Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Cycling in Aomori (Shin-Aomori Station to Tairadate)

biking japan
View to the West of HWY 280 in Aomori
I didn’t leave Shin-Aomori Station until 3pm.  Thus, I already knew that this was going to be relatively short ride.

I immediately jumped on HWY 280 that runs parallel with the east coast of the Tsugaru Peninsula.  The road runs in a straight line for about 20KM.  I ended up jumping over the older road right on the coast after about 10KM.

This road isn’t as smooth, has some ups and downs.  However, it offers less traffic and more interesting views of the ocean and the small fishing villages that dot the coastline.

cycling aomori
Coastal Route Parallel with HWY 280
At about 45KM as the sun was setting behind the mountains in the west, I pulled into the village of Tairadate and tried to get a room at the hot spring hotel.  Apparently they were booked solid.  I tried a minshuku down the road a bit, and they were booked as well

I was about to get a little perturbed when I was told that there was pension house about 1KM further down the road.  So down the road I rode.  After about 1KM I entered into an impressive grove of pine trees, and just a little further I found Penshion Daiba sitting cozily with its back against the beach.

Even though I’m still not clear as to what differentiates a pension house and a minshuku, I have to say that Penshion Diaba is now one of my favorite places to stay in Japan. It’s a family run operation and the owners are helpful, friendly, and are always smiling.

minshuku aomori
Penshion Diaba
The building is clean, light and airy with great views of the ocean.  The rooms are very spacious (think like studio apartment!), feature in room bathrooms, and WiFi.  There's also a sauna bath area, and a nice little restaurant with a range of seafood treats such as Ika (squid) Burgers, and Uni (sea urchin roe) Dons.  The entire place is decorated with hand crafted wooden furniture and colorful art pieces.

aomori minshuku
Mother & Daughter Management Team

minshuku aomori
View From my Room.  Nice!
 My room was JPY 5,500 for the night and included breakfast.

I would have liked to spend a few days at the Penshion Diaba just reading, relaxing, exploring the local area, and perhaps joining one of the local guided fishing excursions.   But alas, I needed to get an early start as the next day was going to be a big one.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Cycling in Aomori (Hachinohe - Misawa - Mutsu)

View to West of HWY 338
This is one of the best cycling routes for relaxed country riding that I’ve been on in Japan. The road is more or less flat with little traffic, and there is decent sized shoulder for most of the ride.

On the down side, the views aren’t that great, as you can’t really see the ocean.  And, even when you can, it’s not that impressive.

I started around 2pm in Hachinohe and worked my way to HWY 19 and rode up the coast where it eventually merges with HWY 338.  About 25KM from Hachinohe I took a left for a 5KM ride into Misawa. 

cycling in aomori,  biking in aomori
Looking Towards Takahoko Swamp on HWY 338
There are quite a few places to stay here, and I think I picked the worst one, a small hotel behind the train station.  The building was in terrible shape, my room smelled like cigarette smoke, and didn’t have a shower or Wi-Fi. On the bright side, it did only cost JPY 4,200 including breakfast and use of the public bath and shower.

There’s a good-sized US Air Force base in Misawa with around 10,000 Americans stationed there.  That night, having been eating local food only for the entire week, I went over to the area near the main gate of the base in search of some non-Japanese food.  I had a great taco and enchilada dinner at the Tex-Mex place.

It was kind of a surreal experience.   I had been out on my bike for a week, having used very little English, and having seen only a couple other non-Japanese.  And then, all the sudden, I pop into this restaurant and everyone is from the US, speaking English, eating tacos and drinking Coronas. 

I met a really nice family who gave me lots of good tips about cycling in the area. And, later in a bar-restaurant called My Place, I had chance to talk with a lot more people about recommended cycling routes in the area.

folding bike japan,
My Ride - Tartaruga Folding Bike
Most people suggested that I head inland and avoid the coast, as there isn’t much to see on that route.  That said, I AM on this silly mission to cycle Honshu’s coastline. So, in the morning, I decided to keep with the plan and keep going north on HWY 338. 

coastal view aomori, biking in aomori
Coastal View from HWY 338 Aomori

The highway, as I said, is actually very bicycle friendly. But, the views aren’t great, and there are some remote stretches. At one point, I stopped and asked some surfers if there were any convenience stores in the area. They all answered in the negative, which made me a little concerned about where I’d get my next meal.

