5. Tohoku

Apr 19 – to Moya Kogen (40/ 2425 km to date)

My last morning in Hakodate I finished buying more gloves and bike parts before catching the ferry for the return to Aomori.  I think I am pretty prepared for any eventuality now.

On the3:40 hr crossing I laid out a pretty satisfying tentative route down through Tohoku.  It would start by a short ride when I land to either the Moya Kogen hostel, 12k south or an attractive looking onsen my book describes as just south of Aomori.  I cleared the ferry quickly and was in the Information Centre by 4:00 to book my accommodation.  As it was sputtering and very grey I asked for them to check the hostel.  They were able to make a booking which included both dinner and breakfast for less than 5 k yen, a good deal.  I got away about 4:30.


I had the normal innumerable traffic lights heading south through Aomori but finally I was in the country climbing steeply through a deep forest with signs of skiing and luge tracks ahead.  As I got past all of the landmarks the information girl had given me I stopped at a coffee shop for directions. I was told it was another km ahead.  A few minutes later I was standing in my stirrups pumping up the road when a woman came running after me.  I had gone right past the hostel but they were watching for me.  It was 5:30, I had gained 200 m coming up to the hostel and it looked like the hill continued; I was glad I hadn’t decided to continue on to the onsen.

That feeling was certainly magnified as time went on, starting with my experience in the wonderful hostel.  Kuzoa, the owner, and his wife both speak excellent English and their hospitality continued past their concern that I would miss their place.  Kuzoa has travelled extensively, often by bike and is a bit of an Ireland freak having been there four times. They are a great couple to visit with.  I was the only visitor on this night as their season hasn’t really started yet.  One of the main reasons Kuzoa started up a hostel is that he loves to cook; another reason why it was a good choice for me to spend the night here.  After an excellent dinner we had tea made from dried flowers they grow in their garden.  Poured the tea is purple, add lemon and it is orange, tasty too.

Breakfast was as good as the dinner and I particularly appreciated that they joined me for both meals. As I have said before, eating alone is not high up my list of likes even though I do it most of the time.

Apr 20 – to Kazuno (115/2540 km to date)

It was a bit grey as I set out but it didn’t feel like rain and not a breath of wind.  The steep climbing continued. Soon I was in snow but the anorak was off and I was doing well.  I climbed up through some pretty heavy mist and then was able to see out over the clouds.  Kogen means plateau and I went from Moya Kogen to at least two more, each higher than the previous.  Kazoa had given me a route change that would knock a couple of hundred m off of my climbing while adding a few kms.   Even with the altitude saving I still I hit 850 m at the highest. The road was steep but I was so happy.  There was no traffic, I could hear the birds, there was no wind and I was truly on a narrow road in the deep north.  I just hadn’t counted on the deep snow but it wasn’t on the road and so all was fine.  I made the cut-off Kazoa had given me, dropped a bit, had coffee at a lone way-stop, did another climb and got back to the road that would take me south.

I then had a full brakes-on drop down to 250 m, passing the onsen that I was contemplating riding to yesterday.  It would have taken 3 hours and more climbing without the cut-off to get here, if I made it at all; my final reason that I was so thankful that I went to Moya Kogen.  Guide book writers should be made to bike occasionally.

My next climb was up the picturesque Oirase Gorge. I was kind of dreading the climb but it turned out to be pleasant as I stopped often to take photos and I topped out lower than expected.  My main objective in choosing this route was to touch on Towada-ko, a crater lake 56 km in circumference, with a little mountain in the middle.  I rode about 12 km of the circuit, three times as it turned out.  When I had lunch, just before leaving the lake I discovered I had lost my new toque that had been on and off during the morning.  I thought possibly it had fallen out when I checked my maps as I first came out of the gorge so I rode all the way back. I did really like that toque.  Oh well, I guess it is my way of lightening my load and maybe the cold is over.

The final and steepest climb of the day was up out of the crater, another 300 m climb up into the snow again.  I kept going in and out of the vestiges of winter snow on this day.  The run down for the first 15 or so km was as nice as it gets even though I had to again brake the whole way.  On the way down all of a sudden the air got warm.  In the valley, I put away my new winter gloves and continued on down the valley road running at about 35 kph. The euphoria beginning to fade as I got into a small headwind, trucks and city traffic again.  I had almost a full day of “narrow road in the deep north”.

It took me a while, possibly 15 km of riding and numerous asks, to find a hotel and it was expensive and out of character with the day.  I can’t help contrasting it with last night’s experience.  I ate supermarket sushi in my room enjoying a well earned beer and my music.  All is good.

