Trip to Tokyo and Hokkaido, August 2001

The island of Hokkaido is shaped like a Klingon warship or, to use a non-alien metaphor, a tailless stingray with a wounded starboard wing. Sort of a triangle. Why am I here again cycling, a follow-up to my 1998 and 1999 trips? Smaller than the state of Michigan in landmass, Japan's northernmost island still has roads I haven't yet cycled and sights I haven't yet seen. In fact, I had not yet reached any of the corners of the triangle despite 1,100 kms biked in 1998 and 1,600 in 1999.

Hokkaido had not been on the initial itinerary of this trip, which focused on France and Spain. But as the Star Alliance airfare is structured, adding Japan and Australia increased the cost only slightly. Indeed, the flights in and between these two countries, if purchased over the counter, cost more than the round-the-world ticket itself! So, while I was at it, why not continue cycling?

During my tour of France, I met up in June with one of my nephews and we cycled together through Burgundy, across Switzerland and around the lakes in northern Italy. A most enjoyable trip, the cycling broken up with visits to abbeys, cathedrals (Milano's is my favorite, externally), castles, museums (those dreaded installations that are imposters for contemporary art are my least favorite) and of course restaurants. I ended with three days in Venice, mostly walking around what is probably the most beautiful of the world's towns. Town, not city, because Venice feels like a town and, despite seemingly as many tourists as residents, offers a unique ambience and beauty. Then, six weeks in the US visiting friends and relatives, attempting to keep in shape for the cycling continuation.

The Star Alliance flights require a stopover in Tokyo, where I have to change airports. I had originally allotted a day for Japan's capital in the belief I then held that I had already covered the tourist trail of southern Japan, Tokyo had little more to offer. Time and time again I have been warned that "there's not much to see in Tokyo." But, as I learned during my week's stay there, there is much to see, but it takes a lot of time to get to and from and between places, which is why a week is required, or a lot of separate trips. There is no central location for a Tokyo tourist; I chose the only hostel/inn where I could Internet book a tatami (sleeping mat space) for a reasonable price. It seems that most budget accommodation in Tokyo is taken up by foreign residents, who teach English, work in pubs or the like; moreover, August is the height of the tourist season, and I was arriving at the start of a national holiday week, when hostels are booked out by school groups. Located in the Asakusa district (one of the places high up on visitors' list), my accommodation was a traveler's ryokan, a basic sleeping space in a shared double room for US $25 a person per night. Which for Tokyo is a real bargain.

I spend the week visiting sites recommended by friends and the two city guidebooks I had purchased. Tokyo's different districts have unique atmospheres. There's Ueno park for shrines, temples and museums, including the National Museum which, as one would expect, has the world's greatest single collection of Japanese art, displayed with the same rarefied dignity the Japanese use to present their food, and a splendid collection of other Asian art. The National Museum of Western Art has a well-rounded, modest collection, in scale and scope not unlike that of LA's superb Norton Simon Museum. It includes some recently caste Rodins. The "Thinker" and "Hell's Gate" sit atop platforms which are themselves on hidden rollers. There's a display model with simulation that explains how the masterpieces will survive Tokyo's anticipated Big One.

Getting around the capital requires mastering the rapid transit system, which includes public subways, the so-called private subways, and Japanese Rail (JR). To fathom the extent of this system, imagine the New York subway, Paris Metro and London Underground combined into the space the size of Los Angeles. Then superimpose a train system. All these lines crisscross, sometimes with connections, sometimes without. You can walk underground for five minutes just to change lines. The route map looks like a Jackson Pollack drip painting. The lines are color-coded, with different shades of the same color looking to my eyes remarkably similar. Over the week I spend hours in rapid transit, somehow always avoiding rush hour; I always find a seat, for I often board near a line's terminus.

