Sunday, September 06, 2009

Bihoro to Lake Kusharo


We woke up in the morning to a standard Japanese breakfast. We moved slowly, partly because of the long day the day before, but also because we knew that today would be a short one --- into Akan National Park. The morning was very clear, but as we rode onto 243, the safety warnings flashed Low Visibility Ahead. I wondered how bad it would be, since at the bottom of the climb it was actually warm enough to take off our jackets for the climb. As we entered the Park, however, the fog indeed set in, so much so that by the time we reached the top of the pass, we could barely find the visitor center!


A leisurely lunch at the visitor center (which turned out not to have a staffed information booth) and the fog lifted so we could finally see Lake Kussharro beneath us. Despite the fog, the lake looked gorgeous --- serene as though it had always been there.
The descent was as usual gentle and easy, even on wet roads --- I joked that you could start a Japanese tour with 1mm of rubber left on your brake pads and not even wear out half of that after 3 weeks. We first saw a large swanky western style hotel, and then took the turn off to Wakoto Peninsula to see how the lodging look as it started drizzling on us. Despite the drizzle, however, we did not like the looks of the lodging in that area, and turned back out to head towards the Youth Hostel.

The Youth Hostel was OK, but wanted 6000 yen a person, at which point a hotel for $20 more a person started to sound attractive. Sure enough, as we followed Kussharo Road around the lake, we soon came to the Ainu Museum at the Kotan, and past that a hotel that looked more than reasonable when we saw the rooms. They offered an Ainu meal as part of the dinner service if you were willing to pay more, and given that I hadn't had one already I chose it! The map also said that the free open air bath was nearby, and indeed just around the corner I spotted the sign that said open air bath!
Well, a soak in the bath was just what we needed to warm up a little bit, so after I read the rules we stripped down and went in. There was already someone in the bath, but I guess the Japanese don't make a big deal out of public nudity in the bath, which while segregated by gender, was completely exposed to the lake.

Mark wanted to ride around (or hike around) the Wakoto peninsula, so we rode back there and did a loop around. While the first and last sections of the trail circumnavigating the island were ridable and even fun, the mid section was not --- it wasn't just that the trail was steep in sections, it was also that the bridges were slippery even when walking in mountain bike shoes, and there were many stairs in some sections. To make things worse, there were quite a number of blood-sucking mosquitoes, and I felt eaten alive. After a while, I just went for the fastest possible speed and got off the Wakoto trail as quickly as possible.

Having explored enough for the day, we went back to our hotel to enjoy its wonderful views of the Lake.
The baths inside the hotel were wonderful --- set on the second floor and overlooking the Lake with grand views all around, along with music and verses extolling the virtues of open-air baths.

Even the baths, however, did not adequately prepare me for the quality of the meal. Mark and Yana, who did not choose to upgrade, got a magnificent Jingus Kan. I got a 14-course meal, starting with a hot-pot of cabbages and tofu, and with a new course arriving every 3 minutes. Each individual course was quite small, but the presentation and flavor was as you might expect of the Japanese --- just about perfect. Here's a picture of the venison dish, for instance.
The portions were carefully controlled so you couldn't over-indulge in one and then not have room for the next delight, yet by the time I finished the meal I was quite satisfied.
Yana remarked, "Not only is the food great, it is so incredibly healthy. No wonder we don't see any obese people around." Indeed, all through our trip, everyone looked like they did not spend their days sitting in cars and offices. Then again, in Europe, that's true as well.
69.3km, 680m

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