Well, within 15 minutes, I had found a convenience store, and biked past two more.  I guess, when you are in car traveling at 80KM per hour, you tend to focus on different things. Us cyclists always need to looking for future supply points.

To that end, I decided not to ride all the way to the end of the Shimokita Peninsula as I couldn’t see if there were any places to stay or even get a meal on the map, and it looks pretty remote. So, when HWY 338 leaves the coast and takes a left to Mutsu, I followed it.

The last 20KM of the ride was pretty much up and down medium-height hills crossing over the peninsula. They were just high enough to keep the ride interesting, but were not even close in difficulty as I what I had ridden over in Iwate-ken.

Mutsu is not really an attractive city.  It sprawls in all directions and looks pretty run down.

There are several hotels on the road that I followed and I got a room in Hotel Green for JPY 5,200 (in room internet – but no Wi-Fi).  I spent a couple of hours walking around Mutsu and found a couple of redeeming points.

aomori sports complex, biking in aomori
Sports Complex in Mutsu

Sports Complex in Mutsu 
One, there is a beautiful new indoor and outdoor sports complex with grass fields, basketball and volleyball courts near to the coast.  It’s one of the best I’ve seen in Japan.

Secondly, right across from Hotel Green, there is a great sushi restaurant that has been in operation and managed by the owner for 30 years.  The service and food was excellent. Prices were very reasonable. And, the owner/chef is very talkative and entertaining.

When I was walking by the sports complex I met a group of cyclists who told me that the scenery around the end of the peninsula was fantastic and highly recommended the ride.

I’m looking forward to returning to Aomori and riding the remaining section of the Shimokita Peninsula.

Cycling in Iwate (Kesennuma - Rikuzentakata - Ofunato - Kamaishi)

cycling in iwate, biking in iwate, iwate prefecture, biking japan
Coastal View Iwate Prefecture 

Leaving the Karakuwa Peninsula just to the north of Kesennuma, I jumped on HWY 45 and continued my ride up the coast.

As the number and height of hills started to increase, I decided to break my ride down into 15KM portions and to take a short rest after each one.  The first 15KM into Rikuzentakata was pretty much the same type of riding as the previous day, narrow roads, lots of truck, but now with the rain making it hard to see the road ahead and surrounding scenery.

biking iwate, cycling in iwate, biking japan, cycling japan
Rain Clouds are Fast Approaching in Iwate
There really weren’t many options for rest areas as most of the areas had been wiped out by the tsunami. There was a local convenience store and even a winery (it was too early for me to do a tasting.)  So, I grabbed a couple onigiri, a can coffee, and down the road I went.

cycling in Iwate, biking in Iwate
Ocean Bay in Iwate Prefecture
And again, more of the same. I was starting to wonder, why I was doing this ride. The roads weren’t particularly suited for cycling and with all the truck traffic, it seemed pretty dangerous. 

But, as usual in Japan, or maybe that’s just life, things change.  A few kilometers out of town most of the traffic jumped on the Sanriku expressway (not allowed for cyclists) and I had the road pretty much to myself for the next couple of hours.

That was the good news. The bad news was that from this point on the hills get higher and higher, and there are more and more of them.  But that really didn’t bother me too much. The climbing kept me warm, the views were grand, there were no trucks.
cycling in Iwate
Small Shop in Kamaishi
This lasted until I got through the town of Ofunato (which really is pretty little town) and into Sanriku.  Then the Sanriku expressway ends and all that traffic comes back on to HWY 45. Yuck!

From that point, I had the hills, the rain, and the traffic. But something was missing. What was it? Oh yeah, tunnels!  

biking iwate, cycling iwate
River Bridge in Downtown Kamaishi
The first two were o.k., as they were relatively short. However, on the run up to the third, I had a couple of close calls with trucks. If I would have reached two feet to my right, I could have had my arm mounted as a grill ornament.

