new Bell helmet to replace the old Bell helmet, which was probably still usable, but very unfashionable, even for me, and thats saying a lot.
I had worried about being able to bring the bike back to my flat in China, which I would use as a base for training for the trip. Of course, as one of my former students pointed out, China is the world's largest producer of bicycles and has nothing to fear from a foreign bike invasion. There is no apparent restriction to bringing in foreign-made bikes, which cost several times the domestic equivalent (although I am not so sure my Trek has a domestic equivalent, and if it did, where the model could be found, unless I had relationships with a Chinese bike factory). Thus, with bike in tow, I was waved through customs, the inspectors not even interested in checking through the panniers (which contained only the bike bag, into which a disassembled bike is arranged for air transit. Bike bags seem to be a Japanese invention and are the only way one is permitted to ship a bike via air, rail or bus in Japan.).
Now that the bike was ready, I needed to put my body could in shape. Not having cycle-toured since 1992, I sort of feared that I had aged beyond the cycling years. Indeed, the first few days of training were a terror on my bottom, as well as on all muscles connected to legs, back, and shoulders. This was expected. It was wise to allow 4 weeks to get into shape. The first mornings' sessions each required a mid-day nap for recovery, not to mention hours of stretching before, during and after. Slowly, I added distance as well as weight on the bike, to simulate real touring. After a month, I was able to take full weight (about 15 kilos), 75 km in a half-day session. My training in Shenzhen was on flat surfaces on the city's numerous bike paths (dedicated to cycles but used by pedestrians, taxis and push-carts), but I figured the gears could take care of the Hokkaido mountains. I didn't need to get used to hills during training, I figured. In reality, hills slow up the cyclist but they don't seem to inflict any more wear or tear on the body, per se. In any case, there were few hills I wished to practice on in Shenzhen. I am told Shenzhen used to have a lot of hills, but 15 years of construction have wiped many of them out (they provided the very construction materials the city needed). For biking, Shenzhen is generally a one-gear town (which suits all who ride those big black sit-up-straight bikes that transport much of the local economy on the dedicated bike paths around the city).
So, after four weeks of training agony, I was scheduled to fly from Hong Kong's new, now infamous airport to Sapporo. A word or more about Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok airport. I say infamous, because it got a lot of bad press (deservedly so) because of all the bugs that infested the various systems on the first day of operation: e.g., no water in the toilets, inaccurate arrivals and departure screens, damaged and lost luggage, signs pointing in conflicting directions and a cargo terminal that was such a disaster that the whole operation had to move back for a month to the old site at Kai Tak, the to-be-closed-and-sold-to- real-estate-speculators airport. By the time I flew out from Chek Lap Kok, however, it was fully functioning. The best descriptor I can find for this airport is cluttered. It is cluttered with people, with information signs, with 140 commercial establishments and what seems to be an extraordinary number of paths and escalators taking you to various levels, or not taking you as the case may be. Believe it or not, passengers who are on the tarmac side of immigration control cannot go to areas on different levels that they can clearly see, with shops and restaurants and the like. This is most unfortunate, not to mention visually confusing to those who are flight-anxious or flight-weary. I consider the interior of the new airport a must for any seasoned traveler to see, for it is exactly what one should not go for in designing a public place. If you want to see a well-designed terminal, in my opinion, visit Singapore or Amsterdam (the latter which I have never seen but have heard only favorable comments about). Hong Kong's is a mess. The user public seems to be walking around in dazes, enhanced by jet lag, not knowing where the next escalator or moving walkway will lead them to. Imagine an airport designed by Kafka. It is as crowded as the sidewalks of Hong Kong's Mong Kong area, reputedly the densest accumulation of humanity on the globe. The architect, Sir something-or-rather, gets heaps of praise for his design, which he reportedly doodled on a napkin over dim sum, but I wonder if the future King Charles, with his disdain for modern ego-tripped architecture, might well consider revoking his sirship. In any case, the airport continues a Hong Kong tradition of petty nuisance, as the new airport charges a departure tax, cash on demand upon check-in. This is an annoyingly common practice in developing countries (East African airports only accept US greenbacks). Most developed countries hide all the taxes in the price of the ticket, which is the developed way to behave. One might conclude that Hong Kong still has trouble considering itself a developed place; its new airport is certainly not of first-world quality.
