As we enter the arrivals area at Hokkaido’s New Chitose Airport, I glance across at our fellow passengers waiting for their bags.
“So, where’s the bike?” I ask my husband.
He bursts into laughter. “Were you expecting it to come out on the luggage carousel?!”
The three of us — two humans and one Harley-Davidson motorcycle — have just flown in from Tokyo. While the concept of touring around by motorbike conjures up idealistic images of freedom and the open road, it isn’t quite that simple.
It started early that same morning. My partner headed out at the crack of dawn for Haneda Airport on the bike to get it checked in for the journey, while I followed later by train, toting my helmet. After flying — us in marginally more comfort than the bike — we arrived in Hokkaido to find that picking up the Harley involves waiting for a bus that comes once every 30 minutes, before disembarking in the middle of nowhere.
“Are you sure this is right?” I can’t help asking as we step off the bus.
We walk down the road and eventually arrive at a facility that reminds me of a military base. Upon showing ID and having our names checked against the list at security, we head for the All Nippon Airways (ANA) cargo area and are finally reunited with the bike — one of many that have been flown to Hokkaido during the o-Bon vacation. After various mechanical adjustments and loading and reloading of luggage into the saddle bags (“I told you not to bring so much stuff!”), we’re pretty much ready to roll, but first we stop at a nearby gas station. For obvious reasons, you can’t put a bike with a full tank of gas on a plane, but they allow you just enough to get to a gas station at the other end.
Prior to this, we’d taken several short overnight trips by bike, but this time we have seven straight days of touring, my husband driving and me riding pillion behind him. While playing passenger clearly carries less responsibility than driving, you still contribute: subtly shifting position without upsetting the balance, leaning into corners and anticipating when the bike is going to slow down to avoid rocking forward and banging helmets with the driver. Then there is the small matter of remembering not to rest a leg against the hot exhaust pipe — been there, done that, not fun.
My other half has arranged the route and we set out to cover between 150 and 200 kilometers a day. The distance allows for plenty of rest breaks and sightseeing stops along the way, and means things will not become too arduous if the weather worsens at any point. My contribution has been to work out each day’s schedule.
The first two days are spent in the Furano and Biei areas in the center of Hokkaido. Biei is a very popular region in summer because of the vast array of flowers grown there. When we arrive, it is a little late into the season for the area’s famous lavender, but there are still plenty of colorful flower fields to enjoy.
We also stop at the Blue Pond near the town of Shirogane Onsen in Biei. It was barely known outside the region until 2012, when Apple included the pond — resplendent with trees appearing to “swim” in the aquamarine water — among the wallpaper images for its Mountain Lion operating system. The internet did the rest and now throngs of tourists flock here. It is the most crowded spot we encounter during the entire trip, with lines of cars waiting to park, and we feel rather smug as we cruise past them into the area designated for motorbikes.
Day three sees us in the city of Asahikawa, where the main attraction is the zoo. Neither of us is particularly interested in visiting it, although for completely different reasons: he doesn’t really like animals, while I’m generally not a fan of zoos because I do. Instead, we make our way to Ueno Farm. Operated by successive generations of the Ueno family for more than a century, today it is more a garden than a farm. After going to Britain to study gardening, owner Sayuki Ueno was inspired to create her own version of an English garden in Hokkaido and the results are splendid.
Soon, I feel like we are really getting into the swing of this touring thing. I notice my husband lifts his right hand in greeting to any bikes coming from the opposite direction, and most respond in kind, so I start doing it, too. I also learn to keep a comb in my pocket so I can quickly fix my helmet hair whenever we stop.
Things, however, seem less rosy later in the day when, to my horror, I realize that my cellphone has fallen out of my jacket pocket after I inadvertently dozed off. My husband is nicer about it than I have a right to expect, but since I have no idea where the phone actually fell, it is futile to backtrack at this point. After repeated failed attempts to call the number and pinpoint its location, we give up. I take some comfort in the fact that my data was backed up and that my camera is in one of the saddlebags.
We arrive at the Abashiri Prison Museum later that afternoon (my father was a prison officer for much of my childhood, so I had a vested interest). Many of the buildings date back more than 100 years, and the administrative blocks are elegant examples of Western-style architecture. Prison budgets were more generous in the past, it seems. The museum does a good job of recreating prison life over the decades, while also explaining the prison’s social and economic impact on local history.
En route to the town of Shari in eastern Hokkaido the next day, we travel the Road to Heaven. At 18 kilometers, it is Hokkaido’s longest stretch of straight road. Rather than the drive itself, the real attraction is the view from the end. As you gaze into the distance, the road appears to be leading up into the sky, and it has become something of a mecca for bikers in the last few years. We have some trouble locating the route, and end up on the rather plebeian-sounding “Potato Road” at one point, but eventually we do find heaven. At the end, we join several other bikers staging photos and videos of each other coming up the last section of the route. Kudos to the woman next to us who stoically films her partner four times until he is finally satisfied.
The second half of the trip sees us traveling through some of the most unspoiled areas of Japan. The Shiretoko Peninsula was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005 and it is easy to see why. We see spectacular cliffs and waterfalls during a boat trip around the peninsula, then hike some equally stunning trails. The area is famous for bears and, while we don’t run into any, we do have close encounters with deer and foxes.
We’ve been keeping one step ahead of the rain the whole way, but it finally catches up with us at Lake Akan on the fifth day. Fortunately, we can leave the bike at our accommodation and walk to the local attractions. These include an Ainu village, where you can watch traditional dance performances, and a boat trip to observe a local marine phenomenon known as marimo. A rare form of algae, marimo grows into photogenic, velvety green balls that look like they’ve rolled straight out of a Studio Ghibli movie.
Our last full day is a washout in both senses of the word. The temperature suddenly plunges to 8 degrees Celcius and the rain doesn’t let up. Although I have wet weather gear, my “waterproof” gloves let in the rain and my sneakers are soon soaked through. Traveling by bike no longer seems fun, and it is a huge relief when we finally pull up at our hotel in Obihiro late in the afternoon. We make a beeline for the guest laundry, where we compete for the washing machines with a schoolboy soccer team trying to wash and dry a bunch of smelly uniforms.
The weather cooperates on our final day as we wend our way back to the airport for the return trip. All in all, it has been quite an experience and one we are keen to repeat when the chance arises. Lesson learned, my phone will stay in the saddlebags from now on.
The cheapest way to transport a motorbike from Tokyo to Hokkaido is to take one of the car ferries operated by MOL Ferry Co., Ltd. There are generally two sailings a day between Oarai in Ibaraki Prefecture and Tomakomai, about 50 kilometers from Sapporo (18 hours/one way; fares from approximately ¥15,000; www.sunflower.co.jp/en) Though expensive, ANA’s “Sky Touring Hokkaido” service is both faster and more convenient than the ferry, and much easier to book during peak holiday times. The basic package includes transport for one rider and one bike with up to three nights’ accommodation. Additional passengers and nights can be added (two hours from Tokyo each way; fares from approximately ¥140,000 return; www.ana.co.jp/ja/jp/domtour/hokkaido/package_skytouring)