It is often said that Japan is small and crowded. For the sake of argument I like to disagree with this statement. It is true that it has half the population of the States crammed into only one state (about the size of California). It is also true that about 80% of the land is uninhabitable because the mountains are too steep and the forests too thick. Combine this with the fact that there are no movie theaters in towns under a few hundred thousand people and the fact that everything in Japan centers around Tokyo. What you get is some pretty crowded cities. However, there are still some pretty large houses and some wide-open fields. Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, is famous for these wide open spaces. It did not officially become a part of Japan until the end of the 19th century and even then it was only to ward off the Russians. Much of the development has taken place after the war, which makes Hokkaido seem like the new frontier of Japan.
Having heard all of this from friends and books, I was interested to see the place for myself. Coming from a small town in Illinois, Tokyo is a bit of a shock. I thought perhaps the Japan for me lies to the north. It is cooler with plenty of snow in the winter. Flat places, but also plenty of mountains. Nice people, slower pace, etc.
Taking the bullet train to Hokkaido can cost at over US$200 each way though. I had a dream to bicycle my way to Hokkaido with my friend, Matt from the States. However, since we were limited to only about eight or nine days, we didn't want to waste all of our time getting there. We decided to take the cheap train. Being that it is summer vacation here now, there is a special ticket called the Seishun 18 Kippu that everyone in Japan should use. It is the greatest thing. A person can ride JR trains all day long on one ticket for only US$20. If you can read a train schedule and plan ahead a little, you can go a long ways on that twenty bucks.
Matt and I packed our stuff into small backpacks and put our mountain bikes into special bike bags. We left Tokyo's Ueno station at about 9am on July 22 (yes, the day after Mt. Fuji). We had to change trains about eight times throughout the day as we made our way north along the Main Northern Line. We crossed over to the Japan Sea side of the main island and arrived in Akita City around 11pm. We took one final train out into the country and spent the night in the train station after the last train left.