If there’s something I’ve always lacked, that’s a good sense of orientation. I can hardly recognize north from south, east from west. It can’t be helped, specially in Hokkaido. I’m just one of those persons who are used to getting lost all the time. Because of this, I’ve managed to organize myself in some ways in order to avoid getting lost; or at least, to minimize that posibility.
However, there are days where it just happens and I don’t know it’s happened until it’s late to prevent it. I’ve had to deal with those situations; sometimes easier, and some others more difficult. I have to create some stories and incredible adventures to bear with the moment; like that day, the very first day I got lost in Japan. Definitely, one day I’ll never forget.
As I’ve said in previous blog entries, I love bicycling, it’s one of my main hobbies, the one that sets me free and make me feel full of energy, and after bicycling countless times in the city’s concret jungle, I couldn’t resist the chance to borrow a bike and take a ride around the stunning views of Lake Toya, in the beautiful island of Hokkaido, Japan.
Hokkaido and Lake Toya
Hokkaido is a marvelous place, it’s the second largest island of Japan, but has only 5% of it’s population. Therefore, it has plenty of nature to enjoy, admire and breath. That happened when I arrived to Lake Toya, I was impressed of how much nature it had; I’m a city guy, it was a new experience being in a place where sighting other people was not common. In this place, it was actually easier to spot a fox or a squirrel than a person.
Lake Toya is also a special one, it’s placed above a zone of intense volcanic activity, thus, it never freezes; it’s not a warm lake either, but at least it’s always in liquid state even in the heaviest of snows. It’s a small lake too, only 42km diameter with several towns in its shore. In my home city I used to go bicycling at least 50 or 60km every sunday in the city; at above 2,400m above sea level. Going this time around 42km and at just a few meters above sea level had to be an easy cake; like a ride in the park. I didn’t think it twice, I borrowed a bike and just followed towards the adventure.
The joy of bicycling around Lake Toya
Bicycling around Lake Toya was a truly sweet experience, except for some things I couldn’t help. The best bicycle I could borrow needed some urgent mantenance, the brakes skidded and were very noisy; also, speed changes didn’t work properly. But the one that affected me the most was the seat, it was too low and couldn’t be raised; therefore, I had to do an extra effort in order to advance. But nevermind, the nature was awesome; everytime I arrived to a new town or an interesting place, I couldn’t help but stop, breath, and enjoy. Everything was so quiet that I could hear my own breathing, I spent quite some time with every stop; therefore, about 4 hours later, I had finally completed the tour.
I was used to higher challenges, therefore, 42km might not seem that much; but after 4 hours and so many stops, I was exhausted. But I still didn’t have enough! I had seen so many great places around and was decided to go back the next day; at least to the closest one, around 30 minutes bicycling from my place. Just take a look, explore a bit, perhaps eat something there, and then go back. I was too tired to do the 42km again, and my bike’s shape was only one level above from worse. Although, if I had a bicycle in better condition, I definitely would!
Another day, another adventure
The next day arrived. I spent the morning finishing some work, and at noon, I put my helmet, bike gloves and jacket; I took the bike, and went to the adventure again. It was november, winter in Hokkaido is something to give great consideration. When heavy snow comes, it’s just imposible to go bicycling and snowing season had already started; I had to take every chance to go bicycling as much as I could while it was still possible.
It was already very cold and nights were much colder. However, since I was planning to sweat and get warm, I just took a light jacket with me; I also had a reflective safety vest -they were not necessary in the nature, but I was used to them-. Everything was going as planned, and after about 30 minutes, I had arrived to the next town.
I spent the next 3 hours in the town, exploring, sightseeing and counting how many people I could find. I was not that lucky in this last one though. This was a less smaller town than Toyako, the one I was staying in; but it was still kind of tough to spot someone outside. I always forgot the luch time in Japan was about 12:30pm, since I usually eat at about 2pm; I went for something to eat at that time. Sadly, every place was already closed and I was forced to get some snacks and onigiris from a combini store.
And then it happened…
I remembered then that in winter, at about 4pm it starts to get dark in Hokkaido; and at 4:30pm is as dark as midnight. That was something knew to me, coming from a warm country; I was used to wait until 8pm for the nighfall. At 3pm, it was time to go back, another 30 minutes cycling to home and I could rest all night. I was really tired after two days riding a pretty bad bicycle.
As I said before, my orientation is the worst of worstest, but I had already used twice that road. So, what could be wrong? Couldn’t I notice that the road was slighly different than before? Actually, it was WAY different! Huge, with long straight lines of hundreds of meters and pronunced curves. But no, believe it or not, I didn’t notice. Couldn’t I notice that the road was in an upward direction? Like if I were climbing a mountain? No, I couldn’t. Well, I actually did, but I thought the opposite, that I must’ve been going in a downward direction before; and now that it was upward I was able to feel it. My legs were tired and the bike didn’t help either. When I checked the clock it was about 3:30pm.
The road to nowhere
More or less 15 minutes later, I started to worry a bit. There was still a lot of sunlight but I knew I had 15 more minutes before it got dark; plus, it was already getting colder, and in the dark it gets way much colder. And guess what? Since I was planing to sweat, I only brought a light jacket.
“What’s wrong?”, I thought, “I should’ve arrived to town already but it seems there’s still a long way to go! Plus, I don’t remember the road being this huge, or was it? Or going upwards… could it be…”.
That was the first time the thought “I might’ve taken the wrong direction” crossed my mind. The only thought of that scared me a bit, and excited me at the same time. All I could think by then was: “Hell yes! Tomorrow I’ll be laughing about all this!”.
