Thursday, September 28, 2006

Wannakai, Japan

Friends: Rain and a thick, low cloud cover yesterday darkened the skies enough that the red arrows with the night-time blinking lights that overhang the highway every ninety yards (twenty to the mile) pointing down at the road shoulder to keep motorists alert and on the road were triggered, brightening the miserable, gloomy conditions. They were an exotic sight, a traffic safety measure unlike any I've ever seen, giving me some cheer as I headed north into even more sultry weather.

Those arrows are just one of the many unique features of Japan that make me fonder and fonder of traveling here. They are one of many devices that make driving here probably safer than anywhere. There are also blinking lights on guard rails on sharp turns to keep drivers attentive. On descents when the road curves the pavement is a different color to warn motorists to control their speed. The speed limit on the non-interstates is pretty much thirty miles per hour. The obedient, law-abiding Japanese rarely exceed it, even by one mile per hour. With the restricted speed no one seems to be in any rush to get around a bicyclist, if there is approaching traffic.   They'll slow and wait for it to pass and then pass me.

There is hardly a need for police. I go days without seeing a police car, though the small community police stations are a common site. I have seen one motorist pulled over, someone who had just passed me at a seemingly normal speed. The officer didn't bother with his siren, just ordering the motorist over with his loud-speaker. By the time I had caught up to the pair of them, the motorist, a respectable-looking young man, was out of his car bowing profusely. Its the only time I haven't seen a bow responded to with a bow. Bowing is most certainly the custom. I am bowed to whenever I enter a store. I am bowed to by the flagman at the many road construction sites along the road. It feels totally natural to give a bow, or nod back.

I am presently thirty miles from Cape Soya, Land's End. Less than forty miles away lays the Russian island Sakhalin, an island that the Japanese do not contest. The Russian-held islands that the Japanese do want back are off to the east of Hokkaido. The signs in Wannakai, the largest city of the north, are now in Russian along with Japanese. There are two islands that are part of a national park two hours away by ferry from here. One island is comprised solely of a 5,000 foot high volcano with a 35-mile road around it. I had considered making a circuit of it, but with the weather not entirely hospitable and $60 for the ferry round trip, I am going to skip it. I have many volcanoes ahead in two other national parks that I can ride around, and I am eager to start heading south. I am hoping to have enough time to bike beyond Tokyo to Mount Fuji,  85 miles further--more reason not to indulge in any unnecessary side trips.

If I were in no rush, I would have lingered in my tent yesterday morning as the wind and rain buffeted it, as my Dutch traveling companion chose to do. I had met Eelco the day before and we had a delightful sixty miles together, riding shoulder-to-shoulder, gabbing non-stop. He had been on the road for fourteen months and had just passed the 10,000 mile mark of his trip, an average of 700 miles a month, a fairly modest amount. He was taking two years to make a circuit of the world before beginning his work as an intern, having completed medical school just before his departure. One reason he was reluctant to leave his tent is that I had given him the September issue of the English publication, "Cycle Sport," a fat 168-page issue entirely devoted to this year's Tour de France. Floyd was on the cover with the word "Guilty" and a "?" after it.

Eelco is a devoted cycling fan. I couldn't have given him a greater gift. He had been in China during The Tour and was able to only minimally follow it. The year before he was busily studying for finals during The Tour. He allowed himself a study break at 4:30 every afternoon to watch the final half hour of each day's stage. He has a friend who races professionally just below its highest level. He competed in this year's Tour of California, a one-week stage race down the coast of California won by Landis. Eelco said that whenever he asks him about the prevalence of drugs in the peloton he changes the subject. Eelco grew up with the sport and knows it intimately. He has been touring since he was fifteen, when he and his parents and his younger brother spent six weeks bicycling Indonesia, his father's dream trip. They biked Norway the following year, fully infecting Eelco with the desire to bicycle tour. He's gone off on a ride on his own every year since.

Eleco expanded my diet by two items--a rice flour cake with sweet beans and a fish wiener wrapped in cellophane that doesn't need refrigeration. I introduced him to poly corn, a sugar smacks cereal type of snack. I also alerted him to the wide disparity in caloric content in the noodles. He hadn't looked closely enough at all the Japanese mumbo-jumbo to notice that there is a caloric number to be found on it.

