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Hokkaido, Japan by Bicycle (part 1 of 3)

In 2009, we spent three weeks riding bicycles around Japan. This is the story of that trip.

August 26, 1:20 pm, Flight to Tokyo

We’re finally on the plane to Japan. There are four of us: Piaw (the trip leader), Brooks, Yana, and myself. The plan is to spend three weeks riding around Hokkaido, the northern-most island of Japan. We’ve been preparing for this ride for months: buying supplies, preparing equipment, building new wheels, studying maps, learning a bit of Japanese, going on training rides. The last week has been a blur with time flying by constantly as we finished packing. Now there’s a sense of calm: we’re on the plane and there is nothing else to prepare. The trip has been set in motion and we’re just along for the ride.

Below us, in the cargo hold, our bicycles sit in their boxes. Above me I’ve stowed my two small carry-on bags. Bicycling forces you to travel light: those two bags are all I have for three weeks of riding. It is oddly liberating to not have a full suitcase of stuff to lug around and worry about.

August 27, 8:42 pm, Sapporo International Youth Hostel

Distance ridden today: 30 miles. Weather: rain, tail wind.

Flight landed at Chitose airport late last night. Piaw had arranged lodging at the airport hotel so we didn’t even have to leave the terminal. Retrieved our bulky bicycle boxes from baggage claim, loaded them onto luggage carts, and took the elevator up to the hotel. Went straight to sleep.

Assembled our bikes in the hotel room this morning. They had been packed, partially disassembled, in cardboard boxes for the flight. The airline (ANA) handled the boxes quite carefully; not a dent or scratch on them. Moved the furniture around in the small hotel room to get a space big enough to work in then built the bikes back up, piece by piece. Pedals back on. Chains back on. Handlebars reattached and adjusted. Front wheels attached. Rear derailleurs bolted back on. Luggage racks reattached. Quiet, cathartic work which reminded me of the book Off the Map: Bicycling Across Siberia by Mark Jenkins. After finishing with the bikes we droped the boxes at the hotel desk and got breakfast in the airport. We’ll be staying in the same hotel on the last night of the trip so they are willing to hold our empty boxes until we return.

When we took our bikes outside after breakfast, it was raining lightly with overcast clouds. Piaw had previously warned us about his route-finding. He likes to find obscure back roads, dirt roads, and trails whenever possible. Twenty minutes into our ride, with the airport still in sight, the side road we were on came to a dead-end and so we found ourselves climbing over a chain-link fence with our bikes in order to get back to the main highway. Piaw was pleased.

The gently rolling road cut through miles of forest as it headed northwest into Sapporo. Had a strong tail wind, making the riding easy. The rain continued off and on; not enough to be miserable but it kept the road wet so my rear tire was spraying water up onto my back. My shorts were soon wet and muddy, which was a little awkward when we stopped for lunch and I had to sit in a restaurant. I regret not bringing fenders.

Once in Sapporo, traffic was heavy enough that we decided to follow local custom and ride our bikes on the sidewalk instead of in the traffic lane. Still somewhat harrowing as we had to worry about pedestrians, other bicyclists, and various obstacles. There are bikes everywhere in Sapporo, all of the commuter variety with no road bikes in sight. Many riders were carrying umbrellas while riding with one hand. One enterprising young man was holding a clear plastic umbrella in front of him like a windshield.

Tonight we’re staying at the Sapporo International Youth Hostel. The accommodations are quite nice: small private rooms with tatami mat floors. There is a tiny entryway for removing shoes (wearing shoes on tatami is frowned upon) and hanging our wet rain jackets. In the middle of the room there is a low table with chairs; for sleeping the table folds up and stores in the closet so we can lay thin mattresses on the tatami. Downstairs there’s a Japanese-style bath and a dry garage for our bikes.

Washed my clothes in the shower (only brought two shirts so I’ll be doing laundry most days) then headed out for supper. Ended up in New Ramen Alley, an odd underground tunnel packed with ramen shops (there’s also an Old Ramen Alley). We picked one mostly at random, ducked inside, and were immediately enveloped by hot, humid air. The interior was dark and cramped. We took four seats at the counter and gave our order to the chef by pointing at the picture menu. He cooked the noodles right in front of us and served them in huge bowls. They were delicious.