The main problem with Hong Kong's airport is that it was designed not for users, but for architectural journals and design award juries, tourist publications, and record books. In fact, no sooner had the airport opened than tour busses of Hong Kong local sightseers descended upon the facility to take half-day tours, tying up toilets, creating 30-minute queues at McDonald's and producing traffic jams and delays for passengers with luggage trolleys. Maybe New Yorkers took tours of JFK when it opened, but I doubt it. They have better ways to waste their time. Airports are not supposed to be for local tourists; they should be for travelers, including transit passengers. Hong Kong, so hyped up in defining itself as a tourist spot, seems to have gotten its priorities all askew. Well, we can only hope that in 50-100 years the value of the real estate of the new airport becomes so high that city fathers decide to build another airport, God knows where, probably further into the Pacific. Or perhaps the next one will be in the heart of Central Hong Kong, which by that time could be so decayed that its now still glittering sky-scrapers can be scrapped to make room for runways.
The Sunday Sapporo flight I took left in the afternoon and would not arrive in Japan until early evening. I had originally wanted to book a Tuesday flight - the only other direct Hong Kong - Sapporo option-, but these had been booked by tour groups for months. I had disassembled the bike into its travel bag and handed it in to check-in, which is conveniently located in downtown Hong Kong (there's a high speed rail link to the airport which is about 23.62 minutes away). Given the late hour of arrival, I had no choice but to travel with bike bag, rather than reassemble the bike (which could take an hour or more, I wasn't sure). I was not prepared to bike at night.
Based on this trip as well as my previous visit to Osaka in 1990, I think that Japan, for all its modernity, has an appallingly slow bureaucracy at airports. We stood in line for 30 minutes to get through airport immigration. It was not comforting to see various immigration officials standing idly about not doing much of anything. Most of the travelers were Hong Kong Cantonese speakers and the immigration personnel - those who were actually working - seemed to converse to them only in English - not a strong second language in either country. Few seemed to follow directions, and so traffic flow was continually delayed as people attempted to complete their forms correctly. These were carefully checked over by immigration, who cross-referenced information on a computer screen, and then stapled the form into the passport, stamping form and passport as well as part of the form that immigration retained. This did not seem a very efficient process, especially for a country which is perceived to be efficient (there are a lot of computer gadgets). I might add that Hong Kong's immigration for visitors takes about one-third as long (Hong Kong deservedly bills itself as tourist-friendly). I suspect most of these Hokkaido-bound Hong Kong travelers were in tour groups. These are what populate the airways nowadays, making it difficult for single travelers to get bookings. I suppose that these folk were taking a quick Japan 7-day tour that put them 48 hours in Hokkaido, several days in Tokyo and the rest around Osaka.
I retrieved my bike-in-bag, not bothering to check whether the bike itself had survived the trip. Experience had taught me to let out the air from the tires, for otherwise they explode in the under-pressurized baggage compartment. I lugged the bike bag (I was carrying another shoulder bag which contained the panniers, helmet, pump and other essentials) through the airport and to the adjacent JR (Japan Rail) station. The airport is about 60 km from Sapporo; the fast train takes about 30 minutes. By 8:30 I was in the Sapporo station and again lugged the bag to the taxi stand. With some difficulty, we found the hostel which is a reported 7 minutes by walk from the station. (Walking 7 minutes with 50 pounds of bike and luggage could have taken more like 7 hours! The taxi was only $7, or about a dollar a minute). As expected, the hostel was full, and they either had not received my faxed reservation of the previous week or they were all booked up anyway. (Japanese, who make up 95% of those who stay in hostels are very conscientious about booking in advance. I suspect the hostel association owns phone company stock.) Japanese hostels are almost always full during the busy vacation season in Japan, but hostels would never think of turning away a foreign cyclist (who doesn't speak any Japanese) at that hour, so I was permitted to place a bedroll (there were many to spare) on the rice-straw tatami matting. This full-but-we-can-make-room-for-you situation happened to me 5 times during my trip.
Day # 1: One of the many pleasant things about traveling in Hokkaido in summer is the long days. Daybreak is early: light by 4:30 a.m. and darkness does not come until 7 or 8 p.m. Hong Kong, and central Africa for that matter, being close to the equator, have little seasonal variation in length of daylight. (I find this to be the single most disappointing characteristic of Southern China, even worse than the humidity). I am generally a morning person, and when biking I like to be on the road by 8 a.m. So, this first day, Monday, I got up at 5:30 a.m., assembled the bike, took a bath, had breakfast and was on the road by 8 a.m.
In planning for this trip, I had read one book on bicycling in Japan and looked over several guidebooks. I decided that in the two weeks I had I could cover only one of the three premier cycling areas of Hokkaido. I chose the one that entailed the least cycling (fearing that my body might give out during the effort). This is the southwest of the island, famous for volcanoes, hot springs and seacoast. Come to think of it, all Hokkaido is famous for these things. I had a vague idea of where I would go. I would head north out of Sapporo, then loop the southern peninsula. I had not constructed more detailed planning (I am a planner by nature as well as by degree), which would be relegated to a daily basis, after consulting hostel locations, and the photocopies of the biking and tourist books that I had brought with me.
