As anyone who has ever had the pleasure of visiting Japan during the sultry months of summer already knows, things can get downright unbearable here. In addition to the intense heat, the humidity combines with the sweltering temperatures to create conditions that will easily have you dreading venturing outside. Alas, as great as the many indoor allures are, a trip to Japan that precludes all of the amazing outdoor attractions like shrines and temples is simply unjustifiable. Luckily, there is a way that you can beat the heat; simply head up to Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido.
I’ve noted this elsewhere on the blog but Hokkaido is something that is akin to an elephant. I make this analogy for a simple reason — there is just no way that you are going to “eat” the whole god damn elephant in a single sitting. Instead, Hokkaido is a prefecture that must be conquered over many, many trips. What’s more, the Hokkaido that you’ll witness in the wintertime is very different from the one that you’ll see in the comparatively-pleasant summer. Thus, you will need to take the same proverbial bite many more times if you want to fully cross the prefecture off of your bucket list. There is just so much to see and do up there!
On that note, today I would like to introduce you to a pair of towns in central Hokkaido that are known as Furano and Biei. Practically made for Instagram, these two are very popular with people in Japan during the summer. Home to all sorts of flower fields, Furano and Biei offer glimpses of Japan that are sure to be lasting memories. Rather than endure the hell that is Kyoto during the months of July and August, why not head up to the natural wonderland that is Hokkaido’s core and see a side of Japan that many western tourists never manage to explore.
How to Get There
Before I dive into all of the various fields of flowers and other spectacles of nature on offer in Furano and Biei, let me take a second to pause for some key logistics. Unlike with many other places in Japan, Hokkaido is a prefecture that is best accessed via airplane. Though the likes of Hakodate and the southern portions of Hokkaido can indeed be reached by the bullet train, you’re better off flying to the closest airport to your final destination. While this means you can’t milk your Japan Rail Pass for all its worth, it does make the act of getting there soooooo much easier.
In the case of Furano and Biei, the quickest way to get there is to book a flight on JAL or Air Do to Asahikawa Airport. This will put you just on the Furano-town outskirts. From there, you should be able to access the areas of interest with ease. When I went to Furano and Biei in the summer of 2022, I instead elected to head up with a friend to Sapporo first. There, we rented a car and drove all the way up. All in all, the journey took us around two hours or so but it was a fun ride up.
Speaking of rental cars, you really ought to book one if you plan on checking out the dual towns of Furano and Biei. While there are a few sightseeing buses that you can make use of, these require significantly more planning than having your own set of wheels. Instead, I recommend that you plan on renting an automobile if you really want to explore all of the rolling hills and vast fields of the Biei and Furano area. Though I really do try to avoid the use of a car when traveling, these sites are just located too far apart to encourage much else.
If you really must use public transportation, know that the JR Furano Line runs between Furano, Biei and Asahikawa Airport. With trains leaving only once per hour, this is a bit too inconvenient for my tastes (unless you are looking to give slower travel a try). Note that during the summertime, the Furano-Biei Norokko, a special train for Japanese tourists without rental cars, operates along the JR Furano Line. This throwback of a train carries some truly nostalgic cars with wide windows. Though I haven’t taken it myself, you might want to look into it.
Finally, from what I am reading online, it looks like electrically powered bicycles are the easiest way to get hither and thither if a car isn’t an option. I am not sure where one would rent one of these bikes though so you’re on your own in that regard. If this is your plan, I would wager that it makes the most sense to take the train from Asahikawa Airport to Lavender-Batake Station (which operates only during the summertime), stash your luggage and then look for where you can rent one of these bikes?
The Flower Fields of Furano
OK, let’s now get to the real reason why one would want to visit Furano and Biei — their famous flower fields. Though pretty during the snow-covered winter (which, by the way, is a popular time for skiing in the area), Furano and Biei become otherworldly beautiful once summer rolls around. As the weather warms, the region’s lavender fields and other meadows come alive with all sorts of vibrant colors. From June, you’ll encounter rape blossoms, poppies and lupins. Thereafter, the season for lilies, sunflowers, salvias and cosmos comes in July and August.
Though there are indeed a number of flower fields in Furano and Biei, the best of the best can be found at Farm Tomita. Set against the backdrop of the Tokachi Mountain Range, these fields of lavender and other flowers are as charming as they come. Entirely free to enter, Farm Tomita offers a great view of Furano’s flora and fauna. Moreover, there are a number of locations to grab a bike to eat here too. If you’re planning a visit, know that the lavender is at its peak during mid June to early July (don’t do a Donny and miscalculate the main season for the flowers). Operation hours run only until 5 PM so it’s better to head here first in the morning.
In addition to the main facility, Farm Tomita also opened another site in 2008 called Lavender East. Found about four kilometers to the east, Lavender east has one of the most spacious fields of lavender in all of Furano. Spanning over 14 hectares, it is quite the spectacle to behold. Should you visit, be sure to check out Lavender East’s Lavender Bus. This tractor-pulled cart runs through a single road that bisects the field of purple flowers. Whether with the kids or as a couple, it’s one of the highlight experiences in Hokkaido.