August 28, 9:40 pm, Sapporo International Youth Hostel

Distance: 2 miles. Weather: some rain.

Woke early this morning and crossed the river to explore Nakajima park. It was green and beautiful. The clouds had lifted enough to offer views of the mountains at the edge of town. Saw a group of bicycle tourists preparing their breakfast on a small stove. They had spent the night camping in a gazebo in the park.

Ate our breakfast back at the hostel. Japanese breakfast consists of steamed rice, fish, miso soup, various vegetables (some pickled), and eggs. More rain forecast today. Instead of riding in the rain we decided to see the town. There was a subway station right next to the hostel so we got day passes and were off to explore. Brooks and Piaw wanted to explore the fish market while Yana and I went to the botanical gardens. The gardens were green and lush, likely owing to the recent rains. We walked along through the park in the damp air, enjoying the beautiful collection of plants.

Called Piaw and Brooks from our mobile phone and arranged to meet at the Sapporo beer museum. Had a hard time finding it. Tried asking a lady for directions but our Japanese is not good enough and we couldn’t explain where we wanted to go. Eventually spied its tall tower after wandering around some more.

Found Piaw and Brooks at one of the museum restaurants, where they had just finished lunch. We joined them for a tour of the museum, then headed back to downtown to spend the afternoon looking at sights and shopping.

As dinner time approached, Yana and I remembered how good the food at the beer museum had looked so we decided to return. When we arrived it was crowded, hot, and smoky from meat being grilled. We managed to order by pointing at the menu and using hand signals. The restaurant specializes in Jingisukan (sounds like Genghis Khan), a popular local dish. The food arrives raw: a huge plate of vegetables and meat. There is a domed skillet in the middle of the table on which you cook the food. Similar to Mongolian barbecue, only cooked at the table.

Back at the hostel we took advantage of their Japanese bath. The centerpiece is a large pool of hot water. There’s also an area with short stools, faucets, and buckets for washing before entering the pool (getting in the pool without washing is a major faux pas). After walking all day in flip-flops, my feet were sore but alternating between soaking them in a bucket of cold water and then hot water felt great. There are separate baths for men and women since everyone is nude. Not a problem for the three guys but Yana was lonely in the bath by herself.

August 29, 8:57 pm, Yubari Forest Youth Hostel

56 miles, sunny.

Long day of riding today, east across the plains and up to the mountain town of Yubari. We took a wrong turn leaving Sapporo but didn’t realize it for half an hour. Eventually we got suspicious when we re-crossed the river that had gone past the hostel and could still see downtown Sapporo on our left, where it should not have been. After some careful map checking we realized our mistake. By then it was easier to pick a new route than double back. Our map (the Touring Mapple) showed a trail through the nearby Nopporo forest park which went exactly where we wanted so we headed towards the park. In the town of Oasa, just outside the park, we happened across a bike store and showed him our map, asking about the trail. The owner told us that our plan wouldn’t work: we wouldn’t be able to bike across the trail with our road bikes.

A lesson soon learned when bike touring is that you can’t trust route advice. Drivers underestimate the size of hills, non-cyclists underestimate how far you are capable of riding, and casual cyclists assume you can’t ride off pavement. During our training we had specifically practiced riding over dirt roads with loaded bicycles (because we knew that Piaw would ride on dirt if possible), so we decided to ignore the shopkeeper’s warnings and check out the trail anyway.

The park was flatland forest. Some parts looked natural, others were obviously planted (with trees in rows). The trail turned out to be a dirt road which cut right through the middle of the forest. It was perfectly rideable except for one fallen tree that we had to carry our bikes over, which made two days of climbing over obstacles in two days of riding. Again, Piaw was pleased.

After the park, most of our day was spent riding past fields and farmland, headed east across the plains toward the mountains. The sun was warm when we stopped at a small restaurant for a late lunch. Had donburi, a rice bowl with egg on top followed by ice cream from the place next door.

There are a lot of vending machines in Japan.

