It was an early wakeup today before 6am. The rain that had started overnight was still falling this morning. We were keen to get going though. With yesterday’s 2-hour detour fiasco behind us, we wanted to get going early to make sure we’d have enough time to turn back if we had to. We were taking nothing for granted on this trip. We packed up and made did some last-minute double-checks of the route for the day in the Hokkaido Touring Mapple map book.
Disconcertingly, as I rolled away from the campground, a very audible clicking or grinding sound could be heard from my front hub. The rain and mud from yesterday may have gotten into the bearings. With almost 500km of rough, wet, gritty gravel roads ahead of us, this was not a good start.
Like yesterday, it took a while on a relatively busy paved road before we linked back up with some ‘off-road’ riding. First up for today was the closed-to-general-traffic Route 610 to Shimukappu Town via Niniu. To get there required an up-and-over small pass and a couple of no-shoulder tunnels.
Just after we had turned off Route 274 onto Route 610, a maintenance vehicle approached from the opposite direction and stopped to see where we were going. They told us to be careful along the way. “There are stretches of gravel,” they said. In reality, like last time I rode this road, it was mostly paved apart from a couple of spots where washouts had been repaired.
Once beyond the gate at the eastern end of the closed stretch of road, we were following the Mukawa River back to Route 610, cycling twice under the main expressway east, and past a new addition to the area, the Niniu Sheep Farm. A pleasant surprise was finding a very well-kept cycleway for a pleasant 1km ride through a beautiful stand of white birch alongside the river.
Beyond the all but non-existent Niniu settlement, the road actually becomes gravel until its terminus at Route 610. Rick tried his hand rock-climbing at the Akaikawa boulders. Apparently it is one of Japan’s premiere rock climbing locations.
By the time we got through the utterly unnecessary abandoned-road detour around the tunnel on Route 610 directly after the junction with Route 614, it was time to make a beeline for Shimukappu for lunch.
Shimukappu Town is a nice little village. The commerce beating heart of the village is the local michi-no-eki (roadside rest stop). There are a couple of nice restaurants, as well as a bakery and small shop to buy supplies. There’s a more well-stocked convenience store just around the corner. We had lunch at The Frypan (ふらいぱん), a restaurant run by a local American chef.
We’d all stocked up for the following few days, and were just about to leave, when I noticed that the michi-no-eki rented out mountain bikes (for free, no less). My bike’s front hut was still making disconcerting clicking noises that would reverberate through the fork up into my handlebars. I figured if they lend out mountain bikes, there must be someone there with maintenance tools. So I asked around and sure enough, we located the person I needed. “The man who runs the takoyaki truck is the main mechanic for the Shimukappu Bicycle Tourism Association,” the helpful information person told me.
A few minutes later, after the takoyaki man had finished serving the last of the customers in a long line, he had some tools out for me to use. My front hub is a Shimano Alfine dynamo hub, which is a loose-ball bearing hub, using standard 3/16″ ball bearings. It was unlikely that I’d find a replacement ball, but if it was only one bearing that was causing the issue, Google told me that I’d be able to safely remove one of the 10 bearings in there, and still be OK.
As it turned out, there was one bearing in there that was, for some reason, ground down flat on one side. While I was at it, I cleaned out the grease from the bearing race, assuming I’d be able to get a dollop of grease from one of the local gas stations. Tom kindly did the rounds, asking for just a tiny enough amount.
Surprisingly, he returned unsuccessful. “None of the two in town do maintenance,” he said. “I think they also don’t really understand the issue,” he continued. They all looked blankly at me when I said I wanted a thumbnail’s worth of grease.”
This left me in a pinch, as I had been very thorough in cleaning out the grease. Chain oil lube was hardly my choice of replacement. So I did another round of the gas stations, this time carrying the wheel with me. This did the trick, as one of the gas stations (this one) had some spray-on grease in a can. “We don’t do maintenance here at the shop,” he explained apologetically. “We send cars to a local maintenance garage that services cars from other businesses as well. They’re just around the corner, but they’re closed today. So this is all we’ve got.”
It was definitely better than chain lube, so I thankfully filled the bearing race on my hub.
I got the hub back together, and we triumphantly cycled away, heading for the gravel road that heads up to Soshubetsu Dam and then on to Tomamu. Our departure was with somewhat of an air of apprehension, however. First, our takoyaki cycle maintenance man, who knew the area well, having explored extensively on a mountain bike, told us the road beyond Soshubetsu Dam was completely washed out. “The last time we went up there a year ago, there was a massive washout and we had to turn back,” he explained. I asked if a person was on foot whether it would still be impassable. “Perhaps on foot you’d be OK, but with all that gear you’re carrying…” he didn’t seem confident. I was keen to check it out anyway, so off we went, with our takoyaki man wishing us luck. This was the first thing causing us apprehension. There was one more thing.
My hub was still clicking.
In my haste, and unwillingness to destroy the hub completely, I’d only checked the disk-brake side of the hub. The other side has all the wiring for the dynamo, and, from my previous attempts at servicing that side of the hub, seems infinitely more involved. There must be a bung bearing in that side.
I crossed my fingers and we carried on.
After a quick section of pavement, we soon began climbing up towards the dam. This turned to gravel after about 5km. Here and there, damage to infrastructure gave hints as to the destructive power of the typhoons that ripped through this area over the recent years. All was quiet and amicable at the moment though.
That was until the maintained area of road around the lake finished, and we entered into the road area between just above the lake and before the forestry area closer to Tomamu. The road is now entirely unmaintained. While it was never completely washed out, there were short sections where the river had reclaimed enough of the road to make pushing the bike preferable to riding. There was only one section that required some hefty lugging; a recent slip had covered the road, leaving a mangle of trees and vegetation. Tom’s folding saw came in handy here. We chopped back some of the worst of it so that we wouldn’t have to carry the bikes over shoulder-height tree-trunks.
After a few hours, we finally made it through to the plantations on the other side. With forestry comes road maintenance, and it was clear some work was being done on the roads on this Tomamu side. It is hard to imagine that the road will be repaired in its entirety through to the dam though. Local budgets are stretched in Japan at the moment, and they’ll only get more that way in the future.
The original plan was to wild camp somewhere in Tomamu Village. There’s no campground or stores in Tomamy Village itself. Just out of the village is the enormous Tomamu Resort, but the plan had been to either camp at the local school grounds or head to an open-looking area near the Tomamu JR Train station. Tom came to the rescue, however. He had a hunter friend who rents a small apartment in Tomamu Village (for $100 a month) as a ‘hunting lodge’. In reality it’s just a normal, un-insulated run down apartment in a strip of ground-floor attached units. But it’s his escape pod from city life in Sapporo. And it turned out that he’d be at ‘the lodge’ that night!
What followed after settling in to his hopelessly character-filled lodge was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had on a cycle trip. For most of the day we’d been lugging bikes over trees, biking through undergrowth, swatting at ticks. The next minute, we were transported (courtesy of Tom’s friend’s V8 4WD) to one of the most expensive holiday resorts in Hokkaido, where one night in the more expensive units would cost upwards of US$10,000 a night.
We wandered into the entrance of the Tomamu onsen, still in wet, muddy cycling shoes, feeling extremely out of place among the up-class south- and south-east Asian guests. Tom’s mate had a local’s discount ticket for the onsen, which got us in for 400yen a person. The incongruity of it all continued after the onsen, where we sat down to good value local fare at a local izakaya back in Tomamu village (this one).