Getting There

Face it: getting to Hokkaido will cost you - either in terms of time (if you go by ferry) or in terms of money (if you go by any other way), or more likely both. The ferry is, of course, the legendary Shin-Nihonkai Ferry (the name means "new Sea of Japan ferry") that takes one and a half days but gets you all the way from either Niigata or Maizuru (north of Osaka) to Otaru on Hokkaido for the incredible price of 9000 yen (plus around 1800 for even a bagged bike). It's slightly more if you go from Tsuruga, which in some cases would be more convenient in terms of train connections to and from Kansai. Your fare gets you a narrow space in steerage (very clean, of course) in which to sleep, a blanket (often not really necessary on the nice new climate-controlled ferries) and a hard square pillow. I think I got a bit more space by dozing in the observation deck. The astonishingly low price tag is offset by the time it takes to get there - more than two full days, one way, as opposed to two hours if you fly. Unless you can get a cheap round-trip fare, you might consider flying up and ferrying back - bring lots of reading matter (they also show videos continuously during the voyage, as I recall), and be sure to take lots of things to eat and drink if you don't want to be held hostage by the expensive cafeteria food prices on-board. This ferry is absolutely mobbed with student (many of them motorcyclists) and other tourists in summer; reservations are an absolute necessity at peak times, particularly if your dates are inflexible.

Another Shin-Nihonkai ferry route operates four days a week and goes from Tsuruga not to Otaru but to Tomakomai (on the coast far south of Sapporo) for virtually the same price and travel time. Further south, ferries go between Aomori and Hakodate and between Hachinohe (a bit further down the east coast of Honshu) and Muroran.

By train, things are more flexible but much more expensive. The spectacular engineering feat that is the undersea Seikan Tunnel means that Hakodate on Hokkaido is only two hours away from Aomori on Honshu by train. During the tourist seasons, tokkyu express trains depart from Tokyo's Ueno Station, for example, at 7 p.m. and arrive at Hakodate around 7 the next morning. Some go on to Sapporo, arriving about five hours later. Fares including express fees will be around 22,000 yen... one way. Note that shinkansen fare from Ueno to parts north, and even sleeper fare (a whopping 9450 yen on one option I checked out) doesn't seem to increase the fare much past that; on that option, the total fare was 28,000 yen. Still, for a one-way fare, this is very, very expensive; considering the time involved; it makes MUCH more sense to fly.

Alas, there do not appear to be any long distance bus routes linking Hokkaido with any other island.

Plane is certainly the most convenient option, but it can cost you BIGTIME. The first time I flew to Hokkaido, the total fare came to a whopping 70,000 yen to go from Osaka's Itami Airport to Sapporo (Chitose Airport) and then return from Wakkanai to Kansai International Airport (luckily, a film production company was footing the bill). That's two destinations and two airports; going to and from from a single destination will reduce your expenses, and these days there are special online ticket deals out there. Also note that JAL only requires 15,000 frequent flyer miles to grant you a round-trip ticket anywhere within in Japan (and they will now carry bagged bikes under 15 kg for free!). Check with a good travel agent. Wrap the bike carefully (if you ask them, they'll put bubble wrap around it and take scrupulous care not to hit it on the delicate derailleur section or whatever other places you specify).

If you're starting out from Wakkanai, note that it will cost you even more to get way up there. Many people who visit this far north in Hokkaido either bite the bullet and fly or save up their time and take an extended trip to justify the cost. My ultimate advice on travel to Hokkaido: save up your frequent flyer miles (and make sure you can use them for domestic flights within Japan).


Hokkaido has more than its share of youth hostels, and naturally there are minshuku, kokumin shukusha, ryokan (often with hot springs) and hotels as well. But in Hokkaido we would be derelict if we didn't give star billing to a unique, almost exclusively Hokkaido institution: Toho-yado. Toho yado are described in detail in the Route Planning section; basically, they have elements of both youth hostels and minshuku - but even friendlier, and with better food (although many youth hostels have gotten much better in that respect). Every one that I've stayed at managed to combine the camaraderie of a youth hostel (without the often-rigid rules and Spartan facilities) and the excellent meals and homey atmosphere of a minshuku (though usually you sleep in a room with other people as in a youth hostel). Since almost all Toho-yado are located in Hokkaido, you can often plan your route to hop from one to another, using youth hostels or other accommodations as the need arises. I highly recommend this way of doing things. The English info page for the Toho association is at ...but there is far more information on the Japanese page at . [Click the top item in the third group of items just to the left of the book cover - it says "kaku yado no goannnai" in Japanese. That will bring up the maps.]

