I visited Noboribetsu in late autumn, when the leaves have already turned deep crimson and there is a refreshing chill in the air. Noboribetsu is a well known hot spring resort in the south of Hokkaido and a two hour train journey from the capital of Sapporo. I travelled to Noboribetsu to revel in the traditional, small-town Japanese hospitality it is so famous for. As our train pulled up at the station, a wonderful Disney-like castle loomed across the main road. I later learned that was the aquarium. But we were heading to the heart of Noboribetsu and Hell Valley, so we shuffled onto the station shuttle bus along with the handful of other tourists.
Noboribetsu feels like the a village forgotten by time and civilisation. The shuttle bus is the only mode of public transportation for the whole town and the last bus service ends before 6pm. Most of the stores and cafes do not accept credit card and the streets are virtually empty by sundown. Noboribetsu’s architecture is a bizarre mix of soviet-like grey buildings stamped with Japanese characters, traditional wooden houses and the occasional Oriental curvature roof. But the buildings are sparse and well spread out. The lack of modern humanity makes Noboribetsu the perfect place to immerse yourself in nature, rediscover the sound of silence and indulge in delicious home-style Japanese cooking. We stayed at the Kiyomizuya Hotel, which is a perfect location from which to explore the rustic landscape.
The Power Spot
They say the powerful natural forces of Noboribetsu contain spiritual forces that heal and refresh tired souls. The Power Spot of this town is the geyser of Sengen Park located at the centre of the town. The sight itself is fairly ugly, down a couple of concrete steps to an old metal railing. But every three hours this geyser erupts in a loud spew of hiss and steam, ejecting up to 2,000 litres of boiling hot water.
Demons of Noboribetsu
Noboribetsu is home to several demons who fiercely guard the heart of the village. The demons enjoy living here because of the abundant tall, elegant trees that offer plenty of shade as well as the many vulnerable souls that are easy to prey on. The main street of Noboribetsu is Gokuraku Dori, also known as Shopping Street. This is where you will find all the cafes and restaurants as well as Enmado, the most famous demon of Noboribetsu. Enmado is actually half bonkers. His comical face wears a vacant smile most of the time, but sometimes he develops a ranging temper which I managed to capture on video.
Just around the corner and across the street are a pair of large red and blue demons at a spot called Onibokora, which translates as small shrine. These demons were made in the image of the Buddha Ogre and they aim to protect the small shrine nestled between them from miscreants… although they love to have their photo taken with tourists as well!
Noboribetsu is the kind of place where you can enjoy an unplanned stroll and just see where you will end up. After taking the obligatory photographs of these tall and not-so-pretty giants, we kept on walking down the sloping path until we reached a set of curious, steep stairs. Venturing up, we discovered the desolate Yuzawa shrine. Due to its vantage and shrouded by autumn-coloured trees, it is the secret corner of Noboribetsu. We followed Japanese tradition by cleansing our hands at the small well before exploring the grounds and bowing our heads before the lonely chapel.
My favourite demon sighting in Noboribetsu was on the road leading toward the Oyunuma River. A child demon holds hands with his parent demon. The sight is kitschy yet strangely heartwarming and definitely Instagram-worthy. These were just some of the many demons you can discover across Noboribetsu.
There is a lot of naturally occurring thermal activity in Noboribetsu and all the action is at Jigokudani (地獄谷), otherwise known as Hell Valley. Put on a pair of good walking shoes and allow yourself at least two to three hours to explore the steamy and sulphurous-smelling depths of this volcanic national park. I started my journey across the long, wooden walkway through what is known as the Delicatessen Pond. There is a viewing platform and small geyser at the end of the trail. During autumn, the peaks of the valley are a burnt orange hue and the dark, spiny trees are sprinkled with reddish leaves making the area seem truly hellish. If you squat down low, you will notice bubbling hot water trickling in streams under the wooden walkway.
There is an active volcano in Hell Valley named Hiyoriyama. It rises slowly to an altitude of 337 metres, which is not so high but it is shrouded in billowing white smoke, which gives it a hopeless air. We continued trudging on until we came to the swamp of Okunoyu. This area is the result of a violent explosion by Hiyoriyama volcano. The temperature of the muddy sludge reaches as high as 85℃ and the area smells strongly of rotten eggs. The dark coloured swamp oozes hot water that flows under the walkway towards the carpark. You can bend down and feel the pulsing heat with your fingers, but be careful not to burn yourself.
