After our amazing time in South Korea we were off to our last country of the trip and our final destination, Japan. Although we were in Busan where we could have hopped onto a ferry to cross the Sea of Japan we opted to head to the Northern Island of Japan, Hokkaido. You could describe it as the road less travelled on the tourist route of Japan, Hokkaido is sparsely populated compared to the rest of the country and has a great deal of large national parks, agriculture, hot springs and is home to the origins of the Japanese beer and whiskey industries. After two budget flights, and a lot of schmoozing and negotiation with the airlines to keep our baggage costs down we flew from Busan to Osaka and Osaka to Sapporo. Arriving in Japan was a major milestone, it was hard to believe that we had come as far as we did and that we had actually made it. We had cycled 24 countries and cycled half way around the world. Shockingly there was no celebration, news crews or balloons when we exited the airport, I guess the word of our arrival hadn’t made it to the people of Japan. So we did what we always do and brought the word to the street.
We were in for a little bit of a shock when we landed in Sapporo as we seem to have hit the fast forward button on winter. It was October at this point and down in the South of South Korea we had been enjoying perfect cycling temperatures with beautiful sunny skies. Not the case in Hokkaido. With prevailing winds carrying the brisk air of Siberia to the island temperatures were below freezing and we were layering up in a hurry. Having flown further north the days were also shorter, which meant colder nights and fewer hours in the saddle. In Sapporo we were hosted by a wonderful family in Hokkaido who had cycled toured Asia together and the husband had circumnavigated the globe by bicycle over 4 years! Ken and his wife truly saved us from the cold and dark as staying in hotels was rarely an option for us over the entire trip, however in Japan it was really out of the question.
We quickly learned that we had arrived just as a cold snap had descended on Hokkaido, and the next day we were greeted by some stormy, cold weather and our first snowfall since we had left Azerbaijan 10 months earlier. Undeterred by the weather we explored Sapporo for a few days, checking out some touristy spots such as the Sapporo open air museum which had some amazing traditional Japanese buildings which form a mock village with a working street car from the 19th century. We also managed to arrange a special tour of the Sapporo beer museum which was really interesting, and had a few samples of the beer while we were at it; including one brew which you can only get at the brew factory and another which you can only get in Hokkaido. Over the first few days we grappled with being in a new country figuring out where to get cash out (most banks don’t have international ATM service, Japan Post does and they are everywhere in the country), had a chance to give the Japanese that we had been learning for the months leading up to our arrival in the country a try… we had learned very little, but it truly came in handy as few people spoke any english. We also had a chance to pick up some new and much needed cold weather gear from our new Japanese sponsor Mont-Bell. We both reviewed new rain coats and down jackets. Which we ended up living in for the duration of our trip.
After a few days of getting ourselves and bicycles together and one false start due to gale force winds we headed out onto the roads of Hokkaido. The weather was pretty trying for most of our time in Hokkaido mainly because it was cold and wet, it lingered in the 0-5ºC range which is the worst when you are cycling and it is wet. However, despite the cold we were loving Japan. The roads were smooth with a good shoulder, drivers were conscious and respectful, there are convenience stores to pick up food and warm up in and the countryside was beautiful. Within the first day of cycling we were already approaching beautiful misty mountains covered in the last of the fall colours or “koyo” meaning coloured leaves. It turns out the Japanese are almost as crazy for koyo as they are for the cherry blossoms on the flip side of the seasons.
Our first few nights were a bit soggy, but we managed to find sheltered spots to camp, often with a toilet block nearby. The days of roughing it and answering the ‘call of the wild’ out in the bush were a long forgotten part of our trip. We ended up camping in a few interesting places over the first few days. Outside a police station, in the garage of a temple, outside a the melon-bear centre (yes… it’s a bear with a melon on it’s head!)
Hokkaido is very much an agricultural centre for the country. We passed many farms and acres of fields while on the north island. Beer and alcohol is a big industry for the north island which undoubtably requires loads of agricultural resources. However, the Japanese seemed to be most crazy about Hokkaido melons. We passed through many towns, tourist centres and other locations where melon gift boxes were being sold. And those bad boys were not cheap! Ever wanted to buy a $100 melon? Well, let me tell you Hokkaido is the place for you. Our Japanese friends explained that they are the juiciest tastiest of the melon world. But, quite frankly I don’t think I could ever fork out that kind of change for a very large berry. (yes, a melon is a berry)
The countryside of Hokkaido was beautiful, and it really reminded me of Canada especially with the fall colours out in full force. Where we were cycling was not nearly as developed as the parts of Honshu we would cycle later while in Japan, but I know we didn’t get into the really wild parts of Hokkaido which were further east (just one more place we have to go back to see).
