You really can’t visit Japan and not head to the onsen! It’s one of the many things I look forward to on my travels to this country, especially during the chilly season. I mean, what’s not to love about soaking in a pool of natural hot springs when you’ve been out in the cold? And then emerging from it with super soft skin? So while planning my roadtrip around Hokkaido (even though it was in summer), I just had to add in the island’s most famous onsen (and one of the well-known ones in Japan) into the itinerary — the onsen town of Noboribetsu.
My Hokkaido Road Trip (Pt.2 of 3)
I was in Hokkaido in the summer 2019 with my mother and her friends. I was tasked as their ‘guide’ — to drive the ladies all around Hokkaido, to take them to the local attractions and have them sample the most delicious Japanese food. It wasn’t that I knew much about Hokkaido, it was only my second time heading back to this northern Japanese island. But I love planning and taking charge of my trips; and I figured that this would be an interesting (and very different) travel experience on the road! The onsen town of Noboribetsu was the second stop on our tour of the island — and the second part of this three-part series of articles on my road trip around Hokkaido. The other two places that we visited were the flower fields of Hokuryu, Furano and Biei, and the lakeside town of Lake Toya.
Noboribetsu is a popular hot-spring (onsen) resort town located in Hokkaido’s Iburi subprefecture. It is part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park in western Hokkaido. The town is best known for the Jigokudani “Hell Valley” located just above it (with its steaming vents, boiling rivers, sulfurous rocks and all things volcanic), and is the source of its hot springs. The area was formed from the eruptions of Mt. Kasa more than 10,000 years ago. Noboribetsu is about a 1.5-hour drive southwest of Hokkaido’s capital city of Sapporo; but our journey from our first road trip stop in Furano took us about 3 hours.
We arrived in town in the late evening — and it started raining really heavily as soon as we arrived. Later on, we found out that a powerful typhoon (August and September is the peak typhoon season in Japan) was passing the island not too far off. It brought with it strong winds, heavy rainfall and storm tides. Luckily it subsided the next day.
Stay at the Takimoto Inn
Due to the rain, we immediately check-into our hotel, the Takimoto Inn upon arriving at Noboribetsu. I chose this hotel because it is conveniently located in the centre of town (making it easy to locate); the room price is one of the more affordable ones in the area; and even though it doesn’t have its own onsen, all guests of the hotel are granted free access to the grander (and more costly) Dai-ichi Takimotokan Hotel’s onsen just opposite the road — and it’s the best one in town.
Our hotel room was pretty basic with all the usual necessities; including the standard small Japanese bathroom and yukata (Japanese traditional outfit) for the onsen. Our dinner that night (and breakfast the next morning) was included in our night’s stay; so it didn’t matter that the rain and wind kept us in the hotel. The meals were buffet style, and I rather liked the simple Japanese selections in the spread.
Dai-ichi Takimotokan Onsen
The rain however, was not going to keep us from the onsen! Fortunately, it subsided later that night, so we could make a dash for the onsen at Dai-ichi Takimotokan Hotel; dressed in our yukata and clogs. The onsen in this hotel is the oldest one in Noboribetsu — it was established in 1858. It is one of the main reasons the area became an onsen town. The hot springs here is believed to have plenty of beneficial effects for health, which helped heal the wife of the hotel’s founder from a skin ailment. He first built a cottage here for her, which later developed into the Dai-ichi Takimotokan; and made Noboribetsu what it is today. The onsen has five different types of mineral water flowing into its three-story complex; and after a long day, a soak in the hot springs before bed is really the best thing!
One Day in Noboribetsu
After breakfast at Takimoto Inn in the morning, we packed our bags and checked-out of the hotel. We had a car so we figured that we’d just leave our luggage in the trunk. Parking at the main attractions around Noboribetsu cost a one-time fee of JPY500 (~US$450/MYR20) per car per day.
Before leaving the hotel for the day’s exploration, we walked over to the small park behind our hotel — Sengen Park. It was built to celebrate the 150th year of Noboribetsu as a hot springs town, and surrounds a geyser that erupts every three hours for 50 minutes each time, reaching a height of 8 meters. It’s contained under a tiny ‘bricked-house’ though, so despite it spewing boiling water and steaming during our visit, it didn’t reach its full potential. The park also houses the “Nine Colored Clubs of the Onsen Ogre Gods”. Each giant cudgel carries its own meaning for wishes/blessings — like for health, love, success, money etc.
Jigokudani Hell Valley
After that, we drove about 5-minutes to the town’s main attraction — the Jigokudani Valley. I could smell the strong scent of sulphur as I walked from the carpark towards the entrance of this “Hell Valley”; named so because of the hot air, steam, boiling water and smelly odor that makes you feel as if you just stepped into hell.
The valley is located in the western part of a lake called Lake Kuttara. It is an explosion crater measuring 450 meters in diameter. The valley is said to have almost 10,000 tons of hot-spring water spouting out of the area in a day; supplying the nearby town of Noboribetsu with its healing waters. You can walk around the valley along the 600 meter long pathway that runs through this whitish gray-colored hell, with a couple of viewpoints and observatory decks for you to stop and admire the landscape. There are shrines at certain areas too.
