Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Hokkaido Motorcycle Tour - part one

Every Summer many riders in Japan head north to cooler and dryer weather in Hokkaido. Ever since first visiting Japan in the 90’s I have been told Hokkaido was the best riding so I decided it was about time I went for a look. Turned out different to what I imagined and if you have some time then I’d like to tell you about it.

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Hokkaido Motorcycle Tour - part one first appeared on Motorcycle Paradise August 2016

There are many ferries going to Hokkaido. I could choose  to take one just north of Tokyo and also 1/2 way up at Sendai which are both overnight trips or there are shorter sailings at other points getting closer. I am not a cruise person. To me there is nothing to do onboard so I decided to take the shorter four hour ferry from Aomori and spend the time riding rather then sailing.

Day one leaving on a Saturday I ran into a 20km traffic jam in the morning. This is Tokyo. Such a overcrowded place. It was overcast and cool about 20 degrees, hardly summer weather so last minute I put my jacket liner in the panniers and left my mesh summer jacket and summer pants behind.

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Normally hopping on a highway and riding 500km would be an unpleasant experience for a rider but on a motorcycle like the Yamaha FJR1300 it really was easy. Comfortable seating, good aerodynamics and electronic cruise control combine to make light work of it. I stopped twice at the expressway rest areas and completed the highway stint still feeling fine. 

I left the expressway system at Osaki north of Sendai to enjoy a sunny and very warm afternoon on some superb roads. I had wanted to revisit the Kurikoma geothermal region which impressed me last time. It is a area with superb mountain roads, low traffic and wonderful views.

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I spent the first night in a business hotel of the Smile hotel chain which was new to me. There are many hotel chains here that primarily cater to workers away from home rather than tourism. Predominantly small single rooms and low rates most of the year these are ideal for solo motorcycle touring in my experience. I seem the only member of the foreign riders forum here that uses hotels. The rest are fanatical campers but I struggle to understand the attraction. I like a hot shower end of days riding and place to relax. But maybe I am missing something.

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The next day off the expressways my mileage dropped back to around the 300km being what I find I can achieve comfortably in Japan. Like yesterday it was cloudy and cool to start with. Riding north on rural roads I encountered a little light rain but then soon rode clear of it again to enjoy the Japanese countryside.

Every small town you ride into has displays of flowers and here I caught one being tended to by the ladies of this town.

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The town seemed to have a Michelin Man character as their town mascot.

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Then I skirted around Mt Iwate and rode on to Mt Hachcimantai in search of a abandoned town in the mountains and eventually I found it.

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Built originally to house families for a mine and then left to decay when the mine ran out of minerals. There are millions of abandoned buildings in Japan (literally over 8 million and growing due to falling population) and most are simply urban decay but this was really striking like the abandoned town on the mining island featured in a James Bond movie. You could still see there had been a small lake/pond in front of the buildings and they would have had a lovely view of the mountain but no doubt life would have been hard and the conditions harsh in winter.

Mt Hachimantai is a superb ride with outstanding views.

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Some snow sheds were fun.

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The variations in weather today were striking. I left the hotel it was 28 degrees already and sticky hot. Shortly after I encountered rain and the temperature plunged to 17 degrees. Then mild weather over the two mountain ranges but as I dropped down off the mountains the temperature soared to 31 and I had to stop and get some fluids into me. I thought well it should be good at lake Towada today yet as I ride the lovely Jukai line road clouds rolled in and by the time I got to the northern side of the lake the weather had turned to mist and dropped back down to 19 degrees. I stopped at the lookout but today I was out of luck with limited views.

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Riding north in the gorges of the Hakkoda mountain I was surprised to find the mist clear and temperatures jump back up to 30 degrees. I cannot recall having weather change so much in one day. I stopped for a ice cream and a rest. My gore-tex gear is good for that rain and mist I encountered twice today but not so good in 30 degree heat. If moving I find I can always get ample air into my upper body with the Andes jacket which has a two part front storm flap that can be clipped back thus allowing air to flow easy and the difference to mesh jackets is minimal until encountering traffic. At slow speed or standstill the mesh has the clear advantage of being able to flow even the slightest breeze. Pants however are a different thing and the Alpinestar Andes pants I was wearing are not suited to hot weather riding at all. Oddly they have air vents but are placed on the rear thus doing nothing much where as the jacket has front and rear vents which even with the gore-tex you can feel working. Well it was nice to have fine summer afternoon even if I was not dressed for it.

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Arrive Aomori feeling mighty fine. Don’t need no chemicals when you ride a motorcycle.