When it wasn’t raining we were often ambushed by ‘snow flies’, which were tiny flies which travelled in huge swarms and looked like a flurry of snow. We would suddenly pass through a cloud of these flies which would get lodged into every piece and part of our clothing and hair, we even had a few fly into our eyes! We spotted the occasional sign of wildlife, deer, foxes, and lots of birds of prey.
However, even though we were in the middle of nowhere we were never very far from a drinks vending machine! The Japanese are obsessed with vending machines it seems, they are everywhere.
Hokkaido is directly in the path of the prevailing winds that pass through Siberia, which pick up the most frigid and bitter cold winds. Even though it was October, we already had a taste of the biting winds while we were cycling around the northern island. We had very few still days, and were often battling the winds head on.
The cold, wet weather persisted. We were a bit down being wet and cold constantly, our tent was soaked and although there were places occasionally to warm up we were primarily out in the elements. But a stroke of good luck and some kindness from a local completely turned things around. We were directed to a closed campsite for a place to pitch our tent for the night. When we arrived we found that the main office for the campsite was next to a small construction yard, which had a porto-cabin with a fire going inside. As the considerate tourers that we are, we decided to check with the neighbours if they wouldn’t mind if we set up camp below the roof of the closed down office. Following the inevitable period of confusion, and us explaining that we were trying to camp out of the rain, where we had cycled from etc. We got the okay from the neighbours. They even agreed to open up the bathroom block for us. However, as quickly as they had agreed they offered us an even better alternative. Do you want to sleep inside the construction office? They pointed. Yes we did. After being shown a few different places, the two men showing us around settled on putting us in the better cabin with a huge heater in it. With washrooms next door, us being out of the rain for the first time in a week and in a heated room. We were on cloud 9. We were given a coffee to warm up and left to set up our beds. No sooner than we had begun to prepare to cook some dinner, our host came back to the cabin with a bag filled with dinner. Sushi and chicken curry, enough for two days, hot cans of coffee and a few beers to have a toast! We showed a slideshow of photos from our trip and practiced some of our meagre Japanese skills. We were absolutely blown away by the kindness of our host and it was one of those moments which pick you up and turn your spirits around.
Refreshed, warm and happy we set off the next day feeling really luck to have been treated so well and really fortunate to have met such generous and kind people on our way. We hadn’t yet experienced the famous Onsen (hot springs) of Hokkaido. So, when we saw a sign for an Onsen on the road we decided to make the turn off and see where it took us. It had been a little while at this point since we had a proper wash, so on top of the desire to experience an Onsen, we also needed a scrub! Following a bit of a climb up some steep hills we reached a beautifully located locals Onsen. Nowhere near the tourist track we were in an authentic locals establishment. We left our bikes fully loaded outside, grabbed our valuables and headed in. For around $6 (£3) we were given access to what equated to heaven. Six different hot spring pools one which was a rock pool located outside with an amazing view of the countryside, a sauna, and lots of soap and shampoo (: We enjoyed a long hot soak. I remember feeling like I was going to pass out at one point from the heat shock between the saunas and pools. The entire experience was amazing, having somewhere to bathe, warm up and relax for a little while was great, and something we took advantage of as often as we could afford to.
Few things are more traditionally Japanese than Onsen. A time honoured tradition, national pastime and a place where friends go to hang out together and business partners go to build stronger bonds, the Onsen is a beg part of the Japanese lifestyle. Almost always segregated the Onsen is an intimate location where you can wear nothing but your birthday suit. Stripped of your clothes, everyone is an equal, no suits and ties or work jumpsuit to distinguish or set one apart from another. It is a place to socialize or to be at peace with yourself. Bashful foreigners may balk and be shocked by the practice but being in the nude is no big thing for the Japanese; families often bathe together at home! However, the Onsen is where locals go to be with friends or talk business with partners and prospective clients. Some traditions may be fading and although not as prevalent as it may have been in the past the ritual of cleaning your friend or business partner may not happen that much these days, don’t be surprised if a friendly local wants to help scrub you down or wash your back! It happened to Claire. Watch out for the Onsen symbol, once you know it you will see it everywhere. Not all Onsen are heated by natural hot springs some are heated by boilers and there is a real range in size, quantity and diversity of pools etc.. but all are equally heavenly and rejuvenating. Pick up a scrubbing cloth before you arrive and BYOT (bring your own towel) lockers are always available and usually cost around ¥100.
