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Quietly exploring Hokkaido by bicycle

It seems like no matter where I plan to ride my bicycle, someone warns me not to go. "The roads are busy there, and the drivers are crazy," is the usual refrain.

It seems like no matter where I plan to ride my bicycle, someone warns me not to go.

"The roads are busy there, and the drivers are crazy," is the usual refrain. If I'd always heeded unsolicited advice, I never would have ridden beyond my Ontario childhood home's driveway ... where, incidentally, I recorded my first 50-kilometre day at age 10, as warnings to stay off the road began with my mother.

But in anticipation of a tour on Hokkaido, Japan, the warnings are of a refreshingly different nature. Japanese motorists are ridiculously courteous, and traffic should be relatively light on the least-densely populated of the country's four main islands.

So consensus amongst my Japanese friends is I've made the right choice ... but at the wrong time! "You don't want to ride Hokkaido in the spring, it's too ... cold," they tell me.

Well, I've studied geography all my life so I know Hokkaido is no further north than Toronto or Montreal, and I used to live in the Canadian Arctic, so I presume Japanese Whistlerites are a bit soft, and I proceed with plans to start the tour around May 10. But then I decide to add China and Korea to the itinerary (see Parts I and II of this Asian Odyssey story in Pique, Nov. 22 and Nov. 29 respectively), postponing the Hokkaido segment by three weeks.

Good thing, because this time the travel advisory is 100 per cent accurate. Downwind from frigid Siberia, and surrounded by ice-cold seas, I would soon realize that Hokkaido is likely the only landmass on Earth situated (mostly) closer to the equator than to the North Pole whose average temperatures are almost sub-Arctic. Where else at a latitude of say central Oregon or the South of France can you find snow lingering on the forest floor in June near sea level ?

I long assumed that Eastern Canada laid claim to the coldest mid-latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. But on Hokkaido, I would discover wildflowers of the same genus blooming a full month later than their Canadian cousins, again near sea level, and many deciduous trees here just beginning to leaf by the second week of June.

The tour begins in Sapporo, the 30th Olympic Host City that I explore by bicycle. The size of Vancouver, it is as quiet as Pemberton. We sleep in a downtown hotel with the window open, and are awoken in the morning by the sound of ... crows! After visiting the world's noisiest country (China), I'm now in the quietest! Over the next 10 days and 1,450 kilometres we'll hear one car honk. Japan is surely the only country where the forests, with their chorus of bugs and birds, are generally louder than the cities. At almost 70 per cent of the total landmass, Japan has the distinction of being the world's most-forested country.

We start the tour wandering northward, passing through the University of Hokkaido campus, almost as vast and as forested as the University of B.C., but with far more bicycles. Sapporo cyclists are the only Japanese rebels I've known. So out of character with their obedient compatriots, bikers here display utter disdain for traffic rules and red lights. In their honour, I decide to name the new bike I'm riding Sapporo: My kind of place, and a good beer.

The first day sets the tone for the whole journey, scoring many of my favourite elements: a huge tree (a 200-year-old elm on the university campus), favourable weather (as long as you wear three layers), many delightful stamps at the post offices (souvenirs that don't add weight to your panniers), good photo ops, light traffic (we cover the last 15 kms without a single overtake), and comfortable accommodation at the right place and the right time.

The highlight of the day is discovering Japanese White Trillium in full bloom, a wildflower that I didn't even know existed, but easily recognized by any Ontarian, as it is obviously closely related to our provincial floral emblem.

Outside of Sapporo, Hokkaido is a mix of novelty and familiarity. Both the broad landscapes, as well as the culture make me feel I'm halfway home compared to the other parts of Japan that I have biked. The local motorists even leave their engines idling when they pop into convenience stores, like any proper red-neck Canadian! Just before rolling our bikes into a shed at a rustic Minshuku in Hamamasu, we enjoy a lovely sunset over the Sea of Japan—It is only 7:30 p.m., because Japan is a rare place on earth on daylight-losing time. The sun will rise at 4 a.m. tomorrow.

Along the west coast of Hokkaido, tall, ugly, fortress-like wooden fences dominate many yards and gardens. We wonder if it's a security measure but no one in Japan ever worries about theft. I regularly leave my $11,000 bike unlocked at stops along the way. In fact, I remember an early-morning ride in this country many years ago, when I passed by an untended bike shop where lights were out but the door was wide open, to allow the swallows access to their nests inside.

The fence fortifications, in fact, provide protection from an invisible enemy: the wind. But though we will eventually travel in all four compass points along three sides of this island, we will endure vicious winds for a grand total of perhaps five hours this trip. At Soya Misaki, the northern tip of Japan, we are almost blown off our bikes. A rather harrowing experience, but the consolation is lifetime desensitization ... I will never again complain of a mere stiff headwind!

As we generally ride along the coast, our only significant climb is 740-metre Shiretoko Pass. From up here, we enjoy a bird's-eye view of the Kuril Islands in the Sea of Okhotsk, opportunistically stolen by the then USSR after the Second World War even though the Red Army had nothing to do with the defeat of Japan. We spot a brown bear up here, the first wild bear I've seen anywhere outside of North America.

The following day, we enjoy an even more exciting wildlife experience, enjoying close-up views of the rare red-crowned crane at Notsuke. 

After rounding Japan's easternmost point at Nosappu Misaki, a funny thing happens: Seico Marts suddenly disappear. They have been reliable sources of sustenance all along the way so far, conveniently located about every 25 kilometres.

It starts to drizzle, then heavier rain develops. The temperature drops to eight degrees Celsius. We ride 85 kms along the Pacific coast of the island with no opportunity for food or shelter. But we still have a few snacks in our bags and Gore-Tex on our shoulders, a gentle tailwind at our backs and a deserted road with frequent ocean vistas. I'm not sure about my riding companion Hisano Motohashi, but I have rarely enjoyed being wet, cold and hungry so much for so long.

At Obihiro, we've run out of time, so we complete the loop to Sapporo by rail.

We dismantle the bikes to fit them into nylon sacks we've packed for the occasion. Bike bags are mandatory on all Japanese trains.

The following day we ride the Shinkasen (high-speed rail ... will we have any in automobile-addicted North America before I die?) all the way to Tokyo, to visit Hisano's family. En route, there is plenty of time to indulge my postcardiology practice, and to revel in the memories of the past 31 days ... 3,100 km by bike and another 3,100 km by train in China, Korea and Japan.

This is likely my best bike tour ever outside of Europe. It was a rare trip where every day seemed better than anticipated.

There's also time to ponder future bike adventures. Surely I have not yet exhausted the list of potential itineraries with busy roads, crazy drivers or bad weather?

To read Part 1 and 2 of Tom's cycling trip, go to and search travel for Nov. 22 and Nov. 29.