Friday, 31 July 2015

into the fire

Busan docks
After an uneventful crossing to Korea we pick up our bikes from the baggage reclaim inside the ferry terminal and cycle out into Busan city.  The tourist information desk had no information about the bike path to Seoul but told us to head to the 'cultural centre' on the island at the river mouth where we'd get information.  Busan on a Friday morning seems rather lively.  It's Korea's biggest port - a fact that seems all too apparent when we set off along the bike path south of the terminal.  The bay is packed with cargo ships and wharfs.  There's not a gap in the coast line.  We consider crossing through the city but the geography looks daunting with big hills looming behind the buildings and dark, foreboding clouds gathering around their peaks. So instead we decide to follow the coast around to the river as much as we can.  The bike path runs out after 500 metres at the back of a shopping centre.  We walk through a busy fish market.  It all looks fabulously fresh until we spot a woman unwrapping a block of frozen fish from a packet to display on her stall.  We are probably not seeing the most attractive part of the city here - it's grimy and gritty and the buildings look mouldy and mildewed.  Suddenly we are faced with a steep hill.  There's no avoiding it.  Another bike path appears on the pavement.  It's crummy.  We push and then pedal up the hill and over to a main road where we join the traffic for the big downhill on the other side.  We stop at a supermarket for supplies and then cross the bridge to the island and the start of the Four Rivers Bikeway that will take us all the way through Korea and almost to the airport at Incheon.  We have only 12 days before our flight leaves, but only 640km on a riverside bike path.  A doddle.

At the information centre we pick up a map and a little passport booklet with it.  The idea is that you can collect stamps along the way and then get a certificate when you've completed the ride.  The certification points are in little red kiosks every 35km or so.  The map is only in Korean.  The woman helps us decipher our route and explain some of the map symbols.  The one that confuses me is the 'drinking water' sign.  We have an old guidebook that advises not to drink the tap water, but the Koreans we asked say that tap water is okay.  But on our map the next drinking water available is after 385km.  Interesting.   We eat lunch before starting and watch as young Koreans, all men, arrive on their bikes.  Most have come from Seoul and appear to be carrying very little - a small backpack, maybe a bag on their back rack, one water bottle.  All are wearing lycra gear, helmets, buffs, long sleeves.  It feels as hot and as humid as Japan to us, but these lads are dressed for a chilly day.  One youth tells us how hard the route is.  We laugh.  We've just come from Japan.  Don't tell us a riverside bike path is tough.  We ask him how long it took him and he replies "4 days and 3 nights".  Too fast.  No wonder he looks exhausted.  In fact, everyone looks exhausted.  They must be amateurs. 

The weather is sunny and there's a breeze off the river when we head off.   We follow the river on a newish path and by late afternoon have left the city behind.  There are rest places on route, with toilets and benches, picnic tables and little octagonal pagoda-style arbors.  We pass plenty of folk out on their bikes, some clearly finishing the long ride but others just enjoying the late afternoon.  The guidebook describes cycling on Korea's roads as almost suicidal so it's no surprising the popularity of the bike path.  We stop at a rest place and cook our evening meal.  An American cycles past and stops to chat.  The Koreans say hello, and smile at our loaded bikes.  Some almost gape in shock.  Hardly anyone seems to be carrying anything.  And then a father with two sons pulls up.  He has a trailer and from it they extract a tent.  So we're not the only ones camping.  After the sun sets the breeze off the river inevitably drops.  We have a flannel wash by the tent before getting in.  It's dark now, but incredibly there are still little groups cycling past, all heading to Busan.  They must be mad.  They have lights but it's getting past 9 at night.  Who's that daft?

