It was an incredible ski season in Niesko. With over 16m of snow the conditions were so good that I didn’t have much reason to look outside the little ski town bubble. However, once the season had begun to wind down I decided it was time to explore a bit more of Japan. Luckily Rhythm is a year-round store. In summer, they have a selection of rental bikes, so it wasn’t hard to organise a bike. I also found a willing riding partner in American workaway, Jack, whom I met on the ski lift one day.
I had my bike packing bags sent over from home and one of my Japanese friends, Kenji, gave me a map on which he pointed out some interesting sights and recommendations along the way.
Eventually the time came and we set off. It was the 29th of March and there was still over 5m of snow on the ground. We had allocated 14 days to tour which should amount to about 80km a day. We also planned to camp the whole way and maybe bin dive a little to keep the costs down. What follows is a collection of stories from the trip.
Sleep where you drop
Along the journey we weren’t too concerned with how any particular day would end. We would start the morning with a vague plan to aim for a particular town. Often we would end up bonking short or powering past. Routinely we would have an early dinner and then ride until we were tired, it got dark, or we found a nice place to camp. We planned to free camp the whole way and with Jack not being too picky about where we slept he talked me into some pretty strange campsites. One night after a long day we got into a town and ate dinner at the only restaurant open. There were some other people there who spoke a bit of English and they were interested in what we were doing. When they found out we were camping they seemed surprised and warned us that everywhere around here was national park. Then they put their fingers to their lips and made hushing sounds. There was still a lot of snow around at this point. It was dark and we were tired so instead of trying to find somewhere inconspicuous we rode all of 100m and slept in a gazebo on the lake front. No one bothered us and we awoke to a beautiful view.
On another occasion, after spending hours in an onsen while it rained outside, we backtracked several hundred meters out of town to some abandoned buildings I had spotted on our way in. Just off the side of the highway were about 6 buildings. All with completely smashed windows, collapsing roofs and slowly being reclaimed by the bush. It was kind of creepy, and if you know the famous Studio Ghibli film ‘Spirited Away’, I was getting similar vibes that come nightfall, the spirits of the world would come out and inhabit the town. There was an extremely odd purple pole in the middle of the overgrown street with a single bare lightbulb on it which I found particularly creepy. Never the less, it was raining on and off so I gritted my teeth and we spent the night inside the first building amongst abandoned cooking utensils and smashed glass.
After the 4 hour ferry ride from Hakodate to Aomori we didn’t much feel like riding another 17km to the edge of town where a campsite was marked on our map. Instead we rode about 400m to an empty lot next to an abandoned building. I had a mostly a sleepless night due to the constant roar of traffic, bright city lights and not to mention that Jack and I both popped our sleeping mats that night on various spikey vegetation, oops. Finally, the early hours of the morning provided some sleep but as Japan doesn’t observe daylight savings time it was bright as midday by 5:30 am. I buried my head in my bag and tried to doze some more but then I heard footsteps.
Jack and I had very different views on campsite selection when it comes to free camping. While I have done it lots, I am always very paranoid and particular about where. I hate the thought of being told to move in the middle of the night. Jack on the other hand, was more than happy to roll out his bag wherever.
This site was hardly inconspicuous and when the footsteps started I thought, ‘hear it comes, we are going to be in so much trouble’. ‘Thwack’, What was that? It sounded like whoever it was, was hammering stakes into the ground. My mined raced I thought we must be sleeping on a construction site and this was a surveyor. I lay there, hopping there wasn’t going to be a confrontation. I could hear Jack snoring away blissfully next to me. Then suddenly, ‘Thwack…. Thump’ right near me, ‘Thwack…. Thump’, ‘Thwack…. Thump’. I couldn’t take it anymore I slowly pulled the hood of my bivy sac back and peeked out.
‘Thwack…. Thump’ I looked to my left where a golf ball had smacked into the ground a mere meter from me. ‘Thwack…. Thump’ another one a bit further away. Golf balls were raining down all around me. Initially I thought, ‘Crap we’ve camped on a driving range’ but then I noticed that it was just one old man walking around in this empty lot at 6am chipping golf balls back and forth, obviously working on his short game before work. We made awkward eye contact and I’m sure he was surprised to see a Gaijin sleeping in his usually abandoned practice field. I decided it would be best to try and make a friend so I grabbed the golf ball that had landed near me and took it over to him.
“Oh, arigatou gozaimasu” he said.
I told him a Japanese phrase I had learnt which translated as, “I am cycling from Niseko to Tokyo.”
I think my pronunciation was off, because he didn’t seem to get it at first. Eventually it seemed to register and he looked even more surprised.
I left him to his practice and began packing up my gear. Jack was still snoring, I figured he’d wake up soon though so I left a note saying I’d go to 711 and wait for him.
