Day 7 (3/5).
Driving north from Farm Tomita in Nakafurano (中富良野) brought us to Biei (美瑛町) in half an hour. We followed the GPS to look for Bi.Ble, a French restaurant that caught our attention while we researched for the trip. Recommended by a guidebook, we were attracted by Bi.Ble’s dishes made from local ingredients, its pleasant timber interiors, and its picturesque setting surrounded by wheat fields. The entire compound is consisted of four buildings: a culinary school and a staff/student dormitory occupying two former school buildings, a new one-storey hotel and a new restaurant facing a wheat field. With the aid from GPS and Google Map, we didn’t have trouble finding the place and arrived at Bi.Ble at around 11:30am. We didn’t make a reservation, and were lucky to get the last table available. Other than the seafood of Shiretoko, dining at Bi.Ble to sample some of the best ingredients from Furano and Biei turned out to be one of the most remarkable meals we had throughout the trip.
Occupying the former Hokuei Elementary School, the Ecole Hoteliere Etude is a culinary school affiliated with Bi.Ble Restaurant.
It is green everywhere in Biei, even the school building.
Across from the school building stands a minimalist building cladded with green metal panels. This new addition to the school complex serves as a hotel with several guestrooms facing the wheat field.
Each hotel room has a decent window.
Each room enjoys the view of the picturesque wheat field below.
Bi.Ble Restaurant is located at the far end of the compound.
Biei is well known for its high quality wheat and flour. In July, the wheat would turn yellow. By August, the wheat would be ready for harvest.
The first things that greeted our arrival at Bi.Ble was the famous bakery and its fireplace.
Almost all tables in the restaurant had been reserved. Came without booking, we arrived just in time to sit down at the last available table facing the wheat field.
Beyond the wheat field lies the distant volcanic mountain ranges of Daisetsuzan and Tokachi, whose ashes produce the highly fertile soil of the area.
Perhaps the easiest way to appreciate the taste of Biei is to sample the simplest and purest ingredient of all, freshly baked bread made from the wheat of Biei.
Appetizers made with local pork and produces decorated with a touch of nature.
The dining experience at Bi.Ble was a fusion of French culinary techniques and Japanese aesthetics with the palette of Hokkaido.
From the local volcanic soil, even the most ordinary ingredients like carrot and potato tasted better.
Each dish was like a minimalist painting to us.
Each dish came in small portions, but it ended up quite a filling meal after all the courses.
A fine dessert to ended a special meal.
After visiting the lavender farms and floral fields of Furano, Bi.ble has given us another brilliant way to appreciate what the unique landscape of Central Hokkaido has to offer.
Day 7 (2/5).
Known as one of the most popular attractions in Hokkaido, Farm Tomita (ファーム富田) is probably on every visitor’s itinerary when traveling in Central Hokkaido. Situated in front of the beautiful Tokachi Mountain Range, the highly popular tourist attraction began as a humble farm back in 1903. Not until 1958 when lavender was first planted in Farm Tomita for its essence. After 1970, lavender farming had gone through a gradual decline due to its low profitability. In 1976, a photograph of Tomita’s lavender fields appeared on a popular calendar published by JR, the national railway of Japan. This calendar photo had completely changed the fate of Farm Tomita, converting it from a sleepy farm unknown to the public to a popular tourist attraction acclaimed to the entire nation. Other than checking out the floral fields, visitors also come to purchase all kinds of lavender products, from hand soap, essence oil, perfume, and even food products.
We arrived at Farm Tomita at around 9am, less than half an hour after its opening time. The farm was already packed with groups of visitors, and even the parking lot was almost filled up. Given we came a few weeks out of peak season, we could imagine how busy it could become in late July.
Compared to other farms in the area, Farm Tomita is quite well organized.
Other than lavender, Farm Tomita also has a variety of floral fields to attract visitors, including the vivid Autumn Field where flowers would remain until the first frost.
In the Spring Field, Iceland poppies, oriental poppies, and chives offer visitors a beautiful scene prior to the lavender season.
The Spring Field was full of life.
With flavour of onions and garlic, Chive flowers can also be used as herbs.
Iceland poppies are hardy perennial found in many parts in the world.
Just like our earlier encounters, the lavender had yet reached their full bloom at Tomita.
But that wouldn’t discourage visitors to pose for photos in the lavender fields.
The scent of lavender filled the air.
The sloped lavender field is the favorite photo spot for many visitors coming to Tomita.
We could imagine the layers of purple waves in a few weeks’ time.