Apr 21 – to Morioka (100/2640 km to date)

The wind made what was possibly an easy day a bit harder.  It was grey as always starting but within the hour the sun and the wind began to appear.  It was primarily a west wind and to begin I was heading a bit east and so it helped at times.  My road headed up through a narrow gorge, sharing space with the freeway and the train, both of which maintained nice steady gradients.  My road went up and down a bit but it was still fun, lots more than the freeway would be.  Near the top of this section I had a nice tail wind to get me over the top.  I still have a good mountain feeling even though it is no where near as pristine as yesterday.

I headed south for a while and for a short section I was very caught up in the swirling winds, which were now very strong slowing me down to a crawl.  I went through one small community in need of a wind and coffee break.  I saw three hair stylists but no coffee shop or convenience store until am inviting parking lot with a few cars drew me in.  I slid an elegant door open to a hotel looking foyer and asked if they could serve me some coffee.  The girl ran away to ask someone, coming back with an invitation to enter.  I was taken to a sitting area where the sole occupant was in a kimono and slippers working on his computer.  I was in a high end onsen.  The young boy was working on some advertising copy and he showed me some glossy magazines with his work, some related to this onsen.  There was gentle music playing and given my recent struggles out in the wind I was tempted to stop and linger but it was only 10 am. I asked at the desk what it would cost to stay.  The prices I saw ranged up from $150.  I was worried what the coffee would cost.  They charged me 300 yen, 100 yen less than MacDonald’s.  I think they had no idea what to charge for a guy walking in off the highway asking for coffee.  I have stayed in many types of places on this trip but not one at this level.

Back out there, dreading it a bit, I made my way around a corner and the wind began helping as I climbed to the next highpoint, around 650 m and more deep snow.  I went through a snow tunnel, about 1 km long and trying to stay too near the side dropped into a trough that was deep enough to dislodge a pannier just as a truck was passing.  I found an opening in the snow wall, slowed my heart a bit, re-arranged my load and got out as soon as it was clear of vehicles.

The wind and sun made my eyes water. Racing down out of these passes is almost not fun but how do you not run with it after the turtle pace coming up.  I had a nice spicy hot noodle soup around 11:30 and made it into the Morioka Station IC about 2:00.  The girl there found me a nice inexpensive ryokan.  I did a ride around to the old castle walls, saw the rock splitting cherry tree and had a relaxing coffee.  The very first cherry blossoms are just starting here.  It is reasonably warm, in spite of the heavy wind that is a bother.

I had a nice sento bath in the ryokan, drank a beer while doing computer updates and them went down to support these friendly, helpful people by having my dinner with them. The woman helped me wash my clothes (total cost $1) and got me a reservation for tomorrow night in the Tono valley.  I love a good ryokan even though I have yet to experience a high end one.

I had a choice between 1000, 1500 and 2500 yen set meals.  I went for the 1500 which included sashimi.  I had 11 plates, most with a variety on them.  There were 6 cold plates, mostly vegetables in various sauces.  There were about 6 varieties of sashimi on one of the plates.  For me the most incredible dish was a hot sole dish.  I am stuffed and it was wonderful; what could the 2500 meal be?  This ryokan was too inexpensive for the IC people to handle even though they helped me find it. It was only $40 but I can’t imagine a better place for me nor can I imagine what places like the onsen I stopped at earlier today would be like to stay at.

I would rate the places that I have stayed as Ryokans, hostels, minshukus and finally business hotels. Ryokans, for me, are hard to find.  If I don’t connect out of my guide book or get put onto one, like happened today it would be a real fluke to find one.  People on the street never identify one.  In non-tourist cities or in the country-side if you can’t read Japanese I have no idea how you would find them.   They are not always too expensive as tonight’s place and they are by far the most pleasant to stay.  I am fairly impressed with the hostels that I have used although some can get a bit rule oriented.  I have only stayed in a couple of minshukus which are like a poor man’s ryokan. There seems to be no real line between them but I guess I would say they make little effort to add niceties to the experience like you see in spades in the ryokans. My final category is the business hotels which are the most like you would find in other parts of the world.  They have been fine as well but add little to the cultural experience and I often have the feeling that I am over-paying.

What are some of the essential differences?  In business hotels it is always a western bed, ensuite bath and toilet, supplied towels and toiletries, TV, etc.  In ryokans and minshukus there are always tatami matted rooms with mats and bedding that you pull out of a closet.  Normally there is shared toilet and a nice sento type bath.  You usually get towels and cotton kimono.  In hostels you usually need your own towel but bedding is supplied.  I have almost always been in dorms but often there is no other person. In some hostels there are private rooms.  The best internet connections for me have been at business hotels and hostels, but none of the types have always had connections and I have had connections in places that I least expect them.  The best people relations have been at hostels and ryokans; I guess that is why I rate them the highest.

