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No.49 – Japan – I love Hokkaido

Sep 19, 2015 | Asia, Blog, Japan

Unfortunately, the rain just keeps coming down and it has been raining every day. Actually, I’m cycling continuously in wet clothes, but at 30 degrees Celsius it is never really cold.

Every night I attempt to find a dry place for my tent because I really don’t like packing up
a tent when it is totally wet, and I also don’t like listening to the noise the rain makes all
night long on the roof of my tent.

So, tonight I sneaked into an underground car park even though I wasn’t so sure that it
was such a good idea. As I was looking for a suitable place, I had a good laugh because
a Japanese cyclist was already camping there.

In Japan, my old way of life has crept back again. I get up late and go late to bed. The country is so safe, even at night, that I can always find a place to pitch my tent without any difficulties. Actually I haven’t set up my tent in the daylight for weeks.

The places I find are not particularly beautiful, but at least they are dry.

In the remote areas here, contrary to myself, the Japanese tend to live in accordance with the rhythm of the sun. They get up early and go extremely early to bed. Once it gets dark, the sidewalks are folded up, sometimes as early as seven o’clock in the evening.

Several times I cycled past a hiker and when I saw him the third time, I asked myself why he was walking along the street and why he was walking so fast. So I spoke to him and was surprised that he could speak English.

I have forgotten his name, and I wasn’t allowed to take a picture of him, but our meeting occupied my thoughts for a while. I should say up front that he was the most interesting person I had met in a long time.

He had been hiking for 3 years. Every day, he hikes 40 km along the roads through Japan. Previously, he spent three years in a monastery in Myanmar, and before that, he spent a long time in India.

His daily budget is 300 yen (about 2.30 euros), which he wants to reduce to 200 yen next year. His gear is really old. He sleeps on an ultrathin mat, no tent, no luxury. He glued extra rubber to the bottom of his shoes to allow the soles to last longer.

His backpack is an old aluminum frame backpack and is repaired with tape on every corner. He was complaining about knee pain.

He never takes a break, stays out of the way of other people, he likes to suffer. He has no friends and no family; he always sleeps somewhere out-of-the-way, mostly in shrines. He doesn’t cook, and he eats the same thing every day – dry oats and toast, which he smears with soybean paste – 3 slices, 3 times a day.
He is about 65 years old and thin.

Now, you might think that he is some kind of an oddball, but I got along quite well with him. We laughed heartily and went shopping together. He told me how he eats and where you can get the cheapest food and even something for free if necessary.

“Germans never go through a red light,” he said to me and I had to think about a conversation I had had with another German. We were amused about the Japanese because they would never think about crossing the street against a red light even if it were placed in an odd location, whereas, if not placed correctly, a lot of Germans would simply ignore it.

I grinned when he began discussing that issue as we were heading toward a red light. And indeed, he ran through it – he was the only Japanese I had ever seen who did that.

He grinned like a rascal and I only said “but we Germans do that too”, whereupon he said, “What? Really? That cannot be! You Germans are always so correct! “

Sometimes it is quite funny how people think about the citizens of other countries.

Fog now hung low over the coast. Undulating or steep roads. The dense forest continued.

There was no traffic, and despite the wet weather, I felt really great. I love this country. It is easy to travel in and it is wonderfully beautiful. It’s just a lot of fun to be underway here. The people are extremely friendly; there is no stress; and it allows me the freedom that I love so much. Although it isn’t filled with exciting adventures, it nevertheless radiates a very great attraction to me.

I met Catherine and Dan, two Canadians. Catherine teaches English at a university and
the two invited me to their home in Kushiro. For 3 days I had a roof over my head. It was
very pleasant to spend time with such a totally likeable couple.

Bath, laundry, chill out, muesli and to be able to carry on a real conversation.

The water in a bathtub is not changed every time you take a bath, but instead, you wash
yourself outside of the tub and then get into the preheated water. An electronic lady’s
voice speaks and lets you know as soon as the water has reached the desired temperature.

Catherine took me to a tea ceremony. Or rather, it was an introduction to the tea ceremony. An older, very funny, vivacious lady mediated the course and I felt absolutely welcome. The highest-ranking guest, in this case, Catherine, sat first in the row while everyone else followed. I sat in second place.

Tea powder was foamed with a whisk and was extremely bitter in taste.

The ceremony, isn’t really about the actual tea, but much more about the ritual itself.

The host talks only with the highest ranking person – small talk. The processes are always the same. The porcelain is admired and always rotates in the same direction; we said thank you umpteen times; we would bow, honor the others, make compliments about the tea, and so on.

It was a very formal, stuffy, extremely stiff event with a lot of consideration of the others. I found it incredibly interesting even though it took place in a classroom. Because of that, it didn’t really have the right flair.

From Kushiro, I drove inland. Beautiful, endless, dense forest continued to accompany me.
Hokkaido is a place that you truly have to find great. The island is charming and a real
cycler’s paradise. There is little traffic and you continually meet nice, educated people.

Japan is the land of tunnels. There is really one at every turn. But mostly they are pleasant, because for cyclists tunnels are normally frightening. Often there are separate sidewalks that are so wide that you can ride a bicycle on them. Also the ventilation system is very good. I have not yet experienced a tunnel where I thought I would be asphyxiated.

Akan National Park is attractive because of its crater lakes. On every corner there are Onsen, campers and great vistas. From then on I didn’t meet any more cyclists.

The coast was behind me and apparently most of the cyclists found the mountains to be too strenuous.

I don’t know how the parents here in Japan are able to educate their children to be like
they are, but it becomes very evident that the children are extremely considerate to the
older generation.

