Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Cycling from Morioka City to Kuriyama, Hokkaido: Part 1

Ever since I moved to Morioka (Iwate Prefecture) from Hakodate, Hokkaido, I had wanted to bicycle from Morioka to my wife's hometown Kuriyama which is right in the center of the Island of Hokkaido. After 4 years of putting it off, this year I decided I was going to do it. My wife and son went to Kuriyama ahead of me and I was to meet them there. My plan was to bicycle from Morioka to Aomori City (200 kilometers) take the ferry from Aomori to Hakodate. Cycle from Hakodate to a town called Oshamanbe (93 kilometers) and then from Oshamanbe to a city called Muroran (about 90 Kilometers). Lastly I planned on cycling from Muroran to Kuriyama (about 100 kilomters). In Kuriyama, I would stay with my in-laws and then put my bicycle in our car and drive/ take the ferry back to Morioka with my wife and son.

I left Morioka on August 10 and had made it to Date, Hokkaido, a town 30 kilometers from Muroran city by August 13. In Date, I called it a trip and had my wife come pick me up. I was about 120 kilometers from Kuriyama. Although I did not make it to my final destination, it was a fantastic journey and I would recommend traveling around Japan by bicycle to anyone who is game for it. In the following posts I will talk about my journey and I hope that anyone interestecd in taking a cycling trip in Japan will be able to learn from my mistakes.

Preparing for the Trip

On August 1, I had asked a local cycle shop, Nakahata Cycle Shop (サイクルショップナカハタ), who I was friendly with whether or not they could find me a bicycle that I could use to go on a long road trip. At the shop they only had the prototypical Japanese urban basket bicycles (Mama chari) but the proprietor asked me what my budget was and said that he would make me a mountain bike out of a used frame he had in the scrap yard at his house. By August 5, I had a mountain bicycle complete with a bell/compass, rear blinking light, front light, front basket, a rear mount which I could tie a tent and sleeping bag onto, and a speedometer. I had originally told the repairman that my budget was 20,000 yen but when I saw the bicycle I assumed that it would be more because they had thrown all these accessories onto it. I was surprised when they only asked for 20,000 yen. Here is a picture of my bicycle resting at a campsite in Oshamanbe Hokkaido. As you might tell, I became quite attached to it. As it was originally a women's mountain bike, I think I will call her Sheila.

On August 8, I bought the Touring Mapple (ツーリングマップル) map of Hokkaido and Tohoku (Northeast Honshu). These maps also provide information about road conditions, restaurants, camp sites, youth hostels, rest areas and tourist sites for their regions. They proved to be immensely helpful.

On August 9, a day before I was to leave, I borrowed a tent from a colleague and intended to go shopping for gear that I would need for the trip. Here are two web pages that recommend what kind of gear to bring for a long cycling trip: Adventure Cycling Association: "How to pack and what to take"; REI: "Cycling Expert Advice".

Before I left my house to go shopping, I suffered my first setback: I learned that the ferries from Aomori city to Hakodate were completely booked on August 11! My original plan was to take two days and one night to go to Aomori city from Morioka. The people at the ferry terminal told me that I, myself, could ride the ferry but it would be impossible for me to take my bicycle. Bicycles are classified as motorbikes and must ride with the cars on the ferry. Although they are classified as motorbikes they only cost 900 yen to bring on the ferry which is considerably less than a motorbike. When I was told I could not take my bicycle on the ferry I panicked because my trip to Hokkaido was now in jeopardy. In the midst of my panic, I remembered that I had read something about a bicycle bag called a rinko (輪行) on the Cycling Japan website and immediately called the ferry company asking them if I could carry my bicycle on the ferry if it was put in a bag. Their answer was yes and my next challenge was to find out where I could find a rinko in Morioka.

I decided I would kill two birds with one stone and buy my camping goods and rinko together. A friend of mine recommended that I buy my camping gear at either Homac, Takeda Sports or Sunday. Homac and Sunday are big home amenity stores that sell everything from hardware to wood to bicycles to camping gear. I ended up buying a 1000 yen sleeping bag at Homac and a flashlight. At Takeda Sports I bought running shoes and something close to cycling shorts. Takeda Sports also had almost the exact same camping gear as Homac for the same prices. I learned that you can get a lot of cheap camping gear at big stores such as Homac or Takeda Sports. I was disappointed, though, to find that these stores had a very poor selection of bicycling gear and I worried that I would not be able to find a decent cycling helmet or the rinko. I asked the clerk at Takeda Sports what the biggest bicycle shop was in Morioka and he told me that it was Sasaso Cycle Shop (佐々宗輪店) on chuuou doori (chuuou road). When I went to the cycle shop, I was happy to find a rinko and a good helmet (Although combined they cost more than my bicycle!). With the rinko, sleeping bag, tent, and bicycle I was now ready to begin my trip!

Because the ferries were going to be so full on August 11, the beginning of Japan's Obon holiday, I decided I should make it to the ferry terminal in Aomori by August 10. There were 200 kilometers between me and Aomori city. I thought that if I left my house at about 3:30 AM, August 10, I should make it to Aomori city by dusk (about 7:00 PM). I had cycled 50 miles with my father with relative ease when I was in high school. I reckoned that 200 kilometers was about 125 miles and I thought that if I could cycle 50 miles with ease then adding another 75 miles would not be so bad. Of course, Japan is a heck of a lot more mountainous than my home state of Massachusetts, and I would soon learn that mountains are much more difficult to tackle than long distances.

The night before I was to leave I was awake until about 1AM trying to take care of some last second work and did not get out of bed until 5AM. Along with my tent and sleeping back which was tied to the back of my bicycle, I had originally planned to take a small backpack, place it in the front basket of my bicycle and tie it down with a cord. When I attempted to put my belongings (a change of clothes, rain gear, maps, spare tubes, a bicycle pump and tools for my bicycle) into my small backpack I soon realized that it would not all fit. So I abandoned the small backpack idea, took out my big camping rucksack, stuffed my belongings into it and strapped it on my back. I knew that it was not wise (very dumb) to carry such weight on my back for a 200 kilometer trip, but I was in a hurry to get out of the house and any more delays would prevent me from reaching Aomori city that day. Besides, the rucksack was designed for trekking and had all kinds of straps that kept most of the weight off my shoulders. To the right is a picture of me wearing the rucksack and standing by the bicycle with an empty basket in Yakumo, Hokkaido. It was a big mistake not buying side carriers for my bicycle but I did the best I could carrying the backpack.

At 6:30 AM I left Morioka for Aomori city. In my next post I will talk about my 200 kilometer adventure and what happened to me along the way. Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

Hello, I'm a Canadian looking to teach ESL in Japan - I was looking through a travel book and found Morioka! It looks like a wonderful place, but I'm wondering if it's a good place to work. I know that they have an exchange program set up with Victoria in Canada - does that impact the job market?
Thank you for your time,

Jasmine L said...

I am writing because I came upon your blog and thought you may have some advice for me. I was just offered a teaching job to teach English in Shimakappu on Hakaido (forgive the spelling), Japan. Now we are trying to find my fiance a position. Do you have any ideas or contacts in that area? He is doing the CELTA certification course. We are also thinking of coming over there him not having a job and hopefully finding him one once we get there. Do you think that we'll be able to? Any advice would be much appreciated. Thanks, Jasmine