Hokkaido, July 2007

I took my first bike trip around Hokkaido in August 2006 with good friend Debito Arudo. My parents, who have long had an interest in seeing Japan's famous northern island of Hokkaido, expressed an interest, and after some discussion, we decided to do a similar journey in July 2007. Below is a map of our journey. Explanations and pictures of the trip follow.

Our journey began when my parents arrived in Tokyo in early July -- our first mission was to buy bikes! Just the day before our trip we bought cheap mountain bikes for both my parents along with a bike bag for stowing on the plane. We left on a Friday morning from Haneda Airport in Tokyo for Nakashibetsu in eastern Hokkaido, an airport so small that it only has one or two flights to Tokyo a day. The weather when we arrived was cold and wet, hardly pleasant weather to ride bikes for a solid 55km, the distance we had to cover that afternoon. But my parents were amazing sports and had smiles on their faces for the entire day despite the tough cycling conditions. Indeed, they were so fascinated by the wildlife, from flowers to foxes, that the biggest hurdle to covering the distance was keeping them from stopping for every new plant. We arrived at our quaint Japanese hotel in the town of Tesikaga before nightfall, enjoyed a bath and dinner and promptly went to bed.

The next day we spent exploring the eastern portion of the Akan national park. Our first stop was Lake Mashu, a lake in a caldera that, because of the lack of any tributaries, has no sediment and has some of the clearest water in the world. (The water comes from mist and rain.) This was just the second day of our journey but easily the toughest climb as we pushed on to the top of the ridge to see the spectacular view. My parents were particularly delighted to see the wild orchids that we spotted as we descended.

For the afternoon we saw the nearby sulfurous vent of Mt. Iwao (spelt with the same characters that comprise "Iwojima"), which a century ago was used to mine sulfur that was exported to an international market. The smell was overpowering, and the green color was spectacular. From there we went on to the town of Kawayu, just a few miles north. Kawayu means "Rivers of Hot Water," and the natural hot spring produced deep green algae in the rivers, and spots for tourists to bathe their feet. Our last stop of the day was "Sunayu," the sandy shore of another lake where digging into the sand produced warm water, as demonstrated by my mother in the picture below.
After spending the night in Kawayu we biked north. The morning was tough, as we biked up a mountain ride that separates the area from the sea, but once we crossed we had a beautiful view of Mt. Iwao behind us, and a view of the flat farmlands to the north. We eventually reached the sandy and chilly coast of the Okhotsk Sea, from where we biked east along the edge of the Shiretoko Peninsula. An isolated natural sanctuary with virtually no human settlements, the area has long been a haven for nature lovers to see eagles, deer, bears, and sea birds. The area was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 2005 and has enjoyed an increase in its international profile since. We spent two nights in Shiretoko, spending one full day touring the area, which included a ferry ride up the coast where we saw spectacular waterfalls, Japanese islands occupied by Russia, and even a family of bears where the mother tried to teach its cub how to swim!
From Shiretoko we headed west along the coast of the Okhotsk Sea. The northern shore of this part of Hokkaido is mainly hardy farmland and, for Japan, sparse settlements. We passed wildflower parks, fisheries, fields and farms, seeing birds, flowers and more as we biked along in what my parents described as very "English" (cold and drizzly) weather. We arrived in Abashiri, an old frontier town famous for its 19th century maximum security prison, where convicts from across Japan were sent to suffer the harsh environment in the days before modern comforts. And finally, we arrived at our quaint Japanese inn on the outskirts of town to the south of a cool swamp, where we settled down for the night to a full dinner and a hot bath.
From the Abashiri region to the next city of Monbetsu was our longest leg of the trip, in which we covered a little more than 100km in one day, passing Japan's second largest lake, Saromako. In Monbetsu we stayed with the charming family of James Eriksson, one of the only western English teachers on the Okhotsk Sea coast. James and his family gave us the opportunity to rest for a full day, and we visited Monbetsu's port to see fish being unloaded, an abandoned mining town, a restored Ainu settlement, and even a deer farm, where the normally wild animals are kept for venison and velvet. Most peculiarly we found a strawberry farm nestled up in the hills -- strawberries from Hokkaido are unheard of in the rest of Japan, but apparently they are grown for local consumption and the stock grown by the lone elderly farmer who managed the farm was impressive.
When planning our route months in advance, I couldn't help but note that the route from Monbetsu to Asahikawa was no picnic. The inland route is entirely uphill through mountains, but I looked hard at the map before our trip and ultimately found the best route. This trip took us west, slightly out of the way, but through a relatively shallow mountain pass and then on to the small town of Nayoro, which is famous for its sunflowers, for which we were unfortunately too early to see in full bloom. Passing through the mountains was an eerie experience. Towns that once had tens of thousands of people had been literally decimated. "Ruins" of former mining towns and schools marked the road. In many ways this could be a snapshot of much of Japan's countryside in several decades as the population declines nationwide.

Nayoro as a town is small and sleepy, but it is remarkable in that it has one of the oldest churches in Hokkaido, pictured below at twilight.

Heading south from Nayoro, our final stop major stop was Asahikawa, where once again we stayed with wonderful hosts who I met on my trip last year, with great conversation, long discussions about flora and fauna, . We stayed for two nights in Asahikawa, but ventured out to the southern towns of Furano and Biei south.

A major highlight in Furano is the "Farm Tomita," famous for its fields of lavendar for perfume manufacturing. There we had a lavendar ice cream as we toured the spectacular fields. To the east were the Daisetsuzan mountains, with clouds flowing down into the lower Furano area. The Daisetsuzan mountains are the tallest in Hokkaido, and the peaks had no shortage of snow, even in the middle of July. I had visited Biei last year and had also wanted to visit Furano, so this was an excellent chance for me to see more of the area and a wonderful way to round out our trip.

There is already talk of doing another Hokkaido bike trip in 2008 -- stay tuned to see how that turns out!