A Journey of 1000 Li
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DAY 44



Lake Toya to Noboribetsu Onsen: A long climb in the rain

Lake Toya to Noboribetsu Onsen
Distance: 29 miles
Total Distance: 1692 miles
Photo Album


After a nice evening at Lake Toya, we headed on for a tough climb over Orofure Pass and the onsen town of Noboribetsu. We woke to a slight rain in Lake Toya which grew worse as the day went on. By the time we got to the top of Orofure Pass (a very tough climb made worse by the weather!) we were ready to find a place to stop for the day. We had a long descent down the far side of the pass and finally coasted into Noboribetsu onsen, tired and cold and ready for a hot bath!

We found a place to stay at an onsen hotel, and enjoyed our Japanese-style room there. After drying off a little, we went back out into the rain to tour Jigokudani, a valley full of boiling mud, sulfur pots, and steam vents. This is where Noboribetsu-onsen gets the naturally heated water for its baths, and it definitely lives up to the hype in the tourist pamphlets. We walked around for a couple of hours, and then finally returned to our hotel for a nice long bath and dinner.


The long climb up to the top of Orofure Pass


Hot noodles for lunch--a nice treat after a long climb in the cold rain!


Steam vents in Jigokudani


Piles of rocks in Jigokudani


Vicky in her yukata


Clandestine pictures of the onsen baths

DAY 43



Oshamambe to Lake Toya: Volcanoes and swans

Oshamambe to Lake Toya
Distance: 46 miles
Total Distance: 1662 miles
Photo Album


Today was another great day for us–lots of beautiful scenery, friendly people, and a nice campsite and bath at the end of the day! We started in Oshamambe, rode through the fog over a mountain pass to a small fishing village on the coast, and then had another long climb up to Lake Toya. On the way to the lake, we stopped and toured an area that had been devastated by volcanic activity in 2000, while I was still in Hakodate. It was so sad to see the remnants of houses and roads left after the eruptions.

From there, we went on to Lake Toya and found a great campsite and bath at the far side of the lake. Before we fell asleep, we watched the nightly fireworks from Toya-onsen!


Vicky met a very nice woman in Oshamambe whose son did a similar bike ride a couple of years ago


After our first climb of the day, we came down to a beautiful coastline


Trees on the hills lining our second climb of the day


A volcano! Why didn't anyone warn me about this!?!


Houses destroyed in the 2000 eruption


A swan in front of one of the smaller volcanoes around Toya-ko


The late evening sky at Toya-ko

DAY 42



Onuma Koen to Oshamambe: Ramen and impressionism

Onuma Koen to Oshamabe
Distance: 58 miles
Total Distance: 1616 miles
Photo Album


We had been riding steadily up the eastern coast from Mori to Oshamambe, and still had quite a few miles to go when we decided to stop for a hot lunch. In Japan, this almost always means noodles–udon, soba, or ramen. We saw a restaurant with a large flag outside advertising “Sapporo Ramen” (the style that Hokkaido is famous for) and slowed down to take a look. At the same time, a large truck pulled in and three heavyset men piled out–they had the sun-darkened skin and large muscles of men who spend a lot of time working outside. One of them smiled at us and waved vigorously. “Come!” he said in Japanese, “delicious!”, and then ducked inside.


Explaining our route on a poster of Hokkaido

When we parked our bikes and stepped into the store, we found the three men at the far end of the restaurant on a raised tatami mat platform. They beckoned us over and rearranged the furniture so that they could inspect us more closely. After introductions and some discussion, we learned that they were locals and came here often for lunch; although they had no suggestions other than “water”, we ended up ordering two huge bowls of soy-sauce flavored ramen.

As we ate, they told us all about the surrounding area and had lots of questions about where we were going and how far it was to Hawaii. I did my best to field all the questions, despite a lot of laughing on their part. I noticed that as we talked, only two of them took part–the third just stared at me with a concerned look on his face, as if he were trying to remember something. It was starting to make me feel a little awkward until he burst in on the conversation: “Goho!”

“What?” I asked.

“Goho!” he repeated, “you look like Vincent Van Goho”

The other two stared for a few seconds, and then burst into loud applause and agreement. “He does!” they said, “yes, the beard, the eyes, he is Goho!” And so I was, for the rest of the lunch. I tried to explain that I had two ears and looked nothing like the impressionist painter, but they would have none of it.

In the end they treated us to lunch, and we were very glad we met them–I can’t say that we had a lot in common, but they were very kind to try and make us feel welcome. It was typical of what we have seen in Hokkaido so far–very friendly people who go out of their way to greet travelers.


