Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Days 5 - 6: Shiretoko Peninsula, our first World Heritage Site

June 29 – 30, 2009: Sho had discovered an amusement hall in Abashiri that was too tempting to resist, and we spent the morning of June 29 playing games and winning candy before finally starting to ride at 11:30am. We needed to cover 80km (~50 miles) in order to make it to Utoro, our jumping off point for exploring Shiretoko Peninsula, so we rode steadily with only short rests throughout the afternoon. Our destination on Day 5 was a 70km (~43-mile) strip of pristine forest jutting out into the Sea of Okhotsk on the northeast corner of Hokkaido. Designated a World Heritage Site by the UN in 2005, Shiretoko Peninsula was a satisfying culmination of our first week’s riding through Hokkaido’s natural beauty. The indigenous peoples of Hokkaido, called Ainu, named the peninsula “the end of the earth,” and I had a sense that we were riding into a place of mystery and danger, as I caught glimpses of misty, snow-lined mountains looming ahead and massive black volcanic rocks strewn along the coast.
About halfway there, we caught up with our friend, Saito-san, who is biking the circumference of Japan, and the three of us rode together the rest of the way. I got my first flat tire of the ride, and Saito-san helped me patch the tire, while sneaking in a picture of my bike and equipment laid out on the side of the road. We also stopped to enjoy Oshinkoshin Falls, an impressive waterfall that pours over a towering rock wall and flows into the ocean ~8km south of Utoro. Groups of orderly and chatty elderly tourists clambered out of busses to buy trinkets at the small souvenir shop and join us on a brief stairway to the photogenic falls. I felt the familiar disappointment of the mystery of a natural wonder reduced to a tourist trap, but Sho didn’t seem to mind. After posing for pictures, he spent time playing with a friendly, snoozing cat who allowed himself to be photographed and petted while snoring away.
The ride had been relatively flat, hugging the coast much of the way, until the final 1km climb up a steep hill to our hotel in Utoro. Sho and I struggled to pedal up the hill in our bikes’ lowest gears, arriving exhausted, but in high spirits. Eiko and Saya were waiting for us at the Shiretoko Prince Hotel, a large, tourist-filled monster of a place that boasted an excellent onsen, spacious tatami mat rooms and all-you-can-eat buffet meals – perfect for the hungry cyclist. As we were settling into our hotel room, Ishiwata-san, the friendly proprietor of the place we slept on June 27, called to say hello and to check on our progress.
Saito-san slept in a nearby campground, and we met after breakfast on June 30. Sho and I planned a rest day to enjoy the sights of Shiretoko Peninsula with Eiko and Saya, hoping to catch glimpses of the wild deer, foxes and brown bear that populate the area. We invited Saito-san to join us for a little sight seeing before he headed off for the steep climb over the Shiretoko Pass to Rausu. He happily accepted our invitation, and we drove to Shiretoko Go-ko (5 Lakes) and hiked through the beautiful forest for an hour and a half. We passed a number of wild deer along the way, pausing to take pictures of the first few. Only 2 of the 5 lakes were open to hikers (because of bears, we were told), but having Sho and Saya along, and with Saito-san wanting to start riding by 11am, visiting just 2 lakes was plenty. Although it was a cloudy day, the lakes served up glimmering symmetrical reflections of the stunning mountains of Shiretoko, drawing an appreciative “Wow!” from Saya.
Perhaps struggling with the emotions of saying goodbye to Eiko and Saya for 2 months, Sho had a fairly dramatic meltdown during the hike. I had to carry him to the car and force him in, as he complained about what a terrible father I am. It was a reminder that, while the trip has been wonderful in many ways, it has not been and will not be easy for any of us (Eiko and Saya included). This incident wasn’t the first time that I wondered whether the whole adventure may be too ambitious. My hope is that it turns out to be a challenge that both of us grow from.
After Saito-san set off, Eiko and I decided to drive ahead along his route to let him know what to expect. Shiretoko Pass turned out to be quite a challenge. Not only was it a steady 15km (~9 mile) climb from Utoro, strong winds and a heavy fog blanketed the pass, reducing visibility to maybe 5 meters and chilling us all with a cold mist. We took pictures in front of a monument at the top, but there was no view to enjoy, and the cold air and wind gusts quickly sent us to our rental car for refuge as we lamented the conditions for Saito-san. In the end, it took him 3 hours to make it from Utoro to the top of the pass, and instead of a beautiful view, his only reward was a thick cloud bank that made the sharp-curved descent to Rausu wet and dangerous. We made him promise to call us when he arrived, which he did at 5:30pm. He said the ride had been exhausting, but that he was fine. Sho and I will miss our new friend, but there is a chance that we will run into him again in another week or so, when our routes through Hokkaido converge.
Eiko, Sho, Saya and I enjoyed a nice seafood meal at a crab restaurant on the beach. Eiko and I both ate the crab and sea urchin rice bowl, which was excellent, while Sho ate seafood curry and rice. Saya nibbled from all of our plates. We spent an hour working off the food by playing on the rocky beach, throwing stones into the surf and finding bamboo sticks that Sho magically converted into light sabers. Sho dubbed himself Yoda, Eiko was Princess Amidala, I was Obi Wan Kinobi, and Saya was an Ewok. Sho was remarkably victorious in all of our battles, enjoying the advantage of making up the rules. We ended the day with another all-you-can-eat extravaganza in the hotel and a satisfying soak in the onsen, before packing for our departure tomorrow. The forecast calls for a thunder storm, so we accepted our fate and laid out our rain gear to wear on tomorrow’s 93km ride to Bihoro.
We plan to spend one more night with the four of us together in a minshuku tomorrow night, before Eiko and Saya return to the U.S., a departure we are all dreading. It’s been a wonderful first week, full of beautiful scenery, new friends, satisfying physical exertion and new discoveries. We’re looking forward to more to come!

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