Day 10 – Nemuro City to Betsukai (根室市 - 別海) - 100km
One of the motorcyclists from the Okaba rider house was already at Cape Nosappu (納沙布岬) when I arrived, and Mr Pine Origin turned up not long after, raving about a sanma (秋刀魚 / saury) set breakfast he had eaten along the way. Crab, too, is a local speciality, and a flotilla of crab fishing boats sailed into the bay at about ten in the morning, attracting flocks of both seagulls and sightseers.
After Cape Erimo, Cape Nosappu - the easternmost point in the four main islands of the Japanese archipelago - was the second extremity of Hokkaido on my circumnavigation, and home to a small museum with a huge stuffed sea lion in the foyer, a restaurant selling something called teppoh-jiru (鉄砲汁 / handgun soup) and Shima-no-kakéhashi (四島のかけはし), a monument symbolising the hope that Russia will one day be nice enough to give back some of the disputed Kuril Islands to Japan.
Possibly my favourite Japanese kanji are 凸凹, which not only have a satisfyingly onomatopoeic pronunciation - deko-boko* - but also an attractively symmetrical shape that in turn suggests their meaning. Individually they mean 'convex' and 'concave', and in combination 'uneven' or 'up and down', so the road from Cape Nosappu to Betsukai was deko-boko, and the further up each deko I climbed, the more I had to pull my baseball cap over my eyes to keep out the sun's glare until the next boko.
(This was a half-boat / half-building hybrid I spotted along the way.)
'Oh look, it's a cyclist!' said the caretaker at the Betsukai campsite. 'Where have you come from today?'
'Er, Furano, I think.'
'Furano?' exclaimed the caretaker. 'That's quite a ride for one day.'
'A few hundred kilometres, I should think,' said one of his colleagues.
'At least I think it was Furano.' I still hadn't quite got the hang of the place names in Hokkaido, many of which were originally coined by the native Ainu. 'Actually, it could have been something ending in "ro".'
'Kushiro?' said the caretaker.
'No, I was there a few days ago.'
'Yes, that's the one!'
There was an onsen just up the road from the campsite, and I gave a start when I looked in the changing room mirror. The Okaba rider house had been so infested with mosquitoes that we left a katori-senkoh
(蚊取り線香 / mosquito coil) burning in the dormitory all night, and my eyes were as red as Oliver Reed's on the morning after a three-day bender. In between this, Mr Pine Origin's snoring, a cock crowing in the yard and a foghorn blowing at regular intervals nearby, I hadn't had the best night's sleep. It was also forty-eight hours since my last proper bath, so in order to make myself feel at least partially human again, this evening I spent approximately:
5 minutes in the shower
10 minutes in the rotenburo
(露天風呂 / outside bath)
3 minutes beneath a kind of waterfall massage thingy
2 minutes in the sauna followed by 2 minutes in the mizu-buro
(水風呂 / cold bath)
3 more minutes in the sauna followed by 3 more minutes in the mizu-buro
4 more minutes in the sauna followed by 4 more minutes in the mizu-buro
5 more minutes in the rotenburo
3 more minutes beneath the waterfall massage thingy and
3 more minutes in the mizu-buro
I sighed like the bloke from the Strongbow ad
for pretty much the entire 49 minutes, and just to make things that little bit more conducive, there was a view from the rotenburo of the Shirétoko Peninsula (知床半島), which was to be the next extremity on my circumnavigation of Hokkaido.
* Actually, 凸凹 are not always deko-boko. In more formal or literary contexts they go by the much less catchy pronunciation of totsu-oh.
Mrs M and I live in the countryside, where it is pretty much impossible to lead a normal life unless you have a car, and while I do manage to cycle to work most days, when we go out shopping, sightseeing or to visit friends and family, it is almost always in our still prized and resolutely unglamorous Toyota Platz
.The most convenient thing about driving here - if you're British, at least - is that they do so on the left-hand side of the road. This means that to obtain a Japanese driving licence, all I had to do was take an eye test and fill out some forms (similarly, Mrs M got her British driving licence in double-quick time), whereas if you hail from a country that drives on the right, you'll need
to pass a practical driving test first.
The vast majority of cars are automatics, which often leads to the kind of accidents where confused OAPs mistake the accelerator for the brake pedal
, and for someone who was born and raised on the manual gearbox, makes for a rather dull driving experience. For variety's sake I keep my left hand busy by shifting into neutral and 'coasting' to a halt at the traffic lights, but even allowing for such eco-friendly driving techniques, you can still get more miles to the gallon - or rather, kilometres to the litre - out of a manual. Speaking of which, at the time of writing a litre of unleaded costs 145 yen (about £1), and a litre of diesel (aka kei-yu
/ 経由) 125 yen. Hybrids, incidentally - the Toyota Prius is still the second-best-selling car in Japan, and recently passed worldwide sales of five million - aren't necessarily any more economical, and if you buy an all-electric car - like, say, the Nissan Leaf
- there are still precious few places to plug it in.
As for road safety, Japan is statistically similar to the UK, with 4,663 road deaths in 2011 compared to 1,901 in the UK: in other words, nearly 4 deaths per 100,000 people, or 7 deaths per 100,000 cars owned. This compares favourably with many developed countries, including the US, where you are approximately twice as likely to kick the bucket in a car crash. Within Japan itself,
while Ibaraki accounted for the eleventh highest number of road deaths by prefecture in 2012 (142), relatively speaking, and as of 2010, it was only the 27th most dangerous prefecture in which to drive, with around 50 accidents per 10,000 people. Kagawa Prefecture in Shikoku was ranked as the most dangerous in both 2010 and 2011, with 112 accidents per 10,000 people, and Shimané Prefecture in western Honshu as the safest.
While seatbelts and child seats are compulsory, the latter are a recent development, and many people still neglect to strap their children in, or only resort to doing so to avoid being stopped, rather than with the more noble intention of protecting their child in the event of an accident. When M Jr was born, Mrs M's mother wondered why we didn't just hold her in our arms for the drive home, and the two-year-old daughter of a friend of Mrs M's is regularly taken to the family rice field by her grandmother: the grandmother rides a scooter, the granddaughter sits between her legs in the footwell, and neither of them wears a helmet.The speed limit on most roads is a conservative 60kph (around 40mph) and even on expressways
rises to just 100kph (around 65mph), although as in the UK, the majority of road users routinely exceed the limit by 10 or 20kph. You are, therefore, unlikely to be pulled over by the rozzers unless you're really putting your foot down.
