Shiretoko Cycle Touring (Hokkaido, Japan)

Easily accessible by Japan Rail train from Sapporo, this 350km Shiretoko loop tour of Hokkaido’s eastern reaches is world-class. World Heritage Site level, in fact. Enjoy the wide open coastal route from Abashiri to the Shiretoko Peninsula (World Heritage Site), before the grunt over the pass. Return via Lake Kussharo. Make it a two-week relaxing tour, or a week-long push. Best enjoyed in July or August.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would dispute that this eastern area is a gem in Hokkaido’s crown of natural beauty. For those cyclists with a month or so set aside for exploring Hokkaido, it should be a must-do on their itinerary. For cyclists with only a week or two, it may be a more difficult decision to make the trek out here. For those shorter-term cyclists, the most convenient way to access this area is by Japan Rail. There are regular direct trains from Sapporo to Abashiri, which is what we used for our two-week meander around the area in 2012. Alternatively, a non-loop ride from Abashiri to Nemuro via the Shiretoko Peninsula could also be feasible; there are daily trains that will take you back to Sapporo from Nemuro.

Below, I outline a ride my wife and I completed around the area in 2012. Campsite information is up to date, however (as of June 2016), and during a cycle-and-drive trip out there in 2015, the views and natural beauty was still as gorgeous as ever.

Essential Info

  • Distance: Approx. 350km. Note that the daily distances are fairly short. Stronger riders on a tighter schedule could easily merge many of the days below into longer one-day stretches.
  • Total climbing: Around 3,000m. The Shiretoko Pass is a substantial one, but the views all the way up, and down, are spectacular on a good day. Absolutely worth the effort.
  • Distance per day: Around 50km to 80km
  • Road surface: 100% paved
  • Dates ridden: August 2012 and August 2015
  • Bicycle rental options: Shiretoko Cycling Support in Utoro has a range of bikes available for rent during the day and overnight. If you can speak Japanese (or find someone who can), then Nakamura Cycles in Sapporo has great value bikes for rent (must be booked a week in advance).
  • Taking bikes on the train: See my advice here.
  • Higuma brown bears: It is true that the Shiretoko Peninsula boasts the highest concentration of higuma brown bears (Wikipedia article) in Hokkaido. That said, even when hiking in very remote areas of the Shiretoko region, it is only the very lucky who get to see a brown bear, and usually from afar. While cycling on the route below, it is extremely unlikely that you’d ever see a bear on the road. Campsites in the region are not frequented by bears. If heading off on hiking trails, consider carrying a bell, for the bear’s sake.

Route Overview (highlights in bold)

  • Day 1Abashiri to Shari Town (45km). Highlights are the wide open horse paddocks along the coast.
  • Day 2Shari Town to Utoro (38km). The rugged ocean coast approaching Utoro is gorgeous. Consider a side-trip to the Five Lakes area north along the Shiretoko Peninsula (30km return).
  • Day 3Utoro to Rausu (35km). Shiretoko Pass (745m) is one of the best passes in Hokkaido.
  • Day 4Rausu to Odaito (60km). This stretch of coast is home to small-scale fishing and kelp-harvesting. Consider a side trip by ferry to Notsuke Peninsula.
  • Day 5Odaito to Nijibetsu (60km). Small-scale dairy farming and curious cows will keep things interesting on quiet back-roads.
  • Day 6Nijibetsu to Lake Kussharo (57km). Lake Kussharo is home to hot springs and beautiful campgrounds. Lake Masshu is worth the climb on a fine day.
  • Day 7Lake Kussharo to Abashiri (60km).

Extra Resources

Route Map

Route Map Direct Link | Route GPX File Download

Daily Route Summary

Day 1 – Abashiri (網走) to Shari (斜里)

With the Shiretoko Peninsula getting most of the attention, it is easy to underestimate this lovely section of coast. Make sure to drop in to the wild bird sanctuary, and head another 100m down the road to a small paddock where miniature horses are sometimes kept. Back on the main road and further along on the right side is a large paddock, home to larger horses. The wild flower covered sand dunes are said to be beautiful when in bloom, but we’ve always managed to miss them. Shari Town is a quaint little village, and the Soyokaze Campground is a worthy place to camp for the night. Approaching Shari Village, it is recommended to stay off the busy Route 244; the side roads are quiet and much more welcoming.

