Adventure media is full of the epic challenges, the rugged and remote, the type-2 fun. It makes for good reading and gives us all something to aspire to. Yet the reality for most of us isn’t a speed record or monumental journey. Is it possible that a relaxed bike vacation can measure up?
I’ll admit that I have succumbed to the slippery slope of bigger and harder undertakings. I have a lifetime of experience bumping into my limits. Each time I max out my adventure meter, consequence meets my aspirations and forces me to consider what adventure means to me. After riding in the heat, dry wind, and rough tracks of the Baja Divide, our family needed to reacquaint ourselves with rides that were more fun. We asked ourselves what we wanted to do next— which took some time after feeling a bit beaten up by bikepacking—and agreed on an active journey where we had enough energy to explore at the end of each day. Looking for contrast left us dreaming about sushi, hot springs, and pavement. Before long, we have four plane tickets for our first family trip to Asia.
When many people think of Japan, they might think of big cities, technology, and lots of people. The images that come up on Google show lots of temples and cherry blossoms. You’ll also notice that the route map on bikepacking.com for this part of Asia looks especially blank. But there is a lot to Japan once you dig a little deeper—which we can’t wait to do.
As the snow starts to melt at home, we sketch out a 600-mile loop that takes in much of the northern island of Hokkaido. We plan to hug the west coast as we ride to the northernmost point in Japan. Here we will visit the tiny island of Rishiri before returning down the remote east coast and closing the loop with some mountain roads that traverse the bellybutton of Hokkaido. With regular services and smooth roads, we hope to ride moderate distances with light bikes and stock up on goodies regularly.
Our trip starts at a 7-11 across from our hotel near the Chitose airport. It’s our first of many stops at a Japanese convenience store. From the outside, this store looks similar to its American counterpart, but the inside bears little resemblance. A cheerful tune plays throughout the store and the neatly-organized rows are full of of mostly unidentifiable packages. We browse the aisles and collect two days’ worth of food, filling a basket with Ichiban noodles, sushi, French pastries, milk tea, fruit, veggies, and our first Onigiri rice balls. It is exciting to try to decipher the characters on the packages and unwrap each new item. We feel like we are a long way from home!
Once we figure out where to stuff everything on our bikes, we pedal west along city streets. The kids puzzle over the traffic driving on the left side of the road, the tiny houses packed closely together, and the exotic-looking plants. It is not long before we leave the houses behind and climb into quiet forests. Thus it is in Hokkaido, this relatively uninhabited hinterland of Japan.
Our route for the first two days takes the long way to Sapporo, climbing into the mountains of Shikotsu-Toya National Park. We are pleasantly surprised to find a wide, paved path paralleling the road. It is well used by locals on road bikes, who whip by us, each and every one with a deep, ceremonious bow. When the path leaves the road and dives into the shade of the forest, signs warn to be careful of brown bears. We marvel at the massive rhubarb-like leaves of the Fuki plants and the vines that climb many tree trunks. It doesn’t take us long to feel the fatigue of our first day on the bikes and we are glad that we only have 15 miles to ride. By mid-afternoon we find ourselves in a village on the shore of Shikotsuko Lake, eating ramen noodles and ice cream from a small outdoor restaurant. We have never had such an enjoyable first day of a trip! Silently I wonder when the skies are going to open up or we are going to have a mechanical—something that makes the experience a bit rawer. We ride a short distance to a nearby campsite and watch the sun dip to the horizon. Our first 24 hours in Japan have been perfect!
Within a couple of days we recover from our jet lag and settle into a comfortable pattern. We ride forested hills along the Sea of Japan and easily divide our day into sections between convenience stores. We ride for a couple of hours in the morning when temperatures are comfortable, then stop for a lunch of Inari (rice in a bean curd pouch), noodles, or Onigiri. The ocean often provides a cooling breeze in the afternoon, when we need it most. This section of the coastline is quite rugged and there are many tunnels that also provide a cool reprieve. Tunnels in most other parts of the world make for dangerous cycling, but thus far the Japanese roads are quiet and the drivers are immensely courteous. At the end of each day we find a campsite in the nearest village and then pick up dinner and ice cream at the convenience store.