Many love to stand in the rows of lavender for photos.
Somehow the sloped terrain of the field was perfect for appreciating the layering lavender.
Other types of lavender had yet developed their buds.
A number of houses in the farm contain displays of old distillery tools.
As well as information on essence extract process.
At Tomita, many souvenirs are made with lavender essence, including bathing soap.
Not as famous as Yubari (夕張) Melon, Furano Melon is nonetheless the must-have snacks for tourists coming to the farm.
After a relaxing stroll in the farm, it was time for us to bid farewell to Tomita and moved on the the nearby Biei.
Day 7 (1/5).
Coming to Furano in summer without checking out its lavender farms is like going to Lisse in the Netherlands in spring without visiting Keukenhof Garden to see blooming tulips. Various types of lavender can be found in Furano, and each has its bloom time between late June to early August. The peak tourist season is mid July when popular lavender farms would be packed with visitors. Lavender was not our main purpose of the trip, so we didn’t plan our visit according to the peak bloom time. In fact, we came a few weeks too soon when the flower farms were much less crowded than their peak season. As expected, while most lavender plants were not yet in full bloom but the violet colour were beginning to show from the buds.
Tadao Tomita started cultivating lavender in 1958, but considering stopping in 1976 because they failed to make lavender profitable. Fortunately, a photographer came by his lavender farm, took a photo of his lavender field and published the photo in the calender of the national railway company (JR). That immediately led to a big surge of tourists flocking in to see Tomita’s lavender fields. Since then, lavender tourism had become part of Furano’s identity and never looked back. As lavender was picking up the steam, a local visitor suggested Tomita to start making potpourri and other lavender products. These lavender souvenirs and tourism itself have been able to sustain the lavender farms, while Tomita gradually expanded the farm with more tourist facilities. Since then, other lavender farms flourished in Furano after Tomita’s success. Before visiting Tomita Farm, we first checked out two smaller facilities in Nakafurano: Choei Lavender Farm and Saika no Sato Lavender Farm.
Run by the municipal government, the Choei Lavender Farm offers visitors in town the first glance of this year’s lavender.
The ski lift of Choei Lavender Farm would operate between late June to August.
Up on the slope at Choei Lavender Farm, we could see the lush-green lavender plants standing in front of the distant mountains.
A small area of Choei Lavender Farm, was dedicated to white lavender.
Too bad we couldn’t take the sky lift up the slope.
We came few weeks too earlier, as most lavender plants were far from full bloom while we were there.
Despite of that, we still enjoyed taking photos of the iconic lavender of Furano.
Choei Lavender Farm consists of rows after rows of lavender plants on the slope. During full bloom, the slope would turn violet in colour.
Just a few minutes of drive from Choei lies Saika no Sato Lavender Farm, another popular farm in Nakafurano famous for lavender fields.
At Saika no Sato Lavender Farm, we stopped by its cafe for a drink.
We ordered their signature purple heart drink: lavender ice in calpris, a Japanese soft drink that is somewhat milky and vanilla flavored.
Similar to Choei Lavender Farm, we were once again too early for the lavender fields in Saika no Sato.
Depending on the type, the lavender in Saika no Sato had a slightly deeper hue of purple than the ones we saw in Choei.
While lavender might not be at its best, we did appreciate seeing other beautiful spring flowers in Saika no Sato.
The spring flowers in Furano reminded us of springtime in Toronto, as both Hokkaido and Toronto share a similar latitude of 43 degree north, and thus we could easily draw their similarities in terms of tree and plant species.
Day 6 (3/3).
A sudden downpour greeted our arrival to the farming community as we left Hoshino Resorts Tomamu and entered Minamifurano or South Furano (南富良野). A long and winding road cut through fields of rice paddies, wheat and corn, and passed by rows after rows of farming greenhouses against the backdrop of Tokachi Mountain Range (十勝岳). Further afield, rolling fields of summer flowers had yet reached their peak moment of summer blossom. We could imagine that at its peak in mid July, these fields could well be covered in rainbow colours: sunflower, poppies, lilies, and most famous of all, different types of lavender. At one point, we stopped the car right by a small country road, just to taste the sweetness of nature and feel the mountain air after the rain. Mist rose from the distant mountains beyond farming fields, making a perfect and dreamy picture of Hokkaido countryside. Welcome to Furano!