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Next morning it was time to catch the ferry. Unlike the usual small ferries where vehicles queue until last minute to board when I arrived about 1/2 hour prior to departure all the bikes had already boarded and they were well into the cars and trucks. I had booked online and printed out a q-code thing that I scanned at the automatic gate which then gave me a boarding pass and soon as I rolled out of there I was called forward and after checking my boarding pass I was sent up the ramp into the boat. Such a smooth process compared to others. If you cannot translate the Japanese web page then you have the option to pay via a UK ferry site (a-ferry) which will give a coupon then you have to go to the ticket office and process that which would be a pain so try to use the Japanese site with google translate then use google translate on phone at the gate to know which button to press on the touch screen. Basically your options are proceed now or not and print out boarding pass or print pass and receipt. And that’s it you cannot go wrong.

The ferry is very large with various types of accommodation. As standard ticket lets you access the tatami mat type rooms where you can lie down and relax. I took a nap having not slept well then went looking for something to eat about noon. There is no cafeteria onboard which seems surprising. There are a few vending machines with drinks and microwave type dinners and also a cup noodle vending machine and hot water and microwaves. I tried a curry rice frozen dinner which turned out to be one of just a couple of really poor meals I have had in Japan where quality food is the national obsession. My tip is go to a convenience store before the ferry and get some nice lunch box or ready to heat dinner box since the boat has microwaves.

Having left on a fine and hot morning I was a little disappointed when I went out on the deck after lunch to find it was light rain and gloomy conditions. Oh well I had the right gear for this and the rest of today was mostly expressway north towards Sapporo. Dismembarkment was smooth and fast and I was soon exiting Hakkodate and on my way north. The rain was only light drops occasionally but the sky was so dark cars had the headlights on and the temperature kept dropping. I got to a parking area on the expressway and had to get my jacket liner installed as the temperatures hovered in the 17-19 degree area with strong wind off the ocean.

Things improved as I left the highway and arrived at lake Toya. The sun made a late afternoon appearance and it was absolutely lovely riding around the lake. This is how I feel at times like that riding my motorbike here.

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I wrote about the Japanese family restaurants in my Everything about motorcycling in Japan article but for people who think Japan is all raw fish and noodles this is the typical sort of fare you get in the many cheap and cheerful family restaurants, a sizzling dinner plate plus salad, rice, pasta and soup bar. Usually price is about $10-$12 but add a beer or soft drink and that will go up significantly, iced water is always free but tonight I celebrated arriving in Hokkaido with a beer. Also note knife and fork in frame but it can be that some places will only have chopsticks but obviously not when eating food that does not suit them.

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I went to bed fearing the next day would be wet as it had started to drizzle outside and the forecast was really poor however just cloudy come morning which is the normal for Japan so I set off to explore the Furano region which is perhaps one of the most popular places in Hokkaido known for its scenery and lavender farms.

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First of all I was on some back roads and came across this historic rail display. The carriages are open and inside there were valuable historic instruments just sitting on the table – nobody is manning it - and actually the entire town is shuttered and abandoned. Can you imagine this anywhere else but Japan – everything would be stolen and the train covered in graffiti.

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Next up I rode route 452 which is amazing and a joy after what had been a lot of straight and open farm roads up to that point.

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After this maybe first time since buying the FJR I could (and needed) to tap into the power of the engine to pass other vehicles. Let me explain. Roads in the rest of Japan (except the expressways) are very rarely straight or open. Cars all travel very slow and passing is more a quick blip in between non stop bends with nowhere to be accelerating much when passing. In Hokkaido it soon became apparent that I was back on more normal to me road systems. Wide, straight and with good visibility. Traffic in Hokkaido totally ignores the Japanese 50kph national speed limit and travels closer to normal rural speeds but there was a lot of cars this day and many tour buses so for the first time riding in Japan I found myself exercising the right wrist to get around other vehicles. I look at bikes like the KTM Super Duke GT and think it might be a nice replacement for the FJR except the engine is so overpowered to what I’d ever use but if I was riding up in Hokkaido more then I’d have to rethink that…

Felt surreal at times today. Could be anywhere except Japan looking at this landscape and long straight roads. I thought I was in North America more than once. I used the cruise control heaps today. Not that I was bored because I was enjoying the scenery and wanted to slow and take it all in but just the same the roads were mostly all like the ones below.

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I managed to squeeze in a little more twisty road by visiting Mt Tokachi. The vegetation was too closed in to get a nice photo of but great ride and here is the other side looking back at it steaming away in the distance. Sorry about the power lines, I took photos from other side of road also but the perspective wasn’t right.

