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The following are 2 typical tours that cyclists would enjoy.
Hokkaido Tour 2002
Steve Gregson , Essex England.
June/July 2002. Hokkaido- Do you want silk-smooth and quiet roads, lovely mountain and coastal scenery, polite car drivers, friendly and generous people? Then give Hokkaido a try.
My wife and I went there on our second Japanese cycle tour and after initial concerns about finding available accommodation during the soccer World-Cup and the weather at that time of year, we were pleased to say we had a really relaxing month-long tour with generally warm to hot weather and only a little rain. Whilst in 1997 our trip had costs higher than in UK, in 2002 costs were less than at home.
Oarai ferry port is about one and a half days` ride from Tokyo Narito Airport using cycle tracks alongside busy main roads and we just turned up and got on the late afternoon ferry as opposed to the mid-night ferry that would have landed at Tomakomai at 8p.m. the following evening. We put our bikes in our homemade lightweight bike-bags at the terminal and a van took them away to the ferry. This saved us around ?10 per bike single as opposed to riding them aboard. There are discounts for a return fare and for over 60`s ( me). We elected to stay in the second class large dormitories where 30 or so mixed sexes could sleep on light mattresses. This was no trouble at all and the Japanese must be amongst the world`s best sleepers , it being quiet from 8p.m. to 8a.m. After a shower, a soak in the bath and washing our clothes, we had a good buffet dinner, a couple of beers then sat down to watch the Korea versus Italy football match together with a large crowd of Japanese soldiers .To my amazement they cheered the old enemy Korea when they scored a last gasp winner.
Arriving on Hokkaido on 17 June, at 13.30 it took me just a few minutes to recieve the bikes and then half an hour to fix the pedals etc. before heading into town to buy a good map that proved invaluable to locate quiet back roads during our trip. Having downloaded Youth Hostel details from the JYH website, the Lake Utonaiku location looked to be 3 blocks from the ferry terminal. We soon learned that the diagrammatic maps were just that and could be 10 miles from where you might initially expect them. There we had a bit of fun showing a team of young tennis players how to eat ice-cream with chopsticks before awaking next morning to have the warden point out a deer wading across the lake in view of the dining room window. Japanese hostels seemed to have a different philosophy to ours in that they are for people travelling alone to meet others consequently the wardens or `parents` as they are known play a much closer role with the guests especially at mealtimes.
On the next day, a Thursday we plotted a back-road route east to Mombetsu via a flattish agricultural landscape and immaculate stud farms and on the way diverted to visit an Ainu village . At the hostel we were lucky to coincide with the birthday of the warden`s granddaughter. We had a private room to ourselves and this was to be the case in all the hostels we stayed. Shorts and one long sleeved shirt were just about warm enough. In fact we only found shorts to be not warm enough on 2 days from the 28 and although we wore 2 layers plus a Gortex cape when it rained, on most days one layer on top was sufficient
Our short day yesterday left us with 63 miles to Erimo , the windiest place in Japan but we had a tail wind along the quiet, flattish coast road which became a bit hillier for the last 7 miles. On the way at Urakawa we stopped at the excellent local history museum before enjoying the seascapes with local workers wading into the surf to collect seaweed.
Monday, July 24th, we had a great send-off by the warden who stood in the middle of the road blocking all traffic waving an enormous flag. The coast road eastwards is known as the Golden Road due to it`s very high buiding costs in the 1930`s, and we could imagine it as it skirted high cliffs and the rocky coastline. After 20 miles we were sorry to turn inland and leave the dramatic coastline which we had followed for 3 days. Although there were more tunnels than in the rest of Hokkaido, they were no problem but a rear light and reflective ankle bands gave is a sufficient feeling of safety. At Hiroo, a small town we had lunch and visited the free railway Museum at the disused station. Whilst purchasing lunch, the shop assistant gave us some` hot-pads` to use if we got cold. Offers of gifts were a daily occurrence and a measure of the generousness of Japanese people. If we had accepted all the paper hankies, fans, cigarette lighters, hand towels, phrase books we would have filled an extra pair of panniers. As it was we accepted some coffees, sweets, rice balls as we travelled along and they were all very thankfully received.
