In 2004 we did a two week organized tour around the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido with a company called Journey into Japan. While we usually try to do self-supported tours we do occasionally splurge on sagged tours. This one turned out to be a real gem – it remains one of our all time favorite rides.
Day 1 (Sunday 11 July) – Sydney to Osaka
We left Sydney on Sunday at midday. When we checked in the Qantas counterperson said our luggage was overweight. She did not charge us, but said that they were really strict in Japan about it so she didn’t know what would happen when we changed flights in Osaka. We did not have any carry-on luggage, so she ‘suggested’ that we might want to think about getting a carry-on bag and move some of the things from our checked baggage into carry on. So we bought some extra bags in the Sydney airport for later use.
The flight was 9 hours on JAL and we arrived in Osaka about 8:30pm Osaka time. The hotel we were booked into was right at the airport so we just had to wheel our bike cases over and check in. Once we got settled in our room we went to a nearby restaurant and had yakisoba. The menu listed ‘rawhorse mince burrito’ but we decided to wait before getting too adventurous with the food!
It was quite warm and humid in Osaka, but overcast.
We flew the next morning from Osaka to Chitose, Hokkaido about 11am. Before we checked in we repacked some things into our hand luggage. We put those bags in a locker while we checked in, just to avoid too many looks by the check-in folks. The luggage seemed to be fine – no comment at all about it! So, we went back and got the carry-on luggage and made our way to the gate. It was strange to be completely surrounded by people speaking a foreign language again.
While we waited to board we discovered a great thing in the Osaka airport that would be one of our favourite things throughout the remainder of the trip. Rice triangles! These are nori (seaweed) and rice packed around various things (our favourite was smoked salmon), but they are packed such that there is plastic between the nori and the rice that you peel off just before you eat. That way the nori stays nice and crisp until you are ready to eat it. Dave bought one at the airport and we couldn’t really understand the instructions about how to unwrap it. We were sitting waiting at the gate and Dave was making a terrible mess trying to figure out how to unwrap it. A lady sitting across from us couldn’t stand it any longer and got up and helped Dave unwrap it correctly. When you look at the package closely it does have instructions (even numbering for which piece to pull first!). Anyway, from that moment we were hooked on them and ate them almost every day. Cheap, healthy food – what more could you ask for.
After we cooled off we went out to explore. Right next door to the hotel there was a big shopping center. We ended up spending the whole afternoon there, wandering around the various floors. The ground floor was the food floor – there was a grocery store area and then lots of hot food to purchase – essentially little take away shops. Almost all of the stalls had free samples so we ate our way around it a few times. We bought some little dumplings with fish in them for a snack and then later on had some ramen for an early dinner. It was quite fun, and brought back lots of memories from living in Japan years ago.
We went back to the room and Dave unpacked the bikes – everything seemed to be ok. The plan is to go out on a ride tomorrow to test them out. We went out to try to find an internet café somewhere, but didn’t have any luck – surprising, as we thought there would be internet access everywhere in Japan.
Day 3-4 (Tues/Wed July 13-14) – Chitose
Tuesday morning we had breakfast in the room – food that we had bought at the shopping center the day before. Great rolls and real grapefruit juice! We went out for a ride to test the bikes and to see how we’d fare riding in a foreign country where we couldn’t read the signs! We rode up to Lake Shikotsu based the recommendation of the ride leader. It was a nice ride, with not too much traffic. Getting out of the city was not too bad, as Dave’s map reading skills were pretty good even with the Japanese signs. The ride turned out to be a bit longer than expected (51 miles); I think Dave thought we had gotten lost once we made our way around the lake. We did eventually make our way back to the hotel though.
We took the train into Sapporo about 2 and wandered around a bit just taking in the sights. We got quite hungry but couldn’t seem to find any restaurants. I’m sure we were just not looking in the right places, but eventually found a little spot for udon noodles and curry. Sometimes it’s tiring being a tourist. We did some more wandering and found a visitor’s center. They had free internet so we surfed a bit and sent some mail. From there we found a very big shopping area (of course with tons of restaurants) and sampled our way through the food hall again. Then it was back to Chitose and the hotel to collapse.
