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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
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