Hokkaido Guide Stories – Lake Toya to the Sea of Japan Cycling

, by Dai

Adventure Hokkaido Guide Dai shares his experiences from our Lake Toya to the Sea of Japan cycling tour to the Shikotsu-Tōya National Park and Niseko area.

Cyclists take in the view of Mt Yotei

Located two hours south-west of Hokkaido’s biggest city, Sapporo, Lake Tōya is perhaps best known internationally as the venue for the 2008 G8 summit, but the caldera lake is also a popular escape for people living in Sapporo, who come to enjoy the clear waters and volcanic scenery around the lakeshore.

The Shikotsu-Tōya National Park is also where I started guiding in Japan, and it was fitting that this was my first tour of 2021.

Konnichiwa, my name is Daisuke Kondo but you can call me Dai. I was born and raised in Tokyo. After graduating high school, I had the chance to go to Australia and I spent three years in Melbourne, Victoria where I studied English and Adventure Tourism.

While studying, I fell in love with White Water Rafting and decided to be a guide. I worked as a guide, mainly on the Mitta Mitta river located in the alpine district of Victoria. The Mitta Mitta is the only river I have rafted on with water so clean that you can drink the water directly from the river.

Cyclists riding through greenery near Lake Toya, Hokkaido
Adventure Hokkaido’s Dai doing what he loves, exploring Hokkaido by bike

When I returned to Japan I knew I wanted to keep guiding, and the first area that came up was Niseko. I moved there in 2000 before Niseko became the international destination it is now.

Back then it felt like a remote farming village and many local businesses were struggling. Us rafting guides also didn’t make much money, but the Niseko lifestyle was really fun. We spent a lot of time on the river, training and working. Off the river, our tight group of friends explored the natural surroundings, local onsen etc.

In winter I led some dog sledding and snow rafting trips and spent all my free time snowboarding for fun. Despite how much the area has changed these fond memories still come back to me every time I visit the area.

Whenever I go back to the Shikotsu-Tōya National park, it always reminds me of when I started working as a guide.

Join me on this trip down memory lane on our Lake Toya to the Sea of Japan cycling tour.

Day 1: Sapporo – Lake Toya

Our cycling tours are run in cooperation with Cycling Japan. The owner Ken-san and I were the guides for this tour. We were joined by Adventure Hokkaido owner Ayaka and guide Richard. Three of our friends from Hokkaido Treasure Island Travel, a local travel specialist, also came along for the ride as guests.

We would usually stay at Lake Toya the night before the tour, for a relaxed morning start, but as everyone has busy schedules the team assembled at Sapporo station at 7:30am under an overcast sky.

In addition to guiding adventure tours, I have also worked as a photographer for over 10 years. I often mix the two professions guiding photography tours and photographing on adventure tours. The weather was forecast to improve and I was hoping for good light to shoot photos and video of our ride.

After transferring to Lake Toya, the weather was still overcast and a bit chilly as we set off from the hotel, but you couldn’t tell that looking at the excitement on everyone’s faces. I was also excited to be back guiding. I am passionate about guiding and had a busy schedule until the pandemic struck. The past year has had its challenges and as I was preparing I felt like I had almost forgotten what guiding was like. However, as the tires hit the tarmac and the group set off, the familiarity of guiding came back and I was so happy to be back on the job.

The plan for the day was to ride a full circle around the stunning caldera lake. When shooting photos, I love incorporating the reflections on the calm lake and was hoping to find a good spot in the still morning.

Cycling by tranquil Lake Toya
Reflections on Lake Toya on a clear day

A quiet road took us along the shore of the lake. While the forecasted clearing never materialized, we had magical views of the island in the middle of the lake, Nakajima, floating in the mist. Rising from the still lake water, the mini volcano looks like the centrepiece of a Karesansui, a Japanese rock garden.

