A Journey of 1000 Li
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DAY 59



Wakkanai Day 2: On to Rishiri Island

We still had a few days before our flight out of Sapporo, so we planned take a side trip over to Rishiri Island for a few days. Even though we had plenty to take care of for this, we had a lazy morning in the youth hostel. First order of the day was a nice breakfast (soup, eggs, ham, salad, rolls, coffee and tea all for 300 yen!), after which we slowly packed up and headed out. Once back down the hill, we made another stop by the post office to send some of our gear back home. While we were inside packing boxes and filling out forms, some crows attacked our bikes and at some of our food–reinforcing our negative opinion of these birds that have been plaguing us all trip!

Once we were done at the post office we headed over to the ferry station, but found that we had missed the last morning departure and would need to wait for several hours. We finally arrived at Rishiri in the late afternoon and took our time riding to the hostel. The island was beautiful–dominated by the central peak of Rishiri-fuji, but with a rugged coastline and very little human habitation except for the main port town and a few small villages. We rode slowly through town to our hostel, stopping along the way to watch a festival for a local shrine.

We eventually reached the hostel, and after checking in with the very friendly staff we unpacked in our private room and went out to take some pictures of the sunset. We could see neighboring Rebun Island from the viewpoint and got some great pictures of the surrounding area. We stocked up on dinner and hiking supplies at a nearby Seicomart, and then headed back to the hotel for dinner. We had been saving our “emergency rations” (freeze-dried backpacking food from back home) all trip, and decided that we might as well use it up. Compared to what we had been eating all through Japan, it tasted horrible!

After packing up supplies for tomorrow, we went to bed early as we had to get up at 4:30 the next morning to start our hike up the mountain.

DAY 58



Wakkanai, Day 1: Learning the Japanese Mail System

We had almost a full week to spare before we had to catch our flight from Sapporo to Tokyo, and we certainly didn’t want to spend it all in Wakkanai. At the same time, we had quite a few logistics to figure out, as we needed to decide what to do with our bicycles and camping gear while here in Hokkaido and then back in Tokyo for another week. Our first task was the bicycles: with those taken care of, we figured we could always handle the luggage.

Our first thought was that we could ship the bikes all the way back to San Diego, so we went off to a local bike shop to ask for help. Although the owner was very cheerful and tried to offer suggestions, there wasn’t much he could do on his own–however, he recommended trying a couple of shipping companies near the port area. Off we went to one of the larger offices, where after much confusion (and frustration on my part at not being able to explain fully what we were trying to do) we established that it would cost somewhere around $700 US to send the bikes home! We told them that we would think about it and return, and then biked away as fast as we could, feeling a little defeated. We checked at the Japanese Post Office to see if they could ship them instead, but learned that the upper size limit for packages through this service was far to small, even if we took the bikes completely apart.

Our next thought was to find some large bicycle boxes that we could use to package up the bikes and check in as luggage, which is what we had done to get them over here in the first place. Back again to the bike shop! This time the owner’s wife met us outside, and after some discussion we learned that (a) they don’t keep extra boxes from the bikes that they sell (no room in their crowded store), and (b) the boxes were far to small for our touring bikes. As we were talking, her husband came back out, and after some thought, suggested that we simply use the kind of bike bags required to take a bike on a train. We were pretty wary of checking our bikes on an airplane in a simple canvas back but felt that we didn’t have many options at this point, so we made arrangements to come back in a few days and purchase the bags.

