A professional team of inspiration spread over 35,000 acres. After indulging in Lavender fields, French fusion and golf buggies, I haven’t even scratched the surface of this place.
Retreating to the Rolling Hills
I press my head into the headrest and grip the arm-seat until my knuckles turn white. The summer sun beats down on my lap through the thick, oval window as the ground sweeps by, faster and faster. I grind my teeth into chalky stumps. I run the Star Wars theme through my head as we start our ascent and imagine that I’m on a mission to space. I absolutely hate flying.
But flying I am, from Tokyo to Asahikawa, Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, known for being a world of its own. As with most of Japan, every town has a specialty, a reason to be visited. For us, the beautiful countryside town of Furano awaits, with its Lavender, patchwork fields and wine, revered both in Japan and internationally.
The flight lasts a little under 2 hours, and we take a rental car to our accommodation. From the small and friendly Asahikawa airport, we drive through Biei into Furano. It doesn’t take long to hit nature. I roll the windows down and take in the sweet, natural air I’d been waiting for. A childhood in the country provides me with little tolerance for city-air. I feel my skin freshen and my bones start to unwind.
Driving past farmland as far as the eye can see, in front of us stands a row of ominous, jagged, black mountains. Their peaks are covered with snow, an indication not only of their magnitude, but also of the difference in temperature between Hokkaido and Tokyo. Memories of the morning spent sweating as I dragged my suitcase to the bus station in 90% humidity are far, far away. Here in Furano, I’m feeling comfortable in my own skin again.
I can’t see the hotel anywhere, and wonder when we’re going to arrive. Travelling up a back-road hill, all I can see are trees as far as my eyes can focus. Then, a glimpse. The entrance appears. The modest exterior gives me absolutely no preparation for the lobby, which opens out before me. We’re greeted by a modern, hanging fire pit; however my gaze quickly pushes forward to the big glass windows in the distance. The lobby stands tall, overlooking the gardens, forest and mountains that this area is blessed with.
Taking in the view, I see the 5000 Lavender plants I’d been waiting for, and in the distance a guest rides around on a golf-buggy; a must-do at this hotel in order to see the whole 35,000 acre plot.
We sit down for our welcome and are presented with a beautiful cup of hot tea and a pudding. This table wouldn’t be out of place in Harry Potter, a long piece made from superior wood. Hanging above us are dozens of light bulbs made out of milk bottles from the local Furano Milk Farm, which I admire for some time.
After our welcome party, we leave our baggage in the room and decide to go exploring. It starts to rain a little, so this is the perfect time to look around the inside of the hotel, which boasts an art gallery, large public baths, a Japanese Calligraphy area, an afternoon tea and bar area, a restaurant and a gift shop. We walk around the modern wooden interior while the rain falls gently outside, the grey sky complementing the bright art pieces. We try our hands at Calligraphy. This being my first time, I dive straight in. I write the Kanji for ‘Cosmos’ – I’m a big fan of stargazing and the clear, dark skies of Furano have inspired me.
After our hard-work at Calligraphy corner, we ascend the stairs to the bar, which offers free cakes with tea and coffee. Here is where I admit my weakness, for I indulge in every cake they have to offer, despite our course dinner being just around the corner. But there’s no such thing as cake-regret. We then meet the manager, who shows us one of the many collaborative aspects of this hotel – an artist drawing intricate pictures of the food at the restaurant. In fact, everything about the hotel, from the food to the art and the music, is constructed around a theme we’ve only just begun to explore.
I hobble to the restaurant, still full of sweets but excited to eat something that’s not covered in sugar. Each dish is explained in detail by the waiters, including drink recommendations. I try the spicy, fresh ginger ale made by the Chef, and my friend has the local, freshly-squeezed grape juice.
As the sun sets and a rainbow appears in the clearing skies, we indulge in a French-fusion menu including Salmon and Avocado Salad, warm Bread Rolls, Gnocchi with Romanesco, Fish, Sirloin Beef with black garlic sauce and mango pudding with coconut ice-cream and popping candy.
Indescribably satiated, we decide to take a walk and reflect on the feast. Going back through the lobby, the milk-bottle lights above the table have been lit up and the once wide-room has now taken on a cosy feel. Sitting at the bar, we catch up with the manager again. This time, he’s joined by the Chef.
Overflowing with admiration, I’m happy to find the Chef, Naoki Komatsu, in good spirits and pleased to meet us. The manager wastes no time telling us how valuable Mr. Komatsu is to his staff and the respect between these two is easy to see. The manager explains how many overseas travellers come to the area for skiing and that Niseko is the most popular resort. A few travellers are interested in off-piste, back-country skiing – something that’s banned in this area, but which the manager says is part of the attraction for many.
