Takino Suzuran Hillside Park in Winter (Sapporo, Japan)

I spent most of today wondering why it had taken us three years to visit Takino Suzuran Park, on the outskirts of Sapporo. This gargantuan park, 395 hectares of it all, is a national government run park. In winter it is free to enter, and is a treasure trove of winter outdoor activities. We finally made the 45-minute bus ride there because Haidee’s sister, Kylee, was visiting from New Zealand, and we wanted to check out the nordic skiing on offer. The park did not disappoint.

Essentially, it was dumping big fluffy gobs of spring snow all day. We had wanted to show Kylee what Sapporo’s proper winter looked like, and our desires were being met.

We caught a bus from Makomanai Subway station, direct to the Suzuran Park Keiryu-guchi bus stop. This bus stop is the first of three bus stops in the park itself. From there, we walked a few minutes through the snow to Lodge Yukizasa, where we hired nordic skiis (800 yen each for the day).

This was only the first (Kylee) or second-ish (Haidee and Rob) time we had used nordic skiis. They were easy enough to get the hang of though, and we were soon gliding through the powdery snow.

We opted to stick to the beginner’s course to start with; a 2km ski through mostly flat terrain to a frozen waterfall.

We soon grew more bold, and decided to head up to the Country House for lunch. This required a stiff climb up the park, but promised a gentle easy ski back down to the lodge.

Lunch at the County House, at the top of the small ski field near the center of the park, was sufficient. It was nothing special, but the prices were cheap (US$8 for a medium-sized lunch).

And then came the downhill. Not too steep to cause too much concern.

All in all a great day out, and it has me all motivated to learn a little bit more about cross-country skiing for next season.

Wheel Shields – get in and support a great idea

Get in and support an awesome product for keeping people who longboard for transport clean and dry – Wheel Shields: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1522548247/wheel-shields-longboarding-technology

Way back in 2008, I was in western China sitting in a stifling internet cafe. I had already skated over 6,000 miles (9,600km) across the US and Europe, but in the previous days, I had spent a couple of days skating on wet roads, getting legs covered in road grime, yak shit, and slug guts. Some of the roads were also hard-packed dirt, which were still skateable when they were wet, but caused havoc on my shoes and clothes. This was a super frustrating issue. Sure, dirty pants and dripping wet shoes can be cool. But not when you want to sit down at a restaurant, cafe, internet cafe, someone’s chair in their house, etc.

On my way down unpaved Qinghai Highway 204 4,190m pass towards Reshui, Qinghai Province, China

Wet roads near Chiling, Qinghai Province, China Loving the minor road 304 from Erbou to Chiling, Qinghai Province, China

Sitting in that internet cafe, I thought up an idea for a fender/mudguard setup for a longboard. Below is the sketch I did in 2008, to explain the idea to my product-designer brother. “Can it be done?” I asked. He was confident that it could be done, but it would require a lot of work prototyping before a decent device could be created. The idea promptly got put in the too-hard-basket.

Idea for longboard fenders (circa. August 2008)

Fast forward to 2012. I get an email out of the blue from Chase Kaczmarek from the US, asking for my opinion about his invention called Wheel Shields. He was developing them into a marketable product. I said that they are brilliant. A year later, he’s got a very elegant, refined product ready to produce. The one thing he’s not got is money to create the tooling to mass produce them. That’s where his Kickstarter Campaign comes in: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1522548247/wheel-shields-longboarding-technology.

He needs US$25,000. He’s raised just over US$14,000 so far, with 11 days left in his fund-raising campaign. I’ve already pledged my support by ordering a set. I really want to get my set of Wheel Shields. It will mean that skating to school and work will be a reliable option, without having to worry about rain during the day creating wet roads. So do get in there and support a great idea and the masses of work that has gone into making them work: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1522548247/wheel-shields-longboarding-technology.

To be honest, I think for purely distance skaters, who are not concerned with wheelbite or ‘shoe-bite’ or stand-on-wheels-tricks, they are a little bit on the over-engineered side. For just ‘fender’ or mudguard applications, light plastic would be fine. But still, I do stand by my words: Wheel Shields are brilliant. Hands down the biggest innovation in longboarding in a long time. I wish I had Wheel Shields when I skated across the US, Europe and China. Wheel Shields have changed the longboard transportation paradigm forever. They are an elegant solution to a frustrating problem.

