hokkaido – Scandinavia of japan

Do you know small, orange pumpkin called Hokkaido, that can be cooked without peeling?

W have known it long before visiting Hokkaido. Long before we have realised that Hokkaido is the second biggest island of Japan, worth cycling. But, melon is number one there, not pumpkin. Melon ice-cream, buns, cookies, jellies, where by the road you can see giant melons built as side-road cafes offering all above served in a melon shell. When we asked the Japanese about Hokkaido pumpkin, they had no idea what we are talking about, the anwser wasn’t found in shops neither, where we found pumpkin imported from…New Zealand.

We have arrived to Hokkaido in the middle of June, by the ferry from Tsuruga to Tomakamai. Arriving late in the evening after almost a 24-hour-trip, we cycled out of the ferry guts to completely empty roads away from the cities. In Higashi harbour there is nothing else except the port itself what created a perfect introduction to the island recognition. There are kilometeres of roads without bulidings and people; only audacious foxes and bear warning signs keep your company. That first night the weather has dramatically changed becoming a prelude to rainy days, constant drizzle and upcoming typhoon. A month earlier we had left part of our winter clothes in South Korea or send them back home whereas that freezing wave forced us to put on all warm clothes we had managed to stuffed at the bottom of our panniers.

Important for travellers is to know michi-no-eki, kind of drives, inns to stop, eat, have a bath and shop local products. Extremely useful for cyclists! You can stop there, dry your clothes, eat something and sometimes find a place to put a tent. Usually these places are closed over night but it is enough to help during rainy days. Additionally, wi-fi is there. Not common at Hokkaido, not necessary in your life, but still, might be useful.

There were days of isolation, when we cycled 70 or 80 km not seeing any buildings, nor people, there was no place to stop even, so we sat by the side of the road eating our snacks. Before at Honsiu, Kyushu and Shikoku (Dec-Mar) we got used to having everything at our fingertips – shops, hot meals, place to stop. But Hokkaido is a different story. There aren’t many big cities, so no shops as well, people have slightly different appearance, color of their skin is a bit darker, the architecture is adapted to harsh weather. The rain feeds plants really well and a man feels so small in between the overwhelming green surrounding, mountains and animals that seem to dominate the island. We called Hokkaido Scandinavia of Japan due to its colorful houses on the shores in fishing villages, isolated towns and peaceful silence. Over the rice fileds the mountains grow, that even in June are still inaccessible. We thought of climbing Asahidake, the highest island peak: 2 291 m, but it turned out that it was impossible for us.

Onsen bath is brilliant

To climb Asahidake, you have to go first to the base in the heart od Daisetsuzan National Park. Hotels, onsens (a few) and one campsite. Onsen, a public bath, this is a must to try in Japan. Hokkaido onsens are exuisite, with hot water coming from Asahidake mountain.  Most of them have open air baths, perfect places to chill out.

Lying in a bath wit a view to the lakes, forests, mountains is one of my top memories from Japan. Before going to onsen you should get acquainted with the onsen etiquette. First of all, you should clean your body thoroughly, tie hair up and then you can follow to the common bath, naked of course. It takes time to have a bath, let’s say an hour or two, it’s not a quick kind of shower. The world looks different after that!

Daisetzuzan National Park

To the bottom of Asahidake mountain goes a forest road, strictly speaking 13 kilometers of tough up-hill way. Then, you can take a ropeway and start you climb to the top. Nice weather can help and that day we weren’t that lucky. We had to resign from climbing the top, as the clouds came to cover everything and we were not prepared for that amount of snow. Instead, we went to abandoned forest trails in lower parts of Daisetzuzan National Park.

Staying there, we slept at the campsite (the only tent) with neighbouring foxes. When we get there, we were warned not to leave food outside, as the bear may smell it and eventually attack us. In the bathroom though, somebody left a hand-written note saying that the animals that you can be afraid of are foxes themselves. Not bears! Foxes can and will look for food, no matter if you are inside the tent or not. That two (or three?) nights we didn’t leave anything in/ next to/ nearby the tent that could even smell of food and foxes came anyway to rip hole in a plastic bag that I kept by the entrance. Crows were active during the day, as smart as their foxy brothers but more shameless. They attacked the bikes, trying to make holes in panniers and stealing whatever was attached.

On the other side of Daisetzuzan Park, you can find the wonderful Sankuyo gorge. We hope to climb Kurodake (1942 m) from that point. In the Tourist Information we were told that there is so much snow on the trail that without additional gear it would be impossible or dangerous to try. And so it was. Disappointed again, we had to go down.