The big missing category is camp-sites and while there is still a possibility time is running out.  I am now feeling that “golden week”, next week, will see me in a tent because I can’t find a place.   I also have yet to stay in temple lodging or in a high-end onsen.  Time will tell on these as well.

Apr 22,23 – to Tono Valley (115/2755 km to date)

It was about 70 km of continuous hills for me between Morioka and Tono town.  The period for a hill/valley combination was from 4 to 5 kms which means I did about 15 of them but they were never tough and the traffic quite moderate.  It was grey which means the wind was moderate.  I had some longer climbs as I got closer to Tono, but then it is a mountain valley, some 250 m higher than Morioka but it still wasn’t bad.

I started to get more than a sputtering of rain when I was about 15 km out but I still resisted putting on full rain gear until too late, which meant that I was wet and cold for a few hours after stopping. The final 10 km run into Tono was on a bike path removed from the road and when I entered town I was completely turned about.  The IC at the station had lots of good stuff, and I had a nice lunch before touching on a few of the tourist sites.

For me the most interesting thing here besides the pastoral setting are the “kappas”.  A kappa is a water spirit – mischievous almost human characters that have been known to spirit away young maidens. And they are everywhere here.

The hostel sits on a country road and I decided very early that this is where I will spend one of my extra days.  There is a nice sento bath and the meals are great.  Also cold, rain and possibly snow are predicted for the morning.  I had a nice visit with a man from Hokkaido doing a one week onsen holiday, apparently a common thing to do.  The owner, over coffee and treats after dinner gave us a synopsis of many of the stories, some of which he translated for me.  There is a book with an English translation called Tales of Tono that is quite famous.

After breakfast there was no rain or snow to begin so without load I headed about 6 km along a country road to Tono Furusato Village, a sort of heritage village where they have gathered old farm and craft houses.  I spent a pleasant few hours there but the only craftsperson was doing ceramics.  The houses were mostly L shaped; one part of the L was for animals and farm implements the other wing for the family. There seemed to be some variation in the farm side of the L while the house sides were all similar. They used fire pits for heating, cooking and working in their shops. The coals would be distributed about the house to the different rooms, as needed.  Beds were on platforms that could have coals underneath. I enjoyed looking at the old tools and farm implements and talking with the old people working there.

The rest of the day I spend following more of the dedicated bike trails around the valley encountering the odd Kappa and Buddhist shrine among the farms and villages.

Apr 24 – to Kesenumma (75/2830 km to date)

It was cold but no wind as I headed away from Tono.  After some time I began an earnest climb and hit a major tunnel, possibly 3 km long.  On this Saturday morning, I made it through being passed by only two cars and no trucks.  Quite a few were coming the other way and so the noise was there but it wasn’t too scary.

I popped out into bright sunshine and a long wonderful drop into the valley. At this point I had gone about 40 km and was looking to more of the same to get me to the sea.  The drop continued but a bit of headwind took the fun away.  Still it was fine, the valley was very narrow and the small towns had a feeling about them different than south Japan.

At Rikuzen and the sea still early I turned south.  Now there were continuous up and down runs and the road never really was able to follow the sea although I could see it periodically.  Just before noon I entered Kesennuma where I had a hostel reservation.  I made my way to the port where I found an Information centre and they indicated that the hostel was across from the train station.  After a nice Italian lunch I headed on but could only find a business hotel across from the train station.  I asked in the hotel and they indicated that the hostel was on a peninsula about an hour a way in the wrong direction.  I have about a 130 km to get to Sendai tomorrow and do not want to add an extra hour even though I might stop before Sendai at Matsushima Bay.

I asked what the rate would be and they indicated 6000 yen. I feigned anguish and sat down to contemplate my fate.  By this time I had 5 people talking and commiserating with me.  One came back and suggested that the manager had decided to offer me a room for 3800, 4700 yen with full breakfast.  I said yes, possibly a bit too quickly but I am off the road.  I will have a tougher day tomorrow but I would have been struggling to find a place between here and Sendai.

I did a walk about town and am now about to shower and head down to support the hotel by having supper here.

Apr 25 – to Oku-Matsushima (125/2955 km to date)

I got away from Kesennuma about 8:00 on a perfectly clear day.  My anorak was in my pack and I was riding with only my riding gloves for the first time in weeks. I was a bit cold to start but the hills changed that quickly.  I had a half dozen up and downs as the road hugged the coastline and the wind began to pick up as promised on the internet forecast.  An hour and a bit into the ride, I made a big gamble and left the coast road for a country road.  I wasn’t sure if the country road would get me south more efficiently and pleasantly than the meandering coastal road with its cold wind.

