Noboribetsu in Winter (Hokkaido)
Toyako (Lake Toya) or Noboribetsu in Winter?
We wanted to enjoy Hokkaido’s natural hot spring (“Onsen”) and was deciding between two Onsen towns: Toyako and Noboribetsu in winter. They are near to each other, but it’s hard to travel between the two places unless you have a car. Toyako boasts of a majestic natural landscape with Lake Toya, while Noboribetsu is famous for the Hell Valley. I am not a big fan of hell and its demonic figurines.
photo: praying demon statue is enshrined with a red and blue demon guarding it
But in the end, we chose Noboribetsu because we wanted to stay in a ryokan, and we could not find a decent one at Lake Toya, where there’s not many accommodation options to begin with. Moreover, I read somewhere mentioning that Lake Toya was like Taiwan’s Sun Moon Lake, of which I was unimpressed by.
Also, Noboribetsu Onsen Town seemed to be more impressive – it is Hokkaido’s most famous and highly recommended hot spring resort. There’s supposedly eleven different kinds of thermal waters with healing properties. They are considered among Japan’s best and most effective.
p.s. We super love our stay at Takinoya Bekkan Tamanoyu!
Travel to Noboribetsu in Winter
We travelled on the JR from Tomamu to Noboribetsu JR Station using our Hokkaido railway pass. We had an hour stopover at Minami Chitose where we went to Rera Chitose Outlet Mall to pass time. Because of bad snow weather, trains were cancelled/delayed, and our reserved seats became non-reserved (this can happen – I’ll probably write more of this in another post).
photo taken outside Noboribetsu train station
From Noboribetsu JR Station to Onsen Town
Anyway, because of the train delay, we arrived at Noboribetsu JR station when the bus driver just left for his one-hour lunch break. We could have taken a taxi from the station to Onsen Town for ¥1920 (S$24), but we didn’t.
We waited less than an hour because the driver was kind enough to cut short his lunch break to pick up the stranded travellers. It’s about 15 minutes bus ride from Noboribetsu JR Station to the Onsen Town (near to Hell Valley).
We bought a round trip bus ticket at ¥620/pax (S$7.80) from the train ticket office. If not, you can buy one way ticket at ¥340/pax (S$4.30).
Board from the rear, take a numbered ticket from a machine box, then pay the bus driver when alighting in the front. If you bought the round trip ticket, you don’t need to take the numbered ticket, just pass him one of your tickets when alighting.
Leaving Noboribetsu: Journey with Uncertainties
photo taken around Noboribetsu train station
Since I’m talking about transportation, we had a rather shocking experience when we left Noboribetsu. Without unpredictable snow conditions in Singapore, we were not prepared for all the last minute disruptions weather can cause.
On the morning we checked out, we asked the receptionist for the bus timings towards the JR station. To our horror, she told us in limited English that all train operations has ceased! *Gasp* What?! Are we going to be stranded in Noboribetsu for another night?! We are going to miss our ski lesson at Niseko!!
Curious? :P Find out what happened to us at: Winter Experience of JR Train in Hokkaido (Part 2)
What to do in Noboribetsu in Winter?
If you are going to Noboribetsu in Winter, remember to wear shoe spikes for winter! It was useful, especially when we climbed the wet and slippery slope up from the bus station to our accommodation with our luggage. But it could also be because the snow fell heavily in the morning (that’s why trains were cancelled).
When we reached in the afternoon, there were only a few hours left before the sky turned dark (it’s winter). And since we were leaving Noboribetsu the next morning, we only had time to visit Hell Valley (Jigoku-Dani), Sengen Park and walk around Onsen Town.
I would have wanted to visit Oyunuma Brook Natural Footbath, but apparently it was too cold for us to soak our legs in winter. Moreover, it’s quite a distance from where we stayed even though it’s walkable. Clustered with this Footbath are other attractions: Taisho Jigoku, Mt. Hiyori, Oyunuma, and Oku-no-yu.