One of the reasons to make extensive use of the town's rail offerings is to enable you to visit Tokyo's modern architecture, which is scattered about. The skyscraper district is more or less contained in West Shinjuku. (East Shinjuku is an entertainment area with cinemas, pachinko parlors, bars, love hotels and a red light district - all a fascinating walk through.) This whole downtown business area seems connected by underground passages which link the high-rise masterpieces such as the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, which plays Vivaldi on the observation deck, from which a panoramic view of the city is afforded on a clear day. Unfortunately, Tokyo is hazy my entire week here. On the observation deck there is a detailed explanation (but no simulation thank goodness) of how this building will survive the Big One. Another building in the area houses the Yasuda Kosai Museum of Art. A large collection of Seiji Togo, a modern artist, recently dead, famous for his paintings of women, coexists with what must be the largest assortment of Grandma Moses canvasses outside of the US, but the focal point of this museum is a trio of extraordinarily expensive works: van Gogh's Sunflowers, a still life by Cezanne and a village scene by Gauguin. Not far away is Tokyo Station with its European design and another architectural wonderment, the Tokyo International Forum. Inside the Forum you feel like Jonah, as the entire structure resembles the ribcage of a whale.

Many of the buildings I visit seem brand new; they are in fact the products of the construction boom of the '80s and '90s. One such new addition is the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which presents the history of Edo, the city that preceded Tokyo, with models and displays in a building that out Pompidous the Pompidou Center in Paris. I take the JR to get here because my visitor's map, the official city tourist map, doesn't even include the new subway line attached to the museum that opened up earlier this year. (The map notes it doesn't include new lines, however). The Edo Museum is worth visiting for its architecture alone, but the exhibit is fantastic. I am fortunate to arrive just at the time English-speaking docents are offering a free two-hour guided tour. No other foreigner is present so I have a personal guide. I take the new subway back. It is one of the red-shaded lines. After several transfers - one which takes me above ground, 250 meters down the street and around a corner to the 'intersecting' line - I arrive back in Asakusa (emphasis is on the first syllable for saying Asa KUsa leaves Tokyoites baffled), and the subway clerk has to consult a chart to determine the additional transfer charge. This new subway line transverses the city; it is on the official subway maps, but not on the ones printed with English or romanization.

Tokyo is a city for walking, there being a plethora of gardens, shrines and temples. Guidebooks offer an assortment of self-guided walking tours. After a visit to the famous Kashikawa Korakuen garden in the shadow of the arena for the Tokyo Giants (a baseball club), an arena officially known as Tokyo Dome, but affectionately as the Big Egg, which is exactly what it resembles in color and shape, I walk from the Nippori to Nishi-Nippori JR stops through an old neighborhood where temples and graveyards seem to out number residences. This area is also home to the Akakura Choso Museum, a residence that has been converted to honor one of Japan's most famous 20th Century sculptures.

Up to now I feel like I have not yet seen the real Tokyo, the Buck Rogers meets Fritz Lang version I had envisioned. I see this when I visit an area reclaimed from Tokyo Bay, arriving here by sky train that does a 360 degree loop over the Bay, which allows for a dizzying vantage. This is the location of Tokyo's Convention Center, the Big Sight it is called, and some other modern architecture. I had thought all Tokyo would look this ultra modern, since so much of the city was bombed out during WW II and then rebuilt. But it is only this area and the skyscraper section of downtown that resemble the visionary future.

Staying a week in Tokyo leaves me with three weeks to cycle Hokkaido. My flight takes me to the top of the island triangle, to a city called Wakkanai.

This trip I have decided mostly to camp in Hokkaido, for there are not many youth hostels on my proposed itinerary and hostels do not seem especially good value, given the US dollar exchange rate. My write-up of the initial cycle trip in Hokkaido can be found on my homepage ( but the second trip I never wrote up. I was busy getting my books published (their full contents are also on the homepage) and preparing for my Patagonia trip. Suffice it to say that the second trip here took me to the eastern and central parts of the island.