The climb up to Yubari was gentle and not very long. Road was well-built, like all the roads here. Although it was out in the country it had a sidewalk wide enough to drive a car on. Even when the road went through a tunnel, it still had a wide sidewalk. At the top, Yubari sits nestled in a small valley. In the winter it is a ski town, but in August it sleeps, waiting for the snow to come.

Had some trouble finding the hostel. It is outside of town a bit and we were riding around the farms and hills looking for it. Stopped to ask a lady gardening if she knew where it was. She bowed to us, went inside and came back with her whole family. They decided we were on the right road and just had to keep riding. We thanked them, bowed quickly, and rode on.

There is a lot of bowing in Japan. Asking for help leads to lots of bowing. Every purchase involves bowing. Usually entering/leaving a store does too. Hold a door open for someone and you're likely to get a quick bow. We even had a lady riding a bicycle in the opposite direction to us bow as she rode past (I think she was worried she had inconvenienced us). It is a very polite society and very pleasant to visit.

The hostel is a beautiful wooden house that reminds me of a cozy ski lodge, complete with wood stove. Japanese-style bedding again, with sliding doors on the rooms. Back home, this place would be called a bed and breakfast, not a hostel. The dinner they served was amazing. 2 kinds of cooked fish, pickled tomatoes, figs for dessert. Best food of the trip so far.

August 30, 9:00 pm, Highland Onsen, Furano

65 miles, overcast.

I woke up early again and went for a ride before breakfast, looking for a spot to photograph the fog in the valley below us. Air was fresh and cold, with the smell of flowers and woodsmoke. A good, crisp, mountain morning.

Rode through the mountains today northeast towards Furano. Long gentle climbs and open, relaxed descents. The top of every climb ends with a tunnel. Most tunnels were short but one was 2.7 km. It had curves so you couldn't see the end. We turned on all our lights and rode in a tight group. The air was cold and smelled like exhaust; passing cars and motorcycles filled the whole tunnel with a roar that you couldn't escape.

There was no food or water along the route through the mountains so we brought snacks from a convenience store with us. Stopped by a lake to eat some and a beautiful red fox came begging for food. It was odd because it seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere but this fox obviously had seen enough people to be accustomed to handouts.

Later we stopped at Sandantaki, a pretty series of craggy waterfalls, and ate more snacks. Bicycle touring involves a lot of eating. After Sandantaki there was a long descent towards Furano. Brooks got up front and we all tucked into line behind him. He had to pedal but the rest of us could just coast, out of the wind as we drafted behind him.

Tonight we're staying at the Highland Onsen, a hot-springs resort perched on a hill above town. Furano is another ski town so there are mountains all around. Across the valley to the east rise the mountains of Daisetsuzan National Park. The onsen has large baths, with multiple pools: hot, cold, really hot, plus one outside that overlooks the valley. Separate men's and women's bath again, though the wall dividing them does not go all the way to the ceiling so Yana can hear our chatter as we all soak.

The dining room at the onsen overlooks the valley, and as we ate dinner we got to watch as the setting sun behind us painted the mountains of Daisetsuzan with brilliant red light.

Western-style beds tonight. A common concern among innkeepers is that we won't want Japanese-style meals or bedding. I can only assume that they have had bad experience with picky tourists before. Our Japanese is not good enough to explain that we are traveling to see something different and that if we wanted western-style food we could have just stayed home, so instead we just smile and reassure them that we find Japanese food delicious.

August 31, 9:32 pm, Kamihoro Onsen, Tokachidake

43 miles, overcast.

Glad I learned the kanji for "men" and "women", as this morning the bath I had enjoyed last night was labeled "women's" instead of "men's." Apparently they swap the rooms back and forth. The layout of the two baths is slightly different; I assume they rotate them so that guests can enjoy both.

Took a morning walk through the woods around Highland Onsen. Judging by the pictures in the lobby and the gift shop full of lavender products, the onsen's claim to fame is the lavender fields out front. Walked through the fields this morning but we're too late in the season and there is nothing to see this time of year but low-cut bushes.

