Vancouver to Victoria

19th July – 3rd August 2016

So we’ve crossed a few borders over the last 2 years and almost without exception they’ve all gone smoothly. Getting into Azerbaijan took a while but they gave us tea and Snickers while we waited. Getting out of Uzbekistan was delayed when they asked for registration slips from hotels for each night of our stay, luckily an unenforceable rule that just required us to smile and shake our heads until they let us through. Other than that it’s hardly taken a few minutes to get into the next country.

We imagined that getting into Canada would be another straightforward process, we’re coming into the Commonwealth after all. The trouble is when your answer to “What’s your current line of employment?” Is “unemployed cyclist” and “when did you last have a job?” Is “2014” it triggers certain alarm bells with the immigration officer. We’d left Hokkaido at 1:30pm and it’s now 8pm on the same day. In between we’ve had a 3 hour flight to Shanghai, sat there for 8 hours then taken another 10 hour flight to Vancouver. Suffice to say we’re exhausted, confused, hungry and just want to pedal the few km to our Warmshowers host and sleep. Do we really look like we’re here to cause trouble? Actually my beard has grown a bit unruly.

Instead we’re directed into a room of despondent looking Chinese and South East Asian travellers where we wait our turn for further investigations. After 90 minutes we’re finally called forward and the officer takes one look at our bike and asks where we’ve been and where we’re headed. “Sounds like quite a trip, keep safe as Canadian drivers are terrible” is as much as he has to say before sending us on our way. Finally we can get rolling on the North American leg of our journey but it’s a good job they didn’t find our contraband dairy and meat products.

Beautiful BC, but bad drivers apparently

Colourful cement plant

We spend two days with Ian and Lis in the suburbs of Vancouver. They weren’t fussed about our eventual very late arrival and offer us our own room where we can rest and sort ourselves out. Somehow barely sleeping on the plane has allowed me to slip into the new time zone, 16hrs behind Japan, fairly easily. Kirsty isn’t so lucky and feels dreadful during daylight and wide awake at night. While she adapts I wonder around the city to see what makes it the best place to live in North America.

View of Downtown Vancouver from Queen Elizabeth Park

Although seeing it in the sunshine definitely helps, and is a rare thing apparently, there’s a great feeling about the place. The mountainous backdrop to the downtown skyline makes it clear that when you live hear the great outdoors is on your doorstep. In the city itself there are bikes everywhere and a brand new public bike service opens up on the day that we arrive to encourage even more people to get around on two wheels.

Mountains, beaches and a modern city. What’s not to like?

City bikes

Vancouver is also famous for its food and walking around I spot Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Greek, Indian and Turkish restaurants in one small area alone. There’s no need to travel the world when you can taste it all here. The faces are multicultural too, much more than I expected, with communities from all parts of the world to match the cuisine.

Punjabi Market, Vancouver

Fruit stall on Granville Island

Even the phones love living here

Most big cities we’ve been to have been interesting but not immediately appealing as a place to live. Vancouver has something different about it though and is probably the first place that, if push came to shove, would be a possibility as somewhere to stay longer.

To mark our arrival on a new continent I treat myself to a trim that is more severe than I would have liked. This has the benefit of making me look less like a Sasquatch and so less likely to be captured by a trophy hunter.

Before trim

After trim

After a couple of days Kirsty is slowly becoming conscious at the correct times so we decide to try getting going on the bike. We’re heading east again, out of the city and into its numerous and familiarly named districts of Richmond, New Westminster, Surrey all making us feel like we’re crossing London.

Ian, our host in Vancouver

Arriving in Japan is a big culture shock for most people flying in from the West but we’d approached it gradually so, although we had to get used to its more unique quirks it didn’t seem quite so strange. It’s more of a shock for us arriving here in Canada after so long in Asia. The tiny box cars have been replaced by enormous v8 pick ups. Houses are huge wooden bungalows surrounded by acres of lawn. There’s so much space! At one point a train comes past and 15 minutes later it’s still coming past. I give up counting somewhere around the 180th carriage.

Japanese Car Park

Canadian car park

Japanese magazines

Canadian magazines

One of our problems shopping in Japan was finding things in big enough quantities. Porridge oats (if we could find them at all) were sold in 300g bags that lasted 2 days. Here it’s hard to buy anything in less than 3kg bags. The smallest bag of crisps (sorry, potato chips) are 4 times the size of the largest Japanese equivalent. Milk is sold by the gallon which isn’t much help when we only want a pint.

Sorry Kirsty but it’s too big and too heavy

It’s a nice change being able to read labels and signs and have conversations with people though. At a stop at a 7 11, which is one thing Canada does have in common with Japan, we get chatting to three different people and can actually answer their many questions. Translating from English to Canadian is very simple and just requires the addition of ‘eh?’ to the end of each sentence.