The gamble paid off early in that I had a great long climb on very quiet roads rather than the continuous up and down on the coast.  The wind was there but not bothering me.  Over the top, not realizing it at the time was really over the top.  There would be no more significant climbing this day.  But as with yesterday the downhill run along an ever-growing river was marred by the steady wind that made the down feel like up and took away the sense of return you normally get when running down after a good climb.

I had coffee around 10:00 and tried to figure out where I was.  Soon after I made chose a road that turned to gravel and dirt road along a river dike that dead-ended.  I had to back off of this one completely and then found a quiet back road that was pretty nice.  The problem came when the marked road I was on dissipated into a maze of tertiary roads with no marking.  I maintained my direction easily enough, but the roads still meandered all over and I was an hour and more without really making much headway.

I crossed some railway tracks and finally made some good choices. I found a Lawson’s convenience store where I had a microwave meal sitting in the parking lot and then found a quiet route run down a river on my map ultimately getting me to a rail station and then to a hostel.  I arrived at 3:30, half an hour early for booking in, amazed that I averaged close to 20 kph through all this.  I had my two beer looking out over Oku-Matsushima and had to go back for more to assuage my serious de-hydration.

I can’t figure out this world.  This is a large purpose built hostel, probably with 200 beds, it is golden week a big school holiday and I am the only one here except for one other white boy I saw at the station but not since.  Tomorrow I will need an easier day but am still not sure what the end of the day will bring.  I will probably just pack up and go, first to have a good look at Matsushima Bay and then … who knows.

Apr 26 – to Sendai (80/3035 km to date)

It was to be an easy day and it was so, mostly meandering.  I found my way across the little peninsula to Matsushima Bay, one of the three great views of Japan.  I was hoping for some stops on the way over but was in the tourist heart before much appealed.  There I went Zuigan-ji, a Buddhist temple noted for it’s architecture but what I saw were some cliff carvings and then onto Ojima, a little island with more carvings and some of the best views I had.  It was good but I was not blown away by the views.

It was basically city driving the remaining 40 km or so into Sendai and predictably I added a few kms trying to get away from the truck traffic.  I had a long lunch about 5 km from the station and then did a ride around town for a couple of hours until I thought that they would let me into the hostel, where I did not have a reservation.  In the hostel after a sento and supper I ran into Adrian, the Canadian boy I had also shared a room with at Tono.  Only this time instead of half a dozen empty bunks, we were both on a tatami room, not a lot bigger than our two mats.

Apr 27,28 – Yamagata (90/3125 km to date)

I left early in the morning and had no trouble finding the highway through town and on a steadily rising road into the mountains.  I was on the way to Yamagata, geologically on the Pacific side of the island and back into cold, windy rainy weather.  I was headed towards Yamadero, my last A-list destination of the trip but more on that tomorrow.  It was cold but at least not raining as as I left the hostel.   The steady climb kept me warm for a while. I noted the temperature was around 6C.  At about 25 km, the road now climbing rapidly through a narrow gully the temperature dropped to 2C.  I was getting colder even though I was working hard to keep my speed up.  The road was the worst I have had here.  No shoulder at all and many trucks.   I stopped at a pull-off, had a power bar, put on some warmer clothes, took a deep breath and continued on.  I saw the ubiquitous tunnel indicating the top had come, but dreading what I knew would be a shoulder-less passage; if there is a sidewalk or shoulder it always ends at the tunnel.  The tunnel was about 1.5 km long, but mostly down hill and well lit so luckily I was able to crank up the speed out-running all but one truck that passed when the way was clear.

Out the other side was a long down-hill down-wind run to Tendo on a road I hardly had to brake on.  At a road-works I was stopped and a young Japanese bike tourer was chugging up the hill absolutely wiped by the wind. In talking to him he seemed very experienced and so should be fine.

In Tendo I looked around and found where they make 95% of the Japanese chess pieces.  Japanese or Shogi Chess is not too dissimilar to what we play in the west, but different enough to be of interest; the pieces are very different.  I was shown around, given some material on the game and bought the cheapest set of pieces they make. In fact they are so cheap I am sure they are made elsewhere.  I don’t expect to actually play but wanted to support them.  I also had a soba (buckwheat noodle) meal next door at the most important soba restaurant here.  What I failed to comprehend when I ordered was that periodically it is sold cold.  Not the most appropriate on this sort of day. Everyone else in the crowded place was having hot variations.

I had another 15 km to get to Yamagata running across the wind. It was so bad I actually stayed on the sidewalk all the way on this busy road as I was weaving so much when it gusted and when trucks passed.

The IC at the station put me into a business hotel for $3800 yen including breakfast; my cheapest hotel for a long time.  I checked in for two nights as I will head up into the mountains to Yamadera tomorrow and back.  I had a grey evening walk around the old castle walls, admiring the sakura that are in their prime here.  Of note is the baseball field in the centre of the castle walls.

