Despite going to bed by 9:30PM, I
didn't leave my beach camp until 8:00. I continued south along the
coastal highway but it quickly became hot and slow-going. It's just
a two-lane road most of the way and quite congested because it's the only
route down to Niigata. Since I had no vested interest in going to
Niigata, I decided to try my luck in the mountains and took Route 112
towards the center of Yamagata Prefecture.
I tried to take a shortcut heading straight through the
mountains. It was a nice road but pretty much deserted with nothing
except wilderness on either side. I was wondering why there was no
oncoming traffic and eventually I found out; the road turned to gravel
after about 35 kilometers. With no way to tell if I could go through
or not, I turned around. Traversing a gravel road on a motorcycle
for an indefinite distance was not something I wanted to do, especially
since there was no other traffic to reassure me. So I turned around
and ended up going over 70 km out of my way before getting back to Route 112.
My earlier gamble, however, had paid off, the mountain road was much better than the coastal
route. There was much less traffic and I could maintain decent
speeds. I had lunch at the Nishikawa michi no eki (rest area)
which served as a viewing area for the Sagai Dam end of Gassan Lake located in the gorge below.
Before entering Yamagata City, I changed directions, heading west once
again, this time on Route 287. Basically, I was heading straight
through the center of the country. I was getting too tired to enjoy
the curvy road and, in fact, was starting to have trouble keeping my eyes
open even though it was only one o'clock in the afternoon.
In need of a rest, and always ready for a hot spring
bath, I stopped at a place called Ringo Onsen (Apple Hot
Springs). I didn't see any apples in the bath but the water was
cloudy as if they had added something to it. I paid an extra ¥300
to use the rest room (literally) where I could lay down on the tatami mat
floor and take a nap. Although there were a few others making use of the
room (to relax, not to sleep), I managed to take a highly refreshing forty minute nap.
Back on the road, I headed towards Yonezawa and
eventually found my way onto the Nishi-Azuma Sky Valley toll road.
There was a toll-free way to go but most of these types of local toll
roads offer great
views and were built for sightseeing, so I opted for the Sky Valley
road did offer nice views of Mt. Bandai and of Bandai-Asahi National Park
as it headed across a ridge and then down into the park. In fact,
that road is the site of my only picture from that day, a picture of myself
in front of Mt. Bandai. It's not that there weren't other
interesting things to photograph but it's not like I can just take
pictures out of the window, like you can in a car. Taking a
photograph on the road involved stopping and pulling out in the camera
and, more often than not, I felt that the scene in question didn't warrant
Mt. Bandai is a volcano that erupted very recently,
geologically speaking. It had a massive eruption in 1888 which
resulted in loss of life and major changes in the landscape.
Mountains were sculpted and new lakes were formed. The Sky Valley
Road led to one of them, Lake Hinohara.
By the time I made it down to the lake, it was getting
on six o'clock and nightfall was clearly less than an hour away.
This being a tourist area, the map indicated that there were campgrounds
all around the lake. Since I had a little time, I circumnavigated
halfway around the lake because that was the direction I ultimately wanted
to go. There were a few small, private campgrounds and I picked
one. Unlike most places in America which have specific, marked camp
sites, all of the places I camped in Japan were just open fields where you
just drive in, pick a spot and pitch a tent. Usually the only
facilities available are cold, fresh water and toilets.
This place was quite small and the campground looked
more like the yard next to the owner's house than an actual
campground. At ¥500 (about $4), the cost was the most I had paid to
camp so far but more than reasonable compared to the cost of other items
in the country. The ground there was somewhat rocky and it was a
challenge to find a smooth spot. I could see that it wouldn't be
quite as comfortable as my camp site on the beach the night before.
After I was all set up, I took a short trail down to
the lakefront to take a look around. I returned and had my dinner;
I don't remember if I pulled out my camp stove or if I just ate ready-made
food. By the time I was done, it was still early. There had
been a sign indicating that they were selling beer at the house so I thought
they were running a little bar there. It was still early yet so I
thought I would go over and maybe socialize for a bit. At the door,
I asked if I could come in before I realized that this was just their
house and they weren't running any kind of establishment. But it was
too late, an elderly lady called to a younger guy inside saying something
like "he wants to come in." I tried to backpedal and
explained that I thought they were running a bar or something but the
proprietor insisted and asked me in to join him. Conveniently, he
was already partaking of his beverage of choice and he seemed happy to
have some additional company.
The proprietor, it turned out, was a young 35-year-old
guy. He had moved out from the Yokohama/Yokosuka area and bought the
land and built the house three years prior. Apparently, he was
normally there alone but that weekend, his parents, sister and nieces were
visiting. I joined him for a beer and some edamame. Everybody
was suitably impressed of my command (hah) of the Japanese language and
the quest that I was on. I couldn't imagine that he could make a
living out there; he probably didn't bring in more than an average of $20
per day. I thought perhaps he worked a more traditional job in the
winter but I didn't pry. In any case, it looked like he was happy
and doing what he wanted to do so he was a lot better off than most people
as far as I was concerned.
I stayed as long as I could but eventually I finished
my beer and I refused his offer of another. When I am already tired,
alcohol only makes me more so. As I feared, he tried to treat me to
the beer but I insisted on paying for it. I still got the better
part of the deal since I got to meet some real nice people (not to mention