The Minimalism of Biei

The rural landscapes of Biei and Furano in Hokkaido are truly unique to this region. With undulating landscapes, the agriculture built upon it offers spectacular farmland scenery in the Spring and Summer months. In Winter however, the snow-covered hills and valleys transform into a scene of minimalist beauty that I was so looking forward to capturing.

The rolling hills of Biei offer plenty of photographic opportunities.

The final part—and arguably the location I most anticipated—was spent exploring the beautiful landscapes of Biei and Furano. I had wanted to photograph the snow-covered landscapes for some time now, but was a little worried heading there as I kept hearing people comment about how little snow there was this season. Part of the appeal for this location is the minimalist scenery provided by the blanket of white that is so prevalent in the region. I still had high hopes though since there was to be some snowfall while I was there.

It’s All About the Trees

Biei is home to many agricultural farms that dot the vast landscape. If you’re lucky enough to be there in the summer, you’ll see huge expanses of greenery and farming plots segregated by trees. In the winter, however, this landscape is covered in a white blanket, allowing for these trees to shine as the main subject. Looking for these beautiful trees that provide the minimalist look was half the adventure.

A little help doesn’t hurt though

In Biei, there are a few notable trees that have garnered the attention of locals and tourists alike. These seem to be the more widely visited areas, and since it was my first time here, I wanted to see for myself what all of the excitement was about. Listed below is the location for all of them.

Location of Biei, Hokkaido
Location of Biei trees.

It’s important to keep in mind that these trees are all located on private property so do respect the boundaries and don’t trespass to get “that shot.” All of my shots were taken from public roads, and fortunately most of these locations have some sort of parking nearby so you can walk around and take photos from the road.

Tourists trespassing on to these properties have been a major issue for these farmers so it’s important to do our part so we can continue to enjoy these areas for many years to come.

Tree of Ken and Mary

Truth be told I didn’t know much about the history of any of these trees I was about to visit. This tree, called Tree of Ken and Mary, had little meaning for myself—and I suspect for the many other tourists who go there too. To give you a brief background of these popular trees, the government has generously posted signs explaining why they became so famous. This particular poplar tree was featured in a Nissan Skyline television commercial in 1972, featuring Ken and Mary, hence the name of the tree.

The Ken and Mary cafe located right beside the tree offers a nice panoramic view of the tree.

There is a fairly large parking lot here too, to accommodate the many cars and buses that park here.

I couldn’t actually find a decent vantage point for this tree since the café was closed, and there were several people milling about on the street in front, so I left a little disappointed with this location.

Apparently lupines bloom here in the Spring so that would have been a nice accompaniment to this tree.

This isn’t the Seven Stars Tree!

Seven Stars Tree

This large oak tree stands tall atop a hillside, and gained its popularity as it was featured on the packaging of a Seven Stars cigarette pack in 1976. Its location at the corner of an intersection also makes this a difficult tree to frame in an appealing way.

I walked around it, up and down the hill but couldn’t find the one vantage point that made me go, “yup, that’s the one!”

Just across the street from this tree is a tree-lined road (seen above) that proved to be much more photogenic than the Seven Stars Tree. More people were drawn to this set of trees instead, myself included.

There is a fairly large parking lot here accommodating several cars and buses. I was able to get a little more creative with the tree-lined road by walking to various vantage points.

Parent & Child oak trees.

Parent & Child

This set of oak trees were named so as the two larger oak trees (parent) surround the smaller oak tree in the middle (child). These trees were fabulous to photograph as I was able to get creative here too. There’s no parking here so you will need to find parking on the side of the road.

You’re actually quite limited to where you can walk in the area since the road runs straight by these trees, but with a little bit of compositional creativity, you’ll be able to get some perspectives that work well.

The leading photo for this section provides a composition where the multiple level of snowbanks offer a leading line directly to the oak trees. I wasn’t able to see this difference in levels until I walked a little more to my right.

Don’t forget to experiment with different focal lengths too. Here I used a 14mm wide angle to capture the wide expanse of this spot.

Here’s one of my favourite compositions, which was achieved by driving on the other side of these oak trees, from where I was above.

The layers of trees divided by a plain of snow almost makes this seem like two photos stacked on top of each other.

I also like how the second line of trees are slightly slanted, creating an unbalanced feel.

It’s a composition that I haven’t seen before so it was a pleasant surprise when I came upon it.

It’s moments like this that excite me as a photographer! Finding perspectives that are fresh, and creating imagery that differ from the masses is always a challenge, but one that is worth pursuing to stand out from the crowd.

This Mild Seven Hill offers rounded-edged larch trees.