I had basically decided I would take the train rather than riding my bike up to Yamadera, even though it is only about 20 km.  Rain was predicted; the station is across the street from my hotel and it only cost a bit over $2.  As I was heading up I was regretting my train decision as the road was not steep and it was quiet.  But, getting off at the train seemed to bring on the rain, and it continued until I came back six hours later. I was glad I took the train and gave my bike a day off out of the rain.

Yamadera is the home of Risshaku-ji, a temple originating some time around 800 AD, and very much the kind of temple that appeals to me.  It is built high up in the cliffs and there are stairways, walkways and temple paraphernalia winding around the forest and cliffs.  It didn’t bother me much that it was raining, as the atmosphere is often dark and mysterious anyway.  The wind made handling my umbrella while trying to take photos tough, but I guess I can thank the weather for the scarcity of people that made getting clean photos easier.  I was able to sit in the lee of a couple of temples and actually feel the quiet solitude that I think you should experience in this sort of place.  This does not happen often at these famous temples.

A second reason for choosing Yamadera as a destination is that it was chosen by Basho on his Walk North and there is a museum honouring him, even though he was only here for one night.  Not much was in English, but it was attractive and I watched a film depiction of his walk for a while even though I couldn’t understand much.  I did have a fancy lunch, hot soba this time, over-looking the cliffs of Risshaku-ji, again with hardly anyone else in the dining room.  And I was able to jump out and get a photo when the sky seemed to lighten a bit.  I had a leisurely lunch and tea and read about Basho for a while,.

A word or two on Basho, Japan’s most revered Haiku poet.  He was basically a wanderer and felt that representing in his writing things that he had not seen and experienced was a bit hollow even though that was the style at that time.  His feeling for nature and its relation to people rings true for me even though he is a bit older (about 400 yrs).  It has been fun to kind of keep track of a few of the places that we have both been, although I suspect things have changed a bit over the years.

As I said, this was my last really-want-to-see place and I will head back to Tokyo feeling pretty well fulfilled.  I will miss the Bandai Plateau and Nikko that were added to my list when I changed direction.  Next week is Golden Week and there are no famous places you can find a spot to stay.  I will keep trying for interesting spots but it is probably business hotels in nondescript cities from here back to Tokyo.  There is a “top three” garden on one of my possible routes in.  At any rate that is some days away and tomorrow I have another tough day getting back over the divide to the Pacific side.  I expect heavy traffic, wind and rain as usual.

Apr 28 – to Fukushima (110/3235 km to date)

The forecast was not good, but it was only grey and not even that cold as I got away from Yamagata early; the hotel gave me my breakfast a bit early.  If there was any wind it may have been with me.  It was to be a highway 13 day, a main road. I started staying on the sidewalk as much as I could with very heavy traffic and as such I got pulled away from the route a couple of times.  I made it to Yonezawa, some 50 km earlier than expected so I carried right on, finally stopping for a vending machine coffee 15 km or so later just before it looked like the big climbing would start.

By now the sidewalk was gone but the road was major enough that there were passing lanes when it got steep and that helped.  We went up quickly and before long the first of two long tunnels was facing me.  There was no immediate traffic as I entered the first and so pushed on.  This one was over 2.5 km and still a bit up but I was riding well; there seemed to be a bit of a crest and my speed picked up.  By the time I hit daylight though I needed a stop to catch my wind.  I was expecting a second one almost immediately and sure enough it came.  This one was slightly shorter and more down hill and so I hit it hard.  Once clear of the major tunnels, which came at about 800 m, there were about six more short ones, but I flew through them all and before I knew it I was out of the gorges closing in on Fukushima.

The rain was spattering a bit as I approached Lizaka Onsen and it was time for lunch so I pulled in.  It is about 3 km off of the road and I got caught in the rain and had to pull out my anorak before I found a lunch spot.  I stopped at the first restaurant that had a place where I could get my bike under cover.  The girl who served me had been in Calgary on a home stay and her English was good.  I asked her how I would find an Onsen, and she pointed across the street, saying that was the oldest one.  I headed over, and for $2 joined a bunch of old guys.  I guess they are no older than me but I don’t have white long johns and so don’t feel as old.  I followed the normal procedure and started soaping down doing my hair and everything, trying to be very thorough.  When I took a second dollop of shampoo one of the old guys came over angrily and grabbed the tube.  In this onsen you bring your own soap.

The water was very hot and the people spent much longer than normal.  I was there about 45 minutes and one guy sat beside the pool soaping pouring pails of water over himself and washing his towel, repeatedly.  He was doing this when I came and was still at it when I left.  A number of other tourists came in while I was there and they also found the water hotter than they were used to.  I didn’t notice if they had to steal soap.