Among the many lessons Eelco has learned is never to camp in a dry riverbed. He made that mistake in China and it nearly cost him his life. A sudden night-time downpour sent a wave of water down the riverbed, sweeping his bike and tent and much of his gear away with it. He didn't find his bike until the next day with the help of others, buried in a pile of debris. He had it entirely overhauled, every bearing regreased at a cost of two dollars. He can give a testimonial to Ortlieb, as his panniers survived the submerging and the dry clothes helped to save his life. We could have easily biked together for a week and not exhausted all the bicycle experiences we could have shared, but we caught each other at a time when he was glad to have a rest day and I was intent on riding.  If it hadn't been raining though, we no doubt would have been off together and probably continued on for a few days.

Later, George

Monday, September 25, 2006

Sapporo, Japan

Friends: I nearly stayed at a genuine campground last night. The Lake Shikotsu Visitor Center pamphlet mentioned a campground five miles up the road on the lake. I hardly needed a designated campground, as there were all sorts of possibilities for wild-camping in the thickly forested national park. But it was late in the afternoon and I hadn't had a shower in the two weeks I've been here, just bathing in streams and under faucets.

I have yet to take advantage of a bathhouse. I am told they are everywhere but I have yet to learn how to detect them. Once I discover that secret, I'm sure I'll see them all the time and could have a hard time resisting them, or so I'm told by others who have traveled here and rave at how wonderful they are. Since they are a luxury that I am not desperate for, I have not made the effort to search one out, content to wait for that time when I discover one on my own.

Another reason I considered communal camping was I am in bear country. It is pre-hibernation time and the bears are actively foraging. Who knows what they might fight appealing about me or my pantry. I've had bear encounters before and they certainly do leave an impression.  When I was biking up the Alaskan Highway in 1981, a bear came browsing around my wild camp site one morning.  That was a somewhat harrowing experience.  For the rest of my time in Alaska I tried to camp with others about me.

I haven't had such an encounter here yet, so I don't know the manners of Japanese bears and how curious they might be.  When I came to the turn to the campground it was down a steep hill and another couple of miles away, more effort than I cared to expend on something I didn't really need. I was perfectly content to continue climbing away from the lake, past one of the three prominent volcanoes that surrounded it, hoping I could make it beyond bear country before dark. It was only 25 miles to Sapporo, Japan's fifth largest city with 1.8 million inhabitants. The way cities sprawl here, I could be within its city limits and beyond bear habitat before I knew it.

The climb continued for another five miles, the longest and highest I've encountered here. Dusk was fast settling in. I could camp anywhere, but I needed to start descending to warmer temperatures. The thermometer on my watch said it was 52 degrees, which is always exaggerated by my body warmth. Its been dipping into the 40s at night at sea level. I've been adding an extra layer of clothes before crawling into my sleeping bag to stay warm. It is rated to 40 degrees, but that was when it was new. It barely keeps me warm at 50 now.

I was glad to be getting this climb over with, but I needed it to end and to start descending. It is dark by six. As it neared six, it was at least not as dark as some of the tunnels I've passed through. I kept hoping for a tunnel here, indicating the end of the climb, as the Japanese love to lop off the last bit of a climb to a summit with a tunnel, just as the French have done on the famed Galibier climb in the Alps, sparing drivers and snow removal operators the final steep few hundred feet to the summit.

I finally reached this tunnel-less summit and was able to descend 1,000 feet before it was too dark to continue. I concluded my day at about 1,000 feet, the highest I'd camped on this trip. It left me just 15 miles from Sapporo, ten miles closer than if I had taken advantage of Poropinai campground, one of four on the lake and the cheapest, at just 300 Yen (about $2.75).

I have begun to discover some bargains, enabling me to keep my expenses under $12 a day. One of them is taking advantage of the 100 yen stores, the Japanese version of Dollar Stores. Hardly anything is 100 yen in them, but there are still bargains to be found, such as four alkaline batteries for 105 yen. The stores would better be known as 105 Yen stores, as that is the popular price of most items--the rice balls and dough balls and snack packs and chocolate milk that form the base of my diet along with cups of noodles.

