On the traces of the past in Noboribetsu Onsen and Shiraoi



 In Sapporo, as the temperatures are getting milder, the snow is melting and losing ground. But winter does not give up and even if spring is on its way, it will only settle little by little. We are still experiencing cold and snowy days interrupted here and there by warmer and sunny days. 

 For this article, I went with my colleague Eriko Kakudate to Noboribetsu Onsen, one of the most famous onsen resorts in Hokkaido, and to the nearby town of Shiraoi, which is home to the newly opened Upopoy National Ainu Park and Museum. 

 Driving to our destination, under a snowy rain, we were both surprised to discover a white landscape, not expecting so much snow at this time of the year. Indeed, winter is really reluctant to leave and, on this trip it decided to show us all its magnificence.

 Most of the time, my colleague Eriko recommends to her guests who visit our beautiful Hokkaido region a first night at Noboribetsu Onsen. Its easy access from Sapporo (117 km/1h45) or from New-Chitose airport (73 km/1h), makes this charming onsen town the ideal place to rest after a long flight while enjoying the Japanese hot spring culture. At a time when sustainable development is becoming more and more important, a visit to the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park will introduce you to the culture of the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan, who live in harmony with nature. I hope you are ready to immerse yourself a little more in the past (and present) culture of Hokkaido!

Day 1 :

Arrival at Noboribetsu Onsen -> Wakasaimo store -> Lunch at Hot Spring Market (Noboribetsu yakisoba)-> Jigokudani (Hell Valley) 1 hour guided tour -> Overnight at Dai-ichi Takimotokan – Public indoor and outdoor baths tour and buffet

 Noboribetsu, with a natural spring volume of 10,000 tons per day (3,000 liters per minute) and a variety of 9 types of water infused with different types of minerals, is rightly called “hot springs department store”. It is a unique thermal station, ranked in the top 10 of the best 100 onsen in Japan and the most famous in Hokkaido. 

 Noboribetsu derives from the name Ainu nupuru petsu, which means “white muddy river, dark coloured river”. Already in ancient times, the Ainu, the indigenous people of northern Japan, used these hot springs as medicinal baths. In 1845, Takeshiro Matsuura, a famous explorer and writer, frequently called the godfather of Hokkaido for the role he played in the development of the territory, visited the place. Falling under its spell, he introduced the place to the Wajin (before the Meiji era which began in 1868, the Wajin referred to the Japanese who had migrated to Hokkaido from the main island). During the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), the place became famous throughout the country. Disabled veterans came here to have their wounds and illnesses treated. At that time, hotels and shops were built and the town gradually took on the shape we know today. Finally, with the development of the railway infrastructure, the number of tourists visiting Noboribetsu Onsen has increased to 2.8 million visitors per year.

 Before checking into the hotel, we stopped at the Wakasaimo shop. It’s never too early for me to try sweets and Eriko, like me, has a sweet tooth. She loves to find new places to recommend to her guests and she knows all the good places that sell quality products with the flavors so typical of Hokkaido. 

 The founder of Wakasaimo, established in 1930, wanted to make sweet potatoes in a country where they could not be grown. The shop’s signature potato-shaped cake, called wakasaimo (the box of 6 pieces is 778 JPY, but they are also sold individually), is made from white bean paste (daifuku bean). This white bean paste mixed with Hokkaido seaweed is coated with a thin skin cooked with fresh Hokkaido eggs and soy sauce. When this pastry was created, it was the first time in Japan that soy sauce was used for Japanese sweets. I really fell in love with the flavor of the wakasaimo and its fluffy texture. This little dessert can be described as umami, the fifth basic flavor which means savory in Japanese.  Another of their sweets, Hokkaido an-potato (the box of 6 pieces is JPY 1,080, but you can buy a single sample), a sweet potato cake filled with red bean paste, also has a very pleasant texture and flavor. I highly recommend a stop at the store on your next trip to Hokkaido! The shop also sells a local Noboribetsu beer, Ao Oni Pilsner, which has won several competitions. The label depicts Jigokudani’s mascot, the demon Yukijin, a good demon who prays for people’s fortune and keeps their bad luck away. 

