Tuesday, July 1, 2014

10 reasons why Japan is a great country for bike tourism

1. It's really safe. You can leave your (locked) bikes on the street at night and sleep in a tent in a park and your gear won't get stolen and you won't get harassed. There's a lot of traffic but the drivers are polite and generally drive at a much lower speed than they would on a similar road in Europe. 

2. It's not as expensive as you'd think. Accommodation is not cheap, especially in the cities, and you pay a lot for fresh fruit and vegetables, but if you bring a tent, eat supermarket sushi and/or cook your own meals you can get by with the same kind of money you'd spend cycling in Europe. 

3. The people are very friendly. They'll help you out in every imaginable way when you get in trouble and politely ignore you when you're getting our of your tent in the morning. 

4. The views are amazing. Forget the images of crowded, noisy cities you've seen, Japan is actually filled with beautiful mountains covered in lush forests, pristine beaches and quiet temples. 

5. There are plenty of toilets. A small but important point for cyclists: there are tons of clean and accessible toilets on the roads and in the cities, often clearly marked on the city map that you'll get from the tourist information usually located at the central train station. Some older toilets are of the squatting kind, but usually there's also regular toilet seat available, at least in the disabled toilet. 

6. There are plenty of convenience stores. These small wonders are everywhere on the roadside (the longest distance we've cycled without seeing one was about 50 kilometers, but that was very unusual). They're open 24 hours a day, have toilets and sell drinks, food and pretty much everything you might need on the road. Seven-Eleven has ATMs that work with foreign cards and Lawson Station has free mobile wifi (if you can get someone Japanese to set it up for you on a computer that's already connected to the internet). 

7. You can avoid the rainy season. The European summer holiday months aren't considered the best time to travel to Japan as the weather can get very hot and humid, but there's no rainy season in the north where the temperature also stays at a more pleasant level. 

8. There are plenty of easy ferry connections. We visited all the four main islands plus six small ones along the Shimanami Kaido, and ferry connections made it very easy to get from one island to another. There are short-distance ferries connecting islands as well as long-distance ones which you can use to save you days of cycling, and the prices are very affordable. Just let them know that you have a bike when buying your ticket as there's usually a small extra fee. 

9. There are plenty of places to take a bath. There are public baths and hot springs in nearly every town, and once you've learned the etiquette of getting naked and washing yourself before entering the bath they're super easy to visit despite the language barrier. Relaxing in hot water is the perfect way to finish a long cycling day! Just note that men and women have to bathe separately and that tattoos are usually not allowed. 

10. You can easily survive with English (and some sign language). Nearly all road signs are in English so you don't need to have a Japanese map or to be able to read Japanese. (Having a GPS really helps, though, because the maps we've found haven't been super detailed.) Even though most people only speak a few words of English they understand a bit more, and if you really need to get yourself understood you can usually find someone who speaks more English. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Home sweet home

Two cyclists, two bikes, two backpacks, two helmets, two handlebar bags, one trailer and one dry bag all made it back to Porvoo, Finland. Now the plan is to sleep indoors for a few nights, enjoy Finnish rye bread and fresh strawberries, go kayaking and start to think about next year's adventures! 

Week 5: Hokkaido

Route: Toyako Onsen-Bifue-Shikotsu-Chitose
Distance: 134 km
Weather: Hot days and chilly nights

The best airport ever

Packing up the bikes and squeezing all our stuff into the bags was a sweaty two-hour ordeal, so we felt we had definitely deserved a visit to the Chitose (Sapporo) Airport spa. We had an early flight back home had planned to spend the night in sleeping bags on the floor of the airport but soon found out this was actually forbidden as the airport would be closed at night.

However, this being Japan, the airport has a very affordable spa where you can also spend a night in a "relaxation room". This means a quiet space with a large amount of reclining chairs where you can read, watch TV and fall asleep in the stylish yukata provided by the spa. We soaked ourselves in four different baths and enjoyed two different saunas in the evening, had breakfast in the morning and descended to the Japan Airlines check in desk feeling thoroughly pampered.

In hot and cold water

The cute little dragon guarding the hot foot bath is Toyako Onsen's town mascot whose name we've unfortunately forgotten, and the slightly bigger and colder body of water is Lake Shikotsu.

The floating castle

We stayed overnight in the lakeside park at Toyako Onsen, enjoying the fireworks display at night and waking up to the sound of a large bell a man had tied around the neck of his dog. As we had a short cycling day ahead of us we decided to embrace our inner tourists and go on a small cruise on Lake Toya in this baffling ship. The tickets would seem to indicate that it was modeled after Peter Pan's castle, and we giggled all the way to the small island in the middle of the lake.