Over the next two days the path gets busy with day riders out at the weekend.  But the river begins to wind it's way away from the towns and the cyclists we mostly see now have all come from Seoul.  They are all uniformly in full "Tour de Korea" cycling regalia, including long sleeves and buffs up to their eyes.  The aim is clearly to keep the sun from burning.  The effect is oddly alienating - we see no-one's face.  We have no idea if they are male or female, old or young, happy or grumpy.  They look like something from a crap sci-fi movie.  
these two lovely women gave us snacks

The path mostly follows along the dykes built on both banks of the river.  We sometimes switch banks.  At one point the path turns inland, around a hill and then climbs inordinately steeply into the forest.  The slope is about 20% and concrete.  We push and sweat our way to the top just to go down another steep path back to the river.  
On studying a map on a signpost it turns out that there is a detour via a road which would certainly have been easier but there seems to be a pathological desire to keep the bikes separate from the traffic.  The next day we have another awful climb which is thankfully not as long.  There's a young Korean couple just in front of us on new bikes and they quickly succumb to pushing before the climb has really begun.  I notice the man hasn't changed from his largest chainring and I wonder if he knows how to use his gears for climbing uphill.  It's our third day.  I'm not a huge fan of bike paths normally - I think there's room for bikes on the road if drivers are taught how to overtake sensibly.  Roads are usually kept in a better condition than bike paths and they don't take unnecessary detours.  Roads also pass through villages and towns and this bike path is trying to avoid them.  After three days cycling it's hard to remember we're in Korea.  But on the plus side, there is no traffic and we are free to gawp around us and let our minds wander. Holy Hannah! A snake!

Day four is a killer.  The skies are clear, the sun is high and bright and the river has just turned northwards so we have the sun on our backs.  We are making good time but the temperature is definitely rising.  We stop for a break by a rest stop with a drinking fountain.  The water tastes of rusty pipes.  We decide to have an early lunch and sit in the pagoda.  Despite the shade we are getting hotter.  To make matters worse, Gayle is not feeling too good.  Sunstroke?  We try to doze but it's even hotter if we lie down.  There's not a breath of air.  We know there's a certification point about 5 kilometres away, at one of the big new weirs they've built.  Often there's also a water company building with toilets and a convenience shop or space to sit in and sometimes the buildings have air-conditioning.  Gayle is hesitant.  She feels too ill to ride.  But she isn't getting any cooler sitting here.  Finally we make the move.  It's a painful 5 kilometres.  The sun is merciless.  But the decision pays off - there's an air-conditioned lobby where she can lie down and recover.  And there's a shop where we can buy ionising drinks. (We have taken to these drinks since our last week in Japan.  Normally we'd just be drinking big bottles of coke, but who could resist something called 'Pocari Sweat'??
Ionising drinks were first developed in Jamaica in the mid-seventies by Rastafarians looking to replace lost israelites.  Jamaican athletes took the drink to training camps in the States and their popularity spread.  Now we are hooked.)
searchng for shade
We sit out the rest of the afternoon inside.  Other cyclists come to cool off too.  After a while Gayle is feeling better and talking again, asking cyclists about the route ahead.  A man asks if he can help us - Joshua speaks excellent English and he translates Gayle's questions and the cyclists' replies.  He's with his brother and they ask to sit down with us and chat a bit and they bring us iced coffee drinks.  Joshua informs us that they're having a heatwave.  We'd never have known it.  He's intrigued and excited about our journey and wonders won't we be cold when we're sleeping in our tent.  What about the heatwave?!!, we exclaim. He tells us the bike path was built as part of a major development project driven by the last president to shore up Korea's water management and agriculture.  In effect they have built weirs and embankments to stop Korea's large rivers from flooding each year.  They get plenty of rain in Korea - as much as the UK annually - but 70% falls in July, the rainy season.  The bike path is an add-on, along with trying to restore the riverside areas which would normally be left with big deposits of sand and silt.  Now there are wetland areas and plenty of parkland for recreation.  All the farming areas we have passed through are no longer flooded out.

We set off again late in the day to find somewhere to camp, down by the water's edge.  It's peaceful and pretty but we're still too damn hot!

