Issue 17.5: 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.

SAPPORO & BEYOND

“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.

LAVENDER FIELDS FOREVER

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

 

 
SHICHIKU GARDEN/OBIHIRO

The lively city of Obihiro is a slight detour on the way north, but no survey of Hokkaido’s floral bounty would be complete without a stop at the enchanting Shichiku Garden. There amid the viridian potato fields and sprawling dairy farms just outside Obihiro, you can get your fill of beautiful wildness in a fairyland of flowers—and as a bonus be inspired by the labor-of-love saga behind this delightful destination. 

Shichiku Garden was created from scratch by one singularly determined woman, and a novelist would be hard-pressed to invent a more personable proprietor or a more compelling origin story. When she was widowed at 63, Akiyo Shichiku decided that she wanted to do something meaningful with the rest of her life—something that would enhance the environment and make people happy. It was a long, obstacle-plagued process, but twenty-four years later Shichiku Garden is thriving, thronged with euphoric visitors who stand in line for the chance to be photographed in borrowed portrait hats with the tirelessly gracious grande dame.

“Wild-looking flowers are my favorites, as you can see,” Akiyo Shichiku says, smiling under her blossom-bedecked bonnet during a rare lull in the action. As Mrs. Shichiku tells it, she had noticed that the wildflowers in the hills around her home were disappearing, and she thought that building a public garden would be a good way to keep them alive in perpetuity.

The professionally designed garden is always a riot of color, with staggered bloomings from spring through autumn, and the white wrought-iron lawn chairs scattered amid carp ponds and breeze-ruffled herbaceous borders transform every parasol-toting visitor who stops to rest into a figure out of an Impressionist painting. There are Monet-worthy water lilies, a wee cottage dispensing rose-flavored ice cream and an adjacent forest where the jubilant songs of cuckoos mingle harmoniously with the strains of Vivaldi’s “Summer” pouring out of the garden’s loudspeakers.

“This place feels like heaven to me,” Mrs. Shichiku says at closing time as the phalanx of buses roars away. “But there are still lots of things I want,” she adds coyly. “And all of them are flowers.”

Even without venturing beyond Obihiro (a popular destination among traveling businessmen because of its enticing array of specialty restaurants), you can still get a sense of Hokkaido’s love affair with flowers. The city’s street-side plantings are lavish, with a blossoming barrel on every corner, corporate courtyards are aglow with rows of sun-colored marigolds and shopping streets are a carnival of floral decorations. When they crave a taste of untamed flora, locals can head for the wildflower park, Yasöen, a bewitching green-lit realm that creates an almost other­worldy oasis inside the city limits. It’s ideal for an energizing jog or a reflective stroll, with or without a miniature dog on a rhinestone leash. 

TOYOTOMI PRIMEVAL FLOWER GARDEN

For a windswept vista of grassy moors and heavenly carpets of flowers, you can stop at the Toyotomi wildflower preserve en route to Wakkanai (the jumping-off place for the island ferries) and immerse yourself in the luminous fields of day lilies that roll on endlessly, like a gilded ocean. It seems likely that the haiku poet Bashö—who literally wrote the book on northbound roads—was contemplating a similar scene when he scribbled these existential words in his travel diary:

            The lilies!
            The stems, just as they are;
            The flowers, just as they are.

Since 1974 the three sites of florabundance—the Toyotomi preserve and the two offshore islands—have been bundled together into the Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park, so this year marks the park’s fortieth anniversary.  

THE FLOATING ISLANDS OF FLOWERS

Rebun and Rishiri are easily accessible by ferry, and the big boats arrive in a windblown flurry of tour group flags, disgorging streams of seriously kitted-out travelers with climbing poles protruding from their bulging backpacks like flower-sensing antennae. (For the Japanese especially, dressing up like Himalayan explorers for intermediate-level hikes seems to be a kind of functional cosplay.)            

The two islands are generally perceived as an inseparable duo, but they pride themselves on their disparities of climate and terrain. Rishiri and Rebun actually have more in common than not, including sparkling, salty-sweet air; scenery that makes “breathtaking” seem like an understatement; and some of the most extravagant displays of alpine flowers on the planet. Endearingly, on both islands the public address systems broadcast the same tinny instrumental version of “Edelweiss” every day, although it goes live at seven a.m. on Rishiri and high noon on Rebun. Vive la différence … et les similitudes!