This chap had built his own bamboo bike as an ‘art project’

Frazer River

We follow the Frazer valley out through Maple Ridge and Abbotsford and end the day in Chilliwack at the home of Ant and Rita. It’s been fantastic making new friends all along our route but it’s even better catching up with old ones, and I’ve known Ant nearly as long as I’ve known my own parents. We went to the same school at the age of 4 and have kept in touch ever since even though the distance between us grew substantially when he moved here 10 years ago. This is the first time I’ve had a chance to visit so there’s plenty of reminiscing to be done, no doubt boring our respective wives with tales of our irresponsible antics in the days of our youth. They have an adventure playground on their doorstep in the form of mountains and lakes and a garage full of toys to help them enjoy it to the full so I don’t think Ant will be returning to Gloucestershire anytime soon.

Ant, Rita and Kayla outside the finest German auto specialist garage in the Frazer Valley – http://www.hoodstarautomotive.com

View of Chilliwack

A walk near Hope

Free climber taking a dive, near Hope. Ant was going to have a go too but forgot his trunks.

Toy cupboard

Rita tries out the stoker seat

Friends Reunited

Through the wonders of Facetime we manage to catch up with another old friend, also an Anthony, back in Eastbourne for a reunion that is long overdue, even if it’s only in cyberspace. The three of us comprise a mechanic with his own business, an opera singer and a cycling nomad. It’s amazing the different directions our lives have followed from a shared childhood. The weekend goes all too quick though and soon it’s time for Ant and Rita to return to work and for us to return to being unemployed cyclists.

Chilliwack is famous for its corn. None today though.

Retracing our tyre tracks to Maple Ridge we then turn up towards Belcarra after Port Moody. We’re aiming for Deep Cove as we’ve been invited to stay with Tara’s sister, Kirsten, and her family. Tara was our riding buddy in North West India and South Korea.

One of the best sunsets of the whole trip while camping at Whonnock lake

Deep Cove sits on the ‘North Shore’ on the other side of a stretch of water from the bulk of the city. It’s also near the mouth of the Indian Arm, a fjord that stretches north of Vancouver and then comes down to join the Howe Sound before flowing out to sea. All this water makes it a fantastic location but makes it tricky for us to get to it. By road we’d have to go back into Vancouver, cross a bridge then come back on ourselves to follow the coast round and up the Indian Arm. However, taking a boat from Belcarra would save us this 40 km ride. There’s no ferry across but luckily Kirsten has a friend who can help.

Canada. Geese.

We sit in the sunshine on the dock watching crabs being caught by a group of fishermen when a small tin boat arrives with Tanya on board and her furry co-pilot Rosa the labrador. There’s just enough room to get the bike and bags in then we’re treated to a leisurely tour of the cove complete with views up to Whistler and a bald eagle flying overhead. Once deposited back on dry land we offer our thanks and make the short spin up to Kirsten’s house. Not just a handy shortcut but a very pleasant way to arrive too.

Catching crabs, Belcarra

Tanya and Rosa

Bald Eagle taking a break on the Indian Arm

Just enough room for tandem and crew

It seems any friends of Tara are friends of Kirsten too so we’re instantly made to feel at home along with husband Court and children Emma and Matt.  The day ends with ice cream followed by all of us jumping off the end of the jetty into the refreshing water.

Kirsten and co.

We’re back on the water with Tanya first thing, paddling up The Indian Arm in some kayaks. We pass her house that sits right by the water and, like several other waterfront houses,  is only accessible by boat as there’s no road to it. You get such a different perspective of a place from down on the water compared to on the road. It’s still and peaceful and using the arms gives our legs a much needed break. At one point a seal pops it’s head up for a quick look then disappears leaving barely a ripple.

Out in kayaks on the Indian Arm

Through the narrows

Taking a break from the paddling

The North Shore has something of a reputation amongst the mountain bike fraternity as being one of the finest locations in the world for the sport. Woven deep in the woods are a tangled web of trails that have been built up since the earliest days that people decided to try riding off road. Ranging from muddy, rocky single track to skinny planks perched several metres up in the air this is somewhere that anyone with a passing interest in mountain biking can lose several hours, and potentially several limbs. Tanya’s husband Dave has found a bike for me to use and I join him and his friend Chris for a brilliant evening bouncing along the trails. I quickly discover that my mountain biking skills have been dormant for too long to really be able to tackle this at the speed the bike deserves. Maybe if I come back tomorrow and practice some more. And the next day….

It’s a rule that at least one person should be riding a Cove out on the North Shore

Speeding through the woods

Mountain bikers

A boat ride back to Dave and Tanya’s house for a BBQ brings the day to a very pleasant close. As we look across the water the lure of Vancouver and Deep Cove in particular is very strong. As if to tempt us further the next door house, also with no road access, is for sale and it looks like a tempting prospect. Kayaking to work, mountain biking in the summer, skiing in the winter. sounds idyllic, until we discover the price. And this is the dilemma with Vancouver, its popularity and foreign investors have driven property prices sky high so as well as being one of the best places to live it’s also one of the most expensive in North America. Looks like we’ll be keeping our house in Bristol a bit longer after all.

