Day 1 : Biei & Furano
Sometimes, in spite of all the planning, preparations and best intentions, the weather has its own plans. Nevertheless, at HNT we always manage to have fun in the beautiful bounty of Hokkaido’s nature. Here is the latest story about how we dodged the year’s worst typhoon on a private, custom-made 3-day tour in Daisetsuzan National Park.
We set off on a sunny morning in late August with Aiteng and James, a married couple from Australia, for a 3-day tour in Daisetsuzan National Park, Japan’s largest conservation area. It happened to be the morning of the Sapporo Marathon, so getting out of the city center proved to be a challenge, one of the many up ahead. Our favourite route to Furano goes via country roads, away from highway traffic. There are lots of natural features, including the gorgeous Sandantaki waterfall, where a sign informed us that recently a mamushi, Hokkaido’s deadliest snake, was spotted.
A huge typhoon just landed on Hokkaido the previous week and another one was expected in couple of days. The weather promised to be good for the first day, but would deteriorate on days 2 and 3 of the tour. With that in mind, we headed to Furano and Biei on Day 1 for the famous flower fields and local gourmet experiences. The hills of Furano and Biei were covered in a rainbow palette of late summer flowers. Gold-winning Furano melons were on sale, and we sampled slices of the orange and green fruit. By the way, a 10kg box of melons cost about 10 000 yen and can be delivered from the store right to the customer’s door, just make sure your home country is included in the door-to-door delivery system.
A 40-minute drive from Furano is Biei, an agricultural town famous for its picturesque landscape and gourmet restaurants. We reached Shikisai-no-Oka, an iconic flower farm with views over the hills, which our guests loved.
The gourmet scene in Biei varies from cheap local eateries to Michelin Star restaurants. For lunch, we headed to a midrange restaurant we like, only to have discovered a long que out the door. Not keen on wasting time in a que, we went further afield to a cute restaurant in a wooden house named Birch, after the birch trees which surround it. It made us consider how being on a private, custom-made tour allows for such flexibility. Potato pizza, cold corn soup, shrimp curry, salads – everything was great!
From here the road leads to the famous Biei Blue Pond and Shirahige Falls. The previously little-known pond became a big tourist hit in part because of Apple, who used its image as default desktop picture on the iMac. The color of the pond is ever-changing, depending on the light that hits it. To our shock, the Blue Pond was closed! A friendly road worker stood at the entrance, showing us a picture of what became the “Brown Pond.” Heavy run-off from the typhoon just a couple of days earlier had destroyed the embankment and flooded with pond with mud. It now seems that the Blue Pond may be no longer, although efforts are underway to try a salvage operation. Nevertheless, the Shirahige Waterfall was beautiful as ever, and the milky-blue waters of the Biei Gawa unchanged.
Higher up a winding road, above the pond and falls, a wild hot spring is nestled into a mountain nook. A cement platform holds 2 manmade pools, a couple of benches and a changing area, all that on a mountain slope with the gushing stream surrounded by the pristine forest. Our guests couldn’t resist the temptation of the best onsen on their trip, and shyly changed into their bathing suits and eased themselves into the 42 degree onsen. Bathing in a wild onsen is a real cultural experience: a chance to observe local people’s easy going, shame-free attitude towards public bathing and nudity, obviously very different from other Asian countries. The two local men chuckled at our guests, who did everything they could to stay hidden behind the rocks.
After the soothing hot spring, we continued driving along the Tokachi-dake mountain loop road, one of my favorite roads in Hokkaido. There are stunning views of the Tokachi mountain range, all the way down to the Furano plains below. Up here, far removed from the tourist bustle int he valley, the quite road draws out the wildlife. Sure enough, we stumbled upon a young fox, obviously a veteran of begging for his meals roadside! He gave us a chance to take few wonderful shots. Domo!
After the last rays of the sun slipped over the Biei mountains across the valley, we finally arrived at the hotel where we dropped our guests off for the night donning happy faces that should never be taken for granted!
Day 2: Hiking in the patchwork fields of Biei
Morning came with dark clouds gathering around the peaks of Daisetsuzan. Our original plan was to hike up Asahidake – the highest mountain in Hokkaido. Ai Teng and James met us after breakfast in hiking outfits, hiking poles in hand. We loved their enthusiastic attitude but the Asahidake Ropeway which was supposed to bring us to the base of the mountain was suspended due to strong winds. Another typhoon was approaching offshore and expected to hit Hokkaido that night which was pretty disappointing. Ido analyzed the situation and made the only right decision: to find another hiking route. At first we decided to hike a well-known nearby mountain, the great hike of Ashibetsu Dake, and drove towards it. However, the rain soon began and the sky turned darkish grey. Nobody objected when we made a U-turn and headed in the opposite direction, to Biei, where the sky remained clear.
