Roadtrip to Hokkaido: All is white (Pt. 2)

At the end of last post, we left lake Akan to head towards Biei, which presents itself as ‘the most beautiful village in Japan’. tldr; it may well be, but I visited in the wrong season. Nevertheless, despite being known mainly as a hot photo spot for the seemingly infinite flowering fields, there are plenty of things to do around Biei and Furano villages.

Fields covered with fresh snow somewhere in Okhotsk subprefecture

From Akanko, we rode north towards Kitami (北見) and Engaru (遠軽), really close to the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk. In order to reach Biei before sunset, we didn’t have time to go all the way to Abashiri (網走) and watch pieces of stray ice floating towards Hokkaido. It is a pretty desolate place, that was also the site of a prison for political prisoners more than a century ago. Instead, the highlights of that morning turned out to be the large Kitami shrine and the single available SeicoMart convenience store in Engaru. According to plan, after 3-4 hours we arrived in Biei.

Entrance signboard for Biei

As I said, Biei (美瑛, meaning beautiful bling) and the surrounding area are extremely photogenic, providing background scenery to many popular series, advertisements or even your cellphone. Indeed, we visited the iconic screen wallpaper of iOS and Mac, the great Shirogane Blue Pond (白金青い池). In order to get there, you follow a completely straight, flat road with silver birch trees at both sides, the Shirakaba highway (白樺街道). After carefully treading on a slippery pavement covered with melting ice, the deep blue of the lake was there for me to enjoy in all its glory. The charm of the scenery lies in the many bare birch trees, standing upright in the middle of the pond. Such a curious combination, bright blue and half submerged trees?

The blue pond in late spring
The icy corridor towards the blue pond

Well, as it usually happens in Japan, the blue pond is not natural. Some 40 years ago, nearby Mt. Tokachi erupted and in order to protect Biei from mudflows, a dam construction project started. That’s when the blue pond was created, overflowing with water coming via Shirahige falls and Biei river. The unique color is due to a combination of factors, mainly the river water mixed with onsen water from the volcano, aluminum minerals from the cliffs and sulfur at the bottom of the pond. The birch trees add to the contrast of the color, which should get even more vivid later in the summer.

Normally, you are supposed to chill around the pond enjoying some ice cream or visit Shirogane onsen next door. Both options were unavailable, so we continued to the next sightseeing location.

The next scenic spot on the list is Ken and Mary’s tree. Who are they, you ask? Well, they are the couple protagonists of this ’70s Nissan Skyline advertisement. A solitary large tree in the middle of the tree, represents the love between the two, as well as their plans towards a joyful future (with the car of course, don’t forget to buy a Nissan). Conveniently, there is a tiny hotel with the same name, Pension Ken & Mary, just next to the tree, offering to accommodate you for the night.

The tree of Ken and Mary
Sunset at Pension Ken & Mary

Actually, most of the accommodation options in the village are small pensions like that one, so we opted to stay at Pension Megumiyuki (=blessing snow), with the wonderful logo “where smiling faces bloom” (笑顔咲く宿). It featured a large book and manga library (mostly in Japanese, as expected) and a bouldering wall outside. Also, it offers one of the best simple breakfasts I’ve ever tried, with local bread and milk of excellent quality.

The bouldering wall of Pension Megumiyuki

The main activities you can do in Biei and neighboring Furano villages are a) cycling around the fields and b) capturing photographs. The scenery is so colorful and photogenic, that too many amateur photographers appear, to the point that they disrupt agriculture activities. That’s why the locals developed maps showcasing all the interesting spots along with instructions for good manners, like “avoid stepping inside cultivated fields” etc. The most famous photograph is that of pink, orange, purple and more, vibrant flower stripes streching up until the horizon in Shikisai No Oka park. As you can see below, nothing had grown yet at the time of my visit, so I was able to observe only the earthy fields. Damn, I should have guessed that, since they didn’t charge an entry fee.

View of Shikisai No Oka before blooming season

The maps show various other locations with parks, solitary houses on top of hills or interestingly paired trees. Another opportunity when you are driving is the rollercoaster road, a straight road going up and down in between green fields. Just as you suspect the road is over, another hill appears and the fun starts again.

The rollercoaster road in Biei

Obviously, that was the absolute worst season to visit Biei, which nevertheless remained a pleasant village in the countryside. Since we failed to climb Meakan dake and the snow made it impossible to hike anything else, we decided to go to the top of Asahidake mountain with the ropeway. In early May, it was functioning as a backcountry ski course, so in the ropeway car it was all skiers and me.

The top station of the ropeway, hidden under almost 4 meters of snow
Skiers preparing to go down the course

At the top of Asahidake, the weather was fine, the temperature at chilly 3 degrees and visibility changed quickly from perfectly clear view to thick fog. I used my hiking poles to walk a bit along an invisible path, basically from one half-buried plot of dirt to the next one. Snow is not my forte, so every time the fog blurred my vision and I was seeing only white, my heart rate went up. My sense of direction would be useless in pure white, that’s why I had a compass with me for the worst case scenario. I admit I am a chicken, so I only walked some hundred meters to the first observatory at 2291m, up until the next checkpoint, and returned back to the station.

Visibility on top of Asahidake. The path is not there, the station is half hidden in fog, and you could barely find the sign indicating the location of the first observatory vantage point.
Announcements at Asahidake ropeway

After a day in the snow, the best activity to finish the day is submerging in a scalding hot onsen. On the way back to town, we stopped at K’s house hostel for a quick bath. Since it was midday, I had the entire bath only for me. I spent most of my time at the rotenburo outside, where the too hot onsen water was balanced by the cold air. No one was there, so I snapped a picture, but obviously it’s unacceptable when other naked people are in the bath with you (if anyone asks, I am playing the gaijin card).

Entrance to the onsen
One of the rotenburo

That was it for Biei and Asahidake, you saw what spring looks like up there. Next up, we head south to Noboribetsu. Until next time!

Other posts from this trip

The roads of Hokkaido

Japan is made up of 4 main islands and thousands of smaller ones. One of the latest acquisitions is the northernmost island of Hokkaido, “courtesy” (more like genocide) of the indigenous Ainu. In the past, it used to be refered to as Ezo by Japanese and Ainu Moshir … More

Roadtrip to Hokkaido: Looking for the natives (Pt. 1)

If you are good with hints, then you probably noticed already that a post about Hokkaido was long overdue. In previous posts, you already got a sneak peek of what spring roads look like in the far north, as well as understood more about the climate of the … More

noboribetsu

Roadtrip to Hokkaido: The stinky valley (Pt. 3)

A surprise to no one, it seems like Hokkaido’s north is pretty cold, even when judging from spring’s average weather. That’s why, it is time to head to the south, where belated hanami blossoming (compared to the rest of the country) awaits. The first stop is Noboribetsu (登別), … More

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