Park sign in Deep Cove

Water access only

Despite wanting to take up permanent residency in Kirsten’s basement we have to say goodbye the next day. The road out of Deep Cove gives us views to downtown Vancouver as it rollercoasters up and down along the north shore. There’s a bike lane but it’s narrow and the road itself is very busy until we get to Marine Drive where we follow the water’s edge more closely and the bulk of the traffic is left to occupy the main highway. We pass through Gleneagles, namesake to the road where we live in Bristol, then we arrive at Horseshoe Bay where ferries run across to Vancouver Island. Until 10pm the previous evening this was our intended destination but instead we zoom straight past it and continue north. Over a burger and a bottle of wine Tanya and Kirsten persuaded us that we really must ride up to Whistler as the road up there is one of the most scenic drives in the world. Being in a suggestible frame of mind we decided to take their advice and now find ourselves on route 99, the Sea to Sky highway.

Route 99

As the name suggests the landscape is a breath-taking panorama from the Howe Sound up to the tops of the huge mountains and blue sky beyond. I can see why drivers would be enjoying themselves. For cyclists it isn’t quite such a breeze though. The road was widened to accommodate the extra traffic for the winter Olympics in 2010 but the hard shoulder is a bit too narrow for my liking, not helped by the rumble strip that occupies a good third of it. We spend most of the afternoon going up and down round headlands too. Still, the views are lovely and we reward ourselves with an ice cream at Lions Bay before eventually setting up the tent behind a marina at Britannia Beach.

The Sea to Sky Highway

View from Britannia Beach

At Squamish we leave the coast and start to make progress up into the mountains. The climbing is steep in places and then we’re dropped down to have to climb up again. Usually a descent is a good thing but when you know you need to be getting higher it feels like taking two steps forward and one step back. The altitude we’ve earned is cruelly snatched away and then has to be worked for all over again.

There are various water features to use as an excuse for a break along the way including Shannon Falls, Alice Lake and Brandywine Creek. The last of which provides a much needed bottle top up opportunity as the 38 degree heat is making this a thirsty business.

Shannon Falls

We’re glad to get to Whistler Village by late afternoon and refuel on birthday cake flavoured ice cream and Poutine cheesy chips. The exercise to calorie ratio being brought rapidly back into balance. We soon discover that the Wanderlust festival is in full swing, a celebration of all things yoga and alternative. The punters for this make for a stark contrast from the usual set of downhill mountain bikers that hang around Whistler in the summer. Half the people are walking around in coloured tights with foam mats under their arms while the other half are in body armour with full face helmets under their arms.

Arriving in Whistler

Extreme Yoga-ists and Zen Mountain Bikers

We emerge from our covert campsite in the woods in the morning to be greeted by the sight of 50 people in the downward dog position. Back in the village we board a cable car that whisks up to the top of Whistler mountain. The famous bike park is a bit too extreme for the tandem so we’re venturing out on foot and hike around the peak on the ‘High Note Trail’. All around us are the Coastal mountains with bright green glacial lakes sitting amongst the endless pine forests. We pick our way along the rugged path and over pink tinged ‘watermelon’ snow before catching the Peak to Peak cable car to neighbouring Blackcombe mountain. Laying claim to being the highest  cable car in the world as well as the longest single span, we can add it to our list of world beating cable cars that we’ve ridden.

Toes to the sky

Bike school for the brave

On the High Note trail

Cheakamus Lake

High Note Trail

More mountain views from The High Note Trail

Lunch at Altitude

 

Alpine meadow

Are we lost?

Peak to Peak cable car

View from the Peak to Peak

2nd place is first loser

On our way back down to the village our chairlift passes over a ski piste and busy foraging in the grass  is a black bear. Luckily he seems oblivious to the juicy snacks that are passing overhead like sushi on a conveyor belt. Finally we get the bear sighting we’ve been looking out for since Hokkaido and luckily from a safe vantage point.

Bear!

The musical element of the festival includes a free concert from Jose Gonzalez which comes as a nice surprise in the evening and The Carnival Band keep the party going afterwards. Whistler knows how to lay on a good show both in the winter and the summer.

Nodding to the tunes of Jose Gonzalez

Olympic Standard Party

Although the road back to Horesehoe Bay is effectively downhill we know that it’s got nearly as many ups as downs. In the interest of saving time and on the basis that this has been a side trip away from our intended route we take the executive decision to catch the bus back to the Bay. Any time saving is quickly eroded however when we discover that we’ve left our kindles on the bus shortly after it’s sped away. As I may have mentioned before, Kirsty is a voracious reader so to lose her Kindle would be like losing a limb. A phone call to Greyhound and a three hour round trip back into Vancouver and I’m back at the ferry terminal with the trusty Kindles and we can get on board the boat for Vancouver Island.

Buses with bike racks

From Nanaimo we ride out into farmland to our next Warmshowers hosts, Cory and Jim. This forms another connection with Tara as by chance we discover that they were her first ever hosts on her first cycle tour. More often than not the people we stay with live at the top of a hill and Cory and Jim’s  house is no exception. Inside there are pictures and souvenirs from all corners of the globe collected during a 10 year trip where they used all forms of transport, including bikes, to explore far flung places. In a bid to encourage their sons to get into cycling they’ve bought some tandems and are one of the few people to out do our own collection as they have three tandems hanging in their barn.