Drink driving, on the other hand, is very much frowned upon, and while the limit in the UK is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, in Japan it is just 0.15mg. Not only that, but depending on the circumstances, the owner of the car, the passengers and whoever supplied the alcohol in the first place can all potentially be found liable should a drunk driver get into a prang. Civil servants caught drink driving automatically lose their jobs - I know of several teachers who have been sacked in and around Mito, and who will never be able to work in the school system again - and as a consequence are no longer permitted to hold staff parties on the evening before a work day. (My one brush with the Japanese police came way back in 2005, when I was stopped for failing to obey a stop sign. It was the middle of
the night on a deserted side street - or at least that was what I pleaded as an excuse - and having had a beer earlier in the evening, I could have received a lot more than just a ticking off had they decided to breathalise me.)
Similar to the UK, accumulating a certain number of points on your driving licence can cause it to be suspended or revoked, and the licences themselves come in three different flavours. New drivers get a green licence
, which is replaced after two or three years with a blue one - at this point you are required to sit through a two-hour lecture on road safety, during which the boredom is only partially relieved by a video of real-life fender-benders and near-misses. Provided you don't get into trouble within the following three years, you are then rewarded with a gold licence, which only has to be renewed once every five years, although the renewal time starts to come down again once you reach seventy years old.Perhaps more important than this in practical terms is the MOT - aka sha-ken / 車検 - which is both stricter and more expensive than in many other countries. Putting my clapped-out old Vauxhall Astra through its UK MOT often cost no more than the basic cost of the test - currently £54.85 - whereas the two-yearly sha-ken on our Platz recently set us back
100,000 yen (about £750), despite the fact that it was in perfect working order. For this reason, you will hardly ever see a clapped-out old Vauxhall Astra in Japan, and if their car needs some work, people tend to get it done properly (Mrs M couldn't believe it when I replaced a broken wing mirror on the Astra with a new one in a different colour, simply because a matching one would have been more expensive).
So Japan is, by and large, a relatively safe and relatively peaceful place to drive, although there are some habits, customs, rules and regulations that are worth bearing in mind for the foreign first-timer:
- Most drivers on a dual carriageway will opt for the right-hand lane, meaning that a lot of overtaking is done on the inside lane. The Japanese equivalent of the Highway Code says that you should keep to the left and overtake on the right, so like the speed limit, this is another case where theory and practice differ.
- When approaching an open level crossing, one is expected to stop one's car and check for trains before proceeding, and as is the case with stop signs (see above), a police car will often be lurking to catch anyone who fails to do so. For someone who has absolute faith in the reliability of Japanese technology, up to and including the automatic barriers at level crossings, this seems unnecessary, but the law was brought in to prevent accidents like the one that occurred in 2000 in Saitama Prefecture, when a car was hit by a train after a lightning strike cut the electrical supply to the barriers.
- If they overtake at all, motorcyclists and scooter-ists tend to do so on the inside, and you will often see bikers patiently waiting in line in traffic jams, which as far as I'm concerned defeats the whole object of riding a bike in the first place. But anyway, while helmets are compulsory (unless you happen to be a great-grandmother giving a lift to her great-granddaughter, that is), one or two youngsters will deliberately flout the rules for the purposes of 'looking' 'cool'. Just the other week we saw one such rebel-without-a-skid-lid being chased by a police motorcycle, and Ibaraki, it should be noted, is a magnet for boh-sohzoku
(暴走族 / motorcycle gangs), who ride their souped-up machines (actually, perhaps souped-down would be a better phrase) at maximum revs for maximum disturbance, but are almost certainly polite young lads with proper jobs who still live with their mums.-
Many minor and indeed major roads have no pavements (that's sidewalks if you're of the North American persuasion), which can render pedestrians unnecessarily vulnerable: in April 2012, a teenage driver fell asleep at the wheel and ploughed into a line of parents and children on their way to school. Two people were killed, including a pregnant mother, and their lives might have been saved had there been either a pavement or the concrete dividers - known as enseki
/ 縁石 - that are often used in place of one.
- You are expected to give way to pedestrians when turning either left or right into a side road, so if you try to nip through a gap in the oncoming traffic while turning right, you may find yourself confronted with a walking stick-wielding grandad and no choice but to wait until he finishes crossing. Conversely, Japanese motorists are addicted to what bikers refer to as the 'crafty right' - ie. turning right the very millisecond the lights change, and before anyone coming from the opposite direction has had time to react.- A much more risky addiction than the crafty right is what is known in Japanese as shingoh-mushi (信号無視 / ignoring a red light). It is not unusual for as many as three or four cars to carry on through a junction after the lights have changed, and the practice
is so prevalent that I can only assume the traffic lights here are timed to take it into account.
One final piece of good news: despite being included in the driving test, parallel parking (juu-retsu chuu-sha
/ 縦列駐車) is practically unheard of, and you will never encounter the kind of street one so often sees in the UK, with a line of parked cars on either side and barely enough room down the middle to ride a Fiat 500. Instead, the typical Japanese driver will take great pains to use an ordinary car parking space correctly: for example, I have never seen Mrs M's father park his car without going in and out of the space at least three times, until the wheels are perfectly aligned and precisely equidistant between the markings on either side.
Day 9 – Akkeshi to Nemuro City (厚岸 - 根室市) - 106km
'There aren't any shops on the coast road, you know,' said the old lady at the youth hostel. 'So I made you these.'
Refusing to accept any money, she presented me with a packed lunch of two grapefruit-sized nigiri (rice balls).
'I hope you've got some sun block.'
'Don't worry,' I said. 'I've put it on already,' and thought as she waved me off that while she may not have been youthful, she was just the right sort of person to be running a hostel: nosy, but only in the sense that she was concerned for the welfare of her guests.
Just outside Akkeshi, an official-looking car - yellow and black with red lights on the top, rather like an AA van - stopped on the other side of the road.
'Excuse me, sir,' said the driver, leaning out of the window. 'Will you be heading along the coast road?'
'Please watch out for cars along the way.'
Telling someone to watch out for cars on a road seemed like rather unnecessary advice, but it was nice to know the powers that be were concerned for the welfare of a humble cyclist.
'No, not cars,' he said, 'bears.' (An easy mistake to make: the Japanese for car is kuruma - 車 - and the Japanese for bear is kuma - 熊.) 'There was a sighting earlier this morning.'
According to conventional wisdom, a bear is liable to attack if you happen upon it without warning, whereas it will steer clear if it can hear you coming in advance. So I gave my rather weedy bicycle bell a ping to show that I was fully prepared, and the man told me to take care before driving off again.
(This is a 'beware of the bear' sign I saw later that morning:)
Certain routes in the Touring Mapple
are highlighted in purple, which denotes that readers have recommended them as being particularly scenic, and Routes 123 and 142 - which meandered their way along clifftops, past fishing villages, and around harbours, bays and tidal lakes - were purple almost all the way to Nemuro, making for some of the best riding of the summer.
