We’re about 55km in and I’m toasted. Rob and I have come to the decision that we probably need to stop taking photos and just put our heads down and pedal hard to the end. My food intake (down to some Clif energy gels) is being limited by the fact that I don’t have much water left to wash it down and so I’m bonking pretty hard too. This is definitely type 1½ fun at at the very least.
My dreams of Pocari Sweat (ポカリスエット) are by now so vivid that I can picture the ice-cold, slightly cloudy, sweet and salty beverage in the bottle with a bold navy blue label just sitting there on the bottom shelf of the Seicomart refrigerator waiting for me to rip off the cap and guzzle the whole bottle at once…. hmmmm….I think that’s glycogen deficit talking now….
I hadn’t expected things to be quite this taxing but it’s still proving to be a great day out and the views along this last section of the ride are fantastic. Our ride started at about 0800hr we’ve been on the go for over 6 hours without really having any lunch. A Seicomart would be really good right now.
The genesis of today’s little expedition was finding ourselves skinning and hiking up what appeared to be a pretty well formed road on our ski touring trip to Horobetsu-dake (幌別岳, 892m) earlier in the year. One thing led to another and after pouring over Google Earth one evening I came up with what I thought looked like a pretty sweet 60km loop incorporating that stretch of roadway.
We’d decided to go pack-rafting for the weekend and got a couple of great runs in on the Saturday. It did mean that we were somewhat ill equipped for a big day out, but with the water levels largely back to normal on Sunday morning we decided to have a crack at ticking this one off to add to my Rankoshi Gravel rides collection.
You never know quite what you’re going to get with a speculative satellite photo planned route. Rob has tales of all sorts of typhoon washed out carnage from his trans-Hokkaido trip out East that ‘looked just fine on the map’.
Turns out that we’ve ended up with a little hum-dinger of a trip. The entire route was navigable and was so well maintained that you could probably do the whole thing in your mini van as a nice family picnic outing too.
We parked the car at a tiny farmlet along route 5 in the area of Tashimo (字田下). I’d originally planned a counter-clockwise route but we decided to go clockwise in the end and hence the tough last couple of hours that we found ourselves enduring later in the day. This start point was about 25 minutes drive from my cabin near the Annupuri ski field and we’d grabbed some onigiri and other Japanese carbohydrate bombs from the convenience store on the way.
Rob had brought his Tern S27h folding bike with him to use for running shuttle with the packraft and, despite it having comported itself well on backcountry trips in the past it probably wasn’t ideal for today. The loose gravel and 16 inch wheels, not to mention all the stuff he had dangling off it, made for challenging riding all day.
I had my Lynskey Fatsky fat-bike which, in most circumstances would be ideal, but I’d been too lazy to take the winter tires off and so it was probably fatter than I’d have liked shod in the 4.8″ tungsten studded Snowshoe XL tires. Nevertheless, I was probably the luckier of the two of us.
We headed northwest along a jumble of narrow sealed roads before heading off into our route proper. The climb from here is pretty moderate throughout and it’s about 35 minutes of solid up before the road turns to a rolling grade. Like many or our expeditions into the Hokkaido Wilds, we’re left wondering as to the original drivers for investment into roads such as this. The surface conditions ranged from well maintained gravel to remarkably good, though obviously long since abandoned, tar-seal. All along this stretch were significant roading features; concrete retaining walls, substantial culverts and other reinforcements. This is a road to nowhere in particular, yet must have accounted for significant investment when it was first built. Were we riding on the product of Japan’s 1960-1990 ‘economic miracle’ times? Or was this road the product of more recent ‘invest in infrastructure…any-old infrastructure will do’ spending aimed at taming deflation during the ‘lost decade’?
We passed across the obvious bridge from our ski touring day about ¾ of the way through this section. It’s amazing how different the landscape is in summer; vegetation that was completely covered by snow has now bounced back to being 10 feet tall. Slopes that we’d toured up and easily traversed down would now be impassable on foot without a skillfully wielded machete and a good deal of patience. The hills are green and lush, giving no hint of the harsh deep winter that’s now only 15 or so weeks away. As we rolled down the hill we move from wilderness to farm land with both agricultural paddocks and rice paddies now running alongside the road. It’s not a particularly steep descent but it did make for some white knuckle riding, especially for Rob on his foldie. In no time we were back down at sea level and making our way along the flood reinforcements of the Shiribetsu river.
