In 2009, we spent three weeks riding bicycles around Japan.
This is part 2 of the story of that trip.
(Part 1 is
September 3, 8:00 am, Daisetsuzan Youth Hostel, Asahidake
Distance ridden yesterday: 35 miles. Weather:
sunny, increasing clouds through day.
Yesterday morning fog covered Biei but burned off during breakfast.
The Potato hostel in Biei served toast with breakfast. We had all been craving
bread and ate almost a whole loaf during the meal, plus an entire jar of honey.
Left Biei after breakfast and rode across the valley, up the long gentle
climb to Asahidake. Asahidake is the tallest mountain on Hokkaido, and like
Tokachidake is part of Daisetsuzan National Park. There's a small ski town near
the base of the peak with a nice hostel. After checking into the hostel we took
the ropeway (gondola) up the mountain. It dropped us off by a small pond and
a group of sulfur vents in the crater. From there, a trail headed straight up the
rocky ridge to the cloud-covered peak. Loose volcanic rock, some dark and some
yellow from sulfur. Above tree line the whole way. On the left side of the ridge
the mountain dropped steeply down to the crater which was obscured by shifting
clouds. On the right, it dropped down to alpine forests far below us.
The clouds cleared away from the peak for a while as we climbed, then
returned. At a small shoulder just before the peak, we could look out above the
cloud layer. When we reached the peak, the view down into the crater was blocked
by clouds but we could see east across the park. Peaks and high hills extended
that way for miles.
Met a backpacker at the top whom we had also seen on the trail at Tokachidaki
two days before. While we had biked down to Biei and back up to this peak, he
had hiked across the park to get here. Shared food and stories with him as we
enjoyed the views from the peak.
To keep a light load on our three week trip I only brought two pairs of
shoes: my cycling shoes and a lightweight pair of flip-flops. Cycling shoes are
terrible for hiking so I wore the flip-flops on our hike. I wasn't sure how
well they would work but I had done some training hikes with them back home to
toughen my feet. Ended up being fine on the ascent, though they were
amusing to the Japanese hikers we met. Most of them were well-equipped with
sturdy boots, hydration packs, bear bells, trekking poles, etc. and they laughed
when they saw my footwear.
On the steep descent the loose rock made for treacherous footing. With
flip-flops, the trail required concentration to avoid slipping. Clouds started
getting thicker as we descended. Soon the air blowing over the ridge was cold,
gray, and damp.
When we got back to the hostel we were tired, dirty (especially my feet) and
ready for the hot springs. The hostel's bath consists of an indoor hot pool and
a beautiful outdoor pool formed out of lava rock with lush green plants growing
all around. Very relaxing after a long hike.
At breakfast this morning we met a lady visiting from France. She works for
the government and gets 10 weeks of vacation a year (sounded pretty nice to us).
She wasn't enjoying the food in Japan, though, and ended up giving us some of
her breakfast. We gladly accepted the extra calories. Portion sizes in Japan
are healthy, not the ridiculously over-sized portions that American restaurants
serve. This seems to be great for Japanese waistlines, as we have seen very few
obese or even chubby people. Bicycle tourists, however, need massive numbers of
calories every day so we are always on the lookout for extra food.
September 3, 8:00 pm, Tomato Minshuku, Biei
Distance: 49 miles. Weather: sunny.
This morning Brooks, Yana, and I took a side trip to Tenninkyo Gorge to see
the waterfalls. A short gentle climb brought us to a small group of hotels
nestled in a narrow canyon. Both sides of the canyon were cliffs of some kind
of columnar basalt covered with trees and brush. Asked directions to the
falls with my limited Japanese. A short trail brought us to the first one,
Hagoromo-no-taki; smooth streams of water flowing down curved rock. We continued
down the trail, along the edge of the river which flows through the canyon. The
water had an odd blue color but was clear and cold. We soon reached
the second falls, Shikishima-no-taki. Enjoyed the solitude for a while
before heading back down to our bikes.
Daisetsuzan is a large park but only has a few roads approaching its edges,
and none crossing it. The interior is only accessible by trail which
concentrates visitors on the edges of the park and makes it feel like a small
place. Yesterday on Asahidake we met the backpacker we saw at Takochidake.
Today at Tenninkyo we met a mother/daughter pair whom we had talked to on the
ropeway up to Asahidake.
After Tenninkyo we rode down to the information center in Biei. Talked to
same helpful lady as before. She told us Piaw had already reserved lodging at a
local minshuku (a sort of bed and breakfast) then she took our luggage, to be
delivered to the minshuku. Service!