On an inland stretch of Route 142 I met Mr Safe Wisteria, a sixty four year old from Osaka who had embarked on various adventures since his retirement, including sailing round the world on the Peace Boat
and walking the Shikoku-henro
(四国遍路), a pilgrimage to eighty-eight different temples around the island of Shikoku.
Along with panniers on both the front and back of his bike, Mr Safe Wisteria had a little basket on the handlebars with a radio in it - he said that it kept him company when there was no one to talk to - and because he was heading in the opposite direction, had just phoned the lady at Akkeshi youth hostel to book a room for the night.
With its broken windows, peeling paint and weed-strewn surroundings, the railway station at Hatta-ushi looked to be abandoned, although trains on the Nemuro Line do apparently stop there.
Japan maintains a much greater number of rural lines than, for example, the UK, and the one- or two-carriage trains that trundle along them are known as 'one man', which is a reference to the lone driver, although it could just as easily be to the number of passengers (Wikipedia Japan describes Hatta-ushi as being used by an 'extremely small number' of people).
In the manner of the Eurorail pass, foreign visitors can buy a Japan Rail Pass
, which allows unlimited use of the rail network. For the natives, though, and for those of us who live and work here, our best option is the juu-hachi-kippu
(18 ticket), which as the name implies is aimed at cash-strapped youngsters, and while it doesn't allow you to board Shinkansen
(新幹線 / aka bullet trains), can be used on just the kind of one mans that stop at Hatta-ushi.
(お母婆 / old hag) rider house was, as they say, a curate's egg: ie. good in parts. One of the good things was the price: it was free to stay there so long as you had your evening meal at the izakaya next door. One of the bad things was the lack of facilities: there was no shower, for example, so I had to settle for a hand bath while standing up at the sink (the guy who ran the place said they were in the process of building a shower block, but hadn't raised enough money to finish it yet). Because the Okaba was situated in what was effectively a swamp, another bad thing was the preponderance of mosquitoes, which meant that my twilight stroll was both good and bad: good in the sense that an atmospherically smoke machine-like mist hung in the air, and bad in the sense that I was bitten to shreds whenever I stopped to take a photo.
There were four of us staying at the Okaba that night, myself and three motorcyclists. One worked as a civil servant and another was studying at a vocational school, although I didn't find out much else about them because the third, Mr Pine Origin, was such a talker they could hardly get a word in edgeways.
Mr Pine Origin worked in Iwaté Prefecture as the secretary at an elementary school, which because of the long-ish holidays had enabled him to come to Hokkaido no less than seventeen times.
'I usually ride about three or four hundred kilometres a day,' he said. 'I once did six hundred, but I couldn't move my legs when I woke up the next morning.'
Bikers, it would seem, are the same the world over, and the three of them ordered extra-large portions of pork escalopes and pork kebab.
'As you can see,' said Mr Pine Origin, indicating his portly physique, 'I come to Hokkaido for the food.'
We rounded off the evening with Russian vodka and Russian chocolate, both provided on the house. Nemuro has close ties with Russia, and most of the city's road signs are in Russian as well as Japanese. There were Russian books on the izakaya's bookshelves, and photos on the wall from an annual visit to the Okaba by Russian schoolchildren: hopefully they don't mind the mosquitoes, I thought, as I dashed across the yard to the dormitory and slammed the screen door behind me as quickly as I could.
It is a Muzuhashi family trait to never, ever buy anything unless it's cut-price, 'seconds', sold-as-seen, extremely cheap or, ideally, second-hand, and while as a rule, I have about as much affection for the act of shopping as a footballer does for the act of fidelity, if threatened at gunpoint or bribed with the offer of limited edition New York cheesecake Choco Pie
, I will very reluctantly partake if the venue is a recycle shop.
Recycle shops are to Japan what charity shops are to the UK, and partly out of necessity (ie. recession), partly for environmental reasons (Tokyo was producing so much rubbish in the post-war years there is even an island - Yumé-no-shima / 夢の島 - built on it in Tokyo Bay), these days they're springing up all over the place.In contrast with a charity shop, however, instead of donating any old junk you think someone else might be willing to buy, you take your any old junk to the recycle shop, and the people who work there decide if someone else might be willing to buy it. The amount of money you get in return is risibly small,
but hey, at least you're giving those unwanted possessions a chance to be re-used instead of chucking them straight in the bin. (Also, and in contrast to selling second-hand goods in the UK, you get the same amount regardless of whether it's cash or part-exchange.
If you're a buyer, on the other hand - and particularly if you are, for example, a cash-strapped ALT just off the bus from Narita Airport - recycle shops can help you furnish your one-room Leo Palace apartment with nearly new and / or barely used bargains.
So with this in mind, here's my guide to the best recycle shops in and around Mito (if you spot any mistakes or can recommend any places I've missed, feel free to leave a comment):
/ せいみや (Tokai)
The original and best recycle shop, as well as furniture and 'white goods' (ie. fridges, washing machines etc), Seimiya has separate departments for hardware, antiques, office and kitchen equipment. For a small fee - and like most if not all of the shops on this list - they are willing to deliver larger items, and for a not-so-small fee, to take away your old kitchen appliances for recycling.
A word of warning: not everything in Seimiya is second-hand, so be sure to check the price and condition before you buy - if the item is new, you may be able to find it cheaper at somewhere like Nitori
or Joyful Yamashin
Directions: Seimiya is on the east side of Route 6 as it goes through Tokai-mura (there's a map
on their website). Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Seimiya: washing machine, 2 x fridge-freezers, dining table & chairs, vacuum cleaner, zaseki (座席 / those chairs-without-legs often found in Japanese living rooms).
2) Wonder Rex Naka-shi / ワンダーレックス那珂市 (Naka)
The Wonder Rex chain has a new shop in Akatsuka
, but the Naka branch is, in my humble opinion, better stocked. I've purchased pretty much every item of clothing I own there, and they also have musical instruments, electrical goods, kitchen goods, toys and sports equipment
(although Mrs M tells me the women's and children's clothes tend to be a little on the pricey side).
Directions: The Naka branch is on the south side of a road that runs between Route 349 and Route 6, and part of the San Molino / Homac shopping mall, which is easy to spot because of its large fake windmill (the official Wonder Rex homepage map is here
Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Wonder Rex: t-shirts, shorts, trousers, tracksuit tops, presentation set of flower-pattern Cath Kidston coffee mugs 3)
Hard Off Mito Minami-inter / ハードオフ水戸南インター (Mito)Hard Off isn't as big as Wonder Rex, but it sells the same kind of stuff, and if anything is probably slightly cheaper.