Two cyclists ride along the shore of Lake Toya, with Nakajima in the background
The route goes right along the edge of Lake Toya

After 14km of gentle riding, we stopped for a lunch break at a small beach. The maximum distances our guests have cycled in the past were 10km, 20km and 30km and at lunch we celebrated a new personal best. At 36km, today’s ride is the shortest of the trip, but was going to be a new personal best for everyone.

I have gotten into baking since the outbreak of the pandemic, and we had prepared a picnic lunch using my home-baked bread and freshly brewed coffee. I was nervous as It was the first time I’d offered my home baking to guests. Eating outside, after riding and taking in the scenery always tastes really good but one of our guests used to work in a bakery so I felt standards were high. It made my day when she came back for seconds, thirds and fourths as the group polished off the whole loaf.

Snacks by Lake Toya
Former bakery staff Kiyoka getting stuck in to my bread

When cycle guiding, we split the day between driving the support van and riding with guests and it was my turn to ride after lunch. While driving the van is ok, riding with guests is my favourite part of guiding. I feel we get closer as a person sharing the experiences and I love helping push them out of their comfort zones and discover something new about themselves.

I had two options for the guests in the afternoon; we could carry on around the lake or add a challenging hilly 10km detour. Despite their apprehension at the start of the day, the group quickly chose the challenging option. We continued on around the lake before turning away towards the hills. The weather had gotten better and the sun’s rays were warm whilst the breeze was still cool. Perfect weather for riding and it helped everyone to push their limits.

Ayaka set a good pace up the first climb and the group quickly found themselves at the top and relaxed on the descent back down to the rice paddies. At a quick rest stop, we discovered the source of Ayaka’s pace. She had to leave us and head back to Sapporo for work. We bid her farewell, grateful for her support on day one. The remaining six of us set off uphill to Shōwa-shinzan at the top of our last climb.

A cyclist rides past rice fields near Lake Toya with an active volcano in the background.
Riding along rice fields with Shōwa-shinzan in the distance

Shōwa-shinzan is the youngest mountain in Hokkaido, it erupted out of farmland in 1944 and is still growing to this day. A reminder that the volcanic shaping of our landscape isn’t finished.

After a quick descent back to the lakeshore, we completed the circuit and pulled into our hotel. The hotel’s onsen (hot-spring) looks out over the lake and Nakajima and we took in the last of the light whilst recuperating our bodies in the hot-spring water.

The view of Lake Toya from an Onsen hot spring
Relaxing in the onsen with lake views

Dinner was buffet style, perfect for filling back up on calories and we tucked in whilst swapping stories and conversation. Our guests ended the day with such a feeling of accomplishment having risen to all the challenges. Knowing the next day was even harder, they retired to bed with mixed feelings of both nervousness and excitement for what the day would bring.

Day 2: Lake Toya – Konbu Onsen

The day started with cloudy weather but the weather forecast had us optimistic that we would see some blue sky especially around the highlight of the day, Mt. Yotei.

Mt. Yotei is a conical volcano that provides the famous backdrop to the Niseko ski resorts. It is also known as Ezo-Fuji, Ezo is the old name for Hokkaido and Fuji comes from its resemblance to Mt. Fuji. It is a major part of the landscape and is loved and respected by the locals.

With plans to shoot video and photos around the mountain, we followed our mantra of “ride the best, drive the rest” and we decided to skip the first part to save some time.

We started at the town of Makkari located right at the southern foot of Mt. Yotei. While the clouds obscured the peak, a quick check of the weather radars showed we could expect better weather as we rode around the mountain.

Everyone was pretty excited about today’s challenge even though it was going to be harder, I hoped to support them as much as I could.

Our first stop of the day was at a natural spring at the base of Mt. Yotei. The rain and snow that falls on Mt. Yotei soak into the earth, filtering down through the volcanic rock before gushing out at different springs in the area.

You really can tell the difference in taste and I visit this spring often to get water for coffee, baking bread etc.

