BIEI, July 31 — My palms are sweating. My partner tells me it’s easy. You know how they say how some things are like riding a bicycle, once learned, you never forget?
Yes, but in this case the thing once learned happens to be actually riding a bicycle. I haven’t cycled in over a decade. To begin again now while at holiday in Hokkaido seems madness.
In the end, the promise of beautiful scenery and the breeze on my skin wins me over. Biei is famed for its fields of flowers and sloping hills; here’s hoping I don’t roll off one.
A page from a picture book
Once I get on my bicycle though, I discover the old adage isn’t a lie. It takes a few seconds for my limbs to remember how to work together but eventually I get there.
A good thing too for I’m navigating.
The town of Biei rests at the foot of the Tokachi-dake Mountain Range. Ten minutes of easy riding and we are entering the green hills. This area northwest of the town centre is called the Patchwork Road due to its quilt-like landscape.
We pedal past fields of golden malt and swaying ears of corn. We pass fields of flowers in bloom – cosmoses, daisies, lavender, sunflowers and poppies. Truly a picturesque patchwork.
It is summertime. Some farmers have already cut and rolled bales of hay that now rest like sentries. Very few are on the biking trail, most travellers opting to rent cars instead.
We don’t miss them. A little solitude in this great rural vastness isn’t a bad thing. It’s as though we have found ourselves in a page from a picture book.
Famous trees and vending machines
Along the way we encounter a few particularly lovely trees that had been used in commercials or packaging designs over the years.
Our first stop is the Ken and Mary Tree (named after characters from an automobile advertisement). Standing alone in the middle of a mustard field, the tall 80-year old poplar is a stunning sight.
Sometimes the naming is descriptive: a group of oak trees is known as the Parents and Child Trees due to their appearance. Others tend to be more commercial in nature: no prizes for guessing which brand used the row of larch trees on the Mild Seven Hill in its advertising.
Our favourite is the Seven Star Tree. Named after the brand of cigarettes it appeared on in 1976, this lone oak tree in the middle of a malt field is the ideal place to halt for a photograph and get rehydrated.
Yes, you can get a cold can of soda here, albeit from a vending machine. Japan has the highest number of vending machines per capita in the world, about one machine for every 23 people. From train stations to the middle-of-nowhere, they are everywhere!
Towards the end of the trail we head for the Hokusei Hill Observatory to enjoy spectacular views of the rolling slopes and patchwork fields. We have a quick lunch of barbecued corn, croquettes and age-imo (deep-fried potato on a stick) at a shop nearby. There’s nothing like filling our bellies after some hard riding all morning.
Red fox, blue pond
After returning our bicycles in Biei town, we discover there’s time enough to visit another scenic spot if we hurry. From town, the fabled Blue Pond is only half an hour away by bus.
The Blue Pond (known locally as Aoiike) owes its cerulean shade to natural minerals dissolved in the water. Located just outside the hot spring town of Shirogane Onsen, the pond was relatively unknown to outsiders till recently.
As such, part of the experience is enjoying the unspoiled splendour and quiet of the surrounding forest. There are a few campsites in the area but the roads are generally free of traffic after our bus left us.
Walking towards the pond, broken twigs and dry leaves crackling beneath our shoes, we come across a wild red fox. The Japanese believe in fox spirits as guardians so perhaps this is a good omen.
When finally we reach the Blue Pond, we are welcomed with a sort of surreal vision. Ghost-white, defoliated trees rise mysteriously from the surface of the pond, their mirror images reflected in the still azure waters. Simply incredible.
It’s a gentle, tranquil finish to a very full day of romantic cycling and summer flowers. Biei has been a sweet ride, a perfect holiday for two.
Getting to Biei
By rail: 1.5 hours from Sapporo to Asahikawa, 30min from Asahikawa to Biei.
Renting a bicycle
Rental bicycles are available from several shops outside Biei station. Rates: ¥200 (RM6.40) per hour for a regular bicycle and ¥600 per hour for an electrical one.
Getting to the Blue Pond
From Biei Station, take the Shirogane Onsen bus. Get off at the Shirogane Aoiike Iriguchi stop and walk 5-10 minutes to the Blue Pond. Fare: ¥600 (one-way).