Friday, 24 July 2015

out of the frying pan

Our road continues west along the coast.  There's a bike path sometimes and sometimes there's just us and the traffic.  It requires a bit too much concentration.  After a morning on the main road we find a back road that cuts a corner, misses a city and loses all the trucks.  We happily work our way through the country roads but Gayle has to navigate because I can no longer read our map - the back roads are white on a white background. We pop out on the main road at the coast at the end of another sunny Saturday.  There's plenty of people out on the roads and at the service stations.  We get water and sneak past a hotel spa to camp in a corner of their garden.  It's a steamy night, as still as a cemetery.  We both have a bucket wash by the tent and hope none of the guests take an evening stroll.

one of many deserted hidden beaches
Our road is Route 9.  This will be rembered by us as the Road of Death.  It's possibly the worst road we've been on in the whole of Japan.  Running parallel is a brand new expressway, but no-one is prepared to pay the tolls, so the old highway is chocker.  And because of the lay of the land, steep hills tumbling into the sea, there's no space for a footpath. Did I mention the climbs?  One lunch we get to a michi no eki perched above the sea with a wonderful refreshing breeze.  We can't believe our luck when we find large wooden platforms to eat and sleep on in the shade of some overgrown wisteria.  It's ideal and easily the coolest place we've found on the road in ages.  We're halfway through lunch when Gayle suddenly leaps up with a yell - SNAKE!! I nearly drop my butty. SNAKE! She shouts again.  I drop my butty, face down.  Where?  It just dropped out of the wisteria above and fell behind us.  Gayle heard it hit the ground and now it's moving in rather a speedy manner.  We watch it carefully as it plays with us - moving away and then turning around. Damn.  We can't siesta here.

Route 9 finally brings us to Masuda, a town with a big river and embankments where we can camp.  Happily we can continue along the coast whilst the dreaded highway cuts inland directly to Shimonoseki.
  This is our final destination too, but there's a quieter road around the end of Honshu that flattens out and should make an easy ride to the port.  We are desperate to leave Route 9.  It turns out to be a good decision and with the added thrill of more small coastal roads that look all but abandoned, cutting over headlands on tiny overgrown and rock-scattered asphalt.  We realise that some of this debris probably arrived with the recent typhoon.  It feels like we've entered Japan's Brigadoon - as we pass through series of villages that see little traffic.

sho 'nuff

As we hurry along our way we come to the small town of Hagi.  It's mentioned in our guidebook but neither of us expect it to have such a delightful old centre.  It's the kind of place we would love to stay in for a few days and just potter around.  And it doesn't seem too busy with tourists despite being the school holidays.  But because we are now on a ticking clock, with a flight booked from Seoul in early August, we press on.  Neither of us likes travelling like this and the non-stop riding is less enjoyable than it should be.
Hagi's waterfront

One late afternoon we arrive at a beach with a very stylish toilet and shower block made from wood, with big covered arches providing shade. There's a group of old fellas sat around chatting and we say hello and sit down under the shelter out of some rain to enjoy a hot cuppa and a biscuit.  The road has flattened out now so in compensation we've had a lousy headwind most of the day.  The rain is a stopper.  One of the men comes over and asks if we want to sleep here.  Or does he mean just rest a little.  It's about 5pm and we noticed a sign in the carpark says it shuts at 6.  We say yes and the man brings us first two reed mats to lie on, and then a bench to sit on and then a portable cooker and kettle to make more tea.  He and his mates then shut up the office and leave us to it.  Such kindness.  The place has a lot of decking but the rain is blowing in, so we set up the tent under another awning not far away, after we've cooked and eaten our tea.  We take bucket showers in the cubicles.  All so civilised.
last night in Japan

This turns out to be our last night in Japan because the ride next day is easy and straightforward down the western end of Honshu and into Shimonoseki.  The sun is back out and hot, so we are happy to reach the international ferry terminal and sit in the comparative comfort of a waiting lounge with a/c.  All around us are people shouting at each other and calling across the hall.  Not one of them is Japanese of course.  They are all Koreans, with a gang of women with huge bundles and boxes of, .... are they instant noodles?? Good grief.  We thought it was South Korea this ferry was taking us, not North Korea.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

thundering typhoons

A friend has written and commented on our 'leisurely' ride through Japan.  It jumps out at us.  We have spent more time in Japan than any other country on this journey.  This is mainly because we can get a six month visa and we are not sure if we will be coming back soon.  Japan is not that easy to reach from England.  So we have tried to make the most of it.  It's true we have not cycled long distances here, but the geography and the climate has proven not to be so kind to cyclists.  We are reflecting on this as we head west along the top coast of Honshu from the port of Maizuru.  There's a display telling us the temperature of the road surface (the winters can be fierce here).  It's 28 degrees and it's not yet 8.30 in the morning.  If anything requires strength and determination when you are cycle-touring then this is the kind of thing.  It's Gayle's birthday and we are on a fairly busy road on a Saturday morning and we are baking.  We find late-morning refuge in a McDonalds.  Outside it's bright on the eyes and the air is sticky.  There'd been little humidity in Hokkaido so we need to reacclimatise.