With this relaxed pace, Alice and I enjoy watching the kids practice riding long distances without hands, and we stop at every playground we find. We are also surprised at one notable development: Koby decides that he is not going to use our bicycle bungee to tow. When we inquire further, he quietly admits that his goal is to complete the whole trip unsupported. I offer him my support if he wants it, but I’m ecstatic to see my 12-year-old son taking on a challenge of his own!
Nine days into the trip, we board a ferry for the island of Rishiri, a solitary volcano rising out of the sea near the northern tip of Hokkaido. Mainland Russia is just a short 150 miles away. For Japanese people, Rishiri is the most remote place in their homeland—akin to the American fascination with Alaska. As we wheel our bikes aboard the ferry, it is pretty obvious that we are the only foreigners on board. We’re met with a party atmosphere when we pull into port on Rishiri. At first it looks like there is a group bobbing for apples, but on closer inspection people are catching sea urchins in a tank for live consumption. Elsewhere are grills laden with octopus, sea urchin and scallops. Most everyone has a beer in hand. We try noodles, tempura, and various seafood off the grill, but are not quite brave enough to pry open a sea urchin as it tries to crawl off the tray.
Our main objective on the island is to park our bikes for a couple of days and hike to the top of Mount Rishiri for a 360-degree view of the ocean from its peak. We make two attempts, one as a family and one solo, climbing a vertical mile to the summit without seeing much either time due to clouds that cloak the mountain. What we discover after the first climb more than makes up for it, though. With tired legs, we wander into a hot-springs spa across from our campsite. It’s an onsen, or public bath, a fixture of Japanese culture. Once we figure out the strict rules, we are delighted to explore many pools that vary by temperature, mineral content, and tannin concentration. There are indoor and outdoor pools, saunas, and even waterfall showers. When we emerge hours later, we are transformed! We don’t pass by another onsen for the remainder of the trip.
Turning south from the northernmost point of Japan, we encounter our first strong headwinds. We have been in Japan for two weeks and have become accustomed to generally favourable conditions. But here the country opens up along the Sea of Okhotsk and there is little shelter. All accounts make it clear that this coast is quite inhospitable in winter. With the wind buffeting us, I’m particularly aware of the toll this is taking on Koby. I ask him a number of times if he would like to tow behind me, but each time he replies, “I’m fine to keep riding.” I realize that by making this trip easier for us as a family, it has allowed Koby to find his own motivation and challenge. He is staying true to his goal and I hope this continues into his teen years!
We wrap up our loop of Hokkaido with an inland route through the mountains. We make another attempt to climb a mountain in Daisetsuzan National Park but find the upper reaches of the mountain cloaked in clouds. Instead, we spend the day making a loop of a volcanic rim with occasional whiffs of sulphur to steer us in the right direction. In our final days of riding in Hokkaido, we find some muddy bear paws crossing a deserted stretch of highway and some excellent lavender-flavoured ice cream. In the entire month-long, 600-mile loop we see only a dozen touring cyclists. Most are Japanese people exploring the far north of their own country. It seems Hokkaido is an untraveled gem, perfect for anyone looking for a softer adventure with beautiful riding, good food, and an onsen to soak in each night. Type-1 fun.
We know we have finished the loop when we turn a corner and see our original 7-11 across from our hotel. As we pull into the hotel parking lot and wheel our bikes up to the door, I say to Koby, “I’m really proud of you.”
His reply? “Thanks, me too."
ENJOY THE LATEST FILM FROM THE CLARK FAMILY; ICHI-GO ICHI-E
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The Clark Family: Dan, Alice, Koby, and Ava Fei
Cycling has been part of our life since our kids were born. When they were babies, cycling provided us a time-crunched workout between diaper changes. But these were solitary missions, not family adventures. Our cycling took on a new dimension in 2014 when we left our home and jobs and flew to the tip of South America for our first bike trip as a family. During our eight-month ride, north along the Andes of Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia we discovered the freedom that bikes and an open itinerary allow. We experienced the peace and solitude of roads less traveled, strengthened our family bonds, and were welcomed into a larger family of cyclists from around the world - our “Familia Ciclista.”