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Hokkaido 2006 Tour Report


Maximum Pace
Jan 30, 2007
Here is a report from my tour last year - some useful info for anyone thinking of heading North!

Towards the end of the year I was looking for a nice venue for a week's biking. I thought for a while about taking my mountainbike to some of my old favourite locations like Utah or Colorado, but as none of my US based friends could make it, I decided to look a little closer to my current home, Japan. I had found the Japan Cycling Navigator site a while ago and looked at the guides to the different areas of the country, and to me it looked like Hokkaido was the number one choice to see a different side of Japan to the crowds and neon of Tokyo. So with the decision made it was time to plan my trip!

This was my first tour of more than 3 days length, and also my first in a country where I speak very little of the language and read even less, so I did a fair amount of preparation. The first order of business was to plan a route and accommodation. Looking at the maps and area descriptions, along with the youth hostel locations, I worked out a route that took in mountains, coastal roads, agricultural plains and inland lakes. I would be covering between 50 and 140 km per day, not counting any side trips. This route took me all the way from Asahikawa, in the centre of Hokkaido, to Kushiro, on the south-eastern coast. I had heard that autumn in Hokkaido can be quite busy in places, with many people coming to see the spectacular colours as the leaves change, so I booked into all the youth hostels along the way. (Actually, my wife, who is Japanese, did this for me!) My biggest concern was getting lost, and being unable to find each hostel before darkness fell. Finding maps of Japan is quite difficult since they are labelled in Kanji, however they do have latitude and longitude figures on them, so with a bit of effort it's possible to get the ones you need. I ended up with 7 sheets of 1:200,000 scale maps (1 cm : 2 km) which I taped together. I also spent a few evenings with Google Earth and Google Maps. Google Earth has accommodation, including youth hostels, marked in Japanese, but the telephone number also appears. You can check the phone number against the numbers on the youth hostel website http://www.youthhostel.or.jp/English/area.htm and verify that it's the right place. This allowed me to print a large-scale map of each youth hostel and its surroundings. Finally I transferred each hostel location and key points along each day's route to my GPS unit. If you do this, watch out for the fact that Japanese maps use a different datum from the WGS-84 used by most countries.
Next I had to get my bike ready. I was already finding the hills on the roads round Tokyo a struggle with my gear setup, but a change to a 34/50 chainset and 12/27 cassette gave a much more suitable range of gears. Unlike my shorter mountainbike tours, I did not want to be carrying weight on my back, so a rack and panniers were an essential purchase. Despite my bike being set up as a road-racer, it has rack-mounts on the rear dropouts, so I was able to fit the rack very securely. Next came a handlebar mount for my GPS unit and with a set of new tyres to reduce the chances of a puncture my bike was ready to roll.
Day 1: Asahikawa to Sounkyo

I had an early start to catch the 7:30 am JAL flight from Haneda airport to Asahikawa. I had packed my bike into a lightweight bag, and the rest of my gear into my panniers, which I was able to take as hand luggage onto the plane. It was a pleasant surprise not to be charged extra for checking in my bike! Just over an hour later I saw snowy mountains from the plane as we came in for landing. Immediately as I left the plane I felt the chill of the morning air. I hoped I had brought enough warm clothes! My bike appeared straight away at the baggage claim, and I spent 30 minutes outside the airport terminal putting it all back together. I bought a couple of bottles of water from one of the ubiquitous vending machines and I was ready to go. Straight away I noticed the silky smooth surface of the roads as I rolled north from the airport. My bike felt a little strange with the extra weight of all my kit over the back wheel, but I got off to a great start and hit 60 km/h on the first downhill. I skirted the eastern side of the city, keeping an eye out for a combini (convenience store) where I could pick up some food. The sun shone but the air temperature was chilly, and I soon stopped to put on my jacket, which I ended up wearing for the rest of my riding. After about 20 minutes I spotted a 7-11 and stopped for a breakfast of hot pot-noodle. I was to learn that the combinis, while not on almost every corner as in Tokyo, could be found every few km, great for topping up water and food supplies. I sat in the sun and looked at the map for the day's ride.
Soon I had cleared the city outskirts and turned onto route 39, heading up into the mountains towards Sounkyo. I was pleased to find the road signs in Roman characters as well as Kanji, and the traffic thinning out. A clean, wide hard-shoulder meant I could ride out of the path of the traffic. As I followed the course of the Asahikawa I could see fresh snow on the mountaintops, and could clearly make out the volcanic features of the landscape, with many cones and calderas visible.
The climb up towards Sounkyo was really gradual, so with a light following wind I made good progress and around mid-afternoon the sides of the valley began to close in, and I smelt a strong smell of sulphur from the hot springs near my destination. I arrived at the central crossroads of Sounkyo, and using the mountain cablecar station as a landmark, found the youth hostel without any problems. The owner was expecting a gaijen on a bicycle, so recognised me immediately. There were a few other English speakers staying there (although no other cyclists), so we drank a couple of Sapporos, ate a tasty supper of fried pork, and soon I was feeling sleepy enough to crawl into bed.
Day 2: Sounkyo to Saroma-ko