A cycle tourists water bottle sits on a natural spring in front of a shrine
Filling our water bottles at the Mt. Yotei spring

After a quick coffee break and some energy-boosting snacks, we took off on a long uphill through fields of the local farms, often filled with vegetables, wheat or cows. I was driving the support van and stopped whenever I could to take photos of the group. It was nice to see them smiling going up the hill and everyone looked strong.

The temperature had slowly risen during the morning and as the group finished the morning’s climb they had perfect cycling conditions with a nice warm tailwind to power them down towards Kyogoku town. Kyogoku has another spring and I used to go there all the time when I was living in Niseko. It was one of the first places I took friends or family when they visited.

As the group sped down the road, the clouds receded and the triangular peak of Mt. Yotei came into view for the first time. Even though I saw the peak almost daily when I lived here, I still feel the same excitement I did the first time I set eyes on it. It is a truly magnificent mountain.

A cyclist rides past Mount Yotei
Mt. Yotei coming into view

For lunch, we stopped at a local restaurant that makes soba (buckwheat) noodles using the local spring water. After refreshing with soft cool noodles, it was my turn to ride.

We cycled along the Shiribetsu river, the river I used to guide rafting on. There were two courses we used to run on the river, the spring course and the summer course. The spring course is more exciting as the snowmelt feeds into the river. The mellower summer course is perfect for school kids and families.

As we cycled past the start of the summer course I realised I can not remember how many trips I rafted there. Rafting in Hokkaido is a popular activity for schools especially from Honshu, the main island of Japan, and sometimes we had 20-30 rafts on the river going down at the same time.

Mt. Yotei, Fuji of the north, is an ever present feature on the ride
Mt. Yotei, or Fuji of the North, rising above the farmland

We made the most of the stunning backdrop of Mt. Yotei behind the farm fields, spending time capturing photos and videos with some great results.

The farms around the next town, Kutchan, are famous for potatoes. Even the mascot of the town is a potato on skis, called “Jyagata-kun” and wearing a Mt. Yotei shaped beanie. The farms brought back more memories as I would pick up work with the potatoes when rafting was quiet.

A cyclist takes a break in front of Mount Yotei whilst on a cycling tour.
Taking a break with great views of Mt. Yotei

The last section of cycling was another climb to our hotel through the hills around Niseko. We stopped at a convenience store for a little break before we started climbing. At this point, everyone was pretty tired, although they were still very keen on the challenge.

The climb took us through the town of Hirafu. At the centre of the Niseko ski area, Hirafu was a popular local ski resort in the ’70s and ’80s and still had that feeling when I lived there in the early ’00s. Now it is an international resort with high-end condominiums and big hotels.

Everyone rode at their own pace, enjoying the good weather and spectacular views of Mt. Yotei around every corner. It was amazing to see how much their riding technique had improved and Ken-san and I were confident that they could ride all the way.

A cycling guide congratulates a guest arriving at a ice cream shop.
Cheering the guests in to the ice cream pitstop

We stopped at the best ice cream shop in the area to refuel with fresh homemade ice cream. Well worth the slight detour. The final kilometres soon rolled away and Ken-san cheered us into the car park at our hotel. Such an amazing feeling of shared accomplishment after the hard day together. Everyone finished tired but satisfied.

A traveler poses on top of a hay bale with Mount Yotei in the background
Celebrating a good day in the saddle

We soothed the aches with another onsen soak followed by a delicious meal prepared using local ingredients, perhaps from the very fields we cycled along.

Day 3: Konbu Onsen – Akaigawa

Another cool and overcast start to the day. But with the big challenge of the long steady climb to Goshiki Onsen straight off the bat, we were glad it was cool. I think day 3 is usually one of the hardest days and the guests were physically tired with sore legs. However, they were excited to push themselves on the big climb.

A cycling guide briefs the group on the days ride.
Ken-san explaining the days ride to the group

We set off with Richard at the front and Ken-san at the back. They set a steady rhythm and allowed the guests to spread out and find their own pace, stopping every 200m of ascent.

