Hokkaido is Japan’s northern-most island and largest prefecture. Far, far away from the madding crowds of more southern climes, Hokkaido lives up to it’s frontier roots. Wild forests, long, wide open roads. Capes and offshore islands that feel like the end of the world. Almost half of the year, Hokkaido slips into a beautiful, deep winter slumber (with its own joys). During the summer months, from around the end of May till the beginning of November, the island becomes a mecca for cycle tourists wanting to get off the beaten track in Japan.
By Rob and Haidee Thomson, Hokkaido, Japan
First, a couple of notes
- This webpage: There are lots of embedded maps, so if you’re looking at this on a mobile device (smartphone etc), be patient…it can take a few minutes to fully load the maps.
- Road condition: For all intents and purposes, the roads in Hokkaido are beautiful smooth pavement. Note however, that I have a particular penchant for gravel off-the-beaten-track routes, so many of the routes below include at least half a day of gravel, to keep things interesting. Those gravel sections are rough and steep, so consider a detour if that’s not your cup’o tea.
- Tandem bikes in Hokkaido: Is it illegal to ride a tandem bicycle in Hokkaido?
- Short answer: On almost all public roads, yes, it is illegal – you are not allowed to ride a tandem. On designated cycleways, no, it is not illegal – you can ride a tandem. BUT, I would find it impossibly unlikely that tandem bicycle riders would encounter the law being enforced. See Tokyo by Bike’s reasoning here. Furthermore, upon calling the Sapporo Cycling Association, a representative said they couldn’t imagine police calling well-equipped tandem tourers out (they’d certainly never heard of it happening).
- Long answer (with references): As far as Japan national road law is concerned, it is permissible for as many people to ride a vehicle as there are seats to do so (See Article 57 of the national Road Traffic Act – in Japanese). Bicycles are classed as vehicles, so for all intents and purposes, the Road Traffic Act allows as many people on a bike as there are saddles/seats. However, the national Road Traffic Act has a provision which allows for prefectural bylaws to override the national Road Traffic Act in regards to ‘light’ vehicles (keisharyou – 軽車両), of which bicycles are a variety (Article 57-2) . Unfortunately, according to Hokkaido road law, two- and three-wheeled cycles are not allowed to have more than one person riding them at the same time (Article 10-1 (p.10) of the Hokkaido Road Traffic Law).
- NOTE: This rule does not apply if 1) you are on a signposted, designated cycleway or combined cycle/pedestrian pathway (as defined by Chapter 6, Article 48-14 of the Road Act) or 2) you are 16yrs and over carrying up to two children 6yrs and under on approved bicycle seats or 3) you are operating a business whereby you offer transport to up to two people on a bike with appropriate apparatus to do so (Article 10-1 (p.10) of the Hokkaido Road Traffic Law). Furthermore, if your bike has 4 wheels (or more), then you can have as many people on it as there are seats.
- Food: If a route doesn’t have any grocery stores or convenience stores marked, you can take that to mean that there isn’t too much difficulty in finding places to get food along the way. Keep a spare meal’s worth of food in your panniers at all times and you’ll be fine.
- Weather and climate: Early May is the absolute earliest, and mid-November the absolute latest you can cycle tour in Hokkaido without it being a ‘winter’ tour. Earlier and later that this, and there will be snow on the ground and you’ll have to be prepared for shoveling snow as part of setting up camp. Most of the gravel routes and many of the cycle roads will be closed due to snow. Throughout the summer season (late July to early September), however, expect temperatures up to 30 degrees during the daytime, down to 10 degrees overnight.
- Campgrounds: Many cyclists in Japan opt to free-camp rather than pay for campgrounds that offer marginal services. Awesome map of free campgrounds and hot springs (onsen) here: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=1ZBVjXbJKXFgt7AFBFQlSn5Zx3to&hl=en_US. The paid campgrounds are cheap though, and are often right next door to onsen (hot springs). That said, most of the campgrounds in Hokkaido don’t open officially until May, with many not open until early July. Many then shut down for the year around the end of September.