The first thing I saw when I looked out the window in the morning was a few locals walking past the hostel with their umbrellas up. Oh no, rain on the longest day of my tour! I ate my breakfast hoping the rain would ease before I had to go. But 8 o'clock rolled around and with 140 km to cover, including a mountain pass, I had no choice but to be on my way. My new friends at the hostel wished me luck as I put on my jacket and helmet and stepped out into the rain. I rolled back down through Sounkyo town and picked up route 39, turning uphill into the mountains. Water sprayed from my front tyre, forming a little waterfall as it struck the frame and fell back onto my shoes.
Almost immediately the road entered a long tunnel. Luckily there was a separated pavement between me and the traffic, and the whole 2 km length of the tunnel was lit. Huge fans in the ceiling roared as they pushed air through the tunnel, but there was still a strong smell of exhaust fumes. 'At least it's dry' I thought as I trundled along the path. Just before I popped out of the tunnel I stopped and quickly checked my map. Route 39 would take me over the mountains and along the base of a major valley to Rubeshibe. The road continued to climb and the rain continued to fall. Although my feet and legs were wet, my core body stayed dry and warm. I was glad I had re-proofed my jacket before I left! As I climbed past signs telling people to put snow-chains on their cars, I wondered just how high the pass was going to go. My average speed was well below the 20 km/h needed to get to Saroma-ko in daylight. I hoped the downhill side of the pass and the valley bottom would allow me to make up time. Eventually I came to the top of the pass, at about 1,000 m, and gladly started down the other side. The rain stopped, but the chill in the air increased as I picked up speed. The road swooped down in a series of smooth curves; absolutely great after slogging up the hill for a couple of hours. I was surprised to be passed by several armoured personnel carriers full of Japanese soldiers, and I wondered if they were equally surprised to see someone on a bicycle.
The steep downhill gradually flattened out, and the hairpins of the mountain pass were replaced by long straights. The road passed by farms either side, their buildings a combination of modern materials and traditional Japanese shapes. The rain started again, and I passed by several onsen (hot springs), wishing I could stop and soak in hot water instead of being drenched by cold rain! At last I outran the rain and called in at a combini for a quick snack, which I ate standing by the outlet from their heating system for a bit of extra warmth!
At Rubeshibe I turned north and started climbing again over a much smaller mountain pass. It was pleasant to get off the major road and onto a beautiful quiet mountain road. Trees lined the road either side, and there were hardly any cars. Cruising down from the summit I found that a large chunk of the road had been washed away! Of course, a bike can easily slip by on the thin strip of road left.
The road climbed over one final small hill (though to my tired legs it still felt pretty big…) and led me to the village of Hama-Saramako, and just a couple of km further on I found the youth hostel on the shore of Saroma-ko. I also found that they did not switch the heating on until 5 pm…. I cleaned my now very dirty bike and headed back into the village to get some provisions. Most places were closed as it was Sunday but I found a small supermarket still open. That night I slept in a Japanese style room, simple tatami mats on the floor and a low table, and a futon to sleep on. With the heating on, it was very comfortable!
Day 3: Saroma-ko to Bihoro