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Another pleasantly warm afternoon is another chance for me to indulge in an ice cream. This being a melon flavour item. I rode into some light rain after this climbing a small range and watched the temperature gauge plunge 10 degrees. Shame it obscured the views and made a slightly damp and cool end but over all a very good day riding here.

Day five the weather had definitely deteriorated with widespread showers forecast. I decided to try follow my original route and see how I go. I had some light drizzle to begin but nothing bad. The hot temperatures of yesterday were gone and at one point it fell to a very cool 16 degrees which had me stopping to put my jacket liner back in. The roads were just easy riding very gentle curves. I had one mountain range that would have been nicer if clear and dry. All misty with fog I could not see a thing from the top but my riding suit and the bike were coping well with the light drizzle. The Bridgestone BT-023 GT tyres I had installed were working very well on the FJR. I was quite taken back as previously I had a set of same tyres albeit in the the non GT version and they were not so nice in the wet. I got those from Naps 1/2 price and I have a strong suspicion they were really old stock or otherwise not good examples of the brand. Naps provided some poor work on my bike since then and so I have no faith in them anymore but chose the Bridgestone's again as the previous ones were the only tyres not to wear out prematurely on the FJR. Delighted to find these GT variants steer well in the dry and provide very good level of grip in the wet, perhaps as good as the Pirelli Angel GT tyres. 

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I made it to Lake Kussharo during a small break in the clouds to have a fun and dry ride up the range and a semi clear view despite the grey sky. It was blowing a gale from the lookout and icy cold!

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Looking ahead I see a patch of blue sky so I high tailed it down and over to what is one of the most famous view points in Hokkaido, Lake Mashu and again whilst a bit overcast I got moderately good weather. I am told that it is often obscured by fog so should be happy but the view itself I found somewhat underwhelming compared to many other view points in Japan and the claim of no.1 viewpoint in the country is nonsensical.

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I got a dry if not dark and gloomy descent down the other side as more clouds rolled in then some drizzle returned but it was not enough to affect the ride into Kushiro which was mostly straight farm roads. Extremely lush and green I felt at times I might be back in Ireland with all the green (and the rain too haha). I mean tell me where this photo was taken? (ok you know it’s going to be Hokkaido but can you see what I mean)

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Strange town Kushiro, the whole downtown seemed to be abandoned except for the biggest red light district I have seen in Japan. Every town here has one, but this was many 100’s of bars and stretched a few blocks. I just wanted a burger and a beer but foreigners are banned from entering any bar in those type of areas anywhere in Japan so despite most of them advertising good food I walked on and found nothing else open downtown so after about 45 minutes my shoes were getting wet despite the large umbrella provided by the hotel and I gave up and got something simple at a Lawson convenience store to heat up for dinner.

Next day the weather was really terrible. Raining heavy with wind blowing at 45 degrees and cold. After breakfast I enquired if I could stay another night but fully booked. I contemplated finding a room elsewhere in town as it had many business style chain hotels but having to check out at 10 and wait until 3 to check in as is standard in Japan I thought I may as well try ride.

I ‘double bagged’ to borrow an American turn of phrase. I had my gore-tex two piece ride outfit then I put on my Rev-it rain suit as well. Getting petrol I wondered if I was going to have problems with the fuel so much water seemed to be getting blown sideways into the tank filler. Yes it was pretty rotten weather! I got on with it and set a route direct north via road 391 towards that evenings hotel and abandoned my visit to the east coast as shown below. By lunch time I mercifully rode clear of the heavy rain and the weather eased to patchy rain with strong wind and looking ahead it appeared the clouds were breaking up so I got out of the Rev-it rain suit and took stock of things. The rain had penetrated the Rev-it suit at the upper chest area then did not have the strength to get past my second layer gore-tex which by itself cannot cope with heavy rain. Boots and gloves were fine. Helmet had leaked a little from top vents and was dampish inside.

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I came across this lovely northern town Kiyosata with an interesting western looking building that turned out to be a Shochu brewery. There is a huge mountain behind this but it is totally obscured today by rain. The nearby visitor centre was serving Japanese style curry rice which was absolutely what the doctor ordered on a day like this. Such a nice little town with so much public space. That is something I really dislike about Tokyo, there is almost no public space. In my home city around every corner there is a place to sit and many small parks or public spaces but in Tokyo there is almost zero public seating or areas to relax. I always scoff at the reports that say it ranks in the most livable cities in the world, ha-ha those lists are just paid for advertisements folks nothing to do with reality.

