By around the 1400’s, ethnic Japanese from the mainland started to settle along the coast of the northern ‘wild land’ of Ezo (Hokkaido). It would not be until more than 400 years later that a relatively centralized Japanese government would push deeper into the north of Japan and develop it as a northern frontier island. Until then, the indigenous Ainu people were the only ones whose culture was sufficiently adapted to Hokkaido’s harsh environment. As such, the deep-south southern coast of Hokkaido contrasts starkly with the rest of Hokkaido: traditional Japanese architecture, castles, a history of conflict, and a turbulent past of natural disaster.
About this route guide
Below, I outline a 10-day, very leisurely bicycle touring route around this fascinating coastal part of southern Hokkaido. It starts and ends on the JR trunk-line that connects Hakodate City with Sapporo City. This route can happily stand alone as a sub-two-week getaway from Sapporo (taking bicycles on the train to and from start/finish), or parts of it could be incorporated into a length-of-Japan trip. A big highlight of the route is the offshore island of Okushiri (location on Google Maps). This sleepy island, only 60km in circumference, is home to wine, empty roads, and sobering reminders of one of the most powerful tsunami in modern history.
A few short video clips from this trip
- Distance: approx. 400km
- Total climbing: approx. 3500m
- Distance per day: 20km to 70km. Some days (particularly on Okushiri Island) could easily be combined for a shorter itinerary.
- Road surface: 99% paved
- Dates ridden: 20th till 30th September 2016
- Okushiri Island ferry: Heartland Ferries run a ferry service to Okushiri Island once or twice daily from either Setana Port (location) or Esashi Port (location).
- Ferry timetable: Timetables are season-dependent, so check the current timetable here: http://www.heartlandferry.jp/english/e-esashi-time/.
- Cost: Setana-Okushiri route starts at 1,700yen, Esashi-Okushiri route starts at 2,260yen. Biycles are an extra 1,250yen if rolled on, free if packed up in a bike bag and carried on as luggage. Up to date fare information here: http://www.heartlandferry.jp/english/e-esashi-fare/
- Duration: The ferry takes between 1.5hrs (Setana-Okushiri route) and 2.5hrs (Esashi-Okushiri route).
- Food on board: Basic snacks and instant noodles etc. are available on the ferries.
Route Overview (highlights in bold)
- Day 1 – Oshamambe to Setana (61km). Setana Campground, set high on a headland, has some epic views.
- Day 2 – Setana to Okushiri Island’s northern cape (15km plus ferry). The eerie rock piles at Okushiri Island’s northern cape are a poignant reminder of the 1993 tsunami.
- Day 3 – Okushiri Island northern cape to Yunohama (28km). Make sure to drop in at the Okushiri Winery.
- Day 4 – Yunohama to Okushiri Island’s southern cape (17km). The International Tsunami Information Center is reminder of mother nature’s force.
- Day 5 – Okushiri Island to Matsumae Town (70km plus ferry). The massive views from the elevated coastal road from Esashi to Matsumae are really something.
- Day 6 – Matsumae to Shiriuchi (57km). Matsumae Castle is a peculiarity in Hokkaido, and is worth a visit. As is the Seikan Tunnel museum, with its information on the world’s longest undersea rail tunnel.
- Day 7 – Shiriuchi to Hakodate City (57km). The star-shaped fortress (Goryokaku) and its reconstructed magistrate’s building are tourist traps, but overwhelmingly worth the visit.
- Day 8 – Hakodate City (10km). Check out the eastern foreign quarter, and if your schedule lines up, see some keirin cycle racing at Hokkaido’s only velodrome.
- Day 9 – Hakodate City to Kakkumi (67km). The popular surf spot in Todohokke is usually full of surfers.
- Day 10 – Kakkumi to Lake Onuma (35km). Lake Onuma is one of our favorite campsites in Hokkaido.
- Day 11 – Lake Onuma to Onuma Park train station (6km). The little tourist town of Onuma is famous for its soy-sauce flavored mochi.
Other Southern Hokkaido Cycle Touring Resources
- Hokkaido history information – This is not cycling-specific, but the Hokkaido government has a nice information booklet about the history of Hokkaido, and this southern part features quite heavily. Download the PDF here.
