Welcome to part one of a two-part post about our cycling adventures through Hokkaido, the big island at the top of Japan.
If you’re impatient, you can jump to the following routes:
Day 01 – Tomakomai to Iwamizawa
Day 02 – Iwamizawa to Akabira
Day 03 – Akabira to Kamifurano
Day 04 – Kamifurano to Biei
Day 05 – Biei to Pippu
Day 06 – Pippu to Bifuka
Day 07 – Bifuka to Nakagawa
Day 08 – Nakagawa to Wakkanai
Day 10 – Wakkanai to Teshio
Day 11 – Teshio to Kotanbetsu
Day 12 – Kotanbestsu to Iwamazami
Day 13 – Iwamazami to Sapporo
Day 16 – Sapporo to Otaru
Map of the trip:
To set the scene, and to pick up where I last left off, here is a brief recap.
After our week cycling through Wakayama, we caught a ferry from Toba to Irago. The typhoons were hitting hard, and we spent a few gruelling days cycling and camping up Japan’s south-eastern coast towards Tokyo. One day, when we wanted to cycle between the cities of Yaizu and Shizuoka, the storm got so bad we had to take refuge in a hotel. The next day, we passed the spot where Mount Fuji would normally be, but all we saw were swirling grey clouds and mist. Our last day of this particular stretch took us 90 km over the enormous, extremely cold, far too high, miserably rainy, and much too windy, Mount Ashitaka. Was it the most difficult cycle we’d ever done? Yes. Yes it was. But damn, it was rewarding, and we arrived safely in Yokohama after dark, resting at an AirBnB place for three comfortable nights.
We hung out in Yokohama and Tokyo with Caroline’s cousin Joyce, who was a great, spontaneous guide, and introduced us to the wonders of Mr. Waffle, hot Jagabee, the best ramen in the known universe, Japanese barbecue, ten o’clock sake, and grilled cow’s tongue.
It was early Sunday morning when we left, which was the best time to cycle through the centre of Tokyo and out the other side. We cycled two days at 90 km per day, and ended up in the port town of Oarai. There, under the advice of a man we had met playing a Vietnamese guitar in Shikoku, we caught a 21-hour ferry up to Tomakomai in Hokkaido. That man’s advice:
“If you cycle to Hokkaido, it will be far too cold by the time you get there. Best take a ferry, then cycle back down trying to outrun the winter.”
The ferry was great; it had an onsen, a bed that wasn’t our air mattresses, and a buffet breakfast. We arrived in Tomakomai at 2 p.m. feeling refreshed, then relaxed in an Aeon mega-mall until dark. As per tradition, we camped in a park. And as per recent tradition, it rained.
Day 1 – Tomakomai to Iwamizawa (75 km)
Tomakomai is probably a town with hidden gems; special corners where you can get the best Udon, the best Hokkaido milk coffee, or the freshest fish for miles. Of course, travelling as we do, we were not privilege to anything regarding the day-to-day happenings of semi-rural city life in southern Hokkaido. What we saw was a port town filled with trucks and ugly industrial areas. The cycle away from our little camping haven (in the middle of a quiet residential grid) was along an overgrown pedestrian path. When the path cut out, we were forced to share the road with the lumbering trucks. The city thinned out quickly, and the trucks kept us nervous enough to buckle down and power along. We were aided by a tailwind and flat ground.
In no time at all, we’d ridden 25 km and had arrived at a snaking spaghetti junction. Cycling is about 10% problem solving (a statistic I just made up), and this particular problem was that we had to turn right. Normally turning right isn’t too big a deal, but it gets more difficult when the only right turn is up a series of car-only one-way ramps of death, and at the ground level there are train tracks blocking the turn. Death by train or death by truck? I suppose train would be more spectacular, but preferably neither. To the left of us was an airport, and the planes were coming in to land from the right, so jets were screaming past ten metres from our heads as we debated how to turn right.
In the end, we kept going forwards and successfully turned at the next right, which linked up to the road we wanted to take. We get flustered when things like this happen, but there is always a solution to these problems. If there wasn’t, then I supposed we’d still be stuck somewhere. Like the grill of an 18-wheeler.
September in Hokkaido is supposed to be one of the best times to cycle. The air is cool, the leaves are turning, and there isn’t yet snow on the ground. On our first proper day of riding, the sky was displaying various hues of grey. Sometimes these greys turned almost black, and cold rain smashed down on us in brief bursts. The farmlands we rode through were entirely flat, and mostly harvested. What would have recently been lush expanses of rice were now grim expanses of dead stalks. Impressive farm houses stood watch over the brown acres and cute, colourful barns joined forces with enormous chrysanthemums and hibiscus flowers to contrast the greys of the sky. These bursts of colour brought relief to an otherwise bleak landscape.
