Just about an hour and a half outside of Sapporo lies a trifecta of sightseeing happiness. The views will make you want to soar through the sky, the nature walks will restore your well-being, and the soaking in the baths will soothe your bones and dissipate your stress. The place is called Noboribetsu Onsen (“Onsen” meaning hot springs), and while it is known as a popular destination it is not nearly as crowded as you might fear. Even on a summer weekend, you will often find yourself alone in the magical ether.
A very warm welcome to Noboribetsu Onsen from the depths of hell
The first thing you’ll want to do is stop by the tourist center. It’s right where the bus from the nearby Noboribetsu Station drops you off, is walking distance to all the sights, and they have excellent English materials on hand. From here, catch a shuttle up the hill a bit or just walk to the ropeway entrance, from where you will be whisked high up the slopes of Mt. Kutsutaro.
Views with a side of bear habitat and duck racing
After a 7-minute ride on a modern, 6-person gondola, you will alight at Bear Village, a veritable emporium of sightseer-oriented spectacles. Naturally, there are lots of bears. In fact, the sheer number of bears may be a bit surprising – there are dozens of them across a few different large, outdoor enclosures, and you are welcome to feed them. There is also duck racing, which seems like a non sequitur, but the kids love it. The recreated indigenous peoples village and related museum fall somewhere between hokey and sad, but it’s still worth the 2,592 JPY (approximately 21 USD) for the thrill of the cable ride and the views from up top (all attractions at top are included in the ropeway fee).
Let the moonscapes transport you to another world
After riding the ropeway back down to the village where you started, it’s just a short walk up the gentle, shop-lined street to Jigoku (Hell) Valley, where the hot springs and their minerals have ravaged the landscape in their own beautiful way. Little plumes of steam, waftings of sulfur, and even a cute little geyser all tell you that you are standing in a geologically active area. Clearly marked paths guide you right into the thick of the moonscape for a truly immersive experience.
A pleasant walk, a bubbling lake
There are at least a few different ways to traverse the area, but most roads will lead you through hills along well maintained hiking paths and to the steaming lake pictured above. Just follow your nose – the sulfur is beckoning. The rawness of the landscape where the springs permeate our world paints a nice contrast with the sprawling green that caresses the expansive Hokkaido countryside. One caveat: Naturally, in winter, it’s safe to assume that nearly everything will be white.
Soak your feet and feel the richness of it all
A five minute walk down the road away from the lake will bring you to a clearly marked path that leads you to Onuyama Brook, a pleasant ravine fed by a small waterfall. This is the “ashi-no-yu,” usually and somewhat unfortunately translated as merely a “foot bath.” The entire scene exudes richness, from the mineral saturated waters to the resplendent flora. Have a seat on the edge, take off your shoes and socks, and drink it all in – but not literally, since the waters are best not consumed orally.
For your final ingress
You’ve gone high on the ropeway, into the heart of the hot spring moonscape, walked through the hills to a cauldron of a lake, and soaked your feet in heavenly splendor. After a string of experiential riches such as this, you will clearly be ready for a proper, full body soak. If you are staying in one of the hotels, you should be sure to take advantage of their in-house facilities. But even day trippers can get in on the action, and on the cheap too, if you head to the public baths. Don’t pass it up.
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