 We had lunch at the Hot Spring Market (登別市場), a restaurant with a varied menu where you can enjoy fresh fish and shellfish from the Noboribetsu fishing port. Inside the shop, there are tanks containing crabs, shellfish and other fishes that can be enjoyed grilled over charcoal. You can also taste the famous onsen tamago, (egg cooked in the hot waters of onsen). However, with Eriko, we decided to try the latest new dish in Noboribetsu, enma yakisoba (fried noodles), which was created by the participation of 22 restaurants and establishments in Noboribetsu city. Each restaurant can create its own version of the dish, which only needs to follow the following 3 rules: use flat noodles made from Hokkaido wheat, use the original enma sauce, use ingredients from Noboribetsu and its surroundings. I tried the pork yakisoba with a spicy kimchi sauce (780 JPY) and it was really good. The dish was prepared in front of me on a hot plate. I really liked the thickness of the noodles and the sauce which was not very spicy, just enough to give a little spice to this dish which is meant to be representative of the Hell Valley.

 We walked through the small shopping street and visited the souvenir shops selling all kinds of souvenirs with the blue and red demons, mascots of the city, not to mention spicy food like ramen and Japanese sweets in packages with the demon !

 We decided to stay at the Dai-ichi Takimotokan, the oldest establishment in Noboribetsu, which has a history of 164 years (You know, for Hokkaido with recent history, 164 years is very old!). It all started in 1858 with Kinzo Takimoto, a carpenter working in the area, and his wife, Sata, who was suffering from severe skin disease. Kinzo Takimoto, who had heard about the Noboribetsu hot springs (known since Takeshiro Matsuura), decided to settle down with his wife in a tiny hut near the spring to start a treatment. Thanks to the daily baths, Sata’s illness was cured and the couple decided to promote the virtues of these waters. Kinzo Takimoto obtained the exclusive rights to become the keeper of this hot spring. He opened an inn which became popular with the local people. He also facilitated the access to his establishment by building a new road, the current one. In 1953, the hotel was named Dai-ichi Takimotokan in honor of its founder Kinzo Takimoto.

 The hotel is a huge complex separated in four sections: the main building, the south building, the Higashi building (east) and the Nishi building (west). Each section has its own identity and for example, the dominant color of the south building is a nice light green that reminds the forest that surrounds the hotel (sometimes you can see animals from the windows that overlook the forest).  Since we are between us, I will share with you a secret: some rooms on the 8th-9th and 10th floors of the Nishi building have a view on Jigokudani and the price of the room is the same as the other rooms of the building! But without a doubt, the strong point of the hotel, besides its long history and its rooms with a view of the Hell Valley, is that it has 5 different types of hot springs out of the 9 that the small thermal town has: sulfur spring, alum spring, ferrous sulfate spring, saline spring and sodium spring.  Because of this incredible number of different hot springs, the Dai-ichi Takimotokan was a destination for toji, (hot water cure). This form of balneotherapy is a Japanese custom practiced since ancient times which consists of bathing in hot springs rich in minerals. This cure as a medical treatment involves a prolonged stay in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). 20 or 30 years ago, the establishment used to receive 200 to 300 people per month, but today this number has dropped drastically to an average of 2 to 5 visitors.

 Let me briefly introduce the 9 different sources of Noboribetsu Onsen:

・Sulfur spring 硫黄泉:

Sulfur springs are milky white in color and have a peculiar odor like that of a boiled egg. This spring water dilates blood vessels and coronary arteries and is therefore effective in treating chronic bronchitis and arteriosclerosis. Detoxifying, it is also known to treat chronic skin diseases.

・Aluminum spring 明ばん泉(含アルミニウム泉):

These springs are most often found in volcanic regions and their waters are known to tighten the pores of the skin and mucous membranes, thus helping to reduce the symptoms of chronic skin diseases, mucous membrane inflammation and hives.