Miniature horses at Lake Tofutsuko (Hokkaido, Japan)

Day 2 – Shari (斜里) to Utoro (ウトロ)

Today’s ride thrusts you into the guts of the gorgeous Shiretoko National Park. Once you’ve conquered the 5km or so of narrow road at the very start of the peninsula, the route opens out to a wide, well kept road with a wide raised foot path on the ocean side. The old kissaten (cafe, location here) overlooking a little fishing port, just before the widened road is worth dropping into. The interior is dated, but the owner is lovely and they have a great view. The coffee is typical Japanese kissaten style: dark and strong.

The rest of the coast towards Utoro is pure bliss on a nice day. And at the end of it is the fantastic Shiretoko Campground. Run by the Japanese government, this campground overlooks Utoro, and is frequented by wild but surprisingly tame deer. They’ll quite happily curl up next to your tent for the night. There are plenty of onsen options nearby, and if you arrive early enough, you’ll have time to drop your gear at the campground and do an unloaded 15km sprint to the Five Lakes area.

Haidee on the Shiretoko Highway (Shiretoko, Hokkaido)

Side trip – Utoro (ウトロ) to Five Lakes (五胡)

This beautiful 30km return trip is well worth the climbs involved. Along the way, you’re very likely to see wild Hokkaido deer alongside the road, as well as bushy-tailed foxes. The road is in perfect condition all the way to the Five Lakes information center, where short (<1hr) hiking trails can be accessed in exchange for 500yen (and a mandatory 10 minute bear safety lecture). The gravel road beyond the information center is unfortunately often closed to individual traffic during the day.

One of the lakes on the five lake walk on the Shiretoko Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

Day 3 – Utoro (ウトロ) to Rausu (羅臼)

On a good day, this ride over the Shiretoko Pass is spectacular. From the top you can see Russia, and the majestic mountains all around stand crisp and clear. We’ve cycled it in both brilliant weather and also when we had driving rain in our faces the entire way up and down. Either way, the road cuts through wild native forest, and the free outdoor kuma-no-yu (bear’s hot spring – location) just before Rausu should not be missed. The Rausu Onsen Campground is just over the road from Kuma-no-yu and while we’ve never stayed there, I hear it can be a nice place to stay (albeit busy in the summer season).

Camper-cycle hybrid tour of eastern Hokkaido, Japan

Day 4 – Rausu (羅臼) to Odaito (尾岱沼)

As fast as the preceding days thrust you into the heart of Hokkaido’s natural gem that is the Shiretoko National Park, today takes you out of the area along a coast heaving with small-scale fishing and kelp-harvesting. The route is flat, and there are longer distances between supplies. The Odaito Fureai Campground is highly recommended – coin laundry is available, and the onsen at the Odaito Seaside Hotel, just 10 minutes walk away, is great for tired muscles.

Big Clydesdale-ish horses south of Rausu (Hokkaido, Japan)

Side Trip – Notsuke Peninsula (野付半島)

Notsuke Peninsula is best known for its dead pines sticking out of the marshes. While that doesn’t sound like much (and doesn’t bode well for when they rot and disappear all together), this thin spit of land jutting out of Hokkaido’s eastern coastline is teeming with wild sealife. You can see Russia from here too. If end-of-the-world, remote scenery sounds appealing, then the ferry ride and cycle back around the spit is worth the trip.

Boardwalks along the Notsuke Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan)

Day 5 – Odaito (尾岱沼) to Nijibetsu (虹別)

There are more direct routes from Odaito to Nijibetsu than the one linked to above. But it is worth taking the time to ride some of the secondary roads in this dairy-intensive area, to get a feel for the small-scale farming in this part of the country. Lush green grass, curious cows, and quiet roads. Watch out for appearances of the majestic red-crested cranes too; they seem to like to hang out in the fields.

Dairy farms near Nijibetsu (Hokkaido, Japan)

Day 6 – Nijibetsu (虹別) to Lake Kussharo (屈斜路湖)

To visit Lake Masshu or not to visit…that is the question. It is a stiff climb up to the rim of the caldera, and in all reality, it is only worth doing if the weather is perfect and clear. Which doesn’t happen all that often around Lake Masshu. If the weather looks iffy, then just head straight to Lake Kussharo from Teshikakga Town. With plenty of camping and hot spring options around Lake Kussharo, Lake Kussharo is a very worthy place to spend a night.

Kotan open-air hotspring in Kotan (Hokkaido, Japan)

Day 7 – Lake Kussharo (屈斜路湖) to Abashiri (網走)

There’s not much to say about this last day. The last-hurrah grunt up and over the pass out of Lake Kussharo is short but sharp, and beyond that it is a flat day onwards to Abashiri.

