Winter is slowly but surely releasing its grip here in Hokkaido. In the low-lying areas, such as where we are in Chitose City, there is no snow left. The only remnants are softer-than-usual dirt roads, still settling down after the deep-freeze.
So Haidee and I made the most of a blue-sky sunny day on Sunday, and went for a bike ride. The loose purpose of the trip was to visit the Matsuura Farm, producers of some free-range eggs we’d bought a few days earlier. Since they were local (10km from our apartment), we thought we’d drop by to see just how ‘free’ their free-range chooks were. There can be quite a lot of variation, even under the banner of free-range.
Our route took us along the beautiful Chitose River for 6km before weaving our way through farming roads. A large feature of the day was what appeared to be large gravel pits. What the photos don’t show is the bitterly cold wind. Despite the sunshine, a cold easterly was blowing, keeping our eastward progress slow. It was just cold enough to warrant thin liner gloves, but at times my hands were achingly cold. Out of the wind, it was quite pleasant.
It took us just under two hours to meander our way to the Matsuura Farm. We already knew that it would unlikely be open for the general public; their website indicated that from late April, the general public could buy produce directly from the farm, and take farm tours. Sure enough, the wooden stall buildings were still shuttered closed. All we could see from the road were some bantam hens happily scratching in a large pen about 80m in from the road. We’d have to put off our formal appraisal of the free-range chook situation until another time.
They were in full swing getting the fields ready for planting, however.
By now, it was lunch time. Foolishly, however, we’d not really thought through too much where we’d be having lunch. We just assumed that there’d be somewhere obvious that would be selling something. But of course it was still early season. The numerous farms with their direct-to-the-public stalls that are heaving with customers in the summer, were still not in business.
Google told me that there was a hotspring inn 3.5km away, so I called them to see if they did meals. “No, we don’t,” they told me. “But just down the road there is a place that does pilaf and pizza and curries!” The kind man let me know the name of the place, and we pushed on into the stiff cold headwind for another 20 minutes to find a promising-looking eatery with a French flag out front.
It looked expensive. Through the windows, we could see cloth napkins folded neatly in peaks on the tables. But as far as we knew, this was the only place for miles around to have lunch. And I was fading. We decided to go for it.
At 2,000yen a head for their cheapest lunch, this was a pricey place. Usually we’d pay less than 1,000 yen for a delicious Japanese meal on the road. But the Japanese chef seemed to know his stuff. The interior was adorned with awards and photos of him with various celebrities. The three-course meal (carrot soup, beef meat loaf, local iceacream and coffee) left us feeling satisfied. Mental not to self: early April in this part of eastern Chitose is thin on options for a feed.
Bellies taken care of, our next stop was the Matsubara Onsen Ryokan hot spring. We’d only found out about this place on Google Maps, so had no idea what to expect. The outside looked pretty run down.
But the staff were friendly. “I’m afraid that our hot pools are quite small. At the moment, the men’s is full, but there is plenty of room in the ladies’ side,” said the cheerful man at the reception. The interior smelled damp and like stale tobacco smoke.
Turning to me, he said “but go down and take a look in the men’s side, and if there’s space, then you won’t have to wait.” There were already a few guys loitering around the reception area, obviously waiting until people left before heading down the dingy hallway to the hot pool area. I wandered down with Haidee, and took a look in the mens’ area. Sure enough, there were two small pools, one slightly larger than the other. The smaller one had two guys soaking silently in it, less than 10 cm between their shoulders. The larger pool had three guys crouched in there, with room for one more at a stretch. I stripped off and went in anyway, hoping that someone would vacate a spot in a pool while I was washing (in Japan, people soak in hot pools naked, washing with soap and water before getting into the hotpools).
Soon enough, one of the guys hauled himself out of the hot water just as I was rinsing off. I promptly took his place in the tanin-soaked water. It was so tea-brown that one’s hand disappeared out of sight less than 5cm from the surface of the pool. There was no doubt that this was a natural hot spring. I felt my body finally warming up after being buffeted by that cold wind on the bike.
Onsen over, we got back on the bikes and started back to Chitose, now with mostly a tailwind. All around we saw nooks and crannies in the farmlands, seeming like they were patiently awaiting the warmer weather. This place will soon be alive with green.
In the meantime, however, we were just enjoying the tailwinds…And big wide open windswept spaces.