Wrong Way Round – Day 9

Wrong Way Round – Day 9

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?’
‘Yes.’
‘Please watch out for cars along the way.’
‘Cars?’
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.

The Okaba (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.

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