Aomori Prefecture. The name Aomori (青森) means ‘green forest’. Situated at the northern-most tip of Japan’s largest island of Honshu, it is well off the beaten track. But it lives up to its name. Vast swaths of untouched forest, teeming with wildlife. Lakes, ocean coast, and wild rivers. It is about as close as you’ll get to the wilderness of Hokkaido, without leaving the Japan ‘mainland’.
Below, I outline a seven-day cycle-tour around the prefecture, starting and ending in the port town of Hachinohe City. The emphasis of this tour is nature. It avoids cities such as Aomori City and Hirosaki City. That’s not to say that those wouldn’t be worthy detours. Hirosaki City in particular is well known for its beautiful old Japanese architecture. But this route as it is avoids as much as possible the rabbit warrens that are mainland Japanese cities.
- Distance: Approx. 450km
- Total climbing: Around 3,500m (the Shimokita Peninsula west coast in particular has some serious climbs)
- Distance per day: Around 50km to 80km
- Road surface: 95% paved, 5% gravel
- Dates ridden: 29th April to 8th May, 2016
- Bicycle rental options: I don’t know of any overnight bicycle rentals available in Aomori, but after sharing this post on Facebook, Tim from Astuto in Tokyo reached out, offering approx. 5,000yen delivery of a bike to/from Tokyo to hotels in Aomori. Their prices for rental bikes are on the steep side (particularly considering you can rent great bikes in Sapporo (Hokkaido) for 3,250yen a day – see Nakamura Cycles in my list of bike shops in Sapporo). But they may be a feasible option if you want minimal fuss, high-end bikes (some with SS couplings), with customer service in English.
Route Overview (highlights in bold)
- Day 1 – Hachinohe City to Lake Todawa (85km). Highlight is the amazing Oirase Gorge.
- Day 2 – Lake Todawa to Aomori Prefectural Park (68km). Goes via the cute Kuroishi onsen town.
- Day 3 – Aomori Prefectural Park to Odaiba Auto Campground (68km). Fishing villages along the coast.
- Day 4 – Odaiba Auto Campground to Fukura (55km). Catch the beautiful Mutsu Bay ferry.
- Day 5 – Fukuura to Yadate Onsen (70km). Take the Shimokita Peninsula gravel road through pristine forest.
- Day 6 – Yadate Onsen to Lake Ogawara (90km). Big day ends with a lakeside campsite.
- Day 7 – Lake Ogawara to Hachinohe City (35km). Take in the bustling industry of Hachinohe’s port area.
Other Aomori Cycling Resources
- Check out www.aomori-cycling.com‘s excellent English brochure about some great rides in the area: Aomori Cycling Pamphlet (PDF). We used this quite a lot to plan our route below.
Daily Route Summary
Day 1 – Hachinohe (八戸) to Lake Todawa (十和田湖) (85km)
- Route Map: Hachinohe City to Lake Towada
- Full blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/aomori-cycle-touring-day-2-hachinohe-to-lake-towadako/
This first day would actually be a valid reason for reversing the route altogether: while the Oirase Gorge is stunningly beautiful, it is an approx. 25km gradual uphill that is hard going for a first day. Make sure to leave as early as possible, in order to really enjoy the gorge area as well as the lake-side ride at the end of the day.
While we chose to stay at the Oide Campground at the southern-most tip of the lake, we only very tentatively recommend doing so. That is to say, there used to be an onsen next to the campground. That onsen is now closed. So, a better option could be to camp at the backpackers closer to the township, here, or the free campground here. From there, there should be plenty of onsen and cafes within walking distance.
Day 2 – Lake Todawa (十和田湖) to Aomori Prefectural Park (青森県民の森) (68km)
- Route Map: Lake Towada to Aomori Prefectural Park
- Full blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/aomori-cycle-touring-day-3-lake-towadako-to-aomori-prefectural-park/
As far as gut-busting climbs go, the short but sharp grunt up and out of the Lake Towada caldera is up there. It will certainly wake you up after a relaxing night in your tent next to the lake. But the views are definitely worth it. We were there in early May, so there was still some snow hanging around, but the view over the lake was breath-taking.
The rest of the day is all downhill on relatively quiet roads. Make sure to drop in on the quaint Kuroishi Onsen Town for a soak. The little re-created Japanese outdoor arcade is also worth a visit. From Kuroishi City proper it is a case of trying your best to avoid the narrow, shoulderless race-tracks that are the main roads through the city. Before long, however, you’ll find yourself surrounded by nature at the Aomori Prefectural Citizen’s Park, a perfect place to camp and star-gaze. At this official campground, we were not charged to stay…we’re not sure if that was an oversight or not. In any case it is a decent place to stay (no showers provided).
Day 3 – Aomori Prefectural Park (青森県民の森) to Odaiba Auto Campground (平館オートキャンプ場) (68km)
- Route Map: Aomori Prefectural Park to Odaiba Auto Campground
- Full blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/aomori-cycle-touring-day-4-aomori-prefectural-park-to-odaiba-auto-camp/
The main purpose of Day 3 is to get to the general vicinity of the Mutsu Bay Ferry terminal in the little village of Kanita (蟹田). Ferries from Kanita across the bay to the Shimokita Peninsula leave twice daily at 9:20am and 2:00pm, and only run between April and August (7:50am, 10:50am, 3:30pm between August 11 and 18). Check the most recent information here: http://www.mutsuwan-ferry.jp/jikoku.html
With that in mind, we decided to make this a relaxing day, opting to stay the night along the coast near the ferry terminal, and catching the ferry the next day. There are a couple of campgrounds on the Sotogahama coast, one right at the ferry terminal, and one about 15km along the coast. The one further down the coast is worth the trek, and gives a glimpse into the coastal fishing industry in the region along the way.