・Iron Spring 鉄泉(含鉄泉):
These hot springs contain more than 20 mg of iron per kg and, on contact with air, turn a reddish-brown color. These springs help reduce the symptoms of anemia and chronic eczema.

・Salt spring 食塩泉(塩化物泉):
Salt springs are the most common type of hot spring in Japan. These springs are also known as netsu-no-yu, heat springs, because they retain heat quite well and help ease neuralgia, back pain and circulation problems.

・Mirabilite spring 芒硝泉(硫酸塩泉):
It is a type of sulfated source, containing sodium that improves blood circulation and, in so doing, mitigates the effects of hypertension, wounds and arteriosclerosis.

・Melanterite spring 緑ばん泉(含アルミニウム泉):
Composed of negative ions (mainly sulfuric acid ions) and positive ions (mainly iron ions), these springs are very acidic and turn brown when in contact with air. These springs also contain a large quantity of minerals such as copper and manganese and help to alleviate the effects of anemia and chronic eczema.

・Alkaline spring 重層泉:
These multi-layered springs are known as bijin-no-yu, sources of beauty, as they help to soften the horny layers of the skin and emulsify secretions, thus relieving skin ailments and cleansing wounds.

・Radium spring ラジウム泉:
These hot springs have a strong sedative effect, and are therefore particularly effective in relieving neuralgia, rheumatism and menopausal disorders.

・Acidic spring 酸性泉:
Acidic springs have a pH below 3 and can sometimes irritate your skin. They relieve eczema symptoms with their powerful disinfectant action.

 The public baths are separated into two large areas, one for men and one for women, and each section is divided into indoor and outdoor baths. Honestly, I’ve been to a lot of ryokan and this is the biggest public bath I’ve seen so far, especially the outdoor part. So I really enjoyed the tour which took me a good hour, bathing in all 14 baths! As I was starting to feel a bit dehydrated from the heat of the baths, you know what? There is a bar where you can order beer (880 JPY), Japanese sake served in a wood box (660 JPY), chuhai alcoholic soda grape/lemon (550 JPY) or orange juice (385 JPY) and consume your drink in the outside part of the baths. I was seduced by this wonderful idea, the Dai-ichi Takimotokan being one of the rare hotels to offer this concept to its guests. I relaxed in the Kinzo Founder’s Pool, a replica of the bath in which the founders Kinzo and Sata Takimoto bathed, drinking my beer! Admiring the snow-covered trees, feeling the cold air chill my chest while only half of my body was soaked in the hot water bath while I drank my cold beer… It was a unique moment of true relaxation and well-being!

 In the afternoon, we also enjoyed a one-hour guided tour of Jigokudani, “Hell Valley”, with Mr. Abe Toshiaki from Noboribetsu Gateway Center (1,800 JPY, https://h-takarajima.com/detail/index/4108). The valley is a geothermal crater created by the eruption of a volcano about 20,000 years ago and, as its name suggests, it reminds us of hell with all its geysers and hot sulfurous vapors escaping from this ochre and grey colored arid land. We had planned to do the whole tour, including a walk on the mountain trail, through the primeval forest to the Okunoma viewpoint, a swamp with a sulfurous spring at the bottom, to the natural footbath of the Oyunuma River. But because of the weather, we could only do the shortest part of the tour, on the wooden walkway along the valley. Indeed, the snow was falling very hard (our umbrellas became so heavy under the weight of the snow that we had to shake them every 15 minutes). So I discovered Jigokudani magnificently covered with a white coat and with its naked and snowy trees, the valley was not anymore the “Hell Valley” but the valley of the Queen of Snows. In this milky white landscape, with the big flakes falling from the sky, it was difficult to really distinguish the hot vapors and the volcanic gases, which gave their name to the place. 

