14degrees off the beaten track
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August 14th, 2012 | categorizilation: all categories,Hokkaido (Japan),Japan,Post-2008,Shiretoko Tour (2012)

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Today I felt like I was in my element. Yesterday, in Kitami, I had bought a motorcyclists’ route map book for Hokkaido, which shows in some detail the various off-road and/or dirt roads routes which criss-cross the island. I’ve always found the unpaved back roads (anywhere I’ve been in the world) to be the most fulfilling (despite the extra struggle). So right off the bat today, I got off the busy, noisy Route 39, and hopped over to the next valley over to the south.

It was a stiff climb for early in the morning (I had left at 5:15am), and it was raining on and off again. I was just hoping the weather would fine up enough eventually to dry out my soggy tent which I had packed up in the rain.

Cycling up the Onne-yu pass (Route 247) in rain (Hokkaido, Japan)

After hurtling down from the top of the Onneyu Pass, I found myself genuinely taken aback at the different world I found myself in. It was literally like I had stepped into an alternate reality. Quiet, sleepy fields of wheat. Grain silos. Mist hanging around the low hills. Just incredible. What a change this was from the bustling chaos of Route 39, just one valley across. It really is worth taking the road less travelled.

Farmland east of Lake Oketo (Hokkaido, Japan)

Wheat fields near Oketo (Hokkaido, Japan)

The valley I was now traveling north on, was the Oketo Valley. At the head of the valley, there was the Kanoko Dam, which holds back Lake Oketo.

Lake Oketo (Hokkaido, Japan)

View from the Kanoko Dam (Lake Oketo, Hokkaido, Japan)

From here I followed Route 1050 to its terminus, right at the end of the lake. Here, the paved road gave way to smooth gravel, and an 11km climb up to Shoboku Pass.

Tokoro-gawa mainstream logging road (常呂川本流林道 - near Lake Oketo, Hokkaido, Japan)

Tokoro-gawa mainstream logging road (常呂川本流林道 - near Lake Oketo, Hokkaido, Japan)

About half way up, a car approached and stopped next to me. The driver mentioned that it was a long way to the top of the pass. He obviously figured it would take me all day to get there, so he handed me a bunch of four bananas. In the end, despite carrying a couple of rice balls in addition to extra snacks, I would arrive at the top with only one banana left, having devoured all the snacks I had with me.

The top of the pass was met with glorious sunshine. I promptly found a clear area to spread out all of my wet gear, and spent 40 minutes basking in the sun.

Drying out wet tent etc near the top of Shoboku Pass (勝北峠) west of Lake Okuto (Hokkaido, Japan)

From here it was only a few hundred meters to the top of the pass (972m).

Tokoro-gawa mainstream logging road (常呂川本流林道 - near Lake Oketo, Hokkaido, Japan)

Shoboku Pass (勝北峠) west of Lake Okuto (Hokkaido, Japan)

The descent was thrilling. I dropped the pressure in my balloon-like Schwalbe Big Apple 2.35 tyres, and laced to a pair of 47mm wide Kris Holm mountain rims, the 29er wheels made the gravel road feel like buttery asphalt. Loverly.

The descent spat me out onto Route 273. I knew that this route would require me to cycle up another big road pass, but I did not know at that point that it was the highest road pass in Hokkaido: the Mikuni Pass (1139m).

At this point, the weather was just magnificent.

Route 273 heading up Mikuni Pass (Hokkaido, Japan) Japanese biker girl in leathers looking at mountains (Mikuni Pass, Hokkaido, Japan)

View from Mikuni Pass (Hokkaido, Japan)

At the top of the pass was a gaggle of university cycle club members. Replete with compulsory communal cooking pot.

Bicycle of Japanese university student at top of Mikuni Pass (Hokkaido, Japan)

They told me that it was all downhill from here, down to a free campsite in Sounkyo, a small village nestled in a tight valley further down. It wasn’t entirely downhill, however, and after a good deal of climbing already today, the small ups and downs on the way to Sounkyo got a little repetitive.