The third tunnel is at least 2KM long, with very little shoulder space.  Since I had just had two close calls, I lost my nerve, or maybe I got my sense, and balked at the entrance.

I walked my bike back down the road a ways and waited for pickups or flatbed trucks to drive by. The third one stopped and let me throw my bike in the back. I’m glad I did as the tunnel was no joke, very long and very narrow.

He insisted that I let him drive me a little farther as there were two more tunnels just ahead.  He also asked if we could snap a photo together as his friends wouldn’t believe that he gave a ride to foreigner. I was very grateful, and of course, agreed to pay for my ride with a roadside photo. 

A Photo of Downtown Kamaishi Post Tsunami 
Another Post Tsunami Pic of Kamaishi
A short time after getting back on my bike I rolled into Kamaishi City. 

Kamaishi is another town that got partially destroyed in the tsunami.

There are five hotels in the “downtown” area near to the new AEON shopping center.  They all happened to be full the day I arrived. So I went to a minshuku near to the train station.

kamaishi minshuku, kamaishi biking, cycling iwate
Takakin Minshuku in Kamaishi
kamaishi minshuku, iwate minshuku, cycling iwate
Inside Takakin Minshuku
It turned out to be one of the best places I’ve stayed at in terms of comfort, hospitality, and value for money.  Additionally, the building has an interesting interior maze-like design and, while being over 70-years old and still having much of original wood work and floors, has been given a make over. So, it’s kind of like a cleaned up and refurbished antique, that, by the way, is the only minshuku that I’ve seen that offers Wi-Fi!

For anyone wanting to make a reservation please call: 090-2993-4027 (English), 0193-22-4559 (Japanese).

Takakin Minshuku

Original Staircase Takakin Minshuku
minshuku iwate, minshuku kamaishi, cycling iwate
Single Room Takakin Minshuku
On my first night in town I found a decent izakaya for some beer and deep fried dishes. Afterwards, on the way back to the minshuku I wandered into a nice little family run (mother and son) bar-snack called "Su-na-ku Rei."  No minimum charges, free snacks, and JPY 700 for large bottle of Asahi.  Nice!

The Most Popular (IE the only) Guy at the Bar!
Since there was a big typhoon passing through the area, I decided to spend an extra day in Kamaishi.  The second floor food court at Aeon shopping is a comfortable place to hang up, catch on emails, and get some cheap food.

iwate train, cycling iwate
The Micro Train out of Kamaishi
View from the Train in Iwate Mountains
On my second morning, there was a good-sized earthquake at about 4:20am.  Immediately after that the tsunami warnings started blasting through the town.  I was like up, out of bed, and half dressed before I realized the announcements were actually just telling everyone to be aware, not to run out into the street half naked in search of the tsunami escape route.

The best thing about riding along this course is the mountain and ocean views. The worst thing is the tunnels and trucks which get really bad from about 20KM before Kamaishi.  I would like to ride this area again when it’s not raining and when there aren’t so many trucks on the road.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Biking in Miyagi (Kanyo - Kesennuma)

Post Tsunami 

After jockeying for position in line with the other guests at the hotel and partaking in the Japanese style buffet breakfast, I packed my bags, jumped out into the real world,  and started to head north on HWY 45.  I was planning on an easy ride of about 45KM to the small city of Kesennuma.  

Ha!  So much for plans.

More of the Same
For starters, the road is pretty much up and down the whole way. There were really very few flat stretches.  And, there were, as usual, lots of trucks.   But anyway, I made it to my planned destination by noon.   

And more....
It would have been an easy day if I would of stuck with the plan and picked a hotel or minshuku near Kesennuma station.

Kesennuma is a city of about 65,000 people, with plenty of shops and quite a few places to stay in the downtown area running from the main train station.  There is a tourist information stand outside the train station and the lady attendant advised me that the place just out of town (on her map) would be a nicer place to stay.

The problem was I didn’t calibrate her map with my google map until about a 45 minutes later when I figured out that her map was way off on scale and I was lost.

