The ridge that runs along the centre of the Matsumaé Peninsula rises to a thousand metres above sea level, and mountainsides lush with foliage stretched up and away to my left beside the coast road. As far as I could tell the forest was unmanaged, and it wasn’t unreasonable to suppose that no human being had ever set foot even a few metres inland from where I was now riding.
As I sat in a layby eating my mid-morning snack, a young man rode past on the kind of bicycle you might expect a teenager to receive as a birthday present – a small-scale mountain bike with a heavy frame and a garish logo – and I caught up with him at a Seicomart a little further up the road.
From Okayama Prefecture in western Honshu, Mr Warehouse had quit his job as a motorcycle mechanic three years ago and been on various adventures since, including two months spent hiking the 1500km Shikoku-henro (四国遍路) temple pilgrimage.
‘When I left Okayama in March there was still snow on the mountains,’ he said. ‘I’ve been to Kyushu, Shikoku and all along the Pacific coast to Hokkaido. Now and then I’ll stay somewhere for a few weeks and do a part-time job to save some money, and the plan is to make it back home before Christmas.’
‘How’s your body coping with all of that riding?’ I asked him (my saddle sore had been getting steadily worse over the past couple of weeks).
‘Fine – no pain, no problems! I’ve been in football clubs ever since I was at elementary school so I’m used to getting a lot of exercise.’
I suggested to Mr Warehouse that we ride together towards Cape Shirakami – the southernmost point in Hokkaido and the final goal on my circumnavigation – and along the way he mentioned that he had also been on a two-week tour of Holland.
‘I wanted to see Ajax and PSV Eindhoven play,’ he said. ‘It was fantastic – I couldn’t speak any Dutch but I got by on a lot of gestures and a few words of English.’
Mr Warehouse was so strong that it soon became apparent we were a mis-match: despite what ought to have been an inefficient riding style – he stood up on the pedals almost the entire time, even when we weren’t going uphill – he seemed to sail along with ease while I laboured over every pedal stroke (let’s face it, this could also have had something to do with the fact that he was ten years younger than me).
‘I’ve had the same bike since I was fifteen so I guess I’m just used to it,’ he said. ‘I didn’t do any training before I left Okayama and I haven’t had a single puncture in about six months. I am on my third set of tyres, mind you.’
Having bowed to his physical superiority I suggested that it might be better if we parted ways, and continued south at a rather more stately pace. Just as it had at Cape Sohya in the far north of the island, a strong wind swirled around Cape Shirakami – or rather, strong winds: when I arrived there the clouds were scudding one way, the flags fluttering another, and the waves breaking in a different direction altogether.
On a previous tour of Hokkaido, he told me, he had stayed in rider houses, but this time was restricting himself to a budget of just 300 yen a day, and about to settle in for the night at an – admittedly rather spacious and well-appointed – bus shelter. His routine involved rising at 4am, setting off at 6am, stopping at 4pm and going to sleep at 7pm, and having noticed during the course of the day that his diet consisted almost exclusively of rice balls and dried fish, I treated him to a can of chuh-hai (alcopops) and a box of Pocky before seeking out a place to stay for myself.
‘This Saturday,’ said Mrs Wisteria Mountain, the proprietor of a nearby ryokan, ‘some celebrities are swimming between Hokkaido and Aomori for 24-Hour Television. I’ve got sixty TV people coming to stay and we’ll be chock-a-block - actually it’s against the safety regulations so don’t tell anyone!’
While I didn’t ask – and although, as she explained, she had three children and four grandchildren – I had the feeling Mrs Wisteria Mountain was a widow and would have been lonely without some guests to talk to.
‘Everyone likes it here because the food’s good and we give you lots of it,’ she boasted, and proceeded to ply me with more than I could possibly eat, including kimuchi (spicy, fermented cabbage from Korea) hot-pot, stir-fried asparagus and ooni （sea urchin) omelette.
‘We’ve been in business for thirty years,’ she continued. ‘We used to run the place as a hostess bar and there were girls from all over the place working here – Filipinos, Brazilians, Czechs. That was when the Seikan Tunnel was being built, but once that was finished there weren’t as many customers and we moved over to being an ordinary ryokan instead. The shinkansen (新幹線 / bullet train) should be coming soon, though, so hopefully things will start to pick up again.’
The Seikan Tunnel (青函トンネル) runs beneath the Tsugaru Straits between northern Honshu and Hokkaido, and at just over 53km was for two decades or so the longest tunnel of any kind in the world. Due to its enormous budget and high maintenance costs, however, and along with the fact that in the twenty-seven years it took to complete it was rendered at least partially obsolete by cheaper air travel, the tunnel was seen by many as a white elephant (actually not just a white elephant: a total of thirty-four workers lost their lives during its construction).
While rail passengers may not be plentiful, though, the tunnel has become an essential route for shipping freight to and from Hokkaido, and more to the point, was constructed with a view to one day being able to accommodate the shinkansen. At the time of writing, work is already underway to make the necessary upgrades, and the first shinkansen should pass through the tunnel on its way to Hakodaté in 2015, with a view to extending the service further north to Sapporo by 2035.