Clean and recharged we had almost completed the first loop of our figure 8 tour of Hokkaido and had hit the coast. It was the first time we had seen the Sea of Japan, in Japan! We had been on the other side of the sea in Korea only a few weeks earlier. Weather was not on our side as it was grey rainy and extremely windy. Now on the coast we were finding it hard to find a sheltered place to pitch our tent. Luckily we found an amazing barn filled with hay bales, sheltered from the wind our refuge was warm and cozy for the night. Our next stop was the costal town of Otaru, which was a half a day blast west along the coast. Otaru is a unique town which has a historic canal district with victorian era warehouses and lanterns along it’s banks, it was definitely the place which looked most european in all of Japan. The city also is home to some famous names in the Japanese brewery and distillery scene. The chilly evenings meant that we were trying to stay indoors when we could, and we often ended up parking our bikes outside of a shopping mall or supermarket and sitting inside warning up and eating some food. At this point we had become so accustom to being able to leave our bicycles, unlocked and unattended that only now looking back on it all does it seem amazing that Japan is safe enough (in general) to not worry about theft or damage to your belongings even when left unattended for hours.
Our next big stop was to head to the south coast, up over the mountains and to hit up some of the famous Onsen of Hokkaido. Our ride down was a mix of bad and good weather, flat and hilly terrain it had it all. We passed through numerous orchard areas where you could buy loads of apples for (fairly) cheap on the road, and also passed by Mount Yōtei which is a beautiful mountain which has the same form as its more famous cousin to the south, Mount Fuji, but is much smaller. It was a nice taste of things to come.
After cycling down to lake Tōya we ended up staying a youth hostel, which was the only time we ended up paying for accommodation during the entire trip in Japan. After a few days in the cold we needed a cozy warm place for the night and a good scrub! The hostel was practically empty, felt like it was somehow trapped in the past with its decor and pleather grandpa slippers, we loved it. Especially when we found out about the 24 hour onsen! We had our own little room with a very traditional Japanese feel to it with tatami mats and sliding wooden-paper doors.
Rejuvenated and refreshed we set off towards Noboribetsu where we visited Jigokudani (Hell Valley) which is a peculiar place. It is an area with numerous hot springs many of which are rich in sulphur, because of this part of the valley is desolate and a bit alien. Plumes of gas spurt out of the earth, and there is crusted up yellow sulphur in loads of areas on the ground. Because of all the springs it is a major tourist destination with several hotels/spa with dozens of different hot spring pools. The valley is also filled with giant devils which cary clubs, have horns and are painted bright garish colours. It’s a bit strange, but I guess they were really keen to build up that hell valley angle. After we learned a bit more about how many different baths there were at the one of the hotels, and how it was unmissable, we parked our bicycles with nearly all our gear left on them in the parking lot, splurged and payed ¥1500 each and once again slipped into our birthday suits for the Onsen experience of the trip.
There were so many baths it was amazing, different sizes, indoor pools, outdoor pools, traditional pools, medicinal pools, ankle deep pools, laying down pools, waterfalls, freezing cold pool (personal favourite), saunas, it was incredible. There were also foreigners for the first time on our trip. Having been to a few onsen at this point and having always been around locals who are accustom to being naked around each other I think we had both felt comfortable as well. However, it was interesting to see the modesty and completely different attitude that many of the westerners we saw had to being naked in front of strangers.
After a relaxing few hours in the pools we met up, collected our bikes (which remained untouched for hours outside) and headed up to the evening’s entertainment. Numerous guests who were in the hotels were out in their robes and slippers… think more kimono style rather than terry cloth bath robe, which was quite cool. Everyone seemed quite relaxed and comfortable. We watched a strange performance of masked men beating drums and carrying around sprinklers. I guess its’ something to keep the families happy while on vacation. But this point it was already dark and we still hadn’t figured somewhere to stay for the night. So after the show was done we hightailed it down the road and decided to stop at the first place we could. We were cycling in the dark with headlamps on… which never feels all that safe. Unfortunately we had to go further than we were hoping as the road passed through the valley for a while and there were no decent places to pitch our tent for a while. However, after some time and some searching we eventually found a decent place for our last night in the northernmost prefecture of Japan.
