Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Day 35: Mountain Climbing, Part Deux

Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Rode 70km (43 miles) from Nagano to Matsumoto, over the Sarugababa mountain pass.

Nagano, well known as host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, is also home to Zenko-Ji, a 1300 year old Buddhist temple that houses an image of the Buddha from the 6th century. It is believed to be the first image of the Buddha to arrive in Japan. Sho and I spent the morning exploring the temple, including an exciting search for the "key to paradise" in the Okaidan, a pitch black tunnel underneath the main temple chamber. This search prompted Sho to ask me what it means to achieve enlightenment.

"It's hard to explain," I answered. "But my guess is that it's kinda like being happy with who you are and knowing the truth of the world."

"Then I'm already enlightened!" Sho announced. "I'm happy with who I am, and I know that, when you're dead, you're dead."

We left the spiritually-stimulating Zenko-Ji Temple for some muscle-stimulating yaki zakana grilled fish, then biked 70km (43 miles) from Nagano to Matsumoto. Yesterday's ride had been a challenging steady climb, but today's was straight up a mountain. We rode for 6 1/2 hours in total, including a 2-hour climb into the clouds, up 10% grades with no relief from the steep pitch. Rain came and went as we passed through cloud lines, chugging steadily up, up, up. An expansive view of verdant, glistening forests and mountains opened up to our left, while the sheer mountain side hemmed us in to the right on the narrow mountain road. With 70+ pounds of gear and both of our weight, the pull of gravity seemed to intensify. We crawled along at a ridiculously slow pace, struggling to keep the bikes from falling over or weaving off the road and over the short guard rail, into the yawning abyss. Few cars joined us on the route up to Sarugababa Pass, so we often rode up the center line.

My legs burned, and sweat mixed with rain water dripped off the tip of my helmet constantly. We rested every 15 minutes or so, as I shook out my hands, which became numb from the tight grip I had to maintain on the handlebars. As I leaned over my handlebars catching my breath, Sho took the chance to come up with impromptu silly dances. "Aren't your legs tired?" I asked, out of breath.

"Yeah, they're tired," he answered, still dancing.

Re-starting on a 10% grade hill was a struggle, as I had to push down several times on the pedal with one foot to get enough momentum to jump on the bike with my other foot. Sometimes I lost balance and had to quickly unclip my bike shoes from the pedals and slam my foot back down on the road to keep from toppling over.

Birds hidden in the surrounding forest canopy trilled sweet songs that echoed through the mountain side. The sound of rushing water from a nearby stream wafted over us, as we appreciated a forested vista that opened up dramatically, the higher we climbed. The mountain chain continued for as far as I could see, and our own mountain loomed overhead, like a playground bully straddling his victim. And we struggled and struggled.

At first, I was intimidated by today's extreme physical challenge, fearing the mountain and waiting for my legs to seize up. But as we continued up the monster climb, I realized that we could do this. The Japan Alps were brutal to ride through on such heavily-laden bikes, no doubt, but we could definitely do it. The key was to ride at a steady rate, take rest breaks, eat and drink regularly, and keep a positive attitude.

I came up with a mantra that calmed my mind as we crawled around switchbacks with no end in sight: "Today, I am Climbing." There was no need to complain as the slope pitched up. My identity was taken over by the act of climbing. I should expect only to ride ever higher, straining against gravity. Strangely, this simple thought made a big difference. Rather than complain about the exhausting effort or wonder when it would end, I simply became lost in the effort. The burning in my legs and back and forearms, the numbness in my hands, the ache in the bottom of my feet as I pressed down relentlessly hard on the slowly rotating pedals, became an unquestioned part of who I was. Climbing became a state of being, which was calming.

Sho helped tremendously, especially when my breathing became labored and he could tell I needed help. I could feel it when he pushed at his limit, and it made a big difference. When his legs gave out, and he had to stop pedaling and just be pulled along, the full load slammed my quads. Although I was exhausted and breathing hard, 5 weeks of cycling many hours a day provided a good enough base to keep going hour after hour up the mountain.

When we finally reached the mountain top at Sarugababa Pass, Sho and I gave each other high fives and rested a bit. I had to wait a few minutes for the loud thumping of my heartbeat to stop drowning out the peaceful mountain sounds that enveloped us.

The descent was nearly as challenging as the climb. We navigated sharp, steep switchbacks threatening certain death if we slipped off the narrow road's edge. My shoulders ached, forearms burned, and my hands went numb once more from the tight squeeze I had to maintain on the brakes. I wanted to steal more than brief glances at the beautiful view, but needed to keep my focus on making a safe descent.

Once we were off the nearly deserted mountain road, we rode along a busy Route 19 into Matsumoto. Exhilerated from the climb, we hammered the final hour of gently rolling hills to Matsumoto Train Station, pulling in at 6:45pm.

A smiling Takeo Sugishita was waiting for us there. I had met Mr. and Mrs. Sugishita and their son on a flight from NYC to Miami last year. We stayed in touch, and they invited us to spend the night in their home. Sugishita-san and I unloaded the panniers and threw the bikes in the back of his truck.

Their home was a beautiful dwelling in the traditional Japanese style, with bamboo sprouting in a well-maintained yard. They laid out futons for us in their tatami mat guest room, and we spent the evening enjoying a delicious meal prepared by their 34-year old son Yuki: cold somen noodles, sauteed eggplant, miso soup, salad, rice, etc. The Sugishita's were wonderful hosts, and I felt the stress of today's strenuous ride dropping away. Sho enjoyed playing with Yuki, who was a natural with kids.

At 10pm, Sho and I took a bath and retired to our futons. I read "The Elephant's Child," by Rudyard Kipling, to Sho, and he laughed hard when I held my nose as I read the line where the crocodile has clamped down on the elephant child's trunk. My older brother Stuart memorized this story when I was a teenager, and as I read it, images rushed back of him reciting the story in the family room of our childhood home in Nashville. I felt the movement of time -- the teenager I was then, listening impatiently to my brother recite the story over and over, would not have guessed that the next time I would read "The Elephant's Child" would be to my 8 year old son in Matsumoto, Japan almost 30 years later...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Day 34: Mountain Climbing

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Rode 70km (43 miles) from Arai to Nagano. The day started off sunny and in the mid-80's: pleasant for a relaxed stroll, but a bit hot for a full day of cycling uphill. We covered the 70km from Arai to Nagano in about 5 1/2 hours, most of which was a steady climb. Our combined weight and heavy panniers kept us chugging along at a slow pace, but we were able to ride steadily. We had to rest frequently, because of the heat and humidity, drinking often to ward off dehydration. Sho and I dubbed the infrequent flat sections "gifts" from the mountain. Whenever the steady climb flattened out slightly, Sho yelled out, "Thank you, Mr. Mountain!"

We ate cold zaru soba noodles at a rest stop and took a break from riding for while by throwing a hacky sack we'd brought along. Sho came up with a series of games for us to play, borrowing terminology from baseball, but taking massive liberties with the rules.

