We had reached Sapporo. Picking up our bikes in one piece, putting them together and finding our way out in the dark had gone to plan. A first nigh spent in the rain followed by a ride through misty fields had taken us to the capital of Hokkaido. Here we were greeted by Zin, a fellow packrafter I had contacted before our arrival. And that is how on a rainy afternoon we found ourselves by the river, under a bridge, drinking hot tea and talking about biking and rafting. After Zin’s warm welcome we spent two days sorting our route out, camping by the river and getting some last supplies.
Both spider and people work away in the misty Hokkaido morning
Starting a bicycle journey, with thousands of kilometres ahead is daunting. The main source of apprehension as we set off was to consider our fitness and especially possible injury. Both of us had suffered from leg or knee issues over the years and needed to be careful. Nothing would be worse than having to stop on the first week. Thankfully we had no current problems, other than being slightly out of shape. We hadn’t found the time to train much before picking our bikes up in Chitose (see our preparations post) meaning we decided to pace ourselves and cover smaller distances for the first two weeks. This would hopefully allow us to become accustomed to our bikes and push ourselves that much further in the long run.
Good company, tsu kemen noodles and a great well-wishing message. (That you should always have wind in your backs)
With this in mind the first climb up to Shikotsu lake suddenly seemed rather steep with fully loaded panniers. We persevered, fuelled by some onigiri and were enfolded by the green forest, vibrant and alive. Reaching the lake we were dazzled by the blinking surface which reflected the volcanoes wreathed in rolling mist. The low clouds presaged an agitated climate so we made the most of some sun while it lasted. After circling one of the shores we set up camp, our first real day of pedalling complete.
Next morning the jungle like forest had gone from humid to full saturation. It was pouring! The leafy canopy filtered out the fine rain, allowing only the large drops to fall down onto us. Steam seemed to rise from the ground. We were soaked in minutes. This would be our cycling life for much our Nippon odyssey. As with most things it’s better to start early!
Over the course of the next few days we continued through lush vegetation and volcanic lakes. After Shikotsu the road took us to lake Toya. This ancient cauldron encloses two islands and has some nice sandy beaches. We camped on one before continuing towards Hokkaido’s very own perfectly conical volcano: Enzo Fuji. It was an elusive mystery for several days, wreathed in mist, only giving us a glimpse of its silhouette just before our departure. It is the main icon of the famous village of Niseko, where skiers flock in winter to taste the powdery snow.
As we sweltered under the crushing heat it was difficult to imagine the vegetation hidden by metres of snow. The lodges and lifts seemed out of place in the tropical green setting.
From Niseko we said goodbye to the mountainous interior and dropped down to the west coast; wild and weather beaten. As we approached the green forests gave way to sharp black rocks, small and half abandoned fishing villages with crashing waves. The smell of salt permeated everything. The ever present tsunami warnings and the ladders leading up to high ground reminded us of the power of the sea. This was compounded by the shattered houses and huge sea walls protecting the little harbours.
Portrait: Packrafter. Cyclist. Explorer.
The Japanese do not do things by half measures. During our travels we did not see many other travellers. In a country were so many conform to fitting in, those that do break the mould do it completely. Perhaps this is why the few runners or cyclist we did cross seemed to be giving it their all. Or why some of their explorers seem so extraordinary, such as Yuchiro Miura “the man that skied Everest” or xxx who led a life of adventure and even death pursuing dangerous exploits. It is maybe the same trait that has produced some of Tokyo’s famously colourful characters that break away from conventional sombre attire. In this line of non-conformists, our friend Zin is readily pursuing outdoor feats that are so far from the safe and secure pastime that many Japanese pursue. Dreaming big, he has just completed a bike and raft trip on the Yukon.
As we pedalled south, the rain continued to drum down on us, mixed in to the ocean’s mist. Solace was provided by the tens of tunnels that cut through the cliffs and the odd stop in a sea-side restaurant. From sea to plate. Surrounded by wriggling and swimming company we sampled sushi and sashimi. It was raw and real.
One of the words that you quickly learn in Hokkaido, or Japan for that matter is onsen. They are hot natural springs that tap in to the active geology of the islands to give a relaxing, cleansing bath. In a country where bathing is an institution Hokkaido’s volvanic landscape is an excuse to get naked and enjoy. We had already passed many of the huge buildings that have sprung up and enclosed these natural treasures but we had set our hearts on something more special. Hidden away in the mountains some simple and free hot pools can still be enjoyed under the foliage. On yet another wet and grey day alone on the west coast we turned off the main road and attacked a steep climb into the mountains. A river churned down the gorge that we crossed, high above. Following it up, into ever deeper forests we reached the end of the road. From here we continued up a dirt track where smoking sulphur coloured rocks told us we were near. A small path descended towards the crashing torrents below. A wooden changing room, complete with a moss covered roof was the only amenity. A few more steps and a basin, chipped out of the rock, was filled with steaming water. Just behind, a crashing waterfall added a dramatic backdrop.
