10 January 2008—12 February 2008
‘You have only to see what you see and feel what you feel.’
I had a fundamental decision to make. One that had been rolling around in my head since day one, and I knew I would have to face up to it in the next year: east or west?
The problem was I wanted to go east. I wanted to go to South America and west meant that the vast South American wilderness would be out of reach for at least five years. I was optimistic of sailing east across the North Pacific to North America, but realistically I knew that it would be very difficult to find a boat. To complete my journey as I’d envisioned it—to circle the globe under my own steam and by the forces of nature—prevailing atmospheric conditions renders an eastward journey unviable.
I was running out of time, well funds actually, but in this case they are one and the same. Now that I resigned to going west I could hop a ferry to Japan and retrace my steps on the way back. Japan, in other words, is like a detour off the carbon eco route. It would be another month before I came to rest in Hokkaido. However, for the purpose of the objective, stage one really ended in Shanghai.
After five months in SE Asia and china, Japan felt like a holiday: clean, calm, efficient and super friendly. Even the industrial area I cycled through on the way to central Osaka was pleasant. Japanese people are hospitable and generous. And during those first few weeks, in between visiting friends around Honshu, I was invited to stay with several families I previously had no connection with and taken on a bike trip to Shikoku (island) to visit the historic Dougo onsen (hot spring).
My priority now was to find work before going broke, so I cycled north through Kyoto to Tsuruga where I caught a ferry to the southern Hokkaido port of Tomakomai. Snow had settled on the mountains but much of it had melted away at ground level in Southern Honshu. It was no comparison to the northern island, which at that time of year is frozen solid and blanketed in a thick layer of snow and ice.
The ferry arrived late and the sleepy little city showed no signs of life, so with nowhere to go I rolled out my sleeping bag onto the floor of the sheltered overpass to the station. It was a slow night of troubled sleep due to the incessant beeping of an ATM. At 6:50 a.m. the stationmaster vigorously shook me awake. The day was dead calm, and although the sun was shining it shed no warmth and the winter sting was biting at my fingers.
At that stage I was still undecided on where I was going. I could be in Sapporo in a day, which was the logical choice, but the Ice Festival was about to start and it seemed like too much effort. Or I could head back to my old hometown in central Hokkaido where I had friends and a base. I bought a road atlas for Hokkaido and figured it would take about a week along the coast—I didn’t have ice tires so the more direct inland route through the mountains was out of the question. In the end it took nine days of cycling through some of the most beautiful scenery of the journey so far. The air was fresh and I hadn’t seen skies as clear for months.
It was a battle navigating my way out of town but eventually I found HWY 235, which passed through a mixture of icy pastures and ugly industrial zones. About 35kms out I hit the coast and another 10kms on, came to a small town called Mukawa. It was about 4:00pm and getting dark, and with the snowmelt turning to ice I decided to call it a day. After I had located the park where I planed to camp, I visited the local onsen. At an average temperature of 42c I tend to find them a bit hot for comfort, but during winter life in the outdoors the tint brown, steaming, acrid water is a welcome place to be.
An onsen is usually a bathhouse where the hot spring is tapped deep out of the ground. Most have several baths of varying temperatures—some with bubbles and massage jets, some are outdoors. After scrubbing oneself scrupulously, naked men shuffle about from bath to bath covering their privates with shower towels. The onsen was still a relatively new experience for me so I was perplexed when I began to have muscle cramps in one vacant bath. Of course I couldn’t read the kanji informing me that an electric current was running through the water. It wasn’t until months later that I discovered the reason for the strange sensation and that it is not wise to submerge your whole body.
That night my thermometer registered -15ºc. Other nights it dropped to -20ºc, which is fairly average on the coast for February. At that temperature toothpaste freezes solid. The road occasionally veered inland through white fields and past distant mountains, patchy with snow and winter dead grass. But most of the way I was pedaling along the undulating coast, slipping briefly through small fishing towns and catching glimpses of ocean life: sun light filtering through the mist and spray at a squid processing house, racks of drying seaweed streaming in the breeze, local people going about their daily chores with no great urgency.
By mid-afternoon the clear skies were choking up with dark clouds, blocking whatever meager light remained, and the day was snatched away rapidly. Soon black ice would threaten to snatch my tires so I rolled away of the coast road and down into a small town to find my patch for the night. A northwest wind had started to drive snow sideways and as I pulled to a halt, warm and exercised, I enjoyed the cold tingling of the snow flakes sticking and melting to my face—after so long in the heat, the cold was still a novelty.