That first day I headed north, not very sure how far I would get. The first 40 km or so were through suburban Sapporo. It looked a bit like Lincoln or Ventura Blvd. in Los Angeles - fast food and car dealers. I had lunch at the Nikka distillery in a small town called Yoichi (a must for all Japanese tourists. I could not hold my face up, talking to Japanese, if I had bypassed this major distillery of a major drinking nation). Then I took the seacoast road, where the traffic thinned and tunnels started to appear. Rather than building switchbacks and elevating traffic into the coastal hills (like the Pacific Coast Highway), the Japanese engineers have routed the wheeled public at the edge of the sea, so close that waves almost break on the sidewalks. The road is protected from the sea by a bulkhead of concrete jumping jacks the size of small cars intended to dissipate waves. The engineers have also constructed a series of tunnels, which are constantly being upgraded. Some of the older ones are not all that pleasant to bike through. The newer ones have raised sidewalks that are wide enough for a cycle with panniers. (I got stuck in the middle of one older tunnel as the sidewalk narrowed. I had to raise the bike over the railing to get down to the road, or I would still be stuck there today). The length of the tunnel is posted at various places inside it; some are well lit, some are rather dark and dank. Riding through these tunnels was a grin-and-bear-it experience. I am aware of the bunching theory of vehicular movement: that cars and trucks usually bunch up behind a slower moving vehicle until they can overtake it. Thus, more often than not, groups of cars go through a tunnel together; single cars are rare. I would try to judge the length of a tunnel and jump in after the last of a bunch of vehicles. Of course, it was more difficult to judge the on-coming traffic. All in all, tunnels are the bane of Hokkaido cycling.
As the afternoon wore on, I was pleased I had not sampled the merchandise at Nikka Distillery, as I had been quite tempted to do at lunchtime. The hostel map showed several hostels on Cape Skatotan, but these maps are quite imprecise. By 5 p.m., I had covered 110 km.; the road had turned in from the sea and after a pleasant downhill (you can imagine what went before), I was ready to call it a day. I stopped by the local post-office which, along with police stations and train depots, is my preference for answering direction inquiries. The intended hostel seemed to be 10-20 kms away, and I was not willing to go more than 10-20 more meters. The postmaster phoned a local college student to serve as interpreter (college students study English in university, although they take almost no listening or speaking instruction). He confirmed my fears that the hostel was far away, so I asked to be pointed in the direction of the local minshuku. Almost all villages in tourist areas have these small family-run inns, where many Japanese families on vacation stay. Without asking the price, I was glad to find such an inn only 10-20 meters from the post-office, over-looking the coast. The only concern of the owner was whether I would like the house specialty: sashimi, an assortment of various types of seafood, mostly raw, with the usual Japanese food groupings: rice, miso soup, pickled tubulars, etc. Minshuku are the equivalent to an American B&B, except that dinner is included, you are provided a kimono for lounging around in, and bedroom and bath are Japanese style. The bed is basically futon on tatami.
The bath is a national institution. Segregated by sex, these facilities vary in size, but not in procedure. One enters an outer room, strips and puts clothes in a plastic basket (never wood, never cloth, always plastic like a squatty laundry basket). You take your own wash cloth and enter the inner room which offers a few hand-held showers and a bathtub. In this minshuku, the Toto tub (Toto is the brand equivalent to American Standard) was about 3 times its western counterpart. The tub is for relaxing not cleaning. Grabbing a plastic stool and bucket, the latter to prevent constant showering - not that the Japanese are remotely water conservationists - one sits and lathers up with soap and then rinses off with the bucket and shower. Sometimes, if the shower hangs high enough on the wall, while balancing on ones knees, one can attempt to take a real shower (This, however, I never did if others were present, as it is no doubt a cultural bathing offense). Soap, shampoo and conditioner, sometimes razors and combs, are provided. Once, the body is clean, one can climb into the tub for a good soak, which in my body's case was greatly desired. I tended to take a bath before dinner, and often I was the only one present. The water tended to be scalding so I piped in enough cold to make it bearable. After the bath, one towels off with the washcloth, rings it out, and proceeds to the outer area, for re- robing.
Day # 2: After a good night's sleep (usually 5 uninterrupted hours in my case, but I think I got 6 that particular night), I had breakfast, which consisted of a lot of rice and various things to put with it: smoked salmon, raw egg (which I avoided for cholesterol's sake), seaweed, pickles, and various raw thing's from the sea. I was off for Day #2 of cycling. After a few tunnels, about 10-20 kms down the road came the youth hostel that I was to tired to reach the previous night. The hostel would have cost me about 5,000 yen for bed and meals. This equates to US $34.50, given the US 100:145 yen exchange rate I received in Hong Kong, on the very day which, by luck, provided the most favorable dollar to yen exchange in years. The minshuku charged about twice this, but it was certainly worth it. However, I was budgeted at US $50 per day, including internal Japan travel and bike repairs, so I doubted I would see many more minshuku.
