I spent four weeks bike touring on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido for less than $1000 including airfare. I enjoyed good food, met great people, and immersed myself in amazing scenery as well as numerous hot springs.
Here are some tips on how I did it, and how you can too.
Step 1: Plan Your Trip
I picked a good area and time to visit-
Hokkaido in September was a good choice, in spite of the fact that it rains (a lot). Campsites are plentiful and cheap, and there are loads of natural hot springs, mountains and good roads. August would have been crowded, and October would have been cold. I rented out my apartment, which gave me a $1000 credit toward my plane ticket. That was $1230 RT from San Francisco, CA to Asahikawa, Hokkaido.
Asahikawa is well situated. My plane was late, but I still had time to assemble my bike and gear, and ride the 14 km to a free urban campsite, where I bought fuel and food for my trip.
I brought my own bike-
Unfortunately, ANA no longer flies your bike for free. I was lucky to have made this trip before the policy change. They are nice, the food is good and they even allowed me to return with overweight bags. Twice - no charge.
I packed light-
I put my bike in a Japanese bike bag for the flight, and used compression sacks to get it all in there, tent, bags stove- the works. I can carry it by myself, even with the bike packed up. This means I can take a bus or train should I break down on the road. You might use a bike box, or consider buying a "rinkyou bukuro" bag for your return trip. That way, you can ride back to the airport and pack your bags.
I flew to my start and endpoints-
JapanRail passes are a great deal, but it's very hard to pack and carry your full sized bike and get it on and off trains. Perhaps you should save the rail pass for another trip - or use it with your folding bike.
You might take a Japanese Class-
Or go to a local Japanese restaurant with a phrase book or dictionary and chat up the staff. It was easy for me to find and trade language skills in San Francisco, but I got so much out of a conversational language class that I really have to encourage you to do it. People will really want to talk to you if you show some interest in learning Japanese.
Get hold of a Touring Mapple-
The Lonely Planet guide is fine, sure, but you want to travel Japanese style and meet Japanese people, right? You might want to cut out some pages, and leave it at home. The Touring Mapple is an amazing tool- if a bit mystifying at first. Find your next campsite, hot bath and ATM. Convenience stores have 1000yen maps by Mapple, and are adequate in a pinch. Your new Japanese friend can help you order one on line, and tell you what the symbols mean, or you can take your chances and try to buy one when you get there. Many large department stores have book shops (as well as supermarkets!) There is also a magazine called 0Yen Mapple, and if you can get it for your region, you should.
Step 2: Getting There and Around
Getting to Hokkaido-
I spent $37 each way to connect to Haneda airport and my domestic flight to Asahikawa, and $125 to sleep at the airport my first night. I wanted to camp, but found it daunting. I'd have had to pay the $37 bus fare twice, and carry my stuff to the river from TCAT station.
If you have a folding bike, great. You can take a regular train into Tokyo. Some people negotiate with the police to spend the night on a bench at Haneda, which closes at 11pm. I wanted a fresh start, but next time I'll take the ferry.
I hear that you can ride out of Narita to a ferry, some 110 Km away. It's harder, but you'll be saving on airfare and the potential hotel fee if your connecting flight is the next day. I understand that the nineteen-hour ferry to Tomakomai has an onsen on board- a fine way to adjust to a new time zone.
In Japan, people drive on the left. There are a lot of mountain roads with narrow or no shoulders, but the roads are pretty smooth. If you get the jitters you can often get onto the sidewalks of busy roads. I carry blinky lights, wear a helmet and bow a lot.
Communicating with Drivers-
The roadway bow is a lot like the mid-western nod, but don't mistake it for your right of way. It's just an acknowledgment that you are a person.
The slow down signal is the same as in the United States. Raise and lower your hand. This is highly effective and life-saving on narrow mountain roads.
The pass me/come here signal is different. The wave is upside down. Hold your arm out and drop your hand below your wrist. Now toggle it, with your palm faced away from your subject. If someone does this to you off the road, follow them.
Motorcyclists on tour love you. They will wave and give you the thumbs up long after you tire of them. They stop at the ample (for them) rest stops on the road, and are happy to provide you with a weather report if you ask. "Ashita, tenki wa doo desu ka"?
