Welcome to part 2!
If you missed part 1, click here.
A map of the entire route and a quick reference list can also be found in part 1.
Day 6 – Pippu to Bifuka (75 km)
A delightful breakfast was spread before us in our hotel’s restaurant at 7 a.m. We sat in our Japanese robes and picked at the many condiments, occasionally rising to get more salad or Hokkaido milk. We wondered if the pile of eggs were raw, and cracking them into their individual special bowls revealed that they indeed were. Thankfully we’d discovered previously (on a ferry, of all places) that a typical Japanese breakfast is a raw egg mixed into hot rice with soy sauce added. It’s Japanese comfort food, and they call it tamago kake goha.
It hadn’t rained during the night, but it was grey. Everything outside was covered in condensation, and our fantastic weather app (windyty) promised a 100% chance of rain. Chances don’t get much higher than that. Caroline showed me the horrifying forecast for the next three or four days: it would be 2 degrees in the far north of Hokkaido when we arrived.
We could see a park through the dining room window. It was the same park that we very nearly slept in, before the allure of luxury changed our minds. After breakfast we’d have to pack our panniers, say goodbye to warmth and dryness and beds and robes, and climb aboard our waiting bicycles. We’d be cycling 75 kilometres through rain to some unknown location. Our sketchy map said there would be a rider house at the end of our cycle, but the map had been wrong before. Our little bubble of luxurious comfort was about burst; reality waited outside that restaurant window. I ate my pickled plum thoughtfully.
Outside, as we retrieved our bikes from the hotel’s janitor shed, a man approached us.
“Where are you going?” he asked in Japanese.
“Bifuka,” Caroline replied.
“Sheep,” he said, smiling.
It rained steadily all day, but the flat ground and strong tailwind kept our spirits high. We had left the hotel late so we turned up the leg-power, stopping only for lunch and toilet breaks. A man in a yellow jacket was at a Lawson store when we pulled in, and he had the look of a fellow traveller (backpack, slightly unsure face, wet weather gear). He told us he was from Sapporo, and was on a mission to Okinawa by walking or running. He’d recently hurt his foot, so at the moment he was hitch-hiking. We bought him a hot tea and Caroline told him to keep warm, then then he did the rounds of the car park asking truck drivers for a lift south.
As we sat eating, the hitch-hiker came inside and asked for a photo with us, so we obliged and asked if we could take one with him too. The last time we used our phone for selfie-mode was a while ago, and at that time we’d been playing around with the weird Samsung ‘beauty’ features. I didn’t realise it until well after I’d taken the photo, but these features were still activated. Beauty mode makes the eyes larger, the jawline smaller, and removes any facial skin blemishes resulting in an effect not unlike Michael Jackson circa ‘You Are Not Alone’.
We passed a town called Shibetsu which had many signs displaying cartoon sheep. The manhole covers had sheep on them, and directions pointed to sheep appreciation areas. One restaurant followed the odd Asian tradition of picturing the animal in which the restaurant specialises, except dressing it up like a grinning chef. A cannibalistic caricature inviting patrons to come gnaw on the rumps of its chopped up brethren. Of course, it was a sheep.
Being a New Zealander, the sheep didn’t hold much interest to me (insert joke here). What we didn’t know, was that Shibetsu held the “World Sheep Museum”. The question is, would we have visited the sheep museum if we’d known it existed? Well, that certainly is an interesting question.
The rider house on our map in Bifuka didn’t exist, so we went to the police station to ask if there were any others around. As soon as they started doing the typically Japanese, “Aaaaaaahhhh,” which means ‘no, but I don’t want to say no’, we knew that we wouldn’t be staying in a rider house tonight. We were ushered into an interrogation room and given candy while the police chatted about what options we might choose. We were already soaked and cold, and camping in the icy rain was out of the question.