The next day we set out on a relatively unexciting bike ride along the south coast to catch a ferry from Tomakomai 苫小牧市 to Sendai on the main island of Japan, Honshū. This was our first real ferry since we left England for France a year and a half earlier. After braving the wind and the cold as we had to line up and wait to board the ferry, we strapped in our bikes next to a shiny blue elCamino (which had a miller light gear shifter) we were on board. The ferry would take us to Sendai over night and with the budget in mind we got the cheapest possible cabin tickets we could, the dorms. Which may sound terrible, but in fact they were great. fitted out with tatami mats, pillows and blankets for about 20 people we were quite happy with our digs for the night. The ferry provided all kinds of wonderful little treats for our journey. It of course had an onsen on board, which was amazing as always and even had a sauna. After a relaxing soak with the truck drivers we then set off to check out the evening’s entertainment which was some traditional Japanese singing. The crowd numbered less than 10, but those who were there were loving it… ourselves included. With a nights rest under our belt we were spat out onto the main island of Japan. Excited for the weeks to come and the chance to see more of Japan we set off to stay with a friendly Warmshowers host in the town.
Yuta, our host graciously showed us around a few local temples and took us out for some delicious ramen in the area. Our stay in sendai was short as we were keen to get moving and see more of the country. Our first step was to get inland and into the less populated areas which meant going up some mountains. This proved to be more difficult than we had expected as the road to our next destination was closed due to ice! We got as far up the road as the highway which passes under the mountains through tunnels only to be met with a solid gate in front of our road which went up and over. After a frustrating conversation with the staff in the toll area who explained the only way we could get to Yamagata, where we were heading, on a bicycle would be to simply cycle back down the mountain to Sendai head north and then take a different mountain pass which may be open. We were not impressed. Discouraged, but unwilling to cycle back on ourselves and lose two days in the process we decided we would go under the barrier or try to hitch a ride. Luckily for us the touring gods shined on us that day and sent two friendly folks with a camper van who seemed very concerned about us and where we were going. After explaining where we were going in our terrible Japanese they offered to take us and our stuff on the highway through the mountain, back to where they had just come from! The camper van was plastered with giant stickers of characters from the movie Totoro (a Japanese classic) including the infamous ‘cat bus’ so naturally we still refer to the van as the cat-bus to this day.
Safely across the mountain we headed into town for another night of warmth and comfort with yet another warmshowers host. While in Yamagata our host Pia suggested that we check out one of the local second hand shops, something similar to a salvation army, which turned out to be loads of fun and an adventure of its own. The shop we went to was a treasure trove of amazing old Japanese stuff. From real kimonos to hand panted silk scrolls and carvings it was a treat. We even happened to go during the hours when everything in the store was half price! Needless to say our bags got a little bit heavier after our stop at the shop. And with heavy bags and a few days of comfort behind us we headed south towards Nikko our next major touristy stop on the road.
The Japanese are renowned for their calm demeanour and their fastidiousness when it comes to order and organization. This really does make for a great society in many ways, but when things stray from the norm they get picked up on quite quickly. After over a year on the road, travelling through several countries where order was non existent we had become accustom to cycle where we wanted to, roads, sidewalks, highways, you name it. If we were able to we would do it. So naturally when it came to no cycling signs in Japan, we either did not see them or if there was a large detour over or around a mountain involved we tended to have selective vision. This led to some run-ins with the police. The first time we crossed paths with the boys in blue was when we had some how ended up on a toll highway. How this happened only became clear after we had been picked up by a maintenance vehicle and the police and were driven to the end of the toll road. (the police car had a functioning photocopier in the back of the car) There were tool booths only at one end of the road, so we cycled onto the highway completely by accident. We were met by the manager of the highway, the local police, and then needed to wait for the local detectives to arrive. That’s right the plain clothes detectives came out to see two foreigners on bicycles….. you may have heard that the crime rate in Japan is low. You heard right. We had a nice cup of coffee and cake with the detectives and the highway manager while the called in our information and took copies of our passports. After about an hour of communicating in broken Japanese and english, showing everyone some photos of our trip we were sent on our way with lots of smiles and a police man’s business card in tow. (We were pulled over another 2 times by the cops for being where we shouldn’t be. An officer was even chasing claire on foot for a few hundred metres on the side of a highway, it was hilarious to see as she was completely oblivious to what was going on.)