The final 15km (9 miles) of today's ride into Nagano was a steep downhill on Highway 18, and my fingers went numb as I held onto the brakes tightly. I couldn't decide which was more uncomfortable: lugging our heavy load up a long, steep climb for several hours, or trying to maintain a grip on the brakes on a steep mountain descent, as my forearms burned and my fingers went numb. Every 10 minutes or so, I had to stop in the middle of the downhill to shake out my arms until feeling returned to my finger tips.

As we rode along a busy route into the outskirts of Nagano's urban sprawl, Sho spotted a large game room with a batting cage. We spent an hour there, Sho playing games, while I tried to figure out where we would sleep for the night. It had started to rain, so I decided to stay in a hotel I found nearby. We washed our grimy, soaked clothes in the hotel's coin laundry and enjoyed an excellent sushi dinner.

I read Rudyard Kipling's "How the Camel Got His Hump" to Sho before we both drifted off, relieved that the first day in the mountains had been manageable.

Day 33: Leaving the Coast

Monday, July 27, 2009

Rode 60km (37 miles) from Kashiwazaki to Arai (aka Myoko). For the past few days, I had been anxious about leaving the coast and heading into the intimidating mountains of the Japan Alps. About 70% of Japan is covered by mountains, and some of the highest are concentrated in central Honshu. In his 1941 Climber's Book, Walter Weston, an English missionary, dubbed this area the Japan Alps, and the name stuck. There was no going around them if Sho and I wanted to see Shirakawa Go, the third World Heritage Site on our itinerary.

We dilly dallied in Kashiwazaki, hanging out in a game room, where I wrote in my journal, interrupted occasionally by Sho coming over to recount his exploits fighting monster bugs and dinosaurs. After fueling up on sushi and onigiri, we rode out of town along the ocean. I tried to appreciate the beautiful coastline, knowing that we would leave it soon. At Kakizaki, we turned inland, and Sho blew the ocean a kiss. "See you on the other side of Japan!"

Creggy, snow-capped mountains loomed in the distance, and I wondered if we would be able to manage the many mountain climbs ahead. Had I been alone on my light, carbon fiber racing bike, I would have been confident in my ability to complete the task ahead. But 75 pounds of gear and an 8-year old changed the equation. Sho and I had managed to ride almost every day for over a month, including some serious climbs, but we had never tackled anything approximating the series of mountains we would have to climb over the next week. I wondered if our legs and spirits could handle it, but kept my anxieties to myself, telling Sho to "get ready for some awesome mountain climbing!"

Happily, today's route from the coast to Arai followed a pancake flat road through rice paddies and farms nestled in a broad valley at the base of the mountain range. It rained in the morning, then turned cloudy in the afternoon, around 75 degrees, making the riding a genuine pleasure. We rode around 5 hours total, pausing from time to time to capture a few pictures along the way.

By the time we reached Arai, the flat valley was beginning to morph into the base of a mountain chain, and I knew that our easy riding was over. We found an onsen public bath and settled down in Arai for a good night's rest before tomorrow's mountain adventure. Before falling alseep, I read Rudyard Kipling's "How the Whale Got His Throat" to Sho. I wondered if we were about to create a new Just So Story: "How the Cyclists Learned to Fear and Respect the Mountain."

Day 32: Fireworks over the Ocean

Sunday, July 26, 2009 - Rode 80km (50 miles) to Kashiwazaki

The daily biking and yesterday's beach play must have worn us out, because we both slept for almost 11 hours. We broke down the tent and were on the road toward Kashiwazaki at 8:30am, rolling up and down hills on the coastal highway, passing broad sandy beaches dotted with frolicking families and occasional groups of wetsuit-clad surfers.

Suddenly, I heard, "Charles-san!" from behind, as a group of cyclists overtook us. It was Seida-san and Yanigasawa-san, the Ironman triathletes we'd shared dinner with 2 nights earlier in Niigata. They were in a group of 8 cyclists out for a 100-mile training ride on light, carbon fiber racing bikes. They bounded past us, easily zipping up a long climb that Sho and I had been plodding our way up, slowed to a crawl by our heavily-loaded bikes. There was no way to match their pace, but we agreed to meet for a mid-morning snack at a park not far ahead.

The group was eating on the grass by the road, their bikes leaning on the guard rail, waiting patiently as Sho and I pulled up to join them. We answered questions about our trip and showed off the connected bike set-up to the appreciative group. Sho beamed as the super fit athletes praised his stamina and shook their heads at the thought of an 8-year old riding the length of Japan. I was still trying to decide on the best route to Shirakawa Go, the next World Heritage Site on our itinerary, which was nestled in the heart of the Japan Alps mountain range. Although I didn't say it out loud, I wasn't sure if Sho and I would be able to push our heavy bikes over the many steep mountains ahead. I imagined failing on the first climb we attempted after leaving the coast, and having to figure out what to do then. Walk across the mountain range??

Yanigasawa-san suggested a route that started with a long, flat ride through farm country, getting us closer to our destination, before the inevitable mountain climbs would begin. He also told us about a road closure not far ahead, due to an earthquake 2 years earlier that sent part of the road crumbling into the ocean. The detour was relatively straight forward - an inland run for about 10 miles before returning to the coast. But knowing what to expect was a relief. After everyone had finished snacking, we took pictures and said goodbye to our ultra athlete friends, who sped off to continue their hard training. It was comforting to know that we had a group of experienced cyclists looking after us!

Sho and I arrived in Kashiwazaki at 3pm, just as the rain started to dump on us, and we headed straight for an onsen. The popular spot was packed with people waiting to bathe, and we took a number in the lobby nd waited our turn. Once inside the baths, we took a soak in the outdoor rotemburo, letting the heavy rain pound our heads as we relaxed in the steaming hot bath. After cleaning off, it was a shame to put our wet bike clothes on and roll back out into the driving rain to find a place to stay for the night. We got a single room in an inexpensive business hotel with a coin laundry for our wet belongings.

After eating a sushi dinner near the hotel, we joined a throng of people filing down Kashiwazaki's broad main street toward the beach. The rain had finally let up, but we carried umbrellas just in case. Tonight was the last night of a 3-day fireworks extravaganza over the ocean, and we enjoyed 2 hours of incredible displays in the sky: sparkling waterfalls, racoon-shaped explosions, mini-Saturns, etc. Every 15 minutes or so was sponsored by a local business, whose name was announced over loud speakers to the thousands of onlookers.

"What a great way to celebrate summer!" I said smiling, as Sho and I walked hand-in-hand through the energized town back to our hotel.

Day 31: Beach Fun

Saturday, July 25, 2009 - Rode 25km (15 miles) from Niigata to random beach.   

