Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Obihiro, Japan

Friends: On day 17 after 1,200 miles of pedaling, for the first time in these travels a non-cyclist approached me and spoke. It was at a spectacular overlook in Daisetsuzan National Park, Japan's largest and in the heart of Hokkaido, not too far from the town of Furano , which declares itself the center of the island. It has an annual Navel, as in belly-button, Festival, trying to attract tourists.

The vantage from this overlook was across a vast valley framed by half a dozen volcanoes, some swallowed up by clouds. I had just completed a gradual 25-mile climb climaxed by five fairly steep miles with the actual summit lopped off by a half-mile tunnel. There were a handful of tour buses stopped. As usual, I was the lone Western.

An older gentleman asked in decent English where I was from and where I had bicycled from. Then he said, "You are great," bowed and returned to his bus, where his guide stood at the bus door bowing to everyone as they mounted the steps.

It is a most honorable deed to bicycle about Japan, even more honorable than climbing Mount Fuji, something every Japanese is expected to do once in their lifetime, but only once. There is a Japanese that says, "A wise man climbs Mount Fuji once. A fool climbs it twice." I sometimes wonder if that applies to a long bike tour.

I continue to see an occasional young Japanese male on a bicycle pilgrimage, not all of whom are well out-fitted for their travels. Some are without panniers, burdened by a huge backpack or a mere sack with all their gear lashed to their rack. I attract little reaction except from the motorcyclists, who frequently give me a thumbs up. The Japanese are very shy. I encountered a motorcyclist at a rest area early one morning who was just breaking down his tent. He silently walked past me to the toilet as I washed my socks at the outdoor faucet. Twenty minutes later when he passed me on the road he gave me a thumbs up.

I rarely turn heads from those in cars, as I am accustomed to elsewhere. It is no doubt further evidence of their extraordinary reserve and politeness. It is a marked contrast to the hearty greeting I receive whenever I enter a small grocery store by the young women working at them, but that is part of their job. The occasional older male owners are not so responsive. I always enjoy stopping at a convenience store near a gas station so I can watch the attendants sprint out to the cars when they pull up. They are truly service stations. They are staffed equally by young women as young men.

Umbrellas are one of the rare outlets the Japanese have to assert their individuality. Rather than the standard black, the umbrellas come in a wide range of colors. I was joined by tour bus loads of Japanese and their colorful umbrellas at various overlooks in Akan National Park, famed for its pair of lakes, considered the most beautiful in Japan. I was not appreciating the five-and-a-half mile climb to Lake Mashu at all. It wasn't particularly demanding, but it had me sweating, something I did not want to be doing in the cold. Even worse, I was not looking forward to a steep descent on wet roads. I was surprised the climb went on as long as it did. I wasn't expecting more than a two-and-a-half mile climb at most, as I knew the distance from the summit to the southern point of the lake was just a couple of miles. But what I didn't know is that the road did not main at the level of the lake but climbed well above it. It would have made for a nice view if it hadn't been so cloudy and rainy.

I passed by Lake Kussharo before the climb to Lake Mashu. Its sands are warmed by some thermal springs, but the rain prevented me from putting more than my hand upon them. Halfway between the two lakes is the hometown of a champion sumo wrestler and a small museum in his honor. I was there at eight a.m., well before its opening, but it was unlocked and the door ajar. The lights weren't on, but there was just enough light to take a leisurely stroll past all its trophies and photos.

I am pushing it to make it back to Hakodate in time for its final kiernan bike race of the year Oct. 7. I have biked at least ninety miles each of the past five days, including my first century of this trip. I squandered 45 minutes trying to find this Internet outlet. It is nice to have my own personal race every once in a while in the middle of a tour. It will be close, as I have at least another 250 miles to go and only twelve hours of light a day. But those flashing red arrows over the road may be my salvation. I took advantage of them last night for several extra miles. I was surprised to discover they are synchronized, all flashing at the same time as far as my eye could see, a most eerie sight.

Later, George

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