* The quote above was edited slightly on Chase’s Kickstarter page to keep things brief.
** I should also mention that I am in no way officially associated with Wheel Shields, or receiving compensation from them…

Japan Far North: Days 12 & 13 (Mashita to Hamanasu to Sapporo)

Our last two days on the road on this 2013 summer vacation cycling trip were a bit of a blur. The highway connecting Sapporo to Rumoi along the coast is a whirlwind of tunnels interspersed with little nuggets of coast.

Lots of tunnels along the coast towards Hamamasu, Hokkaido, JapanWaterfall near Hamamasu, Hokkaido, JapanRoadside stalls lured us in with their delicious wares such as freshly steamed sweetcorn and watermelon.

More watermelon snacks (Ishikari City, Japan)We made the dash from Hamanasu to Sapporo in one day, despite planning on splitting it up into two days. A tiring 80km into a headwind later, we finally arrived back home after a fantastic two weeks and 600km cycle-exploring the far north of Japan – Rishiri and Rebun Islands, Wakkanai and surrounds.

Lots of tunnels along the coast towards Hamamasu, Hokkaido, Japan

Japan Far North: Day 11 (Tomamae to Mashike)

A sleepy, rainy start to the day.

A sleepy Rob in the morning (near Tomamae, Hokkaido, Japan)Lunch well and truly made up for it though. I had mentioned yesterday the great lunches we were indulging in on this trip. This is what I was talking about. An awesome filling lunch for US$9 equivalent. Anyone who thinks traveling in Japan is expensive has either never left Tokyo, or has never traveled by bicycle in this country.

A great lunch for US$9 near Rumoi, Hokkaido, Japan The big surprise today was the amazing historical town of Mashike. We never expected it at all. We would have missed it altogether had we not taken the coastal route into town. But this place is amazing. Some of the earliest Hokkaido recent history (around 180 years) on the island.

Historic buildings in Mashike, Hokkaido, Japan

Historic buildings in Mashike, Hokkaido, JapanThese photos are from the former Merchant House Maruichi Honma – a dry goods store build in 1882. The building charges an entry fee, but it is well worth it.

Historic buildings in Mashike, Hokkaido, JapanHistoric buildings in Mashike, Hokkaido, JapanWe ended up staying at the Mashike Auto-Camp Grounds, one of the priciest campgrounds of the trip, which was mostly worth the money (1,000yen each). The bright red suspension bridge over a small river to get to the campground was a nice touch.

Suspension bridge in Mashike Town, Hokkaido, Japan

Japan Far North: Day 10 (Shosanbetsu to Tomamae)

We knew we only had 40km to cycle today, so we took it easy in the morning. A short walk down the cliff to the seashore revealed a Shinto torii (shrine gateway). Just up the beach from the gate was an impossibly small shrine.

Tori at Shokanbetsu Misakidai Park (Shokanbetsu, Japan)Another scorcher of a day awaited us as we packed up the tent and headed out on our bikes. This is why we love Hokkaido: Wide open spaces, massive sky…

Haboro Town, JapanLike most days on this trip, today we also had lunch at a local restaurant. We’ve found for around 800yen (US$8) we can get a very filling lunch, consisting of rice, some sort of tasty dish, and plenty of vegetables. Having lunch in this way allows us to relax for an hour or so in the hottest part of the day before venturing out again.

Post-lunch activities for me consisted of getting a haircut. I had been playing with the idea of getting a #0 buzzcut for a while. I usually cut my own hair using clippers, at a #1 length. Believe it or not, the jump from #1 to #0 is scary. You’re pretty much just leaving stumps. So I found the most old-school looking barber in town, and asked him to buzz away.

Getting a haricut the oldschool way by an 81 year old barber in Haboro Town, Hokkaido, JapanThe barber was 81 years old. He’s been doing this since he was 16. He was born in Manchuria, during the Japanese occupation of that area of China. The man was a pro.

Getting a haricut the oldschool way by an 81 year old barber in Haboro Town, Hokkaido, Japan

The treatment was full and without mercy. He only trimmed my eyebrows a little bit, saying “I don’t understand these young guys these days shaving their eyebrows to a whisp.”

Getting a haricut the oldschool way by an 81 year old barber in Haboro Town, Hokkaido, JapanFor an 81 year old, he had very steady hands.

Getting a haricut the oldschool way by an 81 year old barber in Haboro Town, Hokkaido, JapanAfter getting all spruced up, we carried on the rest of the way to Tomamae, our stop for the night. Yuhi-gaoka (Sunset Hill) Campground lived up to its name.

