Flying is definitely the fastest way to get from Tokyo to Hokkaido, but if you have a little extra time and don’t want to pack a bicycle into a cardboard box, taking a ferry from Oarai is a good alternative. If I’m honest I really wasn’t looking forward to the journey from Tokyo to the ferry port, but somehow the ride was very pleasant. My mind was definitely in a positive gear, it was our first day on our bikes, and the start of a long journey that will take us all over Japan.
Cutting Up The Journey
Cycling in Tokyo isn’t hugely stressful, however if you plan to cycle all the way, it’s going to take a while to battle your way out of the city, sharing the road with so many cars and having to stop at numerous signals just eats up the time. Fortunately there’s a very cheap train ride from Akihabara to Tsukuba, this gave us a hassle free head start. The train is (1060 yen) (bicycle is free) and putting your bike on the train is very easy, note that we took the train around 13:00 and morning should also be fine, but if you plan to take it in the late afternoon, early evening it’s most likely going to be much harder to get on with the commuters getting out of the city, so try and plan around this.
Busy Roads Near Tsukuba
Japanese trains require you take off the front wheel and cover the whole bike with a bag, but if you find yourself without a Rinko bag, we didn’t see anyone checking us on the way into the train, and no one on the train either, so you might get lucky. But be warned, you are likely to receive a telling off if you are caught. Even though Tsukuba is out of Tokyo it’s still pretty built up, we took mostly main roads towards Tsuchiura, it wasn’t nice cycling but it was quick, if you have more time maybe look for some back roads but aim for the same place. Tsuchiura is the last town before you hit the lake, and the last chance to stock up on supplies for dinner if you plan to camp like we did.
Lake Kasumigaura isn’t particularly pretty, but its very quiet, and coming from the main roads its was a very welcome break. I’ve made a route you can follow, it starts from the train station and ends at the ferry port. The route we took from the station to the lake wasn’t pleasant and I feel like someone could come up with a better alternative. There’s an entertaining variety of bird life around the lake, and if you’ve only been in Tokyo, it will be your first taste of the Japanese countryside. The shores of the lake are mono cropped with a fibrous root vegetable called Renkon, it lays in the soil under the water and is harvested around August.
If like us you’ve planned this journey over two days, there is a great place to camp just 2km before hitting a bridge that you’ll take across the lake. It’s a small park and the area at the far end closes to the bridge has a small block of toilets and a concrete structure to get out of the rain. We have no idea whether or not the locals are happy about people camping, but we had absolutely no problems when we pitched our tent. Please note that they ask you to take any rubbish with you as they don’t provide bins and that fires are prohibited. I’m sure if you keep the place clean and tidy no one will give you any hassle. We were there in summer, and once the sun set, the mosquitos were out in full force, be prepared!
Shake n Wake
At 4.30am we were woken by a strange alarm clock, the floor was shaking beneath us, Earthquake! This was the second time in little over a month that we’d been woken up by an earthquake, however this time is was very relaxing to lay on the shaking ground, knowing that there wasn’t a house to collapse on top of us. Also being far enough away from the ocean there was no Tsunami to worry about either. Ibaraki is particularly active when it comes to earthquakes, so you never know there might be a chance you get shaken up in the same spot.
The next day we left the lake fairly quickly and crossed it via a large bridge, there is a 7/11 that we stopped at to get some breakfast and small snacks, the route we are suggesting doesn’t take you past any shops until you arrive in Oarai so better to stock up here. But the road is so quiet, passing fields and small woodlands with glimpses of old Japanese style houses along the way, however a number of the villages are not just quiet their dead, Japan has a decreasing population and you can really feel it in this area.
In Oarai there’s a large supermarket and the ferry has a kitchen with a work surface, microwave and hot water on tap, so you can get creative with your meals if you fancy. If you have a bigger budget than us their is also a restaurant on board the ship. We boarded the ferry along with the motor bikes, and were allowed on first to secure our bikes, and the best part was there was someone there waiting to do it for us, not a service we are used to!
Please understand our perspective on modes of public transport, these views come mostly from our experience of traveling in developing countries. We have taken trains that are crawling with rats and cockroaches, boats that sink of piss and buses that are basically falling apart. So naturally it doesn’t take much to impress us, but this ferry really really impressed us! We had the cheapest ticket, called tourist, but the shared room we stayed in was immaculate, with fresh white linen fit for a queen. Everyone gets a little light, and a powerpoint that I used to write most of this blog post, time well spent I think. If that’s not enough there’s even an onsen onboard, and being traveling cyclists neither of us had had proper wash in a couple of days. And after showering I laid in a steaming bath looking over the harbor as a giant red sun dropped out of the sky and into the land beyond. It’s going to take a lot to beat that experience, and as sad as it might sound we really weren’t looking forward to getting off that ferry and back into our tent!