Sunday, 9 September 2012

4) FURANO – Flowers and Farms (富良野)

Furano. In a valley stretching through Hokkaido's volcanic and mountainous heart, upon the Ishikari River, resides this postcard-picture town at the exact geographic centre of the island.

This is an agrarian region, and on first impressions presents as idyllic a rural scene as you can get. Tranquil, clean, hard-working, prosperous: from its origins as a settlement site of immigrant Japanese homesteaders in the 1890s, Furano has soared to fame as much as a tourist magnet for its spectacular flower fields and ski slopes, as it has as an agricultural engine churning out onions, carrots and melons by the shipload.

I am unequipped to measure how sustainable it is, or indeed how sustainable modern life in Hokkaido is as a whole. But all impressions paint Furano as one of the most successful endeavours to emerge from the long Japanese colonization project, and one well suited to its most literal central location.

It is well conscious of that place: hence its nickname as the “navel” of Hokkaido, and its Bellybutton Festival every July. But it is central in other ways, too: it represents precisely the Arcadian image that forms when Hokkaido is spoken of in places like Tokyo, of lush fields, clean air, mountains along the horizon, where all the best (and most expensive) dairy products and vegetables come from; and it seems too a meeting point between the extremes of human and earth, between the cities and the wilderness, where the two mingle, sit together, and work out what their collaboration produces.

Case in point: the Tomita Farm, famed for its lavender fields and packed to the seams with visitors, many of them Chinese. As a producer of original lavender products and a prime tourist destination, this farm may be a consummate example of the settlers' successes. But if the account it gives of its story is accurate, this was not always what it expected. On the contrary, like all who came to Hokkaido to build themselves a better future, these people had to put their backs into it to earn their happy outcome, and stay the course even when times grew rough and dreams were sinking around them.

It started with Tokuma Tomita, who migrated to Hokkaido in 1903 from his old home of Fukui prefecture (incidentally the same prefecture as the most recent nuclear reactor controversy). As we have seen, the economic circumstances for Hokkaido's settlers fell apart in due course with recession and social unrest, and suffered still more as the country clambered out of its World War II catastrophe. By the 1950s, Tokuma's grandson Tadao, in his early 20s, became disillusioned with agriculture's limited prospects.

One day he walked into one of Furano's lavender fields. The Furano region's cool, dry climate was well-suited for growing lavender, where people had begun to pioneer it. In Tadao's own words:

The lavender was in full bloom...the scenery was incredible. I stood transfixed beside that vast purple sea. Faced with such a sight, I couldn't stop feeling amazed and awed. The sensation is almost impossible to express in words.
So many feelings ran through my heart, and I could barely keep from fainting with dizziness...From that date, I started dreaming. I was afire with a passion to cultivate a wonderful lavender field all by myself.”

Unfortunately I cannot reproduce what Tadao saw: the lavender season finished only a week or two before I arrived. You shall have to make do with the lavender in the greenhouse and use your imagination from there.
It was the fragrance that gave it its magic. The farm began cultivating lavender for its essence in 1958, and grew on the back of Japan's economic boom in the 1960s, peaking at 230 hectares of planted lavender in 1970.

In the black-and-white photographs on display from the era, Tadao Tomita cuts a romantic figure. As though from the reels of a great agricultural drama on the trials and hopes of a pioneer and a dreamer, he looks out across the violet fields with dignity and vision, together with his wife and labourers as devoted to those visions as he. As a close-knit team, the images and excerpts follow their blossoming relationship with their land.

Alas, the market is a soulless machine, and wreaks cruelty unless we humans are ready to stop it. In 1972, the import of artificial substitutes for lavender fragrance brought demand crashing down, and companies stopped purchasing their oils. Lavender farmers went under all over Furano, and the 'purple seas' receded from the valley. In Tadao's account:

It was early in the month of May, and the typically dry wind was blowing during spring cultivation. I forced myself to get on the tractor and drive into the field. The lavender crunched beneath the wheels of the tractor. All the precious branches that I'd taken care of broke off, and the stumps were destroyed. It sounded like the lavenders were crying. After a moment, it started to seem as if I were killing my own daughters. I couldn't go on.
When I turned back, my wife was crouching at the edge of the field, crying. She was feeling the same way as I was.”

In dire financial difficulties, the Tomita family fell back on rice cultivation to make ends meet, while their passion for lavender kept them desperately fighting off the impulse to no longer grow it. Then in 1976, images of those vast purple fields appeared on the Japan Railways (JR) calender, drawing tourists to come to see them; and as they struggled on, Tadao began to explore the ways they might keep producing lavender, and use it to make new and wonderful things.

Things like potpourri, which the farm launched in 1983; lavender soap, from 1987; and original Furano perfume from essential lavender oils, which won first prize at the Lavender Perfume Fair in France in 1990 and still emerges from the farm's distillery, the only one extracting lavender oil in Japan. As creativity became the only limit for the expansion of original lavender products, the farm shifted its focus fully to the cultivation of lavender and other flowers, flourishing into a catalogue of tourist-drawing attractions, an eminent brand of exclusive creations, international awards, and visits from high-profile dignitaries, including the Emperor.

It extends into food, too. Lavender popsicles, lavender ice cream, lavender Calpis; and a good deal of other fresh foods such as corn and melons, too.

I was not in Hokkaido long enough to gauge how typical this story might be in the wider picture of Japanese settlement there. What seems clear though is that here is a demonstration that when dreams and reality find themselves in conflict, then sometimes, just sometimes, it might just be worth siding with dreams. With creativity, courage, endurance, and a bit of good fortune for which you made the circumstances, reality gives way, and can be made to concede to your wishes. The 1970s were the end of the road for many settlers' journeys, but for the Tomita farm, they proved no more than a setback.

I also found time to explore further afield on the south side of Furano. Another facility of repute there is the cheese workshop, which generates four brands of Furano cheese along with butter, ice cream, and pizzas which put that cheese to excellent use.

Visitors get a chance to try their hand at manufacturing some of these. I made a satisfying (though slightly too salty) attempt at some butter.

And a couple of kilometres behind the factory, the looming ridge of Mount Furano offers panoramic views across the valley, if you're up for hiking and sweating up jungle-like slopes with swarms of friendly red dragonflies for company. Watch out for bears – though I hear they mostly keep to the other side of the ridge.

Remember to click on any of these photos for a better view.

Finally, I must give a shout-out to the Furano Sprouts café, where by chance on my only evening in Furano I established some excellent Hokkaido friendships, and conversed for hours on a multitude of weighty and topical themes. So here I give greetings and respects to the proprietor Chihiro-san, as well as to master agriculturalist on the rise Ayuka-san and her friend. And to anyone planning to visit Furano any time soon, do stop by Furano Sprouts, just opposite Furano station, and sample some of the tasty meals it offers.

From Furano I moved on to the city of Asahikawa, and as the next entry relates, delved deeper into Hokkaido's wild interior. From 2,000 metres atop the Daisetsuzan mountains, it was as though to gaze into different worlds.

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