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.
- 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 1 – Abashiri to Shari Town (45km). Highlights are the wide open horse paddocks along the coast.
- Day 2 – Shari 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 3 – Utoro to Rausu (35km). Shiretoko Pass (745m) is one of the best passes in Hokkaido.
- Day 4 – Rausu 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 5 – Odaito to Nijibetsu (60km). Small-scale dairy farming and curious cows will keep things interesting on quiet back-roads.
- Day 6 – Nijibetsu 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 7 – Lake Kussharo to Abashiri (60km).
- Hokkaido Regional Development Bureau’s Hokkaido Cycle Touring Pamphlet has a nice route around this area on pages 17 and 18 (PDF)
- Cycling Japan offers tours around this route. See their itinerary here (PDF).
Daily Route Summary
Day 1 – Abashiri (網走) to Shari (斜里)
- Distance: 42km
- Official campsite: Shari Soyokaze Campground (斜里そよ風キャンプ場), 500yen per tent, onsen 4km away (Green Onsen)
- Route Map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/14188550
- Full blog post: http://www.14degrees.org/hokkaido-bear-hunt-day-2-abashiri-to-shari/
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.
Day 2 – Shari (斜里) to Utoro (ウトロ)
- Distance: 37km
- Official campsite: Shiretoko National Campground (location), 400yen per person, onsen 5 mins away (location)
- Route Map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/14188901
- Full blog post: http://www.14degrees.org/hokkaido-bear-hunt-day-3-shari-to-utoro/
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.
Side trip – Utoro (ウトロ) to Five Lakes (五胡)
- Distance: 30km return
- Main attraction: Shiretoko Five Lakes hiking trails (info). Around 500yen to access the trails (500yen is the cost of the 10 minute, mandatory bear safety lecture).
- Route Map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/14207101
- Full blog post: http://www.14degrees.org/hokkaido-bear-hunt-day-4-utoro-to-five-lakes-and-back-again/
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.
Day 3 – Utoro (ウトロ) to Rausu (羅臼)
- Distance: 35km
- Official campsite: Shiretoko Rausu Onsen Campground, 300yen per night per person. Kuma-no-yu free outdoor onsen just across the road.
- Route Map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/14207344
- Full blog post: http://www.14degrees.org/hokkaido-bear-hunt-day-5-utoro-to-rausu/
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).
Day 4 – Rausu (羅臼) to Odaito (尾岱沼)
- Distance: 60km
- Official campsite: Odaito Fureai Campground, 300yen per person plus 400yen per tent. Onsen 10mins walk away (location).
- Route Map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/14207847
- Full blog post: http://www.14degrees.org/hokkaido-bear-hunt-day-6-rausu-to-odaito/
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.
Side Trip – Notsuke Peninsula (野付半島)
- Distance: 30km
- Ferry information: Tourist ferries from the central Odaito Port irregularly during the summer months, so check with the campground staff or tourist info in town. Ferry takes 30 minutes and includes some pottering around looking for seals. Info in Japanese here. Ferry costs around 2,000yen per person, and you can take bikes on for free.
- Route Map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/14212425
- Full blog post: http://www.14degrees.org/hokkaido-bear-hunt-day-7-a-wee-blat-on-notsuke-peninsula/
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.
Day 5 – Odaito (尾岱沼) to Nijibetsu (虹別)
- Distance: 60km
- Official campsite: Nijibetsu Auto Campground (location). 370yen a night per person for a non-powered tent site. No onsen nearby, but coin showers and coin laundry available.
- Route Map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/14237917
- Full blog post: http://www.14degrees.org/hokkaido-bear-hunt-day-8-odaito-to-nijibetsu/
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.
Day 6 – Nijibetsu (虹別) to Lake Kussharo (屈斜路湖)
- Distance: 45km
- Official campsite: There are a couple of campsites at Lake Kussharo, all within about 5km of each other. The Sunayu Campground on the eastern shores of the lake (400yen per person, location) is fun – you can camp in front of a hot-spring you dig yourself in the sand. At the southern end, on the Wakoto Peninsula, are two campsites (location), one is free. Don’t miss the free outdoor onsen here. There’s also a 1000-yen a night Riders’ House at the end of the lake (location).
- Route Map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/14250388
- Full blog post: http://www.14degrees.org/hokkaido-bear-hunt-day-9-nijibetsu-to-lake-kusharo/
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.
Day 7 – Lake Kussharo (屈斜路湖) to Abashiri (網走)
- Distance: 61km
- Official campsite: The closest campground to central Abashiri is the one on the shores of Lake Abashiri (location). This campground is free, and an onsen with open air bath is about 200m away (500yen per person for the onsen).
- Route Map: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/14257651
- Full blog post: http://www.14degrees.org/hokkaido-bear-hunt-day-12-kotan-to-abashiri/
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.