I reassemble the bike at the airport and start cycling towards Wakkanai. Before long I encounter the Davidson Rider House, one of a form of cheap accommodation that serves Hokkaido riders (mostly those on motorcycles). On the 1999 trip I had stayed twice at rider houses. Bikers - there are perhaps 10-20,000 from Japan’s lower islands visiting Hokkaido during August – are a welcoming and cheery lot, but they tend to party late into the night. While I am staring at the collection of Harley Davidsons in the front yard – this rider house seems exclusively for Harleys – the owners greet me and invite me to stay and join their party/dinner. I set up the tent, take a bath (they have a wood heated kettle in the backyard, their version of the traditional onsen, or public bath) and join the barbecue. I am charged US $2.50 and not allowed to pay for anything else. I plan to send them a Chinese calendar.

It gets light a bit after 4 am; I’m on the road by 6. Mapwise I am better prepared for this trip than ever before. I have acquired a Touring Mapple, a 1:200,000 spiral map book of Hokkaido made especially for motorbikers. It shows roads, indicates whether they are paved, and shows the location of campgrounds, rider houses and convenience stores. Distances are given and you can figure out topography. For tonight I select a campground that’s 100 kms away, the daily distance I expect to average over my 3 weeks here.

The first order of business is to find a service station that gives out "Safety Summer Hokkaido" pennants that bikers bungy onto their packs. I find the station – I never learn the name but the logo is a pine tree – and buy two pennants. As it turns out I will acquire a dozen more such pennants (which I distribute to fellow cyclists), all from the road side where they fell off bikes with loose bungies. In fact, a lot falls off bikes. I pick up a few hand towels to be used later as packing material when I next put the cycle on the plane; I find a bungy, a Ralph Lauren cap, a biker’s studded wristband (that I give to the Davidson moma-san), a 2001 Touring Mapple to replace the 1999 copy I had found roadside on the previous trip, and five pachinko steelies outside a game parlor. Last trip I even found a wallet, which I turned over to a group of fellow cyclists. They checked out the identification, called the owner’s video rental store, which provided a phone number, which happened to be the owner’s parents in Osaka. They spoke to the parents who gave out their son’s mobile phone number (Except for me every cyclists and biker in Hokkaido is handheld phone enabled). They called him and arranged a drop-off point where he could retrieve the wallet.

I encounter surprisingly few cyclists on Route 40, the road that parallels the railroad (thus is flat) down the center of the top of the island’s triangle. I reach my destination in early afternoon, ask around and eventually find the campground. By nightfall there are a half dozen cyclists and an equal number of bikers. Like most all Japanese campgrounds, it is free. It doubles as the local park. Facilities are basic; this one has running cold water, a toilet and a barbecue area. There is also a log bungalow, but I choose to stay in my tent.

For a shower I find the onsen. There is almost always one nearby; it charges $3.25, for shower, soaking tubs, sauna, soap, shampoo, etc. For dinner I find the convenience store. The village, Nakagawa, is just a few minutes away and only one of the convenience chains – Seicomart, 7-11, Lawson Station, Sunkus, or Sellers – is represented. These locations, in the remotest of hamlets, also serve as meeting places for encountering fellow cyclists and bikers. The outlets provide snacks as well as full meals, factory-prepared and packaged daily in a very Japanese way. Complete meals often have a dozen small portions sectioned off within the tray or sometimes separated by a green plastic hedge. Mustard and pickled ginger, indispensable to most meals, are contained in plastic. The fanciest meals, that run about $5.00, have a dozen items: several types of meat and fish, one or two stringbeans, something pickled, a bed of rice, a few strands of pasta, perhaps 10 green peas and 10 corn kernels. Chopsticks with toothpick are included, and the store always offers to microwave the meal. In Japan, presentation seems almost as important as content, and this is especially true with convenience store food. The content, however, is quite high. Over the weeks I become quite an expert in Japanese convenience store dining. I’ve had the real food equivalents in hostels, restaurants and minshuku (family-run inns) for example, and what the convenience stores offer up is not far off. And they carry wine (7-11 is dry but he rest have one wall of the store devoted to drink); best of all they often carry half bottles of French or Italian table wine, just what I need to round off a 100 km day.