I still had ten kms to ride into Fukushima, which I took slowly, not wanting to waste the clean relaxed feeling that I had.  I went to the station and found a not very cheap business hotel, but they had excellent internet.  I did a brief run about town before my evening regimen.  Having made it over the divide and into Fukushima I was able to begin to finalize the last week of my travels.  I was able to make one reservation for May 5 and decided to stay in Fukushima and have a walk on a nice little urban mountain.  I was able to get into a hostel part way up in the mountains, where I headed later in the day.

Apr 30, May1 – Fukushima, (75 km/3310 km to date)

In the morning, I took my time making all of the phone calls and internet business I could and then headed off to find my way up a mountain park in the centre of town.  I ran into a bike shop and filled both of my tires, using their compressor.  This turned out to be a big mistake as we will see.  I had a great couple of hours wandering around the mountain.  I found all three summits, lots of temples, some good sakura and enjoyed the young kids in their classes all over the mountain.  Depending on age they had different activities, often sort of an orientation exercise, and they were very open with me.  I think this was a special activity to keep them involved given that next week is a holiday.

As I was riding away from the mountain the back tire blew.  I think that I had exceeded the tire pressure on the tire I picked up in Hakodate and it had pulled away from the rim, letting the tube out.  It blew as loud as a rifle crack as I was going by a group filming some sort of promotional thing outside of a hotel.  We all wondered what had happened but they were very nice, bringing me a map to a bike shop and a towel to clean things with.

I carried on in the general direction of the hostel, finding a place to eat and a shop where I broke down and replaced the helmet I lost about 200 fairly spooky kms ago. The guy who sold it was so proud and took a long time checking out my rig.  We took pictures all around and I continued on up to the hostel, climbing 100 m in the process.

The hostel is wonderful; I am almost alone here as it seems primarily a ski hostel. The others are two young girls who came in with ski stuff and I never saw them again, I guess Fukushima at night is more interesting than a hostel.   My evening meal may have been the best I have had here in Japan which partially motivated some intensive map work and new plans.  I found a great looking bike ride that could occupy a good part of the day and so I booked in for a third night in Fukushima.

The next morning, after an equally good breakfast, I headed off to do a road called the Bandai-Azuma Skyway;  I expected to make a 50 km loop that would get me very high up, expecting to hit snow, but it was lovely and sunny so I wasn’t worried about cold.  The road started up steeply and got steeper.  I climbed 600 m in 7 km, but it was great with no load on the bike.  I stopped for a coffee at an Onsen that I expected to be the end of the commercial things until I came down the other side.  About 10 minutes later I came to a manned gate and was turned around, with almost everyone else.  I don’t know if this is always the case for bikes or because of the snow.  Most cars were turned around here as well.

There was a good looking branch road about a km back down and I followed it for 4 km, getting even higher that I was before.  I was at some sort of farm activity place, snow now deep along the road side.  The people here indicated that the road was snowed in further along and so I turned and ran all the way down to below the hostel.  I was forced to stop a couple of times to rest my hands from the heavy braking.

I rode around the hills above Fukushima for the rest of the day. As I was heading back to the hostel, about 4 km away, my front tire blew.  This is the one with the glass cut that I put a boot in.  The added pressure that I had added finally pushed the boot through the cut.  Rather than fixing it there I wheeled back to the hostel where I put on my spare tire that I bought in Hakodate.  These fatter tires have been great, but I guess I can’t use the tire pressure I am used to using.

Last night, Friday, I was the only one eating supper.  Tonight there were about 20, most in families with children ranging from new-born to 20s.  We all ate together and I had a great visit with a number of them.  The new-born took a shine to me and so that created a good feeling.  My eating neighbour was a single middle-aged guy on his third visit here.  Most are repeat customers and I think most come for the food and hostel ambience.  Last night the owner was free to tell me how to eat the complicated meal. Tonight’s meal was different and as complicated but he was running in and out with the 100s of plates of food as we each had about 10.  And so I was parroting my eating partner.  I would put meat in the cooker and take it out in unison with him.  I would roll a bite of sashimi in the same sauce with the same flair.  He was very much enjoying being the tutor.  I had treated myself to a bottle of cheap wine and I had already had a beer while doing my tire. He would not have me eating bite for bite with him without matching cups of sake.  He bought a second bottle and of course I had to buy a third.

To cap the evening we all went out into the owner’s star-watching shed and looked at Saturn through his big telescope.  It was a bit fuzzy for me but that might have been a smudge on my glasses, everything seemed a bit blurry.  Japanese hostels of course vary dramatically with their owner but I am quite sold and particularly in Tohoku they have been my preferred places to stay.  I wish there were more.    Atoma, above Fukushima, has to be one of the best anywhere.

