In collaboration with Niseko Tourism
“So, you are going to Niseko. Did you know it’s a famous winter sports destination?” asked me a Japanese friend of mine. I knew it. But we were not going there in winter. On the contrary – were we’re going there in the middle of the summer, just at the beginning of August. We were invited by Niseko Tourism to come and see for ourselves that the town and the area are not just for winter sports lovers, but there is also something for those who come here in other seasons. And that’s how our 5-day adventure began, the account of which follows below.
Hanazono Hill Climb Bike Race
As our luck might have it, we arrived the day before Hanazono Hill Climb – a 16-km bike race, with an average grade of 4.6% (“Though at some places it is significantly steeper”– that’s what we were told by one of the organizers). The difference in elevation between the starting point at Kutchan Community Hall and the endpoint close to Annupuri Goshiki Onsen is 617 meters, which is exactly 615 meters more than what I am used to in my daily ‘5-minute’ bike commute – I live in the north of the Netherlands and it hardly ever gets more flat than that. That is why, when we were asked if we wanted to participate in the race, we agreed, but also chose the ‘easiest’ of all groups – S-5 “Amateurs above 40”.
As we did not have bikes, we passed by Rhythm Outdoor shop and rental, where the guys kitted us with almost everything we needed – the bikes, helmets, gloves, water bottles, and even sunscreen – and drove us to the starting point of the race, which was in the Kutchan Town next to Niseko.
It might be a good idea to explain that while famous, Niseko itself is a relatively small but growing place, that looks and feels very ‘Western’, more like somewhere in North America or Canada. And it is no wonder as around 10% of the population here are foreigners, which is very unique for Japan. And these numbers swell up in winter when lots more people from abroad come here for the snow. On the other hand, Kutchan is much bigger (over 15,000 here vs. 5,000 in Niseko) and it looks and feels more Japanese. It is also the capital of the subprefecture both places are located in. And that was where the race took place.
Having registered at Kutchan Community Hall, we received our welcome bag with some general information, trackers, and our numbers. “1066 – it’s just like the battle of Hastings,” I thought to myself about my number. After that, we attached the trackers onto the bikes and ‘staked’ our places in our subgroup. The way it was done was rather simple. The area in front of the Community Hall was divided into sections, each one used by a different group. To get a certain starting point, all you needed to do was to place your bike in that position. If it was free, of course. And indeed, when we got there, a lot of unattended bikes were already placed on their sides in neat rows. I found a free spot in the second row and Patrick placed his bike in the first row just in front of mine.
“The first time I saw this system, I was also surprised,” we were told by the English woman in her thirties, who was holding the sign with S-5 for our group on it. I chatted with her for a while and she told me that she had been living in Niseko for some years already, first coming only for winters and finally deciding to start a guiding company herself. She didn’t participate in the race herself but was volunteering there. She also confirmed that it is a very unique place when it comes to foreigners. “Are you also living here?” she asked us. “No, we just arrived yesterday night and are staying here only for a week, ”we told her. “And based on the fact that I had spent over 30 hours traveling followed by a couple of hours of sleep last night, my aim for today is to be the dead last,” I laughed. “I will follow your progress,” she smiled, looking at my number. “It is such an easy to remember.”
The sun was already high and beating down mercilessly. Most of the participants were hiding in the shade of the buildings. From time to time you could hear a sound of an exploding bike tire, followed by a quick dash by some people to their bikes and a hissing sound of access air being let out. It was hot. And with the exception of the two of us in our hiking shorts and merino t-shirts, there was only one more person who was not clad in lycra – it was a Japanese guy, who was competing on a Brompton and was wearing a full business suit. “He must be really hot,” I thought to myself.
After a short speech by the mayor, the 10th anniversary Hanazono Hill Climb race was opened and the subgroups of races started to leave one by one. When it was our turn, we positioned ourselves at the start in the same order as our bikes were positioned on the ground. This meant that I was in the second row as well. Once the signal pistol was fired, we still slowly and in an organized fashion started to cycle along the streets of Kutchan and towards its outskirts. The real race began when we reached a large bridge and the real climb began.
At first, I was trying to keep my position, but very quickly I realized that I would not be able to sustain it for a long time. And indeed, very quickly people started to pass me by. Try as I might, I could not go faster – I was definitely not ready for this race. Very soon, most of the people from my group left me behind and people on folding bikes started to catch up with me. The Brompton guy in the suit passed me by with ease. I was well on my way to meet my goal of coming last.
The kilometer markers, which came relatively fast at first, were appearing slower and slower. My leg muscles were screaming and, at times, my head started to spin as I was feeling dizzy. I tried to make sure that I drank enough water and I would splash some of it on my head as well. On several occasions, I felt like stepping off the bike and continuing the race on foot. But I felt that it would be cheating and I continued to do my best to numerous “Gambatte!” coming from the spectators, who were sitting on the roadside.
Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, I managed to cycle the last kilometers and got to the finish line, where Patrick was already waiting for me. The moment I wanted to stop, I fell sideways with my bike – I was so tired that I completely forgot that I was using toe straps. Barely able to stand up myself, I was helped up by kind hand and managed to get up. That was the first and the toughest race I have ever taken part in.
As for my goal, I failed to reach it. Barely, that is. With the time of just over 1 hour 9 minutes and 43 seconds, I became 138th out of 145. Patrick made it just over one and a half minutes faster and became 136th. Later, he told me that he walked part of the way as he was trying to take some pictures of the race as well. The winner was Kota Masuda who finished the race in just over 31.5 minutes.
Even though the race was over, the aftermath of it was not – my whole body was aching and I seemed to develop a really fun walk. That is why I was really grateful that what was planned for the evening was actually going back to the center of Kutchan town where its annual Jaga Festival was taking place.
Being the biggest summer event in Kutchan, it lasts for two days and is dedicated to the local specialty – the potato. The name of the festival itself comes from the Japanese word for ‘potato’, which is ‘jagaimo’. And you indeed have an opportunity to try some tasty local potato snack there. But that is not all.
Most of the festival activity took place around one central street (we passed it on our way to the start of the race that morning; I wondered why there were so many decorations). Much food and some souvenir stalls of various types lined up the street, with smiling people walking from one to another trying various snacks and dishes were on offer there. These ranged from local and traditional Japanese dishes to international ones (with just a ‘Japanese touch’). For instance, I had a whole small freshwater fish fried on a stick – and it was delicious! Even Patrick, who is a vegetarian, did not have a problem to find something nice to eat. This, as it turned out later, was something special.
After we arrived, a dance procession started. These were groups of people, each dressed in different yukata, who represented various local companies and organizations. They all moved in a dance to the never-ending song, which was blasted from the loudspeakers on each street corner. The dance’s simple movements, which repeatedly, seemed enticing, and I felt like joining them. Instead, we stayed on the sidelines, observing the slowly moving procession, and enjoying various delicacies. “Look, this is the mayor of Kutchan,” we were told by Mai, one of the staff working for the Niseko Tourism, who graciously agreed to accompany us to the festival and brought her lovely family with her.
The festival ended with a firework display that lit then already dark skies over the town of Kutchan.
Read more about day 2, where we relax in an Onsen, climb in the trees in the NAC Adventure Park and packraft on lake Toya …