On Wednesday we went to a seaside village called Otaru, which is on the northwest side of the island, not too far out of Sapporo. It is well known for its glass works. It was a nice little town, but was full of tourists (mostly Japanese). Tourism is clearly the main industry there. The town has connections to Russia; there are fishing boats and related businesses that have Russian signage on them near the ports. There were some great old buildings in Otaru.
We were trying to find a sushi bar for lunch – Dave really wanted a ‘sushi train’ type of restaurant. We stopped into a hotel to ask, and somehow, after several attempts, made ourselves understood. They gave us directions to a place down near the water so off we headed. I don’t think we would have ever found it by ourselves, but it turned out great! It was very busy, and full of Japanese. We had to sign in and wait – I wrote my name in katakana and made the counter girls laugh. When they called our name they giggled a bit – it was pretty clear who was next! Anyway we had lots of fun and ate some really good food. After lunch we wandered around a bit more and then headed back to Sapporo for dinner at a buffet (Dave’s choice) and then back to the hotel to get ready for the real start of the tour on Thursday.
It was a bit out in the country but turned out to be quite a fancy shop – it was small but had lots of high-end gear. It turns out the owner has done quite a few triathlons and coaches some local kids. We talked to him for a bit – he knew a bit of English so that, together with my rough Japanese allowed us to get a few ideas across. I’m sure he doesn’t get too many Westerners just stopping by! We bought a jersey and a cap and headed back to the hotel to meet up with the ride leader.
John, the tour leader, and Margo, his assistant on this trip, showed up around 11:30 to pick us up. We loaded our things into the van and headed off to the airport to meet the rest of the group who were arriving from Osaka. They didn’t arrive until 1:15 or so, so after we deposited our bike boxes at the long term storage place we had a bit of time to wander around. Of course, we looked a bit funny wandering the airport in our bike gear but oh well. We wandered the shops trying out all of the free samples and had some lunch – rice balls again!
When the rest of the group arrived we waited while they got all of their bikes together. There are 12 of us in the group – nice size. We got our briefing and then finally got on the road about 4pm. We rode together the 34K to Lake Shikotsu and got there about 5:30. We are staying at a traditional ryokan – very nice, with a hot bath and sukiyaki for dinner. The bath etiquette is quite important to get right, washing first by the sinks, soaping up and dumping water over you with the buckets, before you get into the hot water. The water feels very nice – your own spa bath every night! I think this will really be a fun trip.
We have a longer day tomorrow – 118K so we are off to bed early.
Day 6 (Fri July 16) Lake Shikotsu to Shizunai (75 miles)
We slept well and were up for breakfast at 7am. It was a traditional Japanese breakfast, the first of many on the trip. We had raw egg, fish, miso soup and nato – ate most of it but I couldn’t do the nato, as I remember that from my time in Japan previously. Dave ate his though – we’ll see if he eats it again!
We had our briefing at 7:30 and got on the road about 8 am. John will give us maps for each day, explain the day’s terrain and what to look for, the signs and other landmarks that will help us find our way. Then we are on our own – though he and Margo will be driving the route to make sure we all eventually get there. Pretty exciting, especially when you can’t read the signs! The maps John has given us are quite detailed, and it is simply a matter of matching the kanji symbols on the street signs to those on the map and being a bit adventurous. John and Margo will take turns riding with us – John speaks fluent Japanese, Margo doesn’t speak much.
Today the sun came out not long after we set off about 8 and it was quite warm. We rode along a bike path for awhile until we reached Tomokomai City. Along the bike path we ran into some cleaners who were trimming the foliage along the path and sweeping it with brooms. It was quite production – the path didn’t seem that busy to warrant such detailed attention but maybe it gets used more on the weekends.
At Tomokomai we ran into Heather and Steve, two members of our group. They were at one of the big intersections trying to determine which way to go and we ended up riding with them the rest of the day. Dave did some good navigating to get us through the city traffic and then we got on some alternative routes through farmland. We met up with John along the way and took some more back roads until we reached the ocean and turned onto a major highway that went along the sea.
We stopped for morning tea at a shop that turned out to be mostly a fish shop and a restaurant. We found some snacks to eat, but the owner insisted we sit in the restaurant area to eat them – they brought out tea and cold ice water for us. It was very nice to sit there and cool off. Fortunately the place wasn’t too busy as it was early so we weren’t taking up seats from paying customers.