Finally, know that there are a few more spots for flowers in the town of Furano. One of my favorites is Hinode Park. Located on the far side of Furano, the hillside Hinode Park is also home to beautiful carpets of lavender and boasts an epic sunset. Nearby, you’ll also find Flower Land Kamifurano which has wonderful fields of sunflowers. As can be seen in this reel, it’s absolutely delightful when set against the backdrop of the mountain range on the far side of the Furano valley basin.
The Furano Ski Resort & Ningle Terrace
Like any Instagrammer worth their salt will tell you, no visit to Furano is complete without swinging by Ningle Terrace. Found adjacent to the New Furano Prince Hotel in the Furano Ski Resort portion of the city, this allure is comprised of a number of picturesque timber cottages that are nestled among the trees. Inside each of these, you’ll find adorable workshops that sell traditional Japanese handicrafts. The real reason to drop by Ningle Terrace though is simply the vibe. No matter what time of year it is, this part of Furano is always extremely pretty.
While entirely the wrong season for flower fields, know that the Furano Ski Resort is actually considered to be one of Hokkaido’s best ski resorts. Should you want to plan a wintertime outing to Furano, consider booking a night at the New Furano Prince Hotel. After a long day of riding the Furano lifts and skiing the slopes of the Furano Ski Resort, you can walk down to Ningle Terrace. When illuminated at night, the charming little hamlet is sure to melt your heart, especially when covered in an enchanting blanket of snow.
Note that you can access the ski resorts in Furano either via your own rental car or by one of the buses that leave from Asahikawa Airport and Sapporo. These will drop you at the base of the Furano Ski Resort area close to where the JR Furano Station is. From there, you’ll need to hoof it up the road to where the Furano Ski Resort is located. If you’re coming to Japan just to ski a mountain or two, I think this site isn’t as convenient as other options like Niseko or Hakuba.
Biei’s Flower Fields & the Blue Pond
To the north of Furano, you’ll find the town of Biei. Here, the scenery is quite similar to that of Furano and it’s quite hard to tell the two apart. The primary two attractions here are Shikisai Hill (or Shikisai-no-Oka in Japanese) and the Shirogane Blue Pond pictured above. While most of the flower fields down in Furano are semi-clustered around the valley basin, most of the spots of interest in Biei are a little spread out. Though you can reach them via bus from Biei Station or on electrically powered bicycles, you’re going to have your work cut out for you.
Let’s begin with Shikisai Hill, which is one of my favorites in this part of Japan. Situated on the way up from Furano if you’re coming in a rental car, this spacious flower part boasts a number of color-coordinated flower fields (as can be seen in the image that opened this article). During the midsummer, these are lusciously beautiful and you really ought to spend a solid hour or so hiking the trails that run between the flower fields. Should you happen to be visiting with kids, there is also an alpaca farm on the grounds of Shikisai Hill.
One other spot that is iconic of Biei is the Shirogane Blue Pond. Located near Shirogane Onsen, this naturally blue-colored body of water is quite famous. The vivid hue is a product of natural minerals that have dissolved into the pond. For decades, it wasn’t promoted as a tourist destination but in recent years, it has become quite famous lately as one of the must-see spots in Biei. While it’s free to visit the Shirogane Blue Pond, the powers that be maintain it via a steep 500 yen parking fee.
Should you have time, there are also a number of other locales in Biei that you might consider swinging by. Though Shikisai Hill and the Shirogane Blue Pond are definitely the main attraction, places like Patchwork Road (which is especially green and colorful during the summer) and the nearby Zerubu Hill are wonderful additions to Biei’s top destinations. Finally, there are also some timbers that have gained notoriety. One of these, the so-called Ken and Mary Tree, was featured in a car commercial. There is also the seven stars tree cluster that appears on cigarette packages.
Other Nearby Attractions
In Furano and Biei, there are a lot of other minor locations to explore. For example, up in this part of Hokkaido, you can add on a trip to the Furano Winery or the neighboring Cheese Factory. Should you find yourself in Furano during the end of July though, I’d encourage you to swing by the Heso Festival. Literally meaning “Belly Button Festival” in Japanese, the Heso Festival is a whimsical celebration that honors the fact that Furano is located in the center of Hokkaido and therefore is akin to the prefecture’s belly button. Weird…
Of course, those visiting off-season for flowers during the winter will be able to enjoy skiing the snow-covered mountains. Though I’ve yet to come up to either Furano or Biei during the colder months of the year, the photos I’ve seen are absolutely spectacular. In particular the famed trees up in Biei make for particularly memorable photographs when covered in a deep blanket of snow. That’s right, in addition to being quite popular with skiers, Furano and Biei are also beloved by photographers too.
At the end of the day, you’re free to plan your further adventures as you see fit. One thing that I will end on is that Hokkaido is huge and there is so much to see and do. As Noted elsewhere, my travel companion and I began the outing in Sapporo and then drove up to Furano and Biei for a two-day adventure. If you want to explore some of Hokkaido’s capital city, I highly recommend doing this rather than the alternative of flying into Asahikawa Airport. This way, you’ll have logistics on your side and be able to take another bite of that damn elephant.
Until next time travelers…