The only place in Bifuka that existed as accommodation was a guesthouse, so a friendly cop called them, checked that the price was okay with us (at 9000 yen it wasn’t really, but we said yes anyway), then walked us down to it. The lady in charge hurriedly set up a room with futons while the cop had a conversation on his phone. Soon, he handed it to me with a smile and said, “English.”
“Hello. At your guesthouse there is only one bath.”
“So you must share it with the other guests.”
“Right. No problem.”
“Okay that’s all I need to say.”
I handed the phone back to the cop, gave him our last bit of chocolate as a thank you gift, and then he said goodbye. We settled into our room, and Caroline spent a good 30 minutes figuring out what all the buttons on the confusing gas heater represented. The cop showed up again an hour later with one of Caroline’s bike gloves; it had fallen into a puddle on the street.
Day 7 – Bifuka to Nakagawa (50 km)
It rained steadily all night, but we remained toasty in our little guesthouse. In the morning, the rain was patchy and the wind had decided to start screaming. A fox was crossing the road as we exited our guesthouse, and the three of us (Caroline, fox, me) all stopped for a few moments and stared at each other in puzzlement, pondering what to do. Then the fox darted behind some bins and we didn’t see it again.
We rode off into a kind of sideways headwind, and it was so strong that I noticed Caroline’s bike was actually tilting left as she rode to compensate for the gales. I figured that I must have been tilting the same way. Rain slammed into our sides and icy gusts found their way under our layers. It was like being home again!
After 10 km of this madness, we stopped to recover at a rest stop with good wifi, and Caroline managed to find a free lodging house online. It was 40 more km away, and there was the chance of it being closed or simply not existing, but it was our best chance at finding somewhere to settle. There were no rider houses on our map for the next 150 km, and only two or three small towns were spread throughout. The sun peeked out as we rode on, but the wind never stopped howling.
We reached the tiny town of Nakagawa; famous for its 11-metre Plesiosaur fossil, and home to shuffling old people and farmers. We were pleasantly surprised to learn the lodging house did exist, and it was actually free. It was a wooden cabin on high stilts in the middle of a nicely manicured park, and the park contained toilets and washing facilities. One other guy shared the cabin with us, but he came too late and left too early for us to talk to him. Another motorcyclist camped outside (why?!), and a third guy spent the night in his solar car. It was a cold night, and we felt the chill inside the draughty cabin. However, it was several times better that the tent.
Day 8 – Nakagawa to Wakkanai (90 km)
It was icy when we woke, and we packed our gear with numb fingers. Thankfully, the wind had blown itself away and day was calm. The sun was trying to peek through the clouds, and it was chilly; perfect weather for cycling long and remorselessly – and that’s what we did. We did 50 km without stopping, which may be first (perhaps we did more that that in the Fujian mountains), then after a quick lunch at a popular bakery in Toyotomi, we did the remaining 40 km without stopping. We’d finished 90 km by 2 p.m. and were feeling quite chuffed with our efforts.
Wakkanai showed how far north we we were; the street signs now displayed Japanese, English, and Russian. It was last real town in northern Japan and we used it as a base, asking a lovely lady if we could spend two nights in her warm guesthouse.
“Hai, dozo!” she welcomed us in to a large room with enough cushions and blankets to build a sizable fort. Two forts even; we could have set up warring factions on either side of the room and hurled cushions at each other. Alas, we are not 5-years-old. The room had many wonderful things that you would generally take for granted if you hadn’t been mostly camping for the past two months: power outlets, fast Internet, comfortable futons, heavy duvets, double glazing, a heater, a fridge, hot water, a toilet, no real reason to wear shoes, the list went on.
Next door to our guesthouse was a sento for 450 yen. We tried it the first night, and found it to be a bit shabby. The shabbiness wasn’t a big deal – it adds character – but for that price you’d expect at least some soap. The water in the one small bath was excruciatingly hot, so it was a relatively quick experience. The second night we found a nearby onsen for only 50 yen more. This one was absolutely luxurious. Sauna, several various pools of mineral goodness, spa, individual shower areas, mood lighting, soaps and scrubs, and classical music. I really don’t understand the logic of bath house pricing in Japan.