I was walking down a narrow corridor in a supermarket with several items in my hands.
A shopping cart was in the way and a girl, approximately 8 years old, recognized the
situation immediately, came up to me and pushed the cart to the side. Wow, that really
impressed me. Although I don’t really know how I should interpret that.

Also, the children are not loud here nor do they tug at their parents if things don’t go the way they like.

The children are very shy and some are even afraid of me. For some, it really looks as if they have never seen a foreigner before. That could very likely be the case in the remote villages. But once the ice is broken, they laugh with me or come curiously but shyly up to me.

In Hokkaido, there are very few foreigners to be seen. There are no immigrants here and the people are not accustomed to strangers. There are no Italian restaurants here nor is there an Indian place on the corner. There are no Chinese or Turkish niches where you can get a kebab. No, there are only Japanese here.

Even the adults are very shy. The teenagers attempt to understand me when I ask something, but I realize how much I bring them out of composure, solely because of my presence and the fact that they now have to speak English. They are simply totally overwhelmed. Despite everything, they are very very polite and helpful.

Altitude, altitude and more altitude – up and down and no end in sight of the mountains.
But, for all of this, the views are strikingly beautiful.

The food isn’t bad. Sushi is one of my favorite, but here in the outermost regions, I must say that I find the food somehow boring. It is very mildly flavored here.

There are Ramen, noodle soups in all different variations, which are also really tasty. But somehow they are always just noodle soups. Then there is udon, thick noodles – another variation of the noodle soup. There is food on a spit and baked tempura – vegetables or fish in coating and baked in fat, something that I don’t like. And there is curry with rice – a thick curry sauce with a few chunks of beef.

Actually, I also cook noodle soup often. Miso (soybean paste) with noodles, bean sprouts, mushrooms and tofu – a very inexpensive dish. It is healthy but not really exciting.
But easy and quick.

So I’m a bit disappointed with the cuisine. I was expecting more. Unlike in other corners of Asia, there are no food stalls along the side of the road; instead there are small restaurants.

You can eat lunch here for about 5 Euros, which is something that I don’t do very often. It is also difficult to find places to eat. To my great surprise, people are allowed to smoke in restaurants.

In addition, the Japanese slurp, which I didn’t expect. It doesn’t bother me, but somehow it just doesn’t fit to the otherwise nice, well-behaved, extremely shy people, when you observe them from the perspective of a Westerner.

What I also noticed that it is not so tidy in some areas, for example in garages or front lawns.
It sometimes looks a bit messy. I guess people are just people and maybe not so perfect and
super clean and tidy as you hear about or might expect them to be.

I camped just outside the fence of a sewage plant. And I thought this would be no problem.

In the morning a man came to my tent. He was already in a bent position and sneaked very slowly and quietly towards me. He first bowed politely and then quietly began to speak to me. Although I didn’t understand a word, it was clear that I should pack up and leave.

He was so friendly that I would never have contradicted him, and that’s what impresses me so extremely in Japan. One might think from our point of view, the behavior is really silly.

But it is also very pleasant and constructive. The man honored me even though I had done something wrong. He achieved more in his nice manner than someone who would have bitched at me causing me to respond defensively.

Despite everything, it is still difficult for me to respond to the continuous bowing. I am simply reluctant to bow dozens of times to someone who receives my money at the 7-Eleven.

The relaxed atmosphere is missing in the country and that is, of course, somewhat exhausting in the long run. Not for me, but certainly for the Japanese themselves.

Also I have observed that the Japanese are so used to being king in the shops that they no longer appreciate how nicely they are treated.

Something which I find to be a real pity.

One thing is certain, Japan, or shall we say Hokkaido, has the best customer service I’ve ever experienced anywhere in the 85 countries I’ve visited.

In some supermarkets, the cashiers speak the name of each and every product they  put into the customers plastic bag. Sometimes I think though that it is just a little bit too much of a good thing and that it causes the staff to be stressed, and the customer almost never reacts to it anyway.

I camped on a lawn next to a visitor center and woke up in the morning, once again in the
middle of ants.  With horror I realized that they had come through the tent floor and
had eaten 11 holes in my brand new tent.

They were also in the panniers. How they got in there, I have no idea.

The same morning, I cooked my last portion of Soba (buckwheat noodles) that I had
in my panniers. I accidentally bumped the stove and the pot tipped over and all the
noodles came out and stuck on the tarmac. I was hungry as a bear because I had
cycled uphill endless meters of altitude the day before and still had plenty of kilometers
to ascend. Unfortunately, it was a sunday and all the shops in the village were closed.

At an Onsen, I asked about some food and received some cooked rice free of charge,
which was enough to get me to the next small restaurant by the end of the day.

Eventually, I ended up on the coast again and continued to admire the wonderful landscape.

After 7 weeks and 2250 kilometers, it was eventually time to leave the island and to continue
on to Honshu, the main island of Japan.

Many people had already told me that Hokkaido was not really Japan and that in Honshu
many things would change. So I’m curious to see what it will be like.

One thing is clear, Hokkaido was sensational.

See you again some day.


  1. Hi , beautiful words & images.
    My family are riding our triplet tandem in hokkaido in 2 weeks time; do you have any flat routes you like ?

    It’s going to be fun on the triplet tandem!

    • Thank you Sally,

      the coastal roads are mainly flat – once you enter in the interior there are many hills.
      Enjoy Cheers Heike


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  1. Hi , beautiful words & images.
    My family are riding our triplet tandem in hokkaido in 2 weeks time; do you have any flat routes you like ?

    It’s going to be fun on the triplet tandem!

    • Thank you Sally,

      the coastal roads are mainly flat – once you enter in the interior there are many hills.
      Enjoy Cheers Heike


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Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


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