Friday, September 04, 2009

Biei "Tomato" Minshuku to Sounkyo Hot Springs


We got up early in the hopes of beating the morning traffic on 237. The easiest way to leave early is to eat breakfast in your room with food you bought from the supermarket last night, so that's what we did. By 7:30am, Yana, Mark and I had paid the Minshuku (which was a very well-equipped one) and left, though not without having to explain that Brooks was going to stay another night, and would be paying separately. We had consolidated all our equipment the night before, deciding what to send back with Brooks and what would continue with us for the rest of the trip.

Riding on 237, even if we knew it was only to be for 8km or so, was still an unpleasant experience --- there was enough traffic to be annoying, and it was definitely noisy. Fortunately, we soon spotted the 7-11 just before the turn-off we wanted, and stopped there to pick up more food and use the ATM.

Once we turned off of 237, we had a completely different ride. First of all, it was a lot quieter, even though the route took us right around an airport! There was a lot less traffic as we routed around the outskirts of Asashikawa city, and the directions provided by the woman at the information office yesterday was correct and easy to follow. When the road finally started uphill, we realized that we had finally gotten through the city, and stopped at a golf-course/rest area to use the rest-room and eat our snacks.

Unfortunately, it chose that moment to start raining as well, so we now had to put on our rain-gear and resign ourselves to wet roads. Wet roads uphill aren't bad, since you're not going fast enough for your fenders to thoroughly wet your legs, and fortunately there wasn't enough traffic to splash us with water from tires, and what traffic there was was polite enough not to come close enough to do so. As we approached the Ishikari river, I sighted a bike path on the bank and sighed, "What a pity it's not going our direction." Well, after the bridge, I spotted the bike path on the other bank and it was indeed going in our direction.
We debated a little bit as to whether the bike path was really going our way, but decided to bet on it. Sure enough, we soon saw signposts every kilometer that included Sounyko Hot Springs as a destination, marked off in kilometers. Not only that, those distances were lower than we had estimated the night before!

We had gone on the bike path long enough to raise our hopes that it would indeed take us all the way to Sounkyo Hot Springs when it ended as abruptly as it began, at a very well-built and brand-new restroom facilities and map indicated where the bike path would go. Explorations indicated to us that the map was indicative of future plans rather than of the current extent for the bike path, so back onto Highway 39 we went. Highway 39 was quite busy, and the traffic was fast, so it was with relief that we found the turnoff to 640, a little country road we had spotted on the map the night before. 640 went around the other side of the hill from 39, which meant that while it was a bit of a detour, it didn't actually add any climbing to our route, and escaping the noisy National Highway was a relief.

It was with sadness, then, that we had to rejoin the highway again after half an hour or so, knowing that this time there was no respite from it until we reached our destination. With only a brief stop for snacks 5km from Sounyko Hot Springs, we did the rest of the ride as quickly as we could. What we had not counted on was that the ride from Biei to Sounyko Onsen actually climbed to around 600m! There was a 1050m pass the next day, so it felt good to get that part over with. We arrived at Sounkyo Onsen at 12:30pm, which left us with a choice: either stay here for the night as planned, or do a bit of sight-seeing and push on over the pass and hit the next set of Hot Springs for lodging. A little bit of asking around yielded the answer that we were another 60km from the next set of lodging. I was undeterred by this, but both Mark and Yana had had quite enough of riding for the day, so we decided to explore the area instead.

First, we went over to the youth hostel to drop off our luggage. They informed us that they didn't have an actual hot bath, but could give us coupons to use the hot baths from either of the hotels next to the hostel. We then headed down the hill to have some Ramen for lunch. The food was delicious, but what was more remarkable to me was that this was the first time I had actually heard Japanese pop on the entire trip!

We then rode down to the gorge itself, which was a little touristy area that actually did not have much to see but a couple of waterfalls. When we rode to the end of the parking lot, however, we saw a gate across what must have been the path that visitors used to use to see the rest of the waterfalls.
Being law-abiding bicycle tourists, of course, we did not hop over the fence with our bicycles and ride on the now-abandoned road. Nor did we explore the no-longer used tunnels that now looked like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. We further did not see the waterfalls that were now declared officially closed by the tourist board, and we most definitely did not see the gate that sealed off the actual landslide that caused the entire place to be closed. That fence would have been too high to hop anyway.

We then returned to the hostel and took a coupon to pay the 500 yen day-use fee for one of the hotels Onsen. This was definitely a Hot Spring as might be seen in a Hollywood movie: set on the 7th floor of the hotel, it granted us views of the surrounding mountains shrouded by fog. The outdoor portion was a narrow strip that while being outdoors, had enough of a roof and walls around it that it didn't feel very exposed. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it thoroughly, though it highlighted the blister I now had on the arch of my foot from the hike 2 days ago.

It also turned out that the hotel had no less than 3 Hot Springs, so Mark and I navigated the halls to find one of the other ones, a very nicely secluded one with its own lawn for the outdoor portion. It was a delight --- you had to go down one set of elevators, go to another set of elevators reserved for that wing of the hotel, and then climb a set of stairs to get to it, but it was seldom used as a result so we had the place practically to ourselves!

By the time we were finished with our baths and gone back to the lobby, huge tour buses full of students and tourists had showed up at the front door. The Japanese with their short vacations (10 days a year) are big fans of organized tour groups. Whenever an organized tour bus shows up, the tour guide would jump off the bus with a whistle, and guide the bus in using a coded series of whistles. It's amusing and fun to watch --- once. The tourists are then herded by the white-glove wearing guide (almost always a woman). Then again, this appreciation of uniformity is why the Japanese can board a plane and leave the gate in 10 minutes.

Dinner was hearty --- each of us got an entire fish on our plates, in addition to Miso soup, etc.
I was also amused that the hostel had Totoro dioramas, and I took photos of my stuffed Totoro next to them.

98.9km, 802m
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