The guy in yellow thinks I look like a crazed nineteenth-centry post-impressionist painter

Our ride from Onuma Koen to Oshamabe was nice, but fairly uneventful. We rode along the coast for most of the day, after climbing out of Onuma and descending down to the coast. At the end of the day, we stopped at a campsite in Oshamambe, and Vicky got to see her first cherry blossoms! The park there had a late-blooming variety, and it was wonderful to see the blossoms scattering across the grass in the evening breeze.


Komagatake volcano finally peeking out of the fog in the morning as we leave lake Onuma


Our campground in Oshamambe


Vicky enjoying the playground


There were lots of bugs at the campground, so Vicky tried out her mosquito net

Tomorrow, we’re heading for Lake Toya and a region that was devastated by volcanic activity in 2000–there should be plenty to see along the way!

DAY 41



Hakodate to Onuma Koen: Islands in the mist

Hakodate to Onuma Koen
Distance: 26 miles
Total Distance: 1558 miles
Photo Album


We planned a short day of riding today, since we wanted to camp at a “quasi-national” park about 30 miles north of Hakodate. I had visited this park a couple of times when I lived here, and I thought Vicky would enjoy its picturesque islands and striking views of Mt. Komagatake.

Knowing that we didn’t have far to ride, we slept in and then took our time getting on the road. It turns out that Saito-san (the lady who runs our hostel) has an old friend in San Diego, and she convinced us to take a “small present” to him. It turns out that the present is a large box of Hakodate butter cookies; to thank us for taking them back with us she gave us a box as well, so we’re set for desserts for the rest of our trip!


Outside the hostel with some Australian travelers


New stamps for our book!

We finally got out of town around noon, and enjoyed the ride out to the park. There was a bit of traffic getting up to the park (everyone was out for a Sunday drive), but the beautiful scenery more than made up for it. The rest of the ride was right along the edge of the lake, and the evening fog rolling in over the mountains dampened all sounds except for the waves gently lapping against the shore. We stopped for a little snack at a group of souvenir shops, and met a nice store attendant who joked with us (we hope!) about bears coming down out of the mountains.


Our best bear impressions


Onuma islands in the fog

We arrived at the free campground at the north end of the lake and set up camp after purchasing some supplies from a very friendly store owner just outside the entrance. By late afternoon we were all settled and enjoying the view. The only problem was the massive number of mosquitoes, and my legs were covered in bites before I had time to get out the bug spray. Other than that, we really enjoyed this campsite–for the first time on the trip, we were camping with other people, and it felt very nice to be part of a larger community of people enjoying the outdoors.


The campground store owner showing us the best view spots along the lakeshore


Our first camp in Hokkaido!


Peaceful fisherman

After enjoying a nice dinner, we settled in for the evening to read the books we had purchased in Hakodate. Our trip through Hokkaido was already turning out very nicely!


Foggy lake

DAY 40



Hakodate: Lots of sightseeing (and food!)

Distance: 7 miles
Total Distance: 1532 miles
Photo Album

IMG_1039 Vicky and I had an amazing day today in Hakodate–lots of sightseeing and plenty fun meals! Looking back through the pictures, we can’t believe we fit so much into just one day :)

I’m going to let the pictures tell the story, because Vicky captured the feel of the city so well. Some of the highlights for us were: eating sushi at the morning fish market, biking through town to my old neighborhood, a picnic lunch in Goryokaku Park, a nice ride through the historical Motomachi district, watching the sunset from the top of Hakodate Mountain, and a great dinner at local burger chain Lucky Pierrot’s. We were going to stay another day, but I want Vicky to see Onuma Park as well (north of Hakodate), so we’re going to ride over and camp there instead.


At the morning fish market... this little boy was in awe with the huge crab


Hakodate is famous for its squid. What funny-looking guys!


Fresh squid and sea urchin for sale at the morning fish market


At the market


Squid swimming around a large pool at the market...


... if you want to buy one, you have to go fishing!


Huge crab legs


Our delicious lunch of fresh crab, salmon roe, sea urchin and scallop sushi on rice at the market




Old fahioned street cars of Hakodate


We're obsessed with the pastries they sell here


Goryokaku tower, overlooking the castle grounds and park


Our sushi and bread picnic at Goryokaku


The apartment Kelly lived in for 2 years is in the back


Russian Orthodox church in the international district of Motomachi


Russian Orthodox Church


This part of town reminded us of San Francisco, with its steep hills and cobblestone streets


The ropeway up to Hakodate Mountain


Little boy trying to figure out how the binoculars work


An amazing view of the city from the top of Hakodate Mountain


Some workers enjoying the evening


We see a lot of sunsets in San Diego, but this one still blew us away


We weren't the only ones photographing the sunset




Lucky Pierrot, a crazy Hakodate-only hamburger chain.


Clam burgers, squid burgers, egg burgers, and more!


So good!




Warehouse district at night

DAY 39



Hiranai to Hakodate: Natsukashii!