My routine this first cycling day sets the tone and pace for the rest of the trip. After the onsen, after dinner, I study the Mapple and choose a destination for the next 100 kms of cycling. I am in bed by nightfall, around 7 pm. The following days find me cycling and camping my way back to Wakkanai, overnighting at Shibetsu, Okoppe on the beach at the Sea of Okhotsk, and Hamatombetsu on Lake Kuccharo. When I return to Wakkanai, I find that the rider house folk are off on rally, so I go exploring the town to discover it full of foreigners, specifically Russians from the various fishing vessels in port. Wakkanai must be a paradise for them, with its fully stocked stores, gaming parlors and successfully capitalist activity. I meet Russians in the grocery store, buying Pampers to take back home. They ride around town on bicycles they keep aboard their fishing boats. The Japanese are pleasant enough to these visitors, but I suspect they do not really like them. This suspicion is confirmed in various conversations I have with riders and bikers. As part of WW II reparations, the then Soviet Union took possession of Kunashiri and several other small islands just off Hokkaido. Most Japanese consider their islands stolen; the territorial dispute remains unresolved with the Japanese holding back all but a trickle of investment into new Russia. In Wakkanai the street signs are in Russian (as well as English and Japanese), as well as signs on stores and businesses. No one speaks English in the tourist office at the train station, but I get my points across, and a lady leads me to the tourist office, which lets me connect to the Internet. I get the feeling I am one of the few non Russian visitors they have encountered; they welcome me warmly. They warn me that a typhoon is swamping southern Japan but is still a few days away from Hokkaido and may miss the island altogether. I visit the campground, atop the town’s mountain, and realize that I would have to go up and down for dinner and onsen; I backtrack a few kms to the Davidson Rider House. As I get into the tent for bed, the bikers return. I socialize for a few hours and then end the day.

Today, I head down the west coast, which is quite barren. I pass a collection of power generating wind devices (windmills), some twenty over a km long construction zone. I have a slight head wind, nothing too upsetting. Up here strong winds can prevent cycling altogether. I break for lunch at the only convenience store I have seen for 50 kms. As I continue down the road, I am pulled over by a uniformed man who is waving all bikers and cyclists into a roadside parking area, where free lunch is provided by a group whose identify remains unknown. They give me a pennant and a little packet of tissues. This second lunch, within as many hours, leaves me bloated, but with added energy. I arrive in a few hours at my destination (overshooting and backtracking a few hills to get there), a campsite with an adjacent onsen, which is closed for repairs, and a snack bar that closes early. I decide to continue another 20 kms to Haboro, where the Mapple indicates there’s both onsen and campground. The latter turns out to be a public beach, with closed concession stands. Three other cyclists check out the beach but decide to camp elsewhere. It suits me, though. The day’s total is 150 kms.

Today will mark my first week of cycling. I decide to turn inland; otherwise, I will be retracing the route of an earlier trip. I have specifically designed this year’s route to avoid duplication; this appears to be the only logic associated with the routing, which twists and turns about the island. As I breakfast (the night before I was able to pick up convenience stores packaged hot cake packs that come with squeezable containers of butter and syrup), a few drops of rain appear and I hurriedly pack up the tent. Today’s Kiritachi Pass would have been much more pleasant if the rain had not intensified. Hokkaido averages two days of precipitation per week, so I figure I am overdue for rain. It is slow and steady and soaks through to the bone. I decide to stop in Horokanai after just 87 kms. I check with the tourist office and they find me a minshuku (dinner, breakfast, bath and bed for $40). It rains all night and an hour into today’s journey. Then it clears and the day is lovely. I camp at Tsukigata, where a marsh campground allows riders to stay in train cars that have been furnished with Tatami.