Don't go there looking for clothes, though, as they really do look like the sort of thing you would find in a run-down branch of the Sue Ryder Shop on Chippenham High Street.
Directions: The Mito branch is near the enormous K's Denki at the Route 50 bypass / Route 6 crossroads. Head towards the expressway from the crossroads and you'll find Hard Off on the right-hand side of the road (the Hard Off homepage map is here
Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Hard Off: oven, de-humidifier, chest of drawers, rucksack, baby bath, Bumbo
(Also worth checking out are the Hard Offs at Akatsuka
, and on Route 123 at Mashiko
, just over the border in Tochigi Prefecture.)4)
Book Off Route 50 bypass / ブックオフ５０号水戸元吉田 (Mito) Second-hand bookshops are all over the place in Japan, but one of the biggest chains, Book Off, has recently branched out into
selling general second-hand goods. The Mito branch specialises in menswear, although they also sell surfboards, wetsuits, golf clubs and so on, along with the usual books, CDs and DVDs.Directions: It's on the eastbound / north side of the Route 50 bypass,
where the bypass meets the road that runs directly from the south exit of Mito Station (the Book Off homepage map is here
).Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Book Off: t-shirts, polo shirts, trainers, sweaters, and, er, books
(For the more adventurous among you, there is a Book Off recycle superstore - the car park, it says on their website, has more than a thousand spaces - in Maébashi, Gunma Prefecture.)5)
Sohko-seikatsu-kan / 倉庫生活館 (Mito)There are several recycle shops catering to Ibaraki University students, and the best of them is
Sohko-seikatsu-kan. While it is part of a chain, Sohko-seikatsu-kan looks more like the kind of slightly dodgy, independent
recycle shops that bargain-hunters like - well, like me - get all worked up about, and stocks furniture, white and electrical goods, along with a smattering of other bits, bobs, odds and ends.Directions: It
's opposite a Max Valu supermarket, on a side road that runs parallel to - and south of -
Route 123 (see this map
), and not far from Ibaraki University and the Ibaraki Budokan.
Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Sohko-seikatsu-kan: hand mixer, chest of drawers6)
Seikatsu-kohboh-kan / 生活工芸館 (Mito)
Seikatsu-kohboh-kan may be small but it has a high turnover and, more importantly, is very cheap.
Directions: It's even closer to the University than Sohko-seikatsu-kan, on the T-junction of Routes 118 and 123 (see this map
Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Seikatsu-kohboh-kan: fan heater, washing pole7) Sohgoh Recycle Eco /
Sohgoh Recycle Eco is housed in a disused pachinko parlour, and as well as furniture and white goods, they also sell scooters and motorcycles.Directions:
It's on the north side of Route 51 between Mito and Oh-arai (there's a map
on their website)Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Sohgoh Recycle Eco: gas range8)
Furugi-ya-honpo / 古着屋本舗 (Mito)
Furugi-ya-honpo deals solely in clothing, and while
a lot of the second-hand stuff is 'vintage' (ie. expensive), there's a huge amount of stock to choose from, including sale rails outside.Directions:
As per this map
, it's on the westbound / south side of the Route 50 bypass, directly opposite Yamada Denki.Stuff Mrs M and I have bought at Furugi-ya-honpo:
hoodie, woolly hat, yukata9) Kanteidan / 鑑定団
(Akatsuka)Kanteidan's signage and homepage claim that you can buy and sell 'anything' there, although when Mrs M and went, pretty much the only second-hand stuff we could find was in the extensive clothing section on the top floor.
Directions: Kanteidan is on the eastbound / north side of the Route 50 bypass, between the Mito expressway interchange and the turn off for the old Route 50 at Akatsuka.Stuff that Mrs M and I have bought at Kanteidan: t-shirts, trainers
Yasui-ya / 安い屋 (Mito)
OK, so we're scraping the barrel a bit here, but trust me, Yasui-ya is worth visiting for sheer curiosity value. Most of the goods on display (if you can call it that - it looks more like they were dumped through the front doors off the back of a pick-up truck) have apparently lain untouched for several decades, and while the furniture in particular seems a little over-priced, I get the feeling they would be susceptible to haggling.
Directions: Yasui-ya is just off Route 118, slightly closer to the centre of Mito than Seikatsu-kohboh-kan, and on a side road that leads to the Nijuhsan-yason-keigan temple (二十三夜尊桂岸寺) (see this map
Stuff that Mrs M and I have bought at Yasui-ya: ceiling lamp10) Shinei / シンエーYou might not think so if you went there, but Shinei is in fact a
slightly more upmarket version of Yasui-ya.Directions: It's
on a back street near Akatsuka Station, as per this map
There are a few recycle shops in Hitachi-naka, but to be honest they're not much good (the pick of the bunch, Aru-aru, has recently been demolished), although you might want to check out the King Family clothes shop, which is here
. A recycle shop in Mito that I have yet to visit is
オーディン (Audin? Ohdin? Ordin?), which is on the old Route 50 near Kairakuen (info here).One final thing: for some reason you won't find many second-hand bicycles in recycle shops. Mountain / road / racing bikes do occasionally turn up, although like the mama-chari / shopping bikes, they tend to be over-priced.
Ｋushiro City to Akkeshi Town (釧路市 – 厚岸町) – 56km
Mr Small Field slept for almost the same amount of time he had been drinking, and somewhat improbably claimed not to have a hangover. He drove me to the nearest internet café and looked positively sheepish as we said our goodbyes – a different man entirely from the rosy-cheeked, world-peace-promoting party animal I had met the previous day.
‘Hello,’ said a woman’s voice on the other end of the phone.
‘Is that the Akkeshi youth hostel?’
‘Yes, it is. Can I help you?’
‘I’m afraid my Japanese isn’t very good so you'll have to bear with me, but do you have any vacancies for tonight?’
‘There’s a fellow here who says his Japanese isn’t very good. He wants to know if we’ve got any vacancies for tonight,’ said the woman to an unseen colleague. ‘Yes, we do.’
‘And do you serve meals or should I bring my own food?’
‘He wants to know if we serve meals or should he bring his own food,’ she continued, in the same manner. ‘We serve dinner and breakfast.’
‘Do you mind me asking how much it costs for one night?’
‘He said he wants to know how much it costs for one night.’
And so on and so forth. Despite the three-way nature of the call I did eventually manage to secure a reservation, although the woman was doubtful that I would make it the fifty or so kilometres to Akkeshi without getting rained on.
