After a gruelling day of teaching last week, the weekend brought a much-needed break from the stress of the rat race. Kazuko and I threw our bikes in the back of her sister Masako’s car and headed a short distance north for a weekend of cycling (what else would we do?). On the Sunday, Team Attic was holding a time trial, which Kazuko was keen to enter. And me, too, of course. The course started in Tobetsu, which is about a 40km ride from where we live so we made a weekend of it and booked in to an onsen for Saturday night so we could take our time getting to the start on Sunday. Kazuko put her sister in charge of the driving and our little niece Sakurako came along to liven things up.

On Saturday, we got Masako to drop us off at Tobetsu so we could do a reconnaissance ride of the route and then meet at the onsen for a relaxing bath, something to eat and another relaxing bath. Or something along those lines. Kazuko’s parents don’t live too far away and they had the day off, so they came and met us at Tobetsu and held out bikes while we put our sun cream on:

G'day Kazuko's family!

G'day Kazuko's family!

Masako, being the good housewife that she is, had spent a bit of time the night before making lunch and onigiri for all of us. Kazuko and I ate before we went riding but then Kazuko’s parents decided they wanted to eat ramen (hot noodles) instead and, of course, Sakurako preferred to join them so poor Masako was left sitting in the car eating her lunch by herself. And you thought Japanese people were polite.

Meanwhile, Kazuko and I were out on the course, which went up the road for about 37km and looked like this:

Through the mountains.

Through the mountains.

The road took us along a mountain valley. It started out pretty flat but had a few small climbs in the second part.

This river also ran along the valley.

This river also ran along the valley.

Kazuko checks out the river.

Kazuko checks out the river.

It was a nice road and fairly empty.

It was a nice road and fairly empty.

Although when I say the road was fairly empty, there was a section of about 10km that had a lot of construction going on. It looked like they were building a new super highway of some sort so it was pretty busy and dusty on Saturday although on the Sunday there wasn’t any work going on.

Go Kaz!

Go Kaz!

And there was a bit of a climb to the finish line.

And there was a bit of a climb to the finish line.

While we were riding out, we thought the course was pretty flat. There was a bit of a headwind which made the going a little tougher so we assumed that was the reason we didn’t go terribly quickly but when we turned around to head back we found we were racing along. It wasn’t until I had a look at my GPS information this morning that I realised there weren’t any flat bits at all:

A deceptively steady climb.

A deceptively steady climb.

We then took a road over the hills (I said mountain valley but you’d be pretty hard pushed to say there were mountains on either side) and on to the plain on the other side. There was a great, twisty descent and I thought I was some sort of super racer for leaning hard through all the corners and not braking once on the way down until Kazuko burst my bubble by saying she only had to touch the brakes once as well. Although on second thoughts, that makes us both super-descenders! We then followed a main road until we got to the onsen:

Over the hills and not so far away.

Over the hills and not so far away.

We seem to have a knack for picking dodgy accommodation. But although Tomamu had a touch of Ozymandias about it – and indeed I did look upon it and despair – this onsen was simply 40 years ago preserved. Down to the miniature TV that took 100yen coins to work. These days, Kazuko’s mum’s telephone gets TV. And her screen is not that much smaller.

Kazuko’s parents came along for a bath although they were nearly put off by a busload of pensioners who were leaving as we arrived. Kazuko’s dad reckoned they would have made the water dirty. The lobby was in a style that always reminds me of public buildings in former communist countries:

Leave your shoes and expectations in the lobby, please.

Leave your shoes and expectations in the lobby, please.

Kazuko’s dad got to the business of shouting loudly down the corridor to wake up the lady in charge so we could all have a bath. He led the charge into the water while we unloaded our stuff from the car. Onsen baths are separated into men’s and women’s sections, but this one had a common wall that didn’t go all the way to the ceiling and a door, presumably so the cleaners can go between the two more easily. Kazuko’s dad was having a grand old time calling out to Sakurako on the other side and she was enjoying being the only person privileged to be able to go between the two sides. You can do that when you’re four. The onsen itself was pleasantly mediocre. I don’t think the heaters had the power any more to get the water as almost unbearably hot as most onsen are but after a day’s riding, this suited me better. And if the pensioners had dirtied the water, they had done a good job of getting moss to grow on the underwater rocks next to the artificial waterfall. Still, rivers have moss and I don’t mind swimming in them.