  Sho and I started the day with a satisfying soak in an onsen public bath, then stopped by Attack Bike Shop to get the hyper-competent Suzuki-san's help replacing the brakes on our bikes.  We were leaving the coast and turning east to ride over the Japan Alps in 2 days, and I wanted a fresh pair of brake pads.  Our heavy load and the many steep descents in the mountains would chew them up...
  Our planned destination today was Kashiwazaki, a comfortable coastal town 80km (50 miles) south of Niigata, with a popular onsen bath house and a special summer fireworks display planned for the evening.  However, 15 miles into the ride, Sho spotted a sandy strip of beach next to a campsite and restaurants, and pleaded for us to stay there instead.  An afternoon's romp on the beach was too enticing, even if it meant that he would miss the fireworks in Kashiwazaki.  It was a rare sunny day, about 75 degrees, perfect for beach play.  I agreed to his request, and we spent a few hours body surfing, kicking a beach ball, jumping over puddles, and having a wonderful time.  
  When I had enough, I retreated to a nearby restaurant with a view of the beach, eating oyakodon and writing in my journal while watching Sho through the window.  I had invited him to join me, but wanted to keep playing.  The incredulous look he gave me when I said that I was ready for a break reminded me of a particular incident from my childhood, when my family went to Florida on vacation.  As we first arrived at the beach, and I bounded toward the waves, I called for my father to join me.  I was around Sho's age (8) and as I splashed around excitedly in the rolling waves, my father stood smiling at me from the beach.
  "No thanks, son.  I don't want to get wet."
  I remember thinking, "You don't want to get wet?!  How can you come to an incredible beach like this and just stare at the water?"
  As the song "The Circle of Life" ran through my head, Sho finally joined me, and we enjoyed a beautiful ocean sunset.  I wanted a re-fill of water, but chose not to interrupt our waiter, who was perched by a window, snapping pictures on his cell phone of the dramatic display that was turning the ocean into a shimmering kaleidoscope of orange and red, slowing being swallowed up by an enveloping darkness.
  Back in our tent, I read the Japanese fairy tale "Momo Taro" to Sho, and we were snoozing by 8:30pm. 

Day 30: New Friends in Niigata

Friday, July 24, 2009
 Sato-san, our roommate 3 weeks earlier from Saroma Ko, Hokkaido, met us at 9am in our hotel lobby in Niigata, and we spent the rest of the day together.  He brought along a DS game sent  from Eiko, which Sho promptly tore open and began to play.  Sato-san also gave us a fan and a beautiful pouch hand made by his wife. 
  I had expected only to spend a short time with him, but Sato-san was extremely generous with his time.  He drove us around his home town Niigata and helped us work through a list of errands, including a visit to an outdoor store to buy Sho a collapsable fishing rod.  I also bought some new bike gloves, because my old ones were starting to disintegrate.  He took us to the beach where he trains for Ironman triathlons, a rocky strip protected by dozens of massive hexagonal concrete blocks placed just off the coast to prevent erosion.
  "This used to be a sandy beach, but it was all washed away.  This is also where North Korea abducted several people back in the 1980's."  
  Sato-san introduced us to Kenichi Suzuki, who owns Attack Bike Store.  He has run the shop for over 30 years, builds his own bikes, and his shop is a favored destination of the local triathlon community.   Exactly the person I wanted to find!  Suzuki-san gave our bikes a much-needed tune-up, including adding some "magic oil" to keep the chains, points and screws all working well, despite being exposed constantly to heavy rain.  He also straightened out the bent eyelet at the bottom of the front fork, something I had been afraid to attempt, for fear of snapping it off.  The front rack was now in good shape and no longer a nagging source of concern.  We took his picture, tried unsuccessfully to pay him for his services, and rode off on fabulously smooth machines ready to tackle another month of riding Japan.  
  Sato-san had planned to take an overnight ferry up the coast later in the day to ride bikes 250km (150 miles) with his training partners, but canceled his plans in order to eat dinner with us and two of his ultra athlete friends, Chikako Seida and Seiki Yanigasawa.  Seida-san is one of the top female Ironman triathlete's in the area and was training for the Sado Island Ironman in September, where athletes swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles.  Yanigasawa-san has been racing for decades and heads up the local Ironman triathlon club.  I shared details about the 5 Ironman triathlons I've done, and we all bonded over our shared hobby.  It was fun to see these amazing athletes, who run 62-mile ultra marathons and compete in Ironmans, shaking their heads in amazement and gushing over Sho's courage and stamina.  
  The five of us spent the evening enjoying a fabulous spread of sushi and other delicious tidbits at Yanigasawa-san's house.  We ended the day, sitting in the empty suburban street in front of the house, shooting off a big package of fireworks Sho had brought along.
  "I haven't shot off fireworks here since my kids were Sho's age, over 20 years ago," Yanigasawa-san commented, smiling as Sho performed a silly dance while holding a sparkler in each hand.
  Sho and I fell asleep back in our hotel, feeling pampered and well-treated by our new friends in Niigata.  

Day 29: Making it to Niigata

Thursday, July 23, 2009
 Rode 110km (68 miles) from Nezugaseki to Niigata.
  The morning sun's glare off of the ocean surface had me up by 5:15, and I wrote in my journal inside the tent until Sho woke up at 7:00.  We were on the road by 8am, planning to cover 110km (68 miles) in order to make it to Niigata, where a care package from Eiko was waiting for Sho.  She sent a DS game care of Sato-san, the ultra marathoner we'd met in Saroma Ko, Hokkaido on the 3rd day of our ride.  We had shared a room with Sato-san the night before his 100km race, and he had kindly offered to meet us in his home town Niigata when we came through.
  We traveled efficiently throughout the day, pausing only briefly from time to time to take pictures of the marvelous ocean views, rugged fishing villages and dramatic rock formations.  As we got closer to Niigata, our route left the coast and took us through forests and small towns.  The road did not have a shoulder and, unfortunately, was a preferred route for truckers, who roared by us in a constant procession, spewing exhaust and hemming us in to ride over debris along the road's edge.   Our trucker's route eventually merged onto an interstate on the outskirts of town.  We consulted the GPS, and were soon happily biking on comfortable, paved paths through rice paddies, eventually finding the back entrance to an interstate michi no eki rest stop.  A friendly worker there gave us a map and other helpful info.  She was amazed at our trip and followed us outside and around to the back of the building to take our picture.  
  As we continued along on paths through farm country, Sho discovered an ostrich farm.  We hung out with the friendly animals, who stuck their long necks through holes in the fence and ate grass out of our palms.  We checked into an inexpensive hotel near Niigata Train Station, soaked in the hotel's onsen public bath and ate dinner at a nearby izakaya restaurant.  Sho ate his favorite yaki zakana grilled fish, and I ate a collection of small dishes, including edamame, cold tofu and fish.  
  Before going to bed, we sorted through our belongings to create a pile of stuff to mail back to the U.S.: 
 - a pair each of extra shorts and shirts
 - Japanese-English electronic dictionary that was ruined by the rain
 - lots of Pokemon and Penguin game cards
 - spare inner tube for Sho's wheel (still have 3 spares)
 - bear bell
 - mini pin ball game

Day 28: Beach Boys Camp

Wednesday, July 22, 2009 - rode 70km from Sakata to Nezugaseki
After spending a few hours updating our blog, eating breakfast and loading gear onto our bikes, Sho and I left Sakata at 10:30am. We spent the next 6 hours riding along the beautiful, rocky coast, marveling at some stunning views that rivaled some of the best we'd enountered in Hokkaido.
We spent an hour playing on a random beach beside a small ramen noodle restaurant, where we ate lunch. Sho frolicked in the sand, challenging the waves to a footrace. I had to drag him away from the fun in order to get in some much needed mileage. Knowing that his taste for beach fun wasn't sated, I found a beachside campsite in a small fishing village called Nezugaseki. A group of around 20 teenager boys on a school trip had set up several large tents nearby, and Sho excitedly watched them set off fireworks against the dark night. Alas, they didn't invite him to join the fun.
At 9pm, Sho and I were interviewed inside our tent via cell phone by TV Japan. "Are you making lots of friends?" the asked Sho, having kept up with the many friendly encounters documented in our blog.
Annoyed at the teenagers who hadn't invited him to play with them, Sho answered, "Not really." He mentioned that he enjoyed the beaches and game rooms, "but the game rooms have been hard to find."
We fell asleep in our tent to the sounds of the ocean waves and teenager war games.

