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.

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