don't spit on the sand

The ride takes us along the coast and over a sand spit rated as one of Japan's most scenic spots.  There are lovely pines growing and a path runs the length of the spit but the notion of this being one of the top three most scenic places in Japan typifies what is wrong with tourism here.  They like lists here, and you have to tick them off.  You have to eat the right food in the right place. It's a new face to that old conformity thing.  Everyone does the same thing.  We hurry quickly on, trying to avoid any busy roads without losing time.  We have a week to reach the port town of Sakaiminato where we can take a ferry to Korea.  We have plenty of time but don't want to arrive at the last minute.  After a good day's ride we then find ourselves diverting to a park to camp. 
the camera lens is steaming up - before 7 am
 Our map doesn't tell us the park is on the top of a big hill.  Nor that it is a private 'leisure' park and that we will have to camp beside the carpark.  We cook our tea in the evening swelter.  There's not a breath of air.  The tent is pitched on a slope and the only bright spark is a wash with a bowl of water that helps get some of the sweat off.  Inside the tent it is too darn hot.  At some point I pass out.  I wake with a start in the night - something is smothering me.  I can't breathe. I raise my hands to pull it off but there's nothing there.  Just the hot heavy night.  Maybe all the rain in Hokkaido wasn't that awful after all......

how to photograph those killer climbs?

In our efforts to stay off the main roads we find ourselves on narrow twisting roads sticking close to the coast.  These roads sometimes climb precipitously before swooping back down to the sea.  The coast is stunning - lots of small bays, jutting outcrops of rocks and high forrested headlands.  The riding is never dull but it's demanding.
plenty of pretty villages
At least there are no trucks on the the small roads.  Sometimes we ride the main highway, and try to stay tucked in.  The trucks here go too fast on the roads and are not prepared to brake when they approach us.  If the road is clear, they overtake giving us ample space, but if there's traffic coming the other way, they will glide straight past us.  It's unnerving sometimes.  I take to riding out on Gayle's shoulder to at least try and deter cars from trying to squeeze past.  But the best plan is to take whatever alternative road there is.  We therefore are climbing a lot of steep passes on these dramatic little roads over the next few days and it's tiring.

Nights in the tent require some more thought.  We soon opt to leave the tent porch tied completely back to allow any air that moves to waft through our mesh door.  We can't open the tent door because of mosquitos that plague us.  In a 100 yen shop we pick up fans.  The best 50 pence I have ever spent, bar my Peru subbuteo football team from 1978. 
sleeping under the railway bridge

The coast is dotted with lots of fishing villages with lovely sandy coves and some good beaches.  We sometimes stop so that Gayle can swim while I hide out under some shade.  I've become sun-phobic - sick of the bloody heat.  If we can time it right we sit out the midday sun under an arbor - a bit of shade to eat and doze.  On the edge of Tottori there are some large coastal sand dunes and we arrive at them at about 9am.  It is blistering.  I refuse to climb the dunes.  Gayle gamely heads off and I get chatting to a woman who works for the national parks.  She asks if we need anything.   A bike shop.  It's clearly not what most tourists are looking for when they arrive at the dunes.  You can, after all, take a camel ride.  But she is undeterred and takes me to her boss who knows the city well.  He prints me a map.  It's not a bike shop for mama charis? I check.  You can easily find shops selling and repairing the classic old shopping bikes but they aren't going to have what we want. 