After a night in a small Ryokan at Taiko, we headed north and a bit off our route to Obihiro to see the city and find some accommodation nearby. After mid-July , schools break up so things become more difficult. A nurse in Obihiro recommnended a Taho-Yado outside Memuro, we telephoned first and then rode off to stay the night there, with the lively and friendly nurse and her friend following later to join us in a Bar-b-Q in a tepee which the owner erects every summer in his garden. Taho-Yados are small family run guest houses where the owners have been travellers themselves and settled down on Hokkaido. This particular house was a self-build and had automatic lights that came on as you entered a room. It was there that we were warned about doing some serious rough-stuff into the hills as in 2001 4 people had been killed by bears , evidently they were people searching for berries so maybe cycling would not be so dangerous. Perhaps on our next visit, we will have more confidence, rough-stough has endless possibilities! After a small pass , on a main road albeit but with low traffic, we arrived early at Shintoku , our next scheduled stop, so had time to head off up another valley on a back road to visit a dam with a lovely park on the shores of the man-made lake ,where we had another picnic lunch and a nap. Nearby was a lovely Inn , a centre for climbing and other outdoor courses, with `silver ` discount for 60 year olds so we checked in and were able to have a lazy bath before a tasty meal in the restaurant that overlooked the lake. Needless to say we had a long sleep with such quiet surroundings. As in 1997, we had found it had taken us a week or so to get into an uninterrupted sleep pattern after the long flight to Japan.
Another sunny and warm ( 25C) day for our first hilly day but managed the 5 mile pass on a 57" gear before turning off Route 38 on minor roads with deer disturbed in the ditches and distant views of the snow still lying in sheltered couloirs on the mountains. We stayed at the very welcoming hostel at Rocugo-Furano where we were treated to Mozart on the piano played by a young lady guest, Keiko who was on an extended stay visiting the area. A feature of this hostel was the Polaroid photo taken nightly and the discussions afterwards over a glass of wine before we wrote our comments in a large guest book.
Another lovely day with temperatures 22C in the morning rising to 32 after lunch saw us visiting an art gallery , previously an old attractive wooden junior high school where we were able to have a fresh coffee and a piece of chocolate cake sat outside in very peaceful surroundings. We had come across a diversion onto an unmade road so knocking on a nearby door, as far as we could understand, there was no way through to Ashibetsu. However at the art gallery the artist rang up without us asking him and confirming that yes, we could get through. The diversion lead through the hills to another unmade road which was rather difficult to keep a straight line on as the pebbles were rather large. Glorious views of forested hillsides were our reward before arriving at Ashibetsu where the kind receptionist gave us a good 20%`silver` discount and the owner presented us with beers, nibbles and gave us his mobile number in case of any problems the next day- once again an example of the generosity we experienced all over Hokkaido. Although initially we could not find a suitable restaurant for eating, finally a couple of ladies gave us a big welcome and smiles when we had a look in through their cafe'`s front door. Later we heard the town had previously been an affluent coal town, now losing income due to pit closures so the restaurants were generally empty which is not ideal when you could do with a lively Saturday night out.
On Sunday morning we were off quite early , as we had a long 50 mile section through the mountains which in the end did not contain anything steep , the only difficulty being nowhere to buy any food and only a large dam half way where immaculate toilets had a tap for us to re-fill our drinking bottles. Near to Yubari Forest Y.H. we stopped to talk to a cycle camper on a lovely Japanese made 26" wheel tourer and warned him that if he was leaving that town, he would need to buy provisions. Coming from the Tokyo area he was amazed that anywhere in Japan would not have any shops every few miles. He was only a young lad on his first cycle-camping trip and had his knees heavily bandaged in addition to his toe-clips tied on with plastic bags! A family, speaking English who were starting a bar-b-q on their front yard were able to clarify the information but we had to leave him deciding his strategy before we pressed on the last few miles to our reserved hostel after our daily luxury of an ice cream cornet. Somehow we could not locate the turning to the hostel from the nearby rail station but on seeing the local police box we finished up being led by a police car which embarrassingly drove right up to the front door! The family running the hostel also had a melon farm so we were served delicious portions at the evening meal time. The building was a new self-build wood design built by Canadian craftsmen and as always we had a private room, lovely all-wood interior and a can of beer from the slot machine too.
July 1st. saw us having a coffee at the hostel then stopping at the nearby rail station for another coffee ( expensive) before heading westwards towards Yubari ski resort. On the way were many interesting things, firstly an old , stylish Rokumeikan club where the Emporer once stayed. Secondly the film set for a favourite Japanese love story `Yellow Handkerchief` was a few minutes off the valley road to the right. A gentleman mowing his lawn pointed the way to the place and later he found the hotel we were staying at and surprised us by visiting with a local English teacher to explain how the local economy had suffered by closure of the coal mines and what the council ( he was council chairman) was doing to improve the economy. In the hotel , we ate a 6 course meal total ?24 for 2 which included a beer each. We had preferred the main street hotel to the Cycling Terminal where the rooms smelled of stale cigarette smoke.