Our typhoon

From Wakkanai to Sapporo we get to know the Japanese typhoon and its power to destroy. Typhoons coming to Japan are usually weaker as they come from Taiwan, hit Kyushu and slow down at Hokkaido. That summer Kyushu suffered from floods, That summer Kyushu suffered from floods and power blackout, at that time we were at Hokkaido that suffered as well because of the typhoon and heavy rain. At michi-no-eki stations they can update you with the meteo info and difficulties that may occur on the roads. Anyway, people keep talking about it, they warn one another, we already had some Japanese friends who kept sending us messages about the coming conditions. The wind was hell strong pushing us away from the track , the rain got into every little gap in your clothes.

The wind was hell strong pushing us away from the track , the rain got into every little gap in your clothes

On our way to Sapporo, we got stuck for three days at michi-no-eki, which was really lucky, as we could hide in a safe place. We waited there together with other motorcyclists and Japanese tourists. Our route was supposed to follow the coast (30 km) but we had to cycle 90 km through the mountains instead. Thankfully, the strong wind slowed down, the sunny days came and we could enjoy the beer festival in Sapporo. The lesson is that typhoon warnings should never be underestimate, the wind ruins houses and break trees and cyclists are really vulnerable staying outside all the time.

UNESCO VOLCANOES

What we love Japan for? When it comes to people – it is so safe. Leaving a bike behind it is not a problem. That is why visiting places is so comfortable. You don’t have look for guarded place to leave your bike with panniers. Keeping money and documents with you all the time is wise of course 🙂

You can leave your bike with panniers behind

Unesco Geopark around Toya lake and Usu volcano are the places where you can cycle from one point to another and then walk to reach the pathways. Visiting the area was a wonderful geography lesson. Usu is one of the most active Japanese volcanoes, that has been regularly erupting since 1663, every 20-25 years. In 1977, the explosion threw ash clouds 12 km above the crater! Last eruption in 2000 all the residents were evacutaed and although the city was destroyed noone was killed. The destroyed buildings (block of flats, hospital, public bath, roads, and many others) have become a monument to remind how powerful volcanoes are. The nature slowly takes the control over, the ruined houses and roads become less visible as trees and grass finds its place there. The region is very active all the time, at the sides of hills you can see sulphur steam, not only you can see but also hear and…smell. The Japanese struggle with natural disasters, they have to co-exist with nature and respect it. However, it is impressive how tirelessly they fight and re-built after the damages, trying to find new solutions for tsunami waves, earthquakes and volcano erutpions.

P.S. I have found nice animation of Showa Sinzan (New mountain, another volcano) and Usu eruption: http://www.nfb.ca/film/showa_shinzan/

THE LAKES, THE LAKES 🙂

Previously mentioned geopark includes Toya – caldera lake, that was formed during volcano eruption and there are four islands right in the middle of it. The place is magic, cristal water, circle round lake, green islands and feeling of being in the middle of volcanic area. During the summer season every night firesworks takes place, the Japanes love them, and as we are familiar with fireworks for the New Year’s Eve, they watch it mostly during summer nights.

Beautiful Toya Lake

Writing abou the lakes, we would love to recommend another two lakes: Kanayama and Onuma Park lakes. The first one is a quiet place with spectacular green surrounding. It is placed on the way from Tomakamai to Daisetsuzan, just a few kilometeres away from the main road, worthed to pay attention to. It is not described in the guide books, we don’t know the genesis of it, but it still colours our memories in shades of deep blue colour of the rainy clouds, vivid and wild green and grey stones in a clear water.

When it comes to Onuma Park – bigger Onuma lake and smaller Konuma, there is everything that a tourist, who loves the things to be arraned, needs (restaurants, shops, etc.). It is called Quasi National Park, placed close to Komagatake volcano. People queue to have a picture with it. The phenomenon of the place are small islands scattered across the lakes. Small bridges connect the islands over white, water lily flowers, and the Japanese love kawaii, those cute, sceneries, so the place is famous among the lovers (Those in love? Those having a date?). Renting a whale or dove boat? Yes, possible! It all sound grotesque, but we truly loved that, some of the routes are not so crowded, just go away the most popular ones and you can be alone.

Lovely as can be

At Hokkaido we spent over a month and we cycled not even half of it. I think we could stay there another two months, cycling to national parks and finally get to the mountains (wait for the open trails). This island became the most green and wild in our memory, where you hardly meet people as living there is simply very hard. It is not surprising though, that only 5% of the Japanese live there.

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