 The tour was really interesting and started right in front of the Dai-ichi Takimotokan, in front of the Sengen Park, built around a geyser to commemorate the 150 years of Noboribetsu hot springs. This park houses eight colored demon clubs arranged in a circle, each with a unique power, like the nine springs found at Noboribetsu Onsen. Blue represents health, red prosperity, black business prosperity, brown academic success, green luck with money, purple fame, yellow love and white family happiness. The ninth club is the big golden club of the demon Dai-ichi Takimotokan (but it is said that the ninth golden club is buried in the park). It is the most powerful and represents power and perseverance to achieve one’s dreams and ambitions. The legend of the demon was born at the same time that the park.

 There are currently 24 hot spring water locations and by law, no new locations can be created. The hotels in Noboribetsu Onsen share these locations for the supply of hot spring water.  Throughout the walk, the guide showed us old photos so that we could compare the site of yesterday and today. For example, before the construction of the footbridge, it was possible to walk through the valley and get close to the geysers. But accidents have happened and now we can’t walk freely for safety reasons. When we arrived near an altar, along a small stream (now exhausted so we can no longer enjoy foot baths), the guide told us a legend related to the site. During the Meiji era, when people with eyesight problems washed their eyes at this alum fountain, they were cured miraculously. For this reason, it is also called “eye water”. During the walk, the guide showed us two holes barely visible under the snow, the remains of a hot spring that dried up 40 years ago. Children used to boil eggs in these holes to sell them to tourists. 

 The guide went on to enliven the tour with some nice anecdotes, but I won’t tell you more, hoping that you will have the opportunity to visit Jigokudani via our services. This guided tour, mixing real facts and legends, gives a better understanding of the site itself and its rich local history. I really want to come back in the green season to discover a totally different landscape and to be able to do the whole walk! And at the same time, I will enjoy the visit to Dai-ichi Takimotokan Onsen day-plan (the ticket for the late visit of the Grand Bain from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm is 1,700 yens).

 In the evening, wearing our green yukata and matching blue jacket, we had dinner at the buffet restaurant. The Dai-ichi Takimotokan doesn’t propose the local dishes of Noboribetsu and its surroundings, but the best seasonal ingredients of all Hokkaido and the buffet gives a glimpse of the flavors and dishes of Hokkaido, from the sea products to the land. A stand is also dedicated to ethnic dishes (Vietnam, Myanmar…). From sashimi and sushi prepared by the sushi chef, to crabs and other seafood, through the tasty ethnic dishes, to the dessert (with an ice cream stand!), everything was delicious. This hotel is definitely a very nice stop for a first night in Hokkaido!

 We stayed in a twin room in the Higashi building. The room was spacious and comfortable with a view of the hotel garden, and I spent a very relaxing evening reading Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami on the sofa. After a very good night, I was all fresh and …. hungry! I joined Eriko at the buffet restaurant for breakfast and I couldn’t stop myself from eating too much because I wanted to try everything! From the Japanese style food (rice, fish and salad…), to the western style food (pastries, bread, bacon and eggs…), not to mention the ethnic food corner, the detox waters and the ice cream stand (when I noticed that the other customers were eating ice cream, I dared to help myself to a small pot of melon-vanilla ice cream!) With a full stomach, we were ready to leave for Shiraoi, located only 28 km from Noboribetsu Onsen. After a 30 minutes drive, we arrived at the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park.

Day 2 :

Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park guided tour -> Lunch at Raina Pirika (venison keema curry) -> Mother’s Plus

 The Upopoy National Ainu Museum Museum and Park is a huge complex located on the shores of Lake Poroco, consisting of different buildings: the Cultural Exchange Hall where guests can enjoy traditional dance, music and song performances, the Ainu National Museum, the Crafts Studio, the Kotan (traditional Ainu village), and, of course, the food court and shopping areas. Upopoy means “to sing in large groups” in the Ainu language. 

 The museum, which opened in 2020, is intended to be a symbolic space that promotes ethnic harmony and a place for revitalization and development of Ainu traditions. Indeed, Ainu culture is in endangered condition due to a general lack of understanding on the part of the Japanese and a decreasing number of Ainu able to transmit their traditions. Upopoy aims to create a “vibrant society with a rich and diverse culture free from discrimination” in the words of the museum itself.

