Day 4: Yubari, Abira, Tomakomai

Day 4 started much like Day 3; a bright and early start, full of energy and motivation to get on the road and start pedaling. Train Dude and Car Guy were already up and about; getting ready their respective journeys. TD was heading North towards Asahikawa and Car Guy east towards Obihiro. I was a bit sad that the crew was separating so early, I felt like these guys would have made excellent travel buddies. We took a photo before everyone parted ways and judging from everyone’s facial expressions, you can probably tell it was an early start.

The guy and lady next to TD on the left were from the Czech Republic and the two ladies next to them were their friends. I spoke to the lady next to CD for a bit; she mentioned they were all doing a little car trip around Hokkaido. I didn’t really speak to others but they seemed nice enough.

TD on the far left, CD on the right next to me.

Today’s destination was Tomakomai; the starting point of the trip and a good but not too long 75km away from Yubari. I originally planned to stay in the Ainu town of Shiraoi 25km west of Tomakomai but it being Silver Week and the general lack of lodgings, Tomakomai was the only feasible option in the area. With what became something of a ritual on this trip, I hit up a konbini after leaving the hostel.

Konbinis. I could go on and on and on about konbinis. Ubiquitous even in rural areas, konbinis might be my favourite thing about living here. The list of things you can do at one is virtually endless: Paying your bills, buying airplane tickets and the cherry on top; purchasing snacks at 3am when you’re got that sweet tooth. The list of things you can do at a konbini is practically endless; it’s probably easier to think about things that you can’t do at one. Unknown to me at the time; shipping trainers half way across the country is one of the things you can do (I wasn’t using my walking trainers enough to justify its bulkiness and my cycling shoes + flip-flops combo were good enough). Like when it comes to doing most things at a konbini, shipping the trainers back home was stupidly easy; all I had to do was roll up to the konibini with my trainers and within 5 minutes it was boxed up and ready to go 1000km away for the modest fee of 950 yen (£5.15). Magical.

Next up was a visit to Tomisato Station. One of TD’s recommendations, I thought I’d go and have a look since it was along the way. Tomisato Station, like most of the stations on the Sekisho Line (and rural Hokkaido it seems) only gets a handful of trains passing through each day. As expected, there wasn’t a soul around; not even a member of staff.

IMG_2827_4794 IMG_2828_4795

Infront of the steps of Tomisato Station.

Riding further along the Mikawa National Highway past Tomisato Station, the roads started to become narrower and the traffic picked up but it the huge melon fields and beautiful mountain backdrop remained.


Unlike in English, Melons are not a euphemism for a woman's breasts.
Unlike in English, Melons are not a euphemism for a woman’s breasts in Japanese.
It doesn’t matter if it’s an angry train telling you not to enter the railroad tracks, there’s always a way to cutefy things here.


After officially leaving Yubari, it was a fairly uneventful 40-50km ride to Abira. I say uneventful but in reality it was just rural. This was one of the long stretches of desolate scenery I mentioned in the opening post; for about 30km, I only came across less than handful of cars and not a single human being. There’s something to be said for living in somewhere as a rural as this; while the space and scenery were outstanding, I can’t imagine living a life where you could go days or even weeks without human contact. Adding Hokkaido’s brutal winters into the equation; it’s no surprise most young people choose to leave Hokkaido’s countryside. The first 20-30km was all sunshine and lollipops, that was until I came across a gravel road for about 1-2km. Not being in a mood to risk a flat tyre, I got off and pushed the bike but with the previous day’s bear warning still on my mind, I prayed today wasn’t the day the teddy bears come out for their picnic. Luckily they didn’t and instead I was blessed fields and fields of the quite possibly the most chilled out cows this side of the Tsugaru Strait.


I got off the bike at Abira to grab lunch at a miso ramen joint. A very traditional ramen shop, the miso ramen (with a cheeky dab of butter) was top-notch. As I was leaving I exchanged greetings with a friendly family and just and their very adorable young daughter came up to me and wished me good luck for my trip. Turns out it was exactly what I needed for the rest of the long and fairly boring ride down Route 234 to Tomakomai.


Nice touch with the eyelashes.