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Distance: 110.6km | Time on bike: 7h 11m | Average speed: 15.7km/h | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 3,746yen | Accommodation: 0yen

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August 13th, 2012 | categorizilation: all categories,Hokkaido (Japan),Japan,Post-2008,Shiretoko Tour (2012)

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What is this? The bear hunt continues? Yes, yes it does.

Haidee had pressing work to do in Sapporo, but I decided that the work I had to do could wait, so I would cycle the 350km or so back to Sapporo on my own. So after sending Haidee off on the 6:30am train, I was on the road solo.

Haidee probably had the right idea though; it rained on and off for the entire day. Accordingly, the photo below was the only one I managed to take all day.

An onion picker near Bihoro (Hokkaido, Japan)

The rather endearing looking contraption is an onion picker. It picks onions. Which are in abundance along the valley between Abashiri and Kitami, and beyond.

The mission for today was to get to the free Onneyu Tsutsuji Campground. I got there just in time for an onsen and to cook dinner, before the skies opened. It rained for most of the night.

Onne-yu Tsutsuji Park Campground (Onne-yu, Hokkaido, Japan)

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Distance: 96.3km | Time on bike: 4h 53m | Average speed: 19.7km/h | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 2,000yen | Accommodation: 0yen | Onsen: 600yen

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August 12th, 2012 | categorizilation: all categories,Hokkaido (Japan),Japan,Post-2008,Shiretoko Tour (2012)

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This was our last day on the road together for this bear hunt in the Shiretoko region, home to more bears per square kilometer than anywhere else in Japan. We saw not hide nor tail of one. We saw plenty of warnings of bears. But no actual bears. Not even bear poop. This was our last day to see if we could catch one.

We said our farewells to Okaasan, Leon, Ric and Matt, and got on the road, feeling very grateful for some quality time with friends and the lovely hospitality of okaasan.

Staying at Ric's mother-in-law's place in Kotan (Hokkaido, Japan)

Staying at Ric's mother-in-law's place in Kotan (Hokkaido, Japan) Staying at Ric's mother-in-law's place in Kotan (Hokkaido, Japan)

And what a sweet road it was. At 6:00 in the morning, it was free of automobile traffic, and the birds were up and singing.

Quiet roads along Lake Kusharo (Hokkaido, Japan)

Apart from one last gasping small pass, most of the day was downhill or flat.

A pass between Lake Kusharo and Koshimizu on Route 587 (Hokkaido, Japan)

This meant that we managed a solid 80km on our last day. Even if there were bears to be found, we probably wouldn’t have seen them.

So we rolled into Abashiri in the early afternoon, and thus ended our 12 day Bear Hunt in Shiretoko. Not a sign of bears on the roads or in campgrounds.

We checked into our accommodation for the night, and readied to depart by train back to Sapporo the next morning.

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Distance: 81.6km | Time on bikes: 4h 49m | Average speed: 16.8km/h | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 4,821yen | Accommodation: 6,980yen

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August 11th, 2012 | categorizilation: all categories,Hokkaido (Japan),Japan,Post-2008,Shiretoko Tour (2012)

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The  hiking troupe had planned for today to be a rest day, so we decided it was a great chance to take the day off too. The day began with an open-air hot spring down the road from okaasan’s place, and only about 1m from the lake’s edge. Originally built as a private onsen by the mayor of Teshikaga, it is now open to the public.

Kotan open-air hotspring in Kotan (Hokkaido, Japan)

Later in the morning we all bundled into Leon’s car and visited the well-known (evidenced by hordes of tourists) Suna-yu Onsen. Basically this is a 300m stretch of lake-side beach where anyone with a pair of hands (or preferably a shovel) can dig into the sand and make their own hotspring pit.

Suna-yu (dig-your-own-hotspring) at Lake Kusharo (Hokkaido, Japan)

Suna-yu (dig-your-own-hotspring) at Lake Kusharo (Hokkaido, Japan)

Leon, being un-intimidated by the chilly weather and chillier lake, jumped into the lake for a swim.