Day 27: The Delicious Sushi Ride

Tuesday, July 21, 2009 - rode 85km (53 miles) from Iwaki to Sakata
At 6am, I slipped quietly out of the tent and stretched on the sidewalk, while enjoying the gentle rhythm of the ocean waves sliding back and forth over the wide, sandy beach below. Our tent was next to an empty common room for visitors to the michi no eki rest stop, and I charged various electronic devices there while writing in my journal. I sat next to a large window overlooking the ocean with a clear view of our tent.
Sho emerged an hour later and came over to tell me about the insanely cool bugs crawling just outside our tent. We took pictures of some of them and ate a few crunchy ones for breakfast (just checking to see if you're paying attention :-)). Actually, our breakfast came from a nearby Sunkus convenience store. Sho asked if he could walk there by himself and buy our breakfast, which I agreed to. He has been experimenting with a budding sense of independence and looking for opportunities to accomplish tasks on his own, something I've encouraged. As we've ridden past school children walking home in various towns throughout Japan, Sho has commented longingly that he would like to be able to commute to school unaccompanied by an adult. Our apartment in NYC is immediately next door to his school, and walking such a short distance by himself "doesn't count. Daddy, can we move farther away from my school, so that I can walk there by myself?"
"Interesting proposal, Sho. I'll ask Mommy what she thinks."
The rain started to fall around 9am, as we were breaking down the tent, and we hastily moved our belongings under a nearby alcove. We took our time loading our bikes with gear, not looking forward to another day of soggy socks and smelly clothes. We finally rolled out into the thumping rain at 10:30am and spent the next 7 hours riding 85km up and down the rolling coastal highway.
We stopped for lunch at a rest stop, where I ate a delicious unadon (rice bowl with eel) and threw the hacky sack with Sho during a lull in the rainstorm. Later in the afternoon, I heard a grating sound coming from my front wheel and saw that the top screw on the rack holding the front left pannier had snapped off. The pannier was leaning out, its bottom side knocking against the tire spokes. I immediately stopped, removed the bag and put it on my back, using the pannier's convenient backpack straps. I rolled my eyes, not looking forward to the heavy load cutting into my shoulders, as it had for a couple of days in Hokkaido. Then, looking up, I saw a Bridgestone car repair center across the street. No longer in the sparsely populated wilds of Hokkaido, where finding a screw required a multi-day search, help was now easily accessible. We crossed the street, and 20 minutes later, the rack was re-attached with a spare screw scrounged up by one of the Bridgestone mechanics.
Today's destination was Sakata, a pleasant town of around 100,000 inhabitants on Japan's western coast. Our cycling buddy from Hokkaido, Saito-san, told us about a sushi restaurant in Sakata run by an old classmate of his. When we met at the ferry terminal in Hakodate, Saito-san wrote a note for me to give to his friend, asking him to serve us "some delicious sushi." Sho and I talked about our destination all day, dubbing today "the delicious sushi ride." We got lost in downtown Sakata, but got help from a friendly stranger riding a bike who deviated from his route to guide us to the restaurant. It was 5:30pm as we rolled up, hungry, tired and ready for an awesome meal.
The sign on the shuttered building read, "Closed today." Sho and I looked at each other, disappointed. We grabbed dinner at a random restaurant nearby and made our way to the main train station -- always a good starting point when visiting a new town in Japan -- and found a hotel room for $50. We took advantage of a coin laundry to clean our damp, smelly clothes, and enjoyed the free massage chair in our room. Sho and I took turns in the chair, laughing as we talked in staccato with the chair beating against our necks.

Day 26: Grasshopper Blues

Monday, July 20, 2009 - Rode 100km (62 miles) from Noshiro to Iwaki
     As Sho and I ate breakfast in the common room, several of the minshuku hotel staff gathered around our table, stunned that a foreigner and his 8-year old son were eating natto (fermented soybeans).  I usually don't care for natto, but the hotel's stuff was high quality, and we were both enjoying it.  Sho and I ate a packet of the pungent, sticky beans, mixing them with rice and wrapping them with dried seaweed.  We like Japanese food and have happily eaten almost nothing but on this trip, which is a source of amazement to some of the people we've met.  An older woman who served meals in the hotel gave Sho a large packet of furikake rice flavoring as a parting gift, which Sho has used on several occasions since.
     After checking out of the minshuku, we rolled our bikes across the street to Noshiro's large public sports center.  Sho excitedly told me all of the sports he planned to do.  "First I'll swim, then play baseball, then golf, and basketball at the end.  And you have to do all of them with me, Daddy."
     But when we approached the check-in desk, we learned that the center had been rented out for a private event.  "They're using the entire place?" Sho complained incredulously.
     As we returned to our bikes parked outside, a man who had been smoking by the entrance came over to say hello.  When we explained our trip, he laughed.  "I assumed you were an English teacher in town.  Man, was I completely wrong."  He asked us to wait as he ran inside, and returned with a reporter for the main Newspaper for Akita Prefecture.  Sho and I spent the next hour being interviewed by the thorough reporter, who even asked Eiko's age.  He called me two days later for an update, and sounded the slightest bit disappointed that we had already pedaled into the neighboring prefecture.
     After our interview, we spent the next 7 hours making our way along the picturesque coast.  At one point, a grasshopper jumped onto one of the rear panniers while we were stopped by the road.  Sho immediately became attached to the friendly little guy, who crawled onto our fingers, then back onto the pannier.  For the next 20 minutes, our new friend clung to the rear pannier as we rode, antennae flapping happily in the wind, staring up at us with a mellow expression peculiar to grasshoppers.  Sho made plans for his new pet, describing where he would sleep ("in a special box I'll make just for him") and asking if the airline would allow a pet grasshopper to fly back to NYC.  
     And then, just like that, he was gone.  I had stopped the bikes to take a picture, and he took the opportunity to explore the grass next to the road.  Sho was heartbroken and blamed me for the loss.  "If you hadn't stopped, Grasshopper wouldn't be gone," he complained, genuinely heartbroken.  Sho was pissed off at me for the next hour, sulking in silence as we rode.  I started to make plans to get Sho a pet, preferably something a little more reliable than a grasshopper.  Our one cat back at home in New York obviously is not meeting his need to nurture...
     Near the end of the afternoon, we stopped briefly to chat with an old man standing beside his racing bike in cycling shorts and jersey and watching the sun set over the ocean.  "I'm 82, but still ride all the time!" he exclaimed.  Very cool.  I took his picture and said I wanted to be like him when I grow up.
     Our goal was a specific michi no eki rest stop that had a camp site by the beach, and we pushed the pace hard in the final hour to make it there before it became too dark to ride safely.  At 7pm, we pulled up exhausted, celebrating the fact that it had an onsen hot spring bath, restaurant and campsite all in one complex.  However, when we learned that the campsite charged $45 just to set up a tent, I asked the rest stop manager if we could sleep in our tent for free on the premises.  He didn't mind, and we found a secluded corner of sidewalk behind the main building that offered a commanding ocean view, next to a steep staircase leading down to the beach.
     Sho and I set up our tent while observing a group of 10 teenagers shoot off fireworks on the wide beach below.  They had driven an SUV onto the sand and kept its lights on to see better.  Sho and I enjoyed the free fireworks display and their fun raucous behavior.
     A long pier stretched out from the michi no eki into the darkness over the black sea, and we decided to take a walk on it.  Along the way, Sho discovered many exciting beetles.  The long, dark pier became too spooky for Sho once we passed beyond the beach and had only murky, churning water beneath us.  "It's ok, Daddy.  I've seen enough.  We can go back to the tent now."  And we turned back, re-visiting the insect friends we'd made on the way out.