The weather report in Japan is just another expression of unwarranted optimism. Prepare for rain. I had at least some rain 21/28 days, but much of it was at night. Maybe seven times- I flew my tarp during the night, having had no idea it was coming. Maybe 2 days, I rode all day in the rain and slept all night in the rain. Maybe half-a-dozen days I waited it out. If you plan to visit the mountains in September, start early. Rain in the flats may mean snow in the mountains. I met a friend who had taken his month from 9/15-10/15 instead of 9/1-9/28, like I did. It was a completely different trip. He was cold. I suspect he flew South.
Worth the effort. Major roads won't give you more than an 8% grade, but minor ones found me climbing 14% grades, which are insane with a loaded bike. The road from Asahikawa to Sounkyou Onsen is so gradual, you hardly know you're climbing. For you, it might be worth that 14% if there is a hot spring and campsite at the top.
Asahikawa and other regions have dedicated cycling roads that run along rivers, and are a nice alternative to the highway. Carry extra water, as you won't always pass through towns. There's one from Asahikawa to Sounkyou. I road part of it, and even met some fly fishermen picking grubs out of bamboo stems for bait.
Water and Food Availability
Streams in Hokkaido may give you deadly Echinococcus, and there aren't so many convenience stores or vending machines in the mountains. I found that extra full bottle comforting after having run low, on a sunny mountain pass.
Step 3: Packing- the More You Know, the Less You Need
Tim Anderson needs less stuff than you or I do. Maybe he knows more. See his excellent Instructable on Camping in Japan. I copied his tarp, which was a nice addition to my gear.
Here's some stuff I was happy I had:
- Tent and tarp fit in a small compression sack. Poles packed separately all fit in a pannier.
- I made a camp chair out of my thermarest, which was nice for my back on a couple of rainy nights
- My Ortlieb Handlbar bag was worth the investment, and is waterproof- though one snap failed.
- 3 thin wool sweaters and 3 wool socks plus rain gear was enough in freezing mountain weather.
- Small thermos- for making new friends or warming a cold soul.
- One good book in English, which I reread, was better than two.
- Appropriate bath gear- towel, long washcloth
- Spare folding tire, tubes and spokes- all hard to find in small towns.
- Light cloth backpack or improvised equivalent- for that hike you just have to take.
- Zip leather boots and flip flops- I was very happy not to have bike shoes.
- Gifts- I brought homemade peach jerky, and California Matsutake mushrooms-An O'miyage is a gift from the heart.
- Your helmet is a stool
- Bungy web- for food and extra water
- Alcohol penny stove in a very compact kit
Stuff I gave away or should never have packed:
- Fleece pants, extra wool vest and nicer clothes
- Spoon and fork
- Extra jacket
- MP3 player/recorder
Stuff I'll bring next time:
- Rice cooking pot and gasoline stove
- Compact crank puller
- Compact field glasses
Step 4: Camping in Hokkaido
There are bears in Hokkaido. There are bear maulings in Hokkaido. I'm lazy at the end of the day, and don't want to hang food, carry a shovel, filter water or wear a bell- and a bear can is out of the question.
There are ample, cheap campsites, proximal to hot springs, with drinking water, toilets, storm shelters and nice people in Hokkaido- I didn't bum camp- save for a night or two.
It probably makes sense to stealthily camp in Honshu, where campsites are few and pricey. In Hokkaido, it seemed prudent and enjoyable to respect the system. I spent 26 nights and around $50 on campsites. Most were free, but a few were around $6.25. The looniest was $25, which I passed on. - and I was forgiven a $18.25 fee by an understanding security guard after the fact. This forgiveness was aided by the family pictured in step 9.
Campsites typically provide water you can drink, sinks under a roof, and somewhere to grill and go to the bathroom. Look for the handicapped-equipped toilet for a private room to bathe or change or whatever. If you are very lucky, you may find hot water or a shower- or a hot spring nearby.
The young man in this picture, wearing my extra wool vest, missed the $4.50 camping fee by being in the bathroom. Some campsite employees are not ambitious, but they do start early- like 6am.
Step 5: Eating and Drinking
You could get drunk for less than two dollars in Japan. Eating costs real money.
