Sunday, October 8, 2006

Hirosaki, Japan

Friends: Two nights ago the 40-year old woman who ran the Rider House warned me that it wasn't likely I'd be able to take the ferry to Oma the next day, as the forecast was for continued stormy weather. Instead, if I wanted off Hokkaido, I'd have to go to Aomori, on a larger, more sea-worthy ferry. It was twice as expensive and took twice as long as going to Oma, but it would save me 75 miles of biking.

I was regularly woken all that night by a typhoon-seeming rain pelting the second floor room I and five young Japanese cyclists were sharing. But an hour or two before sunrise there was
quiet and the wind and rain had moderated. The skies were still heavily overcast, threatening to burst at any moment, but they only leaked an occasional drizzle the rest of the day.

The 1,500 yen price of the room included breakfast. There were seven of us sitting on the floor around a low table in the kitchen at 7:30 that morning. The other six were all young Japanese bicyclists, none of whom were eager to start biking. When I signed the register for the Rider House, I noticed not another westerner had been a guest in over three months. The person I talked to at the tourist office wasn't even aware of the Rider House, and had to go searching in the phone book to find it. Any traveler is welcome, though it is primarily used by bicyclists, many of whom hop from Rider House to Rider House. This particular House had been in operation for 33 years.

Breakfast consisted of two slices of toast, two grapes, a hunk of tofu, a choice of plum or raspberry jam and a choice of coffee or tea. A TV was on in the background. The lady of the house gasped at the news that the seas were so rough that even the Amori ferry had not been running for over 24 hours, a very rare occurrence. She called the ferry terminal to ask if they knew when the ferries would resume running again. They did not know.

I biked over anyway, five miles away. There were literally hundreds of 18-wheelers clogging the parking lot and backed up for a couple of miles. The terminal too was aswarm with people. I purchased a $25 ticket for the three-and-a-half hour trip to Aomori, though there was no
telling when it would leave. I was told to come back at eleven, when there might be news. I found a place to sit at the terminal and was able to finish "Unbeaten Tracks," a travel book by a British woman, Isabella Bird, who traveled Hokkadio and Honshu Island north of Tokyo in 1880 mostly by horse. She spent quite a bit of time with the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hakkaio who have been virtually wiped out. Only 25,000 remain. Although I stopped at an Ainu Village, a tourist attraction, it was early in the morning before it was open, so I didn't encounter any of the Anius staffing it, nor did I come across any in my time on Hokkaido. They are said to bear a resemblance to Mongolians.

I was joined by a 23-year Japanese man who was driving the circumference of Japan, sleeping in his car most nights. He said he was an enthusiast of American culture, and was quite pleased to learn that 7-Eleven was an American company. His English was very limited, but he was a godsend as he could translate the periodic announcements that were made. It would have been a lot more complicated for me to learn, when at 11:45, after three hours, it was announced that there was a ferry leaving for Aomori. I with my bike could board, but he would have to wait for at least
another couple of ferries before he could go with his car. He asked me the same question that I have been asked several times before--did I like sushi? He also asked me what countries I had visited, another question I have been asked by those who would like to but have not left Japan, not even for Korea, a short ferry trip away.

It took nearly two hours to load the ferry, delaying our arrival into Aomori until after dark.
I had no worries that I could find a place to camp, and I did within two miles of the terminal, behind a shed. I slept a bit on the ferry, as did most of the passengers. Many came equipped with blankets, either to lay on or under. There was limited seating. Most of the areas for the passengers were large carpeted rooms without any seating. A teen-aged girl plopped down next to me and immediately started doing stretching exercises, starting with doing the splits and then wrapping one leg, then the other behind her head. There was a TV at either end of our area. One was showing a car race and the other a soccer match. At half-time of the soccer game there was a brief news cast. The woman news reader concluded it with a bow of her head to her desk. The nearly six hours I spent on the ferry allowed my sleeping pad and a few of my clothes to dry.

I awoke to clear skies this morning and a strong westerly breeze. I'm sticking inland for about 80 miles, where I'm somewhat protected from the winds. It was 25 miles to Hirosaki, where I was able to do a little site-seeing, visiting a five-storied pagoda and a castle from the 1600s. Hokkaido has virtually none of such things. The castle was very modest by European standards--a wooden structure that was simply one large room stacked three high. It was surrounded my three moats and vast gardens that included many cherry trees. It is a popular spot in the spring for those on the cherry blossom circuit. A towering volcano in the distance, doffed in clouds, made the setting all the more picturesque.

Later, George

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