Wednesday, 24 June 2015


Rob told us there are bears all over Hokkaido
not that kind of bear
Having borne the rain, we are eager to get cycling again and soon find ourselves on the banks of the Ishikari River, one of the longest in Japan.  It snakes out of the mountains in the east and turns around the northern slopes of the central mountains before flowing through the city of Sapporo and draining into the Sea of Japan.  And it has a bike path.  Well, some of it does.  It comes and goes, leading us into the woods, or onto an overgrown embankment.  We happily ride along in the sunshine enjoying the warmth and the wild flowers.  

Our road is heading into the Sounkyo Gorge.  The road is bigger than we like, but there's a nice wide hard shoulder so at least we have some space to look around and enjoy the scenery.  There's nothing worse than 'white-line' cycling on the edge of a main road, listening out for overtaking traffic with vehicles coming in the opposite direction.  

Following the river upstream we are climbing slowly slowly and then almost imperceptibly, it climbs more steeply.  We ride through the ugly spa resort of Sounkyo and up to an enormous reservoir with great mountain views above the forest.  We don't find anywhere by the lake to camp and settle for a track off the main road.  But what about bears?  Rob had told us that there are bears all over Hokkaido, but that we are unlikely to come across any if we stick to the main roads.  Gayle scoffs, but at least agrees that we cook in a clearing away from the track where we'll camp.  As it is, when night falls previously unnoticed street lamps light up.  And trucks continue to thunder past.  There'll be no bears wandering around here.
bears everywhere

In the morning we climb up to a high pass of 1000 metres.  It's a tedious slog up some very long straight roads. 
We are rewarded with great views.  A big descent takes us into a long valley.  We are looking for a side track that will lead us through the woods and over a ridge and down to Lake Oketo.  The forest track looks like the right one and there are even some road signs further along it, although it looks little used.  There's a closed up house and a couple of gravel pits, but otherwise it's dense dark forest.  We follow the track along a river and then start to climb.  Soon we are pushing.  We climb and climb.  Conscious that we might be straying into bear territory I get out our little fishing-line bells and start speaking in a loud voice.  Gayle is unimpressed. She doesn't really think there are any bears in Hokkaido, but she would love to see one.  Quite frankly, I wouldn't.   We keep pushing up and up, around hairpin bends.  There's a tyre tread on the track, so perhaps there are woodcutters up here.  The problem is, we don't seem to be getting near to the ridge we need to cross.  It's hard to tell in the forest but it feels like we should have reached the pass by now.  And then we come to a pile of shit on the track.  It's black and big, and although it's not exactly steaming, it looks kind of fresh.  Now, I'm no David Attenborough, but this is looking serious. "Gayle, tell me that's not what I think it is".  "Maybe it's another cycle-tourist who's just seen the climb ahead".  Sure enough the track is getting steeper again.  Optimistically we continue up.  And then we come to another pile of shit.  Gayle takes a photo of it. 

The track flattens out and curves along a ridge.  And then it begins to descend.  In the wrong direction.  I've checked with the compass.  We are almost heading north and the lake should be south of here.  But it's a relief to be able to get on the bikes and head downhill.  Gayle hurtles away.  I'm following slowly behind and just noticing the two logger's huts by the track when I see Gayle has stopped in her tracks.  She says something I don't catch. What? "A bear!" "A bear?" "A bear!"  She's stock still. I don't know what to do.  There's nowhere to run except downhill ahead.  Fortunately the bear immediately dashed into the forest as soon as it saw Gayle.  We quickly confer and decide to retrace our footsteps. The track feels suddenly very claustrophobic.  Gayle looks excited and happy.  She wants to tell me about the bear.  I don't want to know anything until we are, literally, out of the woods.  At least we can ride back down the track - we retreat 6 kilometres and get back to the road.

How big was it? About this high, Gayle indicates the height of her bike.  Oh, so just a little black bear.  No, this was on all fours.  It was a big brown bear.  A grizzly. It was about twenty, thirty metres away. With it's back to her.  It turned when it heard her coming and then leapt into the trees.  Gayle continues to look excited and happy.  She knows she's very lucky.  I am so happy to be cycling on tarmac again.

blink and you'll miss it

Monday, 22 June 2015


We are inspired to spice up our touring a little, inspired by Alastair Humphrey's Micro-adventures. Rob has the book and we are prompted to check some of his short videos again. So, after a couple of days getting ourselves sorted, and being well-fed (Rob asks if we like sausage and mash.  Does the bear shit in the woods?), we are on our way.

skinny-dipping  As it's sunny and fine weather our first micro-adventure is to go swimming in the first river we come to.  Fifty metres on we turn past the station and come to the river running through the town. Ah. Hum.  Best not be stripping off here, eh?  We carry on and the road takes us gradually towards the big hills.  We dawdle a bit and finally come to rest at a small town with a michi o neki which amounts to a co-op supermarket and a toilet block.  There's a young Japanese lad sitting on a bench next to his loaded bike.  Masamichi is only 19 and is cycling around Japan.  Once in a very while we meet young men like him, with a sign on the back of their bike and a spark in the eye.  Masamichi plans to camp on the tarmac behind the toilet block, which has a septic tank.  We opt to take the overgrown wasteland nearby, with some fresher air.  Masamichi refuses to join us - he doesn't like insects.  How does he cope, we wonder.  While we chat a farmer comes over offering up two of his melons.  "Presento" he says bowing.  We bow back.  How kind.  He talks with Masamichi for a while before saying goodbye.  We bow again.  The melons are heavy.  "He says we must wait two days before they are ready to eat.  They're good melons", Masamichi adds.  They must be.  In the co-op they're selling them for about £18 a pair. Eighteen quid!  