On our spare day we took a 60 km round trip to Cape Soya, the northernmost tip of accessible Japan. It marked a big milestone for us; we’d been to very southern tip of Okinawa, and now we were here at the very northern tip of Hokkaido. Apart from a few ferries, we’d travelled nearly the whole length of the country on bicycles. Cross Japan achievement unlocked!
Day 10 – Wakkanai to Teshio (60 km)
This was a striking road to travel down. There was practically nothing in the way of towns or buildings, and the empty road was almost entirely flat. The wind was blowing extremely hard from the west, so an intense side wind either worked with us or against us depending on how the road twisted. The landscape was scrubby and windswept, and the coast which the road ran alongside was violent with frothy waves. Grey clouds raced across the sky, foam blew over the road, and sea birds flew sideways. All of this was a frame for the centrepiece: Mt. Rishirifuji. It’s one of those perfectly shaped mountains, and it sits alone a few kilometres offshore.
This wonderful, rugged stretch of coastal road ran for the entire day, finally ending in Teshio. The town had a campground with various levels of accommodation including a cheap rider house – 200 yen per person to stay in a clean, powered, shipping container. We met a couple of other cyclists, also New Zealanders (from Dunedin), who were staying in one of the bungalows. We didn’t have much chance to talk to them, but we discovered they were doing a similar route to us but heading in the opposite direction. They too had planned on camping through Hokkaido, and they too had given up that idea because of the weather.
“It’s like October came and the switch just flipped,” they said.
Day 11 – Teshio to Kotanbetsu (80 km)
Each 20 kilometre point is usually where we take a short break while cycling, and towns were dotted on this part of the Hokkaido coast at perfect 20 km intervals all the way to Kotanbetsu. The scenery certainly wasn’t as grand or pleasing as the day before; the coast hid behind endless shrubs, and the rain attacked us at regular intervals. It was Saturday and a long weekend, which meant a lot of traffic was going between Sapporo and Wakkanai. The quietness of our previous few cycles vanished.
A modest conservation centre was in the town of Haboro (Google maps calls it a ‘Museum of Zoology’), and it was an eye-opening insight into the local seabird populations. There is a small island off the coast of Haboro called Teuri, which is host to numerous species of seabirds. One of the most famous of these is the ironically named Common Murre Uria aalge, an endangered species in Japan whose numbers have been dwindling significantly over the past few years.
Seventy years ago, the count for these birds was well into the tens of thousands. In the 1960’s, the count dropped to less than ten thousand. In the 1980’s, the count dropped to less than 1000. In 2010 the count was down to a depressing 19.
Two factors are understood to be primarily responsible for this reduction: fishermen and cats. The birds are legally protected, but that protection doesn’t include their feeding zones. This means fishermen can accidentally kill them in nets and suffer no consequences. Cats, those adorable little fluffballs, love nothing more than committing random acts of violent murder. They’ll smash through a colony of birds without even batting a cat eyelid. There are also a few other factors at play, like the Murre eggs getting devoured by black-backed gulls and ‘jungle crows’.
A solution to the cat problem has been found with a program called ‘Teuri Cats’. Free return ferry rides to the island have been offered (at least, they were up until January of this year) to anybody who wanted to adopt a pesky stray cat. The new owners could then take them home, put funny Japanese clothes on them, and let them run happy and free, mauling less endangered wildlife and purring afterwards. Hundreds of people took up the offer, and now there is a heartwarming wall of adoption in the Haboro conservation centre.
A solution to the fishing net problem cannot be found unless Japan’s legislation is changed to include no-fishing zones in feeding areas. If I were King of Japan, I’d make a fisherman adoption program too. Imagine an adorable little Japanese fisherman running around in your garden. You could dress it up like a bumblebee or a dinosaur, and give it little treats. It would spit and swear in the corner when you had guests over, but everyone would just laugh because it was soooo cute!