Classic Chevy Impala in Miyagi?

It turned out I was trolling much farther out of town on back entrance of the Karakuwa peninsula.  I was on the south or harbor side and made it to the end of the road before I realized that the place I was supposed to be was exactly on the opposite, or north side, of the peninsula.  

I had two choices, either turn around and bike back almost all the way to  Kesennuma and then head out on the correct route, or I could try to cross the peninsula overland on what looked to be small little roads crisscrossing the area. Since I hate backtracking, I struck out on the overland route.

In hindsight it was actually quite a fun little adventure. At the time though, it was a little worrisome as the route would switch from gravel path, to paved path, to paved road, and back to gravel path. I could see the route on Google Maps, but I could never be sure if the path would actually be passable or not.

Temporary (3 years now!) Housing for Tsunami Victims

I ended up climbing up, up, up, and up some more to I got to a point that seemed like on of the highest places on the peninsula. My effort was rewarded by some of the best ocean views I have seen in Japan, and by a large pheasant that flew out of some brush just in front of my front tire.

It took me about an hour to cross the peninsula and arrive at Kurakuwacho Baba.  During the entire crossing, I was alone on the road and would have really enjoyed it more had I known for sure that I was heading in the right direction.

A View from Some Point Where I was Lost
Eventually, I made it to Kurakuwacho Baba, which is just at the base of the peninsula. There is an impressive shrine, a Lawsons, a 7-ll, and local supermarket, and horumon and one other restaurant.  There also happens to be a couple of minshuku nearby.

Ebi Fry Set...Yum!

I was beat and decided to check in to one of the minshuku. It must be a minshuku thing, cause nobody was present at either place.  At the second place, I asked the neighbor for help and she managed to find the proprietor sleeping in one of the side houses. “Oh sorry, all booked for tonight.”  There was like nobody there, but she assured me that a group of construction workers were due to arrive in the evening.

OK, so back to the first place. Still nobody was to be found. By this time I was really really beat, and decided to take a nap on the steps leading up to the front door. After awhile the neighbor (I guess being a minshuku neighbor is never dull) came over to check on me.  I told him I was tired needed a place to stay.

It turned out that this minshuku’s owners were planning to take a rest day.  When they arrived they apologized profusely and then told me that they were closed.  I then asked if I could just have a room for a night and assured them that I didn’t expect meals and wouldn’t be any trouble. The owner’s wife smiled, and said ok.  But, she was sorry she couldn’t cook “French food.” Damn! 

Two hours later, after a shower, a trip to the local supermarket for lunch and beers, I was sitting in their living room, eating fresh cooked corn, and talking with her about the tsunami, politics, and probably some other stuff that I couldn’t quite grasp. 

As I mentioned before, there is a massive rebuilding going on in Tohoku. However, it seems that some of the locals feel that it’s not enough.  This lady when on quite a bit about how the Tokyo Olympics was a waste of money, was only good for Tokyo and that after the Olympics, the facilities wouldn’t get used.

She also told me that she was very tired as their minshuku was quite busy as the construction workers packed the place almost every night.  She asked me why I was traveling by myself, and I explained that I liked to have my own time to think.

She smiled and said she wished she could do that as well. We then talked about the approaching typhoon and how terrible nature could be at times. 

Later I biked 3km down the road the a local sushi restaurant called Maru San.  I had a great Ebi Fry Dinner Course and two cold beers for JPY 2,300.  The proprietor, who happened to be the same age as me, told me that they get very few tourists these days, but the “workers” and locals are regular customers.

I couldn’t help think that since both minshuku that I visited seemed to have a regular stream of “workers” as guests, and the restaurant owner had a similar experience, that somehow the rebuilding efforts were also providing a variety of trickle down benefits to many parts of the local economy.

Close to my Close Call with the Pheasant
The next morning made my contribution of JYP 4,300 (a bit steep considering I didn’t get a meal. But hey, the free corn and conversation was good.) I checked out of my minshuku and hit the road in the rain to head north on HWY 45.