Japan has a deserved reputation for being an expensive country to travel in. It is cheaper for Japanese to fly to and do tourist things in Hong Kong or even Australia for a fortnight than to travel around their own country for the same period (group international air fares are very reasonable). I could have chosen to camp - camping on beaches is free - but I opted to stay indoors this trip. Although I had camped on all but the first of my previous cycle tours, I was a bit wary this time. The extra weight was not as worrisome as whether I could get a good night's sleep. I could have saved some money, but not much. Given the cost of food in the markets and the large number of calories a cyclist burns, camping would probably have cost me about $25-30 a day for food (more if eaten in restaurants), and I would have missed the ambiance of the country. Rice, three bowls of which I consumed at breakfast and supper, in fact, proved to be not bad energy food for cycling.
I biked around the cape and down the rest coast, through about 20 tunnels, the longest of which was 1,035 meters. That amounted to about 10km in tunnels alone. Cycling at the edge of the sea through one fishing village after another was delightful. I recognized the odor: it reminded me of my last breakfast and dinner. With help from another postmaster, I managed to reach a hostel around 5 p.m., to be the first one to take a bath. Total cycling for the day was almost 7 hours, for 137 km., the longest daily distance covered on the trip.
Day #3. It rained over the evening and was raining when I arose at about 5 a.m. Once up, I rarely can get back to sleep. I did an hour of stretching and watched the hostel family prepare breakfast. From past experience, I realized that you can't let a little bit of rain stop you, so I planned to set off, rain or no rain. I had originally plotted to continue south and to round the peninsular, but I learned that a tunnel was under repair and the diversion added a hundred km over a gravel road. Bikers (motorcyclists) at the hostel said the road was so bad that even they did not take it. Thus, I changed itinerary and decided to head inland to a place called Niseko, which is a famous ski area, I assume one used when Hokkaido hosted the winter Olympics some decades ago. So this day I had to backtrack 37 kms to find the road to Niseko. I know it was 37 kms because I have a 'catseye' brand Japanese-made electronic timer/odometer. When I meet fellow cyclists, we can compare catseyes for our average speeds, maximum speeds, total distances, times, etc.).
The road to Niseko was marked on the scraps of paper I was using for maps, information copied from bikers' map books I examined at the hostel. Confused, I went to the local police station and was waiting for someone to appear. A car drove up and offered assistance. Generally, if I need directions I just stand on a street corner, looking perplexed (which requires no acting) and someone who speaks a smattering of textbook English will stop to help. It never takes more than a few minutes for someone to come to my aid. As expected, a man appeared and pointed me to the right road. Later, when I had found the road (and was still perplexed, because the road signs were not indicating this was the direction to Niseko), he stopped by again to assure me I was heading down the right path. (Often information-givers tend to monitor the foreign traveler to ensure he doesn't get lost). On one of my paper scraps I had jotted down a route number, but this was not the number of the road I was about to take. I was later to learn that the numbers shown on maps are often not the same ones as those shown on roads.
Road numbers in Japan seem to change on almost a seasonal basis, which is probably quite good for the road map book publishers. (I never saw anyone use a map book imprinted before 1998). In addition, roads in Japan are often circular. For example, imagine a highway that encircles Texas but keeps the same number throughout. And, imagine a series of such concentric roads, with no numbered order. Further, imagine that the road never says north-south-east-west. I was forever seeing bikers as well as motorists stopped alongside road signs, studying their maps, and looking even more perplexed than I. In addition, Japanese traffic engineers hail from the minimalist school of signing. Not once did I see a sign that said 'To Route something-or-other' even though the very road bei singed might lead into that route just a kilometer or so from the sign. In contrast, American road signs will lead you with 'to' signs even when the connection is many miles off.
In a state of consternation, I headed somewhere, presumably, toward Niseko. By this point it had stopped raining. I checked my gear. Fortunately, my panniers have flip-out rain covers that, when not in use, are stored in little pockets on the top of the pannier. Rainwater, however, still percolates from the bottom of the saddlebags, so I store everything in ziplock bags. My windbreaker, which I wore almost every day of cycling since the temperature rarely rose above the low 20s, quickly dried out.