Tomorrow I will have another easy day moving on to Koriyama but I will have the complication of finding places to stay for the next week.

May 2 – to Koriyama ( 75/3385 km to date)

I had a leisurely breakfast and fiddled a lot with my packing, mostly making things worse.  I have too much stuff now that I am not wearing everything and am still worried about getting caught out in the cold and rain particularly given the hotel situation I will now face.   I have some things that I could eject if I was confident that the weather will hold for a whole week.

I added a bit of distance by staying well above the main highway now #4, and had some tranquil roads on this Sunday morning for a while.  Finally after the side roads kept taking me north when I wanted to be going south, I headed for the highway and basically stayed on the sidewalk for most of the way to Koriyama.  I had time and, being on a sidewalk the mental freedom to ponder the benefits of not trying to do considerable distances each day.  I have six days to get to Tokyo when three would be more than ample.  As a result I am trying to figure out how to stretch the distance to fit the days.  One way is to make sure I don’t do more than about 75 km each day and much of that wandering about the countryside.  The benefits that I have begun to experience are the freedom to spend an extra day or even two in a place like I have just done; I can have a third cup of coffee and enjoy the morning sun as I did this morning; I can stop at a flea market and have a corn dog as I did mid-morning; I can struggle finding a place to stay when I arrive and yet still get into a place early, I guess this last is not that pleasurable, but still a benefit.

When I hit town, I went to a Ryokan and then a cheap hotel that I had spotted on the internet, both full.  So back to the IC at the train station.  The girl there made 5 calls before getting me into a hotel for about $85.  I did a short walk about and then, to save a bit ate my grocery meal in the hotel while working on my internet.

I have little doubt that tomorrow night and likely the next will be spent in my tent somewhere, but I am kind of looking forward to it.

May 3-5 – to Mito (150/3535 km to date)

I can’t believe my luck with the weather.  I set out from Koriyama expecting to be in my tent for the first time this trip and the weather is perfect.  I was only a few kms into the day when my jersey came off and I was generating something I remember as sweat; at least I was getting damp and it wasn’t raining.  I was expecting a climb to a high point and then a long run back down into Mito along the Kujigawa.

Of the different routes into Tokyo that I could have chosen the reasons I chose this include: it kept me away from the coast and the predicted south wind; the road seemed fairly direct but also less than the most frequented; but primarily that in the middle is a gorge that promised the possibility of some camp spots. Even though the run to Mito was not long I needed to squeeze two nights into it.

I left the busy highway #4 after about 15 km and then began an easy climb until just before noon sometime when I found myself in the Kujigawa drainage without having gone over a significant pass.  I stopped for lunch and the girls in the restaurant tried all sorts of things to help me find out if there was a campsite somewhere down the road.  I pointed to a couple of Onsen that I though may have campsites.  I talked with I think a boyfriend on the phone who said that there were both onsens and campsites (Kjamp-jo) on down the road but not at the same place.  Over the next couple of hours I stopped at three more places and got three conflicting ideas of where a Kjamp-jo might be. There is no signage that I could read at all and I think almost no one knows about camp grounds.

At a narrow part of the gorge where there were cars, kiosks and people, I was finally directed across the river and down a small road where I saw another person putting up a tent in what looked like a grass car park.  That was fine by me, no one else camped there that night and it was actually pretty nice.  It cost me about $9 and for another $1 had a hot shower.   I had to make do with the supplies I was able to pick up in the tourist kiosk area across the river but I had a pretty good dinner out of it and enough breakfast to get me down the road in the morning.  I think Yamatsuriyama this first night is the nicest part of the river valley and I am not sure why there were not more people camped here.  I walked above the valley on the tourist side for a while, before settling in to having a nice relax at my campsite.

It was a bit cold for me in the night, but not enough to dig in and get out all my clothes; I had most on as it was.  I had coffee and snacks in the morning and then walked a small mountain above the campsite.  I guess I went up about 600m, getting me close to 1000m and I was alone with the birds the whole way.  I have never had so little luck seeing the little birds as here.  I think they must be smaller than their voices indicate, but I guess if I get used to just listening I don’t have to buy anymore expensive optics.  I met a few other walkers on the way down, and then more in a little scenic gorge path near the bottom.

Around 10:30 I packed up to move on down the valley.  I could have spent my second night here but would have had to ride back up the road to get more supplies and sitting around all afternoon didn’t appeal either.  About 20 km into the ride I began asking again about campsites.  Again I got conflicting directions and rode back and forth twice without finding anything.  A gas station attendant finally gave me some good direction even though his 5 km turned out to be 10 km, and the person I asked at 5 km had no idea about campsites in either direction.

