This is the second journey we made to Hokkaido. Back in 2002, we made the trip during the depths of winter. That was when we had taken a home trip from Europe back home. Funny how we decided not to stay in Singapore and ventured out! Ah the wanderlust…
What inspired us to take this journey was the desire to see the flower fields of Hokkaido. You see, at this time the Korean dramas had featured the carpet of flowers at Blei. It’s late July, the peak of summer and our expectations are high. This is a package tour for a five-day jaunt, followed by some time on our own in Tokyo.
From Singapore, it was a direct flight to Tokyo for a transit onto Sapporo. This overnight flight had the impact of making us truly red eyed, lacking sleep. So, for all that cannot seem to find the shut eye on flights, try avoiding overnighters. However, the thing is about “lost time”. We seem to planning to harness every possible moment we can. Not because we want to, but because of precious little annual vacation time we have. As frequent travelers, we tend to use that up pretty fast.
And the first thing we did upon landing in Sapporo was to take lunch followed by a tour of the Ishiya chocolate factory. This brand has been actively courting overseas consumers. While they may not have opened their own retail outlets outside of Japan, it is almost a ritual for many returning Singaporeans to buy boxes of their chocolate biscuits and cookies.
Their factory in Hokkaido is built to look like houses in Alsace and a good distraction from the standard fare of a tour through the manufacturing premises. Honestly, the production at this site seems to be for show. The shop floor was so large but only occupied by one line. Not the best use of capacity from my perspective as a practicing manufacturing and supply chain specialist.
Fruits, picking them and eating them
You know you have the short end of the stick when you pay to work. At the Nikki fruit farm (about an hour west from Sapporo), the game was to pick the cherries on your own and eat them within 20 minutes. You are given a small plastic bag to stash your booty. Lest you think it was an “all you can take”, each participant can only keep 100g of the cherries at the end of the 20 minutes.
So, pick them carefully! To get around this, we ate the fruits, we spit the seeds onto the ground. Quite some way to eat fruit huh? The farmers claim no insecticide or herbicides were used on the trees, so it is safe to eat it right of plucking. I hope they are truthful.
In the same farm was a plum plantation as well but they are not for plucking. The fruits are still green – and they are due to ripen in 1 month’s time. When we looked around , we realize that the farm has a sort of “schedule”. Each month or thereabouts, a fruit (or two or more) will ripen and be ready for harvesting. Visiting tourists can then do the work themselves.
Picking cherries from the trees was fun. We climbed up the ladders provided to reach for the ones at the top. Now we know how labor intensive fruit picking can be.
See how red and fresh the cherries are! Now if you are thinking of coming here yourself, we saw that the entry cost is ¥1000 per adult to pick the cherry. That’s about US$10. Combine the fun and “free” 100g of fruit, it makes for a worthy activity.
As the coach barreled towards Otauru, we saw numerous Orchards and Vineyards. Hokkaido was opened up only in the 1870s after the Meiji restoration. Prior to that, these ‘northern territories’ were forsaken places for convicts and exiles.
The harsh weather inhibited the mainlanders and Hokkaido was largely occupied by the aboriginals. The advent of the Japanese farming migrants pushed them to the fringes. Today, most of the island remains agricultural.
Otauru was originally a seaport to serve the hinterland, strategically located to receive inland produce of agriculture destined for markets on the main island of Honshu. In the 1950s as Japan rebuilt, direct rail and ferry connections were made at the southern tip of Hokkaido with Honshu (Hakodate).
Otauru’s port began a declined in importance and gradually rebranded itself as a tourist town. Thus its canal has been preserved as part of a showcase of its heritage. The former site of warehouses and offices of trading houses are now filled with restaurants and shops. Idyllic for a walk especially in the summer, it is very crowded now not with migrant workers but migrant tourists!
Yet another activity that one can partake is to make your own music box. At the Otauru music factory, you get a music box and can set about to create your own design of box with decorations for a nominal fee of ¥1800. These decorations are purchased additional on top of the music box. It took us about 30minutes to perform the assembling and attachment of the decorative pieces. It’s fun!
One thing about package tours is that they seem to plan for some out-of-place activities. Such as the one visit the Ice Pavilion. This simulates how it feels at a temperature of –20°C! It is more like a large freezer. All you get is a walk through a large chamber with some ice sculptures that is not very impressive. And we were only provided a thin jacket – definitely not enough to keep out the cold! We recommend not entering this place for those not prepared. It’s just plain silly and you risk catching a cold.
Like the rest of Japan, Hokkaido is also a land with numerous mountains. And where there are mountains there are valleys. Here is where we stopped by a gorge with two waterfalls – Sounkyo is the name while on our way to
Flower fields that rival Holland
But first, remember that Hokkaido is mainly agricultural? We are in the region of Blei, a flatland almost nestled in the centre of the island. This farming region is filled with rolling hills of cultivated wheat, potato and to some extent – rice. Farmers here bundle up the chaff and stalks, left over from their harvesting of wheat and barley just like in Europe.
We stopped for a brief photo stop, during which we walked up to the wheat fields for a close up. The rolling hills and cultivated crops really looked like we were transported back to Europe, particularly France!