Lakes and forests

We left the coast in Toyako to cycle through the Shikotsu Toya national park, which had been recommended to us by a nice Japanese-Australian couple we met on the road. The steep climbs, long downhills, mountain views, clear lakes, small onsen towns and lush forests were the perfect ending for our trip, a combination of what we had most come to love about Japan.

I told you so

During the 16 years that we've been together Kaisa's had a ton of different tattoo ideas and Christoffer's disapproved of all of them. She currently dreams of having an arm, or both arms, totally covered in colorful animals drawn by herself.

But get this: had Kaisa went ahead with her tattoo plans despite Christoffer's protests she would've been denied access to several, if not all, of the wonderful hot spring baths we've visited along the way! One onsen has even gone as far as forbidding temporary tattoos while many others have either had a no tattoo sign or asked us at the counter whether we have any.

Being denied entry to a hot bath after a long sweaty cycling day would've been a crushing blow, so not having any tattoos has been a big unexpected advantage. But how Kaisa will ever get the self-satisfied smirk off Christoffer's face still remains a mystery.

A hot shower, anyone?

We're not sure how we've managed to visit Iceland twice and miss all the famous geysers, but the universe had clearly heard our wish to see one and sent us to Shikabe on the Southern coast of Hokkaido. We were told that this impressive geyser discharges scalding hot water every 10-12 minutes and we stayed around to see it happen twice before cycling happily on, having finally been able to cross "seeing a real geyser" off our lists.

The Lapland of Japan

We've been wondering the whole time where all the bike travelers are, and now we have our answer: on Hokkaido! Since leaving Hakodate to continue north we've met a steady stream of cyclists on the coast, waving happily at us and sometimes even stopping for a chat. Apparently we had great luck with the weather, since the previous week it's rained a lot even on Hokkaido but we've managed to avoid it (except some light drizzle in Hakodate).

Christoffer has come to the conclusion that Hokkaido is the Lapland of Japan: a scenic quiet(ish) area in the north where people go to enjoy outdoor activities - and to get covered in mosquito bites…

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Week 4: Northern Honshu and Hokkaido

Route: Akita-Iwasaki-Aomori-Hakodate-Shikabe-Toyako Onsen
Distance: 494 km
Weather: Cold and foggy mornings and beautiful warm sunny days

Friday, June 20, 2014

Say cheese!

Yes, we have books in English!

At the beginning of the trip we made the fatal mistake of a) not bringing enough books with us from Finland and b) not buying books in English where they were available. This has meant that we've had to resort to reading various descriptions of hotels and restaurants in places we won't be visiting in the Lonely Planet guidebook, and re-reading a Finnish book we had brought with us and finished in the first weeks of the trip.

We've visited about a dozen big bookstores where the question "Do you have books in English?" has only been met with nervous giggles and frightened stares. We were getting desperate when Christoffer spotted a school offering English courses in Goshogawara and had a stroke of genius. He ran in and asked the first person he saw if they might have some English books we could buy.

The slightly perplexed lady had to call her boss to confirm that this strange transaction was OK, but in the end a box of old books was pulled out and we were given three classic works of English literature, among them Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.

And today our good luck continued: in a central Hakodate mall the Kumazawa bookstore had one and a half shelves of books in English! The selection included both classics and contemporary bestsellers, and this means we're fully stocked with reading material for the rest of our trip. Now the only question is how we'll manage to find any time for bike riding with so much to read...

Keirin bears!

We've heard that keirin, cycle racing, is really popular in Japan, but haven't seen any signs of it before this cute tram rolled past us this morning in Hakodate. We're not sure if there are actual bears on Hokkaido, but there sure are lots of them in on t-shirts and other diverse merchandise!

Hanging out in Hakodate

We've spent a day and a half in Hakodate, a delightful city with about 280 000 inhabitants on the Southern coast of Hokkaido. Hakodate has an interesting history, being one of the first places where foreigners were allowed to trade and live in the mid-19th century. This means we've not only taken an aerial cable car to the top of the mountain and eaten Japanese bean sweets, but that we've also visited a Russian Orthodox church and the old British Embassy.

In our eyes the city has a strong resemblance to San Francisco, with steep narrow streets lined with colorful small houses going up the mountain. The fog entering the city from the sea also made us think of the surprisingly cool mornings we've experienced in summertime California, but a the same time the city has a distinctively Japanese feeling to it, with a large colorful fish market in the busy harbor.

As it often happens on bike trips, we're once again terrified of leaving a place we've quickly grown attached to. The fear of the unknown is a mighty enemy, and the mind always seems keen to find a safe haven and stick to it. But luckily we're on a tight budget and can't afford to stay in the same place for too long, so in the morning we'll once again pack our bags and head out for another day of cycling and another night in the tent!