On our arrival the pool was occupied by some locals, but by the time we had taken our clothes off they were leaving. Easing ourselves into the hot water after a day on the bike was bliss. The cold spray from the waterfall offset the steaming heat from the pool and made it that little bit more special. Feeling comfortable and very much alive we looked up at the infinity of leaves above us. It had started to rain, and that just made it better.
From the west coast we crossed over to Hakodate, a fishing town that has sprawled out around the original harbour. Its speciality is squid, which can be seen briefly in the morning fish market before they are promptly pulled out of their comfort zone and sliced, diced and served to excited guests. Crabs and fish suffer a similar fate under the same roof.
Sailing from Hokkaido we set our sights on Tohoku, the northern region of Honshu which is Japan’s main and largest island. Although this is where most of the population lives, the north remains wild. Like Hokkaido it has beautiful nature but changes the Ussuri brown bears for their black cousins. The mountains have similar green forests and we decided to conclude our quest for the most beautiful volcanic lake trilogy with lake Towa. But to get there we would have to vanquish the steepest climb we had encountered so far. Having left our Aomori camp early in the morning, by the time we were on the mountain it was hot and the gradient seemed impossible. We laboured up to find there would in fact be a second climb before reaching the lake. Fortunately it was much flatter and would go through the amazing Oirase gorge. Even at the beginning of the green gully there is moss everywhere. It covered rocks and trees and is even fashioned into fascinating “moss-balls” by the locals. We had not followed the path up the river for long before we stopped to admire the first of many waterfalls that descend on either side. Unfortunately, night time fell on us so we pushed on up to the lake to set up our tent. The next morning, after breakfast we descended the gorge again for a second-helping of the green landscape.
After Oirase and Towa we climbed into green misty mountains again our sights set once more on the promise of wild onsen. A long descent gave way to rice fields and after snakes and an attack of blackfly we made it to small shack which covered the hot spring. We slid open the doors just as the day’s light was fading. The steaming water eased away some of the pain from bites and toil, and once again the onsen worked its magic.
Wanting more, in the morning we decided to try and find another spring which is more remote. Pedalling up a dirt track we found the bubbling pool, yellow and red from the water’s deposits. It had not been used recently so we had to clean off some of the scum and dead flies. Seeing the bubbling water and its smaller size we decided not to go in completely but it made a great foot bath!
Portrait: The Kuma lady.
A delicious aroma greets us from the side of the road. It is sweet corn, slowly cooking next to the fields. Some huge tomatoes are laid out for sale. A gentle, wizened face greets us with a toothy smile. We decide to eat some corn and she picks some out, always talking and smiling. The language barrier does not matter one jot. We are asked about our travels. Have we encountered any bears? She gesticulates; showing longs claws and big arms. She imitates its movement and stretches up, her small frame pretending to be much larger. We are told of her encounter with one of the “Kuma”. She manages to convey its danger and how she escapes. We finally leave filled by the sweet-corn and her vivacity, and will remember her during our travels. It is a great example of why we travel on a bike and she will of course always be the kuma (bear) lady.
It was time to leave the mountains once again and we started cycling towards the coast. As we descended, we were surrounded by more and more rice-fields. A bike path took us along the river and we saw herons and egrets fishing between the plants. It was still hot and we finally had some very sunny weather! After a couple of days we reached Akita, the main city of the province, just before the famous Kanto festival. The Tohoku region is famous for its matsuri, which take place over summer. Together with Akita, the most important are the Nebuta festival in Aomori and Sendai’s Tanabata. The Kanto is a parade of huge lantern-carrying bamboo poles that light up the night, accompanied by the rhythm of taiko drums, flutes and signing. The poles are balanced by the performers, often on their foreheads (for more see Japan’s Ten bike post).
We arrived just before nightfall after a very long ride, to see the last of the preparations being completed. People were already flocking to the parade ground and had started to line the streets. We quickly changed out of our cycling gear and approached one of the main avenues where the event takes place. It was soon packed, with many of the women wearing beautiful kimonos. As darkness fell, the performers arrived, the drums started to beat and the lanterns were lit. Suddenly the music died down as the poles were slowly lifted vertical. The crowd went wild cheering and the rhythmic singing picked-up again. The different positions and balancing acts drew more cheering from the onlookers. After a couple of hours of clapping, drinking and enjoying the show the lanterns came down one last time and the music stopped. Some groups drifted into side streets to continue dancing. We followed them and watched them perform their last acts. It was late but we had seen yet again another beautiful facet of Japan. In the morning we would be catching a ferry to take us south, so we cycled to the terminal in the dark and pitched our tent in a park. After weeks of wild landscapes we would swap the overgrown north for the more cultural pastimes of central Honshu. The Kanto had given us but a taste of Japan’s artistic and historical landscape.
For the map of the route we followed head over to here. For more about this project check this explanation. And if your are looking for inspiration for cycling in Japan check this post (coming soon!).