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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Touring Hokkaido Tips and Resources

The biggest tip I can give you is to not fly United Airlines to Japan. They've recently revised their bike policy to be $250 each way, so no matter if their prices are $100 less than ANA or JAL, you come out ahead with ANA's policy being that bikes are free! But even if United revised their policy, ANA might be the way to go anyway. As mentioned during the trip reports, ANA gives bikes (and their enclosing boxes) the white glove treatment. I can't emphasize how rare and unusual this is! Not only were the boxes intact and fully functional on both ends, they were positively immaculate! I have never seen bike boxes handled so well and so carefully. ANA deserves all the business cyclists can give them. Note that if you book with ANA, you also get a free rental cell phone. This is a big deal, because American cell phones don't work in Japan, not even the world phones! Even my international blackberry does not provide Japanese service. Fortunately, all Japanese phones have internet capability (though it's very costly --- they charge by the byte!), and you'll get your phone # ahead of time so you can tell all your family what number to call.

For the trip proper, here are some resources:

  • Touring Mapple (Scroll down the web page for directions on how to buy). I like the Touring Mapple but I find it frustrating as well. First of all, the recommended accommodations are always worth checking out. They are reasonably priced, and always worth the stay. But the map itself is geared towards motorcyclists, which means there is no elevation information at all except for passes. Nothing for towns, nothing for lakes, nothing for any points of interests. As a former Michelin map user, I find it extremely frustrating. And don't get me started on the scenic markings. They are used very sparingly, and unfortunately, are not an indicator at all as to whether the road is good for cycling, since frequently, the road is busy as well! Compared to the Michelin "green" markers, these are useless. Finally, no street names are available, only highway numbers. This makes it really tough to figure out where you are in any kind of built up area. Overall, it's still worth getting, but I'm quite disappointed at how useless it is for cycling.
  • Japanese Garmin Map download I used a GPS unit throughout Japan, and this was the only source I found for Japanese maps. While the information was complete and more or less accurate, I had some frustrations. First of all, only Romaji is available for viewing. This means that correlating locations with the Touring Mapple is difficult, since the Touring Mapple only has Kanji (which I can read but not pronounce!). This means that before the trip, you'd better have every interesting way-point already on your unit. Again, road names were not available, so it drove me nuts sometimes trying to figure out whether we were at the correct location. Finally, every tiny portion of a town has its own little name, which was too fine a granularity for bike touring, since it crowded out useful ways that dynamic routing could work. The times when it did work it worked spectacularly, but it was definitely way too hard to use.
  • B&B guide We did not have this, but it would have saved us time and money and would have been 420 Yen well spent! All the quirky B&Bs we stayed at, including (Drum Kan and Lapland) are listed here, with many more that we wished we had know about. The prices are incredibly reasonable, and very much worth the stay. Highly recommended.
  • Lonely Planet has pick & mix chapters for all of Japan. I bought the one for Hokkaido (for about $3), and if you have a Kindle DX you can send them e-mail and they'll give you an unlocked version that you can load on the DX. Unfortunately, I didn't find the guide all that useful. The problem with Lonely Planet is that they are geared entirely towards the "backpack" tourist who goes by bus and train, so tiny towns get short shrift. I don't use them for Europe, but had a really hard time with information about Japan otherwise. It's worth it for the price, just don't buy the whole book.
  • The best time of year to go for a Hokkaido tour is probably late spring, May or June. It would probably rain more, but the pictures I saw of the Biei/Furano area in Spring look stunning, with snow-capped peaks and the flowers in bloom. It'll be a little cooler, but since the Hot Springs are all up in the mountains, that makes climbing them for the Hot Springs all the more worth while.
  • On the Move in Japan: Despite having had a year of University Japanese, my Japanese was more than 17 years old and unused by the time I went to Japan, hence I bought this phrase book. The important key is the katakana/hiragana table, along with very useful phrases often needed by travelers. The food section is very comprehensive. Very useful, and I referred to it far more often than I thought I would.

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