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

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