When Hokkaido was first opened up in the 1870s, vast tracts of land were made available for new immigrants from Honshu to engage in agriculture. The climate can be harsh in winter, but the soil is rich and suitable to cultivate a number of temperate crops. So it did not take long for some farmers to start cashing in on other crops – such as flowers, as demand rosed (no pun intended).
Our guide took us to one of the many flower farms in the region. Here, we had a sampling of what it is like to see the full bloom of Lavender. The farm/garden is well manicured and compose of lavender and other flowers. Many gardens cum farms exist in this part of Hokkaido. One of the reasons is that we are now in the highlands – typically ranging 500-700m above sea level. This altitude is ideal for cultivating flowers. As a cash crop, flowers contribute quite significantly. But recently, the arrival of tourists has added further fuel to the local economy.
And the highlight of this stop has got to be the vast Sunflower fields! We did not expect to see Sunflowers at this time of the year in Hokkaido. Look at the vast field of flower, all of them facing in the same direction! They were supposed to be in full bloom only next month, these sunflowers seemed to have arrived early for lucky us…
Most tour groups turn up at Farm Tomita in Furano. As we mentioned earlier in this essay, this is due to its use as a filming location for a number of movies and TV serials, particularly the Korean dramas.
There are 3 main areas to the Farm. The part nearest to the coach stop has large field of Lavender. It also has a collection of other flowers planted just like the earlier farm we stopped at. Walking through the well laid out flowers, we made our way to the way to the slopes of the farm. Again, neatly planted rows of Lavender greeted us. So serene, so nice…
The farm is not an exclusively lavender cultivator and is also a nursery for other species of flowers. The lower part of the farm has the most diversity of colors, with the neatly laid out rows of flowers.
We walked to the top end of the farm, where a whole field of Lavender can be found. From the top of the slope, it was possible to gaze upon the lowlands. The harvesting has only just begun, thus most of the lavender are still untouched. In the middle of farm, there is a shed where workers were processing the lavender that had been harvested.
There is also a lavender oil extraction facility on the farm. And you can smell the strong aroma of the oils from a distance.
Its time. The finale which is what we were in a way looking for. A “carpet” of flowers can be seen in Pink, Purple, Yellow, Red and White. It is really a sight to behold. Indeed very different from the fields of France – which was just Lavender.
Or even the ones in Holland, which are frequently bare as they are harvested quickly that you’d need to be there regularly. There is an observation tower and would have probably been a good vantage point. But the excitement was carrying over, and the photo clicks unceasing.
Picture perfect is perhaps the word for it. We’ve been contemplating a self drive here. Not so far, as there are other bucket list destinations to journey to. However, we must say this has been one of the best photo-op locations.
Now that the euphoria has subsided, it was time to return to Sapporo to complete the journey. The drive back was a scenic as we started, as we drove over the Hideka highlands.
Wait, this was not really the end. The tour took us to a local vineyard (Ikeda castle) where we walked amongst the vines – probably the “show field” much like a showroom.
Normally it is not something vineyards like tourists to do, as bad things seem to happen when you mix tourists with vines…
But the conclusion is not really here, for
You really need to come here for the food too!
Because Hokkaido is actually far up north, it is surrounded by colder seas fed by deep oceanic currents of the north pacific. Thus crustaceans are a real delicacy to be enjoyed here. There were three types of crab that we sampled during our days here : Hairy Crab, Queen Crab and the King Crab. As you can imagine, the rarity and cost of the crabs increase as the title escalate.
Indeed, so famous for crabs that is Hokkaido that we had to try the giant snow crab. So fresh the crab meat is that even after cooking it, the flesh does not turn hard. Chosen from the tanks, the crab is prepared and cooked for us while we waited in the restaurant. They’d make sashimi for you if you wanted!
Now you need to know that in Japan, everything is priced accordingly – size, quality etc. We chose one that costs ¥14,000 and shared it amongst four persons. Even so it was too much, combined with the food the tour package provided we cannot finish!
The shell fishes here is definitely worth a mention. In most restaurants in Hokkaido, you can sample fresh abalone harvested from the seas. At ¥5000 per piece, it is quite pricey but they are delivered daily to the restaurants right off the boat. The flesh of the abalone is tender and not at all spongy even after the amount of long time stir-frying. The intestinal part of the abalone is not often seen in canned products as they are removed. In this case, we are offered the opportunity to sample its taste as well. Hmmm….cannot describe it.
If there is one thing more to be told, it’s got to be the fruits. You’ve read about how we paid to work – ie pick the fruits.
At Yubari, the melons cost many thousands of yen each! Famed for its sweetness, we could not buy the melons back due to a combination of lacking budget and practicality of carrying it home. But we did manage to buy small cups (¥1000 for 3) to taste. They are very good. Not sure if we will pay ¥5000 for one!
Our conclusion is that driving in Hokkaido, like other parts of Japan – is easy. Doing it in summer is probably a better bet. While winter can be considered, sleet, snow and blizzard like weather can pummel you on your drive. You gotta try this once though. We’d recommend that you do a self drive here to enjoy not only the flowers, but also the great seafood. We certainly intend to do so, as soon as we circle around from our journeys to the other ends of the planet.