russian roulette  We're heading the same way as Masamichi and ride together into the forrested hills.  The road winds up to a reservoir and over a pass.  The sun beats down.  Coming out of a tunnel we are greeted by some men in a van who give us bottles of iced tea.  We had seen them earlier in a village and said hello in passing.  We sit in the sun to eat lunch - there's no shade to be found.  At a carpark we take water from the toilets, but then see the sign that says it's not for drinking.  Untreated.  The advice is not to drink it as foxes are rife and pollute the watercourses.  There's a bacteria that can develop into a fatal tapeworm.  But it's baking hot and we have no alternative.  So we take a gamble.  Masamichi looks doubtful.  We have another slow climb in the sun to another pass.  Finally, at the end of the light is a tunnel.  It's cool and dank and narrow, but the traffic is not too heavy.  Happily we roll downhill and feeling good, decide to continue on to Furano.  Masamichi is in a hurry to reach the town to recharge his phone so we say goodbye.  Just before the town we spot a nice spot by the river.  It's been a long sweaty day so the camp spot is perfect.

pancakes  Sunday is typically the busiest with daytrippers and so we look for smaller roads to avoid the main highway.  
We are heading up a wide open valley with wonderful views of the central mountains.  Our eyes are constantly drawn to them.  The skies are gloriously clear and the day feels good.  For lunch we make pancakes in a park.  It's hardly the stuff of Alastair Humphreys, but as Rob had pointed out, microadventures is what a lot of people have been doing at weekends for donkeys years.  The only adventurous thing about making pancakes is tossing them. 

The small farming roads take us through some rolling countryside and it's easy to forget we're in Japan.  This looks like round our way at home - winding river, trees, fields.  There are more wildflowers here and they are brilliantly colourful. 

In the afternoon we meet Masamichi in a small town.  He has hooked up with another young cycle tourer and they're staying at a Rider House.  These are cheap simple lodgings for motorcyclists and cyclists and regrettably can only be found on Hokkaido.  We choose to continue as the sun is still out.  But we are warned that tomorrow it will rain.  Masamichi shows us the forecast on his smart phone - a big yellow sun graphic.  "Oh!"  The weather changes quickly here.  By now the sun has lowered and is casting a warm glow across the farmland.  Rice paddies fill the valleys, while corn and wheat are growing on the rolling hillsides where the forest has been cleared.  We have just started to look for a camping spot beside a river when a car zips past and then does a Sweeny-style turn to come back.  Drunken locals?  It's not typical for Japan.  Oh, hang on, it's gaijin, foreigners and she's smiling.  "It's Clare and Andy" Gayle realises.  We have contacted them via Warm Showers to see about stopping with them on our way back.  They had mentioned that they would be in the vicinity at the weekend but we had forgotten we might bump into them, especially on a quiet back road.  It turns out they've been taking part in a "Sea to Summit" race and are flushed with success.  Having kayaked, biked and then hiked up the highest mountain on the island, Clare came first in the Women's and Andy second in the Men's.  They must be Iron Men, Iron People.  It's a long way to the sea from these mountains.  After a bit of catching up we roll off to camp next to the local school before it gets too dark to ride.  Sea to summit.  Now there's a micro-adventure.

stealth-camping  There's no such thing as a wild camp in Japan.  Here you can camp in the park and no-one seems to mind.  It probably helps if you don't pitch your tent at 10 in the morning and stay for a week, but if you wait until evening when most good folk are tucked up in bed it's fine.  And most folk seem to go to bed early in the countryside.  The reason for this is that they get up at sunrise, which is about 4am in these parts.  Then they are out walking the dog or strimming the grass or blowing the leaves away.  After a slow start on a cloudy day we find ourselves cycling in drizzle.  It's the kind of drizzle that seems like nothing when you are just stood in it, but soaks you to the skin when you start cycling.  By 4 o'clock we're looking out for a park.  We find one with a park golf course in trees.  But a woman spies us from the emergency shelter nearby.  Each community in Japan has a designated shelter for use in times of emergency - the buildings are often specially built halls or maybe a local school - something that has been built to withstand serious earthquake.   It turns out that we are on the very edge of an enormous sports park even though there seems to be no town nearby.  It's not the first time we come across something like this.  There are baseball fields, a football pitch, tennis courts and golf course, picnic tables and toilets.  That'll do nicely.  We cook under an arbor which becomes our home for the next 36 hours.  The rain hardly stops and the clouds obscure any views.  It's just about warm enough - the cool refreshing temperatures that we experienced when we arrived offf the ferry are now verging on the cold and miserable.  So we dance to keep warm.  Actually, we end up having a sudoku marathon.  There are convenient gaps in the rain to allow us to pitch our tent and scramble inside on both evenings.  On the second night Gayle wakes me up.  Some yoofs have turned up in a car at 1am and are horsing about.  Have they seen our tent?  Should we be afraid?  We've never seen any sign of delinquency or vandalism in Japan, so we turn over and try to get back to sleep. Eventually they drive off. Life might be bit dull for youngsters growing up here.  Everyone conforms, to do otherwise is very irregular and unusual.  Maybe driving our to the park on a rainy Monday night and messing about is a microadventure for someone....
drying out