Located in the heart of Hokkaido Island, Furano is (富良野) a sleepy town about 100km inland from the sea, enjoying a continental climate that sees heavy and powdery snowfall in winter. Like Niseko, Furano is a popular skiing resort in winter. During summer, Furano is a rural wonderland famous for its farmlands and vineyards, especially its rolling hills of flowers that includes the iconic lavender. Drawing large amount of Japanese and Chinese tourists, summer flowers, especially lavender, have imprinted a vivid postcard image in visitors’ mind even before they arrive in Hokkaido. For the Japanese, the works of scriptwriter Sō Kuramoto (倉本 聰) have presented the beauty of Furano to everyone in the nation in the past 40 years, marking the relative sleepy town in Central Hokkaido onto Japan’s tourist map.
We stopped the car at a small country road to inhale our first breathe of fresh air from Furano.
Furano is well known for its fine agricultural produce.
Large plastic greenhouses could be seen in many areas around Furano.
No matter where in Japan, rice paddies is often the dominate landscape.
In Hokkaido, wheat is also a main staple food for noodles and bread.
In Central Furano, a complex of four retail buildings known as Furano Marche introduces local produce, snacks and souvenir for visitors and foreigners.
We got ourselves some food for a light dinner.
We got ourselves potato fries, hamburger and fried chicken (all ingredients from the region) for dinner.
From Furano Marche, we had the opportunity to try the local sweet white corn, which could be consumed raw.
In Furano, we stayed at Pension Yamasan in the village of Nakafurano (中富良野), the home of the famous lavender farms like Farm Tomita and Saika-no-Sato.
Dried lavender is used as decorations and natural air freshener.
We were free to use the dining hall for breakfast and evening television.
The common area of Pension Yamasan is full of the owner’s character.
Situated on a hill across from Mount Tokachi, Pension Yamasan offered us pleasant view of the mountain range and fields of Nakafurano.
For visitors without their own wheels, railway is their best bet for reaching the lavender farms in Nakafurano.
After the rain, Furano River was a little muddy at Nakafurano.
Despite we were a month too early to see the lavender in full blossom, other summer flowers were indeed everywhere in Nakafurano.
Day 6 (2/3).
From Lake Akan (阿寒湖) to Nakafurano (中富良野) where we would stay two nights to explore the rolling hills and farmlands of Furano (富良野) and Biei (美瑛), we drove by Tokachi (十勝), a subprefecture in Central Hokkaido best known for its dairy and agricultural products such as wheat and red beans. Also known as the land of cheese, some say Tokachi produces about 60% of Japanese cheese. We didn’t plan to stay in Tokachi, but did make a stop in the subprefecture’s only city, Obihiro (帯広). There was only one reason: to sample the delicious food of the region. We weren’t after any fancy kaiseki ryori or seafood feast, but simple local dishes that make use of the best local ingredients of Tokachi.
There is nothing simpler to experience the best of Tokachi (十勝) than have a cup of fresh local milk.
In Obihiro, we made a first stop to Amamuekie, a simple pastry shop housed in a cool container. Originally worked in the music industry, the husband and wife of Iwamoto family (岩本夫妻) turned their interest in nature and healthy food and opened Amamuekie.
At Amamuekie, healthy pastry made with plant based ingredients without the use of white sugar and animal ingredients such as dairy and eggs are sold, including this cocoa pound cake made with rice flour.
We picked up several items from Amamuekie, including this hojicha (green tea) biscotti, a tasty fusion of east meets west.
On our way to Obihiro, we made our second stop at Sweet Factory Green, a delightful sweets shop in the small town of Otofuke (音更町).
The cakes, chocolate and ice-cream were all so tempting.
Causal seating were provided on the lawn next to the sweets shop.
Sun was high and sky was blue, what a perfect moment to enjoy local ice-cream, a piece of fruit cake and a cup of good coffee.
Finally we arrived in downtown Obihiro (帯広), and parked our car in one of the outdoor parking lot near the main train station.
It took us a little while to figure out the correct procedure to activate the parking sensor for our stall.
Our destination, Butadon Pancho (元祖豚丼), situates right across the street from Obihiro Railway Station.
Butadon Pancho (元祖豚丼) offers just one thing in the menu: Butadon (豚丼) or pork bowl. After about 20 minutes in the queue, we finally got a small table in the small restaurant. Founded in 1933, Butadon Pancho claims to be the pioneer restaurant that offered butadon.
Originated from Obihiro, butadon is basically a bowl of rice served with several pieces of local pork, topped with sweet soy sauce and green peas. The bowl also comes with takuan (沢庵) or pickled daikon radish and miso soup. Nothing fancy, just a simple local dish but made a perfect lunch for us.
