Friday, 28 August 2015

Snap shot: A fantastic final `sightseeing day`

Date: Saturday 16th August 2015

Weather: I was presented with a beautiful blue sky until about 5pm ... when it threw it down.

MP3 track of the day: Flowers in the window - Travis

Now before I go on, I suppose I should explain what 'snap shot' means within the title of this blog. It basically means that this blog will be a shortened version of my usual blogs, due to a variety of reasons. It is, in effect, a 'snap shot' of my trip.


I woke up with a sad but determined look slapped across my face. Though tomorrow was the last official day of my holiday, I knew that most of that day would be spent travelling. I therefore realised that today was the final full-day of sightseeing and, after yesterday, I was determined to make the most of it. I was up at 7:30am and I left my hotel half an hour later. Due to it still being quite early, I decided that I would eat breakfast once I got to my destination.

So far on my trip, I have ventured into the area of Furano however, I haven't really explored it. I couldn't leave Hokkaido without discovering Furano`s sights as it is a very beautiful area. My guidebook has described Furano, and the surrounding villages, as `though it would have looked at home within southern-England` (Personally I felt that the area had a hint of north-western France). This area was supposed to be covered in flowers and fruit; it's most famous of these were it's lavender and melon fields.

Fortunately for me, the most northern village within the area of Furano - Biei - was only fifteen kilometers from Asahikawa. It is amazing just how much can change in fifteen kilometers. The city of Asahikawa is Hokkaido`s second largest city and is within the basin of a huge mountain range. It also has two or three rivers, directly from the mountains, flowing through it and the area is largely flat with many man-made square boxes which, the Japanese call `buildings`. In contrast, Biei is an area of rolling hills with each one, it seemed, devoted to a different agricultural purpose. Scattered within this patchwork of farmland are small communities where the tallest building is only three storeys high. On the outskirts of the village, I noticed a flower farm out of the corner of my eye. I made a late right-hand turn into the car park and stopped. The sky was blue and an array of colour lay on the hill before me.

As excited as an eleven year old school boy, with three new packs of football stickers, I grabbed my camera forgetting that I was actually pretty hungry. The farm consisted of a huge field - where you could hire a quad-bike to drive around the perimeter of said field; I didn't bother - full of rows of flowers. The flowers had been organised into type and colour. I stood at an angle where I could get the maximum amount of flowers within my shot and photographed the area to death. Once done, I moved into the gift shop. I wasn't planning on buying anything; the gift shop had a balcony which over-looked the farm. I went up and was surprised to find that the view wasn't actually that good. Once done I proceeded back to my car and headed into the village of Biei. I was getting really hungry.

Wanting to make the most of the weather, I stopped at a convenience store and purchased a `snack breakfast` to keep me going. I then, believe it or not, drove to another lake.

It took about twenty minutes to reach said lake. I know what you're thinking; after yesterday, why go to another lake? Well this one had been recommend to me by a friend because it's waters were apparently turquoise blue. Though this alone didn't win me over, the fear of missing something did and so, after being told about it, I had to see it.

As I approached the lake, I discovered that there were parking attendants directing visitors to a car park close to the lake and that, there was a small queue of cars waiting for a parking space. I took the fact that, at 9am the car park was already full, as a good omen; I therefore decided to wait.

As it turned out, I was only waiting for a matter of minutes. As soon as I'd parked, grasshoppers (or maybe locus... I have no idea about bugs) swarmed my car. I paused for a second to make sure that they weren't supported by mosquitoes before leaving my car. The noise was eminence and the croaking sound could be heard all around; there were `bug bodies` littering the ground due to the fact that cars and bugs don't mix. I proceeded onto the lake which was indeed turquoise. It was pretty beautiful and I did take a lot of photos however, I did also move through the area quickly. What puzzled me was that most of the Japanese had congregated, for photos, where this beautiful light-blue lake met a horrible muddy-brown river which flowed through a man-made funnel. I didn't take any photos of this area and proceeded back to where I could only see the blue lake. With water at the bottom, trees in the middle and a beautiful blue sky at the top, I felt as though these photos would be pretty dam good. I filled up my second memory card before proceeding back to my car.