Cory and Jim, our hosts near Nanaimo

Two of their three tandems

We’re given some handy tips for the next day’s riding. There’s a brief spell on the Trans Canada highway where if we’d turned right we could have followed it all the way to Toronto. Instead we hang a left then turn off through Ladysmith and down to Crofton Harbour to take a ferry to Vesuvius on Saltpring Island. This little village has little to do with it’s volcanic name sake, and on the other side of the island Ganges doesn’t seem to have much of a Hindu presence but the island itself is a lovely little spot. It’s become a popular place for communties of artists to come and find inspiration and like minded friends so the overall feel is very laidback. We lie back on a beach and enjoy views over to the alpenglow on Mount Baker while sea planes and geese take to the evening skies. There are supposed to be orcas under the water too but unfortunately none come to the surface for us.

Mural in Chemainus

Even the Subway gets a mural in Chemainus

Beddis Beach, Salt Spring Island

Camping at Beddis Beach, Salt Spring Island

Riding on Salt Spring Island

We return to the main island after a thorough soaking from a rain shower in the morning with the ferry dropping us off in another familiar sounding town. From Sidney we pick up the Lochside bicycle trail that makes use of an old railway line and allows us to ride straight into Victoria away from any traffic. An intended coffee stop with an ex-colleague of Kirsty’s becomes a generous invitation to stay the night despite their having several house guests already. The desire to move to Canada was so great for Ben and Tiffany that they took the gamble of selling their home in the UK and moving over here 7 years ago despite not having jobs secured and with a 6 month old daughter in tow. The gamble paid off though and they managed to find work and they’re now enjoying living out their Canadian dream.

Lochside Rail Trail, Vancouver Island

Ben and his mum, Moira

A tandem loving graffiti artist in Victoria

Unfortunately our Canadian adventure is rapidly coming to an end. It feels like we’ve sampled a few choice morsels from a feast that could last decades. On our last day we ride into Victoria and take a look in the Royal British Columbia Museum to learn a bit about the First Nations that occupied this land long before Europeans came and took over. It’s a sad story of exploitation that will no doubt be repeated once we head south into the USA.

First nation totem poles in the Royal BC Museum, Victoria

Learning some first nation language (or not)

Perfectly preserved 40,000 year old baby mammoth n the Royal BC Museum

The middle of Victoria feels strangely familiar with the architecture taking on a very British appearance. In fact the harbour area could well be mistaken for Bristol if it weren’t for the sea planes taxiing in and out.

Victoria Harbour

Parliament Building and BC flag, Victoria

We spend our last night in Canada camped overlooking the Puget Sound with the mountains of the Olympic Park in Washington State rising up in the distance. We’ll be catching a very early ferry across to get a closer look in the morning and can only hope that getting into this next country will go a little smoother. Onwards to the United States of America!

These were the only orcas we managed to spot while on the island

Ferry to The States




Hayama and Hokkaido 

Japan is quite rightly proud of its unique culture and traditions. As an island country it’s managed to preserve its identity (helped by being cutoff from the rest of the world for two hundred years) while the rest of Asia gradually grows together. It’s a fitting place for us to be while we wait for the results of the referendum to decide if our own country will return to being independent of its continental neighbours.

As the swingometer leans in favour of the ‘leave the EU’ option we watch Facebook fill up with the shocked response from our friends back home. They’re waking up to the news that Brexit is going to happen and the general consensus is that this is a very bad thing. We’re shocked too. The world has changed a lot since we left home in 2014 but this event will have the most immediate effect on us right here and right now and in a terrible form. Thanks to the sudden drop in value of the pound our sushi will cost us 14% more and so we’re crying into our macha tea.

…pedalling

Having the run of Mark and Miki’s house for a few days makes for a wonderful break from the routine of the road. A hi-fi and a huge stack of CDs puts a big smile on my face as it’s been so long since we’ve been able to enjoy the simple pleasure of sitting and listening to music for a few hours.

Miki

Mark, who also happens to be one of the fastest triathletes in the east

Hayama is a lovely little town only an hour south of Tokyo by train but a world away from the big busy city. The Emperor has a house here for a good reason. We swim in the sea, explore the temples of nearby Kamakura and try some local sashumi while enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of a beach community.

Hayama, the perfect rest stop

Hayama with Fuji-San behind

Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Shrine, Kamakura where you can literally wash money in the hope that it will then multiply

A happy meal, Kamakura

Zen garden, Engaku Ji, Kamakura

It’s hard to ignore the lure of Tokyo though so we head back up there a couple of times on ‘days out’. It seems to be a city that offers something for everyone, no matter how obscure your interests are with quirks and cults taken to levels of obsession. One example of this is the rise in popularity of fixed gear bikes. On street corners  cool hipsters prop themselves up against meticulously assembled track bikes and street racers. We stumble across a specialist ‘fixie’ shop on Cat Street where for ¥40000 ($400) you can select the colour of each and every component on your new bike. There are 300 different saddles to choose from alone including some rather smart Harris tweed options. All very tempting.