I arrived in Tomakomai early in the afternoon to scout out a place to stay for the night. As per CD’s advice, I went to check out the local tourist information center so I plotted it into Google Maps and off I went. As I approaching the centre, I noticed how overall dinginess of the area and lack of people around. With an estimated population of 173,000, Tomakomai isn’t your standard rural Hokkaido city (it’s the 5th largest in the prefecture) so I was wondering what the heck was going on. Turns out what came up on the search was 無料案内所 (muryou annai, free information centre), not 観光案内所( kankou annai, local tourist information centre). Sounds like an easy mistake to make, except for the fact that they are very different: Muryouannaijos are free ‘information centres’ on where to get ‘access’ to certain ‘nighttime entertainment businesses’. I think I’ve exhausted my inverted commas allowance for these series of posts, so I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. The actual tourist information centre was in a much more lively area, attached to a respectable and stylish library/cafe combination with actual people around. The friendly lady helped me find a hotel near the city centre and I was off to check in and put up my feet for a bit.

Dinner that night was at Vankam, a no-frills, cozy looking cafe near the hotel with an interior that looked like something from the 20th century. It was quite packed for a Monday evening (well, it was Silver Week). I ordered an cheese and tomato doran dish which came with a surprisingly delicious salad and a very respectable glass of orange juice, however it was the super smooth chocolate cake that won the show. All for a 1,000 yen (£5.40); an absolute steal if you ask me. Another one of Vankam’s pluses was the waitress who served me. She had what was probably one of the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen. It was a simple smile but had a heart-warming warmth. Also; dimples. I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for dimples.

There wasn’t much to do in Tomakomai so I went back to the hotel. After giving Japanese TV a shot (I lasted about 3mins before turning it off), I ended the night early with a quick dip in the hotel’s onsen (hot spring) and went straight to bed in order to prepare for tomorrow’s long ride.


Day 3: Sapporo and Yubari

“You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting,
So… get on your way!”

–Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

Although I posted Day 1 and 2 earlier, today was the real start of the bike tour. Like a kid on Christmas morning I got up nice and early, ready to start my trip across Central Hokkaido. I went downstairs to greet Y-san and her assistant who were already up and about. Arriving at Y-san’s place quite late the previous day, I didn’t get a chance to have a good talk with her before we all headed off to bed. Y-san, originally from Fukushima Prefecture, left for New Zealand when the 2011 Tohoku disaster hit before coming to Sapporo in 2014 to work as an activist and volunteer on people’s rights. It was pretty interesting talking to Y-san; she some good ideas on how to make Japan a better country. Some of her views might have been a too radical (for lack of a better term) for my taste but I respected her opinion. Both Y-san and her assistant are both vegan and her assistant whipped us up one of best breakfast I’ve had in a while; sticky brown rice, a mixed lettuce salad and miso soup with quite possibly the best tofu I’ve had.

After breakfast, Y-san mentioned she’d like to take me to a fruit garden before I left Sapporo. We hopped in the car where I spent most of the trip there (which was about 5 minutes) mulling over how to translate 果樹園 (kajuen) into English before exclaiming orchard in a relieved tone just before we arrived. The orchard itself was on top of a hill (possibly a mountain) in Western Sapporo. Spread out over a huge area were all sorts of fruits: peaches, apples, blueberries and some other fruits I’ve never seen before. In front of the orchard was a small hut belonging to the owner which also functioned a small shop. The owner was a sassy obaachan and despite it being her and Y-san’s first meeting, they spoke with a level of intimacy reserved for only the best of buddies. The shop had a huge collection of fruits for knockout prices. A bag of 8 apples was 150 yen (82p), which in Japan you’d be lucky to find a single apple priced at in most supermarkets.

We headed back to Y-san’s place, and I finished setting up my bike before we said our’ see your laters’. The skies were looking eerily grey so I quickly shot off into Central Sapporo to have a short breakfast F, Momo and KA. Since the crew were off for a day at the arcade and had to catch a bus, it was a short affair. I took a quick look around Sapporo Station, checked my maps and then headed east towards Yubari.

The journey was about 70km and after leaving Sapporo on Route 274, it was pretty smooth sailing. The ride was a pleasant one; super wide roads, hardly any cars and the sun shining in all its glory. I was beginning to question my coworkers’ comments about Hokkaido’s climate in September; the temperature was a beautiful 24 degrees.

River bank of the Chitose River.


