Bikepacking in Akita and Hokkaido.

Day 1

Moving time: 5:40:40 – Distance: 117.1km – Climbing: 1300m

We departed early in the morning from a boiling Tokyo and boarded the Tohoku Shinkansen headed to Shichinohe-Towada station in Aomori prefecture. Aomori is the northernmost prefecture in Honshu island. Its climate is similar to Hokkaido, and temperatures during summer are relatively low. Except for a few major cities, the prefecture is rural and sparsely inhabited. About 12 percent of the land in Aomori is designated as natural parks.

From Lake Ogawara, we traveled north alongside the coast of Mutsu Bay and stopped for lunch at a drive-in near Hibaritaira. The landscape of Aomori is remarkably different from Kanto. Wheatfields and cattle ranges are more common than rice fields. Western-style farmhouses, like in Hokkaido, have silos and large barns instead of the traditional “kura” storehouses. The high latitude is also reflected in flora and fauna, which appear wilder and harsher. 

After Mutsu city, we climbed Mount Osore. The mountain, an active volcano, is believed to be one of the gates to the underworld in Japanese mythology. For what I know, it could well be. The whole place looks damned and otherwordly with its acid lake, rotten smell of sulfur, and spooky Bodai-ji temple.

We escaped the caldera after a short climb and, under the rain, arrived at dusk at a campsite near the Ohata river. After a 117 km ride with luggage, I was toasted. But a hot bath in a nearby onsen helped the legs to recover. 

Day 2

Moving time: 1:38:43 – Distance: 42.4km – Climbing: 244m

Moving time: 1:29:55 – Distance: 19.8km – Climbing: 82m

In the morning, we rode 42 km to Oma city, where we boarded the ferry to Hokkaido. Due to a change in the weather forecast, we decided to adjust our plans for the upcoming days. Instead of cycling to Sapporo, we planned to stay one night in Hakodate and then take a train to Otaru the following day. 

Hakodate has the vibe of a small border town booming with tourism. During the Meiji restoration, the city was an open port to foreign ships. Hakodate is somewhat similar to Nagasaki, but with a strong Russian influence. In addition to a consulate and a Russian school, there is also a beautiful Orthodox Church that is still under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. 

Like most tourists, we strolled in the area around the fish market and the Kanemori Red Brick Warehouses. We had a bite at the market and then decided to fill up the stomach at Lucky Pierrot, an eclectic hamburger restaurant that was gathering lines of costumers. Good stuff, but not life-changing. Due to the rain and low clouds, we couldn’t fully appreciate the view from Mount Hakodate, but we enjoyed walking in the neighborhood among European-style mansions.

Day 3

On the third day of our trip we only cycled from hotels to train stations. Cycling and camping in the rain is not a fun endeavor. So we took a day off the bike to visit Otaru. Otaru, another open port during the Meiji restoration, underwent an extensive development project in the 1920s but fell in decline with the rise of Sapporo city. Now, the town is mostly a tourist destination, and the warehouses along the harbor’s canal have been converted into fancy restaurants and breweries. 

Day 4

Moving time: 3:18:32 – Distance: 55.8km – Climbing: 1057m

From Otaru, we moved by train to Asahikawa and entered by bike Furano Valley, a popular ski resort destination. The valley has some of the longest straight roads I have seen in my life. The valley was colonized in the early twentieth century when infrastructures such as roads and railways were built in conjunction with settlements. Hence, straight roads – even up hills and mountains. As you can see on the map, we cycled 1057m of elevation in what is almost a straight line. 

The massive mountains and gentle slopes of Furano valley give the landscape breath. The scenery, with western-style farms and wheatfields, reminds continental Europe and is as far as you can get from Honshu. Most of the tourists gather in a few spots across the valley, such as at the Furano Lavander Farm, the Blue Pond, the Shirahige falls, and the Ningle Terrace. While these spots are worth checking out, the beauty of Hokkaido lies in its nature and remoteness. Therefore, I suggest exploring the less beaten paths and ride as far as possible from cities and tourist attractions. For instance, we found regular carrot and onion farms to be more scenic (and for sure more authentic) than the famous Lavander Farm. Likewise, the Blue Pond looked nice on Instagram, but not so much in reality when you are confronted with crowds of loud tourists with selfie sticks. There is, however, a tourist hotspot that is worth visiting regardless of crowds – the Furano Cheese Factory. From a European point of view, dairy products in Japan are ridiculously expensive and underwhelming (blame protectionism). The Cheese Factory, however, provides good quality stuff at sensible prices. Their ice cream is also very savory. 

