Amazing Adventures in Hokkaido

The abundance of the natural environment, the lifestyles and culture of the people who live there – Hokkaido has many incredible stories that are as yet unknown.
In this column, we learn about the appeal of Hokkaido’s four seasons from the people who guide adventure tours there. We hope such stories enrich the time spent in Hokkaido, the next time you visit.

Jan. 13

Special feature

Column: “Year-round cycling” in Hokkaido

Written by David Barnett. Originally from England, David has lived in Sapporo for 33 years and is a JCGA/JCA-licensed cycling guide for Cycling Frontier Inc. Photo: Mt. Tokachidake, Kamifurano, December 2018

Having cycled extensively in the UK, France and the Netherlands, I was pleasantly surprised by the potential for cycling in Hokkaido, when the snow started melting after my first winter here, some thirty-odd years ago. However, it wasn’t long before I realised the real potential for cycling may actually be the winters themselves.

It goes without saying that, in the green season, Hokkaido is up there with some of the world’s best cycling destinations, but it leaves the rest behind when it comes to year-round velo-based fun. Whether it’s on a mountain bike with spike tyres riding at pace on compact snow and frozen ice, or pottering around on a fat bike in fresh, virgin snow, there are never two days alike on a bike. With the spikes on, we often head out of the city to the roads that are familiar in summer, but are like another world in winter.

However, it’s not so simple: if the roads are too remote and see too little traffic, they are often left unploughed and are impassable during the winter months. If the roads are deemed important enough to keep open, the traffic may be heavy or the snow cleared to a depth so shallow it melts during the daytime. The small towns and villages with remote farmhouses or hot-spring facilities are perfect, as the roads are well groomed and see hardly any traffic. Some of my favourite compact-snow routes are in the farming communities just to the north and east of Sapporo. We sometimes head further afield, to places like Kamifurano or Biei, where the summer tourists have long gone and we have the roads to ourselves. The climb up Mt. Tokachidake is especially satisfying, with the added bonus of a hot-spring bath at the top.

Makkari, December 2018
Kamifurano, December 2018
Mt. Tokachidake, Kamifurano, December 2018

Parks and urban trails are the easily accessible places for fat-bike pottering fun nearer to home, where night-time riding is best, as there are fewer people walking and the visibility is often better than in the flat light of snowy or overcast conditions during the daytime. Of course, temperatures at night and out in the wilds can be daunting, but as long as you have the necessary equipment to keep your extremities – like your face, hands and feet – warm, normal commercially-available winter cycling wear is fine. There’s nothing worse than wrapping up too warmly and breaking into a sweat, which cools as you descend. I once remember racing up Mt. Tokachidake and – after starting at the base amid numbing temperatures of minus 17 degrees Celsius – being drenched in sweat an hour later at the top amid similar temperatures, despite shedding layers along the way. Never has a hot-spring bath and a fresh change of clothes been so welcome.

So, in Hokkaido, although the meaning of “year-round cycling” is a little different from that in milder climes, there’s really no need for riders to hibernate between December and March. Just invest in the minimal essentials for winter riding, maybe hitch up with someone with a bit of experience, and a whole new world of adventure awaits.

Shinshinotsu, January 2022
After pond-smelt fishing on Barato River, Sapporo, January 2018

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