Tokyo tag

Shibuya pedestrian crossing, the busiest in the worlds with up to 600 people stepping out when the lights turn

Shibuya Crossing

Pimped fixie, Cat Street, Tokyo

http://www.riderzcafe.com/, Tokyo

Harris tweed perches

One of the more eccentric sights is the Tokyo Rockabilly Club. This long standing institution has been jiving in Yoyogi park every Sunday for decades. Kirsty’s mum saw them when she was here in 1985. With greased back hair, full denim outfits and moves straight out of Blue Suede Shoes this collection of 50’s throwbacks put on a great show.

Tokyo Rockabilly, Yoyogi Park

Tokyo Rockabillies, Yoyogi Park

Tokyo Rockabilly, Yoyogi Park

Thank you very much

Cycling busker with portable xylophones, Yoyogi Park, Tokyo

The main reason for heading up to Tokyo though is to go for a paddle on the 1964 Olympic rowing lake. As the guests of Partez Rowing Club we’re  assigned a seat in two different quads and enjoy an evening racing up and down this historic stretch of water. Unfortunately it’s not up to scratch for modern competition so won’t  be used when the Olympics return in 2020 but it remains the home of some of the top clubs in the country. Partez make use of the Mitsubishi boat house, an enormous building with racks of boats, a gym, a canteen, dormitories. Many of the multinational Japanese firms support full time athletes in various sports so it’s possible to get a job purely on the basis of your athletic ability. I quite like the sound of that so if any British companies need some professional cycle tourists to represent them then please get in touch. The outing ends in a  typically Japanese way with all the rowers stood in a circle and we take it in turns to say what we enjoyed about the evening. Finally we all bow and say ‘arragatto’ before heading home.

Partez oarsfolk

Partez oars

Toda rowing lake, Tokyo

Kirsty in the 2 seat of a quad

Partez use the impressive facilities of Mitsubishi Rowing Club

Another uniquely Japanese activity that we wanted to experience is Keirin racing. Gambling is hugely popular here and it seems every small town has at least one Pachinko hall full of very loud, very bright gaming machines. Anything that can be raced can be bet on, from boats to horses to bikes and Keirin cycling is one of the most popular sports to have a flutter on.

The Tokyo oval feels more like a dog track than a high performance cycling venue. This is a far cry from the kind of place knights of the realm like Sir Chris and Sir Bradley would race. Groups of men are hunched over pages of names and stats, studying the form and digging into their pockets for their next bet. Soon a tuneful fanfare signals the countdown to the next race. The riders appear wearing colourful outfits, looking like jockeys but puffed up with protective padding. A ‘hare’ in the form of a pace rider is attached to his start gate while the racers line up 10m behind. Then they’re off! The pacer winds up the speed over several laps, just like the durney in the Olympics, then he peels off unleashing the pack for the final sprint. Despite the low key atmosphere these guys are quality athletes and ride fast and hard to earn their living and it makes for entertaining racing. As they cross the line my man fades back into the pack while Kirsty’s hot tip gets pipped at the post. We both tear up our slips, ¥100 ($1) down the drain.

The Tokyo Oval Cycle Track

The punters placing their bets

Studying the form

Riders getting loaded in the start gates

And they’re off!

The pace rider winding up the speed

Final sprint

But the show’s not over. Remember when Wiggo stood on the podium on the Champs Elysees having won The Tour de France and announced he was about to draw the raffle? Well here the winner does actually draw the raffle. The crowd jostle for position on numbers in front of the podium and after a short speech the fastest man pulls out a few tickets and t shirts are handed out. Lucky for us one winner isn’t so keen on his prize and hands it over as a gift. Mark also gets given one as we’re leaving the stadium. It’s a fine way to spend an evening and everyone has been very friendly as well as offering commiserations over the Brexit vote. It’s news that the whole world seems to have taken an interest in.

Winner on the podium, with the crowd standing on numbers waiting for the raffle to be drawn

The winning bike, but not the winning rider

With another day to prep the bike, fitting new tyres, trueing the rear wheel and checking nuts and bolts we’re almost set to get going again. First we have one last trip to Kamakura where we meet up with an ex colleague of Kirsty’s. Muk has been following our journey with interest since the very beginning and it’s great to meet up with him  over a dinner of fresh tuna throat and local beer. It’s interesting to hear his comparisons of the working conditions in Japan compared to when he was in Bristol. Working 9 – 7pm often with compulsary overtime on top makes for a tiring existence and explains why most people seem to be snoozing on the train when we head back to Hayama.

Thanks Muk for this photo of us in Kamakura

Well presented tuna throat if a bit lacking in quantity for greedy cyclists

Cheers Muk!