After the morning stop we rode quite a while down the coast. While it was somewhat developed there were quite a few horse farms along the way – the area is apparently well-known for its horses. We started to get hungry for lunch, and stopped at one store to try to find some rice triangles. We weren’t successful the first stop but then found a 7-11 that sold them. We introduced Heather and Steve to them, and sat together in the shade and ate our triangles and snacks.
From there it was only another 5k or so to the inn (Shizunai Kyuyo Home) where we were staying just past the town of Shizunai. The inn was set back from the road quite a bit but we found the turn-off thanks to John’s signs. We got settled in our room and then went down to the baths – I could get used to this kind of life, with a hot bath at the end of every day!
Dinner was a great spread of sushi and lots of other Japanese delicacies – all very good and filling. Then we actually got a chocolate Sunday for dessert! After dinner Dave and I played ping pong for a bit and then headed off to bed. We get to sleep in a bit tomorrow, as breakfast is not until 7:30.
Day 7 (Sat July 17) Shizunai to Erimo (43 miles)
We woke up about 6:45 this morning – though I was up briefly about 4:30 and it was completely light out even that early! It was our anniversary and Dave surprised me with some gifts – a very pretty opal necklace that he brought with him from Australia and maps to the Bibbulmun track in WA that we will do one of these days. Very nice surprise.
We had another traditional Japanese breakfast – this time with a whole dried fish. I ate most of mine but couldn’t quite get the head down. Of course, Dave ate all of his. Some of the folks are struggling with the food – I’m glad I have had a chance to experience it before and am fairly comfortable with it. Having warm miso soup and rice for breakfast is actually quite nice.
We set out about 8:30 today. It was cloudy and the forecast called for possible rain. We were continuing our way down the coast highway, but traffic was quite a bit less than yesterday. The road was quite close to the water and there were very steep hills next to the road. There really wasn’t much space between the mountains and the ocean but despite this there were many fishing villages nestled in next to the hills. Seaweed collection seems to be a big job here – almost all of the beaches had concrete platforms where the seaweed was laid out to dry. Some houses even had it lying in the front yard and along the foot path. We found out later it is called ‘konbu’ in Japan – thought to be very healthy and good for you.
We stopped after about 30k at a coffee shop that John had recommended. John was waiting along the main drag to make sure we didn’t miss it. We first went to a French patisserie that was around the corner and got some very nice cakes to have and then went to the little coffee shop down an alley. It was very good coffee, nice and strong. A lovely way to have morning tea! You find all kinds of gems down little alleyways in Japan – and you can’t judge the inside of a shop by what it looks like from the outside!
From there we continued along the coast line, and had some tunnels to go through. Those were a bit scary – long and dark. The weather was getting a bit misty but it was not really rain. There were several shrines along the road that provided some very picturesque views.
We rode into Erimo about 1pm. We got into our room and headed off to the baths. Boy, they were hot today! Then we headed out to find some lunch in Erimo. It is quite a small town. We decided to be adventurous and went into a restaurant. We were the only ones there, so we got the full treatment. We sat at the sushi bar and the chef made sushi for us. We couldn’t really tell what were going to get but it all turned out really good. I had some fresh salmon that was really good. Then the sushi chef gave us some konbu to try. It was all very delicious.
After lunch we walked around the town. We walked down to the water and watched a boat unload some shellfish and then saw some red octopus – Dave put his finger in and it the octopus sucked onto it! Then the fisherman handed Dave a live shrimp and motioned for him to eat it – so Dave did (after breaking its head off!). He was very proud of himself – though maybe they were just trying to see what the weird foreigner would do! We wandered around some neighbourhoods and then walked up to a very large shrine nearby.
For dinner we had a very big spread – in front of each of us was a set up with two burners with bowls cooking full of seafood – clams, vegies, prawns, scallops and more. We had sushi too – there was lots of food. We shared our sweets and konbu with everyone – at one point everyone was chewing away on the konbu, quite funny!
Day 8 (Sun July 18) Erimo to Hiroo (43 miles)
We had another traditional Japanese breakfast this morning – feels so healthy to start the day that way. We left town around 8:30 – it was a bit foggy but the forecast was for sun today.