Having left the internet café at around midday, I was in such a hurry to take advantage of a break in the weather that I fell off the bike. Nipping across the road towards a conbini, I misjudged the height of a kerbstone and was propelled onto the pavement. With plenty of witnesses driving past, the experience was more embarrassing than it was painful, although I did have to tend to a grazed knee in the conbini toilet.
(This is a sign I saw just down the road: 'Nature Beautification', it reads, while the little cartoon can is sobbing, 'Don't throw me away~'.)
True to form the heavens opened just as I reached the highest point of the day’s ride, and with no shelter to speak of, I was soon soaked to the skin for the second time in three days. Or rather, my feet were: my waterproof jacket and waterproof trousers had lived up to their labels, while my supposedly waterproof shoes had not.
When I finally squelched into the hostel, it became clear that prefixing it with the word 'youth' was something of a misnomer. Wearing a pinny, wrinkled stockings and sandals, the woman who had answered my call was at least in her seventies, and the man to whom she had presumably relayed my side of our telephone conversation seemed even older, speaking with a rumbling, throaty growl that made it sound as if he had a tracheotomy (later on while dinner was being served, a whole gang of OAPs could be heard nattering away to each other in the kitchen).
'Did you go up the hill and onto the cape?' asked the woman. 'The last foreign guy who stayed here did.'
'I nearly did, yes - I had to ask three different people for directions before I found my way here. By the way, have you got some, er...'
'To dry your shoes with.'
'Yes, to dry my shoes with!'
As I was about to pop to the shops on an emergency Choco Pie
run later in the evening, she intercepted me at the front door.
'What time do you want to have breakfast?' she asked.
'You mean I can choose?'
'Will 8am be OK?'
'No, no. The cleaners will be in by then.'
'Hmm. That's probably a bit too late. How about seven?'
'Er, yes. Perhaps seven would be better.'
'That's settled, then,' she said. 'How old are you, anyway?'
'When you're my age, even a thirty-seven-year old looks like a school kid. Doesn't it get lonely sleeping in a tent all by yourself?'
'It is a bit scary sometimes, I suppose.'
My tatami-mat room at the hostel wasn't lonely or scary, but the pillow did, it has to be said, look and feel very much like a bag of gravel. Perhaps this would have some kind of therapeutic effect by massaging my pressure points as I slept. Either that or I would wake up the next morning with gravel marks all over one side of my face.
Churui to Chokubetsu (忠類町 – 直別) – 76km
Come the morning the campsite was positively buzzing: I met a pensioner who had come from Tokyo to escape the heat and play what is known as ‘park golf’ (‘You only need one club,’ he said. ‘What, you mean you don’t even use a putter?’ ‘Nope!’), a cyclist from Western Hokkaido who was practicing for a three-month tour of France the following year, and Mr Bell Tree, who like me had travelled from Ibaraki.
Mr Bell Tree was riding a Honda Cub, which are those little scooters often used by aspiring London cabbies as they swot up on The Knowledge. He was heading to the Shirétoko Peninsula to start a summer job at a tarako (鱈子 / cod roe) processing plant, and had spent the previous winter in India studying percussion. As we were sitting on his picnic blanket, yet more campers came over and asked if we wanted some breakfast. Mr Bell Tree got a rice ball, while I was given what looked to be a whole box of Choco Flakes doused in a full pint of milk.
As I was packing to leave, a mother introduced me to her bashful toddler, who hid behind her legs and covered his face with his hands. ‘Say bye-bye,’ she said, as he tried to run away altogether. ‘Look, this nice gentleman has come all the way from England,' she continued, lifting him up by his hand until his feet were off the floor. ‘It would be rude not to!’
You may or may not have been wondering – well, you probably haven’t been wondering, but I’m going to tell you anyway – what the average touring cyclist does when he or she needs to answer the call, as it were, of the wild. Obviously when one is cycling through the countryside public conveniences can be few and far between, so one tends to utilise the natural filtering qualities of grass verges to re-process one’s, er, number ones. There is, though, as I have discovered, a London bus-like rule, which dictates that even if you haven’t seen a single vehicle for hours on end, the very second you start to pee, two or three of them will pass by at once, forcing you to either finish hastily or stagger off into the bushes in mid-stream. Conversely, this rule ought to come in handy should your car happen to break down in the middle of nowhere: ie. if you stand by the side of the road with your thumb out waiting to be rescued, you may be there for quite a while, whereas if you unzip your fly and commence your ablutions, assistance should arrive within a matter of seconds.
When it comes to calls of nature on, so to speak, a larger scale, you might think that waiting until you find a public loo will solve the problem, but in Japan many toilets are still of the squat variety. Using one correctly (a friend of mine confessed that on his first encounter with a squat toilet, he took off his trousers and underpants, stood above it with his legs as wide apart as possible, aimed and hoped for the best) isn’t a problem, but using one while maintaining the full use of one’s lower body certainly is. Particularly because they tend to sit on the floor to eat, watch TV and so on, the Japanese have more flexible lower limbs than the rest of us, but to a chair dweller such as myself, remaining in a squatting position for ten or fifteen minutes at a time can trigger early onset arthritis, a process that is exacerbated should one’s knees already be in a fragile state from long-distance cycling. Today I spent ten or fifteen minutes in a supermarket restroom in the town of Urahoro, and emerged practically crawling along the floor, with all feeling gone from below the waist.
As the day wore on so the rain became heavier, and rather than camp, I decided to spend my first ever night in a rider house. While you will find rider houses elsewhere in Japan (I can recommend this one
in Nara Prefecture, for example), they are essentially a Hokkaido invention, and act as cheap and cheerful (sometimes even free and cheerful) accommodation for bikers and cyclists. Almost all have dormitories instead of private rooms, many are run as a sideline by shopkeepers, farmers and so on, and some are in public buildings which have fallen out of use or are empty during the summer months.
Admittedly the weather didn’t help, but the word ‘godforsaken’ seemed inadequate to describe the village of Chokubetsu, which was little more than a muddy car park next to an apparently abandoned railway station, and much less amusing than its name – worthy of inclusion in Roger’s Profanisaurus - suggested. Chokubetsu was supposedly blessed with not one but two rider houses, the first of which appeared to be out of business and completely run down, while the second appeared to be out of business and comparatively run down. As a mangy dog sniffed at my legs, it took several minutes before I noticed a menu and price list in the window of the marginally less dilapidated of the two buildings, with the rider house itself hidden away across the overgrown back yard and through an unmarked side door.
Having checked in, though, I was able to use a washing machine and tumble dryer, clean my water bottles for the first time, hang my tent up to dry, shave and have a bath (the place was run by an old lady who everyone referred to as okah-san
– お母さん / mum – and getting to the bathroom involved walking through her kitchen and lounge).
