Despite an extreme language barrier, riding on the islands of Japan is second to none and easily achieved.
Story and Photos by Shaun Hellmich
In September 2018, I travelled to Japan for a four-week adventure vacation. It began with several days necessary to explore the wonders of Tokyo by enjoying river cruises, a sumo wrestling tournament, a Japanese sword museum, Japan’s natural history museum, bicycle touring and the Tsukiji fish market (world’s largest fish market). I also enjoyed views from the 350- and 450 metre-high observation decks of the Tokyo Skytree (tallest tower in the world) and, of course, heaps of Japanese cuisine. Then I was off to Mount Fuji to climb its slopes and experience the famously spiritual Fuji sunrise at 3,776 metres above sea level. After resting for some days in the exquisite Five Lakes District, I took Japan’s Super Shinkansen (a.k.a. bullet train) at 320 km/h far to the north to Hokkaido Island. After enjoying the sites of the city of Sapporo, I embarked on my 10-day, 1,800 km motorcycle trip on Hokkaido.
As with any real adventure, the beginning of my Hokkaido trip was strife with uncertainties. On Sept. 6 – the day I left Canada for Japan – Hokkaido Island experienced a damaging earthquake measuring 6.6 on the moment magnitude scale that left significant infrastructure damage and, sadly, some loss of life. In addition to that, on the first day of my travels, I had no camping gear or road map and I was awoken at 2 a.m. by an earthquake shaking Sapporo.
Any level of adventurer must have good problem-solving skills. The necessary camping gear was located at a second-hand shop outside Sapporo; $180 later, I had my sleeping pad, sleeping bag and a tent. The road map ended up being optional, as cell service is exceptional in Japan and my phone would suffice as my map source at the start of my trip. As for the earthquake damage: never underestimate the resourcefulness and hardworking attitude of the Japanese. Their culture is defined by the endless potential of natural disasters from tsunamis, earthquakes and typhoons; therefore, they are well equipped to set things to rights quickly after experiencing Mother Nature’s fury.
Having a Plan in Place
I was pleased to find out that camping on less populated Hokkaido (relative to the main island of Honshu, where Tokyo is located) was easily done and with little hassle. After introductions and paperwork at Rental819, I picked up my Honda 400X, loaded my gear and rolled out. I was travelling light with only a 32-litre backpack and the smallest of camping gear strapped under a cargo net. My overall plan was to circumnavigate Hokkaido while hitting various sections of coastline, take the ferry to Rishiri Island, visit a few volcanic national parks, explore the Shiretoko Peninsula, fish for salmon in the Churui River and do some scenic mountain hiking.
September in Hokkaido is much like September in Canada: comfortable days in the 20ºC range, nights are cool, the summer rush is over, kids are back in school and the sights are not busy, which means planning ahead is not necessary.
My first few hours on the road were nerve-racking, but slowly I got comfortable on my 400X and began to understand Japan’s road markings and signage and ease into riding on the left-hand side of the road. Thank goodness most major road signs are in both Japanese and English. Heading in a northwesterly direction toward Rishiri Island, my first night was spent at a free oceanside campsite at Ogon Misaki.
Nothing Like a Good Ferry Ride
Travel information signs in the city of Wakkanai are displayed in Japanese, English and Russian. This is a stark reminder that at this far northwest point of the Japan Archipelago, the Russian island of Sakhalin is but a mere 43 km away and the Russian mainland is roughly 300 km away.
As I live on Vancouver Island, I am used to ferries as a means to travel and commute. Heartland Ferry services Rishiri and Rebun islands for locals and tourists alike. As we left the shelter of the harbour and entered open water, we experienced four- to five-metre swells that rolled and pitched the 95-metre vessel.
Passengers all over the ship were vomiting and grasping onto railings. I was so preoccupied with the excitement of the seas and massive waves pounding the ship that my stomach didn’t have a moment to turn over.
Rishiri Island is a hidden gem off the northwest tip of Hokkaido. Touring around the small island was exceptional, with mountains to view on one side and endless ocean views on the other. The island is composed of one ancient dormant stratovolcano in the centre. The 1,721-metre high summit of Mount Rishiri is visible from everywhere on the island.
On my second day on the island, I committed myself to reaching the summit of Mount Rishiri. I took the more direct trail on the western slope, which is more exposed and not recommended for inexperienced hikers or those who hike infrequently. The summit is freezing cold, with strong wind gusts and swirling clouds. I hiked and scrambled for almost 11 hours, returning to the base at dusk. I didn’t see another hiker during the entire day. Back at camp, I crossed the road to Rishirifuji Onsen. Here, for the first time in my life, I bathed, steamed and relaxed nude in the one of thousands of indoor and outdoor onsens throughout Japan.
Prior to departing Rishiri Island, I found a paper road map for Hokkaido Island while at the ferry terminal’s visitor centre. After a smooth ferry ride back to Hokkaido Island, I took a break at the monument that marks the northernmost point in Japan, where I spotted an old friend: a KTM 990 Adventure, an older version than my own 2013 KTM 990 Baja, but I was very excited to see my beloved KTM Japanese-style.
The views were breathtaking as I made my way in a southeasterly direction down the coast. I passed through dozens of small towns, kilometre after kilometre of concrete breakwalls built to withstand the constant pounding from the ocean. When you travel a lot, you develop an eye for the interesting. At one point, I quickly veered off the highway and into a working harbour area. There I found a group of men unloading fresh chum salmon for market. In addition, all along of the Hokkaido coastline I saw seaweed being unloaded and dried for market.