Maybe 40 minutes had passed since my interaction with the old man. As I was riding away from the lot, he came running up out of nowhere and gave me a package. It was a 1.25L soft drink bottle filled to the brim with hot coffee and wrapped in newspaper. There was a moment of lost translation where he tried to tell me to be careful because it was hot. I thought he wanted me to try it in front of him. Just before I’m could take a sip, he snatched it out of my hands and poured it on his finger miming pain.
“Oh yeah, hot, I get it.” A total stranger going out of his way to help us out. It was great tasting coffee and helped get us through a long day.
Later on in the trip we experienced similar generosity when, after inviting ourselves to stand around a local family’s fire at the campsite, they gave us lots of fake fish and suasages they were roasting over the flames. Then in the morning when we went to leave, their kids came over and gave us a cup of noodles and lots of chocolate.
Cycle touring at its best
If you let google maps choose your route from Niesko to Tokyo then it directs you on highway 5 to Hakodate and highway 4 the rest of the way. Anyone who has done any cycle touring knows how draining it can be grinding away on the side of a major highway, being buffeted constantly by semis and getting a headache from the roar of traffic. In 14 days of cycling we certainly spent our fair share of time doing this. Whenever possible though, we tried to choose the road less travelled. One of the best days we had, was the 80km stretch from Aomori to Lake Towoda. We started by cruising the back streets of Aomori, riding past small businesses warming up for the day, cats slinking along walls, kids heading off to school. We then left the city and gave a pretty gruelling effort as we wound our way up into the Hakkoda mountain range. Just as I was running out of energy, my emergency onagiri all eaten, we came across the Hakkoda ski resort which was in full swing.
The carpark was full and there appeared to be a ski race on. I devoured a much needed Katsu Curry from the resort day lodge. It was here that we saw the first Gaijin since leaving Niseko. An American couple based at the nearby US military base, were enjoying a break from a great spring day on the slopes. We chatted about our trip and then they mentioned that we may be able to see the snow walls. Now the really famous snow walls are much further south in the Japanese Alps. But apparently, there were some similarly impressive snow walls nearby. Although they told us, the road wasn’t officially open until the following day. They showed us the section of road on the map, it turns out it was the route we were already planning to ride. Suddenly we were a bit anxious. If they didn’t let us through then we would need to do one hell of a detour. On the flip side, it would be really cool if we could get through. So we said goodbye and pedalled uncertainly onwards.
Eventually we came to a large gate across the road. There was no one around, so we decided to just go for it. We climbed the fence and continued uphill. Pretty soon the shear snow walls were about 8m in height. There was a moment of panic as we came across a man picking up traffic cones. But he just smiled and waved as we rode past. Eventually we reached the pass at 1040m and then began the downhill. Screaming downhill, on a road all to ourselves, walled in by giant snow banks, the tops of mountains peaking over. 10 km of epic riding.
We got to the gate at the other end and jumped the fence, which got us some weird looks from road workers. But nobody said anything. As we rode on the road continued downhill, catching us up on some much needed km’s. The snow began to dwindle and before we knew it we were in the Oirase river gorge. From towering snow banks to lush beech forest. Surrounded by towering cliffs, covered in bright green moss. Waterfalls everywhere and a beautiful river, winding its way besides us.
Eventually we began the final climb out of the gorge toward Lake Towada. We burst out onto the banks of the lake at golden hour to be greeted with a stunning sunset. The variety and beauty of landscapes that we rode through in 12 hours, combined with quite roads and good food made this one of the most memorable days of the journey.
Hanami is one of the most popular times for tourism in Japan each year, and after getting to ride through the peak of the bloom I understand why. Cherry blossoms in bloom are very distinct and beautiful. We first started to see the blooms around Sendai on day seven. At first It was just the odd tree here and there on the road side, or off on the mountain sides. As we left Sendai there was a stretch of river that is a very famous viewing spot, a stretch where the banks of the river are lined with 1200 trees. Unfortunately, I misunderstood at which point along the river that was. When we finally joined the river we only caught the last four or five trees, oops. Not to worry though, because we were approaching Fukushima which has one of the best Hanami viewing sites in all of Japan, Hanamiyama park. A whole park dedicated to the viewing of the Hanami each year. It would have been hard to miss as this park sits on the foothills just outside Fukushima, and it can be seen a long way away. It was also quite busy with festival crowds and street food vendors. Hanamiyama park offers three loops of varying lengths winding up and down the mountain. So we ditched the bikes and walked around for a change. Even being colour blind it was still incredible to see. The cherry blossoms came in a range of pastel colours ranging from white through to bright pink and the parks caretakers had also planted other seasonal flowers of blue, red and yellow everywhere for contrast. It was a beautiful and vibrant display.