The second campsite I stayed at had a couple of hundred people, is pretty grungy and nothing very interesting to do out of the site.  Go figure.  The trai, at the first site went over a bridge about 100 m away; the train bridge here is right overhead.  Now as loud as a train is normally it makes three times that much noise as it goes over a bridge.  I don’t think they tie the tracks in; the train kind of re-aligns them as it runs past.  But, I’m definitely not complaining.  I had bought a bunch of things up the road and I had a shower, my beer and supper and all is well.  I have been able to consume my free nights until my hostel booking in Mito and it was a really nice trip so far.  I am getting used to this riding a few kms each day and just hang out to fill the time.

My second night in the tent was much warmer and I over-dressed until finally the early morning hours got a bit colder.  I had coffee and snacks again and then hit the road.  I am still heading down Kujigawa, but as the canyon is still fairly narrow there is a bit of up and down.  As I cleared the river gorge and urban things started I stopped for convenience store coffee and snacks and could not believe that it was still only 9:00.

By 10:00 I was pulling into Mito and follow the signage that got me to Kaira-kuen, my third of the best three gardens in Japan.  I previously had visited Kora-kuen in Okayama and Kenro-kuen in Kanazawa and so I think that it is only the gardens of the “top threes in Japan” that I was able to hit.  I have made two of three in a couple of other categories.

Kaira-kuen is every bit as pleasant as the others. The prime thing here for me were the neatly trimmed flowering bushes, mostly I think azaleas.  There was another fine manor house, some hundred or so years old that was the home of the lord who had the garden built.  The plum trees, for which the garden is partly known were well past their flowering prime as were the few cherry trees.  Still it was another fine couple of hours.

My hostel, which I had booked some days ago is some sort of youth centre and they have given me my own tatami room.  I have bought dinner and breakfast here but I think they will be of lesser quality than I had at Atoma but each is an experience of its own.  This is one of those hostels where it feels like they have never had a foreign guest before although that is probably not the case.

I have one more night that I will need to find a place along the road and then I am booked into Tokyo for the final three nights.  As is so often the case on my travels, finding a place to stay consumes much of my effort although having  a tent has taken some of the angst away.

May 6,7 – to Tokyo (150/3685 km to date)

The weather is holding, and I am away from Mito early.  The breakfast that I have agreed to is, like dinner last night, delivered in a bento box and its cold except for the Miso in a separate container. Pretty unappetizing.  You win some and lose some I guess.  But, I am down the road early.  I am on the road heading for a city called Tsukuba. Billed as Japan’s Science city, it is about half way to Tokyo and has some camp sites and some science things to look at.  There is not much to impede my progress down the road; I am riding highway 6 all the way to my hostel in Asakusa except for my jaunt off to Tsukuba. Before long I found the exit that took me about 10 km into Tsukuba.  At the information centre I am told that only Jaxs the space centre is open for tour. I spent a good couple of hours there.  I had no idea that Japan was so significant in space exploration but they have a full module attached to the international space station and I was able to walk through a mock-up.

While recuperating from the information over-load I noticed on my only partially English Tsukuba map, where I had picked out my potential camping spot the price of their listed accommodation.  The price on my camping place was 23,000 yen about $250.  I showed this to the people at Jaxs and they confirmed that it was indeed the nightly price, but they offered to phone around and find me a cheaper place.  It took about 15 minutes but they came back and indicated they had found a hotel for me at the bottom of my price range.

I headed out, found the hotel and found why it is at the bottom of the price range. I sat in the dingy entry way with a beer from the convenience store waiting and wondering if anyone would turn up.  It took an hour but I did get in and the room was a bit better than the office area although I did keep my shoes on in this one.

I was away early in the morning again, nothing much to keep me in my hotel.  This time finding my way back to Hwy #6 was painful.  I did about 15 extra kms and the south wind was up early today, but I guess all is ok as I am not pressed for time, and the wind seems to keep the rain at bay.  I am in continuous city driving.  This means a bit more sidewalk riding and a couple of times I get  into a convoluted effort to stay on route as the sidewalk wanders off line before I can escape to the road.  I keep worrying about my increasing aggressiveness as I get closer to the goal line.  It would be painful to have an accident this close to the end but when it gets hectic I tend to ride harder.

All works out in the end and as planned I ride into Asakusa on Hwy #6, recognize some key things and ride up to the hostel I left two months ago without using a map or asking for help.  I arrived around noon, and as I was moving my stuff into the hostel the rain started, pretty lucky again.  I was recognized by the guy on the desk and I carried my stuff up to the same room I had before.

As it was raining I walked about Asakusa in the afternoon, took the metro in the evening looking for a good bookstore.  I will have two full days to visit a few things of interest, and get ready to fly home.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s