Last month I returned to Kunming from my yearly big bicycle odyssey. For one month I explored Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.
August is, supposedly, the best month to visit Hokkaido but the overarching theme of this trip was water. Wild rivers, waterfalls, pristine volcano crater lakes, steaming forests, hot springs, ocean spray, massive sea waves and precipitation in a thousand different guises. Fine drizzle, thick fog, muddy splashes, clouds, roadside puddles, showers, torrential rain for days, morning dewdrops on the grass and on my tent and a typhoon. There was also sweat and (once, briefly) tears.
Another theme was the joy of rediscovering solo cycling and how that smoothed the way for encounters with lovely Japanese women who generously took me in.
I also see quite a few Japanese cyclists, I cycle with a Tasmanian Antarctic researcher for a couple of days and hang out with two Australian cyclists in Niseko. On one wet morning I meet a lovely Taiwanese family at a campsite and share stories about bike travel and talk geopolitics over breakfast.
One night I stay at a local biker gang campsite and have a barbecue dinner with the guys. Hokkaido is very popular with motorbikers and they always wave at cyclists, so it feels as I’m part of a gang of road warriors.
But, getting to know some Japanese women has been the best. Kumiko, a 72 year old lady on holiday in Kushiro, takes me to a traditional festival with dancing and drumming and then a fabulous seafood barbecue. Scallops drenched in fresh butter, shrimp, potatoes… it’s delicious and great fun.
She looks and moves likes a sparrow, with quick bird-like head movements when she wants to get a point across. She only speaks a few words of English, alongside my non-existent Japanese, but we connect nonetheless.
At one point she tells me something that google translates as ‘the sakura (cherry blossom) is in bloom’. I don’t understand what she means as it’s not the season for cherry blossom watching. But no, she means my red cheeks, hot from the barbecue and the sake we have been swigging. A great girls night out.
Another great encounter is with Eiko. I meet her at the end of a long and hot day (this is before the endless raining started) outside a conbini (convenience store) which are the lifeline of any cyclist in Japan.
She sees me and my bike loaded with gear and starts positively growling and squealing with delight. So positive! So amazing! Ooooh! Aaaaaah! Sugoi! I ask her if she knows a good place to camp, and she invites me to come and stay at her home.
I spend an evening with her and Benzo, her mental dog. She used to travel a lot. Diving in the Maldives, living in Australia, backpacking around the world. Until she got married to her husband and moved from Sapporo to rural Shimizu, on a flat-as-a-Dutch pancake floodplain surrounded by mountains.
She works at a check-out in a supermarket. They couldn’t conceive, drifted apart and are now in the process of getting divorced. Eiko takes me shopping to the local mall, which is the only thing to do in the small town. We have a good chat, and I’m sad to leave her behind in her depressing situation, being bored out of her skull in Shimizu. Luckily she has Benzo.
Osanai-san of Honobono farm
My last encounter is entirely positive and uplifting. After a medium climb, I am looking for a good meal before I will find my wild camping spot for the night. Just outside a small village, not far from Lake Toya, I spot Honobono farm. It is a meticulously maintained idyll of organic farming on a traditional Hokkaido farmstead, combined with a cafe and offering yoga classes for more relaxation and a healthy lifestyle.
I relish the crunchy fresh vegetables after almost a month of living off processed conbini bento box food and snickers bars. Looking out over the flowers in the sunny garden I’m overcome with a feeling of complete peace. I ask if they are a campsite, knowing quite well they aren’t, but this is the roundabout and polite way of asking I can stay, as it offers them an easy way to say no.
Yoko says no, but 5 minutes later comes back to say that her mother has agreed to let me stay for the night. Yay! I put up my tent and after a game of volleyball with the whole family, I prepare for an early night.
But, I can’t go to sleep just yet. Grandmother Osanai-san brings more food to my tent and invites me to go to the village onsen with her. There she scrubs my back, and we enjoy a nice long soak in the simple white-tiled space. She invites me to sleep inside, afraid I’m going to be cold in the tent. They have already shared so much and I don’t want to miss out on the last night in my tent, especially as it’s not raining. I decline the gracious offer. Their farm is a traditional wooden building without a shower, and I glimpse raised tatami rooms with futons inside.
From a complete foreign stranger, I came to feel like a member of the family, without a shared language. They decided to like and trust me within minutes and let me in. At 5.30am Osanai-san calls me outside my tent: Bira-san, kohi (coffee)! She cooks me an amazing breakfast and I’m on my way, enveloped in a warm glow and with a big happy smile on my face.
Going the distance
It was pretty hardcore at times, and I cycled more than I planned: an average of about 60km per day (including rest days, meaning that most days I did 75km or more, often doing big climbs, in the rain). I was only planning on cycling from New Chitose airport to the Shiretoko peninsula and back. In the end, I tack on a loop in Niseko, southwest of Sapporo, home to some spectacular volcanic lakes. I’ve done about 1500km in total, in a little bit under a month.