The Weeping cherry is a beautiful tree, the timber is very dark and gnarled, some of the trees look exceptionally old but then during bloom they produce the most delicate, stark white flowers.
Therein lies the beauty of the cherry blossom blooming. The unique contrast combined with the fleeting nature of the display. For these blooms usually only last a couple of weeks at best and wind and rain can wreak havoc on them. They travel from south to north with the warm weather and this year we had an unusually warm spring which meant in some places they were almost two weeks early. As we continued south we came across many more trees. Another place of note we visited was our campsite at Oike Park near Yabuki, which had many fine specimens.
Eventually though the blossoms were gone and the trees blended back in with the surrounds as they sprouted their nondescript green leaves.
Shrines and Temples
Along with the cherry blossoms Japan is also famous for its various exquisite; shrines, temples and castles. They can date back hundreds of years and are always steeped in rich history. While Kyoto is generally regarded as the best place to view such things due to the high concentration of some of the larger examples, there are still many other noteworthy sites around Japan. We stumbled across a relatively understated one in Lake Towada which was beautiful and eerie in its isolated setting.
In contrast to this we also made a detour to visit the extremely popular temples and shrines of Nikko National Park. They are the most elaborate and fancy buildings in all of Japan, built amongst ancient cedar trees. This site is extremely popular with tourists and is also a UNESCO world heritage site. The crowds were, as always, a bit detracting. However, there is a reason a place like this attracts so many people. They are truly stunning and I find the amount of work and detail absolutely mind-blowing even before you consider the fact that they were built hundreds of years ago. I also thought it was pretty cool to see the original carvings of the three wise monkeys which have become well renowned in our own culture.
Reaping the Rewards
Our biggest day on the bikes was 120km from Oshu to Sendai. This was the seventh day of our journey, the halfway point if you will. We weren’t sure if we were going to make Sendai because we were averaging around 80km a day. As we reached Osaki there were rain clouds gathering overhead, so we decided to just “send it to Sendai”. We pushed through light rain and a driving headwind for hours, fuelled by the idea of a hostel and all-you-can-eat-buffet. After 6 days of camping and convenience store meals this was like having a huge piece of chocolate cake dangling on a string in front of us, or maybe in this case, salad. We made it just as the worst of the weather rolled in. We stayed at a traditional Japanese hostel, a business that had been there for over 100 years. We slept on tatami mats not much thicker than my camp mat, left our shoes at the door, slid rice paper doors, drank green tea, the works.
After we had showered and hung up our wet gear we headed out into Sendai. We decided to walk as the thought of pedalling even another 1.5km to downtown was too unpleasant. It felt weird to be cruising around in a big city after six days on the road. It was a nice change though. We soon found our goal, an All-you-can-eat Korean BBQ! You have 90 minutes to eat as much as you want, by ordering plates of different meat and vegetables and then grilling them on the private grill in the middle of your table. I’ve had this before and its delicious, especially the corn trays with butter and some sort of syrup. Suffice it to say we were in heaven. The food was great and for probably the first time the whole trip we left feeling full.
Jack had chatted to many cyclists who had done stints in Japan and one of them had mentioned to him that bin diving is great because everything in Japan is wrapped in three layers of plastic. Jack had never done this before, but he mentioned to me that he was keen to try. I was happy to show him the ropes. On the first night of our trip we rode past a Seicomar in Yakumo. I pulled over and had a look in the bin. At first it didn’t look like there was anything but I knew from experience that sometimes you have to dig. Eventually I spied some goodies in a bag which I carefully busted open. I grabbed a few mochi balls and some sugary baked goods all in their plastic wrappers and only one day old. Jack was more adventurous and went straight for a day old ‘Hot Chef’ deli meal. We started to attract strange looks so we quickly raced around the next corner to eat in peace. Overall our 1st bin dive was successful and Jack was now a member of the bin diving club.
After this we checked behind almost every convenience store we rode past. We must have been lucky that first night because it was one of the few bins that wasn’t behind a roller door or in a shed of sorts. We went a few days without getting anything more until one day Jack decided he’d go for it and open the roller door. Immediately he began finding goodies again, like onagiri and sandwiches etc.. I wasn’t too keen on this though as it was usually daylight when we stopped. Usually bin diving is best done in the early hours of the morning with head torches. I felt pretty uncomfortable in all but the most concealed bins. This didn’t perturb Jack though as he continued to hit a jackpot now and then. As such he spent far less than me on this trip. The apprentice became the master.