The challenge was to find an easy 2-3 hour hike in an area not famous for short routes. Ido poured over topographical maps to locate an accessible mountain with a trail and some sun. We took a dirt road along farmlands that brought us to a rather steep, logging mountain, with the sun shining bright. We found our piece of calm amid the approaching storm. I lead a short stretching warm-up that Ai Teng and James seemed to enjoy: stretch your feet, legs and hips, roll your shoulders, shake your arms, a few squats and we were ready to hike
The mountain itself wasn’t a very spectacular one, but finding some natural inspiration is always easy in Hokkaido: Trees and plants ripened with seeds and fruits, the constant presence of sansai - edible mountain plants and roots that have been picked since olden times - fresh deer prints in the soil, birds and butterflies, gorgeous vistas of the Biei Valley just before the rice harvest - all of that cheered us up, even as we stared at the approaching dark clouds of another typhoon.
Our next stop was Asahidake Onsen Resort just 90 minutes away. We drove in a light rain, enjoying picturesque landscapes, stopping to take pictures of yellowish rice paddies ready for the harvest. Yet, the most amazing photos of the day awaited us at the end of the road where a huge rainbow, hanging low and flat and almost touching the tree tops, delighted everybody. To get a good shot, with the composition not interrupted by electric poles and wires, I had to climb over the road fence and balance myself at the top of an old wooden pole sticking out from the side of the road. And, Viola! Here is my super psychedelic rainbow.
It was windy and the ropeway was still closed, so we decided to check out Tenninkyo about 40 minutes away. Here again, the previous typhoon caused massive damage. An entire 300 meter sections of the road had buckled, collapsed, and been washed away. The day ended with an early check-in at the hotel, letting James and Ai Teng have some free time to unwind and enjoy the serene nature and a hot springs bath.
Day 3: Daisetsu - land of Rainbows
The rain and wind got stronger overnight, but the forecast was unclear about when and where the typhoon was to hit. One cannot help but adjust oneself to the weather, so we pulled on our raingear, put on happy faces, and headed off to start the day.
We drove around the northern end of the national park, to Sounkyo Gorge, where remains one of the best kept secrets of Hokkaido – the 8 Waterfalls Trail. A path follows an abandoned road, which has been closed for traffic for over 15 years. Visitors need to hop over a low fence to earn the right to gape at the awe inspiring scenery of pinnacle rock formations, 100 meter tall cliff walls, a succession of waterfalls of various forms and sizes, Ezo spotted-deer and white-tailed eagles, eerily abandoned tunnels, landslides spilled out over retaining walls and not a soul around. Needless to say it’s one of my favorite spots for nature photography and wildlife spotting.
We then returned for lunch at the Beer Grill Canyon, honestly the best restaurant in Sounkyo. It serves Italian-Japanese fusion cuisine: with locally-sourced vegetables, fish and meat. I love the venison curry and grilled trout with vegetables, but this time Ido & I split baked stuffed pumpkin gratin - a hearty dish enough for 2 people. Here it is: fresh cream, cheese, bacon, bread chunks, slices of potato, bell peppers and eggplant in a half pumpkin. Oiishi-so ne!
After lunch we took our guests to the Mori no Garden in Kamikawa as a complimentary side-trip activity. The rain got stronger and then, inexplicably, stopped. A beautiful rainbow appeared, this time visible from one pot of gold to the other.
We stopped to take pictures only to discover that we pulled over right next to a small watermelon farm! There they were, famous Hokkaido melons, double the excitement for me since I’ve only seen watermelons at supermarkets and farmer’s stands before. An old woman came out from an adjoining house, pushing a wheelbarrow out to collect the ripened watermelons before the next typhoon hit. Super excited, I asked her if we could buy one, but she refused to accept any money and gave me one for free. What a surprise that was! To exchange the favor, I grabbed a couple of cans of beer from the car – all we had available for the exchange – and placed them in her wheelbarrow. Her genuine laughter was even better than the melon, which itself was delectable. And then she plodded off, pushing her wheelbarrow back home, filled with ripe watermelons and two lovely beers.
Our next stop was Mori no Garden, an English-style garden with massive views of the Daisetsuzan mountains. The highlight was a quaint flower sculpture, a signature of the garden. It’s called Garden Dress Kante. Great idea, isn’t it!? And with the wind tearing through the umbrella it looks even more like a fairy-tale.
The time in the wonderful garden went by fast and we all enjoyed it. On the road back to Sapporo, we watched massive clouds gathering all around us, and saw rivers almost spilling out over their banks. Can you imagine: another amazing rainbow appeared and was lasting for almost an hour! I have never seen such rainbows! Of course, being unable to reach our desired destinations was upsetting, but in spite of that, we had a great time amidst the wonderful nature and spontaneous encounters of life on the road in Hokkaido.
A big thank you to Ai Teng and James for being wonderful guests, ever-happy to explore the unknown and visit the unplanned. Until next time. . . Enjoy Nature, Be Happy!
Our blog covers any and all topics of travel in Hokkaido - from the best gourmet oysters to off-the-beaten-track adventures - and everything in between.