Hokkaido (Sorachi) Bike Trip

Hokkaido is the second largest of Japan’s four main islands and is long known to most Singaporean for its unspoiled nature and fresh local produce. More commonly, Hokkaido is favoured by us for its ample snowfall and subzero temperature during winter, serving as a great getaway from our torturous sun.
Niseko town is well known among the powder hungry skiers and boarders and has long established itself as the ski paradise of the East with its luxury ski resorts and ample snow.

As the snow melts, the white landscape begins to transform with the flower blossom. Every month between June to September, you will be enchanted with beautiful flowers of various colours depending on the season. Most notably of them all is of course the Lavender blossom, which takes place during June/July period. While the flowers can be viewed in various locations throughout Hokkaido, Furano is one of the more popular towns due to the large number of farms located in the area.

While the above have been the more popular attractions for Hokkaido, they are not the main focus of this article. There is abundant information on these places and I do not think I can add more to all that have already written. Instead, I would like to share the experiences of my recent short trip to Sorachi, Hokkaido, over two parts. Sorachi subprefecture is a road less travelled and is a hidden gem given itsgood mixed of unspoiled nature, cultural experiences and food! This trip is initiated by Hiro, an established ski instructor in Hokkaido, who is working with the local government agencies to promote Sorachi as a venue for cycling tourism during the summer. Nonetheless, the trip ended with a splendid experience of Japanese hospitality and immerse appreciate of how beautiful Hokkaido truly is.

Some background information on Sorachi. Sorachi is one of the 9 subprefectures in Hokkaido, and is made up of 10 cities and 14 smaller towns. Its area span across 5,800km2 but is sparsely populated by about 338,000. It is situated to the northeast of the New Chitose International airport and is well connected by a robust network of public buses and railway. Its close proximity and accessibility to and from both the airport and Sapporo city makes it an ideal location for quick getaway from city. Planning your own trip to Sorachi is relatively easy, but I would still encourage engaging a local cycling guide, such as Hiro, to tap on their local knowledge. Guides are even more important if you are not conversant with Japanese. As Hiro allow you to customize your own itinerary, you do not have to worry about being brought to places where you have absolutely no interest or always in a constant rush from one venue toanother.

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We started our trip from Iwamizawa, the capital town of Sorachi. The town of Iwamizawa is about 35 minutes by car from New Chitose airport. It is a cosy little town with all the basic amenities and tons of restaurants. Our first destination is to Housui Winery, one of the dozens of wineries sprouting in Hokkaido due to its ideal climate for growing wine grapes. The road to the winery is generally flat with light traffic coupled with refreshing air and cool weather. Cruise along the route at your desired pace and stop over at any of the café and fruit store for a quick bite. Whatever your choice, chances are you will be amazed with wide variety of treats and freshness of the local produce. We reached Honsui Winery at about noon. While we did not have a tour of the winery due to time constraint, we did have apleasant lunch of Pheasant burger and Tian Gou (red bean bun), which are two of the local specialties.Having lunch under the warm Hokkaido summer sun, overseeing a beautiful vineyard, what more could one ask for? During lunch, I learned that Iwamizawa is the birth place of Japanese satay, ToriQ, and that is on our dinner menu that night, yummy!

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After lunch, we head on down the road to a rose garden which is very much like our own Botanic garden.Other than the beautiful roses, the rose garden doubles as an open space for the community to congregate during special occasions. A small concert hall next to it holds frequent concerts which thelocals party till late. There is little café at the entrance to the garden and it serve wonderful Rose favoured ice-cream! At the rose garden, it is evident that Sorachi is working towards promoting cycle tourism in the area. A bicycle rack sits at the gate, providing proper parking facility for any visiting cyclist. Hiro shared that the local government has championed an effort to install 200 odd bicycle racks at various locations so that cyclists can visit the places of interest with a piece of mind. In addition to the racks, the government is also looking to invest in other infrastructures to facilitate cycling in the region.

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Before heading to our dinner place at a local onsen (hot spring) restaurant, Hiro took us to an iconic café call the Little Rock Hills. We were fortunate to bump into Nick, the owner, and he was eager to show us around his estate. In addition to the café, Nick actually has three wooden cottages, which he rents out to visitors. All the cottages can comfortably accommodate a family of four and have with its own bath room and kitchenette. The living rooms are strategically faced to provide the best view for its occupants. There is also an onsite restaurant if you do not intend to do your own cooking. This certainly a great place to get away from the city for a night or two. Nick’s actually runs a trading company back in Tokyo. This estate in Hokkaido is his little getaway from urban life and also to indulge in his love for carpentry work. He has vast experiences to share and is a great company over coffee.