 
 
RISHIRI ISLAND

The odd thing about Rishiri is that even though the ferries are crowded, the parking lots are crammed with tour buses and there’s no room at any of the more desirable inns, it’s still possible to wander around on foot and have any number of pleasant places—a park, a peak, a seabird beach—entirely to yourself. Where have all the people gone? Some are on those buses, some are trudging up a mountain and some are probably soaking their weary limbs in one of the island’s public hot-spring baths.

The shapely centerpiece of the island is Mount Rishiri, an extinct Pleistocene-era volcano nicknamed Rishiri-Fuji for obvious reasons, which is one of the One Hundred Important Mountains of Japan. Making the full ascent is a jaunty feather in any climber’s Tyrolean cap, and it’s also the best way to see alpine flowers in all their joyful abundance. Incidentally, those plants may look fragile, but they are impressively hardy; every year, they survive a harsh subarctic winter that makes the conical island appear to be encased in whipped cream. (The snow actually acts as a blanket, holding in the residual heat.)

Starting in early spring the elfin buds burst forth all over the mountain’s slopes, with the most exotic sprouting at the summit. There, after drinking in the awesomely panoramic view, climbers can share a heart-swelling moment (or take a respectful selfie) with the doyenne of Rishiri’s alpine flowers: the translucent yellow hinageshi poppy, which grows wild nowhere else.

Where, you might wonder, did all this amazing flora come from originally? That’s the sixty-four-thousand-yen question, but there seems to be no clear answer. In the absence of an engagingly cinematic backstory (“A Russian nobleman’s favorite gardener turned up in Wakkanai in 1747 with a backpack full of alpine-plant seeds …”), scientists proffer theories about climate change, tectonic shifts, phylogenetic permutations and wind-borne pollen. At this point, though, the botanical bottom line is that Hokkaido’s astonishing vegetation is yet another gorgeous mystery of nature and evolution.

In addition to the dawn-to-dusk trek to the top of Rishiri-Fuji, there are numerous other well-mapped courses for walking or biking, and each offers its own distinctive menu of dramatic scenery and flower sightings. Wherever you roam on Rishiri and Rebun, you’ll want to carry your own sustenance. Fortunately, putting together a picnic is so easy that, as the Japanese saying goes, you could do it before breakfast. Just drop by the nearest konbeni (convenience store), where the shelves are crammed with the healthfully raw and the deliciously cooked: everything from still-warm rice balls to cold soba topped with mountain yam to fresh salads sparked with a piquant shiso dressing, and more calories-be-damned sweets and crisps than you could shake a walking stick at. On a trip that includes a lot of extended rambles in scenic restaurant-free zones, a hastily assembled backpack picnic can linger in memory long after a four-star meal has been forgotten.

The flowers on both islands are exceedingly photogenic, and no one captures their appeal more masterfully than Hisayuki Matsui, proprietor of the Sunset Dream Cafe & Photo Gallery, which is located up a steep flight of flower-paved steps not far from the Oshidomari ferry terminal. The arty-looking Matsui—a transplanted Tokyoite whose photographs of island flora are acclaimed throughout Hokkaido—serves potent Italian-roast coffee and beef curry that comes only one way: very spicy. But doesn’t he miss the fast-lane glamour of Tokyo? “Never,” the photographer replies, gesturing eloquently at the 360 degrees of wondrous wildness that surround him.

Rishiri Town is more of a village, but wherever the tour buses stop there are rustic stands selling irresistible souvenirs and regional refreshments: giant smoky-sauced scallops, sea urchin roe the color of a monk’s saffron robes and local riffs on the inevitable soft-serve ice cream (bamboo grass here, seaweed there). Kombu is one of Rishiri’s main exports, and the farmed version of this sleek, flavorful seaweed can be seen swirling around in deep concrete pools like a rhythmic gymnast’s ribbons. Curious­ly, even though daylight comes at three a.m., the wild kombu pickers (who use angular, elongated shore boats that seem to have sailed right out of a Hokusai print) don’t begin to harvest the seaweed till six a.m.—“to give it a chance to wake up,” they say, in apparent seriousness.