 The Ainu are first mentioned around the 15th century, although their culture is thought to have been established earlier, around the 12th or 13th century. Before the arrival of the first Japanese pioneers who immigrated from the rest of Japan to cultivate the land of Hokkaido (called Ezo, meaning foreigner, at the time), the Ainu led a simple life in harmony with nature. They lived by fishing, hunting and gathering plants, and also traded with people from other regions. To mention just one aspect of Ainu traditions, they believe that everything in this world has a spirit and all these living beings and powerful phenomena are called kamuy. When they visit our world, these kamuy manifest themselves in various forms, including animals. 

 In this article, I am not going to explore in depth the history and culture of the Ainu, which will be the subject of another column, but I have summarized below, in the form of a timeline, some important dates of the modern history of Hokkaido and the Ainu. Ainu culture is still a sensitive subject in Japan, and is still threatened with extinction even if it is currently experiencing a real boom and many actions are set up (free Ainu language courses, Ainu cultural exchanges…)! 

 We entered the museum through the Path of the Ainu Spirit, a corridor representing the forest and its animals and from which a very beautiful traditional Ainu music is playing. I was charmed by this particular atmosphere, where we already understand the link between the Ainu people and nature. And we were welcomed by TurrepoN, the very cute mascot of Upopoy, representing a turep girl (giant water lily bulb).

 We visited the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park (entrance fee: 1,200 JPY) with a 24-year-old Ainu man, Mr. Okamoto, from Biratori town (90 km from Shiraoi), who studies Ainu language and culture and wants to become a sculptor. It was interesting to hear his story: he grew up inheriting Ainu culture at home without really realizing it (for example, he frequently ate ohaw, a fish or venison soup cooked with kelp, but didn’t really know it was a traditional Ainu meal). As a young man, he suffered discrimination and shame for being Ainu, but then he began to feel proud of his Ainu roots and felt responsible for the survival of his culture.

 He also told us that the manga Golden Kamuy by Satoru Noda, whose 28 volumes were published between 2014 and 2021, contributed to a positive change in the perception of Ainu and that his friends developed a curiosity and genuine interest in Ainu culture by reading it. This manga tells the adventures of Saichi Sugimoto, a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and an Ainu girl named Asirpa looking for a gold treasure. The story explores the culture of the indigenous Ainu people, including their language and their interaction with nature and the kamuy, spiritual or divine being.  A linguist specializing in the Ainu language supervised the Ainu language in the manga.

 One of his favorite aspects of his culture is that the Ainu live by respecting and protecting the environment. During our visit to the Crafts Studio, he showed us a ceremonial kimono made from a shina plywood tree, explaining that the Ainu only use a third of the bark so as not to kill the tree. “How much do you think such a kimono costs?” I looked at Eriko, but she was as puzzled as I was. The guide explained the whole process of making this kind of kimono so that we could have a better idea of its value. “To make a kimono, it takes 2kg of yarn made from the bark of the tree, which is about 4 bales, and just the first step of making the yarn from the bark takes about 1 month. Then it takes 2 months to make the bales from a single thread. It takes another 1-2 months to weave the yarn and another month to add the patterns. So it takes about 6 months to make a kimono of this type that costs 100,000 JPY! “

 Before continuing our visit, he shared with us another example of the Ainu’s kindness to nature: “When the Ainu go to harvest mushrooms in the forest, they use a twined basket which allows the mushrooms to sporulate and therefore reproduce! “

 After a walk in the Kotan (traditional Ainu village, generally composed of 6 or 7 houses where 30 to 40 people live), we stopped at the Cultural Exchange Hall (Uekari Cise) where we attended a 20-minute performance of traditional dances, songs and music. The show was incredibly beautiful! On a flat screen at the back of the stage, beautiful images of the Ainu (including close-ups of their kimonos and accessories) and the nature of Hokkaido were shown while the Ainu were performing, sharing their traditions and beliefs with the audience. I particularly enjoyed the beautiful crane dance, with images on the screen of Japanese cranes elegantly moving in a snowy landscape! The mukkuri (bamboo mouth harp) was also breathtaking. The player imitated the sounds of nature, such as wind and rain, while images of raindrops falling on green leaves and rivers echoed the instrument’s vibrations. The brochure in English is very detailed and gives details of all the performances of dances, songs, music and rituals which are divided into two distinct repertoires: one called sinot (songs and dances of daily life and rituals, ) and the other called inomi (prayers for the ceremonies of sending a kamuy back to his realm, the most important being the ceremony of sending back the bear spirit).