With heaps of thanks to Mark and Miki and feeling relaxed, well and rested we’re ready to hit the road again. Just as we’re getting back into the swing of things though, thick fog delays our ferry across the Bay of Tokyo from Kurahama by half a day. It’s only a slight hitch and with all four legs motoring for two days we race up through Chiba to Oarai to catch our next ferry to Hokkaido. As we’ve come to expect from this part  of the world on board there’s a hot bath to dip into and a comfy mattress on the floor to sleep on for the 21 hour voyage.

Most of our fellow passengers had opted for motors rather than pedal power

This boat travels at our kind of speed

Hokkaido is the northernmost island of Japan and has enjoyed independence and occupation in various forms over the years giving it a more unique flavour than other parts of the country. The population is spread more sparsely amongst the mountainous landscape creating more remote regions and a complete contrast to the mania of the Kanto region we’ve just left. It’s also the home of around 2000 bears so although we don’t want one in the tent with us we’re really keen to try and spot one from a safe distance.

Hokkaido has plenty of furry residents

Our first bear sighting

Moving north at this point in the year is perfect timing as the rainy season on  Honshu ends and with typical Japanese precision a hot sticky summer begins at the start of July. The climate on Hokkaido however works differently so is milder and more comfortable. Our first animal encounter occurs in a park in Tomakomai when a fox tries to steel some food from the porch of the tent then stands as bold as brass looking at me when I shout at it. Hopefully the bears will be more timid.

Our route has been cobbled together based on other blogs, recommendations from Mark and a desire to get to Shiretoku at the far north eastern corner. Moving north we quickly find ourselves in amongst forests, fields and rolling hills giving the impression of a European countryside view. The deep blue sky seems huge and we breath in the clean air. Into the Ubari region we stop for supplies and find a supermarket selling some of the region’s famous cantaloupe melons. At $160 for five small fruit it would have to be a mighty fine melon to justify the cost and it’s something we decide we can live without.  We’re the kind of people who spend the night in the lobby of a public loo so perhaps not their target customers anyway.

Hokkaido barns

Fields of wheat

Reassuringly expensive melons

I should point out that Japanese toilets are unlike any others in the world. We bumped into a spanish cyclist in Korea whose first comment when we told him we were going to Japan next was “they have great toilets there”. Without exception public facilities are immaculate, always well stocked with paper and are often heated and have electrical power points. Electricty is important as the toilets themselves often have an array of controls for washing, drying and heating parts of the body that come into contact with it. There’s sometimes a button for activating a discreet running water sound for those who are shy about the noises their bodily functions make too. It means that toilet blocks are cosy homes for tired and thrifty cyclists. One word of warning though, it’s not always clear what all the buttons do so if you’re not careful you may set off the panic alarm, in which case, move on quickly.

Our accommodation for a night in Ubari

Roomy, warm and with only a few dozen visitors in the night quietly making use of the en suite facilities

Which one is the eject button?

After a 90km stretch of wilderness without a single shop or single bear sighting we return to civilisation at Iuano and then further on pass through Nakafuano, famous for its lavender fields and brightly coloured flowers that colour the hillside. To our right there are snow topped mountains and after rounding Asahikawa we head towards them.

Twisting through the forest

Lavender fields at Nakafuano

Views from Nakafuano

The road out of Asahikawa

The road narrows down into a gorge with waterfalls cascading off the cliff edge. Unfortunately it then disappears into a tunnel so we are deprived of any more views for the next 3km. Once we’re back in the sunshine we begin climbing with the highest road on the island up ahead, the Mikuni pass. There’s no doubt that ice cream tastes better at altitude so the cafe at the top is a welcome sight where we sit down to rest and replace lost calories. The views over the forest below are spectacular and we can see our descent snaking through the trees and in places taking tree top bridges over small valleys.

Well deserved ice cream at the summit of the Mikuni Pass

The road down from the Mikuni Pass

Thanks to a tip from a Hokkaido resident’s website (www.14degrees.org) we turn off the main road part way down and venture deeper into the woods on an unpaved track. We’d heard noises outside the tent the night before and there are various signs warning about the wildlife so we make sure we make plenty of noise with singing and shouts of “heeeey bear!”so that no one gets startled. It’s great to be away from any traffic even for only a couple of hours.

Maybe some surprises in the woods today

Off road towards Otoke Lake

We make it back onto asphalt safe and sound and before long we’re on our way to the northern coast of the island at Abashiri. Passing wild horses grazing and fields of wild flowers with the sea on one side and volcanic mountains on the other this stretch makes for a great day to be on the bike. During a rest stop a lady gives us a punnet of fresh strawberries to help us along. We’d met her on the ferry and even  though she’s travelling by bus we’ve managed to get here in the same time as her. Perhaps we’re not as slow as we thought.

Wild flowers at Otoke Lake

Horses near Tofutsu Lake

The coast curves round alongside the Sea of Othosk and takes us onto the Shiretoku Peninsula. I’d first heard of this place from Neil, who we’d met at the NLCS on Jeju. He’d told me that locals fish alongside bears in a unique relationship where neither side is threatened by the other. It’s also a region that has one of the highest population density of bears in the world so this seems to be the perfect place to come for that elusive sighting.