We headed out to lunch and the flower fields in Bibaushi. Rode along the
"panoramic road" which offered wonderful views of the hills around Biei and the
peaks of Daisetsuzan. Without heavy luggage the bicycles felt alive, snappy,
full of energy. Ate lunch at a restaurant along the way then stopped at the ice
cream stand next door. The lady running it seemed happy to see us and betwen her
limited English and our limited Japanese we figured out what the flavors were
The flower fields were filled with all types of flowers, arranged in bright
stripes down the hill. They are at their prime in the spring but even in
September the colors were beautiful. The whole operation was extremely touristy but
I'm starting to expect that in Japan, where every scenic vista and tourist
attraction has a gift shop next to it. Regardless, it was enjoyable to walk
around among the flowers with mountain peaks rising in the
On the ride back to Biei we had our first flat tire of the trip.
Caused by an old patch giving out and not road debris. Not surprising
considering how clean the roads are here. The Japanese are either too
polite to litter, or someone is doing an excellent job of picking it all up.
Either way it leads to pleasant riding.
Went to a BBQ place for dinner. There was a small grill in the middle of the
table, but it was so shiny and clean that we weren't sure whether we were
supposed to put food directly on it on whether there was supposed to be a pan.
Finally our waitress came over and demonstrated that we were in fact supposed to
put the food directly on the grill.
September 4, 6:00 pm, Sounkyo Youth Hostel
61 miles, rain clearing to sun.
Left early this morning on our way to Akan National Park. This was our last
time with Brooks as he has to fly home this weekend and opted to stay in Biei.
It is sad riding on without him.
We left Biei and skirted the edge of Asahikawa on our way towards Sounkyo.
Rained a bit so we were wearing our foul-weather gear. As we crossed the bridge
over the river outside Asahikawa, Piaw noticed a bike path below us running
along the edge of the river. It didn't show on our maps, but it looked quite nice
and seemed to be headed the direction we wanted. Weren't sure it would take us
to Sounkyo, but decided to try it so we left the road for the bike path.
Soon we saw a sign showing the distance to Sounkyo which reassured us that
this path went where we wanted. Every kilometer we would pass another sign
showing the decreasing distance to Sounkyo. The path was well built, looked new,
and was mostly deserted. Unfortunately it turned out to be so new that it wasn't
even finished yet. It ended abrubtly at a rest area, with a sign explaining that
when the path was finished it would indeed go all the way to Sounkyo. Back to
the road for us.
Arrived in Sounkyo at about 1:30. Lots of hotels nestled in the bottom of a
river gorge, like Tenninkyo but larger. Ate lunch in the village then rode over
to the waterfall viewing area.
There used to be a pedestrian/bicycle road through the bottom of the canyon,
along the edge of the river. The road was closed after a landslide many years
ago and never reopened. The gate across the road had various warning signs on
it. We couldn't see any landslide and there was no one around so we went
exploring. Weeds were growing through the pavement but the road was still in
good condition. So much abandoned engineering back there: errosion-controlled
steam beds, tunnels, bridges, all slowly getting overgrown. Found a second,
taller gate across the road after maybe a mile, with a few large rocks in the
road past the gate. This gate seemed harder to climb over so we rode back
through the weeds to the gift shop and had ice cream.
Japan is in love with ice cream. You can buy soft-serve for
200-300 yen ($2-3) at every tourist stop, and there are tourist stops everywhere
in Hokkaido. Every shop has a cute statue of an ice cream cone so it
is easy to find the ice cream stands. We've been eating at least one ice cream
cone every day. One of the benefits of touring by bicycle is that you need a
lot of calories so you can eat pretty much anything you want.
Forgot to take off my outdoor slippers when I came back into the hostel after
working on my bicycle. Very embarassing. Here's a quick rundown of the slipper
system in Japan: There are three kinds of slippers: outdoor, indoor, and
bathroom. Everywhere we've stayed has provided communal slippers for these
purposes. You don't wear outdoor slippers indoors, you don't take indoor
slippers outdoors, and obviously bathroom slippers stay in the bathroom. As an
aside, you don't wear any slippers on tatami mats. This is all second
nature to Japenese, but gaijin tend to screw it up and do shocking things like
taking indoor slippers outside, or wearing bathroom slippers around the house.
Our hostel tonight doesn't have a bath so we paid to go to one of the fancy
hotels to use their onsen. It was very nice with 2 different baths. One was on
the 7th floor and had a great view of the gorge and surrounding mountains. The
other was at ground level and overlooked a perfectly manicured lawn with lovely
trees. Again Yana couldn't join us so we met up with her after.
