Noboribetsu nestles in a canyon leading up to a live volcanic cauldron bubbling sulphur-laden spring water to warm Japanese onsen (spas) so tourists throughout Asia can get naked together.
Jon and I arrived at 10:30 PM after a blazing ride on the Shinkansen (Japanese bullet train) from Tokyo to the end of Honshu Island and through the world’s longest underwater tunnel to the island of Hokkaido followed by a slower trip around the Pacific coastline. The coastline is rugged with fishing villages separated by verdant forests.
When we get there, the station is vacant. After being surrounded by people, it’s strangely quiet. We hop in the lone taxi out front, and I look to Jon for the name of the hotel we’re staying at. When he says “Noboribetsu Onsen Hotel,” the driver looks perplexed, but takes off up the canyon nonetheless. Eventually, we end up at our hoteland are escorted to our room by the typically helpful bellman.
Our room is a traditional Japanese hotel room. We take off our shoes as we walk in and change into slippers. The floor is covered with mats and our mattresses are made up and lying on the floor. There is a small Japanese tea table next to our mattresses with pillows for us to sit on. An older bellman appears out of nowhere, alerted to our presence by the staff downstairs, and presents us with the two largest sets of robes he can find (we’re bigger than the normal Asian guests apparently).
The spas at the hotel are open 24 hours a day, and Jon and I are fatigued after 10 hours of train travel and curious. We change into our bathing suits, put on our robes and meander around the hotel complex until we find the spa. Everyone we run into in this town is relaxed, informal, and immensely friendly. They’re all here for a good time far away from the normal hustle and formality of Japanese life. As we get to the entrance to the spa, pair of older Japanese ladies make sure to point us towards the men’s spa (marked in blue) and away from the women’s spa (marked in pink). We’d have figured it out eventually!
We take off our shoes and walk into a sort of locker room. There are rows of shelves with baskets for one’s robes and a bunch of Japanese guys walking around naked with little towels in front of them. We were told to bring our little towels (about the size of a wash cloth) with us to the spa, but not told why. Jon and I aren’t sure if we’re supposed to disrobe, so being the brave one, I send Jon out into the spa (with his bathing suit) to figure out what’s going on. When he doesn’t return, I proceed to strip, grab a big towel as well as the little towel, and follow him into the spa.
The spa is a huge, two-story sprawling arrangement of several pools about two feet deep. Each pool has a different kind of mineral water flowing through it at different temperatures. The eleven waters that flow through Noboribetsu all start from the volcanic cauldron literally in the backyard of our hotel at around 190 degrees F. After flowing through various channels, the temperature is brought down to various bathing temperatures from almost scalding to simply warm. Each of the different waters is supposed to have different healing properties for everything that ails you. Both Jon and I can vouch that it’s sure relaxing.
However, standing there naked with my towels I wasn’t yet relaxed. Before you get in the spas you are supposed to wash off as was evident from the five Japanese guys sitting on little plastic stools in front of a river of warm water in various stages of washing and rinsing. Jon had already washed off and was sitting in the big central pool with his little towel on his head, his eyes closed, and his bathing suit on. I pointed out to him that we were supposed to strip and wash down first. We both found our own little stools and I proceeded to wash away a days worth of grime before climbing back into the little pools.
We got over our initial modesty pretty quickly, and, despite some stupid gaijen moves (like Dad using a big towel for his head or Jon sitting in the cold water stream used for washing your feet), we got the hang of it. The spas are really relaxing. The outdoor ones (shielded from view of the volcano tourists by hedges) are nice in the cool mountain air.
After the long trip and our first spa expedition, Jon and I were hungry. Unfortunately, it was now nearly midnight and the town was starting to close down. Jon and I stumbled on to this great little restaurant that served a dish known in Noboribetsu as “Genghis Kahn”. In the center of each wooden rectangular table was a brick fire pit filled with ashes. After seating us, the waiter went to the back of the restaurant and, with a propane torch, toasted a pile of wood coals. With tongs he placed the coals in our fire pit and laid a steel grill on top. We were ready to barbeque! The waiter brought out dipping sauce and a big plate of thinly sliced steak and onions. Jon and I went to it, grilling, dipping, eating, and drinking (Asahi for Dad, Coke for Jon) until we had our fill. Jon spotted potstickers at another table, and we shared an order of those too.
By the time we laid down on the mattresses on the floor, we were full, relaxed, and sleepy and snoozed blissfully to until breakfast time.
After an Japanese-style breakfast buffet and another dip in the spa (we were pro’s by this time), Jon and I decided to explore Noboribetsu.
The rest of the story is told in pictures: bears, Ainu huts, volcanic cauldrons, and pictures of us with the mascot of Noboribetsu – the devil.