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When you think of Hokkaido, you may imagine heavenly powder skiing in a winter wonderland. You’ll think of natural hot springs, amazing food, and friendly people. All of that is certainly true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. From April to September, there’s another side of Hokkaido – one that includes rolling green hills and farmland, towering mountains waiting to be climbed, and beautiful seaside roads that are ripe for riding.
As we crested the ridge line we were able to get our first proper lay of the land. Seemingly stretching from one side of the island to the other was a giant multi-coloured patchwork of pastures set against a hazy backdrop of mountains, with the quiet soundtrack of rustling grass and the smell of cattle. If it weren’t for the giant Kanji emblazoned on the billboard behind us, we’d be forgiven for thinking we were in the Swiss Countryside – but we were a world away, in Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido.
While Matsumoto, Mt Fuji, and the Japanese Alps are fast growing in recognition as cycling destinations, it was the prospect of riding amongst the volcanoes and lakes of Hokkaido’s (and Japan’s) largest National Park, Daisetsuzan that attracted us. We had first heard about the region via the Tour de Hokkaido but it was an invite to attend the mass-participation Niseko Classic (a UCI Fondo Worlds qualifier) that provided the final nudge required.
Chuck-san from Bike Tours Japan suggested that we should kick-start our trip from a town on the lower slopes of Hokkaido’s tallest mountain, Asahidake – only a short hour’s drive from the airport. Given that Mount Asahidake is an active volcano, the fact that we would be beginning our trip in an onsen featuring natural hot springs was not lost on us. The other benefit of this location would become clear when we threw a leg over the saddle, and straight into a 10km descent on wide hot-mix.
Given the amount of volcanic activity in the area, it’s hardly surprising to see the scale of Lake Toya which formed in a large caldera a couple of hundred thousand years ago. With a gently rolling loop pressed right along the lake edge, it’s not difficult to see why the 40km loop is a favourite amongst local cyclists. We caught a bit of weather on the lake, so decided to press on to the smoking Showa Shinzan, a 400m high volcano that popped up in a farmer’s field only 70 years ago. With half an eye on the stack of smouldering sulphur and rock as tall as the Petronas Towers we departed for the rolling hills on the outskirts of the popular winter ski town of Niseko.
Climbing slowly out of Niseko we were soon alone on the quiet Annupuri Range pass. Thick tropical jungle periodically gave way to spectacular views back across to Mt Yotei, but that was nothing compared to what greeted us on the other side of the pass. Stretching across the horizon was the Sea of Japan, and a tantalising switchbacked descent into the coastal fishing village of Iwanai.
With the sun beating down on the turquoise waters and a solid tailwind in place our winding ride along the coast was what cycling dreams are made of. The 50km out to the Shakotan Peninsula was punctuated by long, cool tunnels providing a welcome relief from the heat. A final pinch took us up and over to Cape Kamui, our final stop for the trip.
It is often said that it’s all about the journey, not the destination. As we rode back along a narrow knife-edge of cliff-face from the lighthouse, toward a hot bowl of sea urchin noodles and a frosty Sapporo beer, it was clear that there was a case to made for the latter.
|Getting there||Entry point to Hokkaido is the New Chitose Airport. Various international flights and domestic flights will connect from Tokyo or Osaka. Train and/or bus transportation is available to major locations within the island, and it’s probably best to request transportation from your tour guide.|
|Guiding services||Bike Tours Japan
Journey Into Japan
|Where to stay||Asahidake area: Hotel Bear Monte
Tokachidake area: Kamihoroso
Furano area: Naturwald Furano Hotel
Toya area: Toya Kohantei
Niseko area: Chalet Ivy
|Top Places that we visited in Hokkaido||Nikka Distillery
Niseko Classic Gran Fondo
|Glad we…||Brought road bikes (disc brakes are nice, but not required). Most roads were paved nicely and weren’t too steep.
Didn’t bring nutritional products, and ate the local food. There’s no shortage of places for snacks on your rides.
|Consider taking…||Bring clothing for any situation in the fringe seasons
Compact bike bag for negotiating trains, planes and automobiles
|Rides we did||Day 1 (100km, 1000m elevation)|