Autumn at the Noboribetsu Spa, Hokkaido
It’s autumn in Japan and all over the country the colors of fall are beginning to show. One of the more beautiful displays can be found in Hokkaido in the spa town of Noboribetsu. The locals here are justifiably proud of the myriad of colors that cover the mountains and valleys of this scenic area. Not just reds, yellows and oranges but every shade in between as well, which makes the mountains glow as if they were ablaze. Residents believe that this is because of the particular light that exists here, and are quick to explain that the town sits at the same latitude as Tuscany in Italy. Whatever the reason, autumn in Noboribetsu is certainly magical.
But Noboribetsu’s main claim to fame is as one of Japan’s best spa towns. The reason for this is the dramatically named Valley of Hell, where sulphur infused hot waters gush down the valley to be pushed up into the town’s center and through the Mouth of Hell. This aperture into the earth bubbles and gurgles throughout the day. Every ten minutes or so it spews small geysers of boiling mineral water into the grotto that covers it. At times it sounds like a freight train rumbling through the main street. Fittingly for a valley of hell, statues representing Japanese oni, or devils, are all over the town. They are its friendly welcoming party.
Sitting directly at the entrance to the Valley of Hell and across the road from the Mouth of Hell, is the grand old dame of the town, the Daiichi Takimotokan Spa Hotel. Consistently named as one of the three best spas in Japan, this hotel has been run by the same family for over five generations. Latest in this line is Tomoko Minami. Having grown up in the town and trained in the family business, she is a eminently qualified to talk spas.
“We are a traditional Japanese spa, with separate men’s and women’s baths,” she explained. “The mens outdoor bath is world renowned for its commanding view of Hell’s Valley, which is especially beautiful in autumn.” The women’s outdoor bath is on a smaller, more intimate scale without views but set in a lovely garden that is both private and very restful.
This onset (hot spring) can house up 1,000 guests, but at no time does it appear to be crowded or overrun. In fact, its smooth efficiency is obvious in the staff’s no fuss attitude. Lovely ladies dressed in formal kimono whisk your luggage to your room. Nothing seems to be a problem to them. Rebuilt at the height of the Japan’s bubble era, the hotel’s main building has mother of pearl inlay on its elevator doors and beautiful tatami rooms in which guests can relax in a very traditional Japanese manner. Offering seven kinds of hot springs and their unique mineral benefits, the spa also has beauty treatments and serves its very own bottled water from the Valley of Hell itself.
The town of Noboribetsu has a lots of activities on offer, including a day and night hot spring foot bath set in a lovely park by the river Oyunuma. But it is the natural backdrop of the heavily wooded mountains that dominates the view. A winding road takes visitors up the mountainside, switching back on itself from time to time to offer glimpses of the town and valley below. The mountain roads are ideal for extreme sports enthusiasts such as mountain bikers, hikers and walkers. The local tourism office has information on walks to all of the major attractions in the National Park.
High in the mountains, at the Orofura pass, magnificent views open up to reveal both north and south sides of the mountain range. Go early in the day, as the weather can move in quickly, obscuring the view and bringing scattered showers. If you are lucky, you may see a native bear wondering through the trees. Beware, as they are dangerous. Other attractions include beautiful pristine lakes, a bear park, a gondola ride, and the ever present steam venting from the mountainside.
The actual town of Noboribetsu is a couple of kilometers from the Valley of Hell and its hotels and spas. Serviced by trains from Shin Chitose Airport and Hakodate, buses, taxis and hire cars are available to take visitors up to the valley. As a fall weekend or mid-week getaway, Noboribetsu is a beautiful and surprisingly easy option for visitors and Tokyo residents alike.
Getting there: Regular flights for Hakodate and Shin Chitose (Sapporo) airports leave from Haneda Airport. Check individual airline websites for more information.
Accommodation: For more information on the Daiichii Takimotokan, see the hotel’s official English website.
More info: For additional information on the Noboribetsu area, check the official English website of the local tourist association.