Japan by Motorcycle

Day 11

August 8, 1999

Sunset on the Sea of Japan

Akita and Yamagata Prefectures

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    Somehow I got an early start on the day and was packed up and ready to leave my Aomori campsite by 7:30.  It looked like another beautiful day was dawning.  I cut back over and got on the Tohoku Expressway to get past the area I had traveled the previous day.  For the most part, I had avoided expressways because their use would take the fun out of riding a motorcycle and also because they are extremely expensive.  But when it made sense or when I was in a hurry, I used them.  I rode it for about 50 kilometers, from Kuroishi to Towada and then took Route 341 southwest to Lake Tazawa which is in Akita Prefecture.
    Lake Tazawa was yet another caldera lake -- formed by ancient volcanic action.  How many caldera lakes had I seen thus far?  I actually had to sit and count:  Shikotsu-ko, Akan-ko, Mashu-ko, Kussharu-ko,  and Towada-ko.  So this was the sixth caldera lake in just a week's time.  Lake Tazawa seemed older since the mountains surrounding it didn't seem as big as some of the others.  But I'm not a geologist so don't take my word for it.  One thing I do know is that it is Japan's deepest lake.  Of course I don't know this first hand either.
    What I do know is that it was a hot day and I was ready to find an air-conditioned place to eat.  Lake TazawaI found a place with a view of the lake and had ebi-fry (fried shrimp), a common dish all across the country.  After lunch, I found a shady place on the sand under an overhanging tree and took a short siesta.  Unlike ocean sand which is normally full of the shell fragments of various sea creatures, the sand here all looked like little quartz crystals.  The kind that feels really nice between one's toes.
    I didn't want to dally too long so I was back on the road about a half hour later.  Kakunodate StreetJust another hour down the road found me in Kakunodate, a small town famous for its historical district where there is a row of old samurai-era houses.  Some of them are still privately owned but others are open to the public.  The street was lined with black fencing and a separate entrance for each house.  Kakunodate Samurai HouseAll were in the traditional style with tatami-mat floors, sliding shoji doors and the like.  With everything wide open, you can see right through one side of a house to the other -- great for catching breezes from any direction.  However, in the winter time, a wood and paper house with no central-heating would make for a darn cold house.  And I thought my modern-day apartment in Tokyo was cold...
    The local craft and history museum was interesting for its various wares.  The big handicraft of that region is wood products made from cherry wood and cherry tree bark.  The houses were cool but old Japanese houses don't hold my attention for long.  They generally have no furniture or devices like can be found in old European or American houses to give clues as to how the rooms were used.  Even the famous Nijo Castle in Kyoto doesn't look much different than the photo of this little Samurai house that I took.  Nijo Castle is just on a much larger scale and has priceless art on its paper doors.
    By this time it was mid-afternoon and I left Kakunodate heading towards the Sea of Japan with two goals in mind:  one, to find a place to take a bath and two, to find a beach campsite before sundown.  Luckily I accomplished both.  One of the michi no eki ("Road Stations") on the way had a large 24-hour bathing facility.  michi no eki are rest areas that are scattered throughout the country.  Usually they at least have road, traffic and weather information as well as bathrooms and vending machines.  This one (Nishimi) was quite large.  The bathing facility was quite busy that day.  The bathing routine was one I had gone through many times before but might be a little confusing for the uninitiated so I'll detail the steps for anybody who may be interested.

