In early September of 2013, I had the pleasure of cycling In Hokkaido, Japan as part of a 10 day cycling tour, organized by Adventure South. Prior to the trip, I had spent 5 years living and working in Tokyo and had traveled around Japan a fair amount but had never been to Hokkaido. I signed up for the trip alone, but quickly made friends with the other riders, once the trip was underway.
Hokkaido (北海道) is the second largest, northernmost and least developed of Japan’s four main islands. It’s best known for its harsh winter weather where most of the island is typically buried in snow. Lesser known is the summer weather, which is much less hot and humid than the other parts of the country, certainly preferable to muggy Tokyo.
So given Hokkaido’s snowy reputation, I had never considered it as a cycling destination. But as it turns out, Hokkaido has a lot to offer the cyclist. Because there is so much snow in the winter, the roads are wide with generous shoulders, necessary to hold the plowed snow. The roads are smooth and well-maintained, as are all roads in Japan, from my experience. Add to this the relatively low speed limit, the general courtesy of drivers in Japan and the small population, and you have a good setting for cycling. And then of course there’s the scenery: rolling farmlands, seaside fishing villages, high mountains, deep blue lakes, and such wildlife as deer, foxes and even the occasional bear.
We began our ride in Abashiri (網走), a city of 40,000 people on the eastern coast of Hokkaido. On the first day, we enjoyed a moderate pace along the Okhotsk Sea, and up the cape to the Notoro Misaki lookout with its views of the sea. Much of the ride was along a paved, multi-use trail, overgrown with vegetation in some places. The trail seems not be be used much and the one farmer we passed seemed confused but friendly. Overall, an easy day of riding to start.
I won’t cover the whole trip day-by-day but I will try to hit the highlights. Day 2 was a challenge, climbing two mountain passes, the Bihoro Pass and Lake Mashu Lookout, for over 4,000 feet of elevation gain for the day. The climbs paid off with spectacular views of the Lake Mashu, a crater lake, often referred to as the clearest lake in the world. After catching our breath, we enjoyed a nice, long descent toward our destination in Teshikaga (弟子屈町).
On these long rides, I have an exhilarating but potentially dangerous habit of going as fast as possible downhill. I put my head down and crank as hard on the pedals as I can, trying to see how fast I can go. On the descent out of Lake Mashu Lookout, I had a pretty good speed. Coming out of a long, gradual curve I spotted a fox just sitting on the white line. There was no way I could stop at that speed if he decided to run out in front of me so I gripped the handlebars tight and hoped for the best. He never moved. At the next break, I talked to the other cyclists in the group. They all saw the fox and he never moved once.
Hokkaido, as much of Japan, has many onesens (hot springs) where volcanic activity heats underground water, forming natural hot baths. As we cycled through the onsen areas, we found many foot baths and snack bars selling Onsen Tamago (温泉卵) or “hot springs egg.” It’s like a hard-boiled egg, but it’s slow cooked in the water from the hot springs where it absorbs some of the minerals from the water and has a unique flavor and texture.
Volcanoes And Onsens
We made a quick stop at Iozan (硫黄山), or “Sulfur Mountain” in English. It’s an active volcano with yellow, sulfurous vents and a distinctive sulfur smell, a mini version of Yellowstone National Park. We then stopped by Kawayu Onsen, another popular outdoor onsen with many foot baths.
Leaving the onsens behind, we continued north through flatter countryside, passing dairy farms inland and fishing villages near the coast. Hokkaido’s cuisine has lots of crab, scallops and sea urchin, all fresh and delicious and a welcome site at the end of a long day on the saddle. Seafood dinner and a long soak in an onsen ended each day perfectly.
Seafood Lovers Paradise
Local seafood is sometimes prepared in Okonomiyaka (お好み焼き), usually translated as “savoury pancakes.” Though more popular in other parts of Japan, the batter is made of flour, yam, water, eggs and shredded cabbage mixed with whatever local ingredients you like, in Hokkaido, mostly crab and other seafood. Our guide took us to his favorite Okonomiyaka restaurant and we all left full and happy.
Reaching Our Goal
After several more days of cycling along the coast we made our way to our destination, Wakkanai (稚内市), the northernmost city in Japan. From Japan’s northernmost point, Cape Soya, you can see the Russian island of Sakhalin. I was surprised to see road signs written in Russian, as well as in Japanese and English. You can even buy Russian beer in the local shops and restaurants.
Wakkanai is the only spot in Japan where I was stopped and questioned by the police and asked to show my passport. I was with a group of cyclists from the tour, walking around the town, maybe peering a little too curiously into the windows of houses facing the streets, when a police car pulled up and the officer asked, in English, for our passports. When I explained to him, in Japanese, that our passports were at the hotel, that we were on a cycling trip and visiting from America, his mood softened considerably. He wished us well and was on his way.
After a day to recover from our journey, we packed up the bikes and got on the ferry for a day trip to Rishiri Island (利尻島). (As much experience as I have in Japan, it was still odd to take off our shoes before getting into our cabin in the boat.) Surviving on fishing and tourism, Rishiri Island is a quaint little island, almost entirely circular, with Mount Rishiri in the center, which offers spectacular views of the Sea of Japan.
Saying Good Bye To New Friends
The next day, we went our separate ways. Most through Sapporo and on to the U.S. but I went on to Tokyo, where I still have friends from the time I lived there. All in all, not a bad week of cycling: 500 miles with 15,000 feet of climbing. Good food, great scenery, friendly people. I hope to return soon.