Mild Seven Hills

There seems to be several Mild Seven Hills, but whatever the case, all of them feature/featured several trees lined neatly together. These trees were largely used for wind-breaks for farmers’ crops, but in one of the locations, some of the trees have been cut down by the farmers.

Why? With the influx of tourists visiting these sites, farmers increasingly had to deal with trespassers who trampled on the crop and ruined them just for the sake of taking a decent shot. At times, bus load of tourists came with many of them trespassing to take selfies and other photos. These farmers took it upon themselves to cut down the trees so it would no longer be as photogenic as it once was.

A former site of Mild Seven Hills makes this a unique spot for photos.

I took this photo (above) not knowing that it was of a former Mild Seven Hills. The row of sporadic trees you see in the back (right hand side) used to be filled with a line of arch trees standing next to each other. Now, the trees are now spaced out—but if you stand in the right place, you’ll still be able to take some unique minimalist photos by incorporating other trees in the area.

Using snow to evoke emotions

There’s a simple and fun thing you can do when it starts snowing. If you slow down the shutter speed, you can capture the motion of the falling snow against the subject in your photo. When you do this, your photo will look almost like a pencil sketch or artwork rather than a photo.

A snowing scenery of Mild Seven Hills

I actually prefer this because it not only changes the feel of the image, but it illustrates what was actually happening when I was there. In the photo below, it was snowing heavily so I slowed down the shutter speed to 1/30 second. It’s the exact same composition as the opening photo for this section, which had a shutter speed of 1/800 second. Go back and compare the two photos and you should see the difference between the two.

The Lone Christmas Tree in Biei

Lone Christmas Tree

This lone spruce tree stands tall in the middle of a field and resembles the shape of a Christmas tree. Some people may say that the tip of the tree also looks like a star—but if you ask me, I can’t really see this. Can you?

There is no parking in this area, so you just park on the side of the road. It wasn’t an issue when we went but I can only imagine how crowded it will be during peak summer periods.

There was something about this tree and scenery that actually relaxed me. I really felt the serenity of this place even though there were several tourists walking around the area. I loved how minimal the landscape looked with the snow-covered rolling hill. I could have stared at this tree for hours.

The serenity of this location really made an impression on me. Here, the clouds cleared up a little, showing a glimpse of the sky behind it.

The subtleness of snow

The overcast conditions we had furthere added to the minimalist feel to this location, creating a completely white landscape at times. What really made this area special, however, was the subtle distinction between the snowy hill and the overcast clouds. It was so subtle that you had to look real hard to see the outline of the rolling hill. It’s there if you look closely.

The subtle distinction between the snowy hill and the overcast clouds make this image truly special.

It’s conditions like the above you don’t always get to see too often, so I was very happy to have seen this tree in this unique situation. As luck would have it, it started snowing while I was there, allowing me to take photographs of both clear and snowy conditions. Below, you can see the difference the change in shutter speed makes.

Lighting effects applied in the winter to the Blue Pond creates a different mood to this location.

The Blue Pond

The Blue Pond is a man-made pond created to protect the town of Biei from mud flow in the event of a volcanic eruption from Mt. Tokachidake. This pond owes its colour and fame to a construction accident which spilled aluminium hydroxide inside. A photo of this pond had also been used as a Mac OS X (Mountain Lion) wallpaper, further elevating its popularity amongst tourists.

Footprints are seen in the otherwise untouched snow covering the Blue Pond.

The colour of this pond changes depending on the season—it becomes green in the spring, and a deep blue in the summer. If you time it right, you can come here in early winter before the pond freezes over, and photograph the deep blue pond with the snow-covered trees. To attract tourists in the winter, however, they light up the pond in various colours and pulsating lights, creating an interesting experience to say the least.

The lights pulsate slowly and change colours throughout the evening.

There is a very large parking lot here as it gets quite busy in the summer months.

Snow can be seen falling down above the Blue Pond as the shining light slowly fades away.

When the lighting lights up the falling snow, that brings another element of interest to the pond. The tiny footprint of an animal cuts through the fresh snowfall creating an interesting element to this photo.

The Shirahige Waterfall falls down into the blue-coloured stream.

Shirahige Waterfall

I’m not sure if this is a waterfall that is heavily visited by tourists who do not stay at the nearby hotel, but it’s worth the visit to see the unique blue colour that it is known for as well. This water is connected to the water in the Blue Pond so the stream running in between the two is equally interesting to see.

Minimalism in Biei did not disappoint, and while I was able to see the most popular trees in Biei, what was even more exciting was searching for new minimalist perspectives. These were the unexpected and exciting captures that I loved making, and that’s what I will cover in my next blog post.

If you’ve ever been to Biei, let me know in the comments below what your favourite activity was.

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