Rising up the Shiretoku Peninsula

Swimming in the Sea of Othosk, if I’d kept going I’d have reached Siberia

The Oshinkoshin Falls, one of Japan’s top 10 waterfalls

Half way up the penninsula the road turns inland and we ascend the Shiretoku Pass. Foxes and deer watch us as we grind up the hill but nothing larger. At the top we’re rewarded with views of Mount Rasu Dake and out to sea Kunashiri island hogs the horizon. This is an island under dispute as Russia claim it’s theirs but Japan thinks it should belong to them. As it’s only 16km from Hokkaido but several 100 km from the Russian mainland you can see why the Japanese are a bit miffed about the current situation.

Japanese Fox

Summit of the Shiretoku Pass

In the distance is Russian owned Kunashiri Island

A few people are training enormous camera lenses on the hillside but judging by the level of excitement there doesn’t appear to be much to watch so we drop down the other side of the pass. Just before Rasu we pull over and wander into the woods for a bath. There’s a natural hot spring, the Bear Onsen, tucked amongst the trees though luckily it’s not bath day for the bears.

The descent from the Shiretoku Pass

Bear (Bare) Onsen

There’s something about reaching the extremities of an island that sits at the extremities of a country. We felt it when we rode up to the top of Unst in the Shetland Isles and also out on Uto in Finland. It’s as if we’re riding to the edges of the world with only a raging sea to contend with once the land stops. It’s no surprise then that Shiretoku actually means ‘edge of the world’.

Aidomari village

Aidomari Fishermen

We ride up to the end of the road on the east side of the peninsula and camp amongst ramshackle fishing huts and a few houses that sit on the edge of a gravel beach. They have to take the full brunt of the Pacific during the winter and most of them are showing signs that they’re only one more big storm away from being claimed by the sea. There’s another onsen built into the beach which provides a lovely setting for our early morning bath. As we’re towelling off a Swiss couple arrive in a camper van and we exchange a shared amazement for the hardy community that lives out here. They ask if we’ve seen any bears which of course we haven’t. “That’s a shame, we saw one crossing the road in front of us on the pass just yesterday”. I guess it’s all about being in the right place at the right time.

Aidomari Onsen

Another bear sighting!

We make our way down the east coast and then come inland onto the flatter southeast corner where the land is mostly taken up by dairy farms. Hokkaido is where the majority of Japan’s milk products come from and is also where our favourite (and only) Japanese cheese is produced.

Hokkaido Milk, the best in Japan

Hokkaido cheese bun, with a handy map baked on top

The dairy plains in the south east of the island

Riding across the dairy plains

A sunrise worth getting up for

Further inland we ride towards Lake Kusshara where the hills reappear and one of them appears to be on fire. A boiling hot sulphur spring sits at the base of Mount Io with bright yellow rocks and clouds of steam .There’s more hot water to be found at the lake itself with a beach where you can dig in the sand to make your own onsen then further down a more formal bath built out of rocks on the edge of the lake. Watching the sunset while soaking in the warm water is one of our most pleasant evenings so far.

Sulphur Spring on Mount Io

Mount Io

Sunaya beach, where the hot water pours out of the sand

Kotan Onsen overlooking Lake Kusshara.

A tip from Mark sends us up to Lake Akan but he hadn’t warned us this would involve a 750m climb. The lake is famous for what must be the only algae in the world that is deemed to be a tourist attraction. Unique green balls called Marimo form on the lake bed and are said to look ‘cute’. This isn’t the destination Mark had recommended though and there’s more climbing to be done first. A left turn takes us higher up whereby Kirsty submits and sends me on alone. Up past a blue green lake before a turning onto a rough trail eventually brings me to another onsen. This one is a bit special as it sits at the top of a waterfall of hot water. Scrambling up alongside the steaming cascades I find the pool tucked in amongst rocks and trees and ease myself in for a dip. Mark was here 25 years ago and says he’ll never forget sitting in the hot water while it poured with rain overhead. I suspect I’ll take a lasting memory away too.

Onneto. A pool at the top of a hot waterfall.

After collecting Kirsty and camping in a car park we begin rapidly descending for the entire next morning. Even when the hill peters out we continue south at speed on nice flat roads surrounded by fields of sweetcorn and a few vineyards. Our target now is the southern cape at Erimo.

We reach the south coast at Hiroo and can’t resist following signs to Santa Land. If you’ve ever wished it could be Christmas every day then this is the place for you. It’s a suitably surreal Japanese experience walking into a room full of Christmas trees, nativity scenes and minature Santa Claus’s in the middle of July.

Santaland, Hiroo

Nativity collections

Piggy Christmas

A cycling santa

Several tunnels punctuate the headlands as we follow the coast. In places the old road that hugs the bottom of the cliff is still visible and we try to take this to avoid the longest, 5km tunnel. We swerve round an unintelligible sign and have a great ride with the sea spray being flung over the wall by the side of the road. It all comes to an abrupt halt after 4km where the sea has reclaimed the road and forces a u-turn back to the mouth of the tunnel. I guess the sign said road closed.

