Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Biei "Potato" Hostel to Asahidake Hot Springs


Breakfast was served late this morning, so I took the opportunity to do a loop around the area before breakfast, taking in more of the sights. It was foggy in parts, but once we headed down into the valley it was sunny, a change from the Bay Area, where usually the fog is low and climbs took you up into sunny parts. I was very pleased to see that Japanese kids rode their bikes to school.
From Hokkaido
Unlike their ferried-by-SUV American counter parts, I never saw a single obese (or even slightly chubby) Japanese kid going to school --- they either walked or rode bicycles (and usually without helmets).

After breakfast, we headed to the local view-tower and then headed back through Biei to Asahidake Hot Springs. The road was well-signed, so there was no navigation difficulty at all. We rode past some gentle hills and a dammed lake before getting to the climb itself. The sky was clear and the weather warm, but the road was very well shaded and traffic was light. Given how polite Japanese drivers were, I felt justified in removing my helmt and throwing on my cycling cap instead.

Unlike Tokachidake, the climb here started out on the steep side but then quickly eased up. Having had one climb under their belt and starting out the day fresh from yesterday's rest day, nobody complained at all, and we easily made the hostel by noon. We had an opportunity to climb the tallest peak in Hokkaido (also called Asahidake) at 2291m, so we hustled and made it up the ropeway to start the hike around 3pm. The last ropeway descent was at 5:30pm, so despite the bravado and bragging about how they would rather miss dinner than not make the peak, I knew the clock was running.

Given the beautiful weather, I was surprised to find the path up revealing clouds, until I realized that steam emitting from volcanic vents permitted the mountain to generate its own clouds!
The path from the ropeway to the peak was only 3km each way, but the trail was strewn with scree and loose rock, the worst possible condition for unsuitable footwear. Having learned my lesson from the day before, I had opted out of my Vibram Five Fingers in favor of my mountain bike shoes, which made the climbing much faster.

I am not in general a fan of mixing hiking and cycle touring, and this hike demonstrated why. It's difficult to carry suitable hiking shoes on the bike. Now, I'm undeterred by dirt roads, even if I have to carry my bike up, since I am at least assured of an easy descent. But hiking is tough on feet both up and down hills. We made it to the peak by 4:00pm, meeting a fireman at the top who said he saw us at Tokachidake yesterday just as he was starting on his multi-day hiking trip!
He was considerably better equipped for the trail than we were, as every person coming down the mountain commented on Mark's flip flops if they noticed them. My feet were also getting rather sore, but the scenery was spectacular.

The descent was treacherous, however, as Brooks slipped once and Yana twice. I took it very slowly, given the hot spots on my feet, but knew that there would be hell to pay the next day. On the descent, we caught up with a mother-daughter pair who were on the tail end of an overnight trip in the area. Satomi was a teacher in Tokyo, and they were headed for the ropeway where they would catch a bus to Tenninkyo Onsen for the night. Regardless, it was a gorgeous walk down.
From Hokkaido


It was only a short trip from the ropeway back to the hostel, where the hostel onsen soaked up our soreness before dinner. For the first time in Japan, we ran into other foreigners: a German couple, and a French lady who was having an unfortunate time with both chopsticks and Japanese food. After dinner, I was waved into the common room by a Japanese couple who then proceeded to allow me to practice my Japanese --- it took me over an hour to communicate what I did, where we had been, and where we were going, but it helped my Japanese considerably.

It was then time to take out our Touring Mapple to figure out what to do next. Looking at the exits around Asahikawa, it was clear that there were no roads through Daisetsuzan National Park, which meant that we had to detour around the park. The road through Sounkyo Hot Springs looked promising, but there was a nearly 4km tunnel right after that resort which made me nervous. The hostel staff told us that while traffic on 39, the road through Sounkyo Hot Springs, was light, it was also very fast. Brooks did some mental arithmetic and realized that he had only a couple of cycling days left before he had to make it back to Chitose, which meant that it made no sense for him to go with us past Biei. All things considered though, Biei was not a bad place to end the tour, with a train station in town and an English-speaker at the visitor center who was very helpful.

As had happened before to novice tourists on my trips, Brooks had forgotten that I usually timed my vacations to span holidays. In this case, Brooks had ended up returning the day before labor day, making his trip a day shorter than necessary.
52.3km, 1772m (some via hiking)
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