One of the other guests, Mr Middle Field, was in Hokkaido for his twelfth summer in a row, although rather than a motorbike, this year he was travelling by car with his wife and baby daughter. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the couple had met while touring in Hokkaido, and through his job in the oil industry, Mr Middle Field had travelled widely elsewhere: he had recently been to Kuwait and Bahrain, he said, where the temperature was fifty degrees centigrade.
Coincidentally, on the TV news the talk was of rising fuel and food prices, although despite the impending recession (this was summer 2008, remember), my room-mate - a Mr Inner Field, and not to be confused with Mr Middle Field - had just quit his job in Wakayama Prefecture. We both had trip computers on our bicycles, and Mr Inner Field said that his top speed so far was a dizzying 54kmh – six kmh faster than the 48 I had achieved on a downhill stretch earlier that day. In a car you would barely be out of third gear at 48kmh, but on a bicycle it feels as if you’re inserting your head into the very jaws of death itself.
Okah-san’s restaurant specialised in lamb barbecued with vegetables on an unusual, convex grill, a dish that for largely obscure reasons is known as Genghis Khan. Because Genghis Khan is barbecued at your table, and because several of the guests were smokers (a couple of leather-clad Harley enthusiasts turned up later in the evening to further cloud the air), it was like eating dinner in a fire drill evacuation practice tent, and not exactly the best environment for Mr Middle Field’s daughter.
Upon discovering that I didn’t eat meat, okah-san laid on a special set meal, although bless her, she seemed a lot more at home cooking for carnivores, and the salmon was little more than a lump of charcoal by the time it reached the table.
The weather forecast was for more rain, but much as I liked the people, I couldn’t see myself spending another day in Chokubetsu. The railway station, as it turned out, was functioning, but while the express trains sped through without stopping, the local ones were so infrequent that it wouldn’t even be possible to take a day trip to nearby Kushiro, so I decided to head off the next morning no matter what.
Day 5 – Erimo Town to Churui Village えりも町 – 忠類村 – 91km
There were so many futons in Mr Village Middle’s spare room that I wondered if he wasn’t running a guest house on the side. Having said that, there were also no sheets, no pillows and no curtains, so that I had to drape an old piece of material across the window when the first rays of the sun hit me directly in the face.
By that point Mr Village Middle had already left the house, although having returned at about nine, he said that the weather was no good for harvesting konbu and they had only been able to do prep work. Before I left he gave me a shoe-box sized package of the stuff for Mrs M’s family, and even drove me to the post office to send it off.
Calling in at Cape Erimo the previous day had given me the idea that instead of just wandering aimlessly around Hokkaido for five weeks, I should circumnavigate its coastline. With this in mind my next goal was Cape Nosappu to the northeast, heading for which would first of all take me along a 33-kilometre stretch of Route 336 better known as the Ohgon-dohro (黄金道路 / Gold Road).
The Gold Road was completed in 1934 and follows the rugged coastline between Erimo Town and Hiro-o Town. It took seven years to build, and earned its nickname because of the astronomical construction costs, which in today’s money would amount to approximately six billion yen, or more than a thousand pounds per metre of tarmac.
The road is closed due to bad weather more than any other in the country – approximately ten times a year – and in 1981, four people died from carbon monoxide poisoning after becoming stranded in one of its tunnels during a snowstorm. In fact, more of the Gold Road seems to be in tunnels than out of them, and even when I wasn’t cycling through one, I was overlooked by hillsides and cliff faces swathed in concrete and steel, or protected from potential rockfalls by barriers like this one.
Due to the harsh winter weather and the battering the Gold Road takes from the Pacific, it is still eating up construction cash even now, and when I was there, work was underway to lengthen its longest tunnel to nearly 5km. Up above, too, workers abseiled between a network of scaffolding walkways, their safety ropes disappearing into the fog, and crashing waves enveloped me in a fine mist of sea spray.
At Hiro-o Town – whose streets were lined with signs advertising its winter-only Santa Land theme park – the landscape levelled off, and I took a road that aside from one slight kink ran dead straight for about fifteen kilometres.
Cycling 100km a day necessitates a drastic increase in one’s calorie intake, so despite having breakfast at a convenience store in Hiro-o, it wasn’t long before I was feeling peckish, and it wasn't long after that that I was feeling absolutely bloody starving.
Out here there was nothing but fields and farmhouses, and the only shop in the coastal village of Asahihama was shut. That morning Mr Village Middle had given me a bag of pickled gyoja
(wild garlic) to send me on my way, which had stunk so much there was a danger of my clothes and camping kit (not to mention my breath) becoming infused with the aroma, so I had thrown it away. This meant that my only remaining rations were two satsumas and an emergency Cup Noodle, which as I now realised was useless without some emergency hot water.It wasn't until halfway through the afternoon that I finally found
a row of trusty jihanki
(自販機 / vending machines), which emerged from the fog at an otherwise deserted crossroads. The can of hot tea and bottle of pop I bought gave me just enough energy to make it to a supermarket, and I eventually called it a day at Churui Village, whose symbol is an animal known as Naumann’s Elephant.
Heinrich Edmund Naumann worked as an advisor to the Meiji government in the late 1800s, among other things producing the first proper geological map of Japan, and discovered the fossilised remains of a kind of half-elephant, half-mammoth hybrid in Yokosuka near Tokyo. T
he species - which lived in Japan for around 100,000 years, and whose tusks were up to two and a half metres long - was officially named after him in 1924, and since a Naumann's elephant was discovered in Churui in 1969 (the remains of one, that is, not a living version), the village now has its very own Naumann's Elephant Museum
. After checking in at the campsite next door and having a very hearty evening meal,
I could have done with an extra, mammoth-like covering of fur to help me through the night, which was damp, dark and distinctly chilly.
Niikappu Town to Erimo Town (新冠町 – えりも町) – 117km
The Airstream parked outside Mitsu-ishi roadside services was hard to ignore, not least because it was being towed by a Hummer.
‘It’s so big we couldn’t get through the gate to the campsite,’ explained the owners, who had driven all the way from Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture, ‘so we had to stay in the car park instead.’
The couple were taking a two-month trip around Hokkaido for the second summer in a row, and as well as a couple of generators strapped to the front of the Hummer, they had brought their dogs along for the ride.