After breakfast we rode down to the Furano Cheese Factory and had some really good samples of cheese: the creamiest brie I've ever had and a couple other varieties. Their cheese-making class was full so we attended an ice-cream making class instead. After putting on cow-print aprons, the teacher had us mix the various ingredients together, then we put the milk mixture into a freezer. While that was freezing she showed us how to make waffle-cone bowls and gave us the batter so we could make our own bowls. Being hungry cyclists, we ended up making a lot of waffle cones. Apparently the lady hadn't expected this, as when she saw us with more than four bowls she quickly came over and took the batter away. Oops. They were delicious, though.

After eating lunch at Furano Cheese Ramen, where they put slices of cheese on the noodles, we finally got around to the day's riding. Our goal was the Kamihoro Onsen on Tokachidake, one of the mountains on the other side of the valley. We took the long way, through Rokugo and the foothills. Along the way the light on my bike fell off and skittered into the road where it was promptly run over by a truck. The other drivers, having enough time to react, all politely slowed down and steered around the debris. At a break in the traffic I was able to retrieve the pieces. Slightly misshapen now, has to be held together with tape, but it still works. Good thing LED lights are durable.

The views back into the Furano valley were amazing: sweeping fields backed by big mountains. Rolled through the foothills and stopped at a natural spring to refill water bottles before starting the serious part of the climb. Volcanoes tend to get steeper the higher up you go. The closer we got to the onsen at the top of the road, the slower we were going. At 6 miles, we were going 6 miles per hour. 45 minutes later, we were going 3 miles an hour with 3 miles left. This carried on until we finally rolled up to the onsen at about 5 pm.

The Kamihoro Onsen is situated on the side of the mountain, with an amazing view of the valley. We briefly soaked in their outdoor bath looking at the land we had ridden over. Our room and the dining room also overlooked the valley so we got to continue enjoying the views while we ate. As the sun set it lit up the foothills below us in dozens of shades of orange.

Dinner was Jingisukan again. Smaller portions than the beer museum but more variety. One of the most tender pieces of meat I've ever had. Dining room was mostly empty, must not be a peak time for them.

After eating we retired to the baths for the second time to soak our sore muscles. This bath was built from rustic wood. They must not filter the hot spring water because it was somewhat murky and smelled like minerals. They have a fantastic cold pool and although the others couldn't take more than I quick dip I kept my legs submerged they were numb.

This is where you wash

Cold pool on the left, hot on the right.

September 1, 8:00 pm, Potato Hostel, Biei

44 miles, heavy rain in morning then sunny.

Weather was unsettled this morning, with gusts of wind blowing through our open window when we woke up. It started raining before breakfast but we went on a hike anyway. Went up to the volcano crater. Weather got worse as we climbed, leaning into the wind, the rain stinging like hail. The crater was in a steep valley with sulfur steam vents. The weather was the perfect compliment to the location.

When we got back down to the onsen we were dripping wet. They kindly let us warm up in the hot water baths again. The rain quit while we were relaxing but the road surface was still wet so I attached a makeshift fender to my bike by cutting a plastic water bottle in half and bolting it to my fender. Between that and my front light which is now held together with electrical tape, my bike is starting to look like some kind of improvised contraption instead of a stately touring bicycle.

After our descent the sun came out and we rode through beautiful rolling farmland to Biei. At the visitor center in Biei we met the most helpful lady. She spoke excellent English and helped us get our lodging reservations for the next couple nights. Checked in at the hostel. There was some confusion with our reservation and they did not have dinner for us, and the local restaurants were already closed. After talking with the cook they decided they could provide food for us, but they must have seen how much bicycle tourists eat because they warned us that they wouldn't be able to provide large portions. We gladly accepted.

With dinner arranged we went out for a ride along the back roads of Biei before it got dark. On the way back I stopped to take a picture of a house while the others continued riding. I jumped back on the bike and rode hard to catch up with them, but couldn't manage to get them back in sight. After a while it dawned on me that I should have seen the hostel already. I had taken a wrong turn. Rather than go back, I decided to keep riding as up ahead there was a cross road that I could take to circle back to the hostel. When I reached the hostel, I saw only two bikes outside. Yana's bike was missing so back out I went, looking for Yana as she looked for me. Eventually we met up and returned to the hostel.

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Continued in part 2...