There are dozens of varieties of the noodles, though they all taste pretty much the same. I prefer those that come in hard plastic bowls, rather than the Styrofoam cups. The Styrofoam is prone to puncture. I had one with a leak that was a semi-disaster in my tent one night. Perhaps my greatest discovery so far is that boiling water is not necessary to make the noodles edible. Cold water takes a little longer to soften the noodles, but it does the trick.

Noodles have now become my usual dinner, supplemented with a can of mackerel or sardines. For 176 Yen I can get 760 calories out of one of the varieties of bowls. The Japanese are very caloric conscious. Even the dough balls that sit on shelves of warmers on the counter of all the convenience stores list the amount of calories in the different varieties. The best caloric value is one with 271 calories for 105 yen. It is not the best tasting of the lot, but taste doesn't much matter to me. Its interior is some gummy black substance that I would suspect was a sort of mole chocolate if I were in Mexico.

I would have added potatoes to my diet yesterday if I had brought along a stove, as the road side was littered with fist-sized spuds that had fallen off trucks. I have a Marine friend who eats them raw, but I'm not that hard core, or desperate. Whenever I buy a cup or bowl of noodles I am given chopsticks, something I decline. Sometimes I'm handed a plastic spoon, but I have my own. I thought I'd see chopsticks littered along the road, as 24 billion disposable chopsticks are distributed a year here. But the Japanese hardly litter.

The most common object for scavenging along the road has been light weight cotton gloves. I notice many people wearing them, even though its not so cold for me to beginning wearing mine. Pornography is quite prominent in the magazine racks at all the convenience stores, staring out the window at me when I lean my bike up against the store. There have been a few to be found along the road, but no neckerchiefs or shock cords, the other two items I can always count on finding when touring in the US.

It was a glorious downhill ride into Sapporo this morning past legions of briefcase-toting salarymen marching to work all wearing the same black suit.  The other prominent uniform was worn by school girls, clones in matching short plaid skirts and knee socks. I was exalting as much as ever to be on my bike and not going to the confines of some office or school room for the day.

It is 200 miles up the coast to the northernmost point in Japan. If I wanted to get a visa and pay $200 I could take a ferry to Russia. Instead, I'll be trying to make it back to Hakodate by Oct. 7 for a kiernan bicycle race at the city's velodrome, an event that could be one of the highlights of these travels.

Later, George

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Hakodate, Japan

Friends: There were two other cyclists on the ferry over to Hokkaido today, the first I had seen heading north. I have seen five or six others, all 20-year old Japanese males, going the other direction to warmer temperatures. Only one paused to talk as I was sitting outside a convenience store eating a bowl of noodles. He was in the midst of a four-month circuit of Japan's coastline. The country is 2,000 miles from top to bottom, which means he`ll be doing 5,000 miles or so. His English didn't extend much beyond the word cold. I couldn't even get him to understand the word McDonald's until I pointed to the one across the street from us. "Ah, Mac-o-do-nal-do," he pronounced, "Yes, I like."

He was happy to be heading south, as the temperature had dropped considerably from near 80 to not even 70. Still, it was bright and sunny and he was wearing a sleeveless shirt. It was the first night I had to partially zip my sleeping bag with the temperature down into the 50s. That is still most endurable. I will continue another 400 miles north to the tip of Hokkaido before turning back. As long as the rains hold off, I won't mind the cool at all.

I met the two ferry-bound cyclists this morning while I was sitting outside the ferry terminal not having bought my ticket yet. When I showed up at the terminal at eight a.m., not knowing when the next ferry was due, no one was there. There had been a departure at 6:30 and the next was at 11:30. There wasn't a word of English at the terminal and I could barely decipher the running times. I went exploring around the small fishing village of Oma, just happy that there would be a ferry. The main ferry route to Hokkaido leaves from the large city of Aomori, about 75 miles away. It is a much longer and more expensive ferry trip. From Oma it was one hour and forty minutes. I feared that maybe this late in the season the Oma ferry might no longer be in operation. The seventy miles out to Oma on its own thumb of a peninsula yesterday were the best of my travels so far. The first 500 miles were through congested development and a steady flow of traffic. At last, I had the road pretty much to myself and unsettled lands to gaze upon.

About the only words of English on the ferry were "shoes off" outside the various lounges, most of which did not have chairs. Everyone just sprawled on the rugs and availed themselves of the rectangular vinyl pillows. In my lounge area on the second deck four eight-year olds gathered up all the extra pillows and made an obstacle course to hop around. When they tired of that after about twenty minutes they neatly stacked the pillows against a wall.

