PREAMBLEI had arrived in Mukawa Town the night before on the train. This involved packing up my bike up into my home-made stretchy mesh bike bag, and putting it on the train. Technically, to bring a bike onto a train in Japan, it needs to be completely covered by the bike bag. I pushed the limits of the Shiroishi JR Train Station officials’ good nature by leaving my rear drybag on the bike, as well as leaving the seat sticking up out of the bag. With some consternation from the guards, they let me though, “just this one time”.
The trip from Sapporo involved a transfer at Tomakomai to a tiny two-carriage ‘oneman’ local train. These hopelessly nostalgic museums on wheels are always a treat to ride in. Retro square carriages with rounded corners, and thoroughly 70’s decor inside. After getting off the train in Mukawa – the end of the line due to seemingly permanent typhoon damage to the train line further afield – I put the bike together on the platform. It was already getting dark by the time I arrived at the Mukawa michi-no-eki and onsen (Google Maps). After letting the staff know, I pitched my tent on the grass area next to the cycle stands. A few other travelers on motorcycles did the same. Seemed like a popular spot.
I had just finished my post-dinner onsen when I bumped into Tom the American, member #2 of what would eventually become a 3-person team on this trip. He’d taken the late bus from Sapporo, and had just arrived. We both retired early to our tents (well, Tom to his tarp) to get some sleep.
DAY 1 GETS UNDERWAY
Tom and I got away from the michi-no-eki by around 7:30am, and headed straight for the local Seikomart convenience store. By my reckoning, I figured we wouldn’t have anywhere else to stock up for at least a few days. Tom was going the no-cook route, buying up at least half a week’s worth of onigiri rice balls. “They’ll keep at least a week,” he declared confidently. I stuck to the drygoods, as I had my trusty Trangia stove.
From Mukawa Town it was about 15km of paved road before we hit dirt for a couple of well-kept gravel shortcuts directly north.
It was a fair amount of up and down to get to Atsuma Dam, but it was mostly gravel with short sections of connecting pavement. Here and there we had to stop for deer-fence gates across roads. These are to protect farmland from the wild deer epidemic in Hokkaido. Overall so far so good – the Trans-Hokkaido Bikepacking Route was getting off to a good start.
Approaching Atsuma Dam, we had to make a minor adjustment to our original planned route. It appears a new dam is going in downstream from the old Atsuma Dam, so we weren’t able to take the lower gravel marked roads up to the Atsuma Dam. Instead, we were on brand new still-closed-to-traffic pavement. Perfection.
From just beyond Atsuma Dam (here) on the gravel road skirting the northern side of the dam, the road is closed to general traffic. We carried on along this very disused looking road, already feeling quite alone. From here on for the next four hours, we’d not see anything but deer.
About four yeas ago, Haidee and I had planned to cycle this stretch of forestry road – the Atsuma-tanko Forestry road (厚真炭鉱林道) – from the other direction, starting at the Hobetsu Campground. Even then, four years ago, an old guy at the Hobetsu Campground had warned us about a bridge that was missing. He couldn’t give us any details about the bridge or what it had originally spanned, but I was optimistic that it was probably just a small stream. Surely we’d only have to scramble down a slope, cross the stream, and then just scramble up the other side.
Much sooner than I had anticipated, however, we came across the bridge (or lack thereof). My heart sunk, along with any illusions that we’d get across by any other means but swimming.
We toyed with the idea of skirting around the lake-edge, but the water was right up against the steep banks. There was no way of telling how far the inlet went upstream. Swimming would have been the only option had it not been for the Japan topo maps I had downloaded onto my AlpineQuest app (see our lowdown on apps for displaying Japan topographical maps here) before getting out of mobile reception range. I spied a dotted line indicating a 4WD track looping far up into the hills, and then returning only 15m away from where we were standing right at that moment. This potentially 2-hour detour would give us a forward gain of about 15 meters.
The climb up from the lake on this unexpected detour was steep. It was slow going. Once at the ridge, however, the road followed a mostly-flat ridge line before dropping down to the lake again, right on the other side of the (non-existent) bridge. Despite it being an incomprehensibly long detour just to make a forward gain of no more than 15m, we both agreed it was worth the discovery of an absolutely gorgeous stretch of grassy and a times single-track forestry road through quiet woods.
The detour spat us out 15 meters north of where we’d been standing 2 hours prior. The sense of bitter-sweet achievement was real.
Beyond the non-existent bridge, it was clear that no vehicles had passed this way in a long time. It was perfectly passable by bike.
Being August, the biting horse flies were still out in force, so we kept the pace up as much as we could on the flats to outrun them, and on the slow uphills we swatted at the ones that chose to catch a ride.
On the final climb up to the ridge that we’d descend down to the campground, the rain started to really pelt down. We were both looking forward to getting to the campground to have some dinner and have a soak in the onsen, only 15 minutes bike ride way from the campground.
When we did take the chance to stop and look around, the damp forest scenery was really quite gorgeous.
The campground was a sight for sore eyes, and it turned out that Rick the Brit, the third member of our 3-person team, had made it to the campground ahead of us. He had opted to take a train to Yubari and ride to the campground from there. In the onsen (hot spring), we regaled him with our war stories from the day. I’m not sure if he was sad to have missed out on the ‘type-2’ fun or was happy he’d avoided the extra 2-hour detour.