After all this running around, it was already late afternoon so we decided to spend another night in Wakkanai and use the evening to plan out the rest of our time in Hokkaido. We had noticed a youth hostel on the map, so we rode up a very steep set of hills to check it out. It turned out to be a great find! The owner was very happy to see us, especially as the hostel was completely empty. We made arrangements for a small dorm room and dinner, and then started to unpack and clean up. It was a little sad to see this hostel so empty, as the owner was clearly working hard to make it a nice place to stay. We migrated to a common room after unpacking a little, and were just settling down to read a little bit when the owner came in. He asked if we would like to stay in one of the newly remodeled hostel apartments instead of the dorm room–completely free! He was working on a multi-year project to convert part of the hostel to a more upscale bed-and-breakfast type place, and wanted us to experience the changes. We moved all of our things down the hall, and were incredibly surprised by our new accommodations! The suite had a dining room, full tatami bedroom, full kitchen, and a huge bath! Needless to say, we were set for the night.

We went downstairs to thank our host and eat the dinner we had arranged earlier, and then spent the rest of the evening relaxing in our room. Vicky took a long bath while I caught up on our journal and email.

DAY 57



Hamatonbetsu to Wakkanai: We did it!

Hamatonbetsu to Wakkanai
Distance: 60 miles
Total Distance: 2167 miles

Well, we finally made it! After almost 2,000 miles of riding, we reached the northernmost point of Japan at Cape Soya! The whole day was filled with so many of things that we have loved about traveling in Japan: beautiful scenery, nice roads, and lots of friendly people. After reaching Cape Soya we rode down to Wakkanai (one of the larger cities in northern Hokkaido) and we’ll be staying here for a few days before heading down to Tokyo.

Even though we had a longer ride today, we slept in a little and took our time packing up. The campground by the lake was very peaceful and had a great view, so we enjoyed a slow breakfast before finally heading out. There were a lot of other people staying there, and a few of them came over to talk as we got everything ready. When we finally got on our bikes, the campground owner came running out of the front office and handed us each a little souvenir so we would remember Hamatonbetsu! We hung them on our bikes and set out on the main road north.


Morning at Lake Kucharo


Breakfast near the shore


A huge moth on the door to the bathroom

Just outside Hamatonbetsu we turned towards the coast on a tiny farm road that ran for ten miles or so through some great farmland right along the coast. We had the entire road to ourselves and enjoyed taking pictures of various sights along the way. After an hour or so, we rejoined the main north-south highway. This road–lined with massive metal shutters to protect drivers from wind and snow in the winter–took us through a few small towns through the morning, but for the most part we found ourselves riding in relative isolation along a rugged coastline.


We had this great country road all to ourselves


Vicky playing in the hay fields


Views along the coast near Cape Soya

We had a couple of brief stops at road stations along the way, but took a little more time at the last Seicomart (convenience store) marked on our atlas before Cape Soya. We got some lunch, and also a small bottle of champagne and some snacks so that we could celebrate at the cape! With our stomachs full and our panniers stuffed with snacks, we were ready to finish the last 20 kilometers to our destination. As we approached Soya-misaki, the scenery grew more and more rugged, but was still incredibly striking: cliffs and low hills covered by short bamboo stands overlooking dark sand beaches; all of this stretching for miles in either direction without a single house or town in sight. There were a couple of steep climbs on the way but nothing too steep–even so, we felt tired on the way up since we knew we were getting close to the end of the trip (and our legs were telling us they were ready to stop!).

We finally got to Cape Soya mid-afternoon, and found it to be much less isolated and peaceful than we had anticipated! Lots of people, tour buses, and souvenier stands, with constant music coming from one of the monuments littering the small park. We fought our way through the crowds to snap a couple of quick pictures and then ran away to hide in a quiet corner for our celebration. Fittingly, this was on a curb behind a bathroom: pretty much the same type of location we have been eating in for the last two months. Not too romantic, but it was out of the way and out of the wind! We had our champagne and snacks, bought a couple of small souveniers, and then headed out for Wakkanai–we still had 20 miles to go and no place to stay for the night.


We finally made it!