Day 25: Shirakami Snake Charmer

Sunday, July 19, 2009
     I was groggy after the fitful night in the storm, but happy to see that only a mild drizzle remained from the evening's violent storm.  Sho and I nibbled on the pitiful rations remaining in our snack bag (a soy bar, crackers and an apple), then set off to explore a tiny slice of the Shirakami Sanchi forest.  We hiked toward Kanayama Ko Lake, slogging along a narrow trail, jumping over and slinking around mud puddles, and pushing through dripping overgrowth that hung heavily over the path.  We spotted a striking bird the size of a sparrow with an exaggerated red beak, which I managed to capture on video briefly.  Later, we were told that few people have the honor of glimpsing this reclusive bird, known in Japanese as akashoubin.
     The forest seemed to breathe around us, its powerful presence looming and oddly mystical.  It whispered secrets of a long-forgotten past and hinted at unseen dangers for the careless wanderer.  Light danced through the heavy canopy high above, playing on the drops of rain that covered the lush greenery.
     Sho and I encountered no other hikers during our 2-hour sojourn to Kanayama Ko Lake.  The calm water sparkled beneath a morning mist that streamed off of the lush forest surrounding the lake, and we sat quietly by the water's edge, listening to the soft lapping water and enjoying the glorious view.  Reflected images of passing clouds overhead rippled on the gentle undulations, and I felt the unnerving insouciance of nature's beauty.  A scene that was there before I was, and will be there after I'm gone.
     Sho shook me out of my reverie, saying that he was hungry, and we began to make our way back to our optimistically-named campsite "Refresh Village."  As I was leading the way, warily pushing through the dripping plant cover that leaned over the trail, I spotted, at the last second, a potentially serious danger. 
     "Sho, don't move!" I warned.
     A brown-spotted snake about 3 feet long was draped on a branch across our path.  It eyed us carefully, not moving, a slight crook in its neck, presumably to allow a quick strike, if needed.  There was no getting around the snake on the narrow path, and I took its picture, then retreated to find a long stick.  
     "There you go," I cooed, as I used the stick to gently lift the snake out of our way, and dropped him in the grass a few feet off the trail.  Sho stayed close as I prodded the hanging bushes ahead the rest of the way back to the campsite.  A few days later, when I showed the snake's picture to a friend, he raised his eyebrows and observed, "That's an extremely poisonous snake.  A bite would not have killed you, but it would have been a serious problem."
     After loading our damp belongings onto our bikes, we left the campsite and rode down steep, wet, narrow roads through the impressive forest for 1/2 an hour, stopping often to let cars and busses pass us safely.  My hands and forearms ached from gripping the breaks, and several times I had to stop to shake them out.  We swung by the Shirakami Ecology Center, where we were the only visitors.  Sho excitedly pointed out an exhibit testing your knowledge of various animal poop, and laughed when I kept guessing wrong.  "Daddy, you really thought that was bear poop?  It's so obvious that it's fox poop."
     The friendly staffer gave us the day's first screening of a short film depicting the nature preserve in each season.  It's a breathtakingly beautiful forest, deserving of its status as a World Heritage Site, and I wished we had more time to explore it.  But I felt the pressure of completing this ride in 2 months, and we pressed on. 
     We returned to the coast and rode all afternoon past crashing waves and steep cliffs before reaching the town of Noshiro.  Tired of being wet, we sought out a minshuku hotel with an onsen bath.  We cleaned up, did laundry and fell asleep wrapped under luxurious comforters.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Day 24: Shelter from the Storm

Saturday, July 18, 2009
     The rain storm ended some time in the night, and we awoke to an overcast sky.  Sho and I found a baseball glove and ball that someone had left behind in the michi no eki rest stop's field, and after breaking down the tent and loading the bikes with our gear, we practiced pitching until our arms gave out.  It was a 20 minute ride to the onsen bath house we had tried to reach the night before, and we lingered there, trying out each of the four luxurious, rock pools filled with steaming mineral water.  
     After a satisfying dip, we jumped on our bikes, clean and ready to ride about 80km (50 miles) to Shirakami Sanchi, the second of Japan's World Heritage Sites we would visit on this trip.  The literal translation is "white god mountain area", and we looked forward to camping and hiking in this primeval, unspoiled forest filled with Siebold's beech trees.  
     We rode along the beautiful coast of Aomori Prefecture, stopping frequently to capture shots of the impressive rocky shore and some quaint fishing villages tucked between sharp cliffs.  The beach proved irresistible to Sho, and we spent an hour horsing around in the waves after eating lunch at a small noodle shop by the sea.  We finally got back on our bikes and made our way to Juu Ni Ko ("12 Lakes") resort, our jumping off point into the wilds of Shirakami Sanchi.  As we neared our destination, the clouds we'd ignored all day decided to get our attention.  As the first droplets fell, we protected our gear with rain covers and threw on light jackets.  By the time we turned into to Juu Ni Ko an hour later, we were in the midst of a monster deluge.  Rain water pooled on the top of my helmet, spilling out in a mini waterfall that splashed all over my mouth and eyes.  Sho laughed behind me, drenched and dripping, and shouted through the raging storm, "I love it!"     
     The coastal ride had been rolling with short, manageable climbs.  But when we took a sharp left turn into the entrance to Juu Ni Ko, the road pitched up immediately to a challenging 10% grade (steep enough that there was a sign warning cars of the steep slope).  Sho and I pedaled hard, riding through a fast-moving stream of water rushing down the mountain road's edge, like salmon fighting the current.  As my legs burned with the effort, I wondered if we would be able to continue, but my bike's low mountain gear allowed us to maintain a sustainable cadence and to stay upright, despite crawling upward at 2 - 3 MPH.  After 20 minutes of hard pedaling through the driving storm, we pulled into a visitor's center.  The place was abandoned, save for a lone clerk, who explained that the campsite was another 10km (6 miles) up the mountain.  It was already 5:30pm, and the storm and heavy canopy already cast the road in shadows, making  it difficult to see.  I didn't like the idea of riding up narrow, steep mountain roads in the dark for the next 2 hours, and asked the clerk to help me come up with a creative solution.  She pointed us across the road to a resort, where the manager, likely moved by a pitifully dripping Sho, took pity on us.  The resort's cabins were full, but he let us warm up and clean off in their onsen bath house and eat dinner in a restaurant normally reserved for guests with all-inclusive reservations.  To top it off, the staff loaded our bikes and gear into a van and drove us up to the campsite.  The ride was steep, confusing because of several turn-offs, and scary in the dark with the monster rain storm raging.  It would have been a nightmare, and frankly irresponsible, to have tried to bike it with Sho.
     The campsite manager let us set up our tent on the wooden floor of a raised pavilion, that kept us mostly protected from the driving rain, commenting, "This is highly unusual weather.  It's usually a great time of the year to visit."  I lost count of how many times I said thank you to the various people who came to our rescue.  
     That night, I woke up over and over, as a powerful whirling wind screamed through the forest and slammed our tent mercilessly, shaking us with an impressive wrath.  Sho took it all in stride, observing, "Now, THIS is like a real adventure!"