The most common summer tourist in Hokkaido is the motorcycle biker. On any given day there are probably 10,000 motorcycle enthusiasts over the island. Each of them carries a colored triangular flag waving from their luggage. The flags read 'safe Hakkaido summer' and I assume they are probably given to bikers free when they get off one of the ferries that hauls them in from the southern islands. Almost without exception bikers wave greetings to fellow bikers as well as to cyclists. They often give a thumb up signal as if to say: good on you for doing it the hard way. I, of course, try to wave back. Some bikers zoom by so fast that by the time I get a hand in the air, they are but a cloud of smoke on the horizon. By the third day I had acquired wavers' shoulder, a slight pain in the upper body brought on by the incessant hailings to fellow two-wheelers. Of course, compared with the other aches and pains in the lower body, stiff neck, and weary lower back, this was minor. In this case, friendliness to fellow two-wheelers carried only a slight price tag. This day alone, I waved to about 100 bikers and 5 cyclists. I got to Niseko in the afternoon, and it took me another hour to reach the hostel, which was about 15 kms from downtown. Total for the day 107 km, about 6 hours.
Day #4 saw me starting off for Lake Shikotsu but ending up at Lake Toya, instead. The latter was the closer, but I wanted to go to the former so I could circle it to get to the latter. In any case, my grand design was vitiated when I went east instead of west (or was it west instead of east?) on one of the particular connecting roads. I didn't realize my mistake until after a 10 km downhill, when I finally decided to study my map scraps. Sensing my difficulty, a passing motorist stopped, jumped out of his car, and crossed four lanes of traffic to enlighten me of my predicament. He even offered to put my bike in the outboard he was hauling and get me back up the mountain to the correct route. I didn't feel right taking advantage of such hospitality; anyway, the rest of the day was going to be downhill, however I biked. That's how I ended up at one lake rather than the other.
This entire part of Hokkaido (the non-peninsulared southern-western section) is the vestige of eons of volcanic activity. The hostel I found was situated between Lake Toya and an active volcano, huffing steam. The local volcano museum, reputed as one of the best museums on the subject in the world, was indeed impressive. Fortunately, I visited the museum the following morning. I would not recommend touring the museum before spending a night at the foot of an active volcano.
Since I had arrived at Lake Toya earlier than I had expected and a few hours before the hostel allowed guests to register, I spent the afternoon reading my paperback novel, Ken Follett's _The Pillars of the Earth_. I had chosen this novel not because it was, according to it's jacket, 'an epic saga of love, passion and revenge' taking place in 12th century Europe during the cathedral-building era. It was indeed all that and certainly a masterpiece of the genre. Not even because at 1,076 pages it is one of the widest paperbacks sold in bookstores. I was reading it because I had traded another (much thinner book) at a hostel in Capetown and had kept Follett unread (my regular recreational reading between Africa and Japan was continuing the corpus of Cormac McCarthy, in my opinion the US's greatest living storyteller), saving it for Japan. I would have to read about 75 pages a day during my 2 week trip, which equates to about one page per km. Reading at lakeside provided the first opportunity I had to bite off a big chunk of the book; previously I had only been able to read a few dozen pages an evening before I grew tired and fell asleep.
Day #5. Each day traveling in Japan I seem to have a major reflection upon which, for lack of a better word, I reflect during my cycling day. Cycling distances clears my mind of professional worries and annoyances, like being rejected by publishers or being crushed out of a career, and forces me to think about more important things, such as the weather, road conditions, changes in road slope, overtaking or oncoming traffic, waving at passing two-wheelers, etc. Of course, much of my mental process is consumed with wondering where I will stay the night and what I will eat next. The latter is certainly important because, when cycling, I take in about twice as many calories as during normal existence. Being exhausted and muscle sore is a small price to pay for being allowed to eat without constraint all the carbohydrates, as well as junk food, I desire. When I run out of these usual considerations, I often focus on the day's major reflection. My reflection for this day concerned Japan's men's rooms, more particularly their plumbing.
A previous day I had focused on the phenomenon of having separate slippers for the toilet that are actually marked 'toile.' All toilets in homes and hostels have separate toilet slippers that are never to be worn outside. (Toilets are in fact separated from washbasin areas or bathrooms). While biking that day, I wondered whether the value of keeping toilet floor grime contained within the toilet area wasn't outweighed by the probability of one's catching athlete's foot or other PTDs (podiacally transmitted diseases). I wondered if Japanese toilet engineers had studied this matter. Or would such study be under the Ministry of Sanitation? Or even the Ministry of Culture. How large would a sample have to be? Were there differences between men and women (perhaps females have fewer PTDs than males, but wore slippers longer, thus increasing the likelihood of transmission). Such contemplations can take an entire cycling day, as I mentally design a study, ways of measurement and observation, survey instruments. I would also have to consider the political implications of requiring toilet owners to provide disposable or reusable slippers that could be sanitized with each use. How politically powerful is the plastics industry in Japan, etc. Could a small-sized sanitizing machine be made a toilet fixture? What about the footpowder industry. I remember in high school those springed grates that one had to step on after showers. They would douse the feet in a white powder (which I now fear was DDT). Or perhaps there could be a footbath, like that used for sheep. Such reflections can keep one thinking for kilometers.
