It feel strange to be penning a post about keeping safe when cycling in the safest country on the planet. I’ve cycled across 16 countries (and skateboarded across more than 12,000km of three continents), and I am yet to find a more carefree place to travel by bicycle (or any form of human-powered travel) than Japan. I don’t think twice about leaving my fully-loaded touring bike unlocked outside a convenience store, and there’s no country I sleep more soundly when wild camping. Hokkaido, Japan’s northern-most island is no different. In fact it is probably on a higher level still regarding the carefree nature of personal security.
For those who seek them out, however, Hokkaido’s wild places require a slightly more thorough respect than in Japan’s more southern climes.
Cycle touring in Hokkaido is cycle touring perfection in the months of July, August, and September. October gets chillier, but the autumn colors are sublime. Outside of these months, particularly November till April, and cycling in Hokkaido becomes a different sort of perfection. If you’re looking for true deep-winter cycle touring, but have a ‘non-Western’ Asian experience, then Hokkaido in January, February, and March is that perfection you’ve been yearning for. Think walls of snow on the sides of the road at least twice the height of you and your bike. Camping in the woods will require carrying a set of snowshoes to tramp down the snow to make a firm foundation fr your tent; digging 3m down to the ground is not an option. That said, there are options for the winter cycle tourist in Hokkaido in winter that don’t require a hotel every night.
- Michi-no-eki are road-side driver stops. Check the amazing Free Campgrounds and Onsen Google Maps map for the location of michi-no-eki. Most of these road-side driver stops are open in the winter, and offer 24 hour toilets and there’ll usually be somewhere covered, free of snow, where you can put a free-standing tent for the night.
- Rider Houses are very cheap accommodation for anyone travelling by human power or two wheels (including motorbikes). Many rider houses are closed over winter in Hokkaido, but if you have a poke around here (in Japanese), you might find some that are still open; they’re most certainly all open during the peak months of July, August, and September.
Disease and pestilence
This is Japan; you could eat off a public toilet floor they’re that clean. Still, there are a few things to keep aware about when cycle touring or hiking off the beaten track here in Hokkaido.
- Tick-borne lyme disease is relatively common here. If you spend a few days riding forestry roads or hiking where you’re brushing up against foliage, it is always good practice to do a quick tick-check to make sure you’ve not picked up any unwanted passengers. Throw a tick-remover in your first aid kit to have on hand.
- Echinococcosis is a potentially fatal parasitic disease, passed to humans via fox poo. Therefore, as a rule all non-piped water in Hokkaido should be treated (either by boiling, filtering, or chemically) before consuming. Very occasionally at remote campsites or out of the way public toilets, there may be a sign indicating that the water should be boiled. As a rule, however, if the water comes out of a tap (kitchen sinks, garden hoses, toilet handbasins included), it is generally safe to drink. And as cute and tame as those foxes are on the side of the road, don’t be tempted to give ’em a pat.
- The Japanese giant hornet is occasionally encountered on forestry roads, campgrounds, and/or hiking trails. They can be aggressive if agitated, and dangerous if in a group of more than a few of them. They usually travel alone though, so if you notice an impossibly large hornet buzzing around you, just stop, stay calm, and let it figure out what you are. They’re not much interested in humans, so it’ll move on soon enough.
- Mamushi pit vipers (Wikipedia) are the most poisonous of snakes in Japan, and they’re also found in Hokkaido. It is very unlikely that you’d die from a mamushi bite, but they usually require some form of hospitalization. They’re common in long grass and other places too hopelessly camouflaged to really do much about regarding avoidance. Wear sturdy boots if your travels take you into the bush off walking trails.
- Horse flies, gnats, and mosquitoes don’t carry disease in Hokkaido. Horse fly bites are annoying though, so in the summer months you’ll want long-sleeved clothing for camping and those long, slow uphills where you’re essentially a slow-moving buffet for the bugs.
Hokkaido gravel road cycling
Hokkaido gravel forestry roads. They’re what lure seasoned and hardy motorbike tourers from the mainland, and are somewhat of a mainstay for a new breed of adventure cyclists here. If you’re using the amazing Touring Mapple Hokkaido version, you’ll see those juicy brown-dashed lines and you’ll swear they’re begging you to ride them. And they do afford acces to some drop-dead gorgeous river valleys, sub-alpine svenery, and a true away-from-it-all atmosphere.
As painful as it is to say, however, they’re not what they used to be. Typhoons are more frequently making landfall here, and some of the more established gravel routes are now almost beyond repair. This doesn’t mean they’re impossible to ride and hike. Using a lightweight bikepacking setup, they’re mostly still passable.
However, many will require hike-a-bikes, and if the road is washed out enough to prevent vehicles from driving it, it will be access by official ‘authorized personnel only’. In practice, locals who do duck the ropes to access disused roads do so under the full understanding that it’s all at their own risk; if anything happens, the responsibility is on them to take care of their own rescue.
Therefore, if you’re contemplating heading out to tackle that stretch of Hokkaido gravel, be sure to keep the following in mind.
- Even if the road is open to general traffic, you’ll likely be on your own. Make sure you have some means of contacting help.
- Many gravel forestry roads, even when marked on maps, are not actively maintained. Be prepared to turn back if necessary.
- Always assume a route will take longer than expected. Once you’ve carried your bike over that 20th downed tree (see CyclingAbout’s experience here (video)), and there’s a whole bunch still ahead of you, going back will also take time.
- The chance of encountering a bear while on Hokkaido gravel roads is much higher than anythere else. Practice good bear safety measures.
- Snow will linger around any roads above 400m in altitude well into May.
The creatures everyone loved to make a big deal about, but are the least likely to be encountered, are the Hokkaido brown bear. To sate my own morbid cusiosity with these timid creatures, I wrote up a dedicated page about them here.