The lovely signs of Hokkaido’s cities, towns and villages. Beats the very drab ones found in Kanto.

The final stretch from the outskirts into Central Yubari was up a fairly long climb. The first tunnel of the trip also made an appearance; one of the things I was dreading most about cycling around Hokkaido. Loud, dark and narrow, tunnels are bane of my existence as cyclist; especially those pesky ones without a pedestrian walkway (which the first one so happened to be). Luckily, the tunnel was right before I got into Central Yubari and short enough for me to muster the energy to sprint through it.

Yubari, known in Japan for its melons is less known for its international film festival, the Yubari International Fanastic Film Festival.  Those of you who’ve seen Tarantino’s Killbill may remember the batshit crazy assassin Gogo Yubari. The character was a homage to Yubari; Tarantino apparently wrote the screenplay for the film while visiting the city during the city’s 1993 film festival. Yubari, like most places in Japan, also has its own yurukyara (mascot); Yubari’s being represented by the horrifyingly scary Melonkuma. If you don’t believe me just take a look at this clip on Last Week Tonight.

There were many reasons I was interested in visiting Yubari; the city’s huge fall from grace since the closure of its coal mines and the fact demographically, it’s one of Japan’s oldest cities. It’s a city in name only; with estimated population of only 9,968, Yubari doesn’t even qualify as a town let alone a city. However the deciding factor of my visit was collection of posts written about Yubari by one of my favourite bloggers, SpikeJapan. Spike has written some truly fascinating stuff on some of Japan’s more overlooked areas with wit and finesse I’ve never read before. Unfortunately he no longer writes anymore but has left behind a treasure trove of excellent posts. You can read his abridged Guardian article on Yubari here or if you have the time, I highly recommend the director’s cut here. He’s also written about Yubari here and less explicity so here.

Upon entering the downtown area (although it was a very big stretch to call it downtown) I decided to hunt down a convenience store (konbini) to stock up on some supplies. A stone’s throw away from the konbini was the Mount Racey Ski Resort. Since it was summer and the resort was empty, I planned to do some sleuthing around…that is, before I was met with this disturbing warning sign.

Caption: Due to the appearance of bears, entering the mountain is forbidden.
Sign: Due to the appearance of bears, entering the mountain is forbidden.
Appearance of bears. Bears. Next to tunnels, bears were the other thing I wanted to avoid at all costs on this trip. I read perhaps a little too much about bears in Hokkaido before visiting, including the Sankebetsu brown bear incident (in hindsight a terrible idea as it made me even more paranoid about encountering one). I wanted to be prepared for any eventualities so did some research about what to do should you ever come across one. ‘If a bear charges at you, keep calm.’ ‘If you want to immmobilse a bear, hit it on the nose as it’s the most sensitive point.’ I can say with almost 100% certainity that I would be a goner in the face of a bear attack. You could put in the middle of zombie apocalypse and I’d manage just fine (thank you Resident Evil) but a bear attack? Nah. I left pretty abruptly, not wanting to test fate.

With a bit of time to kill, I gave the tourists centre at Yubari Station a quick look. The lady working there was a friendly obaasan, who after making the usual small talk mentioned she’d visited Tochigi once before to visit a place called Ashio. Living and cycling around Tochigi for just over a year at this point I thought I knew the names of most towns and cities but this one didn’t ring a bell. A quick google search showed me it was a small town in Western Tochigi that was absorbed into Nikko City almost a decade ago; accessible from Gunma Prefecture on very obscure train line. She mentioned she went to Tochigi to visit the Ashio Copper Mine; a mine known for causing serious pollution problems during the late 19th/early 20th century. Curious as to why she visited a copper mine and sensing an interesting connection with Yubari’s mines, I planned to ask her more about it however an influx of tourists came in and she got swamped with questions. After waiting around a bit and talking with some other friendly obaasans about some places to visit in Hokkaido, I gave up and decided to head to my accommodation for the day.

The place I was staying at was another 13km from the station but luckily it was mostly downhill. I spotted a few movie neat looking movie posters, including a couple Spike took snaps of during his Yubari trip. Sadly I didn’t stop to take many photos (as was the case with many places on this trip). Further along down the winding road from Yubari Station towards the hostel were quite a few abandoned-looking houses. While they probably were a bit too well maintained to actually be abandoned, with the complete lack of any sounds, cars and people, you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking they were (well, it was a Sunday afternoon.)