Paddling in Lake Kusharo (Hokkaido, Japan)

The next stop was a nearby sulfur-spewing mountain-side. Complete with un-roped-off steam vents, spewing ultra hot steam out of the ground. What is a man to do with such novelty but to throw his hat onto the hole to see if it will make the hat fly up into the air?

Sulfur mountain near Kawayu (Hokkaido, Japan)

It didn’t work, evaporating my giddy curiosity into pained embarrassment when I almost burned myself retrieving the hat from the scalding hole.

Staying at Ric's mother-in-law's place in Kotan (Hokkaido, Japan)

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August 10th, 2012 | categorizilation: Hokkaido (Japan),Japan,Post-2008,Shiretoko Tour (2012)

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Nature walk around the Wakoto Peninsula (Lake Kusharo, Hokkaido, Japan)

Nature walk around the Wakoto Peninsula (Lake Kusharo, Hokkaido, Japan)

Lake Kusharo is a massive caldera lake. As such, it has a number of natural hot springs bubbling up around its shores.

Open-air hotspring bath (Wakoto Peninsula, Lake Kusharo, Hokkaido, Japan)

The hotspring above is one such example. This is an open-air mixed hot spring. The interesting thing about these baths is that while public nudity anywhere else would be utterly and completely intolerable, it seems not even slightly the case for open-air hotsprings. Just a few minutes after I took this photo, two men arrived and presently stripped naked and hopped in. Not even 2 meters away, were a couple of 13 or 14 year old girls paddling about on the lake shore catching tadpoles. That seemed strange to me.

The strangeness continued as we wandered along the lakefront. A man in a wetsuit was walking towards us with a lumping great big parrot clinging to his hand.

A parrot (on holiday with its owners) on the shores of Lake Kusharo (Hokkaido, Japan)

A parrot (on holiday with its owners) on the shores of Lake Kusharo (Hokkaido, Japan)

To leave him at home would be unthinkable, said the owner and his wife. That’s why they take him on holiday with them. Their kids were splashing about on a canoe a few meters away.

The pleasant surprise for today was that of meeting up with friends from Sapporo who were in the area. Leon, Ric and Matt were on a two-week hiking trip around Hokkaido, doing some of the bigger multiple day treks in the mountains near Shiretoko. Even more surprising was that Ric’s mother-in-law (Ric is English, his wife is Japanese) lives in Kotan. The invitation to stay with them at okaasan’s (literally mother’s) place was quickly accepted. Due to this chance meeting, we ended up hanging around Kotan all day.

In classic Leon style, BBQ was the choice of evening meal.

A chance meeting with Leon, Ric, and Matt in Koton (Hokkaido, Japan)

Distance: 10km | Time on bikes: | Average speed: | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 2,350yen | Accommodation: 0yen

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August 9th, 2012 | categorizilation: all categories,Hokkaido (Japan),Japan,Post-2008,Shiretoko Tour (2012)

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Today it rained. Like cats and dogs it rained. We waited out much of it inside the Teshikaga Public Library, where we both did some work on some distance study we are doing at the moment.

Waiting out the rain and using free internet at the Teshikaga Public Library (Teshikaga, Hokkaido, Japan)

When we left the library, it started raining again. Not that that is all together bad. Cycling in the rain is actually quite a lot of fun, in a strangely sadistic way. It is the camping in the rain (with no guarantee of drying the tent out before leaving the next day) that tends to be tough work, and something I generally try to avoid where ever possible. In this case, we managed to avoid camping in the rain by availing ourselves of the services of a “Rider’s House”. Riders’ houses are small, cheap accommodations, at the most charging 1,000yen per person for a night, and are specifically aimed at non-automobile travelers (motorcyclists, bicyclists,  walkers etc). Some are even free. Ours was 1000yen, and included a free drive to the local onsen, and cheap meals. We even got our own room to ourselves (usually you’re sharing a room with multiple others).

Breakfast time at the Rider's House at the south end of Lake Kussharo (Hokkaido, Japan)

They are a great place to meet interesting characters. One guy was traveling around taking photos. He spent about 45 minutes showing us his photos. They were actually very good.

