I boarded the train before dawn. Tokyo’s Shinkansen speeds along at 200 miles per hour. The countryside outside my window blurred into shapeless forms. I drifted to sleep to the sway of the tracks.
When I awoke several hours later, the world had become monochrome. Snow covered the ground as far as I could see.
I boarded the ferry quickly after I arrived. I stowed my bike in the storage compartment underneath the main deck and made my way upstairs. Several hours remained until departure. I wandered the ship, exploring the near-empty halls. Despite the popularity of the route, the ferry held barely 50 passengers.
I took a seat near one of the windows and began to work. Without wifi, though, I could only do so much.
A little bit later, I stood and went outside. The ship had already drifted far from shore; I could glimpse the barest sliver of land to my right, but it faded in and out of vision because of the fog. The wind whispered across the deck like the oni of Japanese legend, sending a chill up my spine. While Tokyo had been warm, Niigata was much farther north.
Despite the cold, the sunset held me enraptured. I spent several minutes watching it before I returned to my cabin, had a brief dinner, and turned in for the evening. There’s nothing quite like falling asleep to the rocking of waves.
The ship arrived in Otaru at 4:30 the next morning. At that latitude (Otaru is slightly farther north than Vladivostok, Russia), the sun both rises and sets earlier. As the massive door of the cargo hold opened, the first thing I noticed was white.
And then I realized the problem. I had only a thin jacket I had purchased while in Fukuoka. While it stopped a bit of the cold, it didn’t come close to warm enough. The bicycle was equipped with thin road tires; not the bulbous, knobby tires needed for traversing snow.
The men unloading the cargo bay laughed at my expression. I sighed, zipped up my jacket, and mounted the bike. If I pedaled fast enough, at least I would be warm.
Japan is well-known for its convenience stores. I found a 7-11, grabbed some breakfast, and made my way to the train station. The train would carry me from Otaru to a smaller town where I would board a regional train. The regional train would carry me to my final destination of Hirafu, a more-Australian-than-Japanese ski resort town.
The train was uneventful, but welcome. Even that short time pedaling through the snow sapped the energy I had left.
When the train arrived in Hirafu, one last hurdle remained. The house I was staying in was several miles from the station via a weather-worn dirt road. Ice covered the surface and made cycling impossible. I walked beside my bike, pushing and fighting for footing.
When the house came into view, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was massive. More importantly, it was warm. Having left home in January, I avoided the worst of winter — until I decided to find it in Japan.