Yes it’s true, I have been quiet on the blog. The fact is, I’ve been spending much of my free time breaking up furniture to keep the bonfire in the middle of the living room going. However, Kazuko now informs me that it’s not going to be possible for me to spend the winter months walking around the house in only my Mr Tickle Y-fronts and a pair of socks. And I have to clean the smoke and fire damage off the ceiling. Luckily, I seem to be getting more used to the cold weather so perhaps I’ll be able to spend more time lounging about in my Mr Men mangerie* without having to trash the apartment.

The last couple of weeks hasn’t been entirely spent shivering around the charred remains of our furniture. For about $20 each, Kazuko and I have taken out annual membership of the local zoo. We can now visit any time it takes our fancy, so we popped in for a couple of hours the other week. As far as I can tell, the zoo is a blistering success. The polar bears may have been shifted to another zoo but we were able to visit the empty pen of the zebra that died the day before. Sadly, we weren’t able to make it to the funeral of the gorilla that recently died but he will always be in our thoughts. Because it was cold, there weren’t too many animals outside but this red panda looks familiar, doesn’t he?

Looks more like a crack fox than a red panda to me.

And inside the nice warm building, there was a real one:

The red panda is not closely related to the panda, nor is it a bear. Its colour is quite close to red, though.

Back outside, I was disappointed to find the monkeys were neither fornicating nor fiddling with themselves. In fact they seemed to be mostly huddling together for warmth. In front of the zoo’s cafe was a sign telling up we were close, which is always nice to know. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem to be open. Still, I had a giggle because although it is written as Earth cafe, the Japanese would pronounce this Arse cafe. I had a good chuckle when the television advertised they were going to show a documentary about arse.

Very close, indeed.

We couldn’t find many animals outdoors, so we followed the smell into another building, where the giraffe got a bit cheeky:

Don't poke your tongue out at me, young man.

And the hippo was busy showing its dental work to the kids:

... and that root canal work set me back a small fortune.

All that was left to do was to try and console the zebra looking mournfully through the bars at where his (or her, I don’t know) friend used to be.

There, there. It's not all black and white, you know.

And with that, it was time to head off. We’ll be back though – if only to investigate the mounting death-toll.

The next day Kazuko took me shopping to Sapporo’s top shopping mall, The Factory, where the Christmas tree was up and the indoor wind turbines were spinning merrily.

But there's no wind in here.

For a change, they weren’t holding their usual talent competition for Sapporo’s worst karaoke singer or least dextrous juggler. And over in the restaurant area, I was yet again impressed with how realistic the plastic food is.

Mouth-watering plastic.

With all the shopping done, the only thing troubling me was that I hadn’t been on the bicycle for a while so when I got an email inviting me to go for a ride on Sunday, I decided it was time to man up and get some cold-weather cycling done. The meeting point for the ride was Kitahiroshima and I had heard there was a good bike path out there, so I decided to throw all the clothes in my wardrobe at the problem and do an exploratory ride out there last Friday. It was great just to be back on my bike again and although I proved conclusively that my sense of direction is terrible while trying to find the bike path, once on it, it was a great ride out and back. There was snow forecast for Saturday but I was confident it would do what it always does and melt as soon as it touched the ground. Kaz and I went for a stroll for lunch on Saturday and we got a bit of snow on the way home.

Smile - it's winter.

So when I got up on Sunday and found a thin dusting of snow on the ground, I wasn’t particularly surprised or put off. It would all melt soon enough. It was however, quite interesting to see how easily a bicycle can slide about on an icy road but this is all part of the fun. I made it through town without getting lost and got on to the path, which looked like this:

A beautiful winter's morning. (Although technically it's not winter yet.)

The further along the path I went, the deeper the snow got and I learnt the fairly obvious lesson that a 23mm slick tyre doesn’t grip very well in a couple of inches of snow. But I also found that when the bike starts to snake around, the trick is to keep pedalling. At least that seemed to keep me upright. It may have been simple good fortune. The deepest parts of snow were only a couple of inches or so but, especially uphill, that was enough to slow me down to less then 10kmh. Runners coming the other way were giving me funny looks as I laboured through the snow. I ended up being only a couple of minutes late but was not surprised to find a carpark devoid of bicycles as I couldn’t imagine it being very safe to go for a bunch ride in these conditions. As it turned out, they had gone inside to the gym and were doing a training session on rollers in there but I didn’t find out about that until later.

Hello? Anyone here?

I did a couple of laps of the car park and decided to head back for home. I would have stopped to take more photos but I found that whenever I did, I couldn’t get my shoe back into its cleat without having to get out my small allen key and scrape all the compacted ice off from the cleat and pedal. Here’s what part of the path looked like:

Lots of lovely snow.

As you can see, I was not the only cyclist to ride along the path but I was the one with the thinnest tyres. I wasn’t sure if my front brake was frozen or just not working because of the ice build up.

The snow was slowing me down better than the brakes, anyway.

And my shoes and bottom bracket all got a healthy coating.

It's icy down there.

At least the countryside was scenic:

A passing farm.

And I found it was far easier to ride in fresh snow than to try and follow some one else’s tracks. The bike would just skid through the mush from old footprints.

Oddly enough, riding along this bit was quite easy.

I’m starting to see the attraction of mountain bikes but I think I can probably just start some research on knobbly tyres and I should be right for my winter snow riding. Except I think the snow is only going to get deeper for a while yet.

*This is my attempt to introduce another word to the long list of trendy expressions that incorporate the word man, such as: manbag, man-boobs and man-crush. As you can see, it fails to be a mixture of man and lingerie because mangerie is already a word. I have persisted nonetheless.

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