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<b>Down South, Out West</b><br><i>Sir Bob Harvey’s son Fraser walks New Zealand’s Karekare<br>Photo by Dana Edmunds</i>
Vol. 17, no. 5
October/November 2014


Hokkaido in Bloom 
Story By: Deborah Boehm
Photos By: Jack Wolford

The Japanese fondness for flowers is a pure, poetic passion. In the autumn people revel in the vivid pyrotechnics of forests aflame with changing leaves, while during the chilly months they pause to appreciate the velvety camellia, a symbol of evanescence made famous by samurai movies. In the spring at least half the population seems to be drunk on beauty (and sake) beneath the pale, frothy canopies of cherry blossoms. And in the summer, floraphiles grab their trekking gear and head for Hokkaido, where flowers reign in effervescent profusion from June through August. The short growing season makes the blossom-filled summer months seem even more amazing and more precious, and the so-called white nights—the sun comes up as early as three a.m.—give visitors extra time for exploring.           

Hokkaido (the name means “road to the north sea”) is the northernmost island of the Japanese archipelago: a vast, verdant expanse about the size of Ireland with scenery that ranges from rocky coastlines to lush pastureland. Formerly known as Ezo, the island is noted for agriculture, hot springs, the indigenous Ainu culture, migratory birds, bears, beer, extraordinary food, ski resorts and Sapporo’s epic Snow Festival. In the summertime, though, the prefecture’s marquee attraction is flowers, and they are everywhere: in cities, towns, villages, parks, preserves, private gardens—and, perhaps most spectacularly, on two islets off the northern tip of Hokkaido’s main island, where on a clear day you might catch a glimpse of the Russian island of Sakhalin, across the Soya Strait.

There are as many options for flower viewing in northern Japan as there are petals on a wild daisy, and this account is just a sampler. We’ll start in the big, sophisticated city of Sapporo and make our way upcountry to Rebun and Rishiri, the “Floating Islands of Flowers” that are the farthest afield and the most sublime.


“Kamchatka stonecrop, chocolate lily, bush honeysuckle …” One straw-hatted visitor seems to be chanting each evocative name as she makes the rounds of Sapporo’s university-run botanical garden. That could take a while because there are six hundred species of alpine plants at this luxuriant park in the heart of the city, including two extremely rare varieties that are the pride of their respective islands: Rebun’s voluptuous atsumoriso orchid, and Rishiri’s canary-yellow hinageshi, or corn poppy. Although neither is in bloom here, seeing their fabled foliage for the first time is still exciting: a preview of marvels to come.

If you aren’t rushing to catch a northbound train, the flower shops in Sapporo’s labyrinthine JR train station offer an equally attractive foretaste of the exuberant blooms that throng Hokkaido’s streets and train tracks. At Claudia Floral Design bluebells, marguerites and sentient-looking vines share artfully arranged space with the more mannerly hydrangeas and roses, and poking your head into that aromatic jumble—even for a moment—can be almost as restorative as a day in the country.

Japanese train travel is unsurpassed, with its pinpoint timetables and regional bento-box cuisine, and in summer nearly every rural station erupts in ecstatic floral embellishments. Lupines, columbines, scarlet dandelions, daisies … all the usual showy suspects crop up, and sometimes the colorful avalanche of landscaping extends several hundred yards on either side of the station. There is so much splendor at such frequent intervals that at some point the taxonomic lobe of your brain (the part that frets about genus and species and radial symmetry) shuts down, and all you can think is, Lucky me.


Sometimes getting there really is as good as arriving, especially if you take the charming wooden-seated “Norokko” train that makes the leisurely run from Asahikawa to the gloriously gaudy lavender fields of Furano. The train is a choo-choo, in the most captivating sense of that onomatopoeic term, and its measured pace (the logo is a smiling turtle) provides an opportunity to enjoy the artful plantings at a quaint parade of country train stations.

Disembarking at the open-air Rabendaa Batake (“lavender fields”) station only reinforces the sense that you’ve somehow been magicked into the pages of a fancifully illustrated children’s book. Farm Tomita, with its sloping fields like seas of saturated color, is the flagship of three picturesque and diverting lavender farms that attract a steady stream of tourists (many in recent years from Taiwan and Hong Kong). Lavender thrives all over the world, from the south of France to the high desert of New Mexico, but only in Japan can you see it as one rich stripe in a radiant patchwork of flowers, and the effect is almost supernaturally stunning.

The farms are so festive that the hordes of visitors with their bright umbrellas and stylish sunhats seem as giddy as schoolchildren on an all-day outing. Fragrant gift shops overflowing with lavender-based potions and violet-hued memorabilia alternate with bustling stands selling food, drinks and the inevitable novelty-flavored soft-serve ice creams (here, lavender and cantaloupe—another famed local crop). A savory curry of okra, lotus root, squash, carrots, potatoes and eggplant pairs perfectly with a bottle of lavender lemonade, but for anyone who’s feeling more Paleo than veggie, there are burgers as well.

Moseying around the Dutch-designed farm, with its work­stations where women in Victorian mobcaps craft translucent bars of lavender soap and its gleaming essential-oil-making paraphernalia (reminiscent of a brewery), a visitor can’t help noticing that Japan’s lavender business appears to have found a robust balance between art and enterprise. All the products are fetchingly packaged, but the real art is in the carefully composed beds and fields of lavender with their royally purple flower heads and graceful green stalks. The Furano lavender farms seem to exist in a timeless fairy-tale dimension, and as in a classic picture book, everything is irresistibly pretty and totally transporting