Japanese people love to take long soaks in onsen hot spring baths and, all around Japan, there are several small towns dedicated only to this pleasure. One of them is Noboribetsu onsen town located in the northwestern mountainous area of Noboribetsu city (登別). The city itself is located by the Pacific Ocean in southwestern Hokkaido, Japan, and is about a two-hour-long drive by private car from Sapporo—the capital of Hokkaido.
The Noboribetsu onsen town is famous throughout Japan and it is one of the most visited places in Hokkaido. The history of Noboribetsu onsen goes back in time to the beginning of the 19th century, when the name first appeared in Japanese documents. Before the Japanese settlers arrived, the Noboribetsu hot springs were used by the indigenous Ainu people for healing. Also, the Japanese recognized the healing power of onsen hot springs. Noboribetsu onsen town is known for having nine different types of hot springs, which means the waters in the onsen baths have nine different types of mineral compositions. Each of the different water types is said to relieve or prevent different kinds of health problems. To get the most out of the onsen touring, the visitors can enjoy several high-class hotels and ryokans (Japanese inns) in the onsen town as well as a public bath the locals seem to favor.
In this blog column, you can read about the onsen hot spring resort Noboribetsu where you can enjoy a variety of hot spring baths as well as about the amazing nature around the city and about fun ways to spend your time in Noboribetsu.
Get to know Noboribetsu city
Noboribetsu city is situated in southwestern Hokkaido, Japan on the shores of Uchiura Bay of the Pacific Ocean. The total land area of the city is 212.21 square kilometers (81.9 square miles) and as the area is mountainous, the settlement is concentrated on the lower lands in the middle of the city and especially by the coastline.
In September 2021, there were about 46,287 people living in the city. The people live mostly in three towns by the Pacific Ocean: Noboribetsu town, Horobetsu town, and Washibetsu town, of which half is part of the neighboring Muroran city. Horobetsu is the largest of the towns, so the Noboribetsu ‘city centre’ is actually not Noboribetsu town but Horobetsu town.
Many people associate Noboribetsu, especially with the Noboribetsu onsen town which is located about 6 kilometers north of the actual Noboribetsu town. That’s why the famous ‘product’ of Noboribetsu can be said to be onsen hot springs and the events—for example Noboribetsu onsen festival (Noboribetsu onsenyu matsuri / 登別温泉湯まつり in Japanese) and Hell valley demon fireworks (Jigoku no tani no oni hanabi /地獄の谷の鬼花火 in Japanese) —and other activities related to the onsen. Besides “the onsen industry”, the main industries of Noboribetsu are agriculture, dairy farming, and fishing. The specialty products of the city are salmon, Sakhalin surf clams, squid, natto (fermented soybeans), and pickled wasabi, as well as some dairy products, such as cheese and milk pudding.
The name Noboribetsu comes from the Ainu language—the language of indigenous Ainu people of Japan and Russia. The original name is nupur pet, that is, ‘a river with deep color’. Today the water in the river does not have any special color but reading the travel logs of the Japanese travelers in the mid-19th century, the color used to be cloudy white or yellowish. This was due to the mineral-rich hot spring water gushing at Hell Valley (Jigokudani) and flowing down the stream at the time. The word nupur means deep or strong color or taste, but it can also have the meaning of mental strength. In the traditional Ainu world-view, all the things around us are thought to have a spirit and they are considered deities (kamuy), so we can also think that the river was seen as a strong god because of its unique color as well as the healing powers of the hot spring water flowing in it.
Take also a look at our earlier blog column about Noboribetsu, that is On the traces of the past in Noboribetsu Onsen and Shiraoi.
At the gates of Hell—Nature at Noboribetsu
Hell Valley (Jigokudani/地獄谷) located next to the Noboribetsu onsen town is one of the main sources of the town’s hot spring waters (to be exact, it has 6 hot springs out of a total of 24). The valley is a crater formed about 10,000 years ago when Mount Hiyori (Hiyoriyama in Japanese) next to the valley erupted. The crater valley has a diameter of about 450 meters. The out-of-this-world scenery in the barren valley is quite literally hell-like with its geysers, hot springs and rivers bubbling with boiling water, and fumaroles gushing fumes. The hot springs in the valley sprout 3,000 liters of mineral water every minute, so the onsen facilities near the valley are not short in supply of hot water!
Most of Noboribetsu city’s area is covered by forests and mountains. The highest mountain peak within the city borders is 1,040 meters high Mt. Raiba (Raibadake in Japanese), followed by Washibetsudake (911 m), Kashayama (897 m), and Kamuynupuri (750 m). Many of the forests in Hokkaido are not very old because of excess logging in the late 19th century but parts of the old forests have been saved. One of those preserved forests can be visited in Noboribetsu where a 186-hectare primeval forest is spreading around Noboribetsu onsen town. The primeval forest also surrounds Lake Kuttara, a caldera lake west of Noboribetsu onsen town. Moving down to the shore, the Kiushito wetland the midway between Horobetsu and Washibetsu preserves the unique wetland nature of the coastline and is designated as one of the 500 important wetlands in Japan. The visitors can access parts of the wetland and stroll about along boardwalks. There is also a visitors center with information about the wildlife of Kiushito.