I stood briefly in the deteriorating conditions, looking around for a potential campsite when a woman pulled up beside me in a white Ute. She introduced herself as Emiko and was concerned about me camping. A storm front was rolling in and she refused to have me out in such conditions. Although I was well prepared and unconcerned I was never going to turn down Japanese hospitality—that would just be rude. So after a few phone calls I was lead off to a house around the corner owned by an elderly couple, Tomio and Aiko. Tomio then showed me to a corrugated steel barn where he kept his motorbikes and campervan, and up to the carpeted loft. He made up a futon, complete with electric blanket and then invited me back to his house for a bath and feed. Later Emiko came around for a chat and brought me a bag of bread rolls and pastries.
Tomio was an old-time biker. It was obvious I wasn’t the first two-wheel nomad to pass by. On the walls of his house were photos of fellow touring people. He proudly flicked through guest books pointing out the odd message written in English. Up in the loft, the arching plywood wall panels were scribbled all over with black marker—drawings and comments by guests. All written in Kanji, incomprehensible, but I got the gist. However, it was the stacks of photo albums full of two-wheeled travelers sporting bandanas and saddling their machines with wide grins, that said it all: freedom.
Tomio came to the loft early to let me know coffee was ready. What more could I ask for? I grabbed a black marker and made a rough sketch of the globe including a sailboat and a bike and scribbled something about a world trip. All I was asked for in return was to stand for the customary portrait. It was a chance meeting that seemed like destiny.
The weather was glorious, the roads quiet, and the scenery peaceful. It was my last days and I was in no hurry. I meandered around the coast, and rode across bridges spanning frozen rivers, and walked along black deserted beaches, and watched sea ice rub lazily at the hulls of fishing vessels. It bothered me that this was coming to an end. That it had to end. Work was also my destiny. To keep moving I had to stop—the irony was obvious but there was just no way around it. And I was concerned about making the transition.
After fourteen-months on the road I had become acutely aware of my environment. I had no distractions to pull me away, no doors to knock at when I was bored, no one to call when I was sad or pissed-off. Most of the time I couldn’t speak English and I didn’t care. I didn’t have to be anywhere at any particular time. My thoughts were slow and meditated because there was no need for them to be anything else. I could watch a flock of raven harass one another for half an hour and be entertained. All I had was the physical environment around me. And now that I was coming to an indefinite halt, that life was about to get complicated, I was well aware that I didn’t want anything more.
One night I camped by a river and woke to the first golden rays breaking over the snow and filtering through the entrance of my tent. Another night I camped on a horse racecourse just up from the ocean, somewhere in the direction of the tsunami safety zone. The day after I crossed over to the pacific side of the peninsula, which is a considerably harsher environment but proportionately more spectacular. I camped on the cliff among the seaweed drying racks several hundred meters from the houses. It was dark by the time I had cooked and was cocooned in my tent. Some time later a car came by stopping with its headlights fixed on my camp. Through the breeze and rustling tent fabric, I could hear the footsteps over the stones as a man approached. He called a friendly ‘hello’. It was the same guy who had filled my water bottles a few hours earlier. He passed me a bag containing three 1.5 L water bottles of hot water and three cans of steaming hot vending machine coffee. It was the kind of thoughtful gesture that typifies the Japanese character.
My camp was buffeted by heavy winds through the night but nothing unusual for a coastline fronting the North Pacific. Snow and ice stuck to the cliffs and drifted around in the ocean, and plenty of bird life flapped about the rocks squawking, perhaps complaining about the bitter cold. There was not much light on the east coast. Tunnels have been built through any obstructive cliff, some of them several kilometers long—not much fun on a bike. I made a futile attempt to avoid a tunnel by pushing through the snow at an outside route, only to discover the road had been completely destroyed in a landslide. Regardless, it was a good day, though uncomfortably cold and difficult traveling into an arctic headwind.
My last night on the road of this first stage, I was invited to stay with a local family. It was always the same, whether it was Australia, Thailand, Japan or elsewhere, the people who invited me to stay treated me as they would a family member, and without reservation. (Except, of course, when I was invited into an Indonesian home then charged and robbed.) They feed me, sheltered me, and viewed the world with interest and an open mind.
It was fitting that I arrive back to my previous town of residence the same season as I left. Four years on it was just how I remembered it—stark white—only now in blizzard conditions. A friend drove out to see me. She found me 30 km away. We hugged. I felt like I was home.
THE END (of stage one)