I made an early start, even though I had a much shorter route of around 80 km to cover. One again, the weather had changed – it was bitterly cold for the first few km, and I needed to wear an extra layer to keep warm. I decided to stop and get something hot to eat and drink, and found a trusty combini after about 20 minutes riding. As I sat outside, eating noodles and trying to shelter from the wind, and looking at my map, a Japanese guy came over and started talking to me. I caught the word "doko" (where) so I said Bihoro and pointed to my map. He launched into a long description of (I assume) how to get there. I thanked him as best I could, and he disappeared inside the shop. A few minutes later he came back out and handed me a carton of coffee drink! I was soon feeling ready to go, and the sun appeared above the clouds, starting to warm the air.
As I approached Toroku I came across a sign saying "Toroku-Abashiri Cycling Road". Now, this wasn't on any of my maps and I had no idea it existed, but I was planning to pass Abashiri-ko, so I turned off the road and onto the cycle path. I was soon glad that I had. A perfectly smooth ribbon of tarmac, the path followed the northern coastline of Hokkaido and gave a great view of the shore, with sports fishermen out early to make the most of the day. The temperature continued to rise, and the following wind made for great progress towards Abashiri.
Around mid-morning I rounded a corner to see a full-size steam locomotive sitting right next to the bike path. There are a few of these dotted around Tokyo, but it was quite a surprise to see one in the countryside of Hokkaido. I had a good clamber round the Engineer's cabin.
The bike path, sure enough, came to an end at Abashiri-ko and I turned onto the road heading south. The lake itself was beautiful and the road skirted around its western shore. I was delighted to find a rest-stop area selling ice-cream. A lot of the dairy food sold in Japan comes from Hokkaido so I was keen to try some. Sure enough, it was really tasty! By now, it was warm enough to sit in the sun for a while. As I finished my ice-cream, another Japanese guy came to talk to me – he wanted to practice his English! He told me he had learned a bit of English in school and the rest from lessons shown on Japanese television. I was very impressed.
The road diverged from the lakeshore and I followed it down the centre of a wide valley, passing through farmland either side. By mid afternoon I was rolling into the outskirts of Bihoro, and after a brief search, I located the youth hostel. As there was no-one around and still plenty of daylight, I turned around and went back into the town to pick up some snacks and something to drink, which I ate sitting by the Abashiri river. Back at the youth hostel (which even had covered bike parking) just as I was locking up my bike for the night, a fox trotted past only a few metres from me! He stared at me for a moment then continued on his way.
Supper that evening was Japanese style Hamburg steak, which I ate sitting on the floor – tough on the legs after riding all day! But it was tasty and I was asleep soon afterwards.
Day 4: Bihoro to Mashyu-ko

This morning I woke before my alarm, and straight away I could hear a strong wind blowing outside. Going down to the hostel dining room I found breakfast set for one person, so assumed it was for me. It was a true Japanese style breakfast including natto (fermented soy beans), which I tried. The taste was quite mild; they probably look stranger than they taste.
Setting out towards Mashyu-ko, I found myself battling against a headwind, a real change from the day before, and my speed dropped down to 15 km/h. A few km south of Bihoro, I found the turn to Koshimizu pass, that I had planned to take me to Mashyu-ko, with a sign saying 'Road Closed'. I decided to take my chances anyway, as some cars were clearly coming the opposite direction along this road.
This worked out quite well, as there was no traffic at all going my direction. The air was full of leaves fluttering toward the ground, and the colours around me were very 'autumn-y'. The pass climbed, dropped, then began the biggest climb of the day, topping out at 670m. As I climbed, the temperature dropped, and combined with the headwind, it felt very chilly. I passed another sign telling people to put snow-chains on their vehicles but luckily there was still no snow, as 23mm wide slick tyres aren't the best for snow. At the summit I needed to put on an extra layer, which involved taking off my jacket for a couple of (very cold) minutes. To the East I could see Kussharo-ko, its surfaced covered with a layer of low cloud. It looked very eerie, and I could easily see where the local legend of the Kussharo-ko monster came from. I took a couple of pictures, as quickly as I could, and set off down the hill. The descent was long and fast, but my face almost froze and it was a relief to get to the valley floor and find a bit of shelter from the wind. I continued rolling gently downhill, covering many km before I finally found a small supermarket to top up my food supplies.
The final stretch to Mashyu-ko youth hostel felt quite tough, as there was still no respite from the headwind. The hostel itself was really nice and I had a long soak in their hot tub before dinner. Feeling refreshed, I considered riding up to Mashyu-ko, but it was another big climb, and the sky was overcast, so I decided to wait until the next day.
At the hostel I met a girl who had travelled from her home in Zurich, all the way across Asia on the Trans-Siberian express, and was en route to Australia and New Zealand before heading home. Now that is a serious tour!
Day 5: Mashyu-ko to Kussharo-Genya