    First, when entering, you take off your shoes and step up onto the carpeted area (or wooden platform) into slippers which should be nearby.  A common mistake of first-timers is to take off their shoes but step in the area where they just walked in their shoes.  It's not a huge faux pas, but it's sort of missing the point.  Or sometimes people will step up on the little wooden platform with their shoes on.  That's a no-no.  The platform is there to provide a sort of stocking-feet land between the inside and outside floors.  Again, put on the slippers that should be either waiting for you on the floor or in a basket nearby.  They almost certainly won't fit and your heel will hang off of them, but that's okay.
    Second, you carry your shoes to the line of shoe lockers, put your shoes in a locker (which is free), lock it and take the key with you.  (Older places will just have non-locking shoe shelves.)  Then, you go to the front desk to pay the entrance fee.  There, they will keep the shoe locker key and give you another, wearable key for the locker inside the bath.  The larger places will also provide a two towels (one small, one large) and cotton bath wear (shorts and a robe-like shirt).
    Next, head into the bath appropriate for your sex.  Usually the noren (curtain over the doorway) is blue for men and red for women but, if you're not sure, it's best to watch others or ask before doing something stupid.  And be careful, sometimes they will switch the baths depending on the time of the day.  So if you are staying overnight somewhere and already went to the baths once and think you know where they are, you could still make a mistake.
    Once in the bath, you will take off your slippers and leave them behind before stepping up into the changing area.  At this time you should be barefoot or in your stocking feet.  If you were given a key on a bracelet, find the locker corresponding to the number on your key and use it to store your clothes and large towel.  Sometimes I also peek in the bath to see what it looks like and to see if they provide soap and shampoo.  If not, I am usually prepared with my own and take it in with me (though at the kind of large place I am describing, it's pretty much always provided).  And if you need to take a pee or do something else, there is usually a toilet located in the changing room.  (Don't forget to use the special toilet slippers and to leave them in the toilet when you are done.)
    After dropping off all your belongings -- including the clothes you are wearing -- in the locker lock it up, taking the key and small towel with you.  (If you didn't get a key and there are no lockers, just pick an empty basket or shelf in which to put your stuff.)  You might want to hold the towel demurely in front of you to protect yourself from prying eyes (or then again, you might not).  In the bath you will likely see rows of water faucets with tiny stools and buckets in front of them.  If you don't see any stools or buckets, there's probably a pile of them next to the door where you just entered.  Pick a spot, sit on the stool and wash up good using plenty of suds and your small towel as a wash cloth.  If there is not any bar soap, most likely there is liquid soap.  Usually there's two containers, one of liquid soap and one of combination shampoo/conditioner.  Sometimes they're marked in English and sometimes not.  If not, try to figure it out or just take a chance.  If you get it wrong, it probably won't matter much anyway.
    Usually there is a shower head in front of you which can you use as well as a faucet that you can use to fill the bucket and dump it over yourself.  I should also note that some of the larger and newer places have a few shower stalls and you might be able to avoid the awkward sitting position if you wish.  In any case, make sure you wash up good and rinse off good.  After that you're ready to soak in any of the tubs available to you.  Take your towel with you but don't put it in the water (either put it on your head or on the side of the tub).  You might only see one bath or there may be various baths with various types of water with different mineral content.  Sometimes there may be a herbal baths, and sometimes even a bath with electricity running through it!  And there may be other facilities such as saunas and whirlpool tubs as well.
    Once you're done -- and don't forget to check out the outdoor bath before you leave, if there is one -- you may want to rinse off with fresh water before heading back in to the changing room.  I usually use my damp towel to get all the loose water off of me so I don't drip water all over the floor on the way back to the locker.  Retrieve your big towel, dry off and change.  There should be sinks and mirrors in the changing room if you want to style your hair or brush your teeth.  Often, there are combs available if you don't mind sharing combs with other people.  Just make sure you pick one up from the so-called clean tray, not the bucket holding used combs.  
    In large facilities, you can lounge around in the cotton bath wear and even have dinner or take a nap.  You can just run a tab using the number on your locker key.  When you're all done and changed into your clothes, dump your towels and lounging clothes into the clothes hampers in the changing area before going back into the lobby.  Turn in your key and pay any extra money you might owe.  You will receive your shoe locker key and that's it.  Just retrieve your shoes, put them on in the entranceway and you're done.
    Wow, that was a much longer explanation than I had intended.  And I still haven't touched on any of the advanced topics like how to sneak beer into the outdoor bath and when it is tacitly allowed.   Or what to do if female staff walks into the bath area (not an uncommon occurrence).  The answer to the latter is "ignore her," the answer to the former is too involved to go into right now.

    Anyhoo,  since I hadn't had a proper bath in two days (dipping into sulphur water the previous day didn't quite count) I was glad that I come across this place.  Though, in reality, it's almost impossible to go anywhere in Japan without fairly easy access to a public bath.  Of course most of them are not 24 hours like this one was.
    I picked up some food for later at the convenience store next door to the bath before continuing south on Route 7.  This was a coastal route along the Sea of Japan and it felt good to be traveling on the side of Japan that most tourists (or Japanese, even) do not ever see.  It's too far off the beaten path.  I was worrying about finding a place to camp before sunset (didn't want to miss any sunset photo opportunities) and just as I thought I would have start looking for a place where I could "unofficially" camp, I came across a private camp area right off the ocean.  I was in Yamagata Prefecture, just south of Chokai Quasi-National Park.  
    All the campground was, really, was a strip of beach.  There were no facilities except a couple outhouses and a spigot providing fresh water.  The proprietor had a little open-air eating establishment.  His fee for a motorcycle camper was less than $2 -- what a deal.  I think he also had a cold-water-only shower so I was glad I had cleaned up earlier (though it was kind of ironic that my bath earlier cost more than the night's lodgings).
    I managed to ride my bike across the sand without dropping it.  I had to find a piece of wood to put under the kick stand so it wouldn't fall right over.  I set up my bivy tent and then got my camera ready for Mother Nature's show.  Now, finally, I got to see my first Sea of Japan sunset.  I was lucky because it was a good one, just beautiful.

Sunset on the Sea of Japan

    There were only three other vehicles out there.  No other bikes this time.  There was also a group of local youths having a beach barbecue party nearby.  I fired up my camp stove and boiled the water to cook up my own little treat of instant something-or-other.  Then, after packing up and brushing my teeth it was time for bed.
    This was one of the best nights of the trip -- taking in a beautiful sunset followed by a mostly clear, starry night and sleeping on the beach with the ocean lapping nearby.  Could anybody possibly ask for more?  (Don't answer that, it's a rhetorical question.)


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Just The Stats

Day 11



Place Weather
Start: 47300 7:30 Hokkoda Camping Area, Aomori Pref. Sunny/Hot
Finish: 47600 18:00 Beach Campground near Chokai Nat'l Park, Yamagata Pref. Mostly Sunny/Warm
Totals: 300km 10.5 hrs


Gas: 1,700 Food: 2,400
Highway Fees: Campground: 200
Attractions: 300 Onsen: 700

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Created: Feb 22, 2001
Last Updated: Mar 22, 2001

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