September 5, 9:00 pm, Bihoro Youth Hostel
75 miles, rain in morning.
Long day: 75 miles. Longest ride Yana and I have ever done. Still feeling
great too, so we must be in good shape. Piaw says it is common for riders to get
stronger during a tour, assuming they are eating enough. Rain this morning as we
climbed the pass. Started with a 3.4km tunnel through Sounkyo Gorge. It had a
sidewalk and large ceiling-mounted blowers to move air through the tunnel.
Emergency phone booths the whole way. We rode with earplugs to escape the noise
from the cars and the blowers.
The descent was cold and wet through the mountain forest, then gradual
downhill across farmland to the city of Kitami. Traffic was heavy near the city
and the road was narrow. Not much fun. No English speakers at the tourist info
center in Kitami so we decided to just ride on to Bihoro.
Couldn't find the youth hostel when we got to Bihoro. As we were riding
around looking for it we stumbled onto a street fair. A security guard told us
we had to park our bikes in the bike parking area. We asked if he knew where the
hostel was, but he lives in another town so he didn't know either. We
wandered through the fair and bought a few snacks. When we got back to our
bikes the same guard ran up to us. He had asked around and obtained a
hand-drawn map showing where the hostel was. We ran into this kind of
helpfulness over and over while we were in Japan. It was amazing.
Checked in at the hostel, showered, did laundry, then went back to the fair
for more food. We were quite the curiosity, attracting lots of attention.
People would say hello to us in English and get excited when we said hi back,
but their English wasn't practiced enough to have a conversation. Everyone was
excited to sell us food. At one food stall, Yana asked for crepes with
blueberry and banana. This must have been unusual because all the people working
in the stall sounded amazed and the order was repeated several times to confirm,
then everyone laughed. At one place I think we got free chicken skewers just for
being gaijin (foreigners).
In the middle of this fair, we suddenly heard someone speaking perfect
English. This seemed surprising, since we hadn't seen any other foreigners. It
turned out to be an Indian man making naan in a tandoor oven. He was serving it
with curry and it was really good.
September 6, 8:30 pm, Lake Kussharo
43 miles, foggy in morning, headwind.
Short ride today, over the hill to Akan National Park. Headwind most of the
way; foggy on top of the mountain. Foggy enough that my arms were wet and we
couldn't see the visitor center from the parking lot. While we ate a snack the
fog cleared so we had a good descent to Lake Kussharo on a damp road. The lake
is pretty with clouds and fog on all the surrounding hills. Very humid.
As we get farther from Sapporo and deeper into fall it keeps getting harder
to get tourist info in English. Either the information staff doesn't speak
English (and is without English brochures) or the information desk is closed for
the season. More and more we find ourselves on our own. Fortunately there
aren't a lot of other travelers so lodging is easy to get and there is less need
for reservations. We've just been riding into town and looking for a place we
For tonight we found a lovely hotel with good food next to Kotan onsen, an
outdoor hot spring. There's also an Ainu museum next door. The Ainu were the
native people who lived here before the Japanese colonized the island. The
museum is a recreation of an Ainu lodge, filled with smoke from a wood fire in
the middle of the floor.
The hot spring was the first free public spring we've been in and the view
was fantastic, right on the shore of the lake. Separate parts for men and women,
but right next to each other so Yana didn't feel isolated. After soaking in the
hot spring we still had time before dinner so we rode back along the lake to
ride around the Wakoto Peninsula, which sticks out into the lake. The trail
which goes around the peninsula turned out to be a narrow hiking trail so we
ended up mountain biking on our road bikes.
My fork started making a popping noise yesterday. Every time I try to pedal while standing up it pops. Piaw is worried that it may be breaking so we are hoping it doesn't get
worse before we find a bicycle shop with a fork for sale. Until then, I'm
staying seated while pedaling since it doesn't make popping sounds when I'm
seated. Fingers crossed.
September 7, 8:00 pm, Utoro Minshuku
61 miles, tail wind turning to headwind in the afternoon.
Today Yana and I got tired of having wet feet. Piaw's fenders keep his shoes
fairly dry, but our feet are constantly getting sprayed with water from our
front wheels. Tried taping plastic bags over our shoes to try to keep them dry.
Mixed results; fenders would be better.
This morning, while photographing funny swan-shaped paddle boats at Lake
Kussharo, a young lady approached me. She was studying English and was excited
to be able to practice with some native speakers so we told her about our ride
and had a short conversation.