Tomamae Yuhi-gaoka Autocamp Ground (Tomamae, Hokkaido, Japan)

Japan Far North: Day 8 (Sarufutsu Town to Horonobe)

Mercifully, it was not raining when we woke in the morning. It was still windy though, coming from the south…the direction we wanted to travel. We generally started off in a sour-ish mood this morning; there was the headwind, the store close to the campground had a woefully scant selection of food items, and we were not sure where (or if) we could get lunch between here and our destination of Horonobe Town, 70km away.

And then, there was the scenery. Or lack thereof.

Long tough headwind roads near Sarufutsu, Hokkaido, JapanBy the prevalence of wind-powered turbines, it was evident wind is not a rare phenomenon here.

Lots of wind power plants in northern Hokkaido, JapanI would really like to get back here in mid-winter. All along the road new snow-drift barriers were being erected. Easier to stop snow drifts getting onto the road than to clear them off…

Public road works, adding blizzard guards along the roads for winter (near Sarufutsu, Hokkaido, Japan)Easily the highlight of the day, which ended up being a long 87km, almost 20km further than we had anticipated (due to a closed road), was a massive reindeer farm just out of Horonobe. Apparently they are farmed for their meat.

Reindeer farm near Horonobe, Hokkaido, JapanHoronobe town was an interesting place. The town itself seemed almost deserted. We headed downtown, and got an amazing meal – much more than both of us could eat – for what seemed like pennies. It almost felt like Turkimenistan felt; lots of wealth but not many people…a strange place indeed.

The campground – the Horonobe Furusato no Mori Campground – was nice enough. Free to camp, with very basic long-drop toilets, but a covered outdoor kitchen area. A short 5 minute walk had us at the local public baths. Once again a treat on this trip was the proximity of public baths or hot springs to the campsites.

Horonobe Furusato no Mori Campground (Horonobe Town, Hokkaido, Japan)

Japan Far North: Day 7 (Wakkanai to Sarufutsu Town, Hokkaido)

We went for luxury last night. A hotel room. Slept like a dream. Just as well we did, because as soon as we had cycled the 20km from Wakkanai to Cape Soya (the northern-most tip of Japan) with a howling tailwind…

Cape Soya, Hokkaido, Japan - Japan's northern-most pointthe weather turned sour. The next three hours were spent head down squinting into a horizontal-rain storm, wind so strong as to threaten to blow us off our bicycles. Somehow Haidee kept stoically positive throughout.

Wet but still smiling, near Cape Soya, Hokkaido, JapanWe were passed numerous times by pelotons of university cycle touring club members, hurtling down the country. Some groups aimed to cycle at least 150km a day, by their own beaming admissions.

Saw lots of groups of university cycling club members battling it out for 150km days (near Cape Soya, Hokkaido, Japan)On our radar was the Hamaonishibetsu campground. We were hoping for a nice tree-lined sheltered campground to pitch our tent. We got nothing of the sort. The campground was free, but so were the elements. With thunder rolling in the distance, we had no choice but to pitch the tent and hope for the best.

Sarufutsu Park Campground in Sarufutsu Town, Japan - not recommended...very exposedThe campground did have a couple of redeeming features however: A massive outdoor covered stage (we cooked dinner on our stove there as the rain pelted down) and an onsen (thermal spring) only 2 minutes walk away. We had a soak in the hot baths and then hung around watching TV in the communal lounge till closing time (10pm). It was still raining when we dashed to our tent.

Japan Far North: Day 6 (Rebun Island)

We woke refreshed after a good sleep at the campground near Funadomari at the north of Rebun Island, off the northwest coast of Hokkaido, Japan.

Tent and tarp at the Kushuko-han Campground at the north of Rebun Island, Hokkaido, JapanThat said, sleep in a tent is not as refreshing as sleep in a real bed, and our groggy states as we hiked up the small hill behind the campground were testament to that fact.

While out for a morning walk (Rebun Island, Japan)The view from the top of the hill woke us up though…

Kushuko-han Campground at the north of Rebun Island, Hokkaido, Japan

as did a refreshing swim in Funadomari Bay; water as clear as I’ve ever seen in Japan, and not at all too chilly.

Swimming in the cool clear waters of Funadomari Bay, Rebun Island, Hokkaido, Japan

Swimming in the cool clear waters of Funadomari Bay, Rebun Island, Hokkaido, JapanAfter a quick dash up to the northern most tip of Rebun Island, it was back on a ferry to Wakkanai.