Stopping for fuel can be quite an experience in Japan. The Japanese are very polite – I had attendants who thanked me for choosing their fuel station and bowed and waved as I rode away. Not all convenience stores are the same – 7-Eleven stores in Japan have everything a hungry traveller needs, and aren’t like their North American counterparts. The stores in Japan are full of premade healthy meals, fruit, vegetables, baked goods, beer, spirits and more.
I love Japanese food. I grew up in Vancouver, so I was blessed with so much authentic Japanese cuisine. For me, on this trip, eating Japanese food everyday was nothing short of pure bliss. I never got bored of raw eggs with soy sauce at breakfast or sashimi, or miso ramen soup. I was surprised to discover that Japanese beer is exceptional; Japan has a fascinating brewing history, evidence of which I experienced firsthand at the Sapporo Brewery in Sapporo. I was also shocked to see Japanese celebrating Oktoberfest and singing classic German beerfest songs. This made a bit more sense once I discovered that Sapporo is Japan’s sister city to Munich, Germany.
Most of my motorcycle trip was along the coast of Hokkaido – and why not? The oceanside riding is legendary. However, I ventured inland for three days and had an incredible ride up and around three beautiful caldera lakes: Lake Kussharo, Lake Mashu and, later, Lake Shikotsu. These lakes remind me of Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park. As I headed north and back to the coast, my destination was the remote and rugged Shiretoko Peninsula.
This region is well known for Ussuri brown bears, but the real treasure for me here was the salmon. Only in this northeast region of Hokkaido do some rivers team with pink and chum salmon. Oddly enough, chum salmon are the sought-after catch in Japan; in British Columbia, chum salmon are considered great fighters but usually good only for smoking.
The highway up, over and down the Shiretoko Peninsula is as good as any of the great roads I’ve ridden in New Zealand, Australia, Europe, Canada and United States. The turns and vistas were amazing as I crossed over a high pass. On the eastern side, I camped for the night at Rausu-onsen Campground. Before the evening was over, I rode northward to the very end of the peninsula and found an unnamed creek one to two metres wide full of pink salmon fighting to spawn.
That night under the stars, I walked down a poorly lit trail to my first rustic outdoor onsen. There I bathed and soaked with a group of Japanese men, none of whom spoke English. They laughed at me when I yelped – the water must have been almost 50ºC in some spots. The men soon stopped staring at me and accepted me into the rocky pool and I enjoyed looking at the stars and listening to conversations that I couldn’t understand.
Time to Fish
Heading southward the next day, I had one purpose: salmon fishing in the Churui River! Before my trip, I had signed up for my Japanese fishing license. Salmon fishing in Japan is heavily controlled and licences are valid only within certain time frames, only on certain rivers and you must register ahead. Now, if I could only find the Churui River fishing headquarters… After some U-turns and some guesswork, I found a flagged gravel road that had neither a name nor signs. At the end of this gravel road was a decrepit trailer at the edge of an open field containing several parked cars. I located the attendant and, after using basic hand communication, she managed to find my name and issue me my license. The water there is clear and the river flow and geography are like many of the rivers back home.
I rented a salmon rod with reel and line for the day. I have every known piece of fishing equipment and tackle back home, so I had brought a very small tackle box precisely packed with exactly what I needed to fish for pink and chum salmon. The other anglers looked at me oddly, like I was out of place; I suspect not many Caucasian travellers stop to fish for salmon in this remote corner of Hokkaido.
After hours of fishing with no success although I saw some salmon, my instincts drew me downstream to the boundary bridge. Things looked much more promising there. Soon I saw a lot of pink salmon – I found a good choke point near the bridge’s piers. Even my Japanese counterparts acknowledged my success with some smiles and nods. When I returned to the licencing shack, the woman indicated she needed some information. I wrote down 11 fish, she let out a “whoa” and gave a thumbs-up to indicate that was a good catch for a day. Japan’s salmon retention quota is curious: the regulations state that you can keep a fish if it’s “sick or tired” – a funny way of determining when to keep or release.
The next day was my rain day. I cannot downplay this; it was an absolute wind-blasting soaker. I tried to pack my gear in the open campground shelter, but the rain was coming down in sheets. I used a large plastic bag to cover my backpack and wore plastic bags over my boots and gloves. In the end, that effort was for naught. Torrential rains hammered me hour after hour for 250 km.
Once out of the storm and just past Hiroo, I took a break and watched a surfing contest while I tried to dry out. Remember that hard to come by paper map? It was soaked and falling to pieces despite being in my jacket’s waterproof pocket.
The ocean cliffs and countless highway tunnels were breathtaking as I continued southward to the Cape of Erimo. I met many wonderful Japanese people on my trip, but, on this night, I met two of my most memorable. Shitoki is a schoolteacher who speaks exceptional English; the second guy was Kazuya, a music-store supervisor riding a custom Harley. We ate sashimi, told stories, laughed at language barriers and drank beer and whisky into the night. I learned that a motorcycle map for Hokkaido exists and is called Touring Mapple. Coincidently, both Kazuya and Shitoki were heading west so we rode together all the next day.
On the shores of Lake Shikotsu in the Shikotsu-Toya National Park, I set up camp for my final night. And like on days before in Sapporo, a short tremor shook the region. The following morning, I hiked up to Mount Tarumae – an active stratovolcano. From the crater rim, I watched gases spew into the sky. The winds must have been 100 km/h up there, yet they were calm only 300 metres lower. I completed my trip by riding through the national park’s mountains and back to Chitose and the Rental819 shop.
Japan’s culture is interesting, old and complicated. Japan is full of both modern and ancient beauty, which offers so much variety to any kind of traveller. The Japanese people were endlessly curious about where I was from, where I was going and how I could navigate with no Japanese language skills or guide. I recommend that anyone consider Hokkaido if they are looking for an exotic international motorcycle trip. You won’t be disappointed.