The quiet farm roads eventually found the town of Iwamizawa, and we headed straight to our pre-planned destination: 2nd Street – part of a chain of cheap Japanese thrift stores. If it was going to be cold, then we were going to need some warmer clothes. I found a knitted top and a pair of warm pants for 1000 yen (about ten bucks). Caroline found two tops and some pants for about 2000 yen. One of her warm tops turns her into Japan’s most lovable prefecture mascot, Kumamon, the wigged-out looking bear from Kumamoto.
Hokkaido is famous amongst cyclists, motorcyclists and cheap-arses, for its ‘Rider Houses’. These are extremely cheap (sometimes free) shelters or rooms where you have to bring your own sleeping equipment. Right next to the thrift store was a Rider House, and so we enquired as to how much it would be for an evening. It was 1300 yen each for a quiet, clean, carpeted room with air conditioning (not that we needed it) and power outlets. The price included an onsen, so it was a no-brainer.
Day 2 – Iwamizawa to Akabira (55 km)
The road between our Rider House in Iwamizawa and the next big town of Takikawa was completely flat and straight for 40 km. We passed much of the same scenery as the previous day, but were made happy by the improving weather. The sun finally decided to wage war against the clouds, and patches of blue sky joined together as we rode on. By the time we’d completed our 40 km stretch, it was sunny with a cool snap to take the edge off. Very nice weather for riding.
We made a right turn Takikawa and headed towards the mountains. It was the first time in Hokkaido that we weren’t cycling on flat ground, but the climbs were gentle enough. We had planned on going all the way to Furano, another 50 km away, but we’d woken late, taken a lot of photos, and had generally enjoyed a very relaxed cycle. In the Akabira area, we saw a sign for an onsen and camp ground which led up into the northern hills. It would be our home for the evening.
The climb went for about 5 km, and reaching the onsen revealed an amazing mountainous landscape filled with trees starting to change to their autumn colours. The onsen looked fancy and expensive, and we were happily surprised to learn it was actually fancy and cheap. So cheap, in fact, that it was cheaper than any other onsen or sento (public bath) we’d had throughout Japan. It was 250 yen per person, and was a fantastic bathhouse. Several heated pools, an outdoor hot rock pool with a view of the surrounding valleys, massaging ceiling jets, bubble pools, and a sauna. The waiting area was expansive and relaxing, with cushions, food, and B-grade Japanese period movies. I have no idea why the onsen was so cheap. Perhaps it was outside of peak season?
A T.V. at the onsen was playing the news, and we soberly watched a story about a fire on a local ferry. The cause was thought to be something to do with the connectors keeping the refrigeration trucks cold. Various fire-fighting boats were shown spraying it down, and it was here we realised the burning ferry was likely the very same one we’d been on only two days earlier. There were only two ships in the particular fleet, and we certainly took one of them. Here’s a news story about the fire.
After dark we set up our tent in a sculpture garden beneath the onsen. We weren’t sure if we were supposed to pay to camp there (probably), but nobody came looking for cash. The sky was perfectly clear for the first time in what seemed like weeks, and we enjoyed seeing an unobstructed view of the stars. The night grew colder and colder, and when the morning arrived we were both wearing plenty of layers under sleeping bags and liners. All this gear still wasn’t enough to keep us comfortably warm, so we buried our heads in the sleeping bags and waited it out. The tent condensed more than it ever has before, and it was completely soaking inside and out when we packed up – even though it hadn’t rained.
Day 3 – Akabira to Kamifurano (70 km)
In spite of our numb bodies, seeing the beautiful morning view made the mountain campsite worth it. We were situated under a clear sky above a thick layer of mist, and peeking out of it was the distant Daisetsuzan Volcanic Group – a cluster of 20 lava domes, stratovolcanos, or caldera rims. More on those later (when we ride up the side of them).
We descended from our chilly hilltop paradise and rode headlong into the thick mist, feeling the chill despite our many layers. As we turned back onto the main drag, the road mostly flattened out, gently and almost undetectably climbing for the rest of the day. The sun battled the mist and soon thwarted it, but not before we were treated to a lovely foggy scene in the town of Ashibetsu.
We thought we might stay in the town of Furano, but after checking on a map of local Rider House locations (click here to see that often-wrong map), we decided to make another 20 km ride to the smaller town of Kamifurano. We took a slightly alternate route from the main road, and managed to get a great view of the volcanoes looming in the distance.
Following a few back country roads and passing by a slightly hidden military base, we found our accommodation for the evening. It was another Rider House, and appeared to be a beaten up old farm. The whole area (in fact, the whole town) stunk of cow shit, but the cold darkness was fast approaching. We ventured onto the property.
