My Vacation: Biking Japan
Joan Lambert Bailey is an freelance writer from Wisconsin now living in Tokyo. She documents her adventures learning about Japanese food from seed to harvest to table in her blog, Popcorn Homestead. This summer, she and her husband, Rich, took a two-week folding-bike tour of Eastern Hokkaido in Japan. Lambert Bailey shared this report.
Best memory (above): As we explored the eastern coast of Hokkaido by bike, the weather often proved quite changeable, and after a day of sun and clouds, we found ourselves chased into our campground near the port city of Akkeshi by sheets of wind and rain. Some nearby campers spotted us setting up our tent and invited us to join them in the shelter where an assortment of fish and meat sizzled on the grill. As the rain pounded down, we shared stories, tried our first grilled oysters and scallops, and waited out the worst of the weather together.
What I learned (above): Biking is harder than it looks. As a runner and hiker, I thought it wouldn't be that challenging, so I didn't train as hard or as much as I should have. Luckily, the scenery gave me plenty of good excuses to pause for a look around or at least not feel so bad about walking my bike up the hills.
Best meal: This is a tough one. Food in Japan never fails to delight or impress me. Better even than the grilled oysters and scallops perhaps was the meal we had just before arriving at Hamanaka, another port town. This part of Hokkaido is famous for konbu -- a type of seaweed grown and harvested here -- and it was present at every meal. We stopped at an observatory for a much-needed break and ate at a little restaurant there called Utopia. My buta-don (pork in sweet miso sauce served over rice) and my husband's ramen were simply amazing. His came with a huge piece of konbu that was as tasty as it was shocking. It gave us the strength we needed to head out on our bikes into the pouring rain.
Most fun: We started our trip in Higashikawa, a small town just on the outskirts of Daisetsuzan Koen, with views of Asahidake and its companion mountains. This was our third visit in as many summers, so on our first night, we took a short peddle about to reacquaint ourselves with the area. August is traditionally part of Obon, a time of year when people return to their hometowns to gather with family and remember their ancestors. As we passed one of these small neighborhood festivals, we waved hello. Moments later, they called us back and invited us to join their celebration. Dancing, heaps of grilled lamb and vegetables, and endless glasses of beer followed.
Don't miss: Hamanaka. Sweeping ocean views and cliff-top trails through blooming meadows made us fall in love with this little spot. Our campground sat atop one of these cliffs on the outskirts of the port town, and while it didn't have showers, it was less than four kilometers to the nearest onsen (hot spring). Two tiny restaurants at a nearby viewing point featured heaps of ice cream made from local milk, grilled crab and oysters, and loads of yummy dried konbu harvested by one of the owners.
Best tip: Take your time. We often try to see as much as possible in a single day, but this time we slowed down. We focused our enthusiasm on a single stretch of road or a place, and we explored it as much or as little as we wanted. This allowed us to really see the places, taste the foods, experience the hills, talk with people, and feel like we did more than just skim the surface.
Most surprising moment (above): We also did a bit of urban camping on this trip. We usually choose an out-of-the-way place to pitch our tent and sleep the night away. After a full day exploring the Kushiro wetlands and biking around the town, we set up camp along a seemingly deserted stretch of bike path. Come to find out, in Japan, 4 a.m. is not too early to start exercising, and we awoke to a series of bikers and walkers out enjoying the morning air.
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