Day 23: Japan's Oldest Apple Tree

Friday, July 17, 2009
     Although I wanted to start riding right away, Sho convinced me to let him play at a game room in Aomori he'd discovered the night before.  We made a quick trip to a local bike shop to pump up the tires and replace a screw on the front rack, then spent an hour and a half battling dinosaurs and throwing various Pokemon into proxy wars.
     We rode for 5 1/2 hours in the afternoon, including a detour in Tsugaru City to see Japan's oldest apple tree.  I got lost on the way and pulled up in front of a random house to ask for directions.  An old man was cleaning his tractor and looked up with a friendly smile.
     "Do you know where Japan's oldest apple tree is?" I asked.
     "Yes, I do," he answered simply.
     "Would  you mind telling us how to get there?"
     "Sure.  In fact, I'll take you there.  Wait a minute, while I get my bike."
     His name was Waichirou Kosaka, born and raised in Tsugaru City.  When I asked where he was born, he pointed across the road and laughed, "Right over there."  He tore out a picture of the apple tree from a calendar he sent his wife to retrieve from the house and handed it to us.  After intoducing us to his wife, oggling our bikes and letting us take his picture, Kosaka-san jumped on his bicycle.  He pedaled at a leisurely pace, greeting neighbors along the way, letting his eyes linger over a small construction site, a man working on his car, and the local graveyard, which he glanced at several times.  I imagined that his parents and some friends were buried there, and that he thought of them every time he passed by.  I could feel the deep connection that he had to this village and imagined the simultaneous benefits and boredom that come from digging deep roots in one place.  It was a challenge for me to maintain control over our heavily-loaded bikes while riding at his pace, and as I struggled not to fall over, I realized that this was a metaphor.  He was grounded and steady, while I was over-loaded and in need of speed.  Hmm...
     We soon arrived at the famous apple orchard, walking our bikes up a small path to a comfortable home surrounded by apple trees and bursting with a large family of playful cats.  Mr. Kosaka introduced us to Ms. Kosaka, "my relative who runs the place."  I marveled at the odds that we would stop in front of his house.  Ms. Kosaka politely showed us the oldest tree.  "Three of them actually, all brought over from America 131 years ago."  Then she and Mr. Kosaka swapped gossip about family members, while Sho and I took pictures of the trees from various angles and started a game of catch with some fallen apples.
     Ms. Kosaka sent us off with two green apples from the famous tree, suggesting that we wait two days for them to ripen.  "And clean them thoroughly.  I recently sprayed the tree with insecticide."
     We returned to our bikes, and Mr. Kosaka led us on an enjoyable, meandering 15-minute ride through his quiet village, plodding along steadily until we reached the main route that Sho and I would take toward Honshu's western coast.  He gave us a polite bow and turned back toward home.
     The sun was getting low as Sho and I resumed our journey, and I decided to try to find a place to sleep at the next michi no eki rest stop, about 15km (9 miles) away.  Each of these rest stops is different, and I was hoping for on onsen bath house, restaurant and camp site, but arriving around 5:30pm, we found a nearly deserted parking lot and a small grocery store that was closing up.  A large replica of a traditional Japanese home stood nearby, the doors locked, so that we could only peer in to see the large tatami-mat rooms.  A field connected to the michi no eki stood empty and inviting, and we had our tent up in 15 minutes.
     Since there was no place for dinner nearby, we retraced our route a few miles to pick up some food at a Circle K convenience store.  We were told that there was an onsen not far down the road.  It was getting dark, but we were both grimy from the day's ride and gave in to the lure of  soaking in a hot steaming bath.  But after biking back past the rest stop and continuing another 10 minutes in the dark without seeing it, I decided to get off of the road and return to our tent rather than risk a nighttime accident.  
  It had been a warm day, and we were hot inside our tent, the sweat beading uncomfortably as we tried to settle down.  I took off the rain cover to allow a breeze to cool us off, and we were snoozing happily by 9:30.  At 1am, I awoke with a start and was back outside the tent, frantically replacing the rain cover as the down pour began... 

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bonus Blog: Hokkaido Reflections

The ferry ride from Hakodate to Aomori represented a milestone in our ride across Japan. We left an island known for its beaucolic pastures and vast stretches of wilderness; home to the Ainu, Hokkaido's rugged and fascinating indigenous people; a place where it was necessary to take precautions against encountering brown bears; where intimidating mountains towered over rocky coasts, offering stunning views. It was a wonderful place to spend three weeks riding!
Here are some observations:

* While the other islands of Japan have a rainy season in June, Hokkaido does not, which is one reason we started our ride there. However, I was surprised by the many rainy days we encountered. On several occasions, locals told us that it was as if Japan's rainy season had shifted northward. Some of them blamed "global warming" for the curious weather, although I am cautious about ascribing changes in local weather patterns to something as complex as the climate change we are witnessing on a planet-wide scale. Many people Sho and I met praised our efforts to raise money for the United Nations' Billion Tree Campaign. One supportive person commented, "Climate change seems like such a massive problem, but at least you're trying to do something to make a difference. And it's great to see a young child get involved too."