After our bath, we lounged about in our room, which looked like this:

Futons and tatami matting. Sorry - forgot to take a pic of the telly.

Futons and tatami matting. Sorry - forgot to take a pic of the telly.

After Kazuko’s parents took off, we had a nap, then dinner. Opposite our room was a room labelled jingisukan corner, which retained the smell of years of cooking lamb barbecue inside. Many people say they don’t like the smell of cooking lamb but fortunately that wasn’t true for any of us, so we headed off to find the lady in charge again and telling her we were keen to eat some jingisukan for dinner. Jingisukan is the Japanese rendition of Genghis Khan and the meal is a specialty of Hokkaido. It is marinated lamb cooked on a dome-shaped barbecue plate with some vegetables such as bean sprouts and onions. It looked like this:

Yummy lamb.

Masako is oiling up the hot plate with a piece of lamb fat.

Because it’s next to impossible to give me food that I don’t like, I thoroughly enjoyed the meal and was surprised that it wasn’t to the girls’ taste. Too much ginger or something. This simply added to their dissatisfaction but the killer blow came when it was time to use the toilets. Sorry to be mixing toilets and food in the same paragraph but there you go – I have no class. The toilets were those ones with a flap instead of water in the bowl. You can have a competition with yourself to see how many times you can make the flap drop. And there was a little sign saying because they didn’t have much water (huh? you’re an onsen – you’ve got two rooms full of water next door) not to put paper down the toilet but into the little plastic bin in the corner. Somehow after this, the whole place seemed to smell of toilet. I still had another bath after dinner though.

The next day I got up early and photographed Masako and Sakurako waving to me from our room’s window:

Hello girls!

Hello girls!

And then visited the koi pond. The oversized goldfish come straight to you because they think you might feed them. I wondered if they ate dirty toilet paper.

Feed us!

Feed us!

Then Kaz and I rode the 10km to meet the other riders in a car park near the Tobetsu train station.

That's Mr Sato in yellow. He also trains with both Attic and NSR.

That's Mr Sato in yellow and green. He also trains with both Attic and NSR.

I absolutely love time trials because although you’re really only racing against yourself, having other people on the course makes you push yourself harder than you would if you were alone. There’s motivation to pass the person who started ahead of you although I find the desire not to be passed by anyone keeps me going. There were 11 starters and we started at two-minute intervals. Mr Sato was the rider after me, so all I wanted was not to look over my shoulder and see him behind me. As it turned out, I was able to catch the guy who started ahead of me but after passing him couldn’t get much further ahead. This turned out to be handy as I was getting a bit tired and might have slacked off except I didn’t want him to get me back. In the end I managed to hold him off even up the steepest climb of the day to the finish. As it turned out, I got the second best time of the day and won myself a water bottle for my troubles. Kazuko used her super mental powers on the old guy who started two minutes after her, causing him to have to take a toilet stop and later turn down the wrong road. I think she beat him by about a minute or so. Here she is after the finish:

Do you think she looks tired enough?

Do you think she looks tired enough?

A drink machine and somewhere to sit after that last climb.

A drink machine and somewhere to sit after that last climb.

They had a little presentation ceremony where I was awarded my water bottle. Afterwards I insisted on a group photo:

That's me on the left next to Mr Attic!

That's me on the left next to Mr Katahira, the Attic owner.

I think Masako needed to expunge the bad experience of our night at the dodgy onsen so after the ride we went to another, much fancier onsen where I found I couldn’t handle the hot water and ended up spending most of the time up to my waist in the 17 degree cold bath hoping this would help my legs recover. To keep to the weekend’s theme, as I walked out of the men’s onsen section, I had to sidestep to avoid a child-size poo on the ground (I mean the poo was the size a child might have produced, not that it was as big as a child). I didn’t hang around to find out the story behind it but at least the cleaner was arriving promptly with a full bucket of water. Then to fully wipe away any bad memories, Masako took us to a jingisukan restaurant from her approved list. And her husband Kii-chan showed up so I drank too much and had to set the recorder for the world cycling championships before going to bed full and tired. All weekends should be like this.

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