Left: Hakuchuu no Buraikan (The Lunchtime Scoundrel) translated as Greed in Broad Daylight in English. Right: 007 Dr. No.

I was staying at the Yubari Forest Youth Hostel that night. An extremely beautiful hostel in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere. While this wasn’t the most rural place I’ve been to, it definitely felt like I was cut off from the rest of the world. The hostel itself was so pristine looking, you’d think it’d only be open a few weeks.




After putting my feet up for a bit, I decided to head out for a quick cycle around and pick up snacks/dinner. There was a Michi no Eki about 5km south of the hostel so that was that and off I went. Michi no Eki (roadside stations) are rest stops dotted around the country. They usually have 24 hour parking and toilets, perfect for staying the night in the car if you don’t have any lodging. During our Tohoku tour in August, my travelling buddy JJ and I visited and stayed at a few including the fanatstic Michi no Eki Shizuishi Anneko on the border of Akita and Iwate Prefecture; highly recommended if you’re ever in the area. Most Michi no Eki also have a farmer’s market and/or some sort of shop that sells local goods. After the Tohoku Trip and this one, I’d like to think of myself as some sort of Michi no Eki connoisseur. A more accurate title would be a ‘sucker for local snacks’.

Yubari’s lone Michi no Eki was called Meroad, a portmanteau of melon and road. It had its own mascot or in this case, two. I dig the girl’s design but I don’t know what they were thinking the guy’s one. All I could think of upon seeing him was this quote from the Simpsons. Oh Melonhead…


Meroad was less like a Michi no Eki and more like museum. There were a few exhibits detailing Yubari’s history, mostly it’s coal mining history and melon produce. I wanted to give more of the exhibits a closer look but with the looming darkness and lack of powerful front lights, I thought it was best to get a move on back to the hostel.

I don't know if this is horrible or genius.
Genius catchcopying? I don’t know.


This was actually pretty good. Like Melon Soda but less of the artifical taste and more of a caramel-like taste.
Yubari Melon Soda. It was actually pretty good; a bit like melon soda but less of the sugary artifical taste and more of a caramel, artificial taste.
Back at the hostel, I met some the other guests. I was reading a photobook on Yubari’s Coal Mines when I was asked what I was reading by Train Dude (TD), a 20-something guy who was travelling from the very south of Japan to the north only using local trains. I cheekily asked him if he took a non-local train and he disheartedly mentioned he ended up at station in Southern Hokkaido where only express trains stop at. The other guy I met was Car Dude (CD), a middle-aged man from Aomori who was driving around Hokkaido. It didn’t take long to bond with these guys; they were super knowledgeable about Hokkaido and travels in general; TD having been to every prefecture in Japan bar Ibaraki. His almost encyclopedic knowledge about train stations was something else. He mentioned and suggested many train stations to visit but the one that caught my interest was Koboro Station, one of the most secluded stations in Japan (I didn’t manage to go in the end). Complementary to TD’s train knowledge was, CD’s knowledge on Hokkaido’s roads and advice on finding accomodation were super helpful, especially his advice about looking up 観光案内所 (kankou annaijo, tourist information centre). The word turned out to be extremely useful during the trip as well a gross misunderstanding, which we’ll get to on Day 4. It was a good couple of hours of swapping stories and (TD seemed very interested in the bear warning sign in Mount Racey) but with everyone off to an early start the next day, we scuttered back to our rooms to catch 40 winks.

Day 1 + 2 : Pre-departure, Oarai, Tomakomai and Sapporo

Go North, Get Lost

I came across this title on a Rapha story page where 2 guys explored the north of Sweden + Norway on their bikes. The story was published just before I returned back from Hokkaido and although I was skeptical (read: jealous) about how they could get by with such a small amount of gear, I noticed some similarities between our trips; beautiful untouched scenery and stretches of large, desolate areas. The title summed up exactly what I was planning with this trip; to head north and see where the roads take, while eating delicious food and meeting good folk along the way. As excited as I was to finally visit Hokkaido, I was pretty damn nervous about embarking on multi-day bike tour over a huge area for the first time. Despite living here for a year and doing a fair bit of travelling around on and off the bike, I am a guy who spent the majority of his later teenage years and early 20s barely leaving the bubble of London’s Zone 1.