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11 thoughts on “Shiretoko Cycle Touring (Hokkaido, Japan)

  • Violaine

    Looks fantastic, thanks for such a greatly documented website ! We will head to Shiretoko this coming August and do the loop. As we have 2 children (one child per carriage) and our camping stuff, the passes might be quite tough but we will try and do our best 😄
    One question pls Rob, when arriving to Sapporo by plane from France, our bikes will be in packages (long flat cardboard boxes). Would that be accepted in the train to Abashiri, or do we have to look for specific bike bags? Would be definitely easier for us to keep them in the cardboard boxes… Any idea / advice ?

    • Rob Thomson Post author

      Great to hear you are heading over this way. Your bike boxes will be fine on the train. When you board the train to Abashiri in Sapporo, I recommend you try to find where the very front or very end of the train will be. Put your bikes there, because then they won’t get in the way of others, and also there tends to be some extra room at the end or front. You can then go and find your seat once you have the bikes secured at the front or back.

  • Allie

    Thank you for all the lovely details. I will be heading here during the last week of August. Since it is high season, do you think it is necessary to try to book the campgrounds ahead of time somehow, or will I be able to find a spot somewhere if I just show up?

    • Rob Thomson Post author

      If you just show up, you will always be able to find a spot at campgrounds, even in the high season. You may be right next to someone else’s tent, but it is very unlikely that you’ll be turned away.

  • Jennifer

    Hi Rob,
    Sending you a BIG THANK YOU for your website, and this trip route in particular. My partner and I just completed a 9 day version of this loop and really loved it. Your website helped us decide where to go and made me feel confidently prepared for my first bike touring trip!
    FYI We hired our bikes from Shiretoko Cycling Support (which we found via this page, another thing to thank you for) and we were really happy with the hire. Shigeo who runs the shop was so friendly and helpful, he even met us in Abashiri at both ends of the trip so we could do the full loop from Memanbetsu airport.
    Thanks again for this detailed site! If you ever need a place to crash or a bike to borrow in Sydney we would be happy to help you out.
    Jennifer and Neil

  • Bianca

    Hi Rob,

    I messaged you about this time last year about doing this trip with our then 2 year old son. We didnt end up doing it but are now booked to go over in August, thanks to all the information on your website! (Since having our son, we are less likely to wing it on cycle tours, bit more planning and safer roads required!). I have a few questions if that’s ok…

    -last year we couldnt find a bike trailer to hire there, and bringing ours would have been a pain (part of the reason we didnt quite make it across), but now he’s bigger we may bring a more compact bike seat. My friend told me about the ‘mami chari’ there, not sure of your experience with these, but are there any for hire that you’ve seen? Are they the sorts of bikes that would be ok to use on a tour? However due to the costs of hiring bikes, we may end up just bringing our own gear anyway…. but your thoughts would be great anyhow…

    -there’s a whole other level of luggage required if camping, which is our preference, but just in case, are rider houses as regular as campgrounds? Just working out the camping vs. non-camping options (just due to the gear carrying….)

    -maps- i’m pretty old school with maps when riding and havent really dabbled too much in gps routes when riding….i will print your cue sheet as a guide but is there also an awesome detailed map i can print somewhere? I’m not sure the one ive seen on here is detailed enough… then again, maybe i should take the plunge into gps, ha ha!! I still like to have a hard copy in front of me…

    -if we end up putting bikes together at airport and catching train to Sapporo, do you think cycling around Sapporo with child is do-able/ safe? Might check it out a bit before heading to Abashiri..

    Thank you, still working on all our logistics of trip, your site is amazing and incredibly detailed, helpful when travelling with child 🙂
    Bianca (Australia)

    • Rob Thomson Post author

      Hi Bianca, sorry for the delay in response.

      Mamachari. These are are certainly not condusive to comfortable touring, and I don’t really know of anywhere that hires them out.

      Rider houses shouldn’t really be relied on soley for accommodation. They can be few and far between, and some marked on the map may not be open.

      For maps I recommended the Touring Mapple. It is all in Japanese though.

      Yes, Sapporo is great for cycling. Wide roads and generally forgiving traffic.

      Hope this helps.

      • Bianca

        Oh wonderful! Thanks (sorry for my long essay questions…). Leaving next week 🙂 and will be camping and taking our trailer from home, which may be a pain on the train to Abashiri, we’ll just roll with it.

        Many thanks for such as super informative blog and for your help…. Bianca