Though Lake Kussharo is beautiful, Lake Mashu is what Akan is really know
for. It sits in the crater at the top of a volcano. The tops of the mountains
were in the clouds today though. Didn't seem worth climbing up the
volcano since we wouldn't be able to see the lake anyway.
Instead we opted for another long ride to get us to Shiretoko.
Fast tailwind for most of the ride; 20mph at one point. Made good time until
the road turned and the tailwind became a stiff crosswind. To cope, our paceline
had to spread across the lane in an echelon formation, but the traffic was light
and drivers were polite so it wasn't a problem.
Stopped at one bicycle store along the way but they didn't have any forks for
my bike. They mostly had casual/commuter bikes, not road bikes. I'll just keep
babying the fork and hoping for the best.
Saw the ocean for the first time on the trip today, and now we're in a
minshuku overlooking the Utoro harbor. On this northern part of the island,
signs have started to be in Japanese and Russian.
Ate dinner at a fish market down by the water. Had a sashimi dish that
consisted of carefully arranged salmon on a bowl of rice, topped with salmon
roe. Very good. It was called "Mother and son."
September 8, 7:30 pm, Rausu Hotel
20 miles, rain & wind.
So wet today. Rain almost all day. Took the bus out from the Shiretoku nature
center to Kamiuiwakka-no-taki, a hot spring waterfall. It was interesting to
wade up the creek in the rain and not have cold feet but the trip was ultimately
disappointing. The rangers didn't let us go all the way to the actual waterfall.
The water where we were was tepid, not even warm.
After returning to town on the bus, we started our ride. The climb up
Shiretokotoge pass was lonely, as we all rode at our own pace and were soon
separated. I listened to the rain on the trees, watched drops of water form on
my helmet brim, watched the water drip off my head and shoulders down past the
bike, and watched the water run down the road into storm drains. I unzipped my
jacket, trying to find a balance between getting sweaty with the jacket on or
drenched with the jacket off. It didn't matter much, as I was wet all day
anyway. Cars and buses drove past and it was like their drivers were in separate
universes, speeding along in a little bubble of comfort, warm and dry. Once they
disappeared in the rain I was alone again and still wet. At least the deer
shared my universe, and understood what it was like to be drenched as they stood in
the wet brush and watched me ride past.
Near the top I rode into the cloud and it felt like my universe got smaller.
The wind picked up and occasional patches of lighter fog blew past. Soon the
wind was racing past and I could see glimpses of blue sky over the pass,
promising better weather on the other side. A false promise. At the top I let
the wind push me into the parking lot. The road I had just climbed was hidden
by a dense gray wall of cloud. Looking down the other side of the pass showed
sunny hills and blue ocean below, with clear sky beyond. The wind whipped over
the pass, pushing me around even as I stood. Yana and I dressed for the descent
in the bathroom as drivers/passengers braved the cold for a few
minutes to look over the edge. They would scurry back to their warm cars after
snapping their photos, while we stood in the doorway of the bathroom, wet and cold
and preparing ourselves for the descent.
The first few turns were ok, then the wind picked up. It shoved us around our
lanes, threatening to push us off the road or into incoming traffic. It
alternated between a tailwind, hurling us down the mountain faster than we
wanted to go, and a gusting headwind trying to stall us and throw us to the
ground. It was scary and beautiful. Around one corner the headwind was so strong
I couldn't shift down fast enough to keep pedaling. I wobbled to an unsteady
stop as the wind gusted into my face. Around another corner, a rainbow appeared
over the green hills below me. By the time we reached the town of Rausu at the
bottom we were all cold and mentally exhausted. We decided that was enough
riding for the day, even though we had only gone 20 miles. Shiretokotoge in bad
weather is not to be taken lightly.
Rausu gave us a view of Russia* and really felt like the end of the world.
Tried four or five places looking to find lodging. They kept saying they were full.
Never did figure out whether that was true or whether we looked so wet and
bedragled that they decided we wouldn't make good guests. Finally ended up
going to one of the more expensive looking hotels only to find it wasn't
expensive after all. We have a view of the harbor from our room.
Dinner was sashimi across the street from our hotel. On this far end of the
island there are no English menus, no picture menus, no wax models of the food.
Piaw and the waitress ended up writing kanji on a napkin to communicate.
Wonderful food and presentation. At the end of the meal we asked about dessert.
After thinking about it the chef and the waitress decided they could serve
potato mochi. It was fried and sweet, weird and delicious.
* The islands off the coast are currently under Russian control, though
Japan claims them as part of their territory.