There are two other major types of accommodation that can be recommended for Hokkaido in particular. One is, like Toho-yado, virtually an only-in-Hokkaido institution: the "Rider House." These are cheapo accommodations (often just simple sheds) designed as bare-bones crash pads for roving motorcyclists. You get a blanket and that's about it; usually no meals are available, and the houses are often WAY out in the boonies. Luckily, prices are unbelievably cheap - one female rider I met in Hokkaido said that a rider house had charged her about 600 yen, not for one night but for any amount of nights - the duration of her stay. Bicyclists seem to be quite welcome at these places, so keep them in mind as an option. Rider Houses spring up like wildflowers during the warm months and then vanish as soon as the weather gets cold. The "Mapple Touring" guides for motorcycle riders list at least some of the "Rider Houses" right on the map (so get a current one). On the net, check out the site, which has a map showing general areas; clicking on the areas brings up not a more detailed map (alas) but a table in Japanese showing addresses, telephone numbers, fees and even check-in times and the dates that the house is open. The address is:

Otherwise, ask around and/or look for signs that say:

The other major way to do Hokkaido may be the best of all: by campsite. Many of Hokkaido's campsites are simply wonderful: naturally many are located in lovely locations, some are free, and often there are free hot springs at or near them. Unless you love chilly weather, however, this option is really only for Hokkaido's brief summer - and even then, things can get very cold at night; be sure you are prepared for cold weather. On my first cycle trip to Hokkaido, it was unseasonably cool, and many people who had come intending to camp were mailing their tents and sleeping bags home and trying to get into youth hostels. (On my most recent trip to Hokkaido, by contrast, it was unseasonably hot!)

Bear in mind that camping will involve carrying at least a tent and sleeping bag with you on the bike (and an insulating bedroll really helps to protect you from the cold ground). You'll have to decide for yourself whether the extra weight and bulk are worth it. Unlike the Japan Alps, though, Hokkaido has few really high mountain roads, though the distances from point to point can be more than you're used to on the other Japanese islands. On the net, check out the following English site:

... or else buy a guide to campsites; there are several (all in Japanese, unfortunately) - one is listed in the Accommodations section.

If you do camp, remember something every Japanese seems to know but few foreigners do: DON'T drink the water from streams, anywhere in Hokkaido or Tohoku. The reason is that the water may contain fox feces, which can include a parasite that causes serious health problems if ingested.


Many of the sights are covered in the Story section, but here are some random notes:


The Clock Tower (tokei-dai) is far and away the most famous Sapporo spot for Japanese tourists, but you'll probably be disappointed, or at least surprised at how tiny it is (but supposedly it's been running continuously for over a century.) Drown your sorrows at the Sapporo Beer Garden, on the site of Japan's first brewery; naturally, they give tours. And by all means don't forget the ramen; Sapporo ramen is justly famous in Japan; many shops are congregated in Tanuki-koji and Susukino districts. Some locals I talked to were dismissive of the special ramen that includes corn and milk (both Hokkaido specialties), saying it's just for tourists, but I found it absolutely delicious.

A visit to the Hokudai Shokubutsuen captures two birds with one stone: a huge area displaying much of Hokkaido's flora, and a small Ainu museum.

Sapporo's major event is ironically in the one month that you probably won't be doing any cycling. The "Yuki Matsuri" (snow festival) in February is well worth a visit, but unless you're on a LONG trip you'll probably want to make it a separate trip from the cycling one.


