Anyone will tell you that the best time to visit Furano is in July when the lavender fields are in full bloom; or during winter, when thousands will flock to the city to take advantage of the ski slopes. We ignored this advice and instead took advantage of super cheap flights to commence our visit at the start of June.
June is not so bad, but when we visited the weather was a little inclement; grey skies; rained a lot; and was rather windy. A lot like England actually. Because of this, our original plans of rafting and hiring a bicycle to tour the beautiful scenic Biei (possibly the two most recommended activities for the area), quickly morphed into “The Most Excellent Furano Road Trip Adventure”.
And the fact that it rained everyday and was somewhat chilly did NOT detract from the sheer beauty of the place. We fell head over heels for Furano, for Biei, for Hokkaido, and spent most evening meals discussing how we could permanently relocate there and take up jobs as farmers or cool café owners (arguably the two most common occupations in the area). It’s actually a dream shared by many a disillusioned Tokyoite. NHK even did a special on it, featuring the Man who Became an Artist/ Tomato Farmer, and my personal favourite, the Man who became a Deer Hunter. They should make a film about that.
So we took the car to Biei, to Aoiike (the Blue Pond, 青い池). Aoiike was created back in the 1980s as a form of disaster prevention in the case of a volcanic eruption from the nearby Mt Tokachidake, whereby a dam was created. The water in Aoiike has built up gradually over time and has only become a tourist attraction in recent years. The striking contrast of the dead trees and blue water is rather unusual and these days it is regarded as a top sightseeing spot in Biei.
The natural minerals in the pond cause the dramatic change in colour as sunlight is reflected off its surface. The colour changes with the seasons, and winter is considered the best time to go; that’s when you see that incredible azure (just Google it). When we went in June, it was overcast and the pond looked more a murky turquoise than the incredible blues we thought we were going to see. It was still very pretty nonetheless. You might want to aim for going on a sunny day though! It is also recommended that you arrive here early, as it gets quite crowded.
The pond is always open, and the easiest way to access it is by car, but if you are unable to drive there is a bus which runs directly from Biei Station to Aoiike, it only does five return trips a day though so be sure not to miss it!
Shikisai no Oka （四季彩の丘）
After Aoiike we headed to the first of many flower farms on our trip, Shikisai no Oka. The problem with going to Furano and Biei in June, is that most flowers have either just been planted or are in the process of being so, so those vibrant sweeping rows of flowers you see advertised in the magazines and tourist brochures aren’t quite realized yet. However, if you like poppies then you’ll be pleased to know that June is the season for poppies, and also for Lupines, which grow EVERYWHERE. My mother has always had lupines in her garden so I’m rather fond of them myself.
June is also asparagus season. It will be featured in all restaurants and sold in every farm shop you visit. A lot of places we went to were offering the yummy snack of asparagus cooked in soy sauce and butter (Yes, please!). One of the things I love about Japan is its observance of the seasons, and their use of seasonal veggies in their cuisine. We did our bit and supported the local farmers by buying a huge wodge of skinny asparagus (asparagus on toast for breakfast- Winner!).
After Shikisai no Oka it was about high time for food, and we found a small café up in the mountains called Ouru no Mori Café （おうるの森）, where we had a simple Japanese style lunch of grilled pork, salad and rice. The food was very enjoyable, and all locally sourced, but the café itself made the biggest impression on me. As the fruit of many months labour by its owners and a carpenter charged with realizing their vision, it was so charming that I can’t resist sharing it with you now.
If you want to stop by Café Ouru no Mori next time you’re in town, you can find it on Route 452 East of Goryo in Biei. It’s open every day from 11:00-18:00 except for Thursdays.
Fukiage Onsen （吹上温泉）
The next day the weather was poor again. After a lovely lunch at Café House Navo (watch this space for a future post), we donned our raincoats, got into the car and headed up into the mountains. Deep into the mountains. Where were we going this time? My partner had heard tell of a wonderful, magical place. A free natural onsen. Just mention the word onsen to him (otherwise known as a hot spring) and his face gets this odd, dreamy expression (like me when I think about food). His curiosity was piqued by the fact that this onsen was out in the wilds and free to all who dared venture up there.
Fukiage Onsen （吹上温泉） as it is known, is a natural onsen close to Tokachidake Mountain. As it’s a public onsen mixed bathing is acceptable, and I advise you to bring a swimsuit. I also want to make you aware that although it is a public onsen and one expects to wear a swimming suit, you may just find the bath already occupied by three butt-naked old men. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The onsen is demarked by a sign and a small parking area, and how full it is depends on the time of day, but if you want to avoid having a close encounter with a naked salary man then avoid the after work rush. There is one portaloo on site, which isn’t too bad but it IS Japanese style and you should bring your own toilet paper. There is a gravel path, which takes you down to the onsen, passing by a pretty waterfall. If you’re worried about where to change into your cozzie either come pre-suited or there is a modest changing room available comprising a gazebo with a privacy curtain over some wooden crates to keep your feet clean. The onsen itself has two pools; the smaller pool is the hot pool, and only the badass onsen veterans hang out there. I tried it. Once. I got ankle-deep and after three seconds had to retire to the more reasonable temperature of large pool just below.
A note on how to use the natural onsen; Japanese people are very particular about cleanliness before entering the onsen. If possible you are meant to wash yourself just before entering (and check you’ve rinsed off all the soap suds first). With a natural onsen make sure you rinse your feet before getting into the pool. No one wants the gravel and whatever else you got stuck on your bare feet from your traverse down to the onsen in the bath with them too. At Fukiage Onsen there is a little ladle provided for such a service.
A lot of people who use onsen for the first time make the same mistake: they stay too long in the water. This is why the badass scolding hot pool is actually much better for you than the cooler pool. You can only tolerate a shorter amount of time in the hot pool so you frequently have to get out to bring your body temperature down. With the cooler pool it’s easy to lose track of time, stay in the pool until you prune, all the while getting more and more dehydrated and feeling quite dizzy and a little nauseous by the time you get out. This happened to me on my first onsen trip too and it can rather dint your enthusiasm for them. Onsen are magical places, you don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of them. Take care people and use the onsen responsibly!
Sorry I can’t post my own picture of the onsen (see aforementioned butt-naked old men, above) but if nudity doesn’t bother you so much then you should definitely go! Of course, it would lose some of its charm if we all went so let’s keep this to ourselves, right? Onsen are best enjoyed in the cooler months. We were fortunate enough that it started raining whilst we were there, which was wonderfully refreshing. It’s kind of hard (and possibly more than a little dangerous) to get to in the winter months because of all the snow, but without a doubt, it’s worth it!
Note: There is a private hot spring resort further up the road by the same name. If you see a big wooden building then you’ve gone to far!
One more thing, if you intend to go, please DON’T feed the foxes. We were really surprised when this little guy limped into the road and stared boldly up at our car. Apparently a lot of tourists will feed them so they can get a good picture but because of that the foxes have lost their fear of cars, which has resulted in many collisions on the road. Hokkaido’s nature is one of its main attractions; please don’t abuse it.
I’ll be back with Road tripping Furano Part 2, and some more in depth posts about the other delightful food establishments we stopped by, including eating Deer Hot Pot!