Tales from a Bike Tour Niseko to Tokyo!

It was an incredible ski season in Niseko. With over 16m of snow, the conditions were so good that I didn’t have much reason to look outside the Hirafu 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 rent bikes and paddle boards, so it wasn’t hard to organise a bike through them. I also found a willing riding partner in, Jack, whom I met on the ski lift one day.

We set off on the 29th of March to ride towards Tokyo. There was still over 5m of snow on the ground, which was a concern considering we planned on camping the whole way.

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 there was a reason to stop. We planned to free camp the whole way. With Jack, not being too picky about where we slept, he talked me into some pretty strange campsites. Our path led us south from Niseko, around the shores of Uchiuru Bay. We passed through Takumo and Mori, until at last we ran out of land. It was time to get the ferry to Amori.

After the 4 hour ferry ride, 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. Japan doesn’t observe daylight savings time so 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.

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. I could hear Jack snoring away blissfully next to me. Then suddenly, ‘Thwack…. Thump’ right near me, ‘Thwack…. Thump’. I couldn’t take it anymore I slowly pulled back the hood of my bivy sac and peeked out.

‘Thwack…. Thump’ I looked to my left where a golf ball had smacked into the ground a mere meter from me. Actually, 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. We made awkward eye contact and I’m sure he was surprised to see a Gaijin sleeping on his greens.

I attempted to strike up a conversation with him, and tell him about our trip. 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. A little while later as I was riding away from the lot, the old man 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.
He was 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.

If you let google maps choose your route from Niseko to Tokyo then it directs you on highways the entire way. Cycle touring sucks when you ride on the side of a major highway, constantly being buffeted 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 people starting their daily routines. 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 to the Hakkoda ski resort which was still in full swing. It was here that we met the first Gaijin since leaving Niseko. An American couple based at the nearby US military base. We chatted about our trip and they mentioned that we may be able to see the snow walls. Now the really famous snow walls which are much further south in the Japanese Alps. These ones are a tad smaller but still impressive. They showed us the section of road on the map, it turns out it was the route we were already planning to ride. So, we said goodbye, and pedalled on.

Eventually we came to a large gate across the road. It turns out that the road was not meant to be open until the next day. 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. 10 km of epic riding, on a road all to ourselves, walled in by giant snow banks, the tops of mountains just peaking over. We got to the end of the closed section and jumped the remaining gate. This got us some weird looks from road workers, but nobody said anything.

The road continued on downhill, clocking up some much needed km’s. The snow began to dwindle and before we knew it we were in the Oirase river gorge. We were now in a 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

More wonders of travelling in Japan, are the very distinct and beautiful cherry blossoms in bloom. Hanami is one of the most popular times for tourism in Japan each year. We first started to see the blossoms around Sendai on day seven. At first It was just the odd tree here and there. Just outside Sendai is a famous stretch of river where the banks are lined with over 1200 Weeping cherry 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.

When we got there the festival was in full swing. We ditched the bikes and walked around for a change of pace. Even though I’m colour blind, it was incredible to see. The cherry blossoms come in a range of pastel colours, ranging from white through to bright pink and combined with other seasonal flowers of blue, red and yellow, 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. 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 as we continued south, the blossoms faded and the trees blended back to their surrounds, as they sprouted their nondescript green leaves.

Our biggest day on the bikes was 120km from Oshu to Sendai. This was the seventh day and halfway point of our journey. We didn’t start the day expecting 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. 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. That night we gorged ourselves at a Korean BBQ restaurant.

A couple of days out of 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. Any night of rain in a bivy sack is quite miserable, it seems to last an eternity. Eventually daylight came and 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.
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 detailed notes on how to find his house.
Buried somewhere in John’s essay 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. When we left the highway, we began cycling uphill directly towards a snow-capped peak…
…We continued on like this for a couple of hours until, finally, we found the house “wrapped in bubble wrap.” Just 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. John was a complete legend. An American expat who had lived in japan for 17 years teaching English. He was a talkative fellow who enjoyed recounting stories of his many travels. His hospitality was second to none, and before long we had; showered, laid out our gear 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.

Eventually we reached Tokyo. 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.

Here are some of the lessons learnt on our journey:
1) Have faith, there is always a convenience store just around the corner or over the next hill.
2) Don’t trust bike paths, they are often rougher than the roads and inexplicably end for no good reason in the middle of nowhere.
3) 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.
4) Chat to strangers, you never know who you will meet or how they may impact your trip.
5) Getting out of cities is harder than it seems, so allow adequate time.
6) 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.

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