The next day I skirt the suburbs of Sapporo and end up southwest of the capital at a state-run campground near Jozankei Spa. This facility is brand new, the state of the art in environmental protection. Cars and motorbikes must be left at the gate; pushcarts are provided for campers’ use to move in gear. An electric bear wire to keep out unwanted visitors surrounds the entire site. Other than a list of cautions at the front gate and a sign that notes "Wildlife Protection Area, Ministry of Agriculture and Foresty," none of the signs is in English. The camp seems set up for weekenders from Sapporo, but tonight, a Friday, sees only a bout a dozen of the 50-plus cabins or huts occupied. I am the only person with his own tent and the only rider. (Perhaps few riders, whether cyclists or bikers, are willing to pay the $4 camping fee or $1 for a hot shower.)

This is a well-staffed facility, a couple dozen workers at least. And it needs a large staff, for it is high maintenance, with wood that needs to be cared for, metal that needs annual painting, grass that needs cutting, linoleum floors in the toilets; a kids’ area hung with ropes and swings, the trees padded to prevent rope burns. The doors are weighted to close automatically; the awnings in the picnic area incorporate ropes and pulleys. There is an elevated 100 meter long walkway, 20 meters off the ground to provide for bird (perhaps bear) watching and another walkway that traverses a swamp. At the moment a film crew is going around interviewing the guests; I suspect this is the campsite’s first season.

I am up at dawn, for I must continue on Route 230 through the famous Nakayama Pass. This 20 km stretch of roads and tunnels is the pride of Hokkaido’s traffic engineers. The previous day I had stopped by a roadside rest area, one of scores of newly constructed facilities that in their most elaborate permutations have spas and hotels, but at the very least offer WC and vending machines. This facility outside Sapporo is educational in nature. It presents with pride information on the feats of building and maintaining Rt. 230. There are a dozen hands-on displays, for kids and adults alike. With one you can move model trucks in a road building simulation. There are four driving simulators where you get behind the wheel, choose your road conditions (snow, non-snow), and step on the accelerator, trying to avoid an accident as you tackle Rt. 230. I have never worked such a simulator and I find it most disconcerting, having hardly driven a car in the last decade; I become disoriented and feel faint. I prefer the cycle.

In reality Rt. 230 is not such a beast of a road for the cyclist. The grades are generally mild, 4% with adequate shoulders, the tunnels sidewalked, the traffic light. When the road curves, this happens: inside the pavement, in the center solid orange line that separates lanes are imbedded red lights that flash. This is a bit too high tech for my taste, but I doubt the fact that the road curves is loss on any driver.

After this stretch I cross into an average type road, Rt. 276, and I climb up to another roadside rest stop, this one with 100 meters of shops and restaurants. I meet a cyclist who had stayed in the tatami traincars a few nights back. I give him a pennant I had just found. I wonder if he has stopped here for a stamp. All of these rest stops provide an inkpad and a rubber stamp that has been created for this rest stop. Tourists collect these fist-sized stamps into a thick book. In addition to highway rest stops, museums, tourist spots, spas and the like provide stamps. Collection is proof you have been somewhere, and it is not unusual for a bus load of elderly tourists to queue up patiently to get their books stamped. This fascination has not exactly replaced photography, but on this trip I note a lot more stamping and less snapping.

I finish the day with a 20-minute downhill to Lake Shikotsu where I stay in a private campground ($4). Being Saturday night this lakeside area is packed with tents – maybe 300 of them in the space of a football field (it is a small beach!). A good number of the tents are Coleman domes, with the distinctive mustard and olive coloring.

I leave Coleman Beach before last evening’s revelers stir and duplicate a 50-km stretch of road that I rode on my first trip here. Part of this is a dedicated cycling path south to Tomakomai, then along the coast toward the boot of Hokkaido, the southwest peninsula that encompasses Hakodate, the finest urban specimen on the island. Before I get there, however, I must first bypass the industrial city of Muroran, my candidate as ugliest Hokkaido entity. I’d go so far as to say that it is the ugliest city I’ve encounter anywhere on earth. At least African and Asian cities, though not all so attractive to someone brought up on Euro-American tastes, have a certain degree of charm, a quality with which Muroran remains unblessed. True, the city has a beautiful bridge that spans Uchiura Bay and overshoots a field of oil refineries. It is a bridge worthy of San Francisco or New York, not Muroran, which I don’t think needs a bride there anyway. It saves a few drivers only some minutes of travel time, and allows them to avoid some of the city’s ugliness. Perhaps if the residents were more exposed to the sights and smells that putrefy the surroundings, they would clean up the mess they have created.