These hostels are only 15 km apart on a direct route so I decided to ride around Mashyu-ko and Kussharo-ko. I deliberately made an early start to make the most of the clear sky. I began the steady climb up to the rim of Mashyu-ko's crater, just over 600 metres elevation. The sun had yet to start warming the air, but the intensity of the climb kept me warm. I was passed by a couple of tour buses, but arrived at the first viewpoint while it was still fairly quiet. I locked my bike and walked up to the viewing platform, to be rewarded with a fantastic view of the whole Mashyu-ko crater lake. The air was still very clear and still, with a smell of sulphur. The crater walls were steep, and the lake surface was a long way below the viewing platform. The water is famous in Japan for being the clearest in the country, and certainly lived up to this reputation; even with the sun sparkling off the surface, it was still possible to see quite a distance into it.
I climbed to the second viewpoint, at 700 m, and with no parking areas for buses! So it was much quieter and offered a different view of the lake. I later found how lucky I had been to get such a great view of Mashyu-ko, as some of my colleagues have never seen anything except fog there, even after several trips!
Dropping down from the crater rim I was wary of ice on the road, as the temperature was still low and several corners were in deep shadow.
The road linked up with the one I had struggled along the day before, and soon I came to the junction for Kussharo-ko. I knew I was on the right route because there were little Kussharo-ko Monster signs by the side of the road! A couple of km further on I heard a noise like a jet engine and saw large clouds of steam pouring out of a hillside. I immediately went to investigate and found several volcanic vents. There was a large parking area, but, being on a bike, I didn't have to pay and the attendant waved me in. Nice! As I walked closer to the vents there was a very strong sulphur smell, and I could see a local man cooking eggs in the steam. Not sure how they would taste after all that sulphur!
I carried on my way to the shore of Kussharo-ko, stopping a little way down the shoreline to photograph swans on the lake. At the south shore of the lake I made a small detour to an outdoor onsen marked on my map. I discovered it was in a small campsite which would make a good overnight stop, but I had a space in the youth hostel booked (and no tent!). An older Japanese guy unconcernedly stripped off and got into the onsen. I decided to leave him alone and turned towards the hostel.
I was in for a treat that night because the Kussharo-Genya hostel is owned by a former professional chef and supper was delicious; smoked salmon and teriyaki shrimps.
Day 6: Kussharo-Genya to Toro

I awoke early again, and had about an hour to wait before breakfast, where I talked to two ladies who were from Tokyo. They asked me if I'd seen any bears! (No!) As I only had a short distance to ride, I didn't get on my way until about 8:30, then rolled gradually downhill in the centre of the valley. There was farmland to either side of me, and basically I just kept rolling along until I reached Shibecha after about 40 km. I found a bakery and bought a mid-morning snack, and relaxed in the sun for half an hour. There was only another 30 km to Toro, all downhill, so I arrived very early just after midday. As I checked the map to find the youth hostel, a local walked over and asked me where I was going. When I told him, he said, "Follow me" and took off down the street! So off we went, me rolling slowly along and him running beside me! It was another example of how friendly and helpful people all along the way were.
Having located the hostel, I still had plenty of time, so looked round Toro. It's a small place, and in the off season there was not much going on. I relaxed in the park and enjoyed a couple of apples I had bought earlier in the day. There was a viewpoint a little way north of the town so I pedalled back up the road and hiked up the hill. From the top it was possible to see all over the Kushiro Shitsugen (marshland) and even the smokestacks of Kushiro city in the distance.
Day 7: Toro to Kushiro Airport

