52 Days remaining.
Welcome to the WILD west EAST. Roadside signs tell us: “Yabushi Dairy Farm. Established 2001”, or “Since 2008”. One bakery today has been going since 1986! Long time in this neck of the woods. Here, no-one is more than second generation born Hokkaido. Except the Ainu, of course, but theirs is long gone after being ‘encouraged’ to join Team Japan. More signs: Tsunami Evacuation Zone…12km away. Tectonic farm life on “The Pacific Ring Of Fire”. A sign points us to Kushiro National Park Wetland Centre.
No caged Bears here. Instead a Wildbird Vet who tells us his surname is of Samuri origins. Famous in the world of Wild Bird veterinary science. He’s THE go-to Man man when performing blood transfusions in birds. We see rescued Eagles & Owls that are on the Endangered List. A world class programme of re-introducing injured wild birds. He’s worked with the Cairngorms National Park, the RSPB. Head Honcho with Ministry of the Environment. A Godsend for reliable information about our whereabouts. “Some Fishermen here have learnt to speak Russian after being arrested for fishing too near Russian Waters.”…”the Bears are most most active at dusk & dawn”. Points at our map. “Here is fine. Not here. Or here”. He points to a series of hairpin bend switchbacks. “these could be a problem, confusing the bear by coming back towards it.”
We are desperate to visit a remote place the Ainu called ‘THE EDGE OF THE WORLD’- Sheritoku National Park. But our planned route has hairpin bend switchbacks. Up and over 700m. In an area well known for it’s high density of Brown Bears. Rethink things. But ‘THE EDGE OF THE WORLD’ is still far far away. At least 150km as the crow flies. Right now, we have to deal with an over excited tearful Joe desperate to see Red Crowned Cranes. RIGHT NOW!!! But dusk is fast approaching, and we still have to find a safe place for our tent.
51 Days remaining
Free public campsite last night. Heidi prepares food on the camping gas cooker while Brad, Sam, Joe spin an ‘aerobee frisbee’ amongst the blossoming 桜. An interruption: Black Throated Diver on the river. Many other wildlife interruptions to follow. “STOP STOP STOP…White Tailed Eagle…2 O’Clock”. A Hokkaido Big Five sighting list is compiled. Brown Bear is there. On a bicycle, one sighting we DO NOT (do) want to see.
All day we Safari Park our way around & through the vast 釧路 wetland. Once Meij Era farmers tried to turn this all into Rice Paddies. An official from Tokyo journeying by ship to this faraway place with unusual vegetation and climate. Instructs the newly arrived Settlers. Wide sweeping hand: “Here we make Rice Paddies”. The Pioneers apply themselves as only the Japanese can. Followed, I would imagine, by some Ainu schadenfreude. Now, we get to enjoy a first rate national park.
A change in weather. Rain forecast tonight. And tomorrow. Cold wind picking up. We stop to put on another layer of clothing. Dig out jumpers from the bulging panniers. Bear Bells go silent giving us a chance to just listen. Wild sounds. A deer, hidden amongst the long dry grass, 10m from us, breaks cover.
50 days remaining
Long wide empty roads through native woods. Mist and a light drizzle. Eerie. Bears. Always the Bears. A very very long way from Scotland. Slowly, the mist lifts. As does the wind. Not the temperature. Cold. Suddenly, a hill is crested and we see a mountainous peninsular jutting far out into the Ocean. White with snow. The Edge Of The World: Shiritoku National Park. A sea with a Russian name. Say it out aloud: OKHOTSK. The Sea of OKHOTSK. Cold. Far away.
We arrive at an empty campsite on a headland with no trees. The man at the Rider House where we stayed last night assured us he would phone ahead to let them know we were coming. “A family from Scotland touring Hokkaido on bicycles.” No way to contact us about their answer. Closed. No exceptions made. An exposed and empty place. A blessing really. We find a bird observatory with a 270 degree panoramic view of BIG horizon. Our sleeping mats & bags (and bicycles) inside a safe & warm space. We stand high to watch the setting sun. Swifts, birds that live their entire lives in the air, fly deep into the night. Snipes, call and dive all night long.
