In the summer of 2005 I went on a six-week cycle tour around the west of Japan, and it was so inspiring that in the summer of 2008, when Mrs M and I were planning the Japanese leg of our wedding festivities (the UK leg had already taken place in February), I decided to extend our stay and go on another tour, this time around the north island of Hokkaido.
As regular readers of this blog will remember, I went on a third tour – to Sado Island – in the summer of 2011, and seeing as this year I was too busy watching M Jr being born to go cycling, I thought that now might be a good time to dust off my Hokkaido diary and write it up. Given that I was there for the best part of five weeks, this may end up taking quite a while, but I met so many interesting people and saw so many interesting places that it seems a shame not to record them for posterity.
(Incidentally, to my non-bicycle-loving readers, fear not, as I have no intention of monopolising the blog with this, and will still post about other stuff – bowel movements, ear syringing, penis shrines, that sort of thing – on a regular basis.)
Day 1 – To Oh-arai Port (大洗港) – 39km
‘Hi Muzuhashi. This is Muzuhashi. Muzuhashi gave me your number.’*
I felt sure this was a statement I would never get the chance to utter again for as long as I lived, and had looked forward to doing so for several weeks. The bicycle I was to use for the tour had been left with a guy called Muzuhashi by another guy called Muzuhashi, for me – Muzuhashi – to pick up, and was far superior to the one I used on my first tour (which, coincidentally enough, I had subsequently passed on to Muzuhashi, who in turn passed it on to the Muzuhashi who was now passing on Muzuhashi’s bicycle to me, Muzuhashi, if that makes any sense). The only disappointing thing about this new, lightweight and reassuringly expensive tourer was the name: while my travelling companion in 2005 was called ‘Mariposa’, this one had the far less romantic moniker of ‘Transeo 4.0 GT 7005 City Cross Design’, so in order to make it seem a little more homely, onii-san gave me this mascot to fix to the handlebars.
In Japanese, both the word for frog (蛙) and the verb ‘to go home’ (帰る) are pronounced kaéru, so this was my buji-kaéru (無事帰る / safe return, or 無事蛙 / safe frog), a play on words and a lucky charm all rolled into one. It was also one of the few concessions I made to excess baggage, and thanks to some studious packing, my vital statistics were as follows:
Muzuhashi – 62.5kg
Transeo 4.0 GT 7005 City Cross Design – 13.5kg
Baggage – 10kg
2 x water bottles (when full) – 1.5kg
After a couple of practice rides around Mrs M’s home town, the first day of the tour was a leisurely 39km to Oh-arai Port, from which the Sunflower ferry leaves twice a day for Tomakomai in Hokkaido.
On my way through Oh-arai Town I stopped a passing jogger to ask for directions to the port. Wiry, tanned and with red Alan Partridge shorts and a white vest, he said that he represented Japan as an ultra-marathon runner, entering a 40 to 50km race around once a month and a 50 to 100km race around once every two months. His girlfriend was following him on a mountain bike, partly to help with his training and partly, I supposed, because if she didn’t, they would hardly see each other.
‘The first time we went out together,’ she said, ‘I fell off the bike, but I’m getting used to it now.’
Mrs M wasn’t going to follow me around Hokkaido in her car, but she did drive to Oh-arai to see me off, and incidentally, if you’re thinking to yourself that disappearing on a five-week cycle tour just before one’s wedding is a selfish thing to do, you’d be right. What can I say? Mrs M was far too lenient with me at the time, and has since learned from experience not to be.
As well as tourists, truck drivers, hairy bikers and hairy cyclists, the Sunflower was playing host to several hundred junior high school students, who had been driven in a fleet of coaches all the way from Shizuoka on the other side of Tokyo. As the ferry pulled away from the quayside, several came up to have their photos taken and to try out a few words of, er, English: ‘Watsu yoh neimu? Naisu tsu mee chuu! San kyew berry machi!’
‘Fancy a beer?’ said a man who was sitting on one of the wooden benches up on deck. Mr Big Bridge (for the purposes of at least semi-anonymity, I shall refer to the people I met along the way by literal translations of their surnames**) was a retired bus driver from Saitama Prefecture, who spent his summers in Hokkaido and his winters in the Canadian Rockies. ‘I rent a room in a ski lodge for $225 a month. Look,’ he showed me a scar on his leg. ‘I got this when I was ski-ing in Banf. And this,’ he pulled up his t-shirt to expose another scar on his stomach, ‘is from when I had cancer. That was when I was 57, and after the operation the doctors gave me the all-clear.’
Now 64, Mr Big Bridge looked and acted at least a decade younger, and he could talk the proverbial hind legs off a whole herd of elephants. We met in the onsen an hour or two later – as the waves lapped against the sides of the ferry, so too did the water against the sides of the communal bath – and again after dinner, and he didn’t stop talking the entire time.
‘My son lived in England for a while,’ he said. ‘He played professional football for a fourth division club while he was at Nottingham University. It was only for one match, though. Now the kids have moved out, we rent a couple of rooms in the house to foreigners. My wife is only little, so she was a bit taken aback when the first one turned up – he was this big Australian guy – but she’s used to it now. If you’re ever in Iitabashi you should come and stay.’
For 12,000 yen (about 60 pounds), my one-way ticket bought me a berth – or rather, a mattress on the floor – in the windowless Room 358, which I shared with around ten other passengers, including a family with two small children. One of my room-mates was a machinist who had been with the same company for twenty years (‘After twenty years you get two extra weeks paid holiday,’ he boasted ), one was a trainspotter who had ridden the train from Sydney to Perth in Australia, on Amtrak in the US, and from Paddington on the Heathrow Express, and another had only just graduated from university.
‘While I was job hunting,’ he told me, ‘I had six interviews with Mitsubishi and still didn’t get hired. I was eventually taken on to work in the accounts department at a company that makes jet engines. Last year I did a one-month cycle tour, but this year it’s just a week on the motorbike.’
For those first few hours on the ferry I felt queasy – not so much sick as slightly drunk – but despite the heavy rain and flashes of thunder outside, the Pacific was in a benevolent mood. My room-mates, too, hardly made a sound, and I fell asleep as both the floor and our mattresses rocked slowly back and forth.
* Not our real names.
** Much as I would like to claim this as my idea, it’s actually stolen from this translation from Tokyo Damage Report of a fascinating book about shady employment opportunities.