With only 50 km to ride on the last day, I made a leisurely start at about 9 am. Another reason for my late start was that the rain had started up again, and I waited a while for it to ease. The wind had switched direction again, and I maintained an easy 30 km/h down the main road. The hard-shoulder became quite rough, so I was forced to take my chances with the lorries in the main lanes. Soon the rain stopped but there was still a fair amount of spray coming up from the road. My route approaches Kushiro but doesn't really go into the city; instead I skirted round the western side through some industrial areas. The traffic seemed heavy after several days of almost deserted roads, and I hopped onto a cycle path at the side.
I stopped at a Mr. Donut for morning coffee and (yes) a donut, and chatted to a guy from Oregon, USA, who was teaching English in Kusshiro.
With only a few km left, I soon found myself turning onto the airport road and beginning the final climb of the trip. Sure enough, a few minutes later I see the airport terminal. Made it!
My Hokkaido adventure was over; I will never forget the beauty of the countryside and the friendliness of the people there.
Route and Equipment List

The Route
14 October Asahikawa Airport – Sounkyo 80 km
15 October Sounkyo – Saromako 140 km
16 October Saromako – Bihoro 77 km
17 October Bihoro – Mashuko 83 km
18 October Mashuko – Kussharo Genya 55 km
19 October Kussharo Genya – Toro 68 km
20 October Toro – Kushiro Airport 51 km
Equipment List
Bicycle: 1994 Cannondale R400, Ultegra 9sp, Compact Drive 34/50 chainset and 12-27 cassette, mountainbike style SPD pedals
Cargo: Topeak Super Tourist rack & MTX Trunk-bag DXP Panniers; 2 Water bottles
Navigation: 1:1,260,000 A4 colour photocopy from Japan Atlas: A bilingual guide, 7 sheets of 1:200,000 Japan Topographic map sheets (in Japanese Kanji) taped together, Prints from Google Maps for each Youth Hostel, Garmin eTrex Legend GPS with handlebar mount, Cat Eye Mity 2 cycle computer
Spares: 1 spare tube, 1 spare tyre, patch kit, multi-tool, small adjustable wrench, Shimano chain pins, pump
Clothing: 2 sets on bike clothes including shorts, long sleeve cycling top, Goretex jacket, full-finger gloves, 1 set off-bike clothes including fleece, lightweight trousers, base layer, spare base layer, Sidi Dominator 4 mountainbike shoes
Miscellaneous: Camera, small tripod, Phone, Japanese language/phrasebook, mp3 player, battery charger for GPS and Camera batteries, front and rear LED lights, bike bag, cable lock
Nice report. If or when I ever get to ride in Hokkaido, I'll certainly print this report off and pack it in my bags.
Nice pics too.


What a marvelous adventure and a superb article well written. I enjoyed reading every line. Thank you for sharing your experience. It makes me want to follow in your tracks. I feel very jealous.


Alan, thanks for sharing! Your report comes in handy for TCC's planned o-bon tour this year, "Tour d'Hokkaido I". Magnificent!
great report

I did a lap of the Great Northern Isle 9 years ago but I did the coast. Fully self supported with only two nights in bike houses, found the touring mapple for motorcyclists a real asset as all the campgrounds and bike houses are noted as well as distances and some sight seeing points. Unfortunately I can't remember all the stops but I went from Otaru to Hakkodate in three weeks. Yes I stayed at the nice places a couple of days and if it was really cats and dogs would stay dry.Great trip that I lost 10kgs on. If only I had another three weeks free.
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