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

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