I could tell one of the guests was finding the climb really hard. Knowing we still had more hills later in the day, I gave her the option to ride in the van, but she was determined to get to the top under her own steam. Looking at the way someone rides, you can really see their personality and I was not at all surprised that she wanted to pedal herself to the top. After a slightly longer break, she powered off to the top of the climb.

Two cyclists climb a hill with panoramic views.
The panoramic views make the grind up the hill worthwhile

The sun came out as we neared the top. I drove ahead to set up morning tea at the top of the climb with coffee and fruits, as well as some local specialties our guests got along the way.

Just as I finished setting up the first guest pedalled up to the car park. I loved seeing their happy faces, that satisfaction when they made it to the top. I remember when I started cycling and how hard it was to ride long distances with mountain passes. A hard and slow process. But the feeling when you make it to the top is awesome and I was glad to share that excitement today.

After a quick break, we set off down the other side of the pass. We sped past locals picking wild plants and the guests enjoyed the fruits of their effort as they sped effortlessly down the winding road without pedalling.

Road through Niseko Mountains
Descending the roads behind Mt Annupuri. Photo courtesy of Aaron Jamieson Photography

For lunch, we stopped at an udon noodle restaurant. Udon noodles are usually made from wheat flour, but this restaurant serves noodles made from locally sourced potato starch. The restaurants here work really hard to showcase the local produce.

Refuelled and ready for the last challenge of the trip we rode out of the town towards our final climb. Looking back, we could see the mountain we had climbed early in the morning far in the distance. It is always surprising to see how far you can travel under your own steam on a bike.

The final climb was another long and steady one over a pass. Even though they were exhausted, no one wanted to give up and everyone was excited to top out again. It was such a great and fun group to ride with. Everyone supported each other and always had smiles on their faces, especially at the hardest parts.

In the morning they were saying that they had started to like the climbs and I could see that now as they settled into their familiar pace. I rode at the back and saw everyone looked strong, I had no doubt that everyone could make it over the last hill together.

Cyclists celebrate reaching their goal for the day
High fives to celebrate making it up the last climb

There were cheers and high fives as everyone rolled in individually to the car park at the top of the climb. I think all the guests had well exceeded their expectations and it is so satisfying to see people realise what they can achieve when they push themselves.

With the hard work done we set off on another long fast downhill. I had mixed feelings while I was descending from the pass. Glad to make it to the end safely, yet it was kind of sad to see the end. Everyone was saying the same thing and when I hear people say that even though their bodies ache, I know it was an amazing trip.

We all wanted to keep going as we pulled into our final stop, but sadly the call of the office and daily life was pulling us back to the real world. It was great to hear talk of buying bikes or cycling to work more often as we drove back to Sapporo. I think everyone has gotten the bug.

COVID-19 has changed many people’s lives. For me, having not been able to guide trips since the pandemic began, it was really nice to be back on a tour. Riding through the farmland, along calm lakes and around volcanic peaks reminded me how much I love guiding and how much I love doing it in Hokkaido.

Thanks everyone and keep on riding.


See more from our Hokkaido Cycling adventure

Adventure Hokkaido Guide Dai in the Hokkaido countryside
Dai from Adventure Hokkaido at Mt. Shōwa-shinzan near Lake Toya

Explore Hokkaido on two wheels

I hope this article has helped inspire you to head out onto the road. Our Lake Toya to the Sea of Japan 4 day cycling tour really is a great introduction to the amazing cycling Hokkaido has to offer.

As our group found on this trip, it is achievable even for those with little riding experience, while there are many detours and extensions to keep even the strongest riders challenged. The region has all the staples of a Hokkaido adventure, fresh food, volcanic peaks, clear lakes and quiet roads.

I look forward to showing you the roads and my favourite spots soon.

Discover Hokkaido by bike

Lake Toya to the Sea of Japan 4-day cycling tour