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.


  1. Dear Sho and Charles,
    We are voting for you 100%!!!We miss you !!!Have a good trip!!!:):):):):):):):):):)

    To Sho and Charles.
    The Paunksnis family(Naglis, Kastytis, Mindaugas & Sandra.)

    Made by Naglis

  2. Great achievement!
    I can see that you are really enjoying also learning and experiencing something new every day.

    By the way, how hot is Hokkaido or Aomori now?
    Today, I did the bike ride for 4 hours but it was really really hot in Tokyo. I think the
    temperature was around 34 degress but I thought that it was more than that. So becareful about the heat when you come down to south.


    Tsutomu Ishida

  3. Naglis: thanks for the note. I miss playing with you!
    From Sho

  4. Ishida-san,

    Honshu is definitely hotter than Hokkaido, but we've had so many rainy days, it's been hard to tell! It was close to 30 degrees today, but cloudy with a cool breeze, so no problem.

    - Charles

  5. Have a fantastic trip and we look forward to your posts upon your arrival.

    Take care.

    Climate Police