Wet and wild
The first six days are very hot, and then it starts raining. And it keeps raining, for days on end. Descents in mist and rain with soaking wet shoes are no fun. The tent and sleeping bag are very comfortable, as are outdoor onsens at 6am, with views of steaming volcanoes.
One day I unwittingly cycle through a typhoon. This means thick fog, solid rain and punishing side winds. There is no shelter or conbinis on the long, straight and boring road through coastal flatlands. That day the roads are mostly empty. All the fishing boats are on the shore, and it feels as if I’m cycling through an extremely wet zombie apocalypse. The occasional motorcyclist that passes me shakes his fist or waves at me, encouraging me in my craziness. Ganbatte!
I decide to bypass the peninsula beyond Nemuro where I was planning to wild camp on Hokkaido’s easternmost cape. Instead, I head for the nearest campsite with a hot shower and a laundrette. I’m glad about that decision, as I later read on the Japanese meteorological website that a 1m tsunami warning had been issued for that very peninsula. That day I do 105km, as there was nothing to do but push on.
The only way is up
Another challenge, apart from the rain, is the climbing. I’ve done quite a few mountain passes, going from sea level to 1000m. the gradients are usually very good, the views of forested mountains absolutely stunning. Reaching a summit is always a satisfying feat, and the downhill a nice reward for the hard work.
Hokkaido history and culture
Hokkaido is the ancestral home of the bearded and bear-worshipping Ainu people, and I visit some interesting Ainu sites and museums around Lake Akan.
Japanese culture really only arrived when settlers arrived around the middle of the 19th century. Many of them were decommissioned samurai, as the colonization of Hokkaido more or less coincided with a societal shake-up that saw the abolishment of this particular well-educated and cultured warrior class.
As it is there are not that many historical or cultural highlights such as temples and museums, and it’s all about natural splendour. I do visit one museum, about a famous sumo wrestler. I can’t read the signs but the collection of pictures and religious paraphernalia is impressive.
In that sense, Hokkaido is very different from southern Japan, where I cycled before. There is little interesting architecture, but I like the log cabins, made of solid wooden beams.
One aspect of Japanese culture that I do get to enjoy is, of course, the fantastic food. When I am not eating the standard bento boxes from the conbinis that is.
The Hokkaido Wilds
But, oh, the nature… Hokkaido is indeed wild and wonderful. The flood- and coastal plains can be a bit boring, and actually remind me of my home village. Flatlands, straight lines, grassland and cornfields, cows, farms, modern harvest combiners. It’s weird to see this kind of almost Dutch-like countryside but with Japanese farmers on the tractors. Hokkaido produces a lot of milk and I love the fresh ice cream.
I only spend a couple of half-days cycling in the flatlands. The rest of my time in Hokkaido is filled with cycling up the side of volcanoes, finding gorgeous lakes or pedalling along the coastline.
Hot spring, you make my heart sing
Then there are the onsens. My expectations of Hokkaido were high (inspired by the fantastic Hokkaido Wilds website), and one thing I dreamed of was spending every night camping next to a hot spring. I wasn’t disappointed: at many places, I could have a long hot soak after a long cold and wet day on the bicycle. The cutest onsen I found was one with a little concrete statue of tanuki, a little mischievous raccoon spirit. The hot water comes spouting of his gigantic cock. I found the onsen in a little hidden jungly valley and shared it with a super nice Japanese couple.
In the first days, I do quite a bit of wild camping.
I had hoped to do a bit more wild camping, but the many signs warning of bears around the Shiretoko peninsula lead me to stay at campsites that are surrounded by electric fences. One day a police car stops me, as I am cycling up a big climb. In the rain, naturally. The cops try to tell me something. I explain that I don’t speak Japanese. They then do a very funny bear impersonation, with big smiles on their faces. They are all smiles but I don’t think they are joking. Finally they send me on my way with a ‘be careful, ok?’.
I don’t see any non-taxidermied bears, and I don’t know if I’m relieved or disappointed. One time I hear one. I’m cycling down a small road and all of a sudden I hear something that sounds like an elephant falling out of a tree. I stop the bike, start shouting and clapping, and the bear disappears with more noise of breaking branches. Whoa. I do see lots of other wildlife, such as the sly kitsune (fox) and some magnificent deer.
I could write a 1000 more words on the beauty of cycling around Hokkaido and all the impressions it left on me. But after one month I pack up my bicycle and return home, to Kunming.
I’m fully recharged, and ready to take on my new job of editor for GoKunming. Since my new job is writing (dream job!), I won’t have much time to update this blog anymore. If you like you can sign up for the GoKunming newsletter and get weekly updates about life in Yunnan.