* Sho has matured since the ride started on June 25. He threw a few temper tantrums in the first week, and I wondered if this ambitious bike ride might have been too much for him. But gradually, he has complained less and helped more. I can now depend on him to put together and disassemble the tent with minimal assistance. He also does his best to help propel our connected bikes up long climbs, pedaling steadily and with increasing strength. He'll need all the strength he's got to make it over the Japan Alps coming up in another week, and we've practiced on several smaller mountain climbs so far. He's learning to pedal in a smooth circle without much upper body movement, and how to maintain a sustainable cadence.
Sho likes to chat and often asks me a series of "would you rather" questions. Sometimes he starts a series of questions as I am pushing up a steep climb, and I pant curtly, "can't talk," as I struggle to keep up forward momentum and to hold the bikes in a straight line as cars pass. He now knows when I'm straining at my physical limit, and does his best to help by pedaling hard and not making me answer his latest hypothetical question until we've finished the climb.
The trailer cycle set-up requires me to do most of the work, and Sho usually gets bored before he gets tired. Our breaks are often at a playground or beach, and while I usually want to rest a bit, Sho challenges me to a foot race or bamboo stick sword fight or some other physically-demanding activity. When I've had enough, I slink over to a bench and plop my weary butt down, feeling like an old man, while Sho tests how far he can jump or does sprints. I worried at the beginning that riding 5 - 7 hours a day, almost every day, would be too physically demanding on Sho. Obviously it's not. :-)

* It's apparent from these blogs, but I'll emphasize it here: we have met many helpful, friendly people who have made this adventure much more pleasant and managable. From the many strangers who have offered us drinks and food, to people who helped us find a place to sleep, to drivers who have yelled out "gambare!" (go!) to us as they pass with a smile, we've enountered a long list of wonderful people. This has been one of the best parts of the trip so far. A small act of kindness can turn a crappy experience, like camping in pouring rain, into a fond memory.

* Biking through a country brings you closer to nature than seeing it through the protected capsule of a car. On a bicycle, you notice every slight elevation change, smell the coming of rain, see up close the struggling insects that inexplicably leave the protection of overgrowth to make a run for it across a busy road. You feel your legs grow stronger with each day's ride and start to relish the burn in your quads as you pump the pedals methodically up a long climb, knowing that you can make it to the top. You notice the small hardy wild flower flapping in the wind at the road's edge and can easily stop to take its picture. Camping in the woods after a full day's ride, you fall asleep early, your body relishing the chance to recover, and wake up early, returning to a rhythm more closely aligned with the sun than with the artificial lights of urban living. In short, there is a transformational magic to adventure cycling.
Over the past few weeks, Sho has regularly made plans for our next bike adventure, this time with Eiko and Saya along. He thinks that by age 10 -- 2 years from now --he'll be able to ride across Japan by himself. He explains that Saya can sit in a trailer attached to my bike, and Eiko can ride her own. This ride is obviously cultivating a taste for more adventures!

1) On the ferry ride from Hakodate to Aomori, there were two common rooms. In both, people smoked cigarettes, not concerned that an 8 year old (and everyone else) was sucking in the fumes. The only escape was to go outside, which I did for 1/2 of the ride.
2) At practically every convenience store we visited, at least one customer left their car idling as they went inside to make a purchase or use the bathroom. Maybe I'm too up tight, but it's annoying to smell the fumes wafting over you from an idling car. It is obviously an enduring issue, as 7-11 had a sign in Hakodate that listed appropriate customer behavior. The top item reads, "Please do not leave your car idling in the parking lot."
3) Mildew from too many rainy days. Makes me appreciate coin laundry!

* Some lessons:
1) While riding, Sho and I need to eat and drink something every hour, at minimum, to stay in a good mood and to keep from bonking. Usually I enjoy Sho's original and humorous commentary, but if I find myself getting annoyed at his observations or questions, it usually means that I need some calories and fluids.
2) On his ride across the U.S. with his 2 sons, Joe Kurmaskie came up with a principle called, "moments over miles." It's tempting sometimes to try to cover as much distance as possible in a day, for fear of not making it to Cape Sata before we have to return to the U.S. But I regularly remind myself of Joe's mantra and look for the opportunities to discover the next interesting story to include in this blog!
3) Trim your finger and toe nails regularly -- you'll get a painful reminder, if you wait too long.
4) Slow down. Not just on steep descents, but when fixing the bike, loading panniers with gear, reacting to one of Sho's comments, looking for a new discovery. It's a mantra that I want to incorporate into my life in general.

I think this is enough for now. I may come up with other observations from Hokkado later, and expect plenty more as we start to explore Japan's main island of Honshu.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Day 22: Industrial Sludge

Thursday, July 16, 2009
     After a breakfast of grilled salmon, miso soup and rice in Smile Hotel with Sho, we loaded our gear on the bikes and made our way to the ferry pier 5 miles away.  Sho asked to stop at 3 convenience stores along the way, searching in vain for a particular deck of Pokemon cards to replace one that had been ruined on a rainy ride a few days earlier.
     We arrived at the terminal where we had said goodbye to Saito-san the day before, only to learn that our ferry was run by a different company out of another terminal a mile back the way we'd come.
     Our ferry left Hakodate at 11:35am and arrived in Aomori at 3:20pm.  A sturdy, if aging, 1,777 ton craft built in 1995, it's name "Hayabusa" was painted proudly in large blue characters on its weathered stern.  A line of trucks, including one carrying a group of docile cows, waited in front, along with a handful of cars, and I got the impression that this was not going to be a pleasure cruise with a bunch of tourists.  Several fastidious workers led us into the yawning entrance to the ferry's belly ahead of the vehicles, securing our bikes along the wall with old rope and covering them with heavy dirty blankets.
     While rolling the bikes into the ferry, I inadvertently stepped in a mound of green industrial sludge, rolling the bike wheels through it as well.  The fluorescent green sticky stuff looked like quick-dry concrete designed to fill broken speed bumps, and I tried frantically to get it out of my bike shoe cleats before it lodged as a permanent concrete anchor.  The goo was sticky and hard to wash off.  As chunks of the fluorescent green lodged under my finger nails, I imagined the product label declaring, "Do not allow to come in contact with skin.  Not to be used in the vicinity of carbon-based organisms."  For the rest of the trip, the wheels on our bikes and the bottom of one of my shoes would host the glowing, green remains of this industrial sludge.
     The ferry ride offered a dramatic departure for our 3 weeks of riding through Hokkaido, the massive boat spewing white foam as it cut through the ocean waves, a powerful breeze chasing away the boat's exhaust fumes, the bustling city and Mount Hakodate Yama fading away in the mist.  Sho and I took pictures of the dramatic scenery, and he laughed through the wind gusts and salty spray.  Soon, we could see only rolling waves and deep turquoise ocean waters stretching all around us.
     In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck wrote that traveling with kids or a dog was the best way to meet others on your journey.  They were usually the cause for an apology of some sort, which opened up an opportunity for a conversation.  This maxim held true, as Sho and I bumped into Kenji and Naoko Aoyagi while Sho was testing his strength against the wind on the ferry deck.  Kenji is a photographer, and the two were traveling around Japan in a minivan with their dog, Vino.   Starting from their home in Saitama, near  Tokyo, they had covered northern Honshu and all of Hokkaido.  They were driving back home for a brief pause before continuing south.  Kenji commented that most campgrounds in Japan do not allow dogs (presumably because they don't want to deal with the dog poop), so the couple and their dog usually slept in their van.  
     Kenji, who looked to be in his late 40's, spent 9 months in Paris during his last year of college, waiting tables and hanging out in a bookstore.  It was there he came across a book of photography by a Japanese man, published in France, and realized that might be a viable career option.  He commenced traveling the world with his camera, and was in China during the summer of 1989, just before the Tiananmen Square massacre.  His photos were published in a Japanese magazine, and he has been coming up with ideas for photo travelogues ever since. Having been bitten by a dog as a boy, he never liked them, but his wife Naoko convinced him to get Vino, and he said, "well, Vino is one dog I like."  The couple had both read Travels with Charley, and cited it as inspiration for this journey.
     Sho dragged Kenji and Naoko into endless sessions of card games.  I had to stop after 45 minutes, because the rocking motion of the ferry and a group of gritty passengers puffing away on cigarettes were making me seasick.  Sho has always been impervious to motion sickness, and I left the three of them to play, while I got some fresh air on the deck.  The strong, cool wind made me feel better immediately, and I spent the next 1/2 hour watching the Tsugaru Peninsula take shape on the horizon.  Aomori finally came into view, a pleasant town  with distinctive features: a large, modern triangular city center building dominating the downtown waterfront and a double bridge along the ocean that Sho dubbed "super cool."  After waiting for the vehicles to drive off the ferry, we met Naoko, Kenji and Vino in the parking lot, and they helped us remove some of the remaining, now hardened, green sludge from the bike wheels.  I was flustered by the frightening goo and forgot to take Vino's picture, a sweet medium-sized dog sitting patiently in the front seat, observing our clean-up.
     After saying farewell to our friends from the ferry, Sho and I biked 20 minutes into downtown Aomori, where we found a comfortable business hotel with a single room for $50.  Sho, who has developed a sharp nose for game rooms, found one nearby and waited impatiently for me to savor a delicious dinner of hotate don rice bowl with scallops, before we were immersed in the cacophany of 100 yen-sucking machines, featuring battling dinosaurs, taiko drums and frustratingly flimsy claws grabbing for candy.
     We fell asleep at 9pm after looking through old pictures of Eiko and Saya on my camera, feeling the vast distance between us and missing home.  