- Rider Houses: Hokkaido is home to the cheap and cheerful Rider Houses – basic accommodation for cyclists, motorcyclists, walkers etc. Many are free, most charge between 500 and 1,000yen, and only rarely will you pay more than 1,500yen. A map of all Rider houses in Hokkaido here: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?hl=en_US&mid=1E6xC2EFGTcbXOGjF2OPWFZJVUAI (some, if not many, may be derelict or no longer in business – make sure you have a backup plan.
- Water: Water is abundant across the island. If it comes out of a tap, you can be confident that it is drinkable without treatment. Drinking straight from streams is not recommended without treatment – echinococcus, mainly carried by foxes, is not something you want to catch.
- Bears: Hokkaido is home to the Hokkaido brown bear. While traveling on paved roads and camping in designated campsites, you are extremely unlikely to see one. If you’re heading more into the backcountry routes (such as the Trans-Hokkaido Gravel Route below), then please take precautions: a bear-bell on your handlebars will let them know you’re coming, and basic bear safety skills should be applied if camping wild.
- GPS Route files: These files are provided as-is. They may contain errors, so please contact me if you’ve followed one of these routes and think the routing could be done better (email@example.com).
- Multi-day bicycle hire for cycling touring in Hokkaido: You’ll generally pay around 1,500yen to 5,000yen a day for a bike suited to cycle touring (prices per day are cheaper the longer you rent for). Check out the following providers for options. It is always best to try to book in advance. The Niseko-based providers are located in Niseko Town, accessible by bus from New Chitose Airport (approx. 2.5hrs) or Sapporo by train or bus (about 2.5hrs).
- Spark Cycling (Sapporo City) – These guys should be your first-stop when looking for a bike for touring in Hokkaido. They offer service in English, their bikes are super good value, and have racks, panniers…everything you need for cycle tour | Link | Location
- Nakamura Cycles (Sapporo City) – Also good value bicycle hire in Hokkaido. But booking is in Japanese only. Bikes must be booked at least a week in advance | Link (Japanese only) | Location
- Rhythm Cycles (Niseko) – Link | Location
- Groove Cycles (Niseko) – Link | Location | Recommended cycle routes | Note: Groove Cycles works in conjunction with Rhythm Cycles, apparently.
- The Bicycle Corner (Niseko) – Link
- Cycle Japan (Furano) – If you’re after a road bike, then these guys should be able to help | Link
Download this entire page as a PDF (11Mb)
Download link: http://www.14degrees.org/hokkaido-cycle-touring-routes.pdf
Routes Overview Map | Full-size | Fully Interactive Map
Route Overviews and Links (listed shortest to longest)
- Sapporo Out-and-Back via Tsukigata (140km)
- Sapporo Out-and-Back via Lake Shikotsu (145km)
- Sapporo Out-and-Back via Yubari (197km)
- Southern Hokkaido Week-Long (234km)
- Shakotan and Niseko Hills Tour (332km)
- Shiretoko Loop Tour (350km)
- Trans-Hokkaido Gravel Route (490km)
- Japan Far North (Rishiri and Rebun Islands) (600km)
- Cycling Across Hokkaido (Nemuro to Sapporo) (635km)
- Abashiri to Sapporo Trans-Hokkaido Route (665km)
Sapporo Out-and-Back via Tsukigata (140km)
- Highlights: This easy, flat route follows two large rivers in the Sapporo area: the Toyohira River and Ishikari River. Paved riverside roads come and go, so enjoy the challenge of finding the best route, off the main trafficked roads. If doing this route in early spring or late autumn, the lake near the Tsukigata campground is frequented by thousands of migratory geese.
- Access: Out and back from Sapporo via the Toyohira River cycle path or the Shiroishi Cycling Road, so no need for public transport.