The highlight of our travels through Hell Valley was reaching the Oyunuma River, which is also a natural foot bath. Tired walkers throw off their shoes and immerse their feet in the greyish, blue water that is both warm and soothing. It is a great place to enjoy the sounds and colours of the autumnal forest as well as heal your fatigued soles.
Noboribetsu Bear Park
You need to take a cable car up to see the Bear Park of Noboribetsu. The operation looks about 100 years old and half-abandoned, we were the only visitors around (!) so I was a little nervous to step into the shaky cable car. However after a few deep breaths and recalling to mind that the Japanese are brilliant when it comes to safety and technology, I let myself relax and enjoy the scenic ride up the Shihorei mountaintop. The slow yet steady ride 550 metres above sea level was a feast for the eyes. Orange, red, crimson, rust and a million different colours in between formed a warm carpet of treetop leaves below us. The sky was a dull, bluish grey as the sun began to sink, adding to the general feeling of small town solitary.
When you arrive at the top you are greeted by a small, plastic-bound enclosure to your left where three bear cubs playfully climb the various apparatus. A few steps further inside and you will discover the first bear pit, which houses approximately fifteen female adult Ezo Brown Bears that are native to Hokkaido. The pit is medium-sized and baron, containing nothing except a metal cage. As I peered over the edge, the bears were all huddled closely together near the side facing the visitors. They look expectedly at us.
The second and larger bear bit is a further walk left of the park, where three large male Ezo Brown Bears pose on a natural rock face all vying for attention. I thought their faces look disfigured. Their noses were not straight and they often smiled, like a weird human, bearing very crooked teeth.
Visitors to the park can buy treats such as dry cookies and frozen fish to feed to the bears. However many people will find it heartbreaking to watch the bears beg for food. They have learnt to perform tricks such as waving their paws or holding their limbs in a prayer-like manner when they see visitors. In the female bear bit, the females will also fight for tidbits that are thrown and the sound of their roars is tragic.
Noboribetsu Bear Park has come under criticism from a lot of foreign tourists for the small sized enclosures housing the bears as well as the lack of natural habitat such as trees, water pools or vegetation to replicate their normal habitat. Their reliance on tourists for food creates psychological stress for the animals, which is cruel.
Noboribetsu Bear Park used to educate visitors about the Ainu people, a native tribe of Hokkaido. An Ainu village has been created at the end of the park, showcasing more than 300 pieces of original housewares with information about the tribe’s history and way of life. However when we visited, the buildings looked in serious decay and were barricaded closed so no one could enter.
The journey to Noboribetsu Bear Park was stunning, but the destination less than desirable.
Delicious Things to Eat
All the main restaurants and cafes of Noboribetsu are clustered along Gokuraku Dori, also known as Shopping Street. Every day during my visit, I always made sure to stop by the Milk House (ミルキィーハウス). This is the only place in Noboribetsu that serves coffee, which was the main driver for my regular visits. But the Milk House also serve delicious Hokkaido soft serve ice-cream in milk, coffee and matcha flavours, as well as other dairy desserts like custard pudding and vanilla yogurt. It is one of the busiest places of Noboribetsu and during every visit I observed crowds of Japanese and Chinese tourists mulling around in their puffy jackets clasping ice-cream cones in glove-clad hands.
As Noboribetsu is a hot spring resort, most people tend to eat their meals at the hotel. Likewise, we also had breakfast and dinner at the traditional Ryokan where we stayed. However we went to Shopping Street for lunch. On our first day we tried the Soba Noodle Shop, Fukuan (そば処 福庵). The interior was extremely huddled and cosy and we sat at the counter so we could watch the chefs at work. I ordered a bowl of hot soba in soup with tempura prawns. My Japanese companion informed me that the soba noodles were average and were comprised of less than 80% soba. Nonetheless, the warm atmosphere and homely hospitality made my soba taste all the more the delicious.
On our second day we went to the Hot Spring Market (温泉市場), also on Shopping Street where we ordered some classic Japanese street food like seafood yakisoba and deep fried fish cutlets. As the name suggests, the interior felt like a seafood market. There were tanks of live fish as well as giant fridges and freezers showcasing all sorts of delicacies from giant snow crab legs to pots of ikura. The yakisoba was simple yet delicious, with a fine smokey flavour contrasted by fishy-tasting bonito flakes.
Noboribetsu is beautiful, Japanese countryside. The pace is slow and easy, the nature is picturesque yet wild, and it is the perfect spot to unwind and restore the spirits. Nature enthusiasts and avid walkers will love Noboribetsu. I spent only two days here but I wish I could have stayed longer to experience more nature walking beyond the heart of the town. For more information, visit the official website of Noboribetsu.