As we left the hotel the next morning, the receptionist would not let us go without 2 rice balls which we ate in the sunshine on a bench by a cycle path. Just outside the town we were able to have a look into a `Rider House` which had an ever open front door leading to a clean kitchen, lounge and dormitory floor where a motor cyclist was resting in his sleeping bag. On the descent, the smooth surface had many shallow length-wise grooves cut into it presumably for drainage. These made the bike feel as though it had a broken frame and the rear end tended to sway at speed!. Past Chitose, the main Hokkaido airport, a long uphill cycle path was separated from the road but bear warning signs kept us moving quickly. On arrival at Shikotsuko youth hostel, we were able to see Japan`s first ever Y.H. and meet a young couple with folding Brompton bicycles. The hostel was set in trees on a lakeshore.
Bidding farewell to our friends who were flying back to Tokyo after we had visited fuming earthquake damage from a 2000 quake, we studied where we could next visit as we had 2 days to spare before heading back to Tokyo ourselves. We realised that there was a youth hostel on the lakeshore so we booked it and then rode around the lake admiring beautiful wooded and volcanic scenery from quiet roads before an evening meal and persuading other guests to come with us along the lake to see the fireworks again. As ferries do not run on Sundays, we looked in the Lake Toya volcano museum, well worth a visit . This was after meeting 2 French cyclo-campers at precisely the same moment as 2 Japanese cyclo-tourists crossed our paths so we had a really good chat and all agreed that Hokkaido was great touring country. After lunch, the rain ceased and we climbed 10 miles over the Orofuno Pass , not too steep, all rideable through wooded hillsides. Down the other side the 3 youth hostels at Noborubetsu seemed to have closed down but there are many hotels in the famous spa town . We chose one with lots of basement hot baths of different temperature and water compositions. Food was delivered to our room, which is common in traditional hotels and I counted 32 plates of different fish, meats, veg. etc. for the 2 of us. Delicious!
The next day we rode on quiet back roads parallel to the busy main road that Josie Drew had ridden a couple of years before. This was after an early morning walk from the hotel around Hell Valley, a barren area of sulphur eruptions and boiling cauldrons. At the Tomakomai ferry terminal, we saw 60 year old MG`s and Lancias which with other veteran cars had been attending a rally on Hokkaido. One MG belonged to a motoring journalist who informed us that Japanese car drivers respect touring cyclists as they are thought to be intelligent people with good professions as they can afford to take long holidays. Talking to him was quite enlightening about the Japanese character and confirmed what we had always thought i.e. there were lots of similarity with the English. No problem booking on the ferry which was only perhaps a third occupied as there were still a couple of weeks before schools broke up. The overnight ferry was running in front of heavy winds and when we arrived at 2. 30 the next afternoon rain was already pouring down but we had made our minds up to make a dash down the coast to Choshi and stay in the hotel that had given us such a good welcome on the way out. On the way we had our only `near-miss` when a young car driver , eager to get out into the heavy traffic, suddenly pulled across the cycle-path we were riding along. Fortunately, I had seen him looking attentively for a gap and he was almost stopped and I was anticipating his move forward. A loud shout from my wife together with a pulling away of my front wheel from his bumper saved the day. He was most concerned for us and the bike , so we parted the best of friends. At the hotel later, the receptionist was overjoyed to see us again and dashed outside to greet my wife. The conference room was unlocked once more for our bikes. In hotels, we were mostly given locked rooms for our bikes whilst in Youth Hostels we left them under the eaves, locked up and dry. Although there is hardly any stealing in Japan, a good U-lock gives peace of mind. At a lively cafe', we ate lots of Chinese food and a beer for ?22 for 2.
Continuing along the coastal promenade, high seas were battering the shore but road R.30 was quiet in the rain that followed towards lunch-time and we did not get lost on our way to Ichihara City near to Chiba where we were to enjoy the last 2 days of our stay. Our former work-colleague` s wife had long wanted to visit Mt.Nokogiri and the largest statue of Buddha Daibutsu so off we went in her futuristic , small but 95 miles to the gallon car. In general the speed limits on Japanese roads, motorways excepting, are low at 60 kph.