Although less well known than nori
(海苔 / paper-thin sheets of crispy, dark-green nori are used as wrapping for the rice and fish of rolled sushi), konbu
(昆布) is probably the most palatable variety of seaweed for the uninitiated westerner, and is often served with soy sauce and sesame seeds as a rather moreish side dish called konbu-no-tsukudani
Just over a century ago, as Tokyo University professor Kikunaé Ikeda was eating dinner one evening, he wondered why it was that his mother’s homemade soup had always tasted so delicious. The next day he began a scientific analysis of the konbu it contained, and in the process discovered aji-no-moto
(味の素 / the origin of flavour), better known in the West as monosodium glutamate, or flavour enhancer, or E621. A hugely successful business
was built around Ikeda’s discovery, and by the name umami
, it has been added to the very short list of fundamental flavours recognisable to the human palate (the other four being sour, sweet, salt and bitter).
95% of Japanese konbu comes from Hokkaido, and along this stretch of coastline in particular, the harvest was in full swing.
Having picked the long, black strands of konbu from the sea – they either use small boats or wade into the shallows at low tide – the locals were laying it out to dry on specially constructed pebble beds.
Because I was making good time, rather than cut inland I carried on along the coast to Cape Erimo (襟裳岬 / literally ‘collar-skirt cape’), which is the south-easternmost point in Hokkaido. Both my Mapple
road atlas and several signs along the way had warned of high winds (on average, wind speeds at Cape Erimo exceed 10 metres per second - about 35kph - on 290 days each year) and fog, and and sure enough, when I arrived there the visibility was so poor that I might as well have been indoors.
Mr Assistant Wisteria didn't bother stopping to take photos, he just held up his camera phone and clicked the shutter in mid-stride, and had the air of someone who was there to tick Cape Erimo off his list. Skinny with quiffed hair and sunglasses, he looked like a typical travelling salesman - what my mother used to refer to as a 'spiv' - although having asked him to take my photo next to the sign for the Cape, he turned out to be polite, well-spoken and not a dodgy geezer in the slightest.
'I used to work for a printer company,' he said, 'but I packed it in to start my own business. I buy used cars and customise them for disabled people and OAPs, so I'm down here looking for bargains. There's nothing much around, though - the price of steel is so high that people are scrapping their cars instead of selling them secondhand.'
Mr Assistant Wisteria gave me his business card and offered to give the Transeo 4.0 GT 7005 City Cross Design a service if I made it to Sapporo, which was nice to know, as making friends in a big city can be a lot more difficult than it is, for example, on a foggy clifftop in the middle of nowhere.
It was almost dark by the time I reached Hyaku-nin-hama (百人浜 / hundred-man beach), so called because back in the days when there was no coast road, and quite possibly not a single living soul within a hundred-mile radius, a ship ran aground here and every single member of its hundred-man crew either drowned or died from starvation. Nowadays Hyaku-nin-hama has electricity, running water and even a sento (銭湯 / public baths), and just as I was leaving the latter, the woman behind the reception desk called over to me.
'Older brother!' she said. 'Older brother! Mr Village Middle wants to have a word with you.' (Not that I had quite worked it out at the time, but instead of saying, 'Hey you!' or 'Oi, mate!' the Japanese will often refer to strangers as if they are family members, so women become 'Older sister!' older men 'Dad!' and older women 'Mum!')
'Can you speak Japanese?' said Mr Village Middle.
'Yes, I can.'
‘What are you doing now?’
'I'm going to the campsite.'
‘You mean you're putting up your tent in dark?’
'Well, yes. I suppose so.'
'Not any more, you're not,' said Mr Village Middle. 'You’re staying at my place.’
'He uses some appalling language,' said the woman from the sento. 'But don't worry, he's a nice bloke really.'
'I can only fit two in the front so you'll have to sit with your bike,' said Mr Village Middle, as a friend of his helped lift it onto the flatbed of their truck.
'Er, OK. You will drive lately, won't you?'
'You mean slowly?'
'Yes, I mean slowly.'
'Don't worry, you'll be fine!'
Mr Village Middle drove north for a few kilometres - not particularly slowly, or even lately, it has to be said - and I could hear their muffled chatter as I gripped the side of the truck and watched the red glow of the tail lights on the road behind us. By the time we arrived at Mr Village Middle's house I was ravenously hungry, although I didn't want to come straight out and beg for food, so patiently sipped on a watered-down glass of shochu as we watched a boxing match on TV.
'That's Daisuké Naitoh,' said Mr Village Middle. 'He's from Hokkaido, you know. He used to get bullied when he was at school, but now he's world champion.'
If Mr Village Middle was a boxer he would have been a heavyweight: he was tall and well-built with craggy features and a mop of jet-black hair, although I couldn't help noticing that part of the little finger on his left hand was missing.
Cutting one's little finger off is a common form of penance for members of the yakuza (more commonly referred to as boh-ryokudan / 暴力団 - literally 'violence group'), and during the course of the evening, Mr Village Middle mentioned that in his younger days he had travelled the world on a tuna fishing trawler. Because this a) involves being away from home for months at a time, and b) is extremely dangerous, it is often used in a 'get on the boat or else' kind of way, as punishment for members of the yakuza who disobey the rules, or for ordinary folk who fail to keep up with their loan repayments or pay their protection money. Not that I fancied asking him about it, but as far as I could tell Mr Village Middle's shady past was just that, as nowadays he farmed konbu with his family in the summer and worked as a truck driver during the winter.
Mr Village Middle's house was very much that of a single man: I spotted at least one cockroach on the floor, the living room was used as a kind of storage area for old furniture and work clothes, most of the pictures on the wall were old and faded, the TV had a permanent purple-y green blob in the corner of the screen, and everything was slightly sticky and tobacco-stained. When it finally arrived (as I suspected, we had been waiting for the rice cooker to finish its cycle), our evening meal wouldn't have looked out of place in a student halls of residence, and along with rice I was given instant ramen, fried meat (it was so tough that I couldn't tell exactly what kind of meat, and now didn't seem to be the time or the place to mention that I was a pescetarian), and pickled vegetables, which Mr Village Middle's friend had made himself.
It was pretty hard work trying to follow what the two of them were on about, as they used only the crudest form of Japanese possible, something that wasn't so much bad language as basic language. For example, if you happen to be talking to someone of a higher status than yourself, you might say something like:
Nanika o omeshi-agari-masen ka? ('May I humbly entreat you to partake of something to eat?')
Or if you wanted to be reasonably polite without going over the top, you could say:
Nanika o tabenai deska? ('Would you like something to eat?')
If you were with friends or family, you could be more familiar:
Nanika, taberu? ('Fancy a bite to eat?')
Mr Village Middle and his pal, however, talked more like this:
Meshi, kuu? ('You gonna scoff some grub?')
In fact, I didn't even catch on when Mr Village Middle's friend said that he was off home, which left me on my own, in an isolated house, in the middle of the night, with only a supposedly ex-gangster for company. And at least one cockroach.
On reflection, perhaps it would have been a better idea to put my tent up in the dark.
