I’d spun Hokkaido into some kind of cycling nirvana. A Shangri-La of sorts where a smooth ribbon of road cut through the countryside. A bike tourist’s Eden of tailwinds and temperate weather. A utopia of sane drivers, safe roads and stunning landscape.
Reality was quite a bit less pleasant. Hokkaido’s famed for its host of high mountains, plethora of national parks and continental climate. Since the rest of Japan suffers muggy summers of energy-sapping heat and humidity, those who can flock to the country’s northernmost island to chill out. Hokkaido is known as a wild place, the last frontier if you will. A place where bears roam free and crafty foxes sneak up on unsuspecting campers. Hokkaido is to Japan what Alaska is to America.
Rolling off the ferry in Hokkaido’s southern port city of Hokodate I half expected to pedal into pristine wilderness. But no. Perhaps further afield I’d be surprised by a bear or two. In Hokodate the usual convenience stores stand guard on every corner (7—11 with its free 7-spot WIFI is my favorite) and dreary housing blocks and strip malls line the streets. My heart sunk. By the time we hustled it out of town, a light drizzle began to fall. The world seemed very gray.
Soon night fell and we’d yet to find a suitable spot to camp. I’d proposed an empty field behind a Lawson’s convenience store, but Eric had shot down that idea. “Too rocky,” he insisted, “It’ll wreck the tent, plus there’s bound to be a lot of rain tonight and we should try to find cover.”
I acquiesced (as usual) and we pedaled on into the night, moods souring and stomachs rumbling.
I’d grown weary of shoestring touring in one of the world’s most expensive countries. It was true that Japan is one of the world’s easiest places to wild camp. Unless you’re chopping down trees to start a camp fire or stripping down naked to bathe in the buff you and your tent will be ignored. You can pitch up in public parks and on busy beaches, even smack dab in the middle of town. But when it’s been raining for weeks on end, camping quickly loses its appeal. .
In the end, we camped next to an abandoned warehouse. The spot had little to recommend it. Noise from a nearby road meant we slept fitfully. A little after 4AM we woke to more drizzle which soon intensified into a full-on deluge.
Hokkaido was no nirvana. At least not for us.
Bicycle touring is no different than ‘real life.‘ The road has its ups and downs and Japan has been pretty bleak. That’s OK. Today I tap away on the computer as a beautiful day unfolds beyond the window. Part of me says I ought to be out enjoying the fine weather. But honestly, I’m content inside. A few days of calm with a roof over our heads (thanks to our Warm Showers hosts Andy and Clare) is exactly what we need.