Staying in the hostel in Sendai had made us soft. It was a struggle to leave, knowing that we would have to camp that night. In the end it wasn’t so bad, and the next day we felt like we were back into the swing of things. Then, during the second night out from Sendai, I woke up to the pitter-patter of rain on my face. We had forgotten to check the forecast. Luckily all I had to do was flip the hood over on my bivy, but behind me I could hear Jack scurrying about, frantically setting up his tent. As with any night of rain in a bivy sack, it lasted an eternity and was quite miserable. Eventually daylight came and this corresponded with a break in the weather. We hastily packed up and sprinted to the nearest Family Mart to wait out the next rain shower and warm up with hot coffee. I was sitting there feeling pretty sorry for myself when Jack punched the air in excitement.
“One of the Warm Showers hosts has replied and agreed to host us tonight” he stated in response to the puzzled look on my face.
Warm Showers is a travel app similar to Couch Surfing but specifically for cyclists. Our prospective host was located south of Fukushima and well in range of the days travel. He had also written us an essay on how to find his place, along with 4 separate route options.
This lifted our spirits more than the coffee ever could, although that certainly didn’t hurt either. Our string of good luck continued as it appeared the weather was improving and the rain had stopped. We headed out from Family Mart with renewed vigour. On our way through Fukushima city we stopped at Hanamiyama park (see previous story) to view the Cherry Blossoms. We were feeling great and John’s house didn’t seem that far away when we looked at our maps. I guess our luck had to end somewhere though and as we cycled out of the city and onto highway 4 we were hit with the worst headwind of the trip. Ughh. We struggled on for hours, every time I looked at my GPS I was dismayed by our lack of speed and progress. It didn’t help that we were riding along the highway and that the footpath kept ending randomly as it had been prone to doing all trip. I was dangerously close to bonking when we came across a michi-no-eki. I got a coke and a donut for a quick injection of sugar. Buried somewhere in John’s essay about finding him, he warned us that he lived on top of a mountain. I wasn’t quite sure how literally to take this, but I soon found out as we left the highway and began cycling uphill directly towards a snow-capped peak…
…We continued on like this for a couple of hours until we reached a milestone he had described, an African safari and a drift track of all things, alone in the hills. We had a frustrating conversation with an employee here, but eventually got directions to John’s place which was luckily only a few Km’s away and slightly downhill. We were both pretty grumpy at this point but the end was in sight.
Finally, we found the house “wrapped in bubble wrap” as John described it. Indeed, all the windows were covered in layers of bubble wrap, presumably to help insulate them in the winter time. John heard us coming and greeted us warmly, just as the rain started again. Our luck was back baby.
John was a complete legend, an American expat who had lived in japan for 17 years teaching English to some Japanese equivalent of the peace corp. He was a talkative fellow who enjoyed recounting stories of his travels in japan as he showed us his various souvenirs. He was extremely well travelle. In fact he had just the day before, returned from a trip to Rwanda and he had brought back some excellent coffee which we enjoyed immensely. His hospitality was second to none and before long we had; showered, laid out our gear in a spare room with a dehumidifier cranking, had memory foam futons all set up and were sitting around his table eating a delicious Nabe Hotpot. Not a bad end to a day that started quite miserably. We were certainly thankful and appreciative of the role John played in our trip. He came along at the perfect time.
By the end of the journey we had spent a mere two nights indoors and the rest under the stars. We had been caught in rain but also surprisingly been sunburnt. We had battled headwinds, abruptly ending bike paths and lived off ready meals from convenience stores. I listened to hours of podcasts and the roaring symphony of highway traffic.
Some lessons I’ve learned and advice I have for others are as follows:
- Have faith, there is always a convenience store just around the corner or over the next hill.
- Don’t trust bike paths, they are often rougher than the roads and inexplicably end for no good reason in the middle of nowhere.
- Japan’s fondness for plastic means that bin diving is relatively sanitary and a very viable option if, unlike me, you have no shame about inspecting bins in daylight.
- Get off the beaten path, aka Highway 4. You will have a more enjoyable time and discover cool things. Even if it does cost a little extra effort, it’s worth it.
- Chat to strangers, you never know who you will meet or how they may impact your trip.
- Getting out of cities is harder than it seems so allow adequate time. One day we spent two hours getting lost in a university campus and a graveyard trying to get out of Sendai.
- Explore interesting places to sleep, the Japanese people don’t seem bothered by free camping and we got away with more than I would normally expect.
In the end, the trip was a great success and a really fantastic way to explore Japan. We cycled for 73 hours over 14 days. Averaged 80+km a day for a total of 1236km (including a ferry ride) and 9000+m of climbing.
Many thanks to Rhythm Japan for hooking me up with a bike and making this trip possible. To my friend Jack, thanks for keeping me company and sharing this adventure with me. And to 711, thanks for all the delicious fried chicken that kept those pedals turning.