The 452 to Ashibetsu - April in Hokkaido - CycleBlaze

The 452 to Ashibetsu

We awake to find it's snowing like crazy, but nevertheless cycle our way up provincial road 452. Wrapped up with hats, Gortex jackets and waterproof overshoes, we're out chilling rather than chilling out.

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The 452 offers about 70km of blacktop nirvana - loosely tracing a melt-water river that's hemmed in by fir-clad peaks. It links the former coal-mining towns of Yubari and Ashibetsu, which both closed down years ago, meaning the road is now largely unused. We see very few vehicles all day and there's nothing between the two sleepy places but stunning views - no villages or hamlets, not one single house. 

It doesn't feel like we're in a country of 127 million people.

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In the 1850s, Tokyo urged people to migrate north. Many went, but not much further than Sapporo and despite that influx, Hokkaido has remained unlike the rest of the country. 

Instead of kimono-clad women and neon-lit malls, pod hotels and hip nightclubs, it has bragging rights to five National Parks, including Japan's biggest - Daisetsuzan.

The silence strikes us - except for a faint drumming sound, like someone tapping a pencil on a desk. It turns out to be another Hokkaido resident, the Great Spotted Woodpecker - easy to see it due to its black, white and flame-red plumage - perching on a trunk of a tall tree.

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Trees blanket 70 per cent of the island and we cycle on past slopes awash with snow-covered foliage, with massive barren peaks half-masked by fast moving snow-clouds. Although most of the birch and pine trees are logged, this is about as industrial as it gets in Hokkaido. Farming has remained the key yen earner.

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We stop over in dinky Ashibetsu for a night, and our small, town-center hotel is totally empty. This means we get tons of attention from the under-worked owner, who cooks us up delicious local specialties - including miso soup, 'kegani' (hairy crab) and delicate sashimi - that he serves tapas-style with glasses of regional pilsner. It's a fact that culinary connoisseurs regard the island's seafood as the very best in Japan. We can taste why.

Our jolly host lets me use his computer so I can check my email and later on joins us for a chat, offering complimentary glasses of local sake while confiding that most of the year he works flat-out catering to a house full of hungry guests, unable to spend a minute getting to know any of them.

Today's ride: 90 km (56 miles)
Total: 137 km (85 miles)

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