Our first ride day after Niigata was to a small town called Murakami. The day after that we were to ride to another small town, Sakata, before continuing on to Akita. Because these were small towns they had very little in terms of online-bookable accommodations so we decided that we would try and use our camping gear these days. Worst case, we could hop a train and continue North or we could try and find local accommodations.
When we left Niigata the weather was calling for rain, but we still decided that we could camp out. We figured we might get a bit wet but that wasn’t a huge deal. As we made our way through town though, it became apparent that this would be another windy day. Even worse than previous days actually, since winds were gusting up to 55km/h, more than enough to knock us off of our bikes (which almost happened a few times).
As we got out of the city and into more open areas, the wind only got worse. There were several times during the ride where we were being blown along completely by the wind, having to hold onto our brakes to just keep from moving at stop lights. I rode over 1km on my bike without having to pedal, maintaining a speed of about 15-20km/h. At one point our route turned into a dirt path that led through farmer’s fields (as has happened a couple of times now, since Google still hasn’t really perfected walking/cycling directions yet). Instead of detouring as we normally would do we opted to walk through it as the paved road was a very short distance ahead. This was a mistake though, as wind blew sand/dirt from the field at crazy speeds, stinging the hell out of any exposed skin. It basically felt as if someone was running light sandpaper against my legs.
We decided that in the interest of our own safety we would just hop on the train. We weren’t far at all from Murakami, but we set our sights on Akita. Rain was one thing, but setting up tents in this weather was just going to be an all around terrible time. We hopped on the train to Murakami where we would transfer to the next train and get our tickets to Akita (since the small station we got to was unmanned and we were unsure how to purchase tickets from the machine for longer distances).
When we got to Murakami station we learned that all trains on the line were delayed due to the extremely high winds. The train we were waiting for ended up being delayed by about an hour. We also learned that the tickets we bought were good until the next major station, Sakata, where we would have to transfer anyways to another train which would take us all the way to Akita. We tried to buy our tickets to Akita but the guy behind the counter couldn’t/wouldn’t sell them to us because of the delays (and there was no guarantee we could make it that far).
After arriving at Sakata we only had about 8 minutes to buy our tickets and make our next train. The station staff we spoke to simply told us to pay at the last station, so we ran to grab our bikes/gear and got onto the train, where we waited, and waited, and waited. About 30 minutes after the train was supposed to depart, an announcement came on and said that all trains to Akita were cancelled. Instead, we would have to take a bus.
We carefully loaded our bikes into the undercarriage of the bus and got on. The bus was packed and we ended up spending over 3 hours just getting to Akita. I should also note that during all this time waiting for delayed trains, we learned that the AirBnB we booked would have no running water, so we booked a hotel which we now had to get to. After a long, winding bus journey we finally arrived at Akita, where we checked into our hotel and were finally able to eat and get some sleep.
The next day’s ride was a bit of a big one, from Akita to Odate, which was around 100km. Easily doable in normal conditions as it didn’t have a lot of elevation, just distance. When we set out on the ride though, we were once again greeted by strong head winds and now cold weather as well. The temperature had dropped in recent days due to the rain, but also because we were travelling further North. All in all it made for an unfortunately miserable ride, where after only 40km we called it quits and hopped on the train. Our energy was gone and our morale was at an all-time low.
We had planned to take the train from Odate to Aomori as there weren’t any AirBnBs in Odate, but I still felt bad giving up only 40% of the way in. The alternative though was freezing and being utterly miserable so I think we made the right choice in the end. We hopped on the train and were soon in Aomori.
To add to the poor start to the day, I noticed when we got to our hotel that one of the spokes on my rear wheel had snapped. I believe it happened at some point on the train when we had leaned our bikes against each other. It was still fairly early (3:00 PM) so we decided to try and get it fixed right away. I had brought extra spokes, but not all the tools needed to actually replace them so we tried to find a bike repair shop in town.
The hotel front desk staff pointed us to one spot which was closed when we got there. I’m not sure it would have been much help if it were open though, since after peering in through the front windows it didn’t really seem much like a bike shop at all, but rather a hoarder’s home with a few bike wheels hanging from the ceiling and bike parts strewn about. I saw a ‘pro shop’ around the corner so I went in to ask if they knew of any other bike repair places nearby.
The pro shop was actually just a small badminton store. There was a man at the counter and a woman who was a customer. Neither spoke very good English, but after a bit of back and forth the woman (whose name was Ayako) was able to help us locate a nearby shop on our phones. She was even so kind as to drive there and have us follow so we had no trouble finding it. She also called her friend Yamagami who lived nearby, who met us at the shop. He was able to help translate for us, and unfortunately the shop couldn’t help us with the spoke.
Determined to help us out, Yamagami called his friend Yasuhito who works at a bike shop and we went back to his place to wait for him to arrive with tools. Yamagami’s English was pretty good and we chatted for a bit about bikes, our trip, and other random stuff until Yasuhito showed up. We collectively spent probably 30 minutes trying to remove the rear cassette (gears) from my bike’s wheel. Unfortunately it had spent a bit of time in the rain so it was likely a bit rusty, and not even hammering away on the wrench was helping. Yamagami’s father stopped by and gave us a large metal pole which we used to get more leverage and that finally got the cassette loose.
While Yasuhito was working on the bike, Ayako returned with another friend, Watanabe. I’m not sure if he owned a bike shop or just worked at one but he was clearly a professional and took over the job, popping off my tire, tube, and rim tape in order to replace the spoke. While he worked on that, Yamagami and Yasuhito started cleaning up my cassette which was quite dirty and sandy from the previous day’s wind blowing dirt and sand into every nook and cranny of my bike.
It was really amazing watching them all work on the bike, and Watanabe was even able to true my wheel by hand, making sure that the replacement spoke wasn’t too loose or too tight and that the wheel was nice and round. Together, they reassembled the rear wheel, popped the tube back in, the tire back on, re-greased my chain, and basically made it feel brand new. We thanked them profusely and went back to our hotel to drop the bikes off and grab some dinner.
I had heard many stories about great Japanese hospitality and I felt that they were probably a little bit overblown or over exaggerated, but this experience really humbled me. I mean by this point we had experienced many great hosts at the places we stayed, and plenty of very polite people in the various cities we’d been to, but this was a whole other level of kindness. We were simply strangers asking them at random and they took time out of their days to pull together and help us out.
After our dinner (ramen and pork at a restaurant near our hotel), we went back to the hotel and booked our accommodations for our next destination – Sapporo, where we planned to take another few days off to just relax and enjoy the city. We hadn’t ridden much since our last relaxing time, but after all the stress of everything, frankly, we’re still happy to have another break.