There are stopbanks topped with sealed cycling paths along both sides of the Shiribetsu from Rankoshi town down to the coast. While the trails are not continuous, the short connections on a fairly quiet the road mean that they’re a great option for a family cycle. As we were riding along Rob and I noted that they’d also be pretty good on his long-bard (skateboard) and my marathon rollerblades so we’ve pencilled that in for another time.
As we rode towards the small town of Nakoma (名駒) we came across what must be the coolest piece of farming equipment ever invented. A Yamaha remote-control crop-spraying helicopter. If anything’s going to make a city boy want to move to the country to grow rice it’s a Yamaha remote-control crop-spraying helicopter that’s for sure.
Approaching Nakoma, we were both feeling pretty jaded and so decided to stop for some food and to fill our water bottles. We found the shade in a small rotunda at the trail edge and just next door was a modern looking building that turned out to be the ‘Fish and Nakoma‘ experience centre and so we popped in for a look. The interpretive material is all in Japanese, but, it’s still worth a visit and showcases the fishery management in the region and the various techniques for fishing in the region.
Next up we needed to pop over the hill back to Route 5. This was the stretch that I was least confident in. The road didn’t show as running through on any of the topo-map data that I had and the Google Earth aerial photos looked sketchy as well.
Once we got to the start of the gravel our fears were allayed by the sign warning of the upcoming ‘Toyota Gazoo Racing Rally Challenge 2019 Joint Cup’. We’d have nothing to worry about. This stretch was pretty much straight up for about 100m vertical and then a much gentler roll back down to the valley floor. A short ride up route 5 and we neared the start of the ‘big hill’ for the day.
We needed shade. We needed food. We needed to check in with the families as we’d been on the road a while now. Rob called Haidee in Sapporo who was working on her PhD and baking some amazing looking homemade crackers. The Auld clan were enjoying the cooler Singapore ‘winter’ weather by the pool. Rob and I were hungry, sweaty, questioning whether we’d grabbed enough water at Nakoma; worse still we both knew that the hardest climb of the day lay just ahead. A pool and some crackers… even a doctoral thesis… sounded pretty damned good right now. But alas, all we had was another 20km and 600m of climbing ahead of us. So off up through the farmland we went once again.
While we’d anticipated the 350m climb, we had no idea how good the quality ofn the road and the scenery would be on this last stretch. Once again, we were left wondering about the provenance of this stretch of road. It was unsealed but graded to a very high standard. This last stretch would be a great half day trip for those looking to take the best bits out of the day.
The sign announcing the start of the 12% gradient section included a cute little own who looked thoroughly confused by these stupid folks riding their bikes. A collection of caricatured critters appeared at regular intervals from here on it, willing us up the hill. We obviously had to make frequent “stops for photographs” on the way up.
The road traverses the ridge running through the Mizukami (字水上), Aioi (字相生) and Tashimo (字田下) areas. It maintains it’s elevation but still rolls up and down into the little stream gullys along the way. The views from up here are outstanding, looking down into the fertile Mena valley and out over the Sea of Japan.
The terrain looks very skiable and so we have visions of getting back here sometime in winter, maybe with an electric Snowmobile if we can convince the folks at Taiga to let us ship one over.
There are several ‘exit’ options along the ridge; we managed to hold out and complete the originally planned route and this consisted of a gentle but continuous downhill back to civilization and our car. Fast enough to give our brakes a good workout.
We made a bee-line for the nearest vending machine (which is never far away in Japan) for a downpayment of Coke and Pokari-Sweat and then on to Seicomart in Rankoshi town where ‘late-lunch’ consisted of chocolate almonds, hot chicken, onigiri (おにぎり) and a noodle bowl.
Then it was off to my favourite Onsen in Kombu town for a soak. Rob was able to walk across to the train station for the return service to Sapporo and I drove up the hill for a good night’s rest.
For a well prepared party this is probably going to be about a 4 to 5 hour trip… leave your foldie at home and take lots of water. For the two of us, much much more of an adventure.