Japan reflections 1: The bust

It felt like a cross between a Haruki Murakami novel and a Wes Anderson movie. Kafka on the Shore met the Grand Budapest Hotel. We rode along surrounded by dense pine forests and high mountains with funiculars to their upper reaches, next to derelict hotels and eateries lying roadside, some closed for good, and others in a state of disrepair. Repair? Maintenance long gone.

After 550km into our bike trip in Hokkaido, Japan, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness of a by gone era and the realities of the bust that follows a boom. The route tracked equal parts sub arctic forest and agriculture, as we left Sapporo, up through the hills to Yubari, passed the fields of Furano, to Asahikawa, up into the Daisetsuzan National Park and then through into Akan National Park, the home of sulfur hot pool lined lakes, and Ainu culture. Now covered by onion farming. Stunning scenery no doubt but what lacked was the human element.

One of many abandoned hotels, this one in Daisetsuzan National Park, Hokkaido.

Solid rain after the typhoon meant we rode past fallen logs, trees completely uprooted, and in multiple places the road blocked and cleared. We timed it just right sleeping a night in a guest house in Asahikawa while the typhoon passed. Well, sort of. A few days later as the rain continued to fall (and we missed out on the vistas of Lake Kussharo and surrounds in Kawayu) we took shelter in a seventies hotel, called Kinkyu Hotel, at last able to marvel at the kitsch decor inside instead of just biking past trying to work out which ones were dead or alive. Not just a little bit dated inside, nothing had changed since the seventies. In a time warp, a dial up telephone sat next to a modern TV screen above tatami mats that had seen more than 40 years of non-slippered feet scuff across them. Remnants of a forgotten hey-day were everywhere, the street outside falling down in places, the view from our room across other dead hotels.

The amusement park at one of our free camp sites, near Katami. The government pumped money into entertainment and public works in an attempt to stimulate growth in the rural areas of Hokkaido.

Sure, the hotel was a treat. Every other night we’d free camped with our bikes in our tent. And for bike tourists, free camp sites with flush toilets, a covered cooking area, tap water just up the road from an Onsen are a dream result, but here we were the only ones making the most of the facilities. It made for quiet bike touring, that’s for sure. The absence of people added to the eerie feel. Surely mid August was mid-summer and peak holiday time? Yet no one was around.

Rainy quiet free camping – plenty of room!

We entered a town high up in the Daisetsuzan National Park, flanked by stunning waterfalls and tall peaks rising above. We made camp at the most picturesque camp site, nestled up a winding moss lined lime pathway in the bush as wild deer nibbled on grass. We slept beneath bright green maple trees, sucking up the sunlight and photosynthesising their little leaves off in this short summer season before the Siberian winter. Yes, Russia is just across the water. But where the heck were the people? Typhoon or no typhoon, there was simply no one around. We met one guy from Tokyo who finished his studies, and was spending summer traveling his homeland. In the Onsen I had four large hot pools and a sauna to myself for an hour. Then we saw the guy, catching his bus out of town; the only person on the bus. Two deer were on the hill behind him and a dozen hotels, more than half closed, rose like disused toys on a giant Lego play set, gathering rust and broken windows. And we biked on through the twenty year old recession of this island, feeling it first hand.

Abandoned stores and eateries line the rural roads of Hokkaido.

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