Not too far out of town we got the turn-off for Erimo Misaki (Cape) – the main road turned left to cut across the tip, but we went straight to go to the edge of the landmass – the cape. Along the way we saw a lot more folks out drying the kelp – I guess with the sun coming they wanted to take full advantage of the drying time. We had quite a few rollers – up and down on the way to the cape, and it was getting quite foggy.
We reached the cape and walked around it a bit – it is a bit of tourist site. We saw a seal or sea lion out in the water. It was quite cool, windy and foggy so unfortunately we couldn’t see much. They have wind tunnel inside the visitor’s center – we watched some folks go into it, quite funny!
We looked through the tourist shops and sat and had coffee, as we didn’t have far to go today. We sat and ate pretzels and caramels – there wasn’t much too eat. Finally we took off, and from the cape we made the turn north. The sun came out and it turned into a very pretty ride. It was very green and lush along the way – obviously gets a bit of precipitation! We went through many tunnels, over 10. One tunnel was 3K long, and had a light on either end. Some workers at the first end were a bit confused and at first did not want us to ride through. We were with Steve and Heather at the time – Steve had his bike in the back of a truck getting ready to be driven through when for some reason they changed their mind again and let us ride through.
We arrived at Hiroo and the hotel about 1:15. We got into our rooms, but bath time wasn’t until about 3 so we got a recommendation for a ramen shop. Hokkaido is very proud of its ramen so we were anxious to try some. It turned out to be very good. Dave had ebi tempura (prawn tempura) soba and I had miso ramen. Delicious! Everyone coming in did a bit of a double take when they saw us but all were friendly. Then we headed back to the hotel for a rest, a bath and a great dinner. Dinner was another great spread – lots of seafood again. I am sure we are being spoiled – I’ll bet it would be very hard to get this kind of food on our own.
Off to a good night’s sleep.
Day 9 (Mon July 19) Hiroo to Tachigawa Spa (Tsusui) (near Makubetsu) 55mi
We had a treat at breakfast this morning – warm eggs! Lots of the folks were happy about that. We hit the road about 8:15, with the temperature not too warm yet but forecast to hit 27.
The first 30K today went really fast. We rode inland from the coast, and saw lots of farms with corn, wheat and onions. We stopped for some pictures and also to look at several shrines along the roadway. John had mentioned that along the way there was a spot famous for its elephants (statutes) and there was a coffee shop near there that he always liked to stop at.
We did find the elephants – a bit bizarre – this beautiful large park with several cast irons statutes of elephants. Then just up the road we found the coffee shop, and John was there. So, we stopped and had a coffee. The place didn’t have much food, but John said they also had sausages that were quite good but we weren’t quite ready to have sausages at that time of day! Everyone stopped, so at least we gave them some business for the day.
From there we had 40k of tailwind – needless to say the day went really fast! We took an alternative route using John’s maps, and it turned out to be very nice. We were away from most of the traffic and it was quite scenic through the farmlands.
We stopped at a store in Makubetsu to pick up lunch supplies before we headed off to the hotel. The hotel is apparently a famous spa – we got a bit lost but stopped to ask directions and everyone knew were it was. Once we got to the hotel we were a bit early, before the arrival of the bus, so we sat at some picnic tables in the front of the hotel and ate our rice triangles and crackers in the sun. It was all very pleasant. We have learned what ice tea we like from the vending machines (without all the added sugar) so we had cold tea to go along with it.
After eating we headed up to our room – it is quite spacious. We had a nice bath and then did a load of laundry and Dave wiped down the bikes a bit. We had a nice dinner again, though not as much food as in previous evenings. That was fine with us though. Margo had gotten some red wine that she shared with us – that was a nice treat that we will need to repay on another night.
Breakfast isn’t until 8am tomorrow so we can have a bit of a sleep in.
Day 10 (Tues July 20) Tachigawa Spa – Nakabiru (36 miles)
The day started in quite an exciting way – when we woke up it was raining, and then we had an earthquake! It was a small one but everything in the room was shaking. Quite an exciting start to the day.
We had breakfast about 8am. Since the weather report indicated that the rain would be gone by mid-morning John suggested we all go into town and look around and then have a late start. We had planned to go into town anyway with John, as Dave’s bike was having some trouble and John said that there was good bike shop in town.