We ate lunch in Biei at a good Sichuan restaurant and then started climbing, straight, toward Mount Tokachi. The gentle gradient of Route 966, averaging 2.6 percent, made ascending almost imperceptible. After a few kilometers of onion and carrot farms, we reached Shirogane Blue Pond. Then, a few minutes later, we arrived at Shirahige Waterfall, where we ate an early dinner before heading to the campsite. 

It took us an additional hour to ride the last 9 km to the Hakuginsomae Camping Ground. The view above 1000m of elevation was stunning, and we stopped countless times to take photos and stare at the vast horizon. But the best hat yet to come. The campsite was next to Fukiage Hot Spring Health Center. Without question, the most delightful onsen I have ever visited. After mounting the tents, we spent a good hour soaking in the outdoor hot spring below a starry night. Marvelous. 

Day 5

Moving time: 3:26:02 – Distance: 80.8km – Climbing: 458m

After breakfast at the Fukiage Hot Spring Center, we took a morning bath at Fukiage Open-air onsen; a nearby hot spring carved out from a small thermal stream in the middle of a forest. From there, we then rode downhill to Furano city.

In the afternoon, we visited a crowded Tomita Farm, which did not live up the hype. For lunch, we ate a bowl of curry rice at Farm Restaurant Azemichi Yorimichi. The curry was cooked with fresh local produce and tasted amazing. Following a last stop at the Furano Cheese Factory, we moved to Kanayamako Lake. Finally, after leaving Furano valley, we climbed up some hills and entered a semi-alpine habitat, where we spotted numerous Sika deer alongside the road.

Following the same routine of the previews days, we set camp and headed to an onsen. Kanayamakohan Camping Ground has a beautiful view of the lake and is conveniently located near a hotel with a public onsen. During the night, I was awakened by some animal noise near my tent. I opened the mesh door and saw litter all over the place. A fox had found my garbage bag, ripped it open, and scavenged the leftover instant noodles. 

Day 6

Moving time: 5:39:18 – Distance: 124.7km – Climbing: 727m

During our final day we rode the longest distance of the trip and did some, unintentional, gravel. From Kanayamakohan Lake, we rode south with the intention of crossing the Hidaka Mountain range. After following the road to Shimukappu, we turned west to follow the Mu river. The road, however, was not paved, and it took us almost two hours to ride 18 kilometers. 

While in the woods, we also had a moment of panic when we came across a pile of feces, which we deemed to be from the infamous Ussuri brown bear. Bears and Japanese people seem to have a rather complicated relationship. Every year, news breaks out of some bear attack or rampage that kills and injuries civilians. Some attacks, like the Sankebetsu brown bear incident in 1915, have even become part of the popular culture. However, as Philip Brasor writes on the Japan Times, bears are “widely vilified and little understood.” For example, in recent years there have been claims that bears are becoming aggressive because they are getting used to eating human flesh. The truth is probably more mundane. Bears attack when they want to protect their cubs or when they are starved due to man-induced disruptions in their natural habitats and food-chain. Anyhow, during the rest of the ride, I paid extra attention to avoid puncturing my 28cm tires and getting stuck in the woods with no means of escape! 

We finally returned on paved roads in the valley of Hobetsu river, where we hurried up before making a last afternoon break at Mukawa city. We randomly stopped at Mine (峰) cafe, where we ended up eating a delicious apple pie. We were starving, but the cake was undeniably excellent. Not too sweet or dry, just right. 

We continued riding south along the Mu river until we got close to the coast. From there, we rode west to Hamaatsuma Port and boarded the overnight ferry to Akita. The following day, after a night of sleep on the ferry, I returned to Tokyo and its awful summer temperatures.