Sapporo Out-and-Back via Lake Shikotsu (145km)
- Highlights: Lake Shikotsu is breathtaking. It is truly amazing that such an amazing caldera lake exists so close to Hokkaido’s largest city of Sapporo. Both campsites on the lakeshore – Bifue and Morappu – are beautiful, so long as you avoid the peak season of early August. The route back to Sapporo goes via the Lake Shikotsu to Chitose Cycle Road and the Kita-Hiroshima to Sapporo Shiroishi/Elfin Cycle road. Both those cycle roads are completely separated from roads.
- Access: Out and back from Sapporo via the Toyohira River cycle path, and then back to Sapporo via the Shiroishi Cycle road, so no need for public transport..
- Route Map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/15021225
- GPS file download: http://bit.ly/29xK1Fw
- Blog with photos: http://www.14degrees.org/sapporo-to-lake-shikotsu-trip-2011/
Sapporo Out-and-Back via Yubari (197km)
- Highlights: This short three- to four-day loop escapes Sapporo via the fantastic Shiroishi Cycling road. Yuni Onsen is a mainstay; plan to eat there in the evening. Do this route in honey dew melon season (around August) and enjoy the cheap soils of the region from road-side stalls in Yubari. From Hobetsu campground to Mukawa, either challenge yourself to some nice forestry roads (marked on the route map below), or take the easier paved route.
- Access: Out and back from Sapporo via the Shiroishi Cycling Road, so no need for public transport.
Southern Hokkaido Week-Long (234km)
- Highlights: The Japan Sea coast along the western side of the peninsula is rugged and drop-dead gorgeous. Take the coast the whole way round to Shimamaki, or head inland over the closed gravel road to get properly off the beaten track.
- Access: Express trains stop a few times a day at Onuma-Koen station north of Hakodate. At the other end of the route, Kuromatsunai Town’s tiny station only attracts the local trains. But head from Kuromatsunai to Sapporo via Niseko and Otaru, and you’ll be treated to some beautiful mountain scenery.
Shakotan and Niseko Hills Tour (332km)
- Highlights: Once you’re out of the urban sprawl, past Yoichi, the coastal bays and beaches are fantastic. Approaching the famous ski resort town of Niseko from the north, up up up over the hills is tough going but very rewarding. The highland Goshiki area is onsen heaven. The detour down to the expansive Lake Toya is worth it.
- Access: We did this trip as a door-to-door trip from Sapporo. If you’re running low on time, there are trains from Niseko to Sapporo via Otaru.
- Route Map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/14232770
- GPS file download: http://bit.ly/29rrLLO
- Blog posts with photos: http://www.14degrees.org/shakotan-and-niseko-hills-tour/
Shiretoko Loop Tour (350km)
- Highlights: The Shiretoko Peninsula is a world heritage area, and for good reason. Wild untouched forest, coastal birdlife, wild deer. On a good day, the Shiretoko pass (739m, starting at sea level) is one of the most beautiful in Hokkaido. Be sure to head towards Lake Kussharo as well – free hot springs on the lakeshore await.
- Access: Direct express trains from Sapporo to Abashiri leave around four times daily.
- Route Map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/14122952
- GPS file download: http://bit.ly/29wzi0C
- Full route guide: http://www.14degrees.org/shiretoko-cycle-touring-hokkaido-japan/
Trans-Hokkaido Gravel Route (490km)
- IMPORTANT: This route is a back-country route that I’ve planned, but not cycled yet in its entirety (just bits here and there). As of July 2016, the route follows roads marked in the 2015 Touring Mapple map book. I’ve intentionally tried to link up as many gravel- and close-road routes as possible, and this route intentionally ignores all logic as far as getting from A to B is concerned, unless your logic revolves around seeking out the most remote, off-the-beaten-track routes. Many of the forestry roads on the route are closed to public vehicular thoroughfare, so cyclists need to be very self-sufficient. On any average day, there would unlikely to be any traffic on many of the routes. Road conditions vary from abandoned paved roads in fair condition to rutted un-kept gravel, and everything in between. The forestry-road sections require careful attention to the route on the map – there are plenty of forks in the road, and the most well-worn option is not always the one that will get you where you want to go. Signs will all be in Japanese, and generally only refer to local road names, rather than major destinations (i.e., they’re not much use, even if you read Japanese). Follow this route at your own risk.