- Japan Cycling Navigator – Some alternative bicycle touring routes around southern Hokkaido plus nice commentary here: http://www.japancycling.org/v2/cguide/part3/hakodate.shtml
Daily Route Summary
Day 1 – Oshamambe (長万部) to Setana (せたな) (61km)
- Route Map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/17287984
- Full blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/southern-hokkaido-cycle-tour-day-1-oshamanbe-setana/
The start of this route is accessible by JR express train from Sapporo (or Hakodate), and begins at the express-train-stop station of Oshamambe. The old station is horrifically non-accessible, so be prepared to haul bikes and gear along platforms and up stairs. The route heads up and over the narrow piece of land that separates the Pacific Ocean and the Japan Sea, but the climb is not particularly steep. There isn’t much in the way of facilities on the way over until Imakane Town, so be prepared. The sell-appointed Setana Campground (with showers), up on a high headland is a beautiful (if not exposed) spot to catch the evening and morning sunset/sunrises.
Day 2 – Setana (せたな) to the northern cape of Okushiri Island (奥尻島) (15 km)
- Route map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/17289877
- Blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/southern-hokkaido-cycle-tour-day-2-setana-okushiri-island/
Ferries to Okushiri Island leave once daily from Setana Port at around 2pm. Check the timetable for up to date information (http://www.heartlandferry.jp/english/e-esashi-time/). Considering the late arrival on Okushiri Island, the campground at the northern cape of the island, only 10km from the ferry terminal, is a nice (albeit exposed) spot to bunk down for the night. The northern cape is also the location of one of the memorials to the almost 200 people killed in the 1993 tsunami on the island. The rocky tip of the cape is scattered with rock piles, and the shrine building is open 24 hours – an amazing place to sit, remember, and ponder us humans’ fragility against nature.
Day 3 – Okushiri Island (奥尻島) northern cape to Yunohama (湯浜) (28km)
- Route map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/17290146
- Blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/southern-hokkaido-cycle-tour-day-3-okushiri-island-eastern-coast/
Rather than follow the rugged and inaccessible northwest coast, the route along the northwest side of Okushiri Island grinds up and over a 350m high ridge. Expect picturesque forest, 800m or so of gravel road, content-looking cattle grazing out on the upper areas, and some stunning views on the downhill – rugged coast and beautiful, wild beech forests. Yu-no-hama bay is home to some post-tsunami relics (such as the still-bubbling hotspring ruins below), some options for onsen, and the surprisingly productive Okushiri Winery (fee wine tasting!).
Day 4 – Yunohama (湯浜) to the southern cape (Aonae 青苗地区) (17km)
- Route map: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/11196582
- Blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/southern-hokkaido-cycle-tour-day-4-okushiri-island-southern-end/
This really short day was one of the more interesting of the trip. The Japan Sea coast was an impossibly beautiful azure blue. The International Tsunami Information Center at the southern cape was moving. And sharing our campsite with a platoon of Japan Self Defense Force soldiers was quite the novelty. As for the tsunami information center, in 1993 there was one of the most powerful tsunami in modern history, and it hit this very southern cape of Okushiri Island, destroying the entire village. The 30m high, 500km/h breaking wave killed 197 people. The memories of that event are still strong among residents there. As for the Japan Self Defense Force, there is a large air self defense force base on the island, so the southern cape park area (which is great for camping) is sometimes used as a training ground.
Day 5 – Okushiri Island southern cape to Matsumae Town (松前町) (70km)
- Route map: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/11214408
- Blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/southern-hokkaido-cycle-tour-day-5-okushiri-island-matsumae/
Catching the (super) early ferry (timetable here) from Okushiri Port allows a full day of cycling around the mainland from Esashi to Matsumae. It also allows for a nice sunrise view over one of Okushiri’s main official tourist attractions – the pothandle rock. Once back on the mainland, take a bit of time to have a look around the historical parts of Esashi. Then it is around the coast to Matsumae, via a high-land coastal route with stunning views over rugged, forgotten stony beaches. Note that there is no official campground in Matsumae, but cyclists can get away with camping in one of the parks around the Matsumae castle.