For the most part, the route follows a quiet road through old-time rural villages, right on the coast. Conceivably it would be possible to take the afternoon ferry across the bay, but note that there are no campgrounds in the vicinity of the ferry terminal on the other end (at Wakinosawa – 脇野沢), so free-camping would be the only (perfectly feasible) option.
Day 4 – Odaiba Auto Campground (平館オートキャンプ場) to Fukura (福浦) (55km)
- Route Map: Odaiba Auto Campground to Fukuura
- Full blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/aomori-cycle-touring-day-5-odaiba-auto-camp-to-fukuura-including-mutsu-bay-ferry/
A highlight of this varied route is the Mutsu Bay Ferry. In all likelihood, you’ll see dolphins. We saw three separate pods on the short 1-hour trip. The serious cycling starts soon after getting off the boat, however. A long, steep climb takes the route way up above the impenetrable cliffs of the Shimokita Peninsula western coast, and the route dallies up in the high country for a while before plunging back down to the ocean. From there it is another couple of stiff ups and downs before arriving in Fukuura.
If you’ve taken the 2pm ferry the day before, camping at the Wakinosawa ferry terminal overnight, then it would be perfectly conceivable that you’d make it a further 15km along (i.e., up and down) the coast to the Gankake Park campground (佐井村がんかけ公園). As it happened, however, we were caught in the tiny fishing town of Fukuura near sun-down. One feasible option would be to camp at the primary school at the upper end of the village. There’s running water there, and at the lower end of the village there are public toilets.
We opted instead to sample what rural Aomori had to offer in the way of bed and breakfasts – or minshuku (民宿) as they are called in Japan. For 6,000yen each for the night, we stayed at the unassuming Namie-sou minshuku, and were treated to motherly-like care by the lovely owner. A massive seafood dinner and breakfast was included.
Day 5 – Fukuura (福浦) to Yadate Onsen (矢立温泉) (70km)
- Route Map: Fukuura to Yadate Onsen
- Full blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/aomori-cycle-touring-day-6-fukuura-to-yatate-onsen-campground/
This route through the heart of the wild and remote Shimokita Peninsula is one of the best I’ve cycled in Japan. 25km of it is gravel that cuts through the most drop-dead gorgeous forest. On both sides of the pass the road weaves alongside rivers that run over bare bedrock. Expect steep gradients and rough surfaces particularly nearer the top of the pass.
While we pushed on up and over (and over and over) from Yagen Onsen, with more time Yagen Onsen would be a perfect place to camp. It is a quiet little spot (probably not so in the height of the summer break season), with hot springs to die for. From Yagen Onsen, head south towards the spooky Osorezan (恐山 – The Terrible Mountain). This is another steep climb up and over to a caldera lake, and then up and over again to the Yadate Onsen campground.
Day 6 – Yadate Onsen (矢立温泉) to Lake Ogawara (小川原湖) (90km)
- Route Map: Yadate Onsen to Lake Ogawara
- Full blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/aomori-cycle-touring-day-7-yatate-onsen-to-lake-ogawarako/
Highlights of this stretch include a couple of nuclear power plants and a massive nuclear fuel recycling facility. It’s not exactly back-to-nature, and the road surfaces for the most part reflect that, but this mostly-flat route (once on the coast) is an interesting means to and end (getting to the beautiful Lake Ogawara).
The campsite on the shores of Lake Ogawara was empty when we were there in early May, but come August it is likely to be packed. It is worthy of it though. A beautiful lake with mountains in the distance (mountains that you’ve cycled over), and a piping hot hot springs just a few minutes walk away.
Day 7 – Lake Ogawara (小川原湖) to Hachinohe City (八戸) (35km)
- Route Map: Lake Ogawara to Hachinohe City
- Full blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/aomori-cycle-touring-days-8-and-9-lake-ogawara-to-chitose-city-via-the-silver-ferry/
Hachinohe City is similar to many non-metropolis port cities: an apocalyptic tangle of factories and industry crammed onto a limited-space coastal frontage. The cycling therefore along the coast-side of Hachinohe City to the Silver Ferry terminal is either heaven or hell, depending on how you look at it. For those who get a kick out of the pure wonder that is human industry on a big scale, you’ll love Hachinohe’s port area. It heaves with the air of opportunity that primary industry offers for big capital. Rusty dust from vast scrap steel yards wafts across roads, and large trucks thunder by. Rusting ships with foreign-looking writing on them are loaded or unloaded. The pure volume of woodchips manhandled out of the hull in one go on one ship by two large cranes was a sight to see.
For those who prefer quiet, clean roads, the city is a bit of a nightmare. The footpaths are for the most part narrow and bumpy. The foot-high gutters are not great for when you want to escape either the footpath or the road. One of the busy main roads going into the city has a wide footpath, but on one side are trucks thundering by and on the other is a 2m high fence lined with barbed wire. You’ll want to keep you balance.