My reflection on Day #5 examined one aspect of Japanese plumbing, the flush toilet. Japanese are such a sanitary-minded people that over the centuries the toilet has certainly posed a major challenge to the nation's engineering minds. The current model of a Toto john is an extremely sophisticated piece of equipment. Not only is it intended to flush away human wastes, but it can also heat the human bottom, automatically change the paper toilet seat, and present water for washing one's hands. It is a mechanism that deserves the envy of the rest of the world. I came across one seat which had a roll of toilet seat paper that provided automatically every new user with a fresh ring of paper to sit on. I found several seats were heated with controls that at the maximum could warm up a derriere to well-done. The control was automatically activated upon initial touchdown. Many toilets had the refill water run through a fountain mechanism on the back of the toilet so that one could immediately, upon wiping and flushing, wash one's hands. Clothes to dry hands were also provided. In terms of modern concerns over conservation, the toilet allows the user to choose the amount of flush needed. For small deposits (what the Chinese call little waste and we ca number one, an adequate amount of water flushes through. For bigger deposits (big waste or number two), a much stronger stream, probably about twice as much at twice the velocity can be selected. American Standard, eat your heart out. But don't expect to see this in your local plumbing fixture store. The Japanese keep their best inventions for themselves. I imagine they will never export these brilliant toilets. The rest of the world really doesn't deserve this level of technology.
During this day I had only 4 hours or 60 kms to contemplate toilet systems, but they were tough riding hours. The map showed a lot of squiggley lines and the mountain road was full of switchbacks, reminiscent of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia that is part of the cross-continent cyclists' trek. My maximum speed for the day was 50.5 kms/hour, and that even involved braking on a 15 km downhill. This was the first day I had full sun (at least for part of the day) and the first day that my washcloth, which I use to wipe off sweat, started to smell foul, like ammonia. This happens on the occasion of sweating a lot, which means it was the first day I really had a good sweat and the first day I went through more than two liters of water while cycling. My goal for the day was to get to the Noboribetsu Spa, a premier tourist attraction for Japanese vacationers. By the busload, locals are brought in to enjoy the hard, hot sulfuric waters of nature. They stay in 5-star hotels and walk around town in hotel-provided kimonos as they go from spa to spa, walking on streets that are cobblestoned. Spa-hopping is a tourist obsession in this town which has absolutely no reason to exist except to serve tourists. 100 percent of the population serves tourists. The local park, which incorporates Hell Valley with its bubbling pools (like Yellowstone) is done in true Japanese style. Concrete fences and posts are convincingly made to look like wood. Signs provide an education for the visitor, focusing on the park's wildlife, including entire pictorial displays on butterflies, insects, birds, trees, grasses. More like a museum than a park. On the following morning, when I departed, I counted twenty fully-loaded tour busses that passed me as I cycled out of town (and I had a late start).
Day # 6. I had a late start (9 a.m.) because it was pouring rain, not a drizzle but real rain. I realized from the start that there was no way I could keep dry. This was the type of rain that within a few hours my shoes would be drenched and I would be hearing water in them sloshing around with every rotation of the crank. I did not really want to spend another day in sulfur town, and I wanted to get to the other lake that had been my earlier intended destination. Going downhill I ended up back at the seacoast and biked along the water until I came to a town that is famous for its Ainu museum. The Ainu are Japan's aboriginal people, who basically have been so assimilated that they no longer exist. I was interested in learning about these people and in how Japan presented their existence, or lack thereof. The outdoor museum, which was about a 10 km deviation from my route, was quite interesting. In order to get into it, one passes through a gymnasium sized sales area with small shops hawking various Ainu wares. Other cultures are also hawked, which I guess explains why USA flags are for sale. The museum, a series of outdoor huts, is a rather dignified presentation, as befits a lost culture. One moves from hut to hut for presentations that in good weather occur outdoors. Weather was certainly not permitting outdoor activities the day I visited. The rain only let up for the brief time it took me to cycle through the town of Tomokomai. I found a dedicated cycle path that went all the way to Lake Shikotsu. The hostel, of course, was full, but I was placed in the annex. I dried off the gear, threw all that could be thrown into the dryer and got back to my novel.
Day # 7 was an off day, spent entirely with the novel. The downpour continued all day, never letting up. Local residents complained that Hokkaido summer had never arrived and blamed this on Nino-san (El Nino), which seems to be a world's scapegoat for climactic turmoil. Usually, Hokkaido has 10 days of summer temperature over 30 degrees C, but this year it had had none. My cyclist's tan, as identified by white demarcations left by my cycling gloves, was still on my forearms, face and legs, but most of this had resulted from my training in Shenzhen. In fact, my forearms were still more brown than the typical Japanese or Chinese body, which I guess is as closest I have ever come to being East Asian.