49 days remaining
The Sun has returned. To see the sunrise, we only have to lift our heads out of our sleeping bag hoods. Protected from bears and wind inside our glass bird observatory. Safe. Our next destination is Japan’s most Easterly Town. Nemuro. Perhaps we camp beside this Road Station? An hour less into this cold headwind? Lakeside boardwalk closed because of a bear. Road Station food leftovers. Too risky. Push on. “Going well guys, we nearly there”. Eye-out parks in this frontier town called Nemuro, with Street signs in Russian. As Sun begins to set that familiar sense of urgency to find a safe camp spot. The man at the last Rider House told us to go to the Buddhist Temple. A Rider House that is not on any of our maps. We chance our luck. Yesterday a Bird Observatory; tonight a Buddhist Temple. Watching the sun set over the Sea of OKHOTSK & Shietoko Peninsula before climbing into our sleeping bags laid out on thick carpets under a heavy wooden roof. Safe sleeping near the ‘Edge of The World’.
48 days remaining
This morning at 8am car drivers (yes…car drivers) up & down Japan would put away their magazines (yes…magazines), and switch on their televisions (yes…televisions) and watch a LIVE broadcast of Japan’s LAST blossomin g Cherry Blossom from Japan’s most North Easterly Town. LIVE. In cars. On television. What they won’t see from their steering wheels, just off camera, is a family from Scotland strapping panniers to four bicycles. Ready to cycle to a lighthouse that is as Far East in the Far East, as is possible (How cool is THAT?!). Four months previously, that same family saw the very FIRST blossoming Cherry Blossom in Okinawa…sub-tropical Okinawa…while they snorkelled Coral Reefs, Fishermen from this North Easterly sub-Arctic town were busy dodging ice flow on the Sea of OKHOTSK.
The family of four would, later in the day be chased away from somebody’s house for leaning bikes on wall while mending a faulty brake. Also, a puncture repair in audience of guys sniggering at the sight of glue, “K-Y jelly, heh heh”.
Tonight’s accommodation tale. How to top the Bird Observatory- Buddhist Temple accommodation run? Arrive in nowhere fishing town. Pointless cycling further, just more nowhere. Bears. Always bears. Ask at Police Station for help to find somewhere safe to sleep. First policeman directs to only, CLOSED, hotel in town. So we ask about sleeping in disused Shrine (we checked out beforehand). Sucks teeth, No. Makes phone calls. Our Japanese good enough to hear, “four people from Scotland” rather than more useful, “a family from Scotland”…or, “family with two young children, from Scotland”…important differences…unfortunately, a familiar story when asking for sleeping place help (help, not food)…appearing helpful but not risking your own reputation…never mind, we are tough and our arses are made of leather (over four thousand kilometres NO padded cycle shorts). So accommodation run is as follows: Bird Observatory- Buddhist Temple- TRAIN STATION.
47 days remaining
Today we found a visitors centre with BEST MONEY CAN BUY binoculars free for public use. Binoculars that Sam & Joe used to watch herons feeding. The children fight over the one with the digital display. The INTENDED purpose for these binoculars is to see two islands that lie just off-shore. To fuel National indignation over ‘The Kuril Islands’. Occupied by Russia, claimed by Japan. WW2: Two days after Japan surrendered, Russia deported Japanese from these islands. And occupied these islands. And never gave them back. And now Japan are hoping Russia will give them back. Good luck with that. Ainu know all about THIS scenario. Moscow & Tokyo squabbling over who said what and who promised this. We use the binoculars to see Eagles, kites, foxes squabbling over fish. We find a campsite early afternoon and throw an aerobee. Drink a beer. Update our diaries. The campsite lady locks up and goes home.
46 days remaining
Today we start a new stage of our journey around Hokkaido. We will not go to Shiretoko National Park (Edge Of The World) as planned and dreamt about years ago. A place famous for its high concentration of bears, with a 700m mountain pass. Too risky. The other risky bit: too touristy. Our memory of seeing the sun set over ‘The Edge Of The World’ from across the Sea of OKHOTSK will have to do.
Instead, we will head West and North directly to a Frontier Town punished each Winter by prevailing Winds that come straight from Siberia. A cold & remote town on the Sea of OKHOTSK: carefully selected for housing a famous Meij Era Prison. A remote town built up around a Prison.
But first we have to head inland and cross a set of mountains. So, today we cycled past green farm fields with yellow dandelion in temperatures hotter than Scotland’s hottest days. Ever. 31C. Sweltering. A chance chat with a shop assistant led us to an incredible park for children: imagine a play park designed by children…for children. Not a Health & Safety form in sight. Everything active. Free. Sam & Joe giving BIG thumbs up. We sleep in a ridiculously cheap campsite set amidst white birch trees coming into leaf. We imagine subsidies help things run. Tomorrow we will sleep the first of two nights in a Rider House on the shores of a caldera lake with ‘dig your own’ beach hot springs. A well deserved rest day awaits.