Day 12 – Shibetsu to Iwaobetsu Youth Hostel (標津町 – 岩尾別ユース) – 83km
As our ten-strong band of cycling comrades was preparing to leave Shibetsu, I realised that I had left my precious bottle of Dr Bonner’s
at the sento the previous evening. Dr Bonner’s is an ideal gift item for the touring cyclist, as the same liquid can be used to wash your clothes, your dishes, your hair, your body and possibly even your teeth as well, although I have to confess I have never been brave enough to try the latter. Judging from the quasi-hippy stream-of-consciousness ramblings on the label (see below), Dr Bonner himself is a slightly unhinged cult leader type who will one day go insane and brainwash thousands of his customers into committing mass suicide, but I can highly recommend his products for anyone who, like me, is borderline obsessive about travelling light.
Having promised to get in touch when I reached Utoro on the other side of the Shirétoko Peninsula, I bid farewell to Mr Cedar Mountain just along the coast from Shibetsu, where he turned left on Route 244 and I carried on towards the 738-metre-high Shirétoko Pass.
After a week and a half of coast roads and gentle déko-boko, it was something of a jolt to suddenly be confronted with a proper hill, so I tried to calm my nerves with a spot of singing. After some improvisation I hit upon the idea of changing the chorus of The Faces’ The First Cut Is The Deepest to ‘The first bit is the steepest’, which for some reason cheered me up no end, although in terms of steepness, it has to be said there was little to distinguish the first bit from the middle bit and the last bit.
This 32-kilometre stretch of Route 334 took a somewhat mind-boggling 22 years of construction work to complete, and just like the hiking trails that lead to the summit of Mt Fuji, there are a series of goh-mé
(合目 / stations) on the way up.
The highest point is actually a few hundred metres before the pass at the 9th Station, and after two and a half hours of almost continuous climbing, I tried – and singularly failed – to commemorate reaching it with the self-timer on my digital camera.
Iwaobetsu Youth Hostel lies in a quiet valley beneath the pass on the other side of the peninsula, and it was here that I met my first native English speakers of the summer, Mr Maine and Mr Bay Area (English surnames can’t be disguised in the same way as Japanese ones, so I thought I’d go with places).
Mr Maine was in Shirétoko for the kayaking, and when he mentioned his plan to kayak 900km from Seattle to Alaska later in the year, I suggested that he read Paddle To The Amazon by Don Starkell, about a father-and-son team who travelled by canoe from Winnipeg all the way down the east coast of Central America, before traversing almost the entire length of the Amazon to the Atlantic – an infinitely tougher challenge than, for example, cycling round Hokkaido for a few weeks.
After studying French and Spanish as a student, Mr Bay Area came to Japan for a fresh linguistic challenge, and was now deliberating over whether or not to settle here permanently. He worked as an ALT at a private high school, although as he described it, ‘The focus is very much on sports, so the students don’t put any effort into studying. The other week I got so pissed off with this kid who wasn’t paying attention in class that I muttered “Fuck you” under my breath. I knew I shouldn’t have done it but I couldn’t help myself. “What does it mean?!” he was saying. “What does it mean?!” That was pretty much the first time anyone had showed any interest in English!’