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Distance: 44.2km | Time on bikes: 2h 47m | Average speed: 15.8km/h | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 6,231yen | Accommodation: 2,000yen | Onsen: 400yen

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August 8th, 2012 | categorizilation: all categories,Hokkaido (Japan),Japan,Post-2008,Shiretoko Tour (2012)

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Odaito is well known for its sunrises. This was the best this morning’s one could muster.

Sunrise over the Notsuke Peninsula (Otaido, Japan)

It is worth noting that the sun rises at 4am at this time of the year. Which means that for cycling, we’re on the road by around 5:30am. So that means breakfast at 5am, second breakfast at 9am, lunch at noon, and dinner at 5pm, with bedtime at around 7:30pm.

In any case, much of today’s scenery reminded us a lot of the Taranaki region in the North Island of New Zealand. Lots of dairy farms. And, with so much of the year shrouded in winter, this time of year is prime grass-growing time.

Dairy farms near Nijibetsu (Hokkaido, Japan)36

Dairy farms near Nijibetsu (Hokkaido, Japan) Dairy farms near Nijibetsu (Hokkaido, Japan)

Dairy farms near Nijibetsu (Hokkaido, Japan)

And while we didn’t see any cows on the road, signs warned us to keep an eye out.

Dairy farms near Nijibetsu (Hokkaido, Japan)

Our campsite for tonight was the very well appointed Nijibetsu Auto Camp. The plan was to camp. But it was raining. So we got a bungalo instead. We felt all very colonial.

Dinner was a little different this time. Vegetarian curry. It was my turn to cook. And to try to look staunch whilst doing so.

Dinner at the Nijibetsu Autocamp (Nijibetsu, Hokkaido, Japan) Good facilities at the Nijibetsu Autocamp (Nijibetsu, Hokkaido, Japan)

We avoided the rain and got a bungalow for the night at the Nijibetsu Autocamp (Nijibetsu, Hokkaido, Japan)

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Distance: 61km | Time on bikes: 4h 00m | Average speed: 15.2km/h | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 5,676yen | Accommodation: 3,150yen | Laundry: 400yen

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August 7th, 2012 | categorizilation: all categories,Hokkaido (Japan),Japan,Post-2008,Shiretoko Tour (2012)

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Another of our ‘rest’ days. This time we got an early ferry to Notsuke Peninsula, and cycled back around to Odaito.

Catching the ferry from Otaido to the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

Haidee on the lookout for spotted seals on the  Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan) A mooring on the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

Catching the ferry from Otaido to the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

We were the only passengers on the ferry, so we had our very own personal guide. The ferry ride takes 30 minutes, but that includes a 5 minute stop half way, to have a gander at spotted seals. They were indeed there today. Spots and all.

Once at the peninsula (or, rather, gigantic sand-spit), with my nice fat 60mm tyres, I had a wee cycle along the beach. Haidee, with her skinny 25mm tyres, walked.

Cycling along the beach on the  Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

The beach only lasted about 500m, after which there was boardwalk. Today’s beautiful blue skies made up somewhat for the rainy and cloudy weather of previous days.

Boardwalks along the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

Boardwalks along the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan) Boardwalks along the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

Boardwalks along the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

Wild flowers are the name of the game here. In particular, Irises seemed to be in full bloom at this time of year.

Irises on the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

Notsuke Peninsula also happens to be a perfect vantage to gaze upon the long-lost Kuril Islands, or at least the southern-most of the islands, Kunashiri Island (Kunashir in Russian). Basically, the islands, which were originally Japanese, but were occupied by Soviet forces at the end of World War II, are presently claimed by Russia. The Japanese government disputes this claim. More on Wikipedia here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuril_Islands_dispute.

Some Japanese want the disputed islands north of Hokkaido returned to Japan (Shiretoko, Japan)

Sentiment in Hokkaido in general and in this area in particular seems quite strong that the islands should be returned to Japan. The text in red in the sign above says “Islands 16km away; so close yet so far”.