Celebration out of the wind behind the bathrooms

As we turned and headed south, the tailwind that had helped us all day turned into a terrible headwind, and we struggled for the first half. Gradually, we moved around the bay to Wakkanai, and the headwind turned to a tailwind–Vicky and I felt like we were back on our road bikes again! Along the way, we ran into a young Korean rider who was on a three-month trip from Fukuoka to Wakkanai and back. We took a couple of pictures with him and then headed on down the road. By the time we finally got into downtown Wakkanai we were tired and ready to stop riding for a while.


Pacing each other through a tough headwind down to Wakkanai

Unfortunately, we had no luck finding a place to stay at first–all the hotels were either way too expensive or all booked up. We turned back south to try another area of town and as we were examining our map by the side of the road a couple of motorcycle tourists pulled up. One of them asked if we needed help and offered to take us to a rider house nearby to stay for the night. A “rider house” is a Hokkaido-only type of loding that is typically used by motorcyclists who need a cheap, easy place to stay for the night while touring around the north. Fortunately, these places are open to cycle tourists as well! We followed these two guys down a couple of streets, and found ourselves in front of a public bath house, a garage filled with motorcycles, and a sign advertising the “Midori No Yu Rider House”.

Within a few minutes, we were checked in–for $10 each we got a bed to sleep in, full use of the kitchenette and bathroom, and a bath next door if we were so inclined. The rider house was run by a tiny chain-smoking mama-san in her 60’s who sat in the common room and watched TV as the house slowly filled up with bikers–by the time we got back from shopping for dinner the room was full of black leather, empty beer cans, and cigarette smoke. We sat down at the long table and joined in the conversation. Around 9:00, the mama-san stood up and switched off all the lights except for two lava lamps and a small mirror ball. With karaoke mic in hand, she greeted everyone to the house and asked everyone to give their self-introductions. After we each took our turn, she had us all link arms and sway in time as we sang a famous enka song about Hokkaido–Vicky and I didn’t know any of the words, but we tried to help out where we could! Once the song was over, she uncovered two ceramic containers and a tray of glasses and informed us all that “beer and sake are all right until 9:00, but after that we need to drink shochu like real men!” The rest of the night passed in a blur of conversation, World Cup soccer (Japan vs. Paraguay), and at least a couple glasses of the potent liquor. By the time we finally pleaded fatigue and staggered off to bed, we had been treated to a great celebration of the end of our bike trip!


Introductions and disco ball at the Rider House


Group singing


Group photo!

DAY 56



Lost in transition

Hi everyone,

Sorry for the late / infrequent updates over the past couple of weeks. Vicky and I are having a wonderful time as our trip winds down, but we still haven’t had many opportunities to update the blog. After almost 2200 miles of riding, we finally made it to Cape Soya (the northernmost point of Japan) and then down to the city of Wakkanai for a few days. While in Wakkanai, we took a couple of days to go hiking on Rishiri island (climbed to the top of Rishiri-Fuji @ 1721 meters and our legs are still sore :(). Other than that, we’ve just been dealing with a horrendous logistical maze to get us, our bikes, and our baggage all back to Tokyo and then San Diego.

Unfortunately, we lost our netbook on the train from Wakkanai to Sapporo, so we won’t be able to put up any more pictures for a while. Thank you to everyone for following our journey so far–hopefully it won’t be too long before we can fill you all in on the rest of our adventure!

DAY 56



Sakkuru to Hamatonbetsu: north along a beautiful coast

Sakkuru to Hamatonbetsu
Distance: 56 miles
Total Distance: 2117 miles

Another day spent avoiding mosquitoes! We woke up early from the hot sun beating down on our tent and packed up pretty quickly, spurred on by a cloud of mosquitoes that swarmed as soon as we stepped outside. We had a quick breakfast inside the tent, but stopped again in the small town of Otoineppu a few miles down the road. Despite heat, riding in Hokkaido in the early mornings has been one of the best parts of the past few weeks. Very little traffic, fresh air, and lots of things to look at as we ride along.


