Hokkaido is a large island, but that just means lots of potential side-trip destinations. If you did this route backward and ended up at Sapporo, you have options too numerous to name, including an international aiport. Here we'll assume you've started at the south and headed north, ending up at remote Wakkanai, and you're wondering where the hell to go next...

- If you've come up here along the coast and have more time, the most obvious thing to do would be to continue on clockwise along the coast to Shiretoko or even beyond - the road is gradual for the first part, followed by rolling hills, and it’s reasonably nice to cycle although not really spectacular. Along the way is a nice bikepath along Lake Saroma and the city of Abashiri. Needless to say, Shiretoko can be highly recommended, offering lots of glorious hiking, spectacular scenery (especially as seen from a cruise ship) and the opportunity to encounter lots of wildlife: deer, the famous kitakitsune (northern fox) shown here, and, if you're (un)lucky, bears. As a hostel proprieter said to me on my first visit there, "meeting" a bear is a very different experience from "seeing" one. See the Hokkaido route for more information on Shiretoko.

- While we were rather critical of the tunnel-infested coastal road between Saporo and Mashike, it should be noted that a lot of people come to this region specifically to travel that portion (by car or bus, usually) since the road has only been open for about ten years or so - ever since engineers learned how to tunnel through rock like butter. Cyclists in search of a less trafficked route have several other options, among them the inland route through Asahikawa. This would add another day to the trip (Sapporo to Asahikawa and then a day to get from there to Mashike), but it would provide numerous benefits: the chance to Hokkaido's "other" major city, basically an overgrown mountain town; another Ainu settlement; a bicycle path (along an old railway line) leading to it; and a very nice (if hilly) route through Fukagawa and Rumoi). Another option would be to skip Mashike entirely and go all the way inland through Furano and Biei, with some of Hokkaido's most popular scenery, veering back to the coast just before Saronbetsu. If you aren't averse to heading even further inland, you could also stop at the famous moutain town of Sounkyo and take a lift up to the 2,000-meter mark, a land of alpine beauty and perpetual snow (as you can see in the photo here, taken in August!). However, this takes you so far east that it would probably fit better with the Hokkaido route that goes from Hakodate to Shiretoko.

The downside of all of these inland routes: the only way to get from Sapporo to Asahikawa is a major road with few if any detour possibilities. Still, the 140-odd kilometers there would probably be preferable to cycling the same distance along the narrow, truck-and-tunnel coastal road to Mashike... and you can always do the Sapporo - Asahikawa section by train (as I did). Completists will want to make a loop: up to Wakkanai on the coastal road (so as to be on the ocean side) and then down through the mountainous center back to Sapporo.

- If you’ve made your way back to Sapporo or Hakodate, the most logical destination would be to simply hop across the straits from Hokkaido to Honshu and begin exploring Aomori - either by going down one of the coasts or heading straight down through the center (the route I would recommend if you can stand some hills). Among the sights: the beautiful Oirase river valley, shown here. See the Tohoku section on this site for information on this route.

- Finally, if you can't bear to come this close to Russia without seeing what it's like, you might consider a trip to Sakhalin. The trip takes seven and a half hours (daily ferries leave at 10 a.m. and arrive at 5:30 p.m.), but the trip is likely to take you much longer to arrange; as one web site on the subject says, "getting Russian visas in Japan (in 2001) is not easy or cheap." Apparently the reason is that the lack of a set itinerary means you need a business visa, which means you need a letter of introduction from an officially recognized company, which will cost you a certain amount over the fee you pay for the visa itself. The visa processing takes at least a week, and even then you'll pay around $200 for such speedy service. There is a Russian consulate in Sapporo; the consulate in Niigata supposedly accepts applications by mail. You would be advised to arrange the visa well in advance. One final note: although this may be obvious, the ferry runs only during the warmer months (May through September).

There don't appear to be any ferries from Hokkaido to other parts of Russia; the Vladivostok ferry departs from Takaoka (near Toyama) on Honshu.

Aside: strictly speaking, this photo is not directly related to cycling, but I bought the beer in Wakkanai. It's authentic Russian beer, and surely the only beer in the world to hint at its taste by putting an oil rig right on the can... (Just joking; it’s your average inexpensive lager - and Russia does make some fine ale type beers as well.)

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