We met Jonathan and Charis from Singapore to ride on our `Playground of the Gods' tour. The cool temperatures and lack of humidity were a welcome change from the weather they are used to in Singapore. They had come in search of wide open spaces, quiet roads and good scenery that Hokkaido has become known for.
The first night was at the base of the highest mountain in Hokkaido. It is also a live volcano, but fairly benign on the `volcano active' scale, registering a one out of five. It looks a little more menacing from a distance as numerous fumaroles spew smoke from it's base.
We climbed the mountain on the first day, via a tram initially which would take us up to 1,600 meters on the mountain and within smelling distance of the volcano's sulphur. The sub-alpine zone was covered with 'chinguru ma,' a beautiful yellow flower that only blooms for a few weeks a year. The alpine then takes on a moonscape appearance as we clambered to the top of the mountain. Clouds drifted in and out and threatened us with white out conditions at one stage, but once on top we had unobstructed views of the whole Daisetsuzan Range and our cycling route for the next five days.
The post ride we sat and immersed ourselves in the hot spring of the hotel. Hot springs are the perfect way to finish any ride in Japan as they provide healing minerals for tired muscles and you come out feeling rejuvenated. The bathing etiquette is to wash, then soak with the modesty towel placed on the head being careful not to drop it in the communal pool.
From the outdoor spring the only sound was the nearby stream. Gazing up we could only see the limestone pillars that seemed to rise up from out of the canyon in every direction.
The third day sees us ascend to the southern end of the national park. There are a number of waterfalls on route, all coloured a turquoise blue from the flow of sulphur in to the streams. On one, we take a short walk from the road past mini Buddhist shrines with the names of all the 88 temples of Shikoku.
Half way in to our planned loop, we are below another volcano, this one a little more active than the last. The road to get there goes through a beautiful forest of birch that grew after an eruption in 1928. One doesn't have to venture far on the island of Hokkaido to find volcanic areas. There are thirteen live volcanoes on the island.
The weather gods had blessed us for the trip, day four starting crystal clear. The journey would see us riding toward the centre of Hokkaido to Furano, labelled the `Navel of Hokkaido.' Todays ride would take us on the other side of the valley that has magnificent views of the national park past flower and lavender farms.
It is also a day of eating and drinking, where stops are made for fresh local melon, cakes and finally the winery. The first rest stop is a flower farm. The attraction for us was the lavender soft cream. I am informed by Charis that Hokkaido soft cream is a big hit in Singapore and every opportunity should be taken to replace lost calories with it.
We set out to find the best ramen noodles for lunch as the broth of 'Asahikawa Ramen' is well known around Japan. Take your pick of flavours between miso, soya sauce or salt. There was a line up when we arrived but we weren't deterred, our appetite more satiated by the prospect of the township's best ramen. This establishment is famous for its onion infused miso flavour which we found well worth the wait. The 'gyoza' dumplings were succulent and made from local Hokkaido pork.
Our last day we rode to the Rokugo area. The terrain here is only slightly undulating and so the hills don't feel like hills. Rokugo and its surroundings are covered by wheat that is a change from the rice paddies we had previously passed through. Given its golden yellow colour, harvest wouldn't be far away.
The first of the rest stops is a jam factory where one is able to eat samples. The owners hadn't figured on hungry cyclists passing through eating a good share of the bread samples. Flavours like cranberry apple, cantaloupe melon and walnut honey go down well.
Another 20 kilometres was enough to give us appetite afterwards for the lunch stop. It is venison or venison on the menu at this local restaurant as apparently `Ezo Shika' deer roam in large numbers in the area. The restaurant owner starts conversing in fluent mandarin to Charis and Jonathan and so the menu is explained to me this time.
The trip is not yet over and already we are reminiscing about the past five days. Jonathon and Charis had both yearned for views of green, and the trip had given them that in spades. After being so spoilt on quiet Hokkaido roads they remark that it would be hard to go back to ride on the busy streets of Singapore.
Some more photos of the trip