So we all headed into town. While the rest of the gang wandered about a bit we tried the first bike shop. The owner was just opening the shop but said the mechanic had a sick child in the hospital so she wasn’t sure when he would be in. We looked around the shop a bit – it was a nice bike shop with lots of things. I found a nice jersey with the name of the shop on it to buy.
We thought we’d try some other shops so walked down the street a bit. We did find another shop – more of a day-to-day bike shop. The shop owner tried but couldn’t seem to fix it. Dave was getting a bit nervous with the owner cranking away on his bike! That was not successful so we headed back. Most of the gang was now in the first bike shop looking around. It turned out I got the only jersey – that shop could have sold 10 bike jerseys if they’d had them!
We went across the rode to a cake shop – John always seems to know where the cake shops are. It was a nice one with lots of different things so we all looked around and bought cake slices and had some coffee. Then John came back and said the mechanic was now at the nice bike shop, so Dave headed over with his bike. Success – he did get it fixed.
We headed back to the hotel and finally got on the road about noon or so. The roads were dry by then, so it all worked out well. We had an easy ride today, through flat farmland. We stopped at a really interesting place that John recommended referred to as the Teepee. It was a restaurant/herb shop that was hand built by the couple who live there. They grow lots of herbs and dry them. We had a great pizza there and then had some delicious rhubarb tea. It was really good! Margo came in when we were there so it was fun to have a chat with her.
We got to the hotel, Nukabira Kaniko Hotel, near Lake Nukabira, about 3. The hotel is just at the bottom of a mountain, which we will climb in the morning. It looks like a very nice little spot – in the winter it s a popular ski location. We had a shower, relaxed a bit and then had dinner – another big spread. After dinner we went to have a bath – it was outdoors. Very nice. We are making it an early night, as we have an early start tomorrow.
Day 11 (Wed July 21) Nukabira Onsen – Kanayama Kohoyo (61 miles)
We were up early and had our bags at the bus by 6:30am. We had the big climb first thing today and John had gotten everybody worked up about times so many (including Dave) were looking at really trying to hammer up the hill. We had breakfast – they had a ‘Western’ option even! We didn’t eat too much, knowing that we had to climb right away.
I left before Dave and went my own pace. It was a very pretty ride up through the forest, a bit steep in places but not too bad. Dave passed me about ½ way up and ended up with the tied with Steve for the fastest time. Dave waited for me at the top and we then had a 13K ride downhill. That was very nice. At the bottom of the hill we stopped at Lake Shikarabetsu for a picture. At that point it started to rain lightly and then got harder. As we climbed out of the lake area it kept raining harder and harder. From the top as we headed down it was really pouring.
The rain cleared up as soon as we got down to the flat and the sun came out. From there we had some tricky turns to make to keep on track so we kept a close eye on our map. We made our way to the start of our second climb of the day, about 10k up to Karachi Pass. It was quite windy on the way up, we were in the sun most of the way. The climb wasn’t too bad, and soon we were at the top of the pass. It was really windy at the top. We had to wait a while, as Margo was still out on the road with the van, and John didn’t want us to get too far ahead. So we hung out and had some lunch – I had ramen and Dave had ebi tempura soba. Very good. Heather and Steve showed up too so we sat with them for about an hour and a half. We also shared a mixed melon cone – melon flavoured ice cream that was very tasty.
We finally headed down the hill to the lodge where we were staying tonight. It was really windy on the way down. John came powering along on his bike so we grabbed on and made good time for the next 30k or so.
Near the hotel there were some great lavender fields in bloom so we stopped for some pictures. The sun was in and out behind the clouds but it was warm and the bees were buzzing all around the lavender but didn’t seem too interested in us, thank goodness!
The hotel is interesting – not quite as nice as the others we have stayed in but we are in the middle of nowhere. It isn’t bad – I think we’ve just gotten spoiled with all the great places we’ve had so far. There is a park across the road from the hotel so after a bath we went and had a walk around. It looks like you can camp there even. Hmmm, might have to keep that in mind if we can ever make it back here for a self-supported tour.
We had a buffet for dinner tonight. Lots of different things, including tater tots! I ate too many of them. Off to bed, we have an early start tomorrow at 6:30 for a 110k day.