the view from the dunes

As it is, the Fukuhama bike shop, a family business, is perfect.  I explain we need a new bottom bracket but that I want to install it, er, well, but I need to borrow your tools to do it.  Mr. Fukuhama seems to understand and gives his son instructions.  He brings me the tools and then watches me do something I've never done before - remove the bottom bracket.  It's not complicated, but I'm terrible doing stuff like this while someone watches me.  In fact I'm terrible when no-one watches me too, but then it doesn't bother me.  Under the gaze of Fukuhama Junior I start trying to unscrew the lockring in the wrong direction.  It's anti-clockwise, not clockwise.  Stupid, eh?  Yeah, well, it is clockwise on the other side, so there.  The bottom bracket removed looks like a cheap thing.  Happily Fukuyama Junior finds a Shimano replacement in amongst their huge stock of spare parts.  It's such a rare thing to see in a bike shop - most don't keep a large stock these days.  When I'm done he quickly starts to check through the gears.  I indicate I can't afford a service but he waves me off smiling.  The family understand and only charge us for the new part.  This is a relief.  And Gayle can now cycle more efficiently.

the ubiquitous vending machine - how could the Japanese survive without them?

The night before we close in on Sakaiminato we find ourselves camping in an old fortress. We wanted to camp in the sports park next door but the caretaker spots us while we are cooking dinner at a picnic table.  "No camping" he says.  Okay then. He looks at the rice cooking on the stove.  "No fire".  I point to the cigarette bin.  "No smoking?" I ask.  He seems to understand my point.  We tell him we'll be finished in an hour.  He's the first and only Japanese to ever appoach us like this and it seems painful to him - although that might be because he has to speak to the stupid foreigners in long-forgotten English.  The night is windy.  We have seen a weather forecast that refers to a typhoon coming.  In the morning there's a bit of rain, and I get Gayle up in alarm. I'm getting more like Clive Dunn in Dad's Army every year.  It's not yet 6 and she's like a bear with a sore head, but I don't want to hang around if there's a typhoon coming.  We pack up and head out with an enormous tailwind.  The coastal road has flattened out and we trundle along quickly.  Rain threatens now and again, but nothing heavy.  The sky is dark though and visibility very poor.  Not so far away the big mountains lie invisibly cloaked in grey murk.  We are two days early for the weekly ferry, so we head to the main train station in Yonago.  It's rainy and windy now and we have decided to look for a cheap hotel.  At the tourist information desk they point us towards two nearby business hotels.  While Gayle is inside the police (nick-named the not-so-busies) approach me and point to the bikes.  Where are we going?  Do we know the typhoon will hit tomorrow?  They look happy that we plan to take a hotel room.  And I'm happy too because we've had some hot sweaty nights recently and don't want to top it with a typhoon.  Gayle emerges from the tourist information office with the news that our ferry has been cancelled. Ah.
calm before the storm

Comfortably settled in our hotel room we realise we have bought food for cooking but only have petrol to use in the stove.  I head back out in the rain to find gas.  My search is long and I end up riding to an out-of-town shopping mall to find a sports shop.  By the time I get back I am soaked to the skin.  But we have a nice comfy bed in a dry room - shelter from the storm.  We chew over our options - stay here for one week or go for plan B - we continue down the Japanese coast and take a different ferry, one that runs daily, to Busan in Korea.  It will mean we have a different kind of ride in Korea, and at least five more days riding in Japan, but at least we are not dependent on the weather.  Typhoon 12 is mapped out at sea and may arrive the following week.  Meanwhile the TV weather shows have endless discussion and explanation of the weather patterns.  In the morning the weather seems not too bad - and it seems from the TV that we are actually right in the centre of the weather system that is now dumping huge volumes of rain over Osaka and points east of us.   But here in Yonago it's not that bad.  Blistering barnacles, could our ship have sailed after all?  

this coastline was stunning and not built up - in contrast to the other side of Honshu

