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.

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