Looking out into the gardens, we’re told many wild animals have been spotted in the grounds surrounding the hotel, from small bears to big squirrels. I think I saw deer during our dinner, but it seems surreal to be this close to nature. There are also many events held at the hotel, from picnics to stargazing. Each season brings a new adventure here.
As for the Chef, Mr. Komatsu was trained in France, where his flair in the kitchen led to him leading the launch of the famous Michel Bras restaurants in Japan. He was inspired by his teacher in France, who told him ‘Just maintain a steady mood and remain calm. If you cook something when you’re stressed, it’ll always taste bad.’
Mr. Komatsu’s focus is on local produce – a variety of products from Biei, Furano and Asahikawa. For a man of his talent, he’s humble and grounded as he talks about the gardeners on-site. The hotel has a large garden, with most of the vegetables served for our dinner coming from a patch of land just a few meters from where we’re sitting. Four professional gardeners work tirelessly throughout the year to cultivate the produce requested by the Chef. Often, Mr. Komatsu takes his mountain bike deep into the local forest to collect wild herbs.
The staff here care tremendously about the guests. One family from Australia who came for 2 days loved it so much, they ended up staying for 10. Every day, the Chef changed the course dinner for them. If that’s not specialist service, I don’t know what is.
Bringing us to the real magic of this place, everything is changed seasonally: the menu, the artwork, the music, the lighting. That being said, it is not as simple as whipping out the 4 different themes as and when the season approaches. Every season, the manager, staff, Chef and local artists form painstakingly construct the atmosphere of the hotel. Here we are in late spring, enjoying a dinner that smacks of new beginnings, surrounded by artwork that welcomes the improved weather and longer days. At night, the dimly lit lobby brings the feeling of cool, spring, night-time air right into your armchair.
We say goodnight, completely inspired. I descend into the Jacuzzi bath in the room, a bit overloaded with information. Thankfully, the complementary lavender bath-goods help to clear my mind and I find myself in a deep sleep not long after.
Waking early, I take my green-tea on the balcony. It’s so quiet here. The grounds look like they belong to a Manor and I feel like I’m on the balcony of some private residence. The Lavender is teasing to bloom, but isn’t quite full yet. The only sound I hear is the wind swaying through the trees. I suddenly realise I haven’t heard this sound for a long time. Enjoying my tea in the morning, watching the clouds pass and hearing nothing but the wind through the trees, I choke up a little. This isn’t only nostalgia. I suddenly feel alone with myself, and all the problems and complications of life give me a few moments of peace. I close my eyes and find myself finally present here. A feeling I can only describe as fleeting, I soon snap back to reality with the reminder that it’s time to ride the golf-buggy.
Getting into the buggy, I remember I haven’t driven for an age and my excitement turns into a few nerves. But there’s no need to worry. Apart from a strong brake, the buggy is gentle and a pleasure to drive. We descend upon the gardens, accompanied by the Chef, who takes us straight to the green-houses and vegetable plots. Taking us through plant-by-plant, we see potatoes, herbs, tomatoes, lettuces, watermelons, rhubarb, even pumpkins. He knows these plants inside-out, and knows exactly what to do with them to make original and expressive dishes.
From here, we go to the English garden; 6000 Dahlias, newly-planted trees and a garden shed made into a cafe in the summer. I can’t take in how big this place is, nor how lovingly everyone works to keep the place running. There’s harmony in their decisions. Obviously, I don’t want to leave. With the beautiful location, the delicious food and inspiring architecture, I’m starting to feel like part of the team.
By Emma Price
August 04, 2016
Furano Hotel information
Gakudensan, Furano, Hokkaido,
|Number of rooms||25|
|Internet||Free Wi-fi available at the lobby|
|Credit card||major credit cards accepted|
|Check in / Check out||3pm / 11am|
Additional Information about Furano Hotel
Vegetarian option available.
Valore (Italian) - Misawa-Kyoritsu, Biei, Kamikawa-gun, Hokkaido - TEL: 0166-92-2210
Erba Stella (French) - Shikauchi-Noujyo, Nakafurano-chom, Sorachi-gun, Hokkaido - TEL: 0167-44-3671 Restaurant use only available in winter season.
Furano Tomikawa (Ramen) - 5, Rokugoushigaichi, Furano-shi, Hokkaido - TEL: 0167-29-2666
Mansaku (Soba) - 2, Nishimachi Furano-cho, Sorachi-gun, Hokkaido - TEL: 0167-45-6523
Kumagera (Izakaya) - 3-22, Hinode-machi, Furano-shi, Hokkaido - TEL: 0167-39-2345
Furano Delice (Sweets) - 2156-1, Shimogoryo, Furano, Hokkaido - TEL: 0167-22-8005