Our final day saw all four of us all taking the train to Tokyo where I had long wished to visit the Japan Bicycle Culture Centre. There in the centre of Tokyo, and funded by Keirin racing, 30 or so people work to publicise cycling. We even saw a video of cycle- soccer where riders have to propel a ball into the net using the front wheel! Later we went to Yokohama and had a very interesting visit to a Noh theatre, beautiful with wood interior and we saw a video of a performance. Taking the Tokyo Bay expressway back , the bus went into a tunnel which rose out of the sea and continued across to the other shore by bridge. An interesting day of sightseeing in the capital and surroundings.
On the 13th of July, the plane took us over Siberia`s empty countryside before passing above Russia`s White Sea with it`s empty looking beaches, lakes and rivers to land at Heathrow where we re-packed them into the bike bags and took the underground/ above ground trains home. We hope to return in the near future to complete our Hokkaido touring by visiting it`s the north and east areas. Perhaps our Japanese friends will cycle with us!
Steve and Ann Gregson.
Our first Japanese tour. 1997, .
Went to Japan as, after many years of disinterest as a touring destination due to negative impressions historically and politically, we befriended a Japanese family working in U.K.. Thus we realised that Japan had a similar climate ( cold in the North and warm in the South ), were an island race with centuries of Royal families and an industrial heritage similar to ours. Perhaps the character was like ours? We flew there in 1997 with our bikes for 3 weeks to find out.
To avoid Tokyo and it`s environments the Sunflower ferry (13000 tons and speed 49 km/hr) took us overnight to Kochi on Shikoku. Our philosophy was that riding back towards Tokyo , if we had the sea on our right then we were not lost and so the difficulty of map-reading would not slow us down. On Shikoku there is a 88 temple pilgrimage route that is an added interest.
June 1. As it was the quiet season, tickets could be bought at the terminal in Tokyo ,bikes put in bags to minimise costs . Bags can be home- made from light material and should be big enough for the bike with pedals and wheels removed, bars turned sideways and saddle pushed down. The point is to protect other people`s luggage, to minimise space taken and to do all the carrying without help of the Transport Companies` personnel. Thus the bags are obligatory for trains and a ?10 or so saving on ferries. We put them in our 4 - berth cabin. Young people spoke to us on the ferry. The `Onsen` down below was an interesting experience. On the boat food and drink was available but expensive .
June 2. Built up bikes off the ship and rode the few miles into Kochi centre passing children 3- a- breast on the cycle tracks going in both directions Kami-kazi indeed. Here our Japanese friend had reserved a western-style hotel for our first night. Evidently it is usual to book accommodation ahead , the people who run them think that clients finding rooms on-spec would think the hotel not of good quality .To avoid that hosts do not have a poor impression of guests, it may be advantageous to have a letter saying that as a cyclist it is not possible to know how far one will be able to ride in a day therefore not able to book in advance. The letter should also include a paragraph saying that you are used to Japanese shoe etiquette ( removing outdoor shoes , use of slippers , use of socks only in special rooms etc.) It is advisable to learn these customs before one travels to Japan. A lively meal was had at a nearby Rxxxxxxxxxxx, these are good places to eat as they are lively with friendly clients and not expensive. After work the Japanese , like the British , like to relax with a few drinks. There seemed never to be any aggression and every evening we would be approached and engaged in conversation. The bikes were put safely behind the reception counter in the hotel.
June 3 . To Muroto Point . Starting in Kochi we noted some shopping streets were completely roofed over which was handy as there was drizzle early morning. Most of the day was spent on a cycle path away from the main road, along the backs of houses and through allotments. Where we were on roads we were well respected by the drivers as was the case all through Japan , even where we were holding up a line of traffic. Higashi Youth Hostel was almost empty so my wife and I had a spacious room to ourselves. It was a spotless traditional tatami matted room where the mattress was taken from a cupboard and laid on the floor as our bed. In the corner a low table was used as a tea table with ourself cross legged , Japanese style on the floor. This position is not easy to stay in for western legs! The cost was 8499 yen for 2 , dinner,bed and breakfast - good value. The evening meal consisted of soup, tea, raw tuna, rice, stewe, fish tempura, vegetables, sauces. It was possible to buy a beer to have with the meal which was taken in a communal dining room , so it was possible to have contact with the other (young ) visitors who were Japanese and travelling by motor bike. The breakfast was a smaller version of the dinner and far too rich for our pallets early in the morning and as Minshukus were to have similar fare we generally declined breakfasts and just had a coffee, finding some bread in the first mile or two.
To be continued ------
uploaded:08, 11, 2005
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