When I turned my engine on, all of the grasshoppers / locus / whatever, flew away ... all bar one. One chap - now named Brian - sat in the middle of my windscreen and wouldn't move. "he'll move in a bit", I thought to myself however, he did not. As my speed increased I watched him grip onto the screen ever-so tightly (and I am sure his eyes widened) and I was shocked to see that the g-force neither squashed him or threw him off the car. Fortunately for Brian, I was heading up a nearby mountain therefore, my speed never really increased above 25mph. Once near the top of this mountain, the road ended in a huge car park full of cars. Not knowing why, I got out of my car and had a look around. It would appear that I'd found the start of a two / three day hike over the Daisetsu mountain range. Being so high, the landscape did resemble Mars a little, and I saw many a group head forever upwards to the summit of the surrounding mountains and into the clouds. Part of me wished that I was going with them, and part of me knew that their accommodation for tonight (plus toilet facilities) would be less than basic. I therefore wished them well and proceeded back to my car.

Brian was still hanging onto the windscreen. I guessed that he was either dead, homesick or he just couldn't believe that the ride had finished however, it mattered not. The next part of the trip would see me descend and that meant higher speeds. In fear of what the g-force might do to him I gave him an encouraging nudge and he landed on a leaf. Satisfied, I got into my car, waved Brian goodbye and started to descend.

The route down the mountain was different to the route up. I therefore found myself entering another village which my guidebook had stated was a `must see`. This village may have been a `must see` back in 2008 when my guidebook was written but, as I drove through it, it look derelict and tired. I made my way to the picturesque train station where an information board showed a detailed map of the town. Like my guidebook, it would appear that this map was also out of date because, when I went to find the tourist office, it was not there. Due to it being Japan's `O-bon` season hardly anything was open. Mistaking a hospital for a local government office, I briefly spoke to a security guard who gave me the impression that he really didn't want to help. He gave me some directions to a police office which, surprise surprise, wasn't where he had said it was.

I was actually getting pretty fed-up with this village therefore I left, finally heading for the town of Furano itself. I was almost in the town when I saw a giant balloon in the shape of a melon. Directly below the balloon were lines of colour. I knew instantly that it was another `flower farm` and so I drove their quickly.

Unknown to me at the time, this farm turned out to be the biggest farm within the Furano area. It was therefore drowned in tourists, most of which seemed to be Chinese. Of course, the nearest things to the car park weren't the flowers; it was the gift shops. For the first time, this was actually a blessing as the heat of the day had taken it's tole and what I really wanted was a sit down and an ice cream. Fortunately for me, this flower farm also sold melon therefore, they had made a `melon ice cream` which I had tried before within the Onuma-Quasi National Park and had enjoyed it immensely. I ordered the melon ice cream and wasn't disappointed.

Once consumed I made my way into the flower fields. Before entering, a colourful map explained where everything was and so I devised a walking route within my head. The sun was beaming down and so my route did favour the shade. I therefore stuck to paths with buildings close by or trees covering them. The flowers were in full bloom and were beautiful. Everywhere I went, colour filled my world though, the flower's sent wasn't that strong. I took my time and routinely changed between photographing the flowers, to just looking at the flowers and taking it all in. There were many benches placed all over the field; they were usually in a shaded spot therefore, they provided an excellent place to sit and take in the world. It would have been a beautiful place to relax, if it wasn't for the hordes of tourists whom continually arrived in the biggest coaches I've ever seen.

Finally it was time to move on. I continued to head into the town of Furano, peering at any sign I saw to make sure that I didn't miss a single farm full of flowers. Before entering the town, I did find another farm however, compared to this morning's one, it was pretty disappointing as it consisted of one steep hill with only a few rows of flowers. Sadly, all flower farms had cut their Lavender stock and I was beginning to face the fact that I wouldn't be able to see huge fields of purple.