On the ferry from Rebun Island to Wakkanai, Japan

All in all, Rishiri and Rebun Islands were definitely worth the effort. If we’d had more time, we would have spent a little more time on Rebun Island; the cliffs to the west of the island are apparently worth the travel on gravel roads over to the western side.


Japan Far North: Day 5 (Rishiri Island to Rebun Island)

On our 2013 summer vacation cycle tour (August, 2013), we really took it easy for the first half, taking our time to enjoy Rishiri and Rebun Islands, off the north west coast of Hokkaido, Japan. On the second day in Rishiri Island, we jumped on and off the Rishiri Island cycle path (complete with warning signs about seagull poop)…

Rishiri Island cycle path (Hokkaido, Japan)

and took in the largely untouched beauty of the south-western side of the small island, punctuated only occasionally by sleepy fishing villages.

Wind swept coastal scenery on Rishiri Island, Japan

Wind swept coastal scenery on the cycle path on Rishiri Island, JapanIf it hadn’t been so windy, we would have gone for a swim.

Wind swept coastal scenery on the cycle path on Rishiri Island, Japan

The mission for today was to catch a 40 minute ferry ride to Rebun Island. We made it with plenty of time, but for the first time in almost a week, the sun was out and it was scorching hot. This made the ferry terminal a stressful hot environment as we lined up to buy our tickets.

Queuing up for tickets for the ferry from Rishiri Island to Rebun Island, Japan

We were soon on our way…

Bicycles on the ferry from Rishiri Island to Rebun Island, Japan

and exited the ferry on Rebun Island to be greeted by another world: Much fewer tourists, and an end-of-the-world feeling.

Lots of fur seals on the coast of Rebun Island, JapanAt the other end of Haidee’s confused gaze was a group of fur seals. The amazing thing was there were groups of seals all along Rebun’s eastern coast; the first time I have seen seals in such numbers in Japan.

Lots of fur seals on the coast of Rebun Island, Japan

We had almost missed this bit of coast. Our destination for the day was a campground at the northern end of Rebun Island (the island is only 30km long), and there are two ways of getting there: A shorter inland route, and a longer coastal route. The coastal route paid off. We set up camp at the Kushuko-han Campground and headed into the nearby village of Funadomari for a soak in the public baths (which were scalding hot!).

Japan Far North: Day 4 (Seihoshi-Misaki to Kutsugata Point Park, Rishiri Island)

We woke to heavy rain today, but with a keen desire to continue exploring Rishiri Island. Once again the tarp helped give us some well-needed extra outdoor living space; the MSR Hubba Hubba tent is great for sleeping two people, but try any daily chores, and it becomes cramped.

A rainy start to the day (yay for the lightweight Montbell tarp) (Rishiri Island, Japan)

Today we decided to stay off the Rishiri Island cycle road. As nice and traffic-free it is, it bypasses many of the quaint Japanese fishing villages along the coast at the south end of the island.

Cycling through one of many quaint fishing villages on RIshiri Island, Japan

Cycling through one of many quaint fishing villages on RIshiri Island, Japan

The volcanic coast was raw…

A small shrine on the coast on Rishiri Island, Japan

A small shrine on the coast on Rishiri Island, Japan

and mostly untouched. The roads were smooth; I am thinking this part of Japan would be perfect for a skateboard trip. No traffic, smooth roads, great scenery…

Cycling past a rugged coast on Rishiri Island, Japan

Cycling past a rugged coast on Rishiri Island, Japan

The real highlight of the day was arriving in the sleepy little village of Kutsugata. The campground, costing only 300yen (US$3) a night for one tent site, was situated right next to a lighthouse on a point just out of the village. It easily rates as one of my most idyllic and picturesque campsites I’ve ever camped in.

Lighthouse overlooking the Kutsugata-misaki Park Campground on Rishiri Island, Japan

Lighthouse overlooking the Kutsugata-misaki Park Campground on Rishiri Island, Japan

It was super windy however, making outdoor cooking a task we happily eschewed in favor of some tempura at a local restaurant.

Sunset on Rishiri Island, Japan

Sunset on Rishiri Island, Japan

As the sun set into the west, we noticed the town’s preparations for the annual Obon festival. This festival happens every August all over Japan. The basic idea is that spirits of ancestors return to their ancestral home, where the still-living entertain them with music and dance. To our delight, we found out the festival would be happening tonight! To our dismay, we later found out it had been cancelled due to high winds.

We settled on making our own festival lights instead.

Lighthouse overlooking the Kutsugata-misaki Park Campground, at night, on Rishiri Island, Japan