It was a challenge once again to find this Internet cafe. The last one I found three days ago was next door to a giant CD/DVD store. Since then whenever I have seen such a store I have stopped in to see if there was Internet nearby. No such luck. The young, non-English speaking manager of a CD/DVD store I tried here in Hakodate went to the phone book to find the lone Internet outlet listed in this city of 300,000. He then dug out a detailed city map to show me how to find it and even used his copy machine to duplicate it for me. When I have sought help, people have gone out of their way to be of assistance. But no one in the ten days I have been in Japan, other than the cyclist across from the McDonald's, has approached me, even though I sit outside small grocery stores eating my meals and snacks four or five times a day and plenty of people come and go, barely giving a glance to the Western barbarian on the bike.

I have benefited from small kindnesses here and there. A lady offered me a baseball cap when I sought shelter under the overhang of her garage to repair a flat tire in the rain. I had been wearing a helmet, but looked drenched. The officers who gave me directions to a bicycle shop gave me a cup of coffee with ice cubes in it. I don't care for coffee, but I politely gulped it down.

I have been experimenting with all sorts of food, from octopus tentacles to dough balls and rice balls containing who knows what and only once have my taste buds cringed other than at that cup of coffee. The other time was coffee-related as well. I thought I had bought a carton of chocolate milk, but it turned out to be coffee milk.

The 7-Elevens oddly enough don't carry chocolate milk. I have to go to one of their competitors, the Family Market convenience store chain to find it. There are six main chains of convenience stores and they all carry pretty much the same products and charge the same. Circle K s have started turning up. There are also Spars, which I know from France and Lawson Stations and Yamazaki. They all have amazingly clean bathrooms with extra amenities of a neat pyramid of toilet paper and artificial flowers.

There are six national parks here on Hakaido all with lakes and volcanos, some  still active. I plan to spend a couple of weeks making a circuit of this island before heading back to Tokyo for my end of October flight home. Along the way I'll be able to gaze upon a couple of Russian-held islands that the Japanese want back. Japan is comprised of four main islands and another 3,900 smaller ones, which evidently isn't enough. Once again I'm told I can't send this because I have too many recipients. I'll try to take the time here to break my mailing list down to smaller units so you can all receive this.

Later, George

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Miyako, Japan

Friends: I stopped at the police station here in this coastal city, 150 miles from the northern tip of Honshu, thinking it was a bike shop, as there was a neat row of half a dozen identical shiny new yellow bikes parked in front of it. With virtually all signs in Japanese other than the mega brands Toyota, Coca-Cola, Yamaha and so on, I must search for clues to find the type of store I'm looking for. I must peer in windows or look for other indicators. So far the only two types of shops I can readily identify are barber shops, with their spinning red and white poles just like in the U.S., and bowling alleys, often marked by a giant bowling pin atop their buildings. I thought I had found a bike store when I saw the word Shimano, the world's largest manufacturer of bike components, on a store. But Shimano is first and foremost a manufacturer of fishing gear in Japan, and it was a fishing store.

Neither of the two officers sitting in the small neighborhood police station spoke English. So far I have only encountered one person who spoke even a smidgen of English since I left the airport a week ago. That was in Sendai at the Mediatech that offered free Internet. I brought in a bike tube to the officers to indicate what I was looking for. They spent several minutes making phone calls before they found someone who spoke some English who could act as a translator. After he discovered what I wanted, he asked me to return the phone to one of the officers. After a minute or so the officer hung up the phone, and then showed me on a detailed map where a bike shop was. I had passed it about half a mile back. It was near a store I had noticed called Bookmart. I almost stopped at it, thinking I might find an English speaker there.

I was in need of a bike shop as I have been plagued by extreme bad luck with flat tires, ruining two of my three spare tubes with punctures at the valve. I can go thousands of miles without a flat, and with brand new, heavy-duty Continental touring tires, I wasn't expecting any flats at all. Unfortunately, the bike shop had neither Presta nor Shraeder valve tubes, only a version that was slighter wider than a Presta valve. I was desperate enough to take this version of Presta even though it required reaming out the valve hole on my rims so it would slip through. The gray-haired proprietor easily performed the operation by hand. It was ten dollars for the tube, expensive like everything else in Japan.