Day 12 (Thur July 22) Kanayama K Hoyo Center – Asahi dake (70 miles)
We woke up to blue skies this morning. We had a 6:30 briefing and breakfast at 7:00. Interesting breakfast – they had chips for breakfast. I passed on those – didn’t need to be burping up chips all day….!
The first 30k of the day were flat along the river. We stopped at a little store for morning tea and found some really good croissants and buns – amazing what you find at the little stores. Our riding partners Heather and Steve were eating chocolate – seems to work for them!
From the stop we rode along the valley through some really pretty farms. We stopped at an art gallery, looked a bit but didn’t go in all the say. From there we rode on to the Takushinkan – a photo gallery of pictures from Japan’s most famous landscape photographer. There were lots of pretty pictures to look at and we spent some time walking through the gallery. It was quite a popular site and there were lots of Japanese visiting as well. We bought some cards as a memento.
We had a nice little spin into lunch at Biei. We bought some rice balls and snacks and sat on a bench and ate lunch in the sun. As we were sitting there John drove by with some bikes on the van and folks in the van. It turned out that there had been a crash and Helen, one of the riders, had gotten injured. Didn’t sound great – she broke her hand, her nose and some teeth – ouch!
We left town and rode through some more farms – lots of melons, rice paddies, wheat and vegetables. It was a very pretty ride in the sun – we were a little nervous with the knowledge of the crash so tried to be extra cautious riding. We made it to the start of the last climb up to the hotel at the top of the Asahidake ski area. John had talked about times again, so Dave was pretty focused on time. He stayed with me for awhile but I couldn’t keep up the pace so he took off about ½ way there. It was a hard climb – Dave made it in 46 minutes, I got there in 53 minutes. It was tough but good to get to the top!
The place we are staying is really neat – it is a ski lodge that is all hand built out of wood by the owner. There is a little bar out the front, with the rooms upstairs. We celebrated with a beer and some peanuts – Margo joined us when she got there. The clouds cleared up and we got to see the top of the mountain.
We had a great bath – lovely wood bath and nice and hot! Then we had a great dinner – really good smoked fish, with some fresh fruit for dessert. It was all really good and we got coffee as well. Helen was released from the hospital and as they could not adjust her tickets to fly home early she came and joined us. She looked a bit sore but was in good spirits otherwise, considering her crash.
Then we started talking about the morning – Margo suggested a hike up to the top of the mountain first thing in the morning before we headed back down the mountain. Well, couldn’t really resist that, could we? So we are off to bed so we can get up to start hiking at 4:30am!
Day 13 (Fri July 23) Asahidake – Asahikawa (30 miles)
We got up at 4am this morning to meet Margo for our walk. Amazingly it was already light out. It was only about 4k up to the viewing platform but it was a pretty good climb and was harder than expected. We passed a couple of people along the way, so were the first ones up to the viewing platform.
We could see the plumes from the volcano from the platform, and could smell the sulphur. The sun came over the hill while we were up there – very nice. We headed back down the hill. There were quite a few people coming up as we were going down – it looks like a popular walk. Many of them had bear bells – there are apparently quite a few bears around!
We made it back to the lodge for breakfast at 7:30 – another great meal. Then we had a bath and even had time for a nap, as we didn’t need to leave until about 10:30. The ride back down the hill was great – it was a long way down! We rode for about 40k through the valleys. We met up the rest of the group so that we could ride into Asahikawa together.
We made it to the hotel and got into our rooms. John offered to drive us all to an outdoor store. That was fun – there was even an old bike shop across the street that we spent some time in. I’m sure the owner didn’t know what hit him when all of the foreigners came in.
We headed back to the hotel, showered and wandered around a bit until dinner. Dinner was good – tempura. Hard to believe the trip is over – tomorrow we catch the bus to the airport and fly back home.
The whole trip was really great – one our most favourite bike trips. A lot of that can be attributed to our great hosts, John and Margo. They had just the right attitude – helping out when we needed it but letting us do our own thing too. They were very laid back, didn’t get worked up about things – even dealing with Helen’s accident in the right way without getting all worked up about it.
I think also because we knew a little bit of Japanese we were a bit more comfortable trying things out. That made the trip more exciting and fun. We had lots of great food, saw lots of great countryside and really got away from it all for the two weeks were there. Hopefully we can make it back there again.