Day 4—Exceeding Expectations

Spent one of nine lives/Did the living of many/Day three of riding



There is no easing into today’s ride. We wake to clouds and damp and anticipate rain. We eat jerky, canned coffee, nuts and, you guessed it, Soyjoys to skip cooking in an effort to beat the rain. We put on waterproof socks, pants, jacket and shoe covers. We end up removing them 5 minutes into the climb, grossly overheating and now skeptical rain will come. The climb begins immediately and persists for the next 2 hours.

(Pre-climb bike yoga)

This climb is hard work and an incredible display of what I am capable of. It is powerful. I am powerful. The mental and physical strength that marry to achieve something like this is at once intense and peaceful. There is nothing else on this mountain in this moment but myself and this challenge.


Until I reach the tunnel. Jason and I agreed that I should wait for him here. I stopped one other time during the climb and was astonished at how the bike can get going again when in the easiest gear despite the steep, steep incline. I am not sure I have ever used this gear, I live in flat Chicago and am a proud masher anyway, but this gear and I are best friends now. I do love climbing, and was even nicknamed “mountain goat” when living in Colorado, though truthfully I don’t feel I earned that title until today. I like climbing even more than descending at these grades which feel like free-falling. I put on a coat to keep warm while I wait at the mouth of the tunnel and eat all of the food I have on me. I drink electrolytes. I decide to scope out the tunnel. There is no shoulder just curves and darkness. The wait allows my anxiety to build.




When Jason arrives he is in good spirits and we acknowledge briefly what we’ve accomplished, but fully aware that there is more. It turns out this is not the tunnel but sections of road protected from falling debris. The tunnel is much less scary. We put our lights on and I lead the way into the protected roadway, heart pounding. There are two or three such sections with open road in between and dizzying drops to our left. I want to drink in the view but, again, narrow shoulder and dizzying heights. Jason later tells me he loved taking in these views and eventual descents. Opposites attract.


The tunnel comes soon after and has a shoulder. It is straight and just a small climb in followed by a fun, gradual downhill.


This video doesn’t exist


On the other side there is a viewpoint and bathrooms. We refill water bottles and make the final climb to 2,932 ft. We’ve climbed 1,867 ft over 5.16 miles.

Time to free fall. This is where Jason takes the lead. I am white-knuckling it all the way down the mountain. My fingers are practically numb from gripping, my teeth chattering, stomach flipping. Suddenly I am very hungry and my knees feel weak. Maybe we should have brought a second set of brake pads. I make us stop at a viewpoint for the, uh, view. I do not betray my fear, however; not until we’re done. We meet a Canadian couple touring and on their way up.

(Lake Toya in the distance)

We take off again twisting and turning. Finally the road is less steep and Jason pulls over at a quaint scene with the sign “Cafe”. When I stop I feel faint and lean over my handlebars for support as an older woman comes over, all smiles. She is speaking to me in Japanese but I have no energy to engage aside from weakly putting up a finger. I feel rude but she understood. I set my bike against a beautiful old barn next to Jason’s. I eat all the nuts and raisins and drink electrolytes. I am back. The woman has cleared space on a deck and urges us to sit at the table on which she has placed two slices of watermelon. She understood. There is no cafe, not open right now anyway, but a daycare or school as there are a number of toddlers running around in costumes and a sign Happy Halloween. We ask when Halloween is, “October 31”. I guess they start celebrating early. As the kids are ushered in to do a craft we rest and refresh. We give a gift of the “kohi” we brought to the woman who took us in. We enjoy the kids and the setting until we collect ourselves and our things.

The rest of the descent is glorious. We are rolling past gardens and small homes. As things level out, apple orchards become abundant. There are green fields and rolling hills. So much green. To simply say it is beautiful is not enough. This beauty has me lamenting our eventual departure from Hokkaido to the main island. We spot what we call travel stops-buildings that house public bathrooms, food counters, shops, and places to sit. We find that each of these has its own character. We fill up on water and move on among the apple orchards.

Something we find that we eat little of here, largely because our on the road meals often come from convenience stores but also because they are not served frequently at meals, are fresh fruits and vegetables. We finally succumb to the temptation that is building with each passing of a fruit stand. Clearly this is the place to have fresh fruit. Apples, plums and grapes appear to be the featured items of this growing season and so we purchase and eat 6 plums. They are juicy and sweet and just the right texture. A family pays for a basket to “pick your own”. We have ground to cover. Lake Toya and its onsens are calling to us and still miles away.



I do not remember the transition from apple orchards to lakeside resorts but we arrive. There are two that we have found listed as accepting clients with tattoos. The first says they do not, the second reluctantly so. We come to find at future spa visits that the “don’t ask don’t tell” approach works best. We have not yet seen “no tattoos” explicitly noted and guess that the asking puts the staff in an awkward position. Traditionally, tattoos are associated with Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, or with “deviance”. Truth be told, of our now four onsen visits, I am the only one with tattoos. I have only spotted one or two Japanese people who have tattoos generally but we are still in the north. I imagine there will be many in Tokyo where tattoo parlors are popular.

Today, however, we ask. I do not get any negative looks once undressed and bathing. Generally, it would bother me if I did although this once I wouldn’t care. It feels too good after nights of camping, climbing, exerting. It is heaven to submerge my body, now clean, into the hot bath and then cold and then hot again.

I am drunk with relaxation afterward and Jason and I stumble across the street to a coffee shop. We sip and sit. And sit. We are satisfied. We reassess our route and plans. We will take a train to Hakodate. This will cover the miles we are behind and also allow us time in both Hakodate and Aomori which, foolishly, we had not originally budgeted for.


We ride through a long tunnel and about 15 minutes through Toya to the train station. This will be our first experience dismantling part way our bicycles to wrap in tarps for train travel. We have just 15 minutes. In a flurry we divide the effort, I separating the frames, Jason removing pedals. We’re not going to make it. The next train is not far behind so we continue and also grab some snacks. We board the train and find large cubbies to put our wrapped bikes in. Finally we sit in the non-reserved car which is also not air-conditioned. You have to pay for that. We sit in our sweat and eat the convenience store cold cut ham on the pre-margerained packaged roll. Not the best though I haven’t had bread since we’ve been here and it is comforting.

The ride is a swift 90 minutes, only darkness out the windows. It is raining as we approach the port town of Hakodate. When we arrive there is a long platform. It is not fun carrying two panniers, tarp full of bike, handlebar bag slung over shoulder. I go in 20 ft increments. We bought our tickets on the train and must show them to the station master as we leave the turn style. Once on the other side we find an open corner in which we can reassemble.


We reserved a hotel before getting on the train and ride the rainy streets to its door. It is not far. We are allowed to stow our bikes in a parking garage maintenance room. We have never had an issue with a hotel accommodating us this way. They always manage to find a nook or cranny for our bikes even in the nicer hotels, which this is not. But we’ve landed after an incredibly long and full day and that feels good. We still have one last thing, dinner. We run through the rainy streets to a hole in the wall that is just the thing, an izakaya, a sort of Japanese pub. We immediately order beer followed by jingisukan (grilled mutton) and squid. Sated.


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