I stand by my initial judgment: a lovely little town, with lots of old wooden buildings and other places to explore. Apart from the huge elementary school complex of wooden buildings and quant public bath covered in the Story section, be sure to check out Japan's northernmost sake brewery; tours are available until 5 p.m. most days. Mashike also has a nice beach. A ways up the coast is the old Hanada-ya "banya," an impressive wooden building that served as a accommodation for temporary workers in the herring industry that once thrived along this coast.


Located between Mashike and the Sarobetsu-Genya, this town also has a nice beach and a nearby onsen (Onishika Onsen) and the Nishin Banya, another old herring industry building. Boats go out to the two isolated islands offshore (Teuri-to and Yagishiri-to), about 90 minutes one way. You can rent bicycles there (but you'll probably have brought your own). These islands reportedly have the clearest water in the entire Japan Sea, which is amazing since the ocean off Sado's isolated coasts seems about as clear as you can get...


Lots of great cycling in a unique atmosphere for Japan. Supposedly you can camp on the coast at Wakaskanai Kaigan. If weather permits, I recommend a leisurely stay here.


Nearby Soya-misaki, Japan's northernmost point, is the major attraction, but the park on the hill is also famous, with views of Sakhalin (on a good day) and monuments to Russo-Japanese War and the training associated with Japan's Antarctic expedition. Near Wakkanai is Japan's northernmost onsen (hot springs).

The Wakkanai Minato Matsuri, including the dogsled races shown in the Story section, is in early August.


... is covered pretty well in the text. Climb the mountain. There's also an onsen (Risshiri-Fuji Onsen) a short distance from Oshidomari on the way to the trail head.


The attraction here is walking, not cycling; in the right season (May through summer), I recommend going on one of the walking tour routes to see wildflowers and other flora that can only be found here. Nature walks seem to be staggeringly popular with Japanese women in particular and the main reason most tourists come here. The most famous takes eight hours and covers the entire island north - south. As noted above, they'll probably warn you not to drink the water from streams; spring water should be OK.

Among travelers, Rebun is also famous for one of Japan's most "unique" youth hostels: Momoiwa-so YH. This is the kind they don't make any more: full of crazy young staff with boundless enthusiasm and way, way too much energy; you will be hard pressed to refuse participation in the myriad activities. If you have only one night here, choose the saner option, Seikanso, the Toho-yado at the northern tip of the island... but if possible, I recommend spending two nights and making the first one at Momoiwa-so (so you can rest up from all the craziness at the Toho-yado the next night); add another day if you’re going to do any hiking. Every budget traveler should stay at Momoiwa-so once, just to see an example of the old-time YH experience, preserved here as if in a time capsule. You'll see the Momoiwa crew as soon as the ferry docks, waving banners and calling out "Okaerinasai!" ("Welcome home!")

Getting Away

The "Getting There" section in reverse, depending on where you started from. Getaway options will also depend on whether you intend to extend your trip. A few possible options:

Trains: The same tokkyu express trains mentioned in the "Getting There" section leave Hakodate at 8 - 11 p.m. (and some depart Sapporo some five hours before that) and arrive at Tokyo's Ueno station at 9 - 11 a.m. Note that these are very seasonal; check your specific dates with a travel agent.

Ferries: If you train back as far as Sapporo (or nearby Otaru), then you can take the aforementioned Shin-Nihonkai Ferry that takes two days but gets you all the way from Otaru to either Niigata or Maizuru (north of Osaka) for the incredible price of 7000 yen (plus around 1800 for even a bagged bike). See "Getting There" above for more information on this and other ferries. Reservations are a MUST at peak times.

Buses: Long-distance buses link Wakkanai/Soya-misaki with Sapporo; there are about five a day and the cost is 5500 yen. Both day and overnight buses link Sapporo with Kushiro (6 1/2 hours) and Hakodate (5 hours). Due to the distances involved, though, there appear to be no buses that link Hokkaido with any destinations on Honshu. The closest you can get is Aomori to Tokyo or Sendai to Nagoya/Osaka.

Plane is, of course, always available, and in many cases this will make the most sense given the distances involved. Be sure to look for cheap deals on the net.

For other possible getaway destinations, see Alternatives.

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