Day # 8. The following day I was determined to cycle, downpour or not. The skies cleared and I headed off to another skiing village. This required taking a 15-km dedicated cycle path to Chitose (where the airport is located) and then finding a particular route northeast into the mountains. I had no idea how to connect from one route to the other. Previously I had had good experience with getting directions from service stations. The petrol station in Japan reflects the nation's overall service culture. When a car pulls up, the staff run out to greet it, yelling (I mean yelling) various greetings, as well as the usual bowing and scraping. I was never greeted as such, since a bicycle is not considered in the same class of customer. So while the attendants were fawning over four-wheel owners, I would arrive, and then spend the next 30 seconds removing helmet and sunglasses (used not so much for sun as for protection against wind, which is murderous on contact lens) and retrieving reading glasses and scaps of paper with hand-drawn maps. I would approach an available attendant, utter my designation repeatedly until s/he understood what I was saying, and look confused. Almost all service stations in Japan have giveaway maps, the size of a placemat, which show major roads, list tourist attractions and, of course, all the company's filling stations. The attendant would draw my route on the map, I would offer my thanks, and off I would go. These maps, for all their value, do not substitute for the real McCoy. For one thing, they are not scaled. One inch could represent 100m or 10 km. Nevertheless, they are much better than my scraps of paper.
I managed the detour the attendant had suggested. It took a total of 5 1/2 hours to go the 111 kms to get to Yubari, a ski resort, where one of Japans Cycling Terminals is located. Hokkaido has six of these terminals (earlier I had not been able to locate one; the maps in the terminal guidebook are really bad, even by Japanese map standards) which are hostels that specialize in accommodating touring cyclists as well as renting out bicycles. There are usually cycle paths around the terminals. After I checked into the Yubari terminal, I borrowed their map book and, while I was tracing a map onto one of my scraps of paper, was given a 1995 version (a promotional release by Toyoto that shows the locations of all their dealerships in Hokkaido) to keep. This is a sort of 30-page Rand McNally covering only Hokkaido, just what I needed for the rest of the trip. Of course, road numbers do not always correspond to what appear on the roads, but the book proved valuable in helping me plot the rest of my trip. It fit exactly in the plastic waterproof mini-briefcase in which I stored passport and papers in the pannier. The book allowed me to find a short-cut for the next day.
Day # 9. The short-cut from Yubari to another skiing retreat called Furano saved me about 20 kms. What I didn't know for sure (but suspected from the map) was that the map's yellow lines stood for unsurfaced roads. But since the book was 4 years old, I assumed that the information was dated and that the road certainly would been paved by now. Wrong. This road is supposed to be gravel (perhaps it is easier to plow in winter or perhaps it is never intended to be plowed in winter). It took me over 2 hours to go through 10 kms of egg-sized (from pigeon to duck) gravel. The only hard surfaces were bridges and tunnels. I saw the longest tunnel of my trip, a whopping 2,130 m. By the end of the day (the hostel was located 10 kms out of Furano), I had gone 117 kms, over 7 hours.
I had started the day off on an empty stomach, which was more a psychological worry than a physical problem. The Yubari hostel had not served me breakfast (apparently I had not booked meals far enough in advance), and I left before 7 a.m., when the town was still in off-season slumber. I figured I would find a 7-11 or convenience mart. But as I cycled through the small towns and then into the countryside, I found no stores of any kind. Fortunately I had in my possession two PowerBars, a made-in-the- USA (Berkeley), athletic energy food - fuel for optimum performance. They had been given me by the mechanic in my bike shop in Hong Kong who undoubtedly felt that my body would present me with more problems than the bike he had sold me. Each 23 oz (65g) bar contains 230 calories as well as various percentages of essential and non-essential vitamins and minerals. One bar proved sufficient calories to keep me going until I found an open shop, in the middle of the day.
As I journeyed through rural Japan, I traversed what I would like to believe to be the real Hokkaido. This must have been a buzzing region in the year of the winter Olympics. Today, there is beautiful scenery (one could not dream of a better cycling environment), but there is not much of anything else. Not even the 7-foot tall roadside vending machines that are omnipresent elsewhere in Japan and sell anything that can fit though their mechanism. Now, however, the few structures I saw were no more than abandoned shacks off the highway. Throughout Hokkaido I had seen abandoned buildings, including several entertainment centers. I had stayed in one hostel that had taken over a decommissioned primary school. I saw several other converted schools. All this is due to Japan's population decline. New families don't have many children, given the costs they incur. (The average children/family is probably one point something). The result is that facilities used by the post-war generations are no longer needed. Unlike in North America, Western Europe and OZ-NZ, immigration is not encouraged/tolerated, with the exception of ethnic Japanese (e.g. returning from South America), who in any case find it difficult to live in Japan, in a culture they find alien. The closure of schools and entertainment facilities is just the first step in a downsizing what will probably force Japan into a major re-adjustment in the 21st century. Within the next century, it is certainly possible that Japan will experience a physical and economic deterioration, all the result of declining population and their refusal to permit immigration. It is something that I assume their planners are starting to foresee.