I survive the Muroran horror and continue around Uchiura Bay, deselecting a most rustic camping site, little more than a sand dune down a gravel road, with a one hole out-house and spigot , but no level site for a tent. I settle further down the road, in a beach site outside of Abuta, a hamlet in the midst of an annual festival. Company and civic units (postal employees have T-shirts with the post office logo) are doing some sort of ritualistic line dance, with an uga-uga-uga chant. A group of women in kimonos includes a stout young woman who is out of step with her colleagues. It looks strange as this woman is a few steps off the pace, but more or less following the steps. I see her face – she has Downs, I suspect. Several times in Tokyo and in Hokkaido I have noticed Downs individuals with a family member in public. This is something I rarely see in Asia or in the US for that matter, and it is with wonderment and pleasure that I witness this sense of family value where members pitch in to care for one another.

The next morning it is pouring. I pack the tent, wet and sandy. I ride a soggy 87 kms until I reach Yakumo, where the Lawsons Station staff take 10 minutes to call around to locate me a minshuku, the cheapest of 5 they find in the local directory. This inn has a single tatami room atop a quite popular restaurant, in front of the JR station. I have lunch, dinner, breakfast, the largest portions and some of the best food I have eaten in Japan, and pay $40 for everything. They won’t let me pay for lunch, which was outside the quoted price.

The rain finally stops, and I am off to Hakodate, which has a charming historic section dating back to the time the city was a treaty port, forced open to foreign trade in the mid 19th Century. I stay in a rider house ($8) and go out with bikers for a fish dinner for which I am forewarned portions are very, very large. I waddle back and sleep off dinner, a slight rain continuing through to the next morning, when I am off around the southeast heel of the peninsula’s boot. The smell of seaweed, a bit of mist, a hint of rain; this makes for great cycling onto Lake Onuma, regarded on my tourist map as "one of the 3 most scenic spots in Japan." That’s saying a lot and indeed the lake, covered a bit in mist, is beautiful. It has hundreds of little tree islands that give it a unique appearance. I find the essentials – campground, onsen, small snack shop – and the next day, rain only threatening (the typhoon missed Hokkaido as it turns out) I return to Hakodate to view the historic section I missed the first visit. Then I am off around the sole of the peninsula and must backtrack about 10 kms because a campsite reported on my very reliable Mapple does not exist. I end up at another site – right on the beach, a perilously narrow beach. Locals assure me that high tide will not flood my tent, which the night's wind-infested rain itself manages to do. Up to now my Ferrino brand, Italian-designed, Vietnamese-made tent has kept me dry, but I suspect the seams of the raincover are no longer impenetrable. It clears for the next days as I continue along the coast, staying at Fukushima, Esashi, Setana and Iwanai, battling modest headwinds. In Iwanai I stay at the only convenient campsite, although a climb to 400 meters. This is an autocamp, that is, camping designed for people with automobiles. These places often charge riders the same as drivers, but the cost is only $8, and I get a free hot shower and use the coin-operated laundry. After 2 1/2 weeks on the road (3 1/2 including Tokyo) a washing is in order. My cycling togs can be rinsed out nightly, but this does not adequately substitute for a machine.

From Iwanai I take Rt. 276 again, duplicating the downhill into Lake Shikotsu. Coleman Beach is now empty, only 5 tents, of which one is a Coleman. It is now September and Japanese holidays have ended and most visitors have returned south. I will do the same, after two nights at a rider house in Chitose, the airport city from which I leave for the next leg of my trip – the Great Ocean Road of Australia. Having completed 2,200 kms (113 hours in the saddle) around Hokkaido, there is still more to see on this island. Perhaps I will one day return.