I was initially interested in Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura too, but after reading some online reviews, I didn’t think it was worth the effort, time and money. If you must go, you can take a bus there. The other famous attraction is Noboribetsu Bear Park where you can take a ropeway to reach. I wasn’t that interested in bears.. so skipped it.
Noboribetsu Onsen Town and Food
Being an Onsen Town, there are onsens in most, if not all the accommodations. You can also find standalone “onsen shops”. You can hop around to try the various onsens/hot springs around Noboribetsu. You just need to pay a small fee to enter and use (incl. hotel onsen).
Our ryokan only has four small onsens (2 for male, 2 for female), while bigger hotels usually have many hot spring with different types of thermal water. However, the ryokan’s onsen was good enough for us. Read about our awesome experience at Takinoya Bekkan Tamanoyu.
Food and Shopping
We didn’t have a proper sit down lunch since we left Tomamu for Noboribetsu, and when we arrived, alas, most of the food outlets in the Onsen Town were closed! It was during the window between lunch and dinner. Sobs.
Hence, we settled for some snack and soft serve ice cream. We got the ice cream with a piping hot sweet potato snack at Sugi Yohoen (which sells a variety of honey). Not too bad. You can also get ice cream at Coffee Shop Milky House. You can also find more food at convenience store.
There were some other online recommended food we wanted to try but didn’t get to: Fukuan soba noodle shop, and Wakasaimo with beer. Wakasaimo is a baked confection made using mashed peas and beans to replicate the taste of baked yams, where yams cannot be grown in Hokkaido.
If you are not hungry, there are a couple of souvenir shops for you to buy gifts. The shops sell similar stuff along the theme of demons and owls.
Walking further up the Onsen Town street towards Hell Valley, there’s an Enma-do Performance (Shrine) at 10am, 1pm, 3pm, 5pm, 8pm, 9pm* (*May-Oct). Apparently, it’s a 5 to 10 minutes robotic show.
Then further up is Sengen Park, a park with a geyser erupting by the hot spring flow from Hell Valley (Jigoku-Dani).
Thank God we managed to catch the geyser’s natural symphony performance shrouded with a cloud of steam. Because apparently it happens about every three hours interval.
Hell Valley (Jigoku-Dani)
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” – Psalm 23:4
The whitewashed scenery was so so so beautiful. You can easily take photos that are Instagram, Pinterest worthy. Theme of photoshoot: Winter Sonata.
Hell Valley: Behind the Scenes
Of course, to get these beautiful pictures, there was some minor hard work behind the scenes.
For the photo of me sitting on the bench (above), I had to trudge through the snow with my feet stepping deep into the snow – it was up to knee length – and thus making my shoes and pants wet. And when I sat on the bench with snow, my pants got wet. The price of taking beautiful photos. Hehe.
This was me taking baby steps before the knee length deep snow. Of course we had to trek up for some of the views, which wasn’t too difficult with the man-made paths and beautiful white landscape.
Other than trekking, we had to climb up a small slippery slope with a rope!
Oh! And there’s a strong Sulphur smell. I didn’t mind it, but some people might not like it. I especially like the Sulphur onsen in our accommodation, made my skin so smooth after that. Read about our onsen experience at the ryokan!
The photo with birds soaring in the sky looked awesome right? But we were in hell valley, and thousands of birds flying and crowing above us was kinda scary. Scenes of horror movies came to mind. Note to self: Not to let my future children watch horror shows and fill their minds with fear.
Before I end, I want to mention about Tessen-Ike, a geyser located in the center of Hell Valley. I didn’t realise we visited Tessen-Ike until I wrote this post and saw a brochure of it in its snow-less surroundings.
But I think the snow covered the geyser which was behind me (picture above). I was still wondering why there was a ‘danger keep out’ sign when there was only a small hole of calm water as we looked down from the platform.
Footsteps in the Snow
At last, leaving our footsteps behind as we left Hell Valley.
Following the bible verse I quoted in the front, I was reminded of the ‘Footprints’ poem by Mary Stevenson (excerpt):
God whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”
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