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After bidding farewell to Nick, we head on to The Maple Lodge Spa & Inn for our dinner. The elegantly constructed cottage inn is popular among the locals for their Onsen (hot spa) and food. We had a sumptuous dinner comprising of mixed Sashimi, BBQ pork, ToriQ (as promised), salad and Hokkaido beer of course! Most of the ingredients are sourced locally and it is freshness you can taste. The relaxing ambience and good company made the dinner amazingly enjoyable.

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One really gets a sense of well-being when one is awakened by the fresh and cool morning breeze here in Hokkaido. Feeling totally fresh, we embark on our new adventure to the neighboring town of Kuriyama. Our first stop for the day would be to the Kobayashi Sake Brewery. The Kobayashi Sake Brewery has a history dated more than 130 years and is the oldest of its kind in Hokkaido. It is stilloperating from many of the old buildings and it was a remarkable trip to the brewery. In fact, it has such rich history that thirteen of the buildings were designated national cultural properties. During the tour, we learned about the various grades of Sakae and truly appreciate the hand brew effort that goes to making the top grade sake, the Daiginjo (大吟酿).

Most importantly, you do not just witness the making of sake but you also witness the life of the Kobayashi family through the tour of the factory and the little museum they have put together on site.Our lucky stars must be shining while we were there, as the brewery was in the midst of preparing the family home for official opening to the public in 5 days’ time. The family home has always been resided by the Kobayashi family until recently and they have decided to open it to the public for the first time. Hiro worked his charm and managed to convince the staffs to let us in. So we might just be among the first to gain insight to the famous Kobayashi family home!

After the factory tour, we were treated to some of the best sake the factory has produced. Of course, we got a few bottles of the Daiginjo for our late night chatting sessions. The fruity and smooth texture is something that most of us could not get enough of.

Next on the itinerary is Kuri No Ki (Chestnut Tree) Farm which is about 20 minutes ride from the brewery. The farm is situated on top of a hill and it was a great workout racing everyone to the top. No, we were not there to visit some tree farm. Instead the place is a baseball field created by former professional baseball player, Hideki Kuriyama, used mainly as a training field for the local kids. While baseball is not exactly a popular sports in Singapore, the sports is huge in Japan. I can only imagine the grin on anybaseball fans when go inside the adjoining log house which contains more than 2,000 baseball associated items. These are all Hideki personal collection. Among the collection is a series of bats used and initialed by famous baseball players. Seeing this collection alone is worth the trip. To get us better immerse in the spirit of baseball, Hiro actually borrowed a couple of gloves and balls for is to try pitching in the field. Playing in the field, overlooking a vast forest, I definitely envy the kids who get to train in such picturesque environment.

After the mad rush up to Kuri No Ki Farm and twenty minutes of pitching, we were famished by the time we were done. A hot bowl of ramen would be perfect now. As if reading our mind, Hiro led us to the Awaken Dragon Ramen restaurant which is popular among the locals. The restaurant is famous for their Miso ramen and it sure did not disappoint. I would not pretend to be a food critic, but the mix of local fresh produce like bamboo shoots, pork, bean sprouts and spring onions went well with the thick and layered soup base. I was warned that authentic Japanese ramen tends to be too salty for Singaporeans in general, but I find this not the case. The broth was well balanced and it definitely made us crave for more!

After lunch we pay a visit to the Uenbetsu Shougakko Coca-Cola Environment House which was established by the Coca-Cola Education & Environmental Foundation with the cooperation of local residents and NPOs. This is a former elementary school that is being preserved and renovated into a demonstration facility with accommodation used for environment education. While the façade of the building might be new, lots of the old architecture are still prevalent in the building itself. That includes decades old timber and original glass windows. The internal walls are filled with environmental messages and also a brief history of the school. The accommodation reminds me of our army quarters where each room accommodates up to 10 person. This is an ideal lodging space if you want to experience a night in a culture rich place that has lots of communal space that promote interaction, think school camp.

As it was still early after the visit to Uenbetsu Shougakko, we decided to take a slow ride to explore the town and also to go for more ice-cream!

 

Our ride ended at the Chateraise Golf and Spa Resort Hotel, which is where we are staying over for thenight. Situated at the top of a ridge, guests of the resort will be pampered with unobstructed view ofKuriyama town and delightful weather. After a long day, Hiro urged us to give the Onsen at the hotel atry. It was the best recommendation! After a good wash down and relaxing moments in the warm spring water, we felt so energized after it. In the Onsen, I got curious about the Onsen culture and had a great discussion with Hiro on that. It was an interesting discussion and it definitely helped me in understanding Japanese love for Onsen that little bit better. The day ended with dinner at the restaurant in the hotel. We order the set dinner which they have a choice of Japanese or International. We decided to order both so we can sample the different dishes among ourselves. In the end, both were good choice, but the item that left the deepest impression was the local Honeydew. It is definitely the sweetest melon we have ever tasted. It was so good that we wanted Hiro to stop by the local fruit store the next day, so we can buy more.

 

Stay tune for more interesting sights and information on Sorachi in the second part of my trip!