Sunday, 5 July 2015

back to Japan

As if by magic, the clouds in the sky part and the sun shines brilliantly through. We have ridden through a smallish pass and now continue west through expansive rolling farmland.  To avoid going into the city of Asahikawa we take farming roads that lead to a river with a bike path.  We know the river flows into the Ishikari River which we need to follow so we optimistically stay with it until we reach an impasse.  Our tributary cuts through a tight gorge and there's no option but to cycle up and over a steep hill and down the other side.  We're trying to avoid the main highway and we know there's another bike path along the Ishikari, but there's a railway in the way.  Finally we get to the path and then 500 metres later we reach a barrier with signs only in Japanese.  Someone has thoughtfully pulled back the fence and we push through to continue.  The river is big here, and it is winding westwards through the fingers of foothills spreading out from the central mountains.  We find ourselves in a tight winding valley with steep forrested hillside above us, the railway cutting through a series of tunnels and on the other riverbank, the bustling main road.  Our bike path has a bit of rockfall, but is otherwise fine.  We continue happily until we reach another barrier.  Again, the fence has been pulled back, so once again we push past and continue until we reach a more solid gate.  This one has no gaps.  It's solid.  Ahead are old tunnels which the bike path uses, so perhaps these have collapsed?  Who knows.  We backtrack to a bridge and miserably join the thrash and thunder of the highway.  And then, wonderfully, we notice there's a separate bike path running alongside on the old road.  We quickly divert and cycle in peace by the river along an overgrown old tarmac road that now has fully grown trees sprouting up through the centre line.  We're so jolly to be away from all the traffic.  Eventually we can cross back onto the bike path on the other side and find ourselves emerging onto a huge plain of farms.  It seems endless.  It is endless.  This is the edge of the huge valley that sprawls north to south between the main cities on the island.  

We cycle in long straight lines for a whole day.  The fields are full of corn, maize, and wheat.  There are lines of pines to provide wind breaks.  It is a sunny, hot Sunday when we reach Iwamizawa.  The rain seems to be a thing of the past.  Clare and Andy are very kindly hosting us even though they are winding down and preparing to leave after five years working on the JET programme here.  They clearly have enjoyed Hokkaido, even if the work has not been particularly interesting.  The JET programme is essentially providing foreign language assistance in teaching English in schools.  Both Andy and Clare are skiers and hikers, so they've made the most of being here and exploring at the weekends.  Now they are preparing for a cycle ride back to Europe.  
with Clare and Andy
We are welcomed with wine and a barbecue - meat that was part of their prize for their recent Sea to Summit success.  We sleep soooo well in their flat and are glad of the rest and it's interesting to hear about their experience living in Japan.  They have a plan to return to Hokkaido.

Feeling much restored by our stay with such lovely folk, and cheered by the continuing good weather, we cycle over to Sapporo, the island's main city.  We don't plan to, but after dithering about along the way we end up camping in one of the city's parks.  The city has a pleasant feel in the centre, helped by the trees. So many of Japan's towns have no trees along the roads and streets, they look and feel so bleak and contrast sharply with the abundant growth in the countryside.  It's strange, because the towns are so clean and well-maintained.  There are parks and green areas, but Japanese city centres generally look rather grey and utilitarian.  This feeling is endorsed by another cycle tourist we meet, an Englishman who has just flown in from Xi'an in China, where he lives.  His first reaction, looking around outside the train station, is that it's just like a Chinese city.  He's also wondering about the weather.  It is so much cooler here than he expected. 

breakfast in the park
We have an easy ride out to the port of Otaru just north west of Sapporo.  At one point we do have to climb a steep hill that brings on a sweat, but we are rewarded with the corresponding downhill on the other side into the port.  After setting off from Clare and Andy's yesterday we noticed that Gayle's bottom bracket was shot.  This is not a medical condition, thankfully.  It just means that her pedal power is reduced.  We ask at a bike shop but they don't have one that fits.  Gayle will have to tick along for the time being with her clanking cranks.

At the port we meet a tall Russian in army fatigues called Valentin.  He has come from Sakhalin island and is on his way to Osaka.  He studied one year in Kyoto and is fluent in Japanese.  In the lounge waiting to board the ferry we get into a three-way conversation with a young Japanese couple.  They comment that we and Valentin look the same. In fact, I think they say that I could be his dad.  I try to ignore this.  Of course, we do share some of the same Viking genes.  But Valentin points out that our cultural attitudes are not so similar.