There is a Service Centre at the entrance of the park for souvenirs. It also rents out proper gear to thread along the pathway during rain and snow (like rain boots and umbrellas). Entrance to the valley is free.
Oyunuma Lake and Okunoyu Lookout Point
From Jigokudani Valley, you can actually follow the pathway and reach the Oyunuma Lake. However, we decided to drive over to see this sulphurous pond instead. The roads on the map was a little confusing; but after a few twists and turns along the windy road, we finally found it! The Oyunuma Lake is located in the northern part of Jigokudani, and is about 1 km in perimeter and 22 meters deep. You can tell that the water is boiling hot from the steam that comes out of it; it’s about 50° celsius on the surface, with the spring at the bottom rising as high as 130° celsius. The lake runs into the Oyunumagawa River, which was to be our next stop.
Next to Oyunuma Lake is the pond of Okunoyu. It’s much smaller, but at 75-85° celsius at its surface, I could actually see the mud bubbles rise and pop. Entrance to both lookout points are free.
Oyunumagawa River Natural Foot Bath
And then it was time to relax our tired feet. The Oyunumagawa River runs from the Oyunuma Lake through the forest; and its water is still warm so it’s perfect for a foot bath! While driving along the road in search of the entrance into the forest, we were lucky that we managed to spot the small sign that pointed visitors towards the foot bath spot. A 5-10 minutes walk through the forest then led us to a clearing that was prepared for visitors to soak their feet in the river — complete with a wooden platform and small mats for us to sit on. So we made ourselves comfortable, and pampered our feet for a few minutes in the running warm river water. I really enjoyed this natural feet soak!
The nearby Taisho Jigoku hot-springs is also connected to this river, and when it occasionally erupts, the river becomes too hot to take a foot bath in (warning signs are located in the area).
Walkabout Noboribetsu’s Town Centre
And then it was enough of hot springs and steam, and time for a walkabout and shopping! We drove back to the Noboribetsu town centre, parked our car at one of the parking lots available in town, and then proceeded to spend the rest of our afternoon in the area!
Gokuraku Shopping Street
The main street that runs through Noboribetsu town is called the Gokuraku Dori Shoten Gai (which translates to shopping street). It is flanked on both sides by souvenir shops, convenience stores, boutique shops and restaurants. The place was crowded during out visit (as compared to the empty and wet street the night before due to the rain) and we had a great time shopping for souvenirs, popular Noboribetsu memorabilia (like little demon dolls and tiny cudgels for luck), as well as local snacks. Make sure you get your hands on some ice cream while you’re there. They sell many of the popular Hokkaido flavors like milk, yogurt and melon; but what you should look for is the honey ice-cream! It costs JYP320 (~US$3/MYR13).
Along Gokuraku Street, there is a bright red shrine that is home to the King of Hell and the ‘ruler’ of the Noboribetsu Hell Valley. It is called the Enmado Shrine. I really don’t think there’s anything religious about it — the statue is actually mechanical and does a little performance at certain hours daily during the summer, where its eyes light up in a fiery red and its hands move. I just so happened to pass by at the right hour of the ‘showtime’, and just lingered to watch it for a little bit, and snapped some photos. After all, the shrine is pretty hard to miss!
Demon Shrines Around Town
What is more interesting is the little demon statues that you can find dotted about the town. I think there are four small statues in total along the main stretch — and it’s a little like playing treasure hunt just to find them all. Heading up the street, I first found the Yukake-Kizo demon for health and showered it with a little onsen water; then on the right side of the street I found the demon for success in exams; further up on the left are the pair of demons for some luck in love; and finally at the end of the street I spotted the demon for prosperity in business. And I asked ’em all for a little blessing!
Lunch: Seafood at Onsen Ichiba
While exploring Gokuraku Street, we also stopped for lunch at one of the most popular restaurants in the town — the Onsen Ichiba. I think we arrived just as it opened at about 12pm, so we managed to beat the crowds that lined up later for lunch. The restaurant is best known for their seafood; and we ended up ordering a whole array of food like a plate of the day’s sashimi selections, fresh oysters, barbecued scallops and clams, grilled salmon, eel rice, and an Ichiba-special demon yakisoba noodle dish that was actually quite yummy. And we topped it all off with some sake! The meal ended up costing the 5 of us about JYP10K (~US$90/MYR400) altogether; but I’d say it was pretty worth it.
… And Next Up on the Road Trip!
It was late evening by the time we were ready to leave Noboribetsu. I really wanted to experience the city at night (we could have done it the night before if not for the rain) — but there were more places in Hokkaido to explore and we had to move on with our planned itinerary! I had one hell of a time (literally) in this steamy, hot and smelly valley… and I really didn’t think that I’d find a short shopping street in the middle of a small town that was so much fun to browse, and linger and snack! And my favourite activity? That foot bath in the midst of nature.
Then we were off to our last stop on this Hokkaido summer road trip — another onsen town, but one that’s more famous for its picturesque lake. The beautiful Lake Toya.