Signpost near Otoineppu

A little past Otoineppu, we turned off towards the coast on a small prefectural road. There were a few very small towns along the way, and some nice rolling hills with little traffic. After a quick Seicomart lunch, we had a short but tough climb up to a pass with a very narrow tunnel. The slope was never too steep, but the headwind was incredibly strong! Vicky’s new strategy for dealing with tunnels is to charge through as quickly as possible–we’ve found that this works much better in Hokkaido where traffic is generally lighter and we are less likely to encounter cars anyway. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for my clothing, as I was riding behind her and got sprayed with mud from her back tires!


45 degrees north latitude!

After the pass, we had a nice gradual downhill to Esashi where we turned north and road along the coast. The scenery is different on this side of Hokkaido: lots of cliffs and rocky outcrops and very different vegetation–bushes and short bamboo instead of larger trees. We stopped to take plenty of pictures along the way but still made good time; we weren’t too worried as we had all afternoon to cover about 20 miles. We were even helped by a tailwind that came up past one small cape which carried us all the way into Hamatonbetsu.


Back on the coast


Lots of picture breaks along this barren but beautiful coastline


The vegetation along the coast hints at very harsh winters

After a little shopping in town we found the campground next to an onsen on the shore of Lake Kucharo. We pitched our tent and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the bath. After we had cleaned up, we treated ourselves to dinner in the onsen restaurant and then spent the rest of the evening walking along the lake and relaxing in the tent.


Working on the journal at Lake Kucharo

DAY 55



Horokanai to Sakkuru: Another day, another onsen!

Horokanai to Sakkuru
Distance: 56 miles
Total Distance: 2061 miles

We woke up early the next morning, slightly nervous about our exposed campsite behind the road station bathroom, and very groggy from a restless night’s sleep. Despite the early hour, the mosquitoes were already active and attacked as soon as we emerged from the tent. We grabbed our equipment and went inside the enclosed road station waiting area (nice benches and easy access to the bathrooms) to pack up and have breakfast. While inside, we met a friendly older man who had slept in his van in the parking lot that night. He was doing 7-year trip around Japan and this was his third time through Hokkaido, he said. We chatted for a while before finishing our packing and heading out on the road.


Photographs on the road

The first 15 miles of the day were relatively flat–we went over a few small rivers and through plenty of farming towns and by 8:30 had already covered 15 miles. From then on, we climbed steadily up to a viewpoint over the shores of Lake Shumaranai, where we got some great pictures of the lake and surrounding areas. The road dipped up and down a bit as it took us around the lake, but we were never too far from the water. Today in particular stood out for how quiet it was–perhaps it was the slightly overcast day and humid air, or perhaps it was the tall hills around us, but for some reason we felt very isolated, as if the rest of the world were standing still and we were the only two people moving through it.


Lake Shumaranai

After riding on the (relatively) major highway 275 for most of the morning, we planned to take the smaller 688 over the next pass and down into Bifuka. We decided to take a short break before starting the next climb, so we started looking around for a good spot to stop–preferably somewhere without mosquitoes! Just to the north of the turnoff, we saw what looked like a park, so we rode on to investigate. The Moshiri Crystal Park was quiet and well maintained, and and had some interesting–and completely unexplained–sculptures in the center. We took some pictures and explored for a few minutes, discovering a small administrative building behind us. Nobody seemed to be inside (although we could hear the sounds of a maintenance crew off in the distance), and with our water bottles nearly empty and our bladders nearly full we stepped inside to use their bathroom, feeling guilty for taking advantage of the facilities without permission.


Break in the Crystal Park

After our short break, we rode up a nice pass–the lack of traffic made it very enjoyable despite the heat–and then had a refreshing downhill into Bifuka. The climb took a while, so we were ready for a real lunch by the time we got into town. After resupplying, we went to a nearby park for lunch, where we ran into Helen (a bike tourist we had first met at Lake Toya) again. We caught up for a little while, and then headed on our way again to a campground onsen about 12 miles north along highway 40. With a short distance left to cover in the afternoon and the sun beating down on us, we took our time, stopping along the way to get some tomorokoshi (buttered corn) ice cream. It tasted much better than it sounds!