Aboard the ferry we quickly find our sleeping berths - a luxurious 2nd class passage - then take a proper hot bath in the on-board onsen.  The night passes quickly - it's a late sailing - and we have the rest of the day also at sea with time to read and sleep.  It's so relaxing that when we arrive we consider hiding aboard for the return journey.  Valentin has considered the same thing.  While he goes off hitchhiking to Osaka we quickly find a tiny park to camp and sleep.  We're back on Honshu and our Japanese jaunt is coming to an end.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

rain stops play

After the excitement of the afternoon we find ourselves in a small town with a free campsite.  The place is nice and quiet.  There's a michi no eki with an indoor seating area which proves to be useful when we awake the next day to Scotch mist.  It's drear.  As we have a wet tent and a dry shelter for cooking we decide to stay put for the day and catch up on-line using the michi no eki's free wi-fi.  The drizzle is so fine that you'd think it wasn't raining but you get soaking wet quickly.  The big hills we could see last night have disappeared and the temperature has plummeted to around 13 degrees. Happily, after a hard day at the office, there is a hot foot bath in a tiny plaza by the river.  It's a hot-spring village with three spa hotels, and the foot bath is a little 'taster'.  On a cold day it makes sense to sit and soak our feet and the bath is under an arbor with a big polythene wrap to keep out the wind.  
free campsite in Onsenyu

 The next day is a repeat of the previous, except that on this day I get into my trunks and lie in the foot bath.  It seems little used and there's a constant flow of hot water.  Delightful.  And then a local family turns up and I have to embarrassingly extricate myself quickly from the bath.  They look completely unfazed.  It's the Japanese way.

the farmland reminds us of Scandinavia
After rain-enforced rest we continue eastwards towards three volcanic lakes.  It's dry with a cold wind and the cycling is easy until the late afternoon when typically we have to climb over some hills and earn our sleep.  It's a long slow and hot climb up to the caldera rim overlooking Lake Kussharo the next morning.  The sun is back out with a vengeance and the view at the top is wonderful.  The forest has been cleared here and the area is covered in bamboo grass.  Before us is the volcanic lake and in the distance the chain of mountains leading out east.  Here we meet an Aussie/Swedish couple on a touring holiday and we have a good natter before continuing on down to the lake shore.  

The lake looks pleasingly undeveloped and on a peninsula there is a free hotspring where we can soak.  So naturally we do.  Angie and Eddie are walking their dog and we get chatting.  They're on a big road trip north from Tokyo where they work at an international school.  It turns out it's the same school as Seth and Sandy's which seems like a remarkable coincidence and we end up camping and dining together at nearby picnic tables.  There's a paying campsite about two hundred metres away, but why bother?  The only miscreants around here come from the trees.  The Japanese claim the crane as their national bird and their largest habitat is the wetlands south of here.  But for us the national bird is the crow.  It's big, it's noisy and it's everywhere, laughing at us when we're struggling up mountain roads and cawing outside our tent at first light.  Andy and Clare had warned us - here they rummage in our plastic bags or fly down and swoop away clutching one.

Eddie and Angie cooking up amidst the evening mozzies
The lake is placid as the sun sets but in the morning the skies have clouded over and the wind is up.  We pack up and say our farewells to Eddie and Angie before heading northwards, out of the caldera and towards the sea.  Just before we reach the rim we bump into Peter from Belgium.  He has a fortnights' holiday here and the weather has so far been lousy.  The forecast is more rain.  We all feel duped into believing the view that while Japan has a rainy season in June, in Hokkaido the rain stays away.  What nonsense.  As we reach the coastal plain it is pissing down.  We find refuge at roadside services and come to a decision:  to head back towards Sapporo and take a ferry south to Honshu.  It will take us a few days cycling in any case but if we go any further it will take even longer to reach the port at Otaru.  Being decision-averse, this feels like a Good Thing and we set back off in the rain heading north up the coast.  This is not the most direct route but we want to head back over to the west of the island via a low pass, rather than slog through the bigger mountains in the rain.  

er...just run that one by me again Gayle

We arrive soaking wet at the Abashiri michi no eki in the late afternoon.  Parked round the back is a loaded bike.  It belongs to a young Japanese guy called Shuto (pronounced Shooto, he helpfully mimes kicking a football screaming into the top corner of the net - he's good at miming).  

