In this guest post, Bicycle Quarterly editor Natsuko Hirose takes you to Rishiri Island, off Hokkaido’s coast in northern Japan. Translated from Natsuko’s blog Touge to Onsen:
From the northernmost town in Hokkaido, Wakkanai, there is a ferry that goes to Rishiri and Rebun Islands. These small islands are the northernmost inhabited parts of Japan, and many cyclists dream of cycling there once in their lifetime. So did I!
Cycling around the islands is not difficult, but finding the right time is! During the brief summer season, the Rishiri Island is popular with hikers. It’s also famous for its great seafood, amd the few hotels are usually booked.
At the end of September, it starts snowing in the mountains, and storms often cancel the ferry. By October, most hotels and pensions close. It’s difficult to find a time when cycling is possible, but there are no crowds.
With the uncertain schedule of the ferry, my friends cannot join me on this trip, so I travel alone. It is a different kind of fun.
The ferry takes two hours to reach the island. The first thing I look forward to is seeing the sun set into the Sea of Japan. It is cold on the boat, but I am excited to head to the island.
There are bike paths on the island, and a road goes around the perimeter. The distance is 55 km (35 miles), and the map doesn’t show much up-and-down, so it seems quite doable in a day – unless it is very windy. I pray that the wind won’t be too strong.
This bike path was built specifically for cycling, rather than being a converted railway. It has some nice ups and downs, and there are great views. It is fun. I imagine that during summer, the flowers will be beautiful, too.
This bike path even has viewpoints. Cycling along the sea, you often travel only at low levels, so it feels special to get to such a great view.
The path is deserted. I feel a bit lonely, but it is nice to have the place to myself. It’s one of the advantages of visiting during the off-season.
The bike path ends, so I take the road. There aren’t many cars, and the wind isn’t very strong. It makes for nice cycling. Except it is very cold. The sun is shining, but it is too low in the sky to provide much warmth.
Tonight, I will stay on the island, so I don’t need to worry about ferry or bus schedules. When I see something interesting, I can just stop and enjoy it. It feels very special.
When I ride with my friends, I often focus on cycling. When I go alone, I try to visit local museums whenever possible. I want to feel the history of the places I visit. It adds another dimension to exploring the landscape on my bike.
The Rishiri Island Museum is housed in the old village hall that was built in 1913. It’s well-known in Japan that Rishiri Island does not have brown bears. That makes hiking here easier and safer. At the museum, I see an old newspaper article: Many years ago, a bear swam 20 km (13 miles) from the mainland to the island!
The sky is so big here, and the air so cold. It really feels like an island far, far in the north.
I stop at Lake Outatomari, which means “inlet with sand” in Ainu, the language of the native inhabitants of the north. I am glad to see Mount Rishiri free of clouds, so I take a photo.
When touring alone, I don’t cover much ground. There are so many places to visit, so many photos to take. This morning, 55 km didn’t seem like a lot, but now the sun is low, and I am nowhere near my destination.
I am back on the bike path when the sun sets. I wanted to return to the hotel before sunset… Even so, I stop, because the sunset is beautiful.
Soon dinner will be served. And it’s getting cold and windy. I shiver.
I really want to get to the hotel as quickly as possible. But I can’t resist to climb up to the viewpoint to enjoy the sunset. It is very beautiful… and cold.
When I get to the hotel, dinner is already served. Traditional Japanese hotels serve dinner and breakfast as part of the accommodation. It is nice not having to worry about finding a warm meal. The meal consists of local specialties: fish, scallops, vegetables, prawns. It tastes great!
My friends ask me whether I feel lonely when I go on solo bike trips. The answer is yes – it can get lonely. This creates an opportunity to talk with local people or others I meet. We talk about local things, the weather, where we come from. It’s fun. Meeting people is an essential part of cyclotouring for me.
All night, it rains hard. When I wake up, I worry that I may not want to go cyclotouring today.
Looking outside, I see the first snow of the year on top of Mount Rishiri. Now I know why it feels so cold here!
I was tempted to climb to the top of Mount Rishiri, but with the snow, it is impossible. I don’t have enough equipment.
Instead, I decide to hike up Mount Pon. It’s only 441 m (1446 ft) high, so there is no snow. In my handlebar bag, I carry my backpack, hiking map, rain gear, headlamp, emergency food, compass… everything I need to hike up the mountain.
The hiking trail is steep, and I get warm from the effort.
When I reach the top, it’s so windy that it almost blows me away. In the background is Mount Rishiri. Later, I meet a hiker who reached the top. He said that it was very cold, and that hail stones covered the ground.
Even here, it’s too cold to stay and eat lunch. I drink hot tea from my thermos, then hike back down.
When I return to the foot of the mountain, the blue sky and red autumn foilage look so different from up there. I’m only 400 m (1300 ft) lower, but it’s a different world. I also realize that I was lucky to see Mt. Rishiri yesterday.
Afterward, I decide to explore other roads on the island. I want to eat lunch at a Ramen shop recommended by a friend. The lady at the visitor center told me that the Ramen shop is only open until 2 o’clock now, so I have to hurry.
When I reach the Ramen shop, it starts raining. The forecast was for sunshine, but on the island, the weather is unpredictable. The Ramen, with its soy sauce base and strong flavor, warms me on this cold day.
After I eat, I wait for the rain to stop. I meet a German tourist who rented a bike and is riding around the island, too. He asks me how to find the entrance to the bike path.
Today, I have much time, so I decide to ride with him. I’m no longer a solo cyclotourist – it’s a nice change!
I wonder why he could not find the bike path. There are many signs! For me, it is clear – I read the Japanese Kanji symbols, but it should be fine for him, too: There is an English translation on each sign. Then I realize that the English text says ‘Jitenshado’ – the Japanese word for ‘cycling road’ has been transcribed into the Roman alphabet, but not translated into English. Now I understand why the German cyclist could not find the bike path!
I am happy I could help the German tourist.
He tells me that he likes Japan very much and describes the places he has visited. Unexpected encounters also are part of the fun of cyclotouring.
He will leave the island on the last ferry. I suggest that he visit the public bath before taking the ferry… With some time before dinner at my hotel, I decide to explore the island a little more. I enjoy the view of the harbor with Mt. Rishiri in the background.
The following day, I take the ferry to the next island. It’s alway been my dream to go from island to island by ferry. It seems very romantic to me.
Rishiri Island recedes in the distance. I’ll come back some day to climb Mt. Rishiri1 But now I am heading to Rebun Island.
Read Natsuko’s previous post, about her cyclotouring reunion in Hokkaido.