Tomakomai Cycling Terminal to Niikappu Town (苫小牧サイクリングターミナル – 新冠町) – 103km
Mr That Swamp was already hard at work when I turned up at his restaurant first thing in the morning.
‘I opened this place last year,’ he said. ‘But I’ve got another restaurant that I ran for thirty years before that – it’s been featured in newspapers and magazines, and I was on TV a couple of times. In actual fact, I first learned how to make soba from a video.'
There was a small, tidy kitchen at the back of the restaurant, where Mr That Swamp mixed buckwheat flour, wheat flour and water in a stainless-steel bowl.
‘It’s not as humid today so the dough’s a bit dry,’ he said, ‘which makes it harder to work with.’
After several minutes of kneading, he rolled out the dough with two long, thin rolling pins, and in the process turned an initially pizza-like disc into a square.
He folded this over several times and began cutting the dough into thin, noodle-sized strips.
‘There are enough noodles in each batch for about ten portions, and I make three batches a day. Don’t tell anyone, but I actually use this gizmo to do the cutting instead of a proper soba knife.’
Sadly Mr That Swamp wouldn't be cooking the soba until lunchtime, so I left in search of breakfast, heading east and away from Tomakomai’s American-style grid of city blocks.
Out in the countryside the roads were lined with retractable wind-breaks like big Venetian blinds, presumably to prevent snow from drifting during the winter months. Wild deer flashed their fluffy white backsides as they scampered off into the woods, and I passed this sign promoting the Atsuma Town Strawberry Association.
Just as I was getting the urge for my Englishman’s afternoon tea, a row of fluttering flags appeared advertising a café called Chaka Ippu
(Eccentric Tea & Cake), which was in a homely little one-storey cabin with a pretty, well-tended garden.'I
lived in Tokyo for nine years,' said the waitress, Mrs Forest Field, 'and studied aroma
‘Aroma? You mean you studied smells?’
‘No, no! Aroma is short for aromatherapy, and rifuré is short for reflexology. I taught people how to make afternoon tea as well. Then I moved back to Hokkaido to get married and help in the café. This is my mum.’ Mrs Forest Field’s mother appeared from the kitchen to say hello. ‘And my older sister bakes the cakes.’
I felt obliged to order the most British thing on the menu, and asked for a pot of Earl Grey, thinking as I did so how much less popular Earl Grey would be if it didn’t have such a heritage-friendly name: ‘Dave Smith’, for example, or ‘Billy Nugget’ would never have caught on.
‘I hope you don’t mind me asking,’ said Mrs Forest Field, ‘but is it true that everyone carries a gun in England?’ By way of illustration she brandished an imaginary automatic, cop-show style.
‘Ah, you must be thinking of America.'
‘We don't have many guns in Japan,' she said, 'but there’s a lot more crime than there used to be.'
Particularly around here, though, I couldn’t imagine there was so much as a cat stuck up a tree for the police to deal with, whether or not they carried automatics (the police that is, not the cats).
That night I was one of only two customers at a hilltop campsite in Niikappu Town, and drifted off to sleep to the sound of cars passing on the coast road below: as well as wind-breaks, another safety measure in Hokkaido involves scoring grooves in the tarmac for extra grip, which made it sound as if everyone had left their snow tyres on for the summer.
Tomakomai West Port Ferry Terminal
to Tomakomai Cycling Terminal
(苫小牧西港フェリーターミナル – 苫小牧市サイクリングターミナル) – 7km
While my room-mates may have been quiet, the Sunflower ferry’s PA system was most definitely not. An alarm sounded at both 6 and 6.30am, before an automated announcement at 7.30 to tell us that the coast of Aomori Prefecture was now visible to our left – not much use as a) there were no windows in Room 358, and b) even if there had been, it was raining too heavily to see anything. After that we were treated to information about the restaurant menu and opening times, followed by a selection of muzak that included Ralph McTell’s Streets Of London arranged for Bontempi organ.
As the ferry arrived in Tomakomai I got talking to Mr Small Forest, who was on his tenth cycle tour of Hokkaido and rode a lovingly maintained, old-school racing bike .
A resident of Chiba Prefecture, Mr Small Forest was aiming to reach Wakkanai in the far north of Hokkaido, covering 100km a day, staying in railway station waiting rooms and cooking his own food along the way. As I hummed and hawed about whether or not to venture out into the rain, he posed for a photo, did a few stretching exercises and cycled off.
This amusingly sensational public information poster ('Be Poisoned. Flashback. Be Broken. No Future!!') caught my eye in the ferry terminal ticket hall.
But despite waiting around for several hours, by the time I finally set off at about four in the afternoon, the still pouring rain was accompanied by flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder.
At Tomakomai Cycling Terminal - a kind of bicycle-themed youth hostel - when the receptionist asked to see my passport, I realised that I had no ID on me of any kind: no passport, no gaijin card, no driver’s licence, not even a credit card, although I did have my Co-op Bank debit card, which he graciously accepted as evidence that I wasn’t going to take part in any terrorist activities.
‘There was a G8 summit at Lake Tohya the other week,’ he explained, ‘so everyone’s been on the alert, particularly public institutions like this one. They brought in extra police officers from all over Japan – if you’d been here at the time, you probably would have been stopped and searched. Are you American?’
‘No, I’m from England.’
‘Really? Ah, that takes me back! I spent three months in Ramsgate in – when was it? – 1974. I was practically the only foreigner there, so they treated me like a VIP.’
Well, I suppose someone has to get nostalgic for Ramsgate.
I was the only guest at the Cycling Terminal that night, and for just under 4000 yen (less than twenty quid at the time), my room was spacious enough to accommodate a party of ten, with a TV, a safe, a fridge freezer and all-you-can-brew green tea. More importantly, there was a large, sauna-like drying room in the basement that was kept at a constant temperature of something like 50°c, so that my clothes were dry enough within an hour for the short ride to a nearby soba restaurant.
‘Tomakomai is the rainiest place in Hokkaido,’ said the restaurant's chef and proprietor, Mr That Swamp. ‘Does it rain a lot in England?’
‘Not as much as you might think, actually.’
‘How about London fog?’
‘No, no. That was all over a long time ago.’
‘England, England. Let me see... Ah yes, James Bond!’ I joined in as Mr That Swamp hummed the twanging guitar theme from the James Bond films. ‘What's the actor's name?'
'Yes, yes, yes. And who else was there?’
‘And Pierce Brosnan!’
‘Of course. And Timothy Dalton.’
Mr That Swamp was so impressed with my knowledge of James Bond that he gave me an extra deep-fried prawn and a free cup of saké, and invited me to come back the following morning for a demonstration of how to make soba noodles.