Nobody seemed to be around, although there were a few notes that looked like they might be instructions written in Japanese. We parked our bikes and walked around the side of the old, wooden farmhouse. Through a dusty window, like a hillbilly in a horror movie, we saw the back of a liver-spotted head reading a newspaper. The owner of the head was smoking, and the unmistakable glow of a TV flashed from an unseen location. So yes, there was somebody home, and yes, he might be the sort of person who would chain us up in his basement and slowly feed our various body parts to the pigs.
So we knocked on the door, but he didn’t answer. Cautiously, we opened the door and walked through that, then realised there was a second sliding glass door – common in Japan. From here we could see the man from the side. He was old. Too old. We knocked on the glass door but he didn’t answer, so we knocked louder. Nothing. So we opened the door and walked into his brown, dusty, smoke-filled lounge room. That’s when he noticed us.
“Ahwooua?” he asked.
“Uh, raida hausu?” we replied.
He nodded, turned on his hearing aide, and there was a brief moment where nobody did anything. The man’s tongue was hanging out.
Soon, things seemed to click into gear and the man led us outside, instructing us in Japanese to put the bicycles in a garage – the first time in months that the bikes weren’t out in the open. He then showed us a room where we’d be sleeping, and an area to dump our bags. For other dumping requirements, he showed us a composting toilet.
The old man led us back to the lounge and pulled out some hand-made business card ticket things. The price to stay in his house would be 500 yen each, and we accepted the price gratefully. He spoke a lot, even though we couldn’t understand him, and every time he stopped speaking, his tongue fell out and rested on his chin. You knew he was going to speak if the tongue suddenly sucked up back inside his mouth. It’s almost like they were two different entities working in collaboration: man and tongue. Sometimes the tongue would try and come out when he was talking, and this would result in ‘flubulubb’ noises. After a while, all I could think about was the tongue. I kept waiting for it to fall out and it never failed to do so. It became a weird obsession of mine. He knew it was hanging out too, because he dabbed his finger on it so he could turn the page of a guest book.
We realised that he was asking about food. Had we eaten? Did we need any food? That tongue. No, thanks, we don’t need food. For god’s sake, please don’t cook food. Tongue. Mercifully, he seemed very relieved that he wouldn’t have to deal with getting food for us and gave us a map of the town that showed a nearby public bath and several restaurants.
When we returned from dinner and bathing, we played it polite and sat with our host in the lounge. Suddenly, he jumped up excitedly, told Caroline to follow him, and instructed me to stay put. Caroline followed him into the hall and he shut the door. I sat in the lounge nervously. Was this the horrific turning point? The T.V. was too loud to hear any potential muffled screams. I strained my ears towards the door and after an endless 20 seconds, the old man entered again. He beckoned me to follow him then put a jacket over my head so I couldn’t see. This was some weird shit.
He guided me through the darkened hallway, and it was only when I heard a small giggle from Caroline that my fears began to thaw. We stopped, and the jacket was whisked away from my head revealing a furry mouth full of teeth – the face of a taxidermied Hokkaido Brown Bear. I was unfazed by this revelation. I suppose I must have been expecting something a lot worse.
In the old man’s younger years, he was a serial murderer of beautiful animals. The room with the enormous stuffed bear (450 kg) contained a bearskin rug, a taxidermied buck, and many small critters including an large owl. They were all made to look fierce, even though they were likely docile when he shot them. The weirdness didn’t end. The man grabbed a stool and had Caroline and I mount the bear to take photos straddling it. We played along because what else could we do? We then lay down on the dead bear rug, and rode on top of the stuffed deer. And then he showed us old newspaper clippings and photos of him with his trophy bears tied to bits of wood. It was horrific and we deleted all the photos afterwards.
There are five sub-species of Ussuri Brown Bear in Hokkaido, and currently thought to be 1000-2000 bears in small, isolated regions. They aren’t protected and as far as we can tell, they can still be hunted legally.
After all the strangeness, we went back to the lounge and watched T.V. some more. The old man turned to us at one point, the tongue sucked up into his mouth, and he said, “Taah mee nay toh.”
Day 4 Kamifurano to Biei (50 km)
We left early and the old man was already awake to say goodbye. He did seem to be a rather nice guy, despite his passion for killing bears, and he wished us well.
Our plan was to cover a short distance but tackle a good chunk of Hokkaido’s highest road – the one that ran up the side of the Daisetsuzan Volcanic Group towards Mount Furano and Mount Tokachi. It was only about 17 km to reach our high point, but it took us four hours to climb the gradually steepening road. We took a couple of legitimate breaks to catch our breath, and couple of ‘excuse breaks’ to take photos and re-oil the bike chains. Well, they were squeaking. A little bit.