Where was I?
There was a free rider house in Kotanbetsu, with futons, a powerful heater, bathroom facilities, a kitchen, hand-drawn maps, gym equipment (!?), and plenty of cushions and chairs to relax on. There was one guy inside when we arrived; he was a motorcyclist named Maeda who had already been staying for a week. It was lucky Maeda was there, because the rider house owner was on a trip to Osaka, and apparently the place was generally considered closed if he wasn’t around.
Maeda didn’t speak English, although he could understand a bit. He used his phone to write down a bunch of introductory stuff about himself and the area, then he went through a local map translating everything from Japanese to English – right down to things we obviously wouldn’t need, like ‘Golf Park’, ‘Gas’, and ‘Middle School’. He then drew a floor plan of the rider house on a whiteboard and labelled every room in English for us. He told us he was sick of life in his busy hometown of Kobe, and that he might end up living in Hokkaido instead. He also told us he was physically sick, and so he went to bed early.
Day 12 – Kotanbestsu to Iwamazami (144 km)
This was a huge day for us; our longest cycle ever at 144 km. It covered many different aspects of the Hokkaido landscape, from the rugged coast, to the mountains, to farmlands, to towns, to cities. The wind was blowing hard from the west, so a big chunk of the mostly flat ride had a helpful tailwind. Rain was also a big part of the day; we got drenched, then dried by some random patch of sun, then drenched again. We left at about 6.30 a.m. and hardly took any rest stops, yet it was dark when we reached our accommodation for the evening: the very same rider house we’d stayed in on our second night in Hokkaido. We had come full circle.
Just like the first time we stayed in Iwamazami, an onsen was included in the price. We took a cheap dinner from the 7 Eleven next door, and topped up our stomachs with Yakitori that was being sold by a man a little barbecue box. After feasting and bathing, we were spent.
Day 13 – Iwamazami to Sapporo (42 km)
The less said about this ride the better. It was pretty awful with a strong headwind, patchy rain, a dull landscape of traffic and industrial areas, and sore legs from our epic previous day. Sometimes cycling is wonderful and rewarding, and sometimes you want to pick up the bike by the handlebars and swing it into a metal post while screaming. This day was the latter.
Our consolation was three nights at a wonderful Airbnb house, and some time to explore Sapporo while our bikes stayed dry in a garage. We mostly stayed indoors and pretended we were home and that it was a weekend. One of those cold weekends where the house is toasty, you can lie around doing practically nothing, and venture out only to eat. This was pretty much our time in Sapporo, although we did make a special trip to visit the Sapporo beer museum. The tour was free, and gave a brief overview of Japan’s beer history. The tasting room was closed (boo!), so we bought a couple of special edition Sapporo brews. What can I say? The first one tasted like a slightly, slightly different version of Sapporo, and the second one tasted like the first one.
Two interesting take home notes from the factory: Sapporo is the only beer brewery in the world that grow their own hops and barley (not sure if this is true. It doesn’t feel like it should be true), and when beer was first brewed in Japan, it was a lot more expensive than sake. A luxury beverage.
Day 16 – Sapporo to Otaru (30 km)
Thus, a very short cycle over a sizable hill, and we were in our final destination in Hokkaido, Otaru. It was a relatively sunny day, with a crisp freshness to the air. All in all, it was a lovely way to end our brief tour of Hokkaido.
The first thing we had to do in Otaru was buy ferry tickets back to Japan’s warmer midsection. A daily ferry runs from Otaru to Maizuru, departing at 11.30 p.m.
Caroline and I are now sitting in the ferry terminal with a couple of hours to spare. It is here that I’m finishing off this post, so I’m not sure what the ferry ride will be like. I hope for the sake of the ferry company that, unlike the last ferry we used, this one won’t burst into flames the day after we take it.