It was past 4pm, night had already fell, some parts of the road were long straight lines. They were at least 100 or maybe 200 meters straight, going upwards and with a bad bike; in many parts I had to walk, slowly, freezing, pushing the bicycle. I don’t know where I got some extra energy, but after some time -when I realized if I didn’t do anything, next thing I would be doing was finding a nice warm cave where to sleep-, I was riding at full speed again decided to find the way home.
A sign of hope
Past 4:30pm, all dark and cold, I spotted several busses parked in a place, a very beautiful tourist lookout! And there were a lot of people! From there I could see Lake Toya, which meant I was above, I had climbed the mountain! It also meant I only needed to turn right somewhere in the road to reach the town. It was all logic, right? After all, nothing that a good Star Trek’s Vulcan logic couldn’t help. I approached the people there; everyone speaking in a familiar language, I knew it because it was the same language my host spoke, Chinese! All Chinese tourists, or perhaps Taiwanese, it didn’t matter, they wouldn’t be of help. I turned my attention to the tourist busses, they had to have a Japanese driver! I went towards the first bus and saw him, and asked with my limited Japanese:
– Sumimasen, Toya Mizuno Eki, doko desu ka? (Excuse me, where’s the Station of Water?)
– Toya Michino Eki wa… eeeeeh… Toya Michino Eki… (I noticed the bus driver had confused the names and thought Mizuno was Michino, or maybe Michiyo, I don’t remember).
Lost in translation
I could understand he knew a bus station which was close from there, perhaps the one I was looking for. He told me where to go and probably how long it would take; the only problem is that he told me everything in Japanese. By the time he finished I was looking at him with my open mouth, like saying what the heck! I think it was pretty obvious that I didn’t understand, he then looked back at me and asked:
– Daijyoubu desu ka? (Is everything alright?)
– Hai! Daijyoubu desu! Arigatou godzaimasu! (Yes, it is! Thank you very much!)
After that I just pedaled the bicycle and left.
Looking for Toya Mizuni Eki, bicycling at night
Actually, I understood a couple of things. When he started his explanation he made a move with his arm, the universal sign of “go straight” -unless in Japan that means go to the other way, nonetheless, I was willing to take the risk and bet for go straight-. I also could recognize a word: migi, which means right side in Japanese. So, I only needed to keep going straight, and then at some point in the road, turn right, and I should be arriving to Toya Mizuno Eki, the bus station of Toyako, the town I was staying at.
It was past 5pm, very dark, very cold, and now also looking at both sides of the road in case I spotted a hotel where to spend the night; the problem was, remember when I said Hokkaido was all nature? The lookout was actually a special place where you could see the Lake Toya in all its glory, then there was an ice cream place, and then nothing, only some farms here and there. At the end, it’s all fun, right? Getting lost, what a wonderful experience! But it was getting later and later, and the idea of sleeping in the open was becoming more real with every minute that passed, and that was no joke. Surely in a city that’d be ok -as I’ll tell about that in another blog entry-, but in the nature with freezing temperature is a complete different story.
The sighting of a familiar place
About 6pm, and I could see Mount Yotei, Hokkaido’s famous volcano, thanks to the light of the moon and the stars, and after many tries turning right on dirt roads that turned to be dead-ends, I finally saw a promising deviation. Could it be the “turn right somewhere ahead” the bus driver told me about? There was only one way to know, turning right like all the times before! It wasn’t a dirt road this time, I turned right with my bike and went full speed -by then my eyes were already used to the dark, plus, the bike had front lights as well-. To my surprise, I started to go down, I didn’t have to pedal, it was going down by itself, and quickly, it looked promising!
I wasn’t being too careful while going down that fast, it was very cold, but the adrenaline inside me was at full and didn’t think about it, I was focused on one thing only: find the way home and laugh about all this. And while I was there on the bike, watching how little by little I was recognizing the empty streets, the houses -and Seico-Mart, the combini store I used to go to buy some awesome calpis-, I started to laugh, it was my time to celebrate.
Laughing at my good luck
I really don’t remember if I stop at the combini for something to dine, but I probably did. I was just too excited! Happy since I was able to find the way home, I was laghing, talking to myself, “I did it! Yes! I rock!”, I was so excited, I had forgotten how tired I was; it was about 6:30pm and I left at noon, that made 6 and a half hours bicycling that day, plus the 4 hours of the previous day, but the adventure I lived was priceless! I planned this day to be a relaxing one, but it turned out to be epic.
That other lost explorer
By the time I arrived to the place I was staying, I told everyone my story, they didn’t look that surprised though, but one of my hosts told me he knew exactly the place I was refering when I told him about the ice cream and the lookout, sadly -or happily- I didn’t, since that was my first time there. He also told me another story of a previous guest he had -whom I had the chance to meet two days before she left-, a British girl who took a boat and went rowing to the small island in the middle of Lake Toya.
Since it got very late and she hadn’t come back, he decided to go driving around the lake lighting towards it with a powerful lamp. He didn’t find her. Turns out that she had gone back to the wrong position of the lake and had to find her own way home as well but with a boat instead of a bike. Perhaps she had the same bad orientation genes as well? Never had the chance to ask her since she had already left by the time I knew about this story.
Adventures are part of our lives
I’ll surely get lost a few more -or many- times after this, here and there. It’s fun and you discover you can do stuff you didn’t know you could, and know it’ll inevitably happen again. But when it does, you’ll be confident enough to know you can solve it and enjoy the moment! I’m actually thankful for this horrible orientation I have. I can’t think of all the adventures I’d had missed if I were born with a good compass instead.
How is your orientation? Do you think you can rely on your biological compass or do you have bad orientation genes just like me? Share your thoughts in the comments!