Downtown Bifuka


Corn-flavored ice cream!

We reached Teshiogawaonsen (near Sekkuru) in the mid afternoon, and set up our tent in the free camping area up the hill. With plenty of free time on our hands, we enjoyed a long bath in the onsen and then took over a corner of a common room to catch up on our reading / napping / journal writing. It was early evening by the time we made our way back to the campground to cook dinner. Unfortunately, this was just when the mosquitoes decided to make their appearance again! Vicky stayed inside the safety of the tent while I covered as much skin as I could and stayed outside to boil some pasta. I found that the best strategy (now that we had run out of insect repellent) was to pace back and forth as quickly as possible, which gave me a brief window of time to stop and check the status of the dinner before the bugs caught up again. I wonder what the onsen staff would have thought if they saw me? Probably just ascribed it to more bizarre foreign behavior. We have been wondering though–what to local people do to escape the mosquitoes in the evening? We see plenty of people out taking walks and they don’t seem to be bothered very much…

We slept well that night, but woke up early again from the loud birds outside and the already hot sun beating down on our tent.

DAY 54



Asahikawa to Horokanai: Mosquitoes (and soba)!

Asahikawa to Horokanai
Distance: 36 miles
Total Distance: 2005 miles

After a long all-you-can-eat breakfast at the hotel (rice, nori, miso soup, hard-boiled eggs, toast, and green tea) in Asahikawa, we checked out just before the deadline and rode out of the city along one of the main thoroughfares. We had a couple of stops along the way (gas for the stove, plenty of food for the next couple days, and a new English book for Vicky) and we were happy to finally see the green hills and farmland that signaled a return to the open country. Maybe we were just noticing it more as we were now past the symbolic milestone of Asahikawa (last large city on our route to the end of Japan), but the farmland had changed–there was much more dry cultivation now: wheat, alfalfa, and hay instead of rice paddies. Maybe even more noticeable was the amount of flat land NOT under cultivation–land is at much less of a premium here compared the rest of Japan.


Playground on the road out of Asahikawa

WE had a couple of small climbs before lunch, but nothing significant. For lunch, we stopped in Etanbetsu, a seemingly deserted town where the only sign of life was a group of senior citizens playing out a park golf tournament. We watched for a while as we refueled, and then headed out again into the increasing heat of the early afternoon. Soon after eating, we were climbing a 400m pass that took quite a bit of energy to get over–the slope was never too steep, but the heat and insects made it much more difficult.


Climbing in the heat after lunch


View from the top of the pass

From the pass, we dropped down to Horokanai, where we started thinking about finding a place to stay for the night. We saw a road station on the map about 8 miles ahead, and pushed through a headwind to get there just before it closed–just in time for a quick soft ice cream! With a cool snack to hold us over, we asked at the onsen next door about a place to camp, and were told that anywhere just to the south (along a nearby creek) would be fine.


Vicky taking pictures near Horokanai


Beech trees near Horokanai


Afternoon cloud formations

Excited to get set up before a nice soak in the onsen, we went outside and started putting up the tent. It took just a minute or two to realize that camping on the field of dead, damp winter grass was going to be impossible–it was so filled with mosquitoes that our faces and hands were covered with bites before we were even able to spread out the tent on the ground. All of this happened quite close to the large floor-to-ceiling windows of the onsen, and we wondered what the customers must have thought of the sight of two foreigners, waving their arms frantically over their heads and then running off, leaving piles of camping equipment behind.