I went over to the nearby bookstore in search of an English-speaker who could direct me to an Internet outlet. The extent of the English of the two people who worked there was the word Internet. They drew me a map and various landmarks--a tunnel and a bridge and a shoe store--and indicated it was about five kilometers away. After asking three or four more people along the way, I discovered the Internet outlet was in a large electronics store back from the road just beyond the shoe store. Since I am in no rush at this point to be anywhere, I wasn't concerned about the time consumed in this hunt. It was just another chapter in my Japanese experience and something to be savored. I have long ago learned that asking directions is a cultural experience. I welcome it as an excuse to approach strangers.

Yesterday was a day of tunnels, at least two dozen, some as long as a mile. I was wishing the day before had been my tunnel day, as I had a day-long drenching from a warm monsoon-like rain blowing in off the ocean. It was an extreme test for my new Gore Tex jacket. It passed the test brilliantly, keeping my torso perfectly dry. I was lucky the temperature was warm, as my tent took on a fair amount of moisture before I could put on the rain fly as I set it up in a heavy rain on fairly saturated ground above a tiered garden. If the temperature had plunged much below 70 that night, I could have been in trouble. Luckily, yesterday was sunny so I could lay out all my wet gear to dry. It was so humid though it took a while before even the road surface dried. My Ortlieb panniers performed as brilliantly as my rain jacket.  They didn't let in a drop.  One can't put a price on top-notch equipment that lives up to its billing.

So far both places I have tried sending off email reports have denied me, as I had too many recipients. And this computer has frustrated me by not allowing me to leave spaces between my words. I am still figuring out many things here, including what to eat and how. Last night was my first night of not camping in an overgrown patch of weeds, as I have at last gotten to forested, unsettled, undeveloped countryside.

Later...maybe, George

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sendai, Japan

Friends: If I ever return to Japan, I will be sure to bring along my camping stove. The only semi-bargain food I have found so far in the grocery stores are the dehydrated noodle soups. They come in a dizzying array of cups and bowls and flavors, though they all pretty much taste the same. Even though they require boiling water, I am still able to take advantage of such fare, as most of the convenience stores have a boiling water dispenser at their counter, though operating them is sometimes a mystery. It wasn't until my third day in Japan that I discovered these dispensers, noticing another customer taking advantage of one.  I was befuddled at first by which buttons to push to get it to operate.  As with just about everything here, all signs and directions are strictly in Japanese.

I don't have to worry about running out of food or going hungry, as it seems as if there is always a small convenience store around the next corner. There are a few mom-and-pop versions, but the vast majority belong to one or another of several chains, including 7-Eleven and Circle K. They buy in such quantity that their prices are comparable to the supermarkets. The convenience stores are so plentiful, they seem to have strangled out the large supermarkets.

It is lucky that the convenience stores are so ubiquitous, as it has been an extreme challenge to find anything else I've been in search of. I'm still very early in the learning phase of orienting myself to figuring things out here. I just spent two hours meandering around this city of one million, the largest city north of Tokyo on Honshu Island, the largest of the four islands that comprise the bulk of Japan, criss-crossing its many arteries in search of a landmark or street that corresponded with my map.

There were no signs recognizable to my Western eyes indicating the way to the city's downtown or tourist office or any landmark. I thought I was in luck when I came upon a large city map at an intersection, but there was nothing but Japanese figures on it, hieroglyphics to me. Few Westerners come to these parts, so they make no concessions to them. So far I haven't seen a Westerner since I left the airport three days ago.

Fortunately, the highways are identified by recognizable numbers and the pricing in the stores as well, otherwise I would really be up a creek. I have come over 200 miles and have another 250 ahead of me before I cross to Hokkaido, the northernmost and least populated of Japan's four main islands. The route I have followed along the coast has been mostly two-lanes wide and lined nearly uninterrupted with homes and businesses as if it were all an extension of Tokyo. There was a steady flow of traffic, all dutifully maintaining a moderate thirty mile per hour speed.  I had a bit of a shoulder, so it was tolerable cycling, though not much more. I am looking forward to the far north where hopefully there will be less traffic and some wilderness.

All for now, George