Aomori to Hakodate
Distance: 30 miles
Total Distance: 1526 miles
Photo Album


Although we slept well at our camp in Hiranai, we had to wake up early since we did not know the exact ferry schedule from Aomori to Hakodate and we wanted to give ourselves as much time as possible to figure things out once we rode into the city. It was a little cold when we woke up so we put on a few layers and rode out of the park to a Sunkus convenience store for breakfast. We got on the road and enjoyed the ride into Aomori, warming up gradually as we went. For the most part, we rode through small fishing villages along an interesting coastline, but this gradually changed into a more industrial area as we moved west.


Riding along the coast towards Aomori


A little island shrine out in the bay

Within a couple of hours, we were in Aomori itself–I was surprised how big the city is! I had passed through here a few times when I lived in Hakodate, but never really saw much except for the train station and a couple other isolated locations. I wished we had a little time to visit the Munakata Shiko museum before getting on the ferry, as I thought Vicky would have enjoyed seeing some of his work, but unfortunately we didn’t have much time. Instead, we headed straight for the ferry landing, eventually getting there a little after 10 am.

Once at the ferry landing, we bought tickets for the next boat and had an hour to wait before it left. We spent the time cleaning up and arranging our baggage for the 4 hour ride across the Tsugaru Strait. We were really looking forward to relaxing on the ride over and enjoying a hot lunch, since we had not had a chance to eat after our ride into Aomori. All of the ferries we have been on so far have been a lot of fun and have plenty of options for food and drinks.


This is one of the floats from an Aomori Neputa festival


Waiting to board the ferry

It was only after the boat left the terminal that we realized this ferry was different–the only seating is on the floor of a medium-sized carpeted room, and there is no food to be found anywhere on the boat! Of course, all the locals knew this and immediately unpacked massive picnic lunches as soon as the boat departed; Vicky and I had to content ourselves with some green tea and peanuts that I had in the bottom of my handlebar bag :(

Despite being hungry on the four-hour ride, we enjoyed the ferry to Hakodate. There is a lot of coastline to watch, especially as you move north past the Shimokita peninsula. The coastline looked very sparsely populated, but also beautiful–lots of impressive cliffs coming
right down to the ocean, with tall mountains looming in the fog above.


Mountains on the Shimokita peninsula appearing out of the fog




View from the ferry

I have been looking forward to visiting Hakodate since we started the trip, and it was very exciting as the ferry pulled into the harbor and familiar sights started to appear: Hakodate mountain and the ropeway, the brick warehouses by the marina, and the central pier where I used to teach English to the customs inspectors. After getting off the ferry we still had a few miles to reach our hostel near the Motomachi area, so we climbed on and started riding.

One of my favorite words in Japanese is natsukashii: this is almost always translated as “nostalgic” but it really doesn’t capture the feeling of the word. Think of the the times when you’re sitting around with friends and hear a song from when you were teenagers. Or when you smell a food that your mother used to cook when you were a kid. In Japanese, you can just say “natsukashii, ne…” and this simple word captures all of the meaning of “wow, this really brings back memories of when I used to…”.

For me, that ride from the ferry landing to our hostel was very natsukashii. The wide streets and crazy taxi drivers, the Seicomart convenience stores (only found in Hokkaido), the loudspeakers on every street corner blaring out commercials, and the quaint buildings around the base of Hakodate mountain. We rode slowly through town until we found ourselves in front of our tiny hostel.

The owner was out, so we went down to the warehouse area and had a small lunch outside. When we returned, we were able to check in, clean up, and unpack. After resting up a little bit, we went out for a little celebration at the Hakodate Beer Factory right down the street: even though it had been tiring, we had finally made it to Hokkaido! We had some fried squid and squid somen (a local specialty), and then headed back to the hostel to relax. It had been an exciting day, and we had a long list of things we wanted to see tomorrow!


Our celebration feast, including local Hakodate beer!

DAY 38



Ninohe to Hiranai: Our last night in Honshu

Ninohe to Hiranai
Distance: 68 miles
Total Distance: 1496 miles
Photo Album


We woke up very early in the park at Ninohe, and quickly packed up our camp–the sun comes up early here, and that generally means a lot of senior citizens doing exercises around our tent when we camp in a park. After getting everything put away, we cleaned up at the park bathroom and then chatted for a few minutes with a couple of people out jogging.


Remains of castle walls in the park in Ninohe

The ride out of town was very nice as the streets were empty at this hour, and we again enjoyed the interesting buildings lining the river as we crossed back to rejoin Route 4 again. After a quick breakfast at a convenience store, we set out on the road. Our goal for the day was to get within 20 miles of Aomori so that we would have an easy ride into town to catch the ferry the next day. Of course, this meant that we had a lot of distance to cover today!


