The first time I heard the name Biei was when we were driving through an expansive landscape of rolling hills and open skies in the middle of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island that is famous for its powder snow, rugged terrain and unspoiled nature.
Not only had I never heard of this small town, the name, like those of many areas in Hokkaido, sounded distinctly un-Japanese, giving the place an exotic feel, even though all the signs were in Japanese and the local people looked and spoke like millions of others all over Japan.
But that is the charm of Hokkaido, a place so different from the rest of Japan that it is easy to imagine yourself in a different country. New Zealand and England, which share a similar topography, come to mind.
The streets here are wide and empty and run straighter than any I have seen elsewhere in Japan. The houses outside the city centers look more like something you would find in rural New England (although admittedly on a much smaller scale) with enough space between them to conjure up images of dark, silent, starlit nights.
And the names, like Biei and Furano, the district’s better-known neighbor, are not Japanese at all but names given to those places by the indigenous Ainu, who were forced to give up their language and cultural traditions and to assimilate into Japanese society.
Biei, which is famous for its hills and for its distinctive trees that feature in popular TV commercials, is a short drive from Hokkaido’s second largest city, Asahikawa.
After renting a car at the airport we headed to an area northwest of Biei station known as Patchwork Road, due to the patterns created by the patchwork of potato and wheat fields found throughout the area.
The Patchwork Road is actually not a single road but an area criss-crossed by several roads which feature popular sites for taking photos.
One particularly famous site is by a standalone poplar tree, known as “Ken and Mary’s tree,” which became famous after it was shown in a TV commercial for the Nissan Skyline in the early 1970s. The longhaired Ken and Indian headband-wearing Mary were a fictional western couple who traveled all over Japan in the sporty Skyline.
The Seven Stars tree, an oak tree that appeared in a TV commercial for the cigarette brand, Seven Stars, provides another popular photo opportunity.
We left the Patchwork Road rather bemused by the crowds of Chinese tourists taking interest in the celebrity trees and headed south of Biei station to Panorama Road.
Again, this is not one road but an area named after its rolling hills, which offer panoramic views of the wheat, potato and flower fields that spread far and wide, flanked by the commanding Tokachidake mountain range in the far distance.
From Biei it is a short drive to Furano, a popular destination among young women, in particular, who come to walk among and admire its famous lavender farms.
Athough the first lavender seeds were introduced to Japan in 1937 from France, Furano’s lavender farms only became famous after many of the area’s fields were decimated by imports of cheap lavender oil in the 1960s following trade liberalization.
One lavender farm, Farm Tomita, fought the flood of cheap imports by growing lavender not just for its oil, but for its aesthetic value. Indeed, after its lavender garden was featured in a 1976 Japan Railways calendar, tourists began flocking to the area.
Before heading to our lodgings for the night, a hotel called La Vista Daisetsuzan, we stopped at Aoiike, or Blue Pond, a pool of breathtakingly blue water, which apprently owes its stunning color to natural minerals such as aluminum from the nearby hot springs and sulfur and lime, which turn the pond bed white.
It is a short walk around Blue Pond, which is an artificial pond that forms part of an erosion control system, but the urge to take photos is likely to keep you there for much more than the 15 minutes or so that a quick tour would take.
In addition to the many flower gardens, one of the highlights of this part of Hokkaido is the wide array of alpine wildflowers that grow in abundance on the Daisetsuzan mountains.
Our plan to go searching for alpine flowers on Mt Asahidake however was thwarted by a thick blanket of snow. Although it was mid-June, the main walking trail, which starts at the ropeway terminal, was entirely covered in snow. Visitors beware: early summer in central Hokkaido is more like late winter in other parts of Japan.
Fortunately, the operators of the Asahidake Ropeway are accustomed to seeing visitors arrive at the mountain station totally unprepared for the snow, and run a helpful service renting out rubber boots.
After the surprise encounter with what we thought was unseasonable snow, we retired to our hotel to soak in the warm hot spring waters that are a key attraction of Sounkyo, a giant gorge at the foot of Mt Kurodake in the Daisetsuzan National Park. The gorge, which is surrounded by 100-meter cliffs, features impressive rock formations and waterfalls.
We took the Kurodake ropeway up the base of Mt Kurodake but decided to skip the chair lift, which takes visitors within an hour’s hike of the summit.
The next day, we made up for the disappointment of missing out on the alpine flowers of Mt Asahikdake by visiting two spectacular gardens – Ueno Farm in Asahikawa and Daisetsu Mori-no Garden in Kamikawa-cho.
When visiting Daisetsu Mori-no Garden, be sure to dine at the Fratello di Mikuni, a sophisticated Italian restaurant run jointly by the famous Tokyo-based chef Kiyomi Mikuni (who specializes in French cuisine) and Hideki Horikawa, the chef-proprietor of trattoria and pizzeria, Terzina, in Sapporo.
The dishes at Fratello di Mikuni are based on fresh, seasonal local ingredients, while the tastefully appointed dining room offers spectacular views of the surrounding hills and the Daisetsuzan mountain range in the distance.
As we sat in the quiet restaurant, gazing at the wide-open space before us, we agreed to return for more of Hokkaido’s uplifting scenery, next time, preferably after the snow is safely gone.