We made a stop in Aizuwakamatsu 会津若松市 as we spotted a cool looking castle. Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle 会津若松城 also called Tsuruga-jō is a complete replica of a 14th century castle which was destroyed in the 19th century. It turns out it was the site of the fall of the age of the Samurai, as the imperial army besieged the castle during the Boshin war. We also stopped into a few forest temples just off the main road. We were curious about the tori gates which seemed to lead up into a forested hillside. We were treated by very cool sights. Ramshackle steps climbing up into bamboo and deciduous forests to what seemed like humble, but very beautiful and seemingly deserted temples. They would probably be a bit spooky if you saw them at night.
As we headed into the foothills of the Japanese alps we were treated with amazing (but tough) cycling. We were following a highway, the 121, which followed a valley and a tiny railway line. The train on the line was a single carriage and stopped at the quaintest of stations. The most amazing of which we camped outside of, Yunokami-Onsen Station 湯野上温泉駅. Note the Onsen in the name. The station itself had a little natural hot spring foot bath! It was so amazing, especially as it was freezing at night. We whipped up our dinner, took off our shoes and put our feet in the onsen while we chowed down. The station itself was pretty amazing as well! Timber framed with a really nice waiting hall, complete with a small library and an indoor fire pit! It was quite the find.
The ride through the mountains as we made our way to Nikko was much the same for the next few days, ups, downs, sporadic run ins with natural hot spring foot baths. And a few cheeky stops to check out an onsen here and there.
However, Nikko was our next big stop. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this city had more temples than you could shake a stick at! But before we headed to the main tourist attractions, I made sure we went to see the not so famous, but interesting site of the train station which was designed by rebounded american architect, Frank Lloyd Wright! It is the oldest timber building of Japan Rail’s in operation!
The sites of Nikko are huge, and somewhat spread out. We drew some attention wheeling around on our loaded up bikes, as we were a little different from the standard tourists but we’re use to it I guess. After passing the Shinkyo Bridge, which is one of the “three finest bridges” in Japan and was built in 1636! which is the symbolic entrance to the shrines, we parked up our fully loaded bikes in the parking lot, left them there, because ‘hey, we’re in Japan and no-one steals’ and strutted up to see shrines. Like any tourist site there is a financial hit to bear, but it is well worth it Nikko. The shrines are absolutely sublime. Staggeringly old, ornate and rich beyond belief and within such amazing settings, interspersed within the forest it is worth making the trek out to see them while in Japan.
Most of our time was spent wandering around Toshogu Shrine which is the site of the founder of Tokugawa Shogunate who ruled Japan for 250 years until the modern era. Intricate carvings are everywhere, and so are the tourists! Japanese and foreign alike, the place was packed. From school kids in their matching hats, to business trips where team building and blessings were being tossed around left right and centre. It’s quite funny visiting the temples with so many people, especially business folk, because as you enter you have to remove your shoes. So you have a situation where there are hundreds of dress shoes from the ‘salarymen’ all lined up as they scurry off in their socks and suits to keep up with the boss.
The offerings at the temples are staggering as well. Businesses, particularly sake and beer manufacturers seem to make unbelievable large offerings to the temples. There are dozens of casks of sake and lots of food everywhere. I guess it’s worth it for the companies to hedge their bets, and keep to the old traditions. I’m sure they actually get some serious advertising in considering the number of people who come to visit the site! I also wonder if they end up drinking the casks once new ones are brought in…. I like to think that they do.
We also went to visit the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 16th century. The trek up into the forest is impressive, there are staircase after staircase amongst the trees, many of which are being held up with steel cables in what seemed like a tangled web of supports that are hold up creaky ancient trees which are thick with moss. The mausoleum is a simple and understated in a typical Japanese fashion filled with symbolism and iconography which I neither remember well, nor will attempt to pretend to be able to explain. We were lucky enough to be in this amazing place while the fall colours were still out for us to see.
The first half of Japan was a great adventure as we sailed down from the top in Hokkaido to the big island of Honshu, riding the wave of koyo (autumn colours) and winter down south. The second half was a whole new adventure and where our trip finally ends which we will pick next.
Read part II of our adventure in Japan here and if you missed the last part of our journey in Korea check that out here.