The wind was at our backs as we pedaled our way back to our campsite. Dinner was a fairly standard fare of fried onion, garlic, and mushrooms mixed with a tomato pasta sauce to make some nice vegetarian pasta.

Cooking dinner on the MSR Whisperlite Internationalle at the Fureai Campground (Odaito, Hokkaido, Japan)

Fureai Campground (Odaito, Hokkaido, Japan) Fureai Campground (Odaito, Hokkaido, Japan)

The nearby Seaview Hotel has an onsen for 500yen per person, so, like last night, we dropped by later on for a soak.

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Distance: 35.8km | Time on bikes: 2h 34m | Average speed: 13.9km/h | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 3,809yen | Accommodation: 700yen | Onsen (hotspring): 1,000yen | Ferry ride: 3,200yen

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August 6th, 2012 | categorizilation: all categories,Hokkaido (Japan),Japan,Post-2008,Shiretoko Tour (2012)

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Surly Karate Monkey outside an old Japanese ryokan (inn) in Rausu (Hokkaido, Japan)

They have some very large horses in this part of Hokkaido. They are shorter than Clydesdales, but have hooves about the same size.

Big Clydesdale-ish horses south of Rausu (Hokkaido, Japan)

Big Clydesdale-ish horses south of Rausu (Hokkaido, Japan)

Kelp seems to be a large part of the economy here. Huge sheets of it are harvested by chaps on boats, and then hung to dry in large forced-air drying sheds. The guy below said that the dried kelp is sold all over Japan. Kelp of this thickness is used mostly for soup and sauce stock in Japan. It sort of acts like MSG; brings out the flavor of foods more.

Kelp drying near Odaito (Hokkaido, Japan)

For lunches on this trip, we were mostly eating out. Most meals are below 1,000yen, but for a large bowl of ‘kaisen-don’ (a bowl of rice topped with raw fish) at this nice place, they were charging 1,250yen. You’d easily pay 2,000yen for something equivalent in big-city Sapporo. I would have taken a photo of it, but alas my appetite had other ideas.

Lunch in Shibetsu (Hokkaido, Japan)

Despite an interesting start to the day, much of the cycling approaching our campsite (the Fureai Campsite in Odaito) was quite dull, in my opinion. The campsite made up for it though. Right on the seafront, it was.

Fureai Campground in Odaito (Hokkaido, Japan)

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Distance: 59.8km | Time on bikes: 4h 02m | Average speed: 14.7km/h | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 6,039yen | Accommodation: 700yen | Onsen (hotspring): 1,000yen | Laundry: 400yen

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August 5th, 2012 | categorizilation: all categories,Hokkaido (Japan),Japan,Post-2008,Shiretoko Tour (2012)

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Today it was raining when we got up.

Ready for a wet climb up Shiretoko Pass (739m) in Hokkaido, Japan

It was still raining after about a 2 hour climb up Shiretoko Pass (739m, starting at sea level).

At the top of Shiretoko Pass (735m) in Hokkaido, Japan

Incredulously, Haidee seemed still in a decent mood.

At the top of Shiretoko Pass (735m) in Hokkaido, Japan

Although, this may have had something to do with the promise of a dry room when we arrived in Rausu, rather than a soggy campsite (as was the original plan…well, at least, the original plan was for a nice dry campsite opposite a free onsen…but sometimes the weather plays foul).

After a very chilly descent back down to sea level, we ended up at a dingy old ryokan (an old-style Japanese inn) for the night. They did a special deal for us: 7,000yen for the room. The only redeeming feature of the place was the attached natural onsen. Which was dilapidated (like the rest of the ryokan), but hot and good for tired muscles and frazzled nerves.

Old Japanese ryokan (inn) in Rausu (Hokkaido, Japan)

Drying off in an old Japanese ryokan (inn) in Rausu (Hokkaido, Japan) Drying off in an old Japanese ryokan (inn) in Rausu (Hokkaido, Japan)

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Distance: 33.6km | Time on bikes: 2h 59m | Average speed: 11.2km/h | Bears: 0
Financials: Food: 4,600yen | Accommodation: 7,000yen | Onsen (hotspring): 0yen

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