Bang for the buck-
As a bike tourist you need calories and produce.Those awesome 100 yen rice balls at the convenience store only hold around 170 calories, which means you need five of them for breakfast, and at least seven each for lunch and dinner. at 85 yen to the dollar, you might consider some alternatives.
I had a small alcohol stove, so I made somen soup for breakfast and dinner- using dried wakame (seaweed), tofu and whatever else I had on hand. I also ate instant rice and a can of fish during the day- around 700 calories for 200 yen, supplemented by lots of nuts, raisins, dried bananas and chocolate.
For produce I had three strategies-
- The ubiquitous convenience store has bananas and cucumbers that were affordable.
- The rest of Hokkaido had produce sold by farmers. Look for small stands and taste the farmer's food in front of them. It's not uncommon for them to load you up if they see you enjoying their fine fresh food.
- Food can be found in the woods, parks, and on the road in Hokkaido's ripe September. I also picked up countless potatoes and onions that were dropped by trucks. I gathered nuts, fruit, mushrooms and herbs. I've dedicated a step to this.
Step 6: Bathing and Laundry
What could be better after a long mountain ride than slipping into a hot spring? I'm telling you that nothing, nothing could be better than that. Japan is well positioned to provide you with ample hot and cold running water in an astonishing variety of outdoor and indoor pools, showers and falls. Most of them cost some money, and are built rather than naturally situated.
Bathing is something I have no problem spending money on- It's always a bargain in Japan, In towns, I found myself asking old women where the local o'furo was, I could avoid the onsen, and get a cheap, local public bath for around $4. Onsens cost $6-10, but are sometimes your only, ridiculously luxurious alternative to a cold sponge bath.
Coin Laundry is expensive and hard to find. I did my own using a sturdy plastic bag as a sink, but they may be hard to find.The mountain supply store in Asahikawa gave me the one in the picture.
Step 7: Communicating
Japanese people are different than Americans in so many ways, it's not worth attempting to illustrate the differences here. You can't always easily read a situation or person, but if you are friendly and respectful, you'll usually get more back than you gave.
A little effort made learning to bow and learning the language will pay you back tenfold. Really. At least learn to introduce yourself, ask about the weather and ask directions. Motorcycle tourists from Tokyo may speak some English, but the farmer you buy produce from and the grocer at the Hokkaido convenience store may not.
Don't worry. People will ask the same questions over and over. It's not that hard to learn to say who you are, where you are from, where you've been and are going, and how long you there for. They will have an enriched opinion of you as a visitor, and you will pave a smooth road for the next foreigner.
Maybe offer to take a picture. The woman in the attached photo helped me find the baggage claim. She was happy that I had liked her hometown, and told me that she was old and I was young. Ha! She insisted on getting a picture, so I reciprocated.
Don't lose it in front of other people-
Emotional outbursts are looked down upon, but sentiment is appreciated. If you scream at your tent because the zipper is misbehaving, don't expect a warm reception around a cook stove. If you express appreciation for something, like food or a beautiful flower, people may be drawn to you.
Step 8: I Found Food on the Road and in Parks
Here is a list of edibles I found-
- Nettle- a nice green vegetable to add to soups- you can try to pick it from near the root to avoid getting stung.
- Mushrooms- I did successfully identify a few, but don't you go trying this.
- Rosehips- a huge, sweet fruit that you can eat fresh- on the Ohkotsk coast.
- Berries- on the road above lake Shikotsuko
- Chestnuts- Asahikawa- but you have competition
- Walnuts- The street trees in Engaru, and in many parks
- Asian Pears- in the campground park at Honbetsu
- Potatoes and onions- on the road, dropped by trucks
- Mugwort (medicinal herb)- for tea- everywhere on the roadside-
- Red Clover for tea - everywhere
- Yarrow for tea- everywhere- it also stops bleeding if applied to a wound or nosebleed.
If you fish, for goodness sake, fish! I don't think there are many rules or any licenses, but you can ask the police about it.
Other stuff I found on the road
- Resealable aluminum bottles
- 200 yen
- Lighters that work
- Rubber straps
- 3 fish (!?)
