Hokkaido high plains drifters

25 sushi pink Can Sapporo penned

         sheep be surpassed in the wilds

         of north Hokkaido?

With apologies today to Clint Eastwood and his writers.

We leave Sapporo as we found it – in light drizzle. Asahikawa next stop. We could belt straight up the expressway or we could make a detour via Furano the source of last night’s red wine. There might even be a tour. So we dawdle out through Sapporo’s enormous suburbs stopping at a Lawson Market for an in-car breakfast of hot coffee from a dispenser – yes they do hot and cold drinks at the majority – a soft gooey bun flavoured with green tea and filled with azuki bean jam. Texture a little odd but the jam delicious. We also had doughnuts. After half an hour we finally entered the countryside. What a contrast! This is a massive plain with intensive agriculture seemingly based on hundreds of small farms. We drove along admiring hip-roofed barns, hard-working tractors and supply-bending backs planting the crops. We are not sure of all we saw but certainly rice – lots of rice – potatoes, azuki beans, cabbages, onions and fields of very small unidentifiable green shoots. We passed through large fields stretching away to the mountains, criss-crossed by small roads and irrigation ditches. It was mostly very flat but the occasional rolling hillock and wide river made for variety. After a while we saw a sign for a Wayside Station which turned out to be a small service area with loos, a temple, pitch and putt golf, a little park, a cafeteria and a small farmers market of about eight stalls. We bought some fabulous fresh strawberries to strengthen us for the ride ahead.

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And riding is big in Hokkaido. At the rest stop we saw a lady doing dressage practice across the road and as we journeyed on there were many stud farms and riding schools. After some gradual ascent and then some awesome passes we arrive in Furano where we obtain the usual impeccable information from the Information Office next to the station – always head for the station in any Japanese city because the tourist office is nearby and a shopping mall is underneath – which suggests an ace cafe for lunch. The owner-chef and his lady speak good English and provide us with a rare British style lunch – a rich beef stew and fragrant herby grilled chicken. Wonderful but a bit odd in the middle of Hokkaido. However we linger and chat as you do and then had to decide on a winery or cheese factory tour as we could only fit in one. Well we’ve done wineries in the Rioja and the UK and we’ve eaten virtually no cheese so the cheese factory it is. Stunning building but sadly at 3.30 the only activity is cleaning the vats ready for knocking off time. However there are good photo displays, samples – two a bit bland, one delicious Camembert style really tasty and now in our fridge. There’s also an ice cream factory and we sample cheese and separately asparagus flavours. Cheese works really well, asparagus needs a little time for the palate to adjust. Eating ice cream against a mound of snow is also in interesting experience but Japanese ice cream is an unexpected delight.

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We wanted to get to the Shiokari Pass mentioned in A Wild Sheep Chase and now needed to hit the road for Asahikawa and beyond. Light starts to drop, panic starts to set in, a section of expressway speeds us up but then a map reader’s off piste moment literally sets us at the foot of a ski lift in deep snow. One of Murakami’s characters gets snowed in – in this territory we see how easy that can be.

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We regain our route and make it to the pass, scary enough now but for nineteenth century Ainu immigrants real tough territory. It’s a reminder that while the page-turning nature of much of Murakami’s writing skips you through the plots there is also a great deal of thoughtful discussion of issues such as treatment of minorities here, mental health in Norwegian Wood and the earthquake in After the quake and reportedly the tsunami in his latest novel. On the sign board at the pass announcing it as a ‘cherry blossom’ route it’s also interesting to see it called the Dream Route as so much of his writing confuses the boundaries between dream and reality. So pictures done we go back to Asahikawa, check in and repair to a restaurant and micro-brewery (we get lucky some times!) for a local speciality the Ghengis Khan – vegetables cooked on an iron hotplate accompanied by what else? – succulent Hokkaido lamb. And so to blog.

Thursday is off to find the Ishikari River also featured in Sheep Chase.  It also involves passing through the Sounkyo Gorge near where the characters chasing the sheepman find a dead sheep. We find the river and shoot lots of fine sections of it not least on a teeth-clenching section for Dee when the driver insisted on ploughing on down an unmade road which was bound to be tarmac again soon. Fortunately it was or I might not be here to tell the tale. The Gorge is surrounded by new hotels and buildings housing onsen hot springs and footbaths. We don’t see the likelihood of sheep dead or alive so we press on through magnificent scenery of the Daisetsuzan National Park, stopping off at an unexpected coffee shop with roasts from Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras and Tanzania – will Japan ever cease to amaze? – and three foot long icicles from its eaves as the car showed 1 degree at midday.

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Descending to the high plateau we stopped off at the Higashitaitetsu Nature Centre, a fabulous display of local geological, flora and fauna aspects as well as having an insect collection from around the world. We thought it looked very new and on asking the curator Yasuyuki Oppata how long it had been there, he replied “We opened yesterday.” What a stroke of luck. He was able to tell us what the ubiquitous lime green plants lining the roads were – Fuki-no-tou – which apparently translates as butterbur sprouts. The leaves are boiled and the flowers usually done as tempura. One for the list to try if we see them. While photographing some of them and some lovely wild arums we came across this sign.

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On down the mountain and back to the high plains when an excited shout of “Billy Goat!” causes me to screech to a halt – after checking the mirrors of course. I jump out camera at the ready and result, result – this is no goat it’s a ram. We have found our wild sheep. As it happens the ram is shackled outside a farm but it still counts. And by chance the words ram and shackle describe a lot of Japanese rural countryside and not just in Hokkaido. Dilapidated barns sit next to smart new houses, rusty sheds are collapsing and derelict vehicles are just left. The neat and tidy image of the cities doesn’t permeate to the countryside. You get the impression that it’s no easier for Japanese farmers to make a decent living than in many other parts of the world where they are literally, thanks to the supermarkets, at the bottom of the food chain.

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We move on back towards Asahikawa and another cry results in a shuddering halt and crafty U-turn. With the mountains now concealed in cloud on one side but bathed in sun on the other and snow flurrying around us there’s a farm with a paddock and four lambs – might have been five but for last night’s dinner. Our Hokkaido wild sheep chase is declared a complete success and we return to the hotel and confirm our flights back to Tokyo tomorrow. It’s a bit disconcerting but I’ve never taken a plane before where all you have to do is rock up 20 minutes before departure and show the credit card you booked with. They say it’s all OK. We’ll see tomorrow.

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