Once in Furano its self, I noticed that it was very busy indeed. I now found myself in the middle of the Japanese holiday season and there were thousands of people within this cramped little town. Where they all stayed, I had no idea. I went to McDonald's for a quick bite before finding Furano`s tourist information site. I'd tried to find it before lunch however, just like in other places within the world, the signs directing you to the tourist information centre stopped prematurely and I'd missed it. During this second attempt, I stopped within the train station's car park. Due to the car park being full, I'd stopped within the `waiting bays`. I then rushed over to a small police station - which was located to the right of the train station - and asked a very pleasant officer where the towns tourist information office was. He pointed to the left of the train station and said "there". My next question was "where could I park?". He ummed and arred for a while; he noticed that the train station's car park was full therefore, he gave me directions to a `pay and display` car park. I thanked him and, just as I got into my car, a car pulled out of the train station's car park. I quickly went into said car park and occupied the space. Once out of my car, the police officer gave me a nod of approval.

Last week, Furano`s tourist information centre had just given a job to a lovely old Australian woman who'd lived in the area for the last few years. Her English was as good as you would of expected from a colonial and she was a very pleasant lady too. Though she had only worked for the office for two weeks, she seemed to be a natural as she came armed with a map and a highlighter. I'm not sure what it is about tourist information staff but, they seem to really enjoy highlighting things. After I asked the question `what was there to do around Furano?` - and she had asked if I had a car and what I'd already seen - she started to draw huge highlighted circles upon this A3 map. She was having a great time and she really did know her stuff. In a flash I had the below list of attractions to see:

- Hokkaido`s centre stone
- An old film set
- An observatory (which apparently, hadn't cut it's lavender yet)
- A craft village
- The fields around Biei

She confirmed to me that I had seen the best flower farms and that there were no more worth seeing. I thanked her and I went on my way to check-out the first attraction.

Hokkaido`s central stone was located right here in Furano, within the grounds of an Elementary school. I parked my car within McDonald's car park and crossed the road. I found the stone with ease. This stone marked the exact centre of Hokkaido. I took a few photos before heading back to my car.
The old film set, and observatory, were located in the same area, about 40kms south-east of Furano. It took a while to drive there. Once I'd arrived at the film set, I noticed that it was extremely popular with the Japanese. This was a set that was actually used for a series which ran from the early 80`s, through and into the 90`s. It was about a man, and his family, who gave up living within the congested southern cities of Japan and headed north to a life of freedom and self preservation. It was very popular because, deep-down, this is probably every Japanese salaryman`s dream ... to escape the rat race. Due to not knowing the program, I took a cheeky photo from outside of the `pay barrier` and left; I came here because, maybe, some of my students might have heard of this program.

Next up was the observatory. To get there, I had to drive past the `Anpanman`s - a Japanese cartoon character - jam factory` and through it's car park. This place was manic with parents trying to keep their toddlers under control. Once past the jam factory the traffic died down to just a handful of cars. When I reached the observatory, it wasn't what I had expected.

I though that the observatory would be a building of some sort with a telescope. What I actually found was a car park, on top of a hill, and that was it. It was a beautiful place to observe the area of Furano within the valley below (I think that is why the Japanese call it an observatory). At the top were a few rows of beautiful flowers and, yes indeed, the lavender hadn't been cut ... but there still wasn't as much as I'd thought there was going to be. I enjoyed the place; unlike the flower farms, this place didn't have a gift shop therefore the crowds were minimal and I found that I could actually relax.

With the observatory done I got back in my car and drove cautiously past the jam factory, making sure that no child found themselves under my car's tires. I then increased my speed. My next attraction was a craft village, located next to a posh new hotel. This hotel was located within the mountains on the other side of Furano and, due to the traffic within Furano, I had picked a route that, though longer, I reckoned would be quicker as it would avoid large lines of congestion. This route took me past the cheese factory I'd visited six days ago (was it really that long ago).