At the top, well past the area where cars stop in winter to apply their tyre chains, there was a single, snaking road that led higher up Mt Furano. We opted to not go up the road – it was 1 km and didn’t lead anywhere except to a hotel – and instead we cycled sideways around the mountainsides beneath Furano, Tokachi, and the loveliest of the three, Mt. Biei. Near the high point was an volcanic onsen with presumably life-enhancing minerals and salts. Considering how superb the onsen was, it was a steal at only 600 yen. Perhaps the price inflates during winter, when patrons can luxuriate in hot outdoor pools surrounded by snow, and watch sulphuric plumes drift from the looming volcanoes.
The road away from the volcanoes was an hour of heavenly downhill. We stopped in at a couple of tourist sites, but declined to go to the area’s famous blue pond when we saw four busloads of tourists dismounting in the car park.
In the town of Biei, we found a nice park next to a Lawson convenience store on the main road and set up our tent. It started out okay, but as the clear, starry night wore on it became colder and colder. Icy condensation once again rained down upon us, and in the morning I turned to Caroline unhappily.
“I don’t think I want to do any more camping in Hokkaido.”
Day 5 – Biei to Pippu (50 km)
We decided that we would have an easy day and only cycle as far as Pippu. The city of Asahikawa – officially the coldest city in Japan – was the halfway point. Happily for us, the sun was beaming down and the air was refreshingly warm. We wanted to dry the tent and charge our electric things, so we found another giant Aeon mall in the centre of town. The tent was hung over our bikes to dry, and we entered the treat-filled mall. Greeters lined the walkways outside shops selling sweet delicious things, and bowed as we walked past like a slow, polite Mexican wave. The mall seemed to have its own gravity, and the orbiting humans in the area swirled towards it. When we left the packed mall some hours later, the surrounding streets were mostly bare.
I’d recently changed an inner tube on my bike after a puncture, and realised that my rear tyre had no more tread and was cracking around the edges. A quick inspection of Caroline’s tyre revealed the same issue. We found a bike store after leaving the giant mall, and bought two new Schwalbe tyres for the back wheels. Apparently Schwalbe is supposed to be the brand to end all brands in terms of puncture resistance and longevity. I suppose time will tell.
We passed a dead raccoon just outside the town. It was the second roadkill raccoon we’d seen in Japan, and so Caroline got interested and looked up Japanese raccoons online. Her brief research revealed that there was an animated series called ‘Rascal Raccoon’ which showed in Japan in the late 70’s. Japan fell in love with Rascal, and began importing cute, cuddly raccoons from America in huge numbers. Raccoons are pretty shitty pets (biting, scratching) and the abandoned ones flourished throughout Japan. Now they’re everywhere, eating native bird eggs, vandalising buildings, and losing fights with traffic.
Somebody has written a full article about Rascal and Japan’s fascination with him. See here.
On our Rider House map we had located a nice, cheap looking place near Pippu station, but when we got there it was closed. There was nowhere else in the town to stay, so we found a bed icon on Google maps and cycled a few kilometres towards that. It was in the middle of an expansive farming area, and it was also closed when we arrived. Knocking on the door and ringing the bells proved useless. Grey clouds were forming and it was almost 5 o’clock, but in order to procrastinate having to make another decision, we put our new tyres on in the driveway and dumped the old ones with a pile of other tyres near the shed.
As we were pedaling away from out latest attempt at accommodation, not really sure where we were going, we got chatting to a couple of farmers who sympathised with our predicament. One of them knew of a nearby hotel near a winter ski resort, and he called them to see if they had room for us (he knew the number off the top of his head). Yes, he nodded, there was room at the hotel, so we made the 4 kilometre drive there.
Next door to the hotel was a park with lots of great camping space, but the weather looked like it was about to get terrible, and it was definitely going to be a frightfully cold night. We entered the hotel, and the staff, who were expecting us thanks to the farmer’s phone call, showed us what it would cost to stay there. 13,000 yen.
Now we were in an interesting situation. We could choose to pay the price and have unlimited access to an onsen, a delicious Japanese breakfast, real beds, privacy, and the right to strut around in Japanese robes for the duration of our stay, or we could choose to not pay anything and sleep in the cold, wet park next door.
That fact that we had such a contrasting choice was a little bit of a revelation for me. Technically, we could afford the hotel, it just might mean we’d be ending our travels one week earlier somewhere in the future. For some people, there would be no choice like this. Some people could not even entertain the idea of luxuriating in a hotel for one night – an utterly frivolous thing to do, all things considered. The price was more than an entire day’s wages working at a Japanese convenience store (jobs are often advertised inside stores starting at around 700 yen per hour).
We stared at the calculator in front of us which displayed the numbers 13,000. That’s how people tell you the price in Japan if you can’t speak the language. We murmured to each other about what to do. We chose luxury.