 We finished the visit by the museum, divided in two spaces: a room for the temporary exhibitions and another one dedicated to the permanent collection. The latter is presented in a thematic way with detailed explanations in English. It is a beautiful museum that allows visitors to easily learn about the history and culture of the Ainu people. Play areas allow children to learn by touching objects and a short animated film describes the Ainu relationship with the kamuy. The guided tour with an Ainu provides a definite added value to the discovery of the past and present of Ainu culture  (https://h-takarajima.com/detail/index/5506).

 We had lunch at the small restaurant Rana Pirica which opened in October 2019. The cafe sells various Ainu items and souvenirs and displays books that were written mainly by writers active in Shiraoi. We wanted to try the Shiraoi beef and venison keema curry set (白老牛と白老鹿肉キーマカレー定食), but it was sold out. I couldn’t hide my disappointment from the owner of the place when we both finally ordered the deer keema curry dish ( 鹿肉キーマカレー定食). Before tasting the curry, Eriko discreetly sniffed her plate and was pleased with the complete lack of smell. She informed me that venison is really difficult to cook and the meat has a strong smell which can be a reluctant factor to eat it. We both agreed that the meal was elegant and delicious. And perhaps the owner wanted to mitigate my disappointment as she kindly offered us a piece of chocolate cake. I can only recommend this restaurant which offers great sets for very attractive prices (our set only cost 880 JPY).

 Moreover, eating venison is now a sustainable action because Hokkaido has some problems due to deer overpopulation. With the climatic changes in their favor (global warming has resulted in less harsh winters, and the deer are happy about it!), and the disappearance of wolves, the number of deer continues to explode, with an increase of about 20% every year. This voracious animal threatens the forests and causes great damage, destroying trees and land in its path. Following the Meiji Restoration, from 1868 onwards, deer had almost disappeared after a period of excessive hunting. Indeed, when the inhabitants of the main island of Japan immigrated to Hokkaido to exploit the land, they cleared the forest areas to develop agriculture and hunted deer in large numbers. To cope with this problem, between 1879 and 1950, the government of Hokkaido took various measures to prohibit hunting. Now, in order to fight against the overpopulation of deer, the government pays hunters to kill them, but there are not enough hunters. The future will tell us how the situation (which concerns not only Hokkaido but also Nagano since a few years) will evolve. But in the meantime, I will eat venison every time I have the opportunity because well cooked, the meat is delicious and I do a good deed!  

 Before going back to Sapporo and to end this trip on a good note, Eriko made me discover Mother’s Plus, a store she always recommends to her guests who love fresh products. It’s a huge barn-like building with a thick wooden frame that hosts several stands. The most important of them is the one selling a whole selection of fresh eggs: baby eggs, smoked eggs, onsen tamago (eggs cooked in the hot water of an onsen)… Of course, there is also a chicken stand selling roasted chicken and karaage chicken (small pieces of chicken coated with flour and fried in oil), and the sweets stand selling cream puffs, butter cookies, ice cream and pudding. I decided to try a pudding topped with vanilla ice cream (420 JPY). A delight… The ice cream was so tasty! I’m really not ready to lose the few pounds I gained since I arrived in Hokkaido!  Everything is so tempting and delicious! 

 I hope you have enjoyed reading this article and that it has inspired you to visit our wonderful Hokkaido. Please feel free to contact us at Hokkaido Treasure Island Travel, we are always happy to arrange tours for our guests. For now, I’ll leave you and see you in two weeks in a new column !