Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Northlands!

Woke up in my dorm-like room feeling very business-like today. Unlike my goal 2 days ago when I really wanted to cover 150 km that day, today I must ride 140 km. Rain, wind, or shine nothing is stopping me on this day.

I stroll into the dining room where the Okaa-san tells me that breakfast will be ready shortly. My 2 touring companions are already seated and we make some more chit chat about things to see and routes to take for the day. My motorcycle buddy from Kumamoto turns his laptop towards me to show me a weather map showing that the wind for today will be blowing from the south. I almost yelp with delight at the prospect a tailwind, the holy grail of bike touring. I cannot stress enough how preferable the steepest mountain is to even a moderate headwind...but I wont get back into that again.

Even though I'm still kicking myself for paying so much to stay at this Ryokan, I am continually surprised at how wonderful they are at taking care of their guests and the home-cooked breakfast leaves little to desire. I suppose a place that caters to people who are touring all day knows exactly what kind of food to cook for the tourists body, be it motorcycle or bicycle. As I am leaving, the owner gives me a gift-wrapped nut from a tree that only grows in this part of Japan. A gift that some might find cheesy or inconsequential, yet for me it is the perfect symbol for remembering this part of my journey.

I set off in the mid-morning light, showered with unexpected but appreciated warmth from the sun. Very quickly I began to feel a certain invincibility in my body. The hills were quite up and down, but my legs never felt tired on the climbs and I was overtaken with just how beautiful this day was in every conceivable day. Usually I don’t much like sounding like a hippy when describing things, but I realized early on that this was easily one of the greatest days of my entire life. This epiphany occurred around 10 a.m., but let me assure you that the rest of the day only got better from there.

Another word of advice I received from my biker-bud from the Ryokan was to take a small frontage road that forked off from a small village. I had initially planned on following the main, marked roads, as they have rarely led me astray during my trip. With profuse wavy movements of his arm (the kind you make when the car window is rolled down) he assured me that I will be climbing and descending hills the entire way to Wakkanai if I chose the main road. Deciding to trust again in the good will of the Japanese people, when I came to the fork I took the frontage road and what followed was simply the best 50 km of riding that any person has ever ridden...ever.

First of all it was flat. I had a tail wind. The temperature was perfect, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. I had the ocean to my left and beautiful fields of rice bowing from the weight of plump grains on my right. Thought it baffled me, the road was also immaculate. Typically these types of roads are used only by the junky pick-up trucks of Japanese farmers and are paved only once every 1,000 years. I must've been right on the millennial timing of these roads because it was like riding on a baby's bottom.

I rode for hours and hours, with nary the need or the desire to take a break for any reason but to use the bathroom. One such break placed me at the last michi-no-eki on the way north in Japan. Honestly in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by windblown fields of tall grass, this lone roadway station stood as the last bastion of civilization before I reached the great, wild north of Japan. I sat down for a delicious meal of curry and rice, accompanied by some world famous Hokkaido milk. As I drank this wondrous ambrosia, I was struck by how strange it is that milk isn't served with every meal of Japanese curry. Not that it's too spicy, the flavors just complement each other so darn well.

As I came back to saddle up and ride out, I noticed fellow bike tourists (Japanese) taking a break in the shade. We went through the normal chit chat and as I prepared myself for the usual praise and amazement when I tell them where I've come from, I'm met instead with an exclaimed “watashi mo!” (me too!). Excited by the news that someone else has made the exact same journey, we take a few moments to talk shop and recount our accomplishments. I do a sort of double take when I ask him to repeat when he started his ride, because I thought he said August 22nd (about 1 full month after I began my ride). Turns out he did say August 22nd, at which point I bow down to him because I am clearly not worthy to share the same tailwind as such a speed demon. I'll admit that I could most definitely have gotten this far much faster than I did, but a full month ahead of schedule would've likely killed me. Though I am impressed with his speed and ability, I must admit that I would not change a single thing about my ride up until this point. The people I've met and the things I have seen have too deeply changed me to think that having stronger legs would be a fair trade.

We say our goodbyes and I set out knowing that, if this heaven-sent wind keeps up, I will not only make it to Wakkanai on this day, but I will be about 3 hours ahead of schedule. I'll be honest, I was whole-heartedly expecting Wakkanai to be a somewhat desolate village-type place where toilets were a luxury, and electricity was intermittent at best. What I found was actually a full blown city that was apparently a hot tourist destination for many Russians (which was geographically quite close, a mere 6 hour boat ride away). As I rode around in awe at the Russian/Japanese signs and familiar shops like the 100-yen store and McDonalds, I call my host for the night, Miki-san. I follow his car to his house and, for the first time, I am confronted by the wind that had been helping me so much throughout the day. I assume that this ferocious beast is asking only for a toll for the good tidings I had received and I payed it gladly (though with teeth gritted and legs straining).

As it turns out, Miki-san owns a successful Izakaya in Wakkanai called (NAME HERE!!!), and he has a few rooms above the restaurant that he occassionally rents out. Currently he had a vacancy, and this is where he put me up for the night. Suffice to say, this was easily one of the coolest places I have stayed and I was elated that I had such comfortable lodging on one of my last nights. Miki-san told me to rest up, shower up and come down to the bar for dinner whenever I felt like it, and I couldn't help but feel notice that the day had still managed to get even better.

After showering I headed down to the bar where I was met by Miki-san's wife, a jolly Russian/Japanese woman. Knowing that she would be hosting an American, she had done her absolute best to concoct an “American” style meal for me. This amounted to some amazing French fries, three of the largest fried chicken breasts I have ever seen and a rice and cheddar cheese mixture that tasted quite a bit like risotto. My heart was unbelievably warmed by the kindness of these people who just 24 hours ago didn't even know I was coming to stay with them. I rallied my fortitude as best I could and managed to eat and drink everything that was put in front of me, including some leftover offerings from other patrons. The smile on Miki-san's wife face as I devoured her wonderful food made it all worth when later it felt as if I had several food babies incubating inside of me.

Full out of my mind and a bit drunk I try walking about the town for a little while hoping to speed up the digestive processes. I refelct on the night and Miki's words as I left the bar: “Tomorrow, we celebrate.” Assuming that tonight wasn't a celebration...I assume that I will certainly die at the “party” they have planned. After about an hour more of walking, I lay myself down on the floor of Miki-san's spare room and pass out into the deepest food-induced coma in medical history. Tomorrow, I reach Cape Soya.

Ryokans can be expensive, but I guess you get what you pay for. Definitely one of the best breakfasts ever.

Me, in Shadow form

The happy faces of windmills

Another of the best meals ever. Curry and Hokkaido milk

There's my trusty steed, always waiting for me

The end is in sight

Hilarious form, bravo.

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