Day 6 – Matsumae Town (松前町) to Shiriuchi (知内町) (56km)
- Route map: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/11231512
- Blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/southern-hokkaido-cycle-tour-day-6-matsumae-shiriuchi/
If you didn’t take a look at Matsumae Castle on the previous day, today is a great day to get in early and beat the crowds. The castle staff are nice and will usually let visitors in before opening time if you’re early and hang about at the entrance. Being the only castle in Hokkaido, it is a real curiosity. On the way towards Shiriuchi, the route passes the southern-most point in Hokkaido, and also passes through Fukushima Town. This town is home to the Seikan Tunnel museum, which recounts the construction of the world’s longest undersea rail tunnel, which connects Honshu with Hokkaido. The entrance to the tunnel is some 15km further along the route, near the Shiriuchi michi-no-eki. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the recently opened Hokkaido bullet train.
Day 7 – Shiriuchi (知内町) to Hakodate (函館) (57km)
- Route map: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/11252228
- Blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/southern-hokkaido-cycle-tour-day-7-shiriuchi-hakodate/
Hakodate is Hokkaido’s third-largest city with a population of 279,000. It is relatively compact, however, so the approach from the south is relatively straight forward (if not a little ugly, with one of Japan’s largest cement factories welcoming you to the city). Head straight for the Goryokaku star-shaped fortress, and enjoy cycling around the perimeter before heading in to the recently re-constructed magistrate’s building. You’ll pay for most tourist attractions in Hakodate, but they are very much worth it. Surprisingly good value is the restaurant at the top of Mt. Hakodate, accessed either by bus or ropeway. The night views are fantastic, and you’ll still only pay not much more than 800yen for the basic Japanese meal.
Day 8 – A day in Hakodate (函館) (10km)
- Route map: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/11275868
- Blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/southern-hokkaido-cycle-tour-day-8-day-hakodate/
A full day in Hakodate is well worth it. Attractions include the Mt. Hakodate ropeway, the western quarter, Goryokaku fortress, and if you’re there on the right day, the Hakodate keirin velodrome. Keirin is the Japanese cycling version of horse racing: punters bet on track cyclists. The Hakodate velodrome is usually free to enter and watch, and has live races twice a week. At other times, races from other parts of Japan are live-broadcasted onto large screens in the velodrome meeting areas. We opted to stay at one of the large tourist hotels (Yunokawa Tourist Hotel) in Yu-no-kawa, Hakodate’s main onsen area, about 10km from the city center.
Day 9 – Hakodate (函館) to Kakkumi (川汲) (67km)
- Route map: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/11282170
- Blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/southern-hokkaido-cycle-tour-day-9-hakodate-to-kakkumi/
Back on the road after a day off in Hakodate, today’s route takes you around the sleepy coast via Mt. Esa, Todohokke’s surf bay, and the onsen village of Kakkumi. The route cuts through fishing village after fishing village, so there is plenty of local industry to be seen. Make sure to drop in at the pink cafe just across the road from Todohokke surf beach – the cheese cake there is amazing. Once in Kakkumi, the climb up to the Kakkumi Park campground is worth it. The campground is nothing to write home about, but the quaint little onsen just down the road, run by a talkative 85 year old, is character defined.
Day 10 – Kakkumi (川汲) to Lake Onuma (大沼公園) (35km)
- Route map: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/11294652
- Blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/southern-hokkaido-cycle-tour-day-10-kakkumi-onuma/
Soon after heading out from Kakkumi Park Campground, you’ll pass the excellent Jomon Culture Center. This recently-constructed museum is a trove of information and artifacts from the Jomon period – from around 3,000BC till 500AD in Japan. A great number of artifacts from this hunter-gatherer culture/period have been unearthed near Kakkumi. In Shikabe town, the michi-no-eki has a geyser and steam-cooking facilities. Both cost money to see/use, and they are mostly worth it. At least there is a foot-bath to soak your feet in as you’re waiting the 15 minutes to see the geyser. Don’t miss the Higashi-Onuma Onsen just before getting to the lake. It is old and dingy, but the hot water is good for a soak. The Onuma Park Campground is free to use – just try to avoid the summer high season…it will be packed.
Day 11 – Onuma Campground to Onuma Park train station (大沼公園駅) (10km)
- Route map: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/11305618
- Blog entry: http://www.14degrees.org/southern-hokkaido-cycle-tour-day-11-onuma-back-chitose/
It is just a short 7km bike ride from the eastern end of Lake Onuma, where the campground is, and Onuma Park train station. From the station, express trains can be caught that will take you back to Sapporo (or Hakodate). Best to use the time to sleep in and enjoy a leisurely morning on the shores of Lake Onuma.