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I got to my destination Shari well before I could check in and decided to ride along the coast in reverse of my original route towards the world heritage area of Shiretoko which I had planned to ride through today. The weather improved to the point the sun was poking out a little along the coast so I rode on to the start of the Shiretoko range but it was still heavy with rain as you can see. I tried regardless but was stopped by very heavy rain a few km past this point.

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Quite a bit of wildlife in the north. Besides bears which kill a few campers every year there are deer which are a high risk item for riders. I had already seen many signs for deer and so despite the mostly straight roads had been going easy but here in Shiretoko I had them crossing the road in front of me often and that really made me ease things down a notch. The idea of hitting one was not attractive and so while the roads in Hokkaido are wide and gentle curves there is little chance in the mountains to be enjoying them as you might want to. 

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Nice small town Shari. Had a real different feel to it being this far up north. No rush hour at the local train station. Weather looked like it was easing. I was mildly optimistic going to sleep.

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Day seven unfortunately was going to be more rain. So much for all the talk that Hokkaido is dry in summer. Oh well I had two routes for today planned. If fine I was going to make a long ride through the middle but since it was not then I would ride along the coast hopefully using the mountains to the west of the coast as some sort of small buffer to the heavy rain that was traveling across from the west. I stayed on the coast even more than the route below right up to the point where I needed to turn west. Nothing for it but to get my two rain layers in place and ride. It had warmed up enough that was unpleasant wearing PVC rain suits which don’t breath like Gore-tex. But no choice as I already knew heavy rain will defeat my gore-tex gear within a few hours.

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I had some steady rain then it eased and stopped around the lush green Abashiri cape so there I took the PVC rain suit off as it had me sticky in the humid conditions and continued on in the gore-tex but only got a short way before I ran into heavy rain so had to stop and double layer up again. A tunnel proved a good place on the cape road which had almost no traffic today. Fortunately the temperature soon decided to plunge about 10 degrees riding along the north coast so I was comfortable in the dual rain layers.

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The photos they don’t show in the glossy holiday brochure ha-ha. I was dry and the tyres felt good and the roads were straight and very easy riding even in this gloom and dare I say might have been a bit boring in the dry. Thankfully very few cars on this route. I find the spray they throw up is much worse than rain. I had the visor sprayed with demister inside and rain-off outside so it was ok but the seal of the visor around the helmet top is starting to leak a little water inside. I guess that is a sign that I am due to replace this helmet.

The countryside was mostly farming and thus the fields with crops were all still visible and visually washed clean and vivid to the eye but whatever long views might have existed where obscured today. My Alpinestar Transition DS gloves worked very well in the rain. 5 hours almost non stop rain today and still bone dry inside which is best I have ever experienced from any glove. Usually my Held rainstar gloves have become so waterlogged that gripping the handlebars seems to permit dampness to penetrate from the leather past the gore-tex and my palms start to get clammy after about 2 hours. These textile gloves dry very quick too as apposed to the leather one’s that if you are needing to use them the following day will require at least an hour or two with a hair dryer. Not sure what the camping guys do here in the rain.

A few other brave souls out riding today. A odd thing I noticed in Hokkaido is every rider salutes as they pass. Seems to be some unwritten rule to salute each other for riding here. On a day like today people were keeping their hands in place naturally to not invite any water to enter sleeves but once it eased the saluting recommenced which was uplifting. Of course always going to have the snobs, BMW GS riders I noted never waved once and of course Harley riders are too cool to wave Open-mouthed smile haha.

The last hour today on route 239 from the coast was very scenic. The rain eased and I removed my second layer but it is always a good feeling to get off the bike at the hotel on a day like this knowing I can soon get into a hot shower. Another reason I don’t do camping. Made to feel very welcome in Nayoro by Hotel Kaiko staff member who was a fellow rider and had me put my bike right in front of reception. The rain eased by sun set and I did a small walk around and had dinner in the local family restaurant inside the department store. The weather forecast was for rain to clear and so I went to work back in the hotel room on how to expand my return route perhaps recover a little for lost time as this was as far north as I was going to ride and tomorrow would be southbound. 

Coming up next - sun, summer festivals and jaw dropping scenery as I ride Aomori in Part Two

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2 comments:

  1. Mate the photos your took are fantastic. Japan looks like a great place to be riding although I don't know about their dodgy summer weather seems more like winter to me, I guess I'm used to the warm aussie winters.
    Nice to know about your water proof gloves, I might have to get a set of those. Thanks for the great trip and gear report Iron Chef!

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    1. Thanks mate the summer can get quite hot and very humid, especially in the south but the weather up north is very unpredictable.

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