Thursday, 11 December 2014

Hokkaido by Bike

The last time I posted anything was at the end of June, just as we'd boxed up our touring bikes and we were about to head off to Hokkaido, Japan for 3 weeks.  It all seems like a distant memory at this stage, I suppose it is really!

It was hands down, one of the best trips I've ever been on.  It was exhausting and exhilarating but so enjoyable and I'm egging to do it all again.  We covered just over 1250km in 20 days, and according to my speedometer we offset 189kg of CO2 doing it.

Re-assembled, loaded up and ready to go!

It took us a bit longer than expected to leave the hostel the first morning, checking and double checking that we'd re-assembled the bikes properly and that we had everything, and were actually ready to get going on our Hokkaido adventure!  We finally hit the road a little before 1:30 but we'd only planned a short first day of about 40km to get to Atsuta campsite on the west coast so we weren't under any real pressure.  Once we left the city, we also left city conveniences behind us and had our eyes peeled for a petrol station to get fuel for our stove and hopefully something to cook for dinner.  The kilometres stretched on and we didn't actualy arrive to the campsite until almost 5:30 at which stage we'd done just under 60km and not the 40km expected.  That in itself wasn't too bad, but we hadnt managed to get fuel so we had a very hearty dinner, and breakfast the next morning, of bananas and bread!  As starts go, it could've gone better, but I'm not sure either of us noticed, or even cared.  We were delighted with ourselves! The campsite was free,  the toilets were spotlessly clean and had an ample supply of toilet paper, and best of all, we had it entirely to ourselves! We scoffed down our banana sandwiches, popped the tent up, and snuggeld up in our amazngly cosy new sleeping bags and got an early night!

Day two went well despite endless, long tunnels.  We covered ourselves and our bikes in flashing LED's so that we looked like Christmas trees and, for the most part, the traffic gave us a very wide berth, a welcome change from drivers here in Korea.  The tunnels were very loud though, and it was almost impossible to tell which direction the traffic was coming from until it was right on top of you.  To make matters worse, some of the tunnels were undergoing repairs so there were temporary lights and all sorts in them meaning we were trapped inside them for even longer than we expected.  The scenery on either end of the tunnels was spectacular though...silver linings and all that!

The first of many a scary tunnel!

Road works, just to make them scarier!

Hokkaido was a stunning place to visit.  It's a lot more rural than either of us were expecting, especially the top North West area which we headed off towards first!  Some days were tough, like the three days spent cycling into a headwind (the tail end of a typhoon) peddling as hard as possible and still only going 12km/hr, but mostly it was a trip of highlights. Camping in places that we almost always had to ourselves; soaking in natural hot springs so hot you couldn't tell if it was hot or cold; meeting other cycle tourists; seeing places we never would have had our mode of transort been different but above all; the hospitality of the people we encountered.  It was mind blowing.  We counted over 10 random acts of kindness from total strangers along the way.  One in particular stands out to me still: On a particularly steep and long uphill section (with a gradient varying between 6-13%), called Tsubetsu Pass, where I particularly was struggling (mentally more so than phyically) a man pulled in ahead of us.  He'd passed us earlier in the morning (possibly withnessing an emotional outburst from me!), driven on to the top of the pass 10km further on, where there's an information point with a shop and cafe, and bought us a bag of Hokkaido Milk Sweets and two cans of warm, milky, sweet tea. He then drove back down the hill to us, found somewhere wide enough to turn around, caught up with us, pulled in, jumped out of his car and presented us with the goodies.  I almost started crying, it couldn't have come at a better time.  The milky tea was the perfect little sugar buzz I needed to get me to the top of the pass! Neither of us could believe quite how out of his way this guy had gone, and all just to be nice.

Four days before this we'd been given two free passes to an amusment park, and were escorted around all the rides by a group of employees.  The park was right beside a camp ground and after we found what we thought was a perfect spot to pitch our tent, we popped it up and went off for a wander.  When we came back, a groundsman came over to point out we'd pitched beside a massive bear poo and advised us to move!  He brought over his little van, bundled all our things into it and drove us to a hut, which he gave us to use for the night, free of charge!

Kindest Man in Hokkaido

Our Perfect Camp Spot...'til the Bear Poo was pointed out to us!

The Mother of the Bear we didn't want to be camping beside!!

The hut we were given free of charge

The Hottest Hot Spring there ever was!

Apart from the locals, a few other things stand out in my mind, and make Japan a place that we'd both love to return to some day.  Firstly the food.  I knew I liked Japanese food before I went but I'm not sure I realised how much I liked it.  We had some really delicious meals not least of which was the dinner served to us the night we stayed in a ryokan, a traditional style Japanese hotel.  We ended up staying in one unintentioanlly to be honest.  We'd pitched our tent one afternoon in a camp site in Memanbetsu when someone approached us and said it wasn't safe because of the typhoon that was coming.  We'd been keeping track of the weather and really didn't think it was a danger but then someone else came to tell us the same thing so we decided we better listen.  We packed up and went to stay in a ryokan that'd been recommended to us.  It was $85 per person, including dinner and breakfast as well as access to the spa.  It blew a fairly sizable hole in our budget but my god was it worth it.  I'd need to write a whole post on that night alone!

Another amazing thing about Japan is their network of Rider Houses.  These are basically hostels but they primarily (solely?) accomodate people travelling on two wheels.  We only stayed in one, in Furano, but if it was anything to go on we should've stayed in many more. I think we only paid $10 each for a comfy, clean bed, a hot shower, a really cosy social area and all sorts of free goodies in the kitchen.  The place had such a great atmosphere and had been entirely build by hand by its original owner.

One of the tastiest bowls of Ramen!

A lunch special: Sushi, Miso and a Coffee for $7!

Furano Rider House

The view of Kussaro Lake from the road to Tsubetsu Pass

Along the way we learnt a few things about how we operate best while cycle touring.  The first is that beer at lunch time, as great an idea as it seems at the time, is a bad idea!  It makes getting on the bike again that bit harder.  For us anyway, beers are best left to the evening.  The second thing we learnt is that if we've planned to take a rest day then that's what we should do.  Don't pack up the tent and do a slow ten kilometres or so to the next good camp spot, that's still work.  Stay put, sleep in, relax for the day.  Or else don't! Cycle on and take a rest day the next day if you're not somewhere particularly nice!  The third thing we learnt was always have enough food for a meal.  We got ourselves into a bit of a pickle on our 5th day on the road.  We took a wrong turn, and then what we thought was going to be a shortcut, while battling into a really strong head wind, and we didn't pass a shop or a restaurant or anything for 51km.  By the time we did get to a convenience store we were totally exhausted and our energy stores had been completely depleted!

Route 106 between Teshio and Wakkanai

Twenty days, 1250 kilimetres and countless bowls of ramen later we arrived back in Sapporo.  We had three nights to chill out before our flight.  There was a beer festival on at the time too which was a perfect end to our holiday, sitting outside people watching, drinking nice beer, wondering how the Koreans get their beer so wrong!  What a holiday it was, roll on the next one!

Mission Completed, Back in Sapporo!

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