Day #10. I now had to think about getting back to the airport for my flight back to Hong Kong scheduled in 5 days. The airport is located a few mountain ranges to the west, but I did not want to backtrack, traversing the same roads, going up hills I had already gone down, and vice-versa. I could have continued east and tried to reach the east coast of Hokkaido and then take a train back to the airport. This was a bit problematic. My Japanese cash (I started off with 100,000 yen (US $690) would have just about run out by the time I got to the east coast. I was carrying a credit card and US currency in dollars and travelers checks, but few banks, only those located in a few cities, honored these. Thus, I would have had to detour to get to any of these cities and would have been forced to spend an extra day just on banking (the banks I needed closed at 2 p.m., but foreign exchange transactions are rumored to take several hours, at the minimum.) I studied my newly acquired map book. I found a series of new routes that would head me back west, via a road characterized on the map by squiggles, a representation for switchbacks. On paper this was a quite intimidating collection of squiggles, so I anticipated one hell of a cycling day. It was. There was a 25 km ascent followed by a 25 km descent. The mountain pass were completely fogged in, visibility about 10 m. Tunnels galore and one set of switchbacks where from the top, one could see the misty road snake back and forth several times. The roads were well signed. At every 100 meters of vertical climb (or every several kms by road), a huge sign with a cartoon animal character appeared to inform me of my achievement. I saw nine of these signs over the 25 kms. Fortunately, it was not raining. Otherwise, I could not have descended the 6% grade downhill, for my brakes would not have worked if they had been inundated with water. At the end of the descent stood the hostel at Shintoku. Once settled, I cracked open my novel, which I was about two-thirds through, just as with my journey. It rained all night; the hostel was filled with motor cyclists who were drying out their camping gear.
Day # 11. Rain and drizzle all morning, clearing by noon. Another mountain pass and I headed to Shimukuppa Cycling terminal, only to find out that it was not located in Shimukappa exactly, a fact I learned only after I arrived at Shimukuppa. In addition, the terminal was located down a 10 km gravel road, a fact not mentioned in its promotional material. So I decided to continue cycling, which included a 14 km. backtrack) to a nice little town called Hidaka. I happened into a pharmacist who spoke English (self-taught) and he directed me to a minshuku, which charged only a bit more (12%) than a hostel and served much better food (although hostel food, by and large, was better than that served in Japanese restaurants I have sampled outside of Japan.) This inn was family run and had what looked like traveling salesmen for residents.
Day # 12. This would be my last day of goal-directed cycling. It was sunny, mostly downhill on the way to the coast. An hour out of Hidaka, traffic picked up and generally I experienced suburban type traffic as I headed to the Coast and to the hostel in Chitose. This hostel, where I stayed three nights, is located in a wildlife reserve and provided a nice environment for finishing my novel. During the next two days, I cycled on cycling paths, about 80km each day, to wind down my trip.
Day # 15. I awoke at 4:30, packed my gear and headed off to the airport, which was about 10 kms away. It was raining, again, which seemed appropriate for my last day in Hokkaido. I arrived at the airport before it opened for business and I spent the next several hours disassembling my cycle and packing it into its travel bag. My odometer/timer read 1,300 kms, 71 hours. My long pants no longer fit. I had lost 3 kilos and over 1 cm in the waist.
I plan to return to Hokkaido again, perhaps even twice, to cover the eastern and northern parts of the island, which reportedly provide very good cycling. I won't do much differently next time. I probably will bring camping gear, but given the rain, will expect to stay in hostels and minshuku. I will try to buy a decent rain cape, maybe like the ones Shenzhen people use. I'll remember to bring my Hokkaido map book, my ziplock bags, a large novel, a few PowerBars and plenty of money. This two-week trip cost me about US $1,800. One-third of that amount went to purchase the new cycle. Another third included the cost of transportation: transport to the Hong Kong airport, the air ticket, and the JR ticket my first night. The rest was the cost of traveling and sleeping in comfort in Hokkaido, about $43 per day, and worth every cent.
Next: who knows, maybe South America.Note: There’s more on cycling Hokkaido in the travelogue of my 2001 trip.