In vino veritas. In wine there is truth. And in Hokkaido there is wine. Living in Hokkaido has its perks, and I set out recently seeking my truth on a long-weekend getaway with my family in central Hokkaido’s wine region.
Day 1: The road to Furano
It’s a three-hour drive from Sapporo to Furano, approximately 180 km to the northeast. The first hour is on the expressway. From a view of buildings and cars on all sides, soon there was nothing but the forest and the soft hum of my engine.
Just north of Furano, I caught a glimpse of a telling sign, “12 km to the next Lawson.” It was at that point that I felt I had finally escaped.
Rolling into Furano at high noon with a thirst to taste the terroir, we headed directly to the vineyards at Chateau Furano. The chateau is built on a hill, and at first glance it has the feel of a small, family-run winery. The vineyard itself is just behind the buildings, rising above them.
The Sodachi region around here is famous for its shimmering fields of lavender. And with the exception of a nearly empty tour bus from Tochigi, we were alone. After touring the winery, I stopped to sample the wines in the upstairs wine shop. Here you can design your own wine label and then have labeled bottles delivered directly to your house. I picked up a bottle of their 1999 vintage, then went next door to the winery’s restaurant, which offers a 180-degree view of the surrounding countryside and, beyond it, a snow-capped mountain range.
A couple of hours at Chateau Furano left me feeling aristocratic, relaxed and unhurried. This is the Hokkaido I had imagined. Choosing to stay in Furano for the evening, we checked into the Hotel La Terre, a spa resort just outside of the town. There we took a dip in one of Hokkaido’s greatest temptations, a private rotenburo (hot-springs bath) on the balcony of our room. We soaked the day’s drive away, Furano wine in hand, while watching a vent on the nearby mountains emit a constant, marshmallowy cloud of steam.
Day 2: Ikeda and the King’s Castle
I watched the sunrise from the rotenburo. (Just writing that makes me want to go back.) We had a long day ahead, another 200 km of driving on quiet country highways to the granddaddy of Hokkaido wineries, Ikeda. Along the way we would detour a number of times.
In and around Furano, there is plenty to see. Lavender fields, mountain vistas and onsen abound. The drive to Ikeda took us seven hours, mainly because it is worth stopping occasionally to marvel at the beauty of the land, to talk to a farmer at a roadside vegetable stall and to simply stop being in a hurry.
Sadly Ikeda’s Tokachi Winery has become just another tour-bus stop on the JTB route. Parking lots surround much of the castle. The vineyards are there but lack the beauty of the accompanying lavender fields of Furano. Inside, the feeling is hurried, with groups of middle-aged men trudging up and down the stairwell and viewing areas. Next door to the winery, and representative of the build-first-think-later nature of Japan, yet another tacky Ferris wheel has gone up.
Ikeda is still worth a visit, if only for the wine. However, no wine is sold in the castle. “All wine must be purchased in Parking Lot #2 below the castle” reads a sign. I like Tokachi wine, particularly its more unusual blends that include the use of wild yamabudo (mountain grape) and other indigenous Hokkaido varieties. But the illusion of a classy wine is lost when you have to slog down to the parking lot, wading past the takoyaki and soft-ice-cream vendors to get to it.
Nevertheless, we picked up a few bottles and headed for Tokachigawa, a popular onsen area that has seen better days. The “welcome sign” to the area is a large boarded-up hotel on the edge of town, yet its proximity to Ikeda (about 30 minutes west) makes for a convenient stopping-off point.
Day 3: A detour in melon country
We left Tokachigawa early to head west to Yubari. Thanks to a questionable public-works project, there is the little-used Trans-Hokkaido expressway between Ikeda and Shimizu. We took this road less traveled, getting off at Shimizu. We counted three cars the entire 50-km way.
We headed to Obihiro, a stop worth making, if only to visit the Tokachi Brewery Pub for lunch and a glass of Tokachi Helles beer. The pub’s gourmet pizzas (which on the day we visited included pine nuts and sunflower seeds) are created to complement the beer.
After our detour into Obihiro, we drove through the Nissho Toge, a vicious set of four mountain passes with speed limits of 40 kph, and locals doing twice that. This is not for the faint-hearted but offers opportunities to stop off for panoramic vistas of the Tokachi region and the chance to see bear, deer and other wildlife. As soon as we negotiated the last mountain decline, pink and orange flags greeted us, announcing Yubari and its melon vendors.
Yubari is home to the near-mythical Yubari melon. Favored for their luscious orange flesh brimming with sweetness, these melons can fetch in excess of 20,000 yen in many department stores. We came upon two vendors, one a small one-woman stand, and next to it a large melon mecca crowded with tourists. We stopped at the large one first, but quickly realizing our mistake, drove back to the smaller one. Everything about Hokkaido screams small-town Japan, and it was fitting to see the smaller shop defiantly persisting against its larger neighbor.
We stopped here and spent an hour talking to its middle-aged proprietress. Everywhere we’d gone, people were like her, eager to talk to us. In the end, we bought a small (and more affordable) Yubari melon, then set off for the final 90-minute drive to Sapporo. Where in Japan can you drive 650 km and feel relaxed at the end of it? Only in Hokkaido.