View while biking out of Ninohe


A small temple dug into the riverbank in Ninohe

The first hour saw a mix of climbs and descents as we worked our way through the *nohe cities: Sannohe, Gonohe, and so on. We stopped for a quick snack and hot drinks at a road station in Gonohe and I saw a poster in the bathroom advertising a “Road Station Stamp Rally”–every participating road station has a unique rubber stamp that you can use in your journal. After seeing this it has become my mission to collect as many as possible, even though we have missed a lot already!

As we kept riding through the rest of the morning we gradually descended down into a flatter valley region. After stopping for lunch, we hit a long section of rolling hills that really began to tire out our legs: uphill for a kilometer and then down again, only to do it all over again. Just as we were really beginning to feel worn out, we had one last longer climb and then dropped the rest of the way down to the coast in the small fishing town of Noheji. From there, we turned along the coast and followed it north and west in a big curve that would take us to Aomori the next morning.


Vegetables for sale in a road station; the pictures show the farmer that grew each product


Statue outside a store that sells funerary and temple sculptures

Another 20 kilometers or so took us to the town of Hiranai, where we intended to stay for the night. Our campground was in a beautiful city park that covered most of the base of a small mountain just southeast of the city. In addition to a cactus garden, koi ponds, aspen groves, a ski lift, and tennis courts, the park also had an amazing campground at the base of the mountain (no climbing!) with a nice view of the surrounding area.


Koi pond and flowers in the Hiranai city park


Our campsite in Hiranai--the building in the background even had showers and laundry!

After a nice dinner of hot ramen and sushi, we crawled into bed and soon fell asleep–we were completely worn out by our longest day of riding so far, and we still had a little bit more to do in order to catch the ferry to Hakodate.

DAY 37



Morioka to Ninohe: Camping in castle ruins

Morioka to Ninohe
Distance: 58 miles
Total Distance: 1428 miles
Photo Album


Although it was very hot and we didn’t have a tailwind to help us along today, the scenery was much nicer and we had an interesting campsite at the end of the day.

We woke early at the campsite in Morioka, packed up and said good-bye to our biker friends, who gave us a very cheerful farewell. We had stopped just southwest of the main city, and spent an hour getting into and through the center. Morioka seemed unexpectedly large to us, especially after a week of riding through small coastal and mountain villages! We made it through all the traffic safely, and rode on until we came to a major fork in the road–and a big decision about our route through Tohoku. We could take a more indirect road that went over the mountains and past Towada-ko (a famous crater lake south of Aomori) or else stay on the 4 and go south of the Shimokita Peninsula and around to Aomori. We opted for the second choice, since it would be quicker and still allowed us to see some of the coastline around Mutsu Bay.

We spent a few hours riding in quite a bit of traffic, although we had gotten out of the huge agricultural valley and were now climbing gently through some foothills. We enjoyed the relative calm as the towns grew smaller and pine forests began to dominate the landscape again. It was one of the hottest days we have had so far in Japan, so we rode a little slower than usual–also, we were lacking the great tailwind that had pushed us through the miles south of Morioka!


More rice fields on the way out of Morioka

After a nice lunch at a road station in Iwate, we had our longest climb of the day which took us up to the highest point on Route 4 north of Tokyo! After that, the riding was generally easier but our legs were feeling the miles. We looked at our map and decided that we could make it to Ninohe, where we could hopefully find a place to camp for the night. When we finally arrived n Ninohe, we were glad we had made the effort, as it is a very enjoyable town with some nice-looking buildings along the river and around the station. We arrived a little before sunset and found the streets full of activity as people did hteir evening shopping, opened up their restaurants, and chatted with their neighbors.


Highest point on the 4 north of Tokyo!

We rode just a little uphill from the river to a park marked on the map, and found that it was the site of the Kunohe or “Ninth Door” castle. There is a group of cities in this area of Iwate prefecture, each of which is named numerically for a castle located nearby: Ichinohe, Ninohe, Sannohe, Gonohe, etc. (“First Castle”, “Second Castle”, “Third Castle”, and so on). I’ve tried to find some information about why these castles are named this way, but haven’t found much so far.

In Ninohe, the castle ruins have been preserved to show the original outline of the moat and keep, and the grounds are used for community recreation and sports–it’s a very nice arrangement that helps to protect the historical value of the land while still allowing it to be used by everyone in the town.

We weren’t sure about camping in such a public area, so we picked a quiet corner under some cherry trees and had a cold dinner while the sun went down. The rest of the evening was uneventful, aside from Vicky accidentally pressing the “emergency siren” button instead of the flush mechanism in the park toilet–Japanese plumbing sure is complicated! After it got dark, we pitched our tent and had an early night. We fell asleep on top of ancient castle walls under a sky full of stars, ready for one more long day of riding north.