I don't normally like craft villages. Usually I find then in a run-down part of town with hippies trying to sell acorns they'd found twenty minutes before you arrived, which they had labeled as `pure`. This was totally different. First off, the village consisted of ten or eleven wooden huts buried within a woodland setting. In-between the huts ran a board walk and the whole place looked as though it had dropped out of `Star Wars - Return of the Jedi` and that, at any moment, an Ewok would appear. Also, the items for sale - though useless - were of a good quality. I went into one hut and discovered that the guy who ran the shop had made everything in it. Unfortunately, though interesting, nothing made me reach for my wallet and so I left the craft village.

Time was getting on and the visits to both the out-of-town film set and out-of-town craft village had taken their tole. The sky was getting darker. I checked the map given to me by the Australian tourist information officer and concluded that Furano was finished. I turned my keys and the car started. I drove out of the hotel's car park heading for Biei, where I would spend sometime looking at the rolling fields.

I must have been only meters away from the village of Biei when the heavens opened. It rained so much that the road was flooded in some parts. The Australian lady had suggested that I spend an hour or two driving along the country-lanes within Biei to take in the rolling hills of `southern England`. Due to the rain, I was thinking about just heading back to Asahikawa as I was a little worried as to what state these country lanes would be in. In the end however, I decided to go forth: this was my last day of sightseeing, I might not come back here ever again and I'd paid for `full cover car insurance` were my main reasons. I therefore turned left down the first country road I saw.

Actually, the country roads were in a better condition than the main road. It would appear that the rain cloud above me had huge holes where rain had not fallen. Most of the rain seemed to be directed at the main road and, at some points on these country roads, it was bone dry. The view had been ruined by the dark clouds however, I zig-zagged along Biei`s country roads for about forty minutes. Bails of hey, hedges with trees in the middle of them and grassy fields filled my windows. When I was able to get a panoramic of Biei`s hills, they were a patchwork of dark browns, light brows and greens. Life was good, but it was also getting dark. I took a few photos before heading back to Asahikawa.

I made it back to my hotel at around 6pm. The owners greeted me at the door and asked what my plan was for this evening. "I'm heading to the train station for something to eat and to buy souvenirs" I said. They looked a little shocked and said that a huge band of rain was on its way. `It must have been the band of rain I'd driven through in Biei`, I thought to myself. I asked when it was due to arrive and they said within an hour. I thanked them and then went into my room where another dessert and drink were waiting for me.

Once I'd put my bags down I quickly ate the dessert and drank the drink. After handing the plate and cup back I almost ran out of the hotel and towards the train station. This new weather front had changed my plans some what; I had to buy souvenirs for friends and work colleges. Luckily I'd been to Asahikawa`s train station two days earlier and I knew what I wanted and where I could get it. Instead of going for dinner after, I decided that I would instead return to my car to put away my presents. I hoped that this would all be done before the rain started to pour. Once that was complete I could relax a little. I would then go to a local Indian restaurant, I'd seen two days ago, for my final meal.

Everything went well. I managed to put my gifts into my car before spots of rain fell. It was still spitting as I entered the Indian restaurant. Realistically, this would be my final holiday tea and so I pushed the boat out. I ordered whatever I fancied which, as it happened, came to a coconut chicken curry, a plain nan and a mango lassy. The meal was good for an Indian restaurant in Japan, but not a patch on the restaurants back at home. Once consumed I walked back to my hotel at around 8pm. I have no idea if it rained hard that night or not. The rain had held until I got back to my hotel and then, after an hour or so, I fell asleep. This was a good thing as tomorrow, I wanted to get up early so that I could take a few photos of Asahikawa - the city I was currently in - before driving back to Tomakomai and handing back my car - which I have named Charles.

As I lay in bed I realised that it would be a painful drive. No longer was I driving to discover something new. Now I found myself driving towards the end of my holiday.
Toodle Pip!

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