The end of the road

Japan is the world leader in building tunnels

Once we arrive at the tip of the cape we’re almost blown over. The view is magnificent but it’s blowing a gale. No wonder this is the home of the Museum of Wind which sits burried safely in the ground to stop it being sent skyward.

 Cape Erimo

 Cape Erimo

Erimo Bus Stop

Camping near Utabetsu

Ants in our pans

The villages along the south western edge of the cape are reknown for their kelp harvesting and we see tons being hauled out of the sea and laid out to dry. Erimo Konbu is the best in Japan for making seaweed soup and is very valuable. Unfortunately we don’t get to try any and to be honest the slimy green-brown strips don’t look all that appetising.

Laying out kelp

Harvested kelp

As we make our way up the coast we bump into another tandem crew. Mark and Mio are spending a few weeks touring in Hokkaio and are also flaunting the anti-tandem laws. In fact their bike is made in Japan, presumably only available on the black market from dealers who operate in dark alleyways.

Mark and Mio, fellow tandem law breakers

We’re now in an area popular with race horse stables and I chat with a trainer as we rest outside a 7-11. He speaks good English as he’s spent a few years in Cambridge and his knowledge of British geography is determined by the location of various race courses. He can identify Bristol quite rightly as being between Bath and Chepstow. There’s time for one last Onsen, this time in a smart spa-type building. It’s another unusual experience sitting in a sauna watching the sumo on TV. These enormous wrestlers seem to spend more time dancing, slapping their thighs and trying to psyche out their opponents but when they do eventually come to blows it’s usually a brutal and short-lived fight.

Sumo on the TV

We get wind assistance all the way back to Tomakomai although the final afternoon includes a soaking when the heavens open. It doesn’t matter though as we’re coming to the end of the Japanese leg of our journey so can hide in a cafe for a while to dry off. We spend a day collecting packing materials for our flight – polythene sheeting for the bike, sacks for the panniers, re-waterproofing the tent and enjoying the tastiest Japanese delicacies that we’ll miss.

Lost in translation

On the morning that we’re due to fly out we arrive at the New Chitose Airport nice and early and set up shop in the corner of the check in area. The soggy tent comes out to dry after another rainy night and the bike gets partially dismantled. The security guard isn’t too impressed but a smile and a ‘non understanding foreigner’ act is enough to persuade him to leave us to it.

Taking up residence in the airport

China Eastern have a very generous baggage policy provided items aren’t longer than 1.58m. Thank goodness the bike splits in two.

Ahead is a gruelling 21 hour journey that will take us to Shanghai before another flight brings us back over Japan and on to Vancouver. I’d looked into taking a container ship to get across the pacific but the logistics and cost were prohibitive so unfortunately we’ll have to endure this pair of flights instead. But still, the prospect of a new continent is exciting and there’s a whole lot more riding to be done if we’re going to be home in time for Christmas. Aragatto Japan, you’ve been amazing and Hokkaido in particular has been a highlight. We’ll be leaving feeling cleaner than ever but unfortunately without a bear sighting. That doesn’t matter though as apparently there are bears in North America. Let’s hope they have hot baths too.

Next stop Vancouver (after Shanghai)

What kind of cheese do you use to coax out a bear?




12 Photos from the last 12 Months

It’s our anniversary today, exactly two years since we left Bristol and started pedalling. What a great day that was riding out to Bath with a bunch of our friends. Since then those friends have had engagements, weddings, babies, bought houses, changed jobs and yet all we’ve done is keep on pedalling. It’s been a simple year in many respects.

Those pedals have taken us from Leh, deep in the Indian Himalaya most of the way over to a little town called Mitchell in Oregon in the wild west of the United States, where we are today. Two very different parts of world but both have been full of equally welcoming people. A lot of road has passed under our tyres in the meantime so here are a few of our favourite photos of places and faces from the journey that’s taken us from there to here.

August 2015

Tara nearing the top of the Kunzum La, Himachal, India 

September 2015

Shimla knitting group, India

October 2015

Sunrise over Pokhara, Nepal 

November 2015

Don Bosco Olympic Opening Ceremony, Silchar, India

December 2015

Our hosts in Taungoo, Myanmar
Our hosts in Taungoo, Myanmar

January 2016

Bayon Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia 

February 2016

Mỹ Đức, Vietnam

March 2016

Chicken or duck? China

April 2016

High fives on the Pyongyang Marathon, North Korea 

May 2016

Touring bike guardian, Jeju, South Korea

June 2016

Ancient history and modern convenience in Japan

July 2016

Kayaking near Deep Cove, British Columbia, Canada

I’m a bit behind with the blog so bear with me. There’s another episode to finish up our time in Japan to come shortly then I can get stuck in to our trip through Canada and the US which is moving on at pace. You can always keep an eye on the where are we page for a better idea of where we’ve got to.