Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thoughts on Cycling in Hokkaido and Japan

I really enjoyed the Hokkaido trip. It's a truism of cycling that cycling brings out the best in the people of the country we visit, and in the case of Japan, the people are just amazing. No matter where we went, folks were helpful and kind towards cyclists. From visitor center receptionists to B&B hosts, they exhibit a curiosity and friendliness that just blew me away. The drivers are polite, and the food is amazing. What really surprised me was how cheap everything was! My brother had told me that he lost weight in Japan because he could not afford meat. Well, I guess if you stay in Tokyo all the time in Japan that could very well happen. Once out in the rural countryside, prices drop dramatically, and Japan becomes cheaper than Europe! A typical night's stay was 5000 Yen, including dinner and breakfast. And the typical dinner served was comparable to restaurant food, so you're not getting short-changed at all. In many cases, you would be asked whether you would prefer a Western option for your meals. We rarely tried it since we preferred Japanese food anyway.

The food is very healthy --- lots of fish, rice, vegetables, and not a lot of red meat. You won't get a whole lot of milk and cereal, and you have to like seaweed. The portions (especially at lunch) can be quite small. On the other hand, I like having a small lunch. On my European trips, I resist stopping for anything other than a supermarket lunch because not only is the service slow, you usually have no choice but to get a big meal that bloats you and makes afternoon cycling bog down. Not in Japan. You can order the biggest meal on the menu, and not only will the service be very fast, you won't feel bloated! The flip side, of course, is that you'll have to snack a couple of hours later. I don't think any cyclists would be disappointed by the need to do so, since convenience stores are plentiful, and the snacks are delicious!

The roads are clean. We never got a single flat tire that could be attributed to Japanese roads. There were times when cracks across the roads were very annoying though --- I think those happened at the expansion joints, and the regularity is very jolting.

The frequent Onsens (Hot Springs) means that if you ever get hypothermia, you can just hop in one and get warm. This means you can be more free to take risks with the weather, if you know you have an Onsen coming up (or near by).

The biggest penalty, however, is that the riding outside of Biei/Furano is not very interesting. That's because as with many islands, there are frequently only one road from one part to another, so everyone has to use those roads, cyclists/motorcyclists/drivers. So those roads are crowded, noisy, and not very much fun to ride. But the worst part is that the Japanese don't build roads over their mountains! Most of the roads go up into the mountain and then don't connect to anything on the other side. This puts a serious damper on getting to great views and scenery on the bicycle. And of course, the roads that go around the mountains are boring: straight and long, frequently with head-winds. I am unlikely to do another bicycle tour in Japan because of this (a car or hiking oriented trip would not be out of the question), but the cultural experience of doing it once was great! Bear in mind that I'm a very spoiled cyclist, having spent too much time in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Alps. I don't consider the California Sierras pretty, for instance, and Yosemite doesn't bowl me over any more. The perils of being a world traveler is that you'll always be comparing places to one another, and for cycling, it's really difficult to beat the Bay Area and the Swiss Alps.

All in all, my conclusion is that Japan/Hokkaido is an ideal country for the novice tourist, or the cycling tourist who is out of shape and/or afraid of mountains. It is filled with polite people and drivers, clean clean roads, fantastic food, wonderful hot springs and lots of places to do good hiking. You might not find the cycling memorable, but the people and the culture will be unforgettable!
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