Step 9: Gifting and Free Stuff
Give to give, not to get-
I've received a lot of gifts in Japan- As a foreign woman, traveling alone by bicycle and attempting to speak Japanese, I suppose I push a few sympathy buttons. Taking a break outside a small shop, I was given a hearty lunch. Eating produce while standing at the produce stand has elicited more. It's nice to get, and it's nice to give, as you learn about the foreign place and people you are visiting.
A gift from a place you've been is called an o'miyage. For a long time, I thought this was an obligation gift. Now I know that it's a gift from the heart. Bring something that represents your home, and make it a gift for the people you meet. This is a great way to meet people, or thank them for some small kindness.
I made a bunch of peach leather, and cut it up for people I met. Peaches are very expensive in Japan, so this was a nice gift, small and edible- no clutter. Many Japanese people love candy, so this is also something you can bring/make. I gave one fellow a bit of my dried California matsutake mushrooms, and he gave me 3 packets of drip coffee. By then we were friends, and the next morning he and his family helped me negotiate my way out of an unforeseen camping expense.
Step 10: Learn From My Errors
I've been to Hokkaido a couple of times now, and I've made tactical errors. I hope you can avoid the ones I've made.
- Waterproofing spray doesn't perform at all like GoreTex. (uncomfortable discovery)
- Spokes may become loose on the plane.
- Sending stuff home? Ask about rates first. A post card must be 10cm by 14cm or you may pay triple to send it. (or not, depending on what- I'm not sure)
- Check in at the campsite first- They may have some weird system which will screw you up. I moved my tent twice in one place, then left the crazy campground for a saner one.
- Bringing a heavy lock is unnecessary. No one wants to steal your stuff. Really. It's totally amazing.
- Getting mad is unproductive. Calmly explain what you need and wait patiently. Ask for input. You'll probably get what you need.
Step 11: Tips for Women- Travelling Alone or Not
On Feminine Hygeine, Toilets, Public Baths, Dudes and common ailments-
Please only read this section if you have the stomach for it. I would never print this in Japan.
- Amazingly, tampons in Japan do not work well. Bring your own! If you find Supers in Japan, please take a picture of the box and send it to me.
- Wind or heat driven dehydration, coupled with hours in the saddle can cause urinary tract infections in even the most fastidious females. Pop a couple of cranberry pills (that you've stowed in your first-aid kit) at the first sign of discomfort.
- Japan is famous for its sophisticated toilets. Perhaps there is a heightened awareness of toilet going that you are not sensitive to. Toilet privacy is important to many Japanese women
- You may experience a squat toilet. Straddle, squat, and face the hood.
- Some campgrounds have pit toilets. Some, thankfully have pits with valves. Plop, drop, shut.
- It seems like toilet paper is common everywhere in Hokkaido now, except for train stations. You can buy tissues for 10 yen.
- Peeing in the wild? Please use a leaf.
- Most Japanese people don't openly criticize others, but the bath house seems to be the exception. It's apparently open season for bitchiness. Do it right every time, and you can avoid having a crabby naked woman in your face.
- Don't let anyone in an o'furo or onsen see your tampon string.
- Scrub yourself silly before you get into a bath, even if you see an old lady just splash water on herself. Better to double what the average person does. She's a pro and you are an amateur. You have to make them understand that the tan is not dirt.
- Wash the thing you sat on, and the bowl you used to soap up, and move it all out of the way for the next person.
- Have a small towel in tow, and take a cue from others as to how they use it. Every bath has its own way, and sometimes you can sit in the sauna without sitting on your towel, sometimes not.... Remember, you want to avoid confrontation, and have a nice easy time- maybe a conversation or two in the bath house.
- Not one woman in Japan has shaved her pubic hair, so unless you want to make a statement, it might be best to go with the flow.
- Rotenburo in Hokkaido can be mixed sex. It can be a bit racy for a woman to brave it alone, but it's not a problem. You can also wait until 9pm, when everyone is asleep.
- * 'Sorosoro' is something you can say when you want to leave. That drunk guy is boring the heck out of you.... Say 'sorosoro' a couple of times slowly, and just back away. He saves face, understands you want to leave, and you get away.
- * If someone invites you somewhere and you don't want to go, you can say it's 'chotto', or you're 'chotto'. It means- a little. You don't have to say that it's a little boring, or you feel a little like throwing up. It's a subtle way of saying no, and it works without hurting feelings.