We eventually retrieved our tent and bicycles, but only after covering up as much skin as possible before dashing through the clouds of hovering insects. Once back in a safer area, we decided to set up behind the road station bathroom, and took as much care as possible not to let any mosquitoes as we unpacked our bags. In the early evening, we went to the onsen for dinner and had a nice warm meal of soba and mountain vegetables. After dinner, we took a long bath to wash off the dirt and sweat from the ride: the men’s bath at least was very unique, with at least 6 or 7 baths of different colors (pink, purple, teal, etc.) and each with a different scent. We read and watched TV in the onsen common room until it closed, and then headed back to our tent. Despite the relatively short ride, we were both tired from the heat and fell asleep quickly.

DAY 53



Asahidake to Asahikawa: Sake, sushi, and sashimi

Asahidake to Asahikawa
Distance: 39 miles
Total Distance: 1968 miles

We woke up to a beautiful morning with clear blue skies, and despite the cool weather we were packed up and ready to go at a decent hour (spurred on in part by a small leak that had sprung in the bottom of our tent–it was hard to relax too much with a small puddle between our sleeping bags). We were on short rations for breakfast so eating didn’t take long, but stopped for a little while to talk with the only other occupants of the campground–a friendly German family who were planning on hiking to the top of Daisetsuzan that morning.


Finally a clear view of Daisetsuzan!

The descent back down the hill was a lot of fun–steep but little traffic, and great views of the mountain behind us. We had to stop periodically to warm up our hands (and take pictures)–cycling gloves do little to protect from the cool air and wind chill of a fast descent. After just a couple of hours, we were riding in the flats through the small town of Higashikawa. We stopped for a snack at the road station there, and then rode on to Asahikawa, our destination for the day. The ride was easy, and we got there in the early afternoon, ready to check in to a hotel and explore the area.


Riding back down the mountain


Daisetsuzan over Lake Chubetsu


Manhole cover in Higashikawa

We found a relatively cheap hotel but could not check in until 4pm (although they let us leave our bags in the lobby), so we decided to do some sightseeing instead. One of the items on our “things to do in Japan” checklist was visiting a sake brewery, so we set out on a mission. According to our guidebook, there were several in the area. The first we tried was a sake brewery in name only–as far as we could tell it was more of an upscale art gallery, and the brewery section functioned more as a pretense for bringing in busloads of tourists and selling them overpriced sculptures. Needless to say, we did not fit in as we tromped around in our cycling shoes and dry-fit T-shirts.

Off we rode across town to another suggestion from the guidebook. This one was much better–a multi-story museum and sake brewery, with plenty of rooms to wander through. Unfortunately, we made one critical mistake as we entered the brewery. The kind woman at the front desk–after doing a double-take at the two sweaty foreigners who had just wandered in–bowed and cheerfully asked us, “did you drive here today?” “Oh no!” I replied proudly, “We came by bicycle!”. Her face fell in disappointment. “Oh, that’s too bad…if you came by vehicle we cannot offer you any samples of our sake…”. Such a disappointment. Although we enjoyed wandering around the museum, a glass of cold sake would certainly have put it in better perspective.


Touring the sake brewery

We eventually made our way back to the hotel, where we took a short nap and then got ready for a night out on the town. We try to take advantage of our hotel stays to get out and enjoy a new restaurant or see the sights in the area, and tonight we had decided tonight was a sushi night. And so off we went to Asahikawa’s night district (Sanroku), where after some wandering we found a sushi restaurant with decent prices. After some great mixed sashimi and sushi, we sat and talked for a while, and then finally made our way back outside to head back to the hotel. Unfortunately, we realized that we were still hungry! I had been telling Vicky that at some point we needed to experience McDonald’s in Japan (the menu is pretty different here), and we realized that the time had come. After a fun ordering experience, we managed to get a hamburger for Vicky and some fries for myself to take back to the hotel.


Asahikawa in the evening


Sushi and Sashimi in Asahikawa

After our midnight snack and a few minutes of staring blankly at late-night Japanese television, we got pretty tired and were ready for a good night’s sleep. Asahikawa was our last big city stop in Japan; after tonight we were headed for the sparsely populated area of northern Hokkaido and our goal of Cape Soya.