After a little over an hour on the road, we arrived at Hoshino Resorts Tomamu, a vast resort compound that offers a variety of activities for visitors, from skiing in winter to hiking in summer.
The main reason coming to Tomamu was to check out the famous Chapel on the Water by architect Tadao Ando.
Unfortunately, the opening times of the chapel was quite limited. Quite often, the chapel is occupied for private wedding ceremonies. We had to leave it for another time, and moved on on our journey to Furano, where we would stay for the night.
Tsuyu (梅雨), the rain season, begins to hit Okinawa in May and gradually makes its way north to the rest of Japan until the end of June. During the wet season, rainy and cloudy weather affects the entire country except Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island north of the main Honshu Island. The seismic active island is 3.6% smaller than Ireland, with a climate significantly cooler than the rest of Japan. Seeking for a pleasant getaway from Hong Kong’s humid and hot summer, we picked Hokkaido as the destination for our 11-day vacation from 15th to 25th of June. Traveling in the remote national parks and rural countryside of Hokkaido, hiring a car was a necessity. The Hokkaido journey was our first road trip in Japan.
Known as Japan’s last true wilderness, Shiretoko National Park (知床国立公園) is the natural haven where Brown Bears and Blakiston Fish Owls ruled the primeval forests and Orcas, Minke and Sperm Whales roamed the waters of Nemuro Strait. With fantastic natural scenery, wildlife and seafood to offer, this easternmost part of Hokkaido topped our priority list in the travel itinerary. Next in the journey took us to the spectacular volcanoes of Akan Mashu National Park (阿寒摩周国立公園), where we came close to Japan’s clearest water at caldera Lake Mashu (摩周湖) and the fantastic onsen and fly fishing hot spot of Lake Akan (阿寒湖). While the lavender fields of Furano (富良野) and Biei (美瑛) had yet reached the peak bloom moment, the ultra fertile soil below the Tokachi Volcanic Group (十勝火山群) treated us with some of the best bread, corn, potatoes, asparagus, melons and milk that we ever had in our lives. Despite far away from Tokyo and Osaka, the architectural magic of Tadao Ando (安藤忠雄) in Hokkaido satisfied our thirst of contemporary design and aesthetics. Back in Obihiro (帯広), Otaru (小樽) and Sapporo (札幌), historic traces of early pioneers and contemporary dessert shops and local eateries brought us back to delightful charm of urban Japan. What’s more? Day after day of mouthwatering seafood, fresh produces, good coffee, and lovely patisseries reminded us how wonderful our world could be, when the water is clean, soil is rich, forests are healthy and people are friendly. Thank you Hokkaido. You have truly touched our hearts.
Located north of Honshu Island, Hokkaido is the second largest island in Japan.
Flying in from Tokyo Haneda, our Hokkaido journey began from Memanbetsu (女満別空港) near the Shiretoko Peninsula. After more than 1,181km of driving, we arrived at Otaru and Sapporo at the western side of the island.
This black hatchback hybrid Toyota Prius c (Toyota Aqua in Japan) provided us the means of transport from east to west across Hokkaido.
After 2 days of rain and wind, we finally had a glimpse of the active volcano of Mount Rausu (羅臼岳), the tallest peak in Shiretoko Peninsula.
The greatest experience we took away from Shiretoko was the close encounter with a pod of orcas in the Nemuro Strait.
The Mashu Lake (摩周湖) offered us a peaceful sunrise at 3:30am.
Under the shadow of Mount Oakan (雄阿寒岳), dozens of fly fishermen stepped into the crystal water of Lake Akan (阿寒湖) to test their luck.
Farms and greenhouses were washed with heavy rain as we entered into Furano (富良野).
Still at least half a month to go before the peak season of lavender blossom, visitors were enjoying themselves at a relatively less crowded Farm Tomita in Nakafurano.
Compared with rainbow flower fields, we loved the wheat fields at Biei the most.
Tadao Ando’s Chapel on the Water has been famous in the designer’s world since the 1980s.
The Hill of Buddha is the latest addition in Hokkaido by Tadao Ando.
At Yoichi Distillery (余市蒸溜所), whiskey has been produced since 1934.
Saturdays Chocolate in Sapporo is one of the many excellent local eateries and cafes that we visited in the journey.
Last but not least, Hokkaido offered us the best seafood and dessert that we ever had as far as we could remember. Let’s begin to tell the story of our journey!