2. Return to Soya - the Hokkaido journey:

Hokkaido Highways

Haruko, also a keen cyclist, accompanied me on a return trip to Soya in August 2004. Members of the Wakkanai World Peace Bell chapter had kindly met us at Wakkanai airport and transported us, and bikes, to Soya. They watched as we nervously spread the contents of our Giant mountain bikes onto opened carrying bags. Dismantling our bikes for travel, and then reassembling them, many kilometres from a bike shop, was a new experience.

The cape, in summer, was green and warmer. But a feeling of desolation and loneliness remained as wheels slotted onto frames, and other components settled into relevant positions. Along with the World Peace Bell, Soya presented a random collection of other peace-related memorials including one to Korean Flight 007 allegedly shot down by Russian fighter planes some years ago. This, in the form of a sculptured 747 aircraft wing, full sized with winglet, was catching the strengthening Sea of Okhotsk breeze.

Clouds blackening over the cape, a few drops of rain, and the ringing of the World Peace Bell, sent us scurrying. Two days previously, in Tokyo, I had signed an agreement for a World Peace Bell to be gifted to New Zealand. The signing was in trust we would complete the long bike ride. But would we have the strength, and luck, to pedal all the way to Sata?

We skirted shabby fishing villages whose inhabitants, over centuries, had been born to a life of earning from a treacherous ocean. It was also an ocean of disputes between Japan and Russia, and frequent captures of Japanese fishing craft. This was the real, harsh, Japan divorced from the glittering lights of the world's technological capitals, Tokyo and Osaka - and from images of Japan's temples and cherry blossoms typically glowing from pages of beautifully presented art books.

I flicked through gears and hit my stride, chasing Haruko who was already enthusing over pedalling on her native terrain. Hokkaido, the least populated of the four main islands of Japan, promised great bike riding.

We would soon be hearing Japanese people shouting "Gambatte kudasai". Sometimes they would add, "Thank you for coming and doing this in our country."

And we would be welcomed by motor cycling travellers, many riding the most beautifully presented Harley Davidson bikes seen anywhere. In Hokkaido, especially, they greeted anyone on two wheels, even those pedalling the slow lane.

Our recreational mountain bikes were fitted out as they would be for New Zealand travelling, with 26 x 1.5 inch Specialised Nimbus slick touring tyres - good for loaded bikes on paved roads but sufficiently strong for a rougher surface. They would spin us down the west coast of Hokkaido to Sapporo, then Otaru (sister city of Dunedin), through a region of volcanoes much like New Zealand's central North Island, and then Hakodate.

Pouring over maps on cold winter nights in New Zealand (measuring distances with a length of string and a rule), the Japan bike ride had seemed an unlikely dream. Not so on the first darkening August evening when we arrived at a small village, Fujimi, and an accommodation house May Road, 42 kilometres from Soya misaki. Our host's yookoso welcome might have been heard in nearby Russia. We had been there before. Youko was pleased to see us back.

The quaint minshuku with almost vertical staircase (a peril to negotiate wearing the obligatory indoor slippers that never fit a Westerner's feet) lead to our tatami room. Youko's superb cooking, the camaraderie of Youko and her husband Yoshio, and the soak in the nearby onsen accompanied by tough local fishermen, were sheer luxury.

Youko treated me to my first taste of the famous fugu, or blowfish. I hesitated, hovering my chopsticks having heard fugu is deadly poisonous unless prepared and cooked expertly. Youko laughed at my nervousness, then trusting her with my life, I enjoyed the Japanese delicacy.

It was with reluctance we departed May Road. The southernmost point of Kyushu was over an estimated 3500 km from northern Hokkaido. "When you arrive at Sata misaki we will have already had our first snow," Youko said as she gave us each a huge hug.

[1. Beginnings - and a World Peace Bell:] [3. Contented life of a bicycling nomad:]

uploaded:20, 08, 2006