Furano to Abashiri: Flowers and fish

After too little sleep Alex calls me up to admire the sunrise. I can’t actually see the sunrise, but the morning mists over the mountains are pretty.

B wants to see some of the regional attractions, but also doesn’t want to get to the final destination, Abashiri, too late. Not like my visit to Abashiri last year where I arrived there at almost nine PM.

It would be lovely to wind our way up the Furano Line, stopping along the way, but the best we can do is leave early from Furano, a couple of hours at Biei, and then onwards to Abashiri for a 4.30 PM stop. So, without breakfast, we set out.

The clear skies of the previous day have been replaced by hazy high cloud. Typhoon Kong-rey is winding its way past Japan and there is concern that the weather will deteriorate. Right now it’s very calm.

B and Alex traversed the Furano Line yesterday, but this is my first ever ride along it, standing at the front of our two car KiHa 150 DMU. The autumn scenery is absolutely gorgeous. Narrow corridors of green, gold and red that break into rolling farmland with a backdrop of the mountain range, including the steaming volcanic Mount Tokachi.

In spring the farmland is full of colourful flowers, a major tourist draw card to the area.

We arrive at Biei Station, with its mock gothic railway overpass, with the idea that we will go visit a flower farm. At the nearby tourist office, where we leave our luggage, we discover that the bus tour returns too late by 15 minutes for our onward train. There is no car hire in the town. Alex is desperate for us to hire an electric bicycle, but the cost is high for the three of us, the time limited and I can see us struggling along the hilly rural roads.

That leaves taxi.

It’s over $20 to the Shikisai no Oka farm. The taxi drives so slowly, but it turns out that this is the speed limit. Entrance to the farm is free, though donations are encouraged and activities cost money. Thwarted with his bike plans, Alex now wants to ride a golf cart around the farm and won’t stop complaining until he and B take the ride.

The farm itself is beautiful, with flag like rows of colourful flowers set against the mountain range backdrop. Though it is not peak season, the sight is still spectacular. We wander around snapping photos from different angles, listening to the chatter of Chinese, Vietnamese and other Asian languages from the other tourists, some of whom entirely ignore the signs not to enter the flowerbeds.

There are various snacks for sale around the site. I’m starving and have a potato croquette and a lavender soft-serve ice cream which tastes like you’d imagine it would. I like it. We also avail ourselves with a few edible gifts from the shop, including lavender cream “sand” (sandwich biscuit) and delicious dried rockmelon. Yubari melon.

We use the free phone to call a taxi back, wishing that it would hurry a bit more due to the time. No matter, we arrive with ten minutes to spare, collect our bags and board our train, another KiHa 150.

There are more pretty views from the train before we hit the drab outskirts of Hokkaido’s second largest city, Abashiri. We were here last year and visited the zoo in temperatures of less than minus twelve degrees. It’s much warmer today, but we are doing the normal thing of quickly changing platforms to where the Taisetsu Express Number 1 waits.

We grab seats at the very rear of the train. That will give us great views out of the large rear window, but I share another secret with the other two. The train reverses direction at Engaru, so we will eventually be sitting at the very front!

One of the seats next to me is covered with plastic wrap and I don’t want to think why. Hopefully just a spilt drink.

I’m pleased to be doing this trip earlier than last year’s because the scenery was very pretty. Unfortunately, the dull light is not great for photos, but the autumn foliage is really spectacular.

We are back following the Ishikari River, the same on I crossed on foot between Shin-Tokotsukawa and Takikawa. Feeding into it are lots of pretty little streams gentling winding flowing through the forest floor.

Despite the announcements stating that there are no vending machines or food service on this train a group pass through selling local produce from the Okhotsk region.

The soft fried dough cake and dacquoise (chocolate french biscuit with cream filling) are delicious. I like the dried trout, but B doesn’t and unfortunately leaves it in the train. The white flower bean pudding looks like a smooth cream pudding, but the flavour makes it sadly inedible.

Engaru is a Y-junction and the train (and seats) are reversed. Now we are looking forwards, not back.

As we pull into Kitami B demands to know why we aren’t staying here, as with a population of 120,000 it is bigger than Abashiri. I reply that 1) Never thought about it and 2) Abashiri is closer to our next leg. Entering Kitami was a bit weird, passing through a long tunnel that felt like it should belong in a much larger city where the railway came after the town. Leaving it is the same, we run over a long elevated concrete section.

From Memambetsu to our terminus of Abashiri we follow pretty Lake Abashiri, until at last we pull into our final station. B and Alex complain about the long train ride. This is why I didn’t take them on my last exploration of Hokkaido.

We are staying in the Route Inn opposite the station. The Toyoko Inn, where I stayed last time, was booked out. Despite looking a bit dingy from the outside, the facilities are quite nice and there was even a hot bath.

The vending machine refuses to give me a lemon-lime Fanta. The lady at the front-desk refunds me the money even though I just want her to put a warning note on the machine.

Last time I had a hot meal and salad bar from the Victoria Station family restaurant near the hotels. The sign lights are off and I am afraid it is closed, like the Lawson convenience store adjacent to the station.

Though I’m sure Alex would have loved the Victoria Station we set off into the city centre for dinner, past the combined Kentucky Fried Chicken/Pizza Hut which Alex then started requesting.

Most of the shops are closing now, but we find an omiyage store full of interesting foods to try (and buy).

We hunt for somewhere to eat, are turned away from one Izakaya as they are booked out. After wandering up and down the mall and the side streets we find Izakaya Fuji, which advertises an English menu. B is looking for crab, but any seafood will do.

Up the steep stairs to a fairly empty bar run by an old couple who are very friendly. A fellow diner tries to help us with the menu, though we are able to read the many translated pages ourselves. While Alex orders a “safe” set meal of battered prawns, salad and rice, B and I share the big grilled fish basket and she orders grilled scallops for herself.

It’s really interesting to try the different species and cuts of fish. Some are really nice, a couple not so, but we are really full by the end. The owner gives Alex and B some dark purple fruit juice to wash it down. Not sure what it was. Grape juice maybe.

After that we head back to have a hot bath. I walk on a bit further and discover that the Victoria Station must just be saving power post-earthquake and is actually open. I enjoyed my very brief stay in Abashiri last time and had no wish to see the city suffer, despite being at threat of eventually losing its rail service.

With the completion of the Furano Line that marked the end of my explorations of Hokkaido’s railway lines. Now I am just revisiting.

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