It’s that time of the year again. You could call it, a holiday, or more accurately, my annual ‘pilgrimage’ to Japan. It’s now probably my 5th visit here, yet it never ceases to surprise me, whether it’s the “weird” culture, or some gadget that the rest of the world can never seem to think of, the food or just the pure beauty of country’s people and nature. As a newly wedded couple, Japan probably isn’t on most people’s immediate mind when it comes honeymoon destination. We, or perhaps mostly me, chose to go to Hokkaido this year for a short break to visit parts that I missed out on the last time I was here a few years ago now.
First stop it was Noborbetsu Onsen (登別温泉), an onsen town south west of Sapporo city, just over 1 hour by bus, famous for its hot springs and the hell valley (地獄谷) which is the source of spring water for the onsen baths in town. With a name like ‘Hell Valley’, it’s probably appropriate to include a few demon statues around the place, to welcome you to this town. Mind you, my theory is that it’s these demon statues that attract all the tourists here.
Our first night was at Daiichi Takimotokan (第一滝本官), the resort with the largest indoor onsens in the area. It was probably the best decision we made, as the stay came with both dinner and breakfast, along with a massive number of pools to soak our bodies in. We felt absolutely delighted when we were also placed on the top floor in a beautiful Japanese-style room.
The last few times I went to an onsen, I never really paid too much attention to food. And then you realise, it’s probably just as important part to the whole onsen experience, as the skinny dipping part itself. This resort definitely did not disappoint with both myself and my wife delighted with its dinner and breakfast. I can’t say I knew everything that i was eating, which included fugu, salmon, wet pumpkin bun, squid in some yellow sauce etc etc.. basically.. beautiful..
And yes.. hanging around in our yukata (浴衣) is one of the highlight as well. You have no idea how many photos I was obligated to take for my wife
Daichi Takimotokan (第一滝本官) is located right next to ‘Hell Valley’, or Jigokudani (地獄谷), apparently still an active volcano with sulphur spewing out the ground. As you can imagine, the smell that goes with it isn’t exactly pleasant. Didn’t stop the Japanese turning Noboribestu 登別温泉 into an Onsen town with its stinky water, that promises to cure hundreds of sickness! Whether it really does or not, didn’t really matter too much, as we were absolutely loving the experience. Where else can you go skinny dipping like this, and giving yourself a good wash, where you feel cleaner than a washed plate out of dishwashing machine. You really have not had a shower until you visit an onsen. This one even featured some fancy peeling gel that magically rubs off all the dead skin off your face.
Our second night was spent at Oyado Kiyomizuya (御やど清水屋). Whilst Daichi Takimotokan was all about grand hotel experience, with huge number of pools and shops, this one is a much lower key experience with just 2 indoor pools and a single outdoor shared pool (露天風呂), with no restaurant (in room service only). It maybe low key, but the experience was a lot more personal, with us personally greeted by the owner, and one showing us the art of making green tea in our room on arrival. The onsen pool itself is a lot hotter, to my liking, with plenty of sulphur to spread around your body to feel like it’s doing some good to your body. Unfortunately, we went on weekend night for this one when it was fully booked, and perhaps due to its size, they were not able to include meals for us. It was probably not a bad thing either, as it gave us a chance to walk around town and tried some of the local cuisines on offer. How about a crab ramen? There’s even a grumpy sake shop owner, that basically don’t want customers, with a heap of signs to tell you why you shouldn’t touch any of their sake!
As a side trip, we paid a visit to the hell valley itself, and thoroughly enjoyed the snow covered scenery of national park. The day we hiked was probably the best representation of Hokkaido winter here, with light snow falling on us, whilst not strong enough to deter everyone travelling. Heck you can even be fashionable like my wife trying to be!
The valley itself spew enough plumes of smoke, and stinky sulfur in the air to remind us that it is an active volcano. Is this what ‘hell’ looks like?
We were probably also the only fools that walked all the way to the ‘foot bath’ (Oyunuma footbath) that nobody else seems to go in winter. It’s definitely a must see during other seasons when the footbatch is more accessible, but given I probably won’t come here anytime in the future, we decided to go. There were certainly no signs to stop us going there, but looking back, it appeared no one else but us went!! We were certainly the first to track the path to it that day. To add to it, there were parts of the track that became fairly deep (up to my knees), probably an indication of just how long the last time someone have walked this path to get to the footbath. Wai Kuan struggled and whinged when I took her down the wrong path and had to turn back.
Nevertheless, we eventually made it, and for me, it was definitely worth it. As this wasn’t a hotel, nature presents its challenges to my poor feet. My poor feet was probably confused with me stepping between snow and hot water a few times, with it going numb at times. In the end, there was a sense of achievement that no one else that day probably came here, and we left here unscathed.
Just a few years ago, I probably would have never thought of making a trip out of just visiting onsens in Japan. Well, we did just that to kick off our weekend here in Hokkaido, and it’s definitely high on my list to try out all the famous onsens in Japan. Going to “hell”, in the western world, isn’t probably associated with a pleasant experience, or even something you would to do. For me.. if going to hell means being dipped in water full of sulphur that promises to be good for your skin, well.. send me to hell already