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Day 21: Hakodate

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Waking up around 6:30am, Sho and I relished the luxury of having a hotel room instead of a tent, and the prospect of a day off from biking.  We ate toast and jam across the street in the train station and bumped into Wu Chia Li and her 12-tear old daughter Yu Ching.  They were going to take a train to Onuma Quasi-National Park.  It was another rainy day, and they wore thin white plastic ponchos, optimistically determined to enjoy the outdoors, despite the wetness.
     We took a few pictures with them in the train station, then said goodbye to our friends from Taiwan.  Sho and I explored the Asa-ichi morning market, marveling at the multitude of sea creatures on display, waiting to be eaten.  Sho appreciated the dexterity and speed of squid darting back and forth in a large tank, and he made up an impromptu squid dance that had me laughing out loud.
     We spent the rest of the morning back in our hotel room, Sho playing his Nintendo DS and watching kids' TV programs, while I took care of logistical items, reserving a ferry to Aomori the next day, calling our ultra marathoner friend, Sato-san, about visiting him in Niigata, and uploading pictures to our trip blog.  I also called our cycling buddy, Saito-san, to check on his progress.  He was a couple hours away in Mori, riding to Hakodate to take a 5pm ferry to Honshu.  We agreed to see him off at the ferry terminal.
     After a delicious lunch of donburi rice bowl with raw sea urchin, salmon roe, and crab at a small local restaurant, Sho and I took a bus to the ferry terminal, where we spent a couple of hours catching up with Saito-san, sharing pictures and stories.  He was in high spirits, having completed his circuit around Hokkaido, and looked fit and tan (at least from mid-bicep to wrist and mid-quadracep to ankle - the "biker's tan").  Our routes were diverging until Shikoku, and we made plans to reconnect there, if our schedules overlapped again.
     One of Sho's chief complaints about Hokkaido was the lack of game rooms.  To appease his strong desire to address this issue, we said goodbye to Saito-san and spent the next 2 1/2 hours at "Pabot's Hakodate" hanging out in their game room and getting in three rounds of bowling.
     We were both asleep in our hotel room by 8:30pm, and my legs twitched with relief from having the day off from riding.
     BTW, I haven't shaved since starting this ride on June 25 and now have a light beard and mustache.  I think that I look like Marcus Aurelius, but Sho says I look like a "scraggly weirdo."  I've attached a pic, so that you can decide for yourself.

Day 20: Animal Farm

Tuesday, July 14, 2009
At 4am, the local dogs began to call to one another, presumably to see if anyone was still sleeping. Several goats housed on World Ranch joined in, making it necessary for the crows to proclaim their presence. Finally, the horses in the barn next to our tent complemented the cacophany with a round of impressive neighing.
Sho, blessed as a sound sleeper, stirred only briefly, while I spent the next 2 1/2 hours creating a sound map of the local animal population. At 6:30, Sho sprang up excitedly, asking if we could play golf at the ranch. "As soon as we get the tent broken down and the gear loaded on the bikes," I answered, and Sho helped to complete these tasks in record time.
We took advantage of all of the major attractions at World Ranch, which was spookily empty early on a Tuesday morning. After 18 holes of practice golf in an hour (using the billiard-size balls, just as we had in Muroran), we tested our archery skills (not so impressive), made it through the country maze in 32 minutes ("pretty average" commented one of the workers) and drank some "orange juice" that was really orange coloring added to water, mixed with high fructose corn syrup. Sho was in heaven.
As we left World Ranch, one of the employees gave us a stack of post cards and wished us luck on our long journey.
We didn't have cell phone coverage there, so as soon as we got back to the main road, we paused for a snack at a 7-11 and called Eiko. It was nice to hear her voice, and Sho shuffled his feet and smiled into the phone, obviously missing his mommy. While he was talking to her, a 4-foot long brown snake emerged next to his feet. All three of us were surprised, and the snake beat a hasty retreat down a nearby hole.
The ride from Mori to Hakodate, our last stop in Hokkaido, was an easy 2 1/2 hour ride that included some comfortable long down hill coasts out of the lush forests of Onuma Quasi National Park into the coastal town of Hakodate.
Perhaps it was the sunny, warm weather, but I immediately liked the town, with its broad streets, beautiful ocean views, historic landmarks and the looming Mt. Hakodate in its midst. We rode into the heart of town, stopping at the main train station to get information about hotels and a ferry to Aomori. We decided to give ourselves a rest day and time to explore the city, so I booked 2 nights (at 5,000 yen or $50/night) at "Smile Hotel", a 3-minute walk from the station.
Leaving our bikes locked up safely at the hotel, we rode a tram to the base of Mt. Hakodate and took the cable car up to the summit. The view was stimulating, encompassing the town and harbour, although the summit was blighted by a collection of TV towers.
On the way up, we met Wu Chia Li, a music teacher from Taiwan, and her 12-year old daughter Yu Ching. They were on a 12-day vacation in Hokkaido, and we enjoyed comparing notes about our experiences. After taking in the mountain views, the four of us rode the cable car back down, soaked our feet in the fabulous Hakodate Bay Bishoku Club outdoor foot bath, and shared dinner at a kaiten sushi restaurant.
Sho and I fell asleep in luxury, appreciating the difference between a wind-blown tent and a hotel, and looked forward to a day of down time in Hakodate tomorrow.