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August 29, 2009

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Escape from the city sizzle and find room at an inn called Tomato

It's my eighth time here," he gesticulated in simple English to show his fondness of the farm inn tucked away at the heart of Hokkaido, the most northern isle of Japan.

He is a polite Japanese man in his 30s we chanced to meet at dinner in mid-July in Tomato, a neat farm inn at Biei, a bucolic town known for its picturesque hill farms and closeness to Farm Tomita, where purple lavender flowers lavishly blossom in summer.

At first he took my wife and I as Japanese, and his face flushed as it came to him that neither of us could speak Japanese except a few greeting words like sumimasen and dozo yorushiku.

"I work for a 'middle-class' printing company in Tokyo," he mumbled with a wry grin, not sure of his choice of English words. "It's very, very tiring."

He must have meant "medium-sized," we gathered. The three of us burst into a hearty laughter now and then as we caught ourselves fumbling in broken English in such a cozy Japanese pension. How I wish I could speak Japanese then.

He was a lone traveler who loved to lodge in Tomato at weekends to find a temporary escape from the sizzling and frying of Tokyo life. We woke up the next morning at around 6 o'clock only to find him gone. The door of his room was open, allowing us to see that he had tidied away the bedding before he left in a rush to work back in Tokyo.

What a pity we did not ask for his name when he said he would love to visit Shanghai next May to see the World Expo. Broken English was certainly to blame, but it might also be impolite in Oriental culture for tourists to try to be too intimate with each other on first meeting.

Now we're back to the roar of Shanghai and we often miss this urbane young man whose name we don't know. He has become part of our memory of a hermitic Hokkaido we've explored for the first time in our lives.

He said he had never left Japan since he traveled to the deep of Africa to feel its natural wonders when he was a college student more than 10 years ago. "I was so close to wild elephants, zebras, eh ..." he recalled his good old days in a husky whisper, his arms arching up slowly to draw a circle in the air to show the unbelievable size of those creatures.

Since then, it seemed, Biei had been for him no less an escape into nature. Inadequate English forbade us from asking him how often he visited Biei a year, but there was no mistake that he had lodged in Tomato at least eight times in the past 10 years. That more or less gave away his silent passion for a serene Biei, a quiet town where 12,140 residents live in an area of 677 square kilometers.

In other words, there are only about 18 people per square kilometer in Biei, compared with about 5,000 per square kilometer in Tokyo and 3,000 in Shanghai.

Shanghai and Tokyo are alike in at least one aspect -- both are marked for grinding work and noise typical of a mega city. If you want a few days off the shackles of tiring work in Shanghai, mark Biei high on your agenda.

A flight of about three hours takes you to Sapporo, capital city of Hokkaido, and a convenient railway system is in place to pick you up to nearby Biei. An easy walk of 20 minutes takes you from Biei Railway Station to Tomato.

Click open the official Biei Website, and you see "the town of beautiful hills." Rolling hills of crops and flowers greeted us as my wife and I braved the unexpected downpour on a bike tour. We had meant to cover the Panorama Road in three hours by bike, but the heavy rain stopped us at San Ai No Oka, a small hill overlooking a vast stretch of farm fields.

Our faces and feet were soaked, and we shivered in cold as the raincoats we just bought in town barely kept us from being wet through. But how joyful we were at the bottoms of our hearts as we rode up and down the hills in such a romantic rain.

Next year we plan to stay at least two nights at Tomato, so that we will finish the Panorama Road and the Patchwork Road (so named because the crops of different colors look like patches of colorful cloth).

Most guests at Tomato are Japanese tourists and Chinese from Hong Kong and Taiwan. There are not many from the Chinese mainland yet, one possible reason being that individual tours (as against group tours) to Japan had been restricted to people from the mainland until this July.

If you sign on a group tour of Japan, you're seldom given a chance to live with Japanese farmers in their family inns -- the lodging prices are so reasonable that a travel agency usually can't wring a bargain to its own benefit.

Not all farm inns are nice, though. Don't choose those with too many guest rooms, because lining up for one bathroom would be a headache. Tomato has four tatami guest rooms on the second floor, while the owner -- a pleasant middle-aged woman -- and her children live downstairs. Four is perfect.

The owner hired a young woman from Hong Kong who spoke perfect English, Cantonese and not-so-bad Mandarin to help manage the inn. We had a pleasant surprise when she greeted us at the gate in Chinese -- it made us feel at home.

We rented two bikes in a shop near the railway station. We rode to Tomato only to find that it offered free bikes. Well, we'll know next time.

Take a train from Biei and you will arrive at Furano's Farm Tomita in about half an hour to see the sea of lavender flowers that are in full bloom in July and August.

The beauty of the lavender flowers beggars my pen, so please enjoy my photos. A quick tip, though: do taste a kind of ice cream made of lavender on the Farm Tomita.

Of nearly 6,000 Netizens who have viewed my travelogues about Biei and Furano on, there was only one criticism: your pictures are great, but are they really of rural Japan?

By implication, he equated rural with dilapidated.

Watch out for the weather!

How do you get to Hokkaido?

China Eastern Airlines has a direct flight from Shanghai to Sapporo, capital city of Hokkaido. The flight takes about three hours, but be prepared for a possible delay for various reasons, bad weather for example.

Is Hokkaido as hot as Shanghai in summer?

Don't fully trust weather forecasts. According to our online research, Sapporo's average temperature in summer is about 20 degrees Celcius, but it was only 15 degrees when we landed in Sapporo on July 18.

We were literally shivering when we arrived at Sunkyo Canyon in the Daisetsuzan National Park to the northeast of Sapporo. There was nowhere to buy clothes there. But don't worry, you won't catch a cold. Soak yourself in local hot springs and all the cold goes away.

Where to eat?

We often went to an izakaya (a drinking establishment that sells food) to taste authentic and affordable seafood. We loved the atmosphere there -- people laugh wildly but are well mannered. There are many izakayas in Sapporo and Asahikawa.

How many places can you visit in one week?

The weeklong trip took us to Sapporo, Otaru, Asahikawa, Biei, Furano and Sunkyo Canyon. We stayed in Otaru for one night to see and buy glass wind bells and music boxes. We lodged in a farm inn at Biei to tour its world-famous hill farms. From Biei we took a train and arrived at Furano in about half an hour to see lavender flowers that usually blossom only in July and August.

From Furano we went to Asahikawa, stayed overnight and then took a bus to Sunkyo where we stayed for two nights to enjoy hot springs and mountain hiking. From Sunkyo we came back to Sapporo for two nights before boarding for Shanghai.

The only regret is that one night at Biei is not enough for anyone who loves to stroll in the countryside.

Next time we hope to stay there for at least two nights so that we can bike up and down all the famous hills.


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