- Highlights: The stretch of closed road approaching Niniu from the south feels like a forgotten post-Armageddon landscape. The detour up towards Tomuraushi, into the guts of the Tokachi mountain range, should be fairly spectacular. Consider cycling all the way up to the top of Mikuni Pass (highest paved pass in Hokkaido) before hurtling back down to the forestry road that will take you over to Lake Oketo.
- Access: From Honshu, ferries arrive at Tomakomai Port, just 23km from the start of the route (Google Maps link). From Sapporo, either cycle down to the start, or take a train on the JR line to Hama-Atsuma Station. At the other end, Engaru Station is one main hub for express trains to and from Sapporo/Tomakomai.
Japan Far North (Rishiri and Rebun Islands) (600km)
- Access: There is a direct express train direct from Sapporo to Wakkanai City. From Wakkanai, Rishiri and Rebun Islands can be accessed by daily ferries.
- Highlights: The remote and rugged Rishiri and Rebun Islands feel like the end of the world. Cape Soya north of Wakkanai is worth the visit. The coastal campgrounds on this route are to die for.
Cycling Across Hokkaido (Nemuro to Sapporo) (635km)
- Highlights: Kiritappu Cape and the Kushiro wetlands. The endless gorgeous farmlands of the Tokachi region. Nissho Pass is a highlight for all the wrong reasons – lots of trucks. But the diminutive mountain town of Hidaka is a nice refuge. Consider a more northerly route via Shimukappu if the high pass doesn’t appeal.
- Access: There is an express train direct from Sapporo to Kushiro City. From Kushiro City, transfer to the local train to Nemuro, the end of the line.
- Route Map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/14330105
- GPS file download: http://bit.ly/29x2ikP
- Blog posts with photos: http://www.14degrees.org/cycling-across-hokkaido-2014/
Abashiri to Sapporo Trans-Hokkaido Route (665km)
- Highlights: Mikuni Pass, Hokkaido’s highest at over 1,100m. Sounkyo Gorge and the cycle road alongside the Ishikari River is also a nice long downhill if coming from the Abashiri direction. The gravel forestry road part from Onneyu to just below the Mikuni Pass is rough and steep, but worth the effort.
- Access: JR Abashiri Station is an eastern-Hokkaido hub, with four or five Sapporo-bound express trains leaving daily. The journey by train from Sapporo to Abashiri takes around 5 hours.
- The best map book for cycle touring in Hokkaido is the Touring Mapple (http://amzn.to/29zK3Na – ISBN: 978-4398656261). It is all in Japanese, but the icons (such as convenience store, campground, hotsprings etc) are self-explanatory. It marks gravel roads too.
- For campground information, we use the Hokkaido Campground Guide (http://amzn.to/29Cigum – ISBN: 978-4906740208). It is updated every year, and is super helpful, with details on the nearest onsen etc. All the campground info on my route maps is based on this book. It is also all in Japanese, and is unlikely to be any use unless you can read Japanese.
- Hokkaido Regional Development Bureau’s Hokkaido Cycle Touring Pamphlet has a good deal of information on cycle touring in Hokkaido (PDF)
- Cycling Japan has some routes outlined on their site here: http://cyclingjapan.jp/map.htm
- The Japan Cycling Navigator team has some great resources on their website here: http://www.japancycling.org/v2/aguide/hokkaido/. In particular, they’ve highlighted some natural features of Hokkaido that would make for a nice join-the-dots tour! Their Hokkaido leg of their length of Japan tour would be a nice way to see some of the island too: http://www.japancycling.org/v2/cguide/part3/
- A great video series of two people cycling around old closed train lines in Hokkaido: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sfn3_nqQK28