Shuto carries a cap gun to ward off bears
Shuto is, like many young men at this time of the year, cycling around Japan.   Except Shuto originally came to Hokkaido at the end of February to start.  This is the middle of winter when the island is under thick snow and freezing cold. So he found work for a free bed in a Share House.  What's a Share House, we ask.  A house shared by people, he explains patiently. Ho hum.  His english is good - he has spent a study year in Fiji.  He tells us he camped here last night.  Where? He points through the huge plate glass picture windows with a view of the grey sea.  Outside at the back of the building is a large area of decking under a roof.  Ideal in these conditions, the building closes at 6.30pm.  We tell him we will join him tonight, if that's okay.  Meanwhile there's some heat and free wi-fi while the building is open.  After shopping and cooking in an arbor outside the local library we return in the dark to find Shuto already pitched and in bed.

  The sun flickers momentarily the next morning as we continue north.  Shuto appears not to require food and is off early while we enjoy our morning breakfast with the luxury of free wi-fi.  The forecast is still poor so it's no surprise when it starts to rain again at lunchtime.  We've had 25 kilometres of bike path this morning, around a couple of lagoons, and now the road has temporarily left the coast.  We find Shuto sheltering at another michi no eki.  He tells us there's a Rider House not far up the road.  We've not stayed at any yet because we don't know how to find them. (We asked Rob how to spot them.  He told us they have the words 'Rider House' written outside them. Ahh so.)  This one is on an old steam train.  We wait for a gap in the rain and make a dash for it.  For 300 yen (about £1.70) each we can have a space in a carriage on the old train parked up at the now disused station of Kerrochi.   There are a few motorbikers and a guy from Okinawa on his 125cc Honda scooter.  We like him, but the bikers all seem a bit odd.  For an extra 100 yen we have a scaldingly hot shower and an opportunity to shed some dead skin.  By the end of the day, after we've got comfy and settled, the sun comes out and we feel a bit silly not camping.  But we brighten when the rain hammers down on the carriage roof at nightfall. Rain can sound so wonderful when you're tucked up somewhere warm and dry. 

there's no shortage of flowers across Japan
Once again, Shuto departs without food.  Before he leaves he tells us of a free Rider House in Okope on another train.  We arrange to meet him there in the afternoon.  The ride along the coast is easy, with fairly flat roads.  Inevitably it rains at some point but not for long.  When we get to Okope we immediately find Shuto at the michi no eki.  Tucked in a park, behind the building, are a couple of railway carriages with a little outdoor cooking area.  We check out the free accommodation - allotted space on the floor of one carriage where you can roll out your mat.  But there's hardly any space for bags and the place is busy.  As the skies are clear we decide to camp instead.  We think that Shuto asks the kind lady at the information desk if that's okay, even though we haven't asked him to.  We think we'll just wait for nightfall before we pitch.  But before closing time, the woman brings us both some chocolate and asks if we want to camp.  Yes, we do, is that okay?  She hums and haws.  The reason for her hesitation is the weather forecast.  And as if on cue it begins to rain "cats and dogs", as Shuto says.  The woman is obviously concerned for us, as the railway carriage is now full for the night.  But there is the other one which is just kept for show.  She tells us we can use it.  I almost fall to the floor at her feet.  Such kindness! What fools we've been!  As soon as we have unloaded our bikes and Mrs Information leaves for the evening, the rain stops.  Who could have guessed?  There are twelve Japanese travellers squeezed into the other carriage and we have the other one all to ourselves.  Mr Honda Scooter from Okinawa is one of the guests next door and he pokes his head in at the door to look over our spacious lounge.  He says something in Japanese. Jammy buggers!

In the morning we say farewell to Shuto once again.  Here we go separate ways as we head west across the island and he continues to the northern cape.  He's been good company and fun and we have been happy to meet an animated and uninhibited young Japanese.  (Shuto managed to use an exclamatory "Fuck!" to begin so many conversations that it became his catchphrase.) As we ride off into the rain we feel once again that we have made the right decision to finally head back to Honshu.  Our time in Japan is coming to an end.  At yet another michi no eki we are able to get free wi-fi and check messages.  Andy and Clare have replied to our Warm Showers request to let us know it's okay to stop at theirs on our way to Sapporo.  We are on our way with an extra kick to our pedals.  We need to escape this rain.