Kiyomizuya is a traditional ryokan located in the heart of Noboribetsu, a popular hot spring resort of Hokkaido. I visited Noboribetsu in late autumn to experience old-world Japanese hospitality and soak in the healing, natural hot springs. Noboribetsu is a corner of Japan forgotten by modern civilisation. The few streets of the town centre are sparsely dotted with old fashioned buildings and trim, black trees whilst the outer countryside is ravaged by wild rock, steam and volcanic activity.
A humble ryokan
Kiyomizuya is traditional Japanese inn. It is not the most expensive ryokan in Noboribetsu, but neither is it the cheapest. When we arrived we were asked to leave our shoes by the door and an elderly lady wearing a pink kimono bowed deeply in greeting. In Japanese culture, people sit on the floor so removing your shoes is an important social observance to avoid traipsing dirt through the home.
We checked-in and were shown to our room. It contained a small toilet with adjoining vanity and sink. The bedroom was modest, with a simple unadorned side table and two single beds tucked with white sheets and being coverlets. The largest room was the living and dining area, and it contained a large but low level square table so you could sit on the floor. The room was a pallid cream colour and stale cigarette smoke lingered in the air. It wasn’t classy or luxurious, but it was cosy and novel.
A set of Japanese yukata hung neatly in the wardrobe by the entrance to our room, pink for females and green for males. A yukata is a casual Japanese robe, less restrictive than a kimono and perfect attire for lounging around or slipping into after a hot bath. I took immense pleasure in tying my pink yukata on and sauntering around the room in true Japanese comfort and style.
The highlight of staying in a ryokan is the traditional meal service. Dinner is served to the room between 6pm and 7pm each night. On the first night we settled on the floor at the large dining table and we were waited on by the same elderly women who had taken our shoes. She set our table with chopsticks, hot towels and a beautifully printed copy of the menu. It was written in ancient, poetic Japanese language, which even my native-speaking Japanese companion struggled to read. It roughly translated as follows:
Kiyomizu sake for aperitif • Appetiser of potato and octopus • Assortment of sashimi • Broiled fish • Hotpot with local pork • Picked fish • Rice with chestnut and chicken • Miso soup • Pudding made of Noboribetsu milk
Each of the nine courses was served separately and with much decorum by our elderly host. She wheeled our dishes into the room on a small serving trolley. The food was presented carefully in ornate dish ware and arranged with such devotion and eye for detail. In Japan they believe that you eat with your eyes first, so the presentation of food is very important. The sashimi platter was a special highlight of the meal. Fish from the cold waters of Hokkaido has a superior fattiness and crispness of taste. The broiled fish and hot soup containing mushrooms were also delicious and warming.
On our second night, we were presented with a new dinner menu that read as follows:
Plum wine for aperitif • A dish of raw fish and vegetables seasoned in vinegar • Duck with miso • Eel • Prawn • Broiled salmon • Broiled hair tail fish • Deep fried cheese tofu • Broiled red snapper and king crab
simmered scalp • Roast beef • Salmon rice • Mochi for desert
We received our meal with the same cordiality and fanfare as the previous night. The tuna sushi and the snapper and crab soup were my favourite courses. Some of the pots of coloured tidbits were odd to taste and we only tried a spoonful before moving on to something more palatable.
The dining experience was memorable. It was interesting to sit on the floor and nibble at little bits of this and a that between sips of green tea. However as the menu was written in Japanese and the hosts did not speak English, I did not know what I was eating half the time. Some of the dishes were truly bizarre in both appearance and flavour.
Breakfast was served in a similar manner to dinner, but consisted mostly of oily fish, rice and miso soup. I’m not the kind of person who can stomach a fishy start to the day so I skipped breakfast at the ryokan in favour of hot coffee and Hokkaido ice-cream at the Milk House on Shopping Street.
One of the reasons we chose to stay at Kiyomizuya was because they have an outdoor onsen available for guests. An onsen is a traditional Japanese bath or hot spring and Noboribetsu is famous for them! There are nine different types of onsen-types found throughout Japan, but three are particularly present in Noboribetsu and offer different healing properties:
Sulphur springs are milky-white in colour and have an eggy-like smell. It is difficult to produce a lather with soap in such waters. Sulphur spring waters are known to help ease chronic bronchitis, hardening of the arteries and dermatitis, and can also aid weight lost and improve bowel movements.
Salt springs are the most common type of spring in Japan. The water is colourless and tastes salty. These springs are also known as netsu-no-yu (or springs of heat) because they retain heat very well. Salt spring waters are known to help ease neuralgia, lower back pain and poor circulation.
Acid springs have a pH of less than 3 and can sometimes irritate your skin. Acidic spring waters are known to ease eczema symbols because of its powerful disinfecting action. People with sensitive skin should wash their body with regular water after the bath.
The spring at Kiyomizuya is sulphuric. According to the Japanese, nothing is more sublime then resting your laurels in naturally hot water whilst the night breezes cool your face. I didn’t quite have that experience. Kiyomizuya has only one outdoor spring with clearly designated times for men and women. I went along at 9pm after dinner on my first night to experience this so called magical moment.
There is a strict etiquette you must following when bathing in the onsen. First, you must remove all of your clothing and accessories in the change room outside. Neither underwear or swimsuits are permitted however you are allowed to carry a small hand towel, which you can use to cover your midsection whilst outside the bath. Once inside the onsen, you should pour hot water over your body whilst sitting down (called kakeyu) and thoroughly wash yourself with the soap provided. You can then fold your hand towel into a neat square and balance it on your head as you descend slowly into the bath.
I usually like my baths boiling hot in temperature, however the water at Kiyomizuya was more lukewarm. I spent more time washing myself pre and post onsen than actually bathing!
The onsen at Kiyomizuya was very basic so we decided to indulge in one of the more commercial and expensive onsen at the bigger hotels. We went to Hotel Yumoto Noboribetsu, which offers all three Sulphur, Salt and Acidic springs. Whilst the onsen was entirely indoors, the experience was a lot more indulgent. Beautiful smelling soaps and modern facilities were provided and the baths were nice hot, with their temperatures clearly marked. The thing about onsen is that it warms you up from the inside out. After spending a good hour soaking in the waters, my face was warm and red and I didn’t need a jacket when I walked outside into the chilling night temperatures.
Nature walking in Hell Valley
The beautiful thing about Noboribetsu are the rugged nature walks. You could spend hours in the cool, autumn air walking amongst gurgling hot streams, spitting geysers and baron volcanic rocks. No credit card required! Take a trip to Hell Valley and forget your cares amongst these natural wonders!