Some express trekkers fly in from Tokyo to spend the weekend feasting on flower-viewing, hiking, seascapes and sashimi and then fly out on Sunday night. “That’s really all it takes to recharge your batteries,” muses one sunburned climber as she limps off to the restorative bathhouse. 

REBUN ISLAND

Rebun is lovely beyond belief, and it’s also beguilingly fey in a way that brings to mind the whimsical villages in Local Hero and Brigadoon. The moment you enter the ferry terminal, you’ll become aware of the island’s proprietary pride in the atsumorisö; images of the unique slipper orchids are ubiquitous, popping up on sign­boards, in fine art and at every souvenir stand. The flower even has its own designated colony, as do the skunk cabbage and the starry-petaled usuyukiso (an unusual type of white edelweiss).

For the past several years, though, the island has been rejoicing in a new celebrity: Atsumon, the charismatic town mascot. Atsumon exemplifies the growing trend among Japanese municipalities toward adopting customized cartoon mascots; on Rishiri it’s a couple of striped squirrels. Rebun’s cute-will ambassador—an anthropo­mor­phized version of the elegant atsumorisö, with the addition of arms, legs and an affable expression—pops up everywhere: on banners, guidebooks, key chains, T-shirts, the mayor’s business card. Atsumon even has his own hilariously surreal Twitter account. The lovable icon clearly means a great deal to islanders, and it’s hard to imagine Rebun without that funny little face emblazoned on every available surface.

Another daily touchstone for residents of Rebun is Rishiri-Fuji. The view of the mountain as seen from the Kafuka side (where the ferries come and go) is constantly changing, and residents who have been watching the volcanic peak since childhood still comment on every subtle geopoetic variation. “Look, it’s wreathed in mist!” “Hey, it vanished completely!” “Today’s so clear, I swear you can see the greenery!”

Still, nothing trumps the atsumorisö, and now Rebun’s orchidaceous superstar can be admired even out of season thanks to the ingenious efforts of Kyoto-born botanist Seiji Maruyama and his colleagues at the beautifully laid-out Alpine Botanical Garden. Years ago a scientist figured out how to refrigerate the rhizomes of atsumorisö plants and then fool them into flowering all the way into fall, five at a time, in pots in the airy lobby. For anyone who has only seen photographs, it’s a thrill to finally encounter an atsumorisö in full bloom, and hearing about the behind-the-scenes legerdemain only intensifies the sense of wonderment.

Although it’s less mountainous than Rishiri, Rebun is another hiker’s paradise, and the brochures for the various courses thoughtfully provide estimated trekking times both for the nature-loving esthete (“enjoy the flowers and scenery”) and the fitness buff and/or philistine (“finish as quickly as possible”). One unmissably scenic hike goes from Shiretoko to the Momoiwa overlook, winding along above the sea through blossom-strewn meadows and lushly undulating hills. The butterflies seem to get bigger the higher you go, and there’s something delirious about their aerobatics, as if they realize how blessed they are to be living their brief lives in this flowery utopia. Sternly cautionary signs are posted along the way; according to Seiji Murayama, there used to be a problem with people stealing plants, but an aggressive campaign of education and thief-shaming has improved those statistics of late.

At the end of the Momoiwa Trail, you can sit on a stone bench and bask in your accomplishment (and the dazzling sea view) before you follow the sun-dappled Forest Path back to civilization. It’s a relatively easy walk, and the jungly surroundings have such a strong aura of medieval mystery that you half expect to spy a troll under every rickety wooden bridge.

Another day, another hike: this time to Cape Sukuton on the other side of Rebun, which is officially the northern­most point in Japan. On this breezy promon­tory, with Sakhalin in sight, clumps of wildflowers have sprung up around the railings, and the golden flush of day lilies suffuses a grassy hillock off to one side. There is something so pure about these perfectly crafted works of art; their only job, apart from photosynthesis and propagation, is to relish their brief time in the wind, the rain and the midnight sun. Our enjoyment is an accidental bonus. Lucky us. HH