The morning of departure came and after some last-minute packing and bike-tuning I was off. The plan was to take a train towards Oarai from where I was going to take a ferry to Tomakomai in Hokkaido. A small town with 19,000 people on the eastern edge of Central Ibaraki Prefecture, Oarai was your fairly standard rural town. It’s selling point is its beaches and marine sports, which allegedly draws in 3 million people a year. It’s also the setting for the anime Girls und Panzer and with the ridiculous amount of posters and displays around town, they couldn’t try any harder to market it if they tried. There was something about the town that didn’t sit right with me. Whether it was a combination of the dark grey skies and less than friendly looking townspeople I didn’t know but I was pretty glad not to be sticking around for long. After a quick tour around town, I hit up the ferry terminal early to collect my ticket. The gentleman at the reception informed me that because of an earthquake in Chile the day before there was a tsunami warning across the Pacific Ocean and while we should be able to depart, we will be delayed for a bit.

We ended up leaving for Tomakomai 3 hours later than planned. During that time I met another cyclist, K-San. K-San, one of the many Hokkaido fanatics I’ve met, has going to the prefecture once a year for the past 10 years. I quickly became friendly with K-san, his friendly disposition and general easygoingness was hard not to like. Besides, it was nice to meet someone and not be asked the usual small talk questions ‘What Japanese food do you like’ ‘Why did you come to Japan’ and all that mundane nonsense. I guess that’s easier when it’s obvious there’s something you both have in common; both of us being cycling lovers. Alongside me and K-San were 2 other cyclists. The first was Surly, a stern looking fellow I named for the Surly Bike he rode and his aloof demeanor. The other cyclist was another fairly unfriendly looking lady. I only exchanged a few words with her so I didn’t bother giving her a nickname. I called her Green Cannondale (the bike she rode) but it didn’t nearly have as nice of a ring to it as Surly did.

The ferry was ride was 19 hours in total but there was more than enough to keep a person occupied. A small cinema, observation desk and several lounges amongst other things. I spent most of the time talking to K-San, doing research on places to visit in Hokkaido and getting some much-needed shut eyed. Towards the end of the trip, I got hit with a dose of seasickness, which I tried to remedy by going to the cinema to watch Dracula Untold. A pretty terrible film in many ways but Japanese dubbing of Charles Dance (Tywin from Game of Thrones) was so on-point it almost made up for how bad the film was. Almost.

We arrived in Tomakomai just past 4:30pm. As soon as we left the ferry, it started pissing down like crazy and while I should have been kicking myself for not bringing my rain jacket I was too busy being in awe at how wide the roads were. The gutter was at least the same size as a road lane back in Kanto. The cycling crew broke up shortly afterwards; Cannondale girl decided to head back to the port and Surly east towards Chitose. Me and K-San headed to Tomakomai Station; K-San to his accommodation and me to catch a train to Sapporo.

At the station I was having issues getting my bike bag to cooperate when a friendly chap came over to help; T-san. T-San worked for a big chemical company in Tokyo and was in Hokkaido from a business trip. Another super friendly guy, talking to T-san was a bit like talking to your slightly over-enthusiastic Uncle who you haven’t seen since the last family reunion. After helping me out with my bike bag and my faulty train card (that station had it out for me, I swear) he stayed behind at Tomakomai while I hopped on a train towards Sapporo.

I arrived in Sapporo sometime after 7pm. While I was putting my bike back together, I remember feeling a bit like a deer caught in headlights with the staggering amount of people around (although it wasn’t Shinjuku Station or anything). That evening I planned to meet up with F, an old friend I met way back in 2012 during a summer school programme in Fukuoka. Despite it being over 3 years, F was exactly the same as I remembered her as. We caught up with her friends over some excellent miso butter corn ramen in Sapporo’s ramen alley and belted out a couple of songs at Karaoke (F and her friends, Momo and KA, were all excellent singers). I had to cut the night short to head off to my accommodation in surprising hilly west side of Sapporo and catch some sleep. Next day, Yubari!

P.S Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos on Day 1 or 2; I tried to remedy this for the rest of the trip but a lot of the times I just plain forgot. I hope you can enjoy the ramblings anyway. 8D