Unique nature found in the Hell Valley and around it as well as the other wonders of nature have made Noboribetsu a part of Shikotsu-Toya national park (an outbound link) that comprises five different separate locations in southeastern Hokkaido. The locations of the national park are Lake Shikotsu and its vicinities, Lake Toya and its vicinities, Mt. Yotei and the area surrounding it, and the area around Jozankei onsen town in southern Sapporo, and of course the area around Noboribetsu onsen town. What’s common between all these areas, is that they all have different kinds of volcanic activities and thus have some unique natural features that we want to save for the generations to come.
If you want to know more about Shikotsu-Toya national park, why don’t you also take a look at our earlier blog columns Toya: An Adventure Among Volcanoes and Kutchan, Kyogoku, Kimobetsu, and Makkari: The Towns and Villages Around Mt. Yotei.
Onsen hot spring hopping at Noboribetsu
Before introducing the onsen hot springs at Noboribetsu, let’s review the basics of how to take a bath in an onsen. First of all, people enter the baths without any clothes on, so you cannot wear a swimming suit or wrap yourself in a towel while inside the bath. However, some people like to take a small towel with them, soak it with cool water before entering a bath and place the wet towel on the top of their head while sitting in the bath. And for modesty, some people use a small towel to cover their private parts while moving around the spa. You can do this, too, if you want to, but remember not to dip the towel in the onsen bath water but soak it in the washing area.
Sometimes you can find mixed onsen spas (they are getting very rare these days) but all the baths in Noboribetsu are gender separated. Before dipping in the bath, wash thoroughly with soap in the washing area, and remember also to rinse the soap off very carefully. Many of the high-level onsen spa hotels and ryokans offer soap, shampoo, and conditioner for their guests for free, so you just have to bring yourself and enjoy the bath. If you have long hair, please tie it up before entering the bath to prevent loose hairs from falling into the bath water, and in any case, don’t dip your hair in the water. This is probably obvious, but onsen baths are not swimming pools, so please don’t swim or dive in the bath.
So, now you know how to enjoy an onsen bath but the question of which onsen spa to choose remains. Here is a very short introduction to the facilities available in Noboribetsu onsen resort (and there are many to choose from!)
・Daiichi Takimotokan (第一滝本館) —one of the best onsen facilities in the whole of Japan—gets its waters from five different sources. Opened to the public in 1898, it is the first onsen at Noboribetsu onsen town and was at the time very popular among the local Ainu, Japanese workmen, and samurai.
・Hotel Yumoto Noboribetsu (ホテルゆもと登別) offers onsen baths with four different types of onsen waters.
・Noboribetsu Grand Hotel (登別グランドホテル) has three different types of onsen hot spring waters: sulfur, salt, and iron. There is also a famous rotenburo (outdoor bath) with a view of a beautiful garden.
・Meitonoyado Park Hotel Miyabitei (名湯の宿パークホテル雅亭) offers as many as five different types of onsen waters but it admits only the guests that stay overnight to enter the baths. So, if you want to dip into the baths of Miyabitei, you need to stay for the night, too.
・Noboribetsu Sekisuitei (石水亭) offers only one type of water but has very nice baths with a mountain forest view.
・Yumoto Sagiriyu Public Bath’s (温泉銭湯 夢元さぎり湯) baths are somewhat smaller than the hotels and ryokans, but this is popular among the locals, so if you want to do as the Romans do, this is the bath of your choice.
Other hotels and ryokans in Noboribetsu onsen resort include Noboribetsu Manseikaku (登別万世閣), Bourou Noguchi Noboribetsu (望楼 NOGUCHI 登別), Noboribetsu Onsenkyo Takinoya (登別温泉郷 滝乃家), Takinoya Bekkan Tamanoyu (滝乃家別館玉乃湯), Oyado Kiyomizuya (御やど清水屋), Kashotei Hanaya (花鐘亭はなや), and Ryotei Hanayura (旅亭 花ゆら).
In this blog column, there has been a lot of talk about different kinds of onsen waters this far, but what does it actually mean? Well, it is said that there are nine types of onsen hot spring waters sprouting in Noboribetsu (some claim even eleven!). The types of water are
・sulfur (milky white water that is good for healing different skin conditions),
・salt (transparent water, good for aching nerves and back),
・acid (transparent water, effective for eczema and rash),
・iron (reddish brown color, good for anemia and chronic eczema),
・sodium sulfate (transparent water that is good for blood circulation and especially for high blood pressure),
・sodium bicarbonate (transparent, good for skin diseases and healing wounds, known also as “the bath of beauty”),
・alum (slightly yellowish brown colored water with healing properties for different skin diseases),
・green alum (brown water, healing effect for anemia and chronic eczema), and
・radium (transparent water that is good for aching nerves and rheumatism).
Some of the onsen spa hotels and inns mentioned above have several types of healing waters but none of them has all of them. So, if you want to take a soak in each type of water, you need to visit several facilities.
If you rather enjoy your onsen bath in a natural environment, you can always go and dip your feet in the Oyunuma river’s natural footbath. To reach the footbath, you need to walk up a mountain hill road starting at the parking lot close to Hell Valley and after a short walk along a forest path, you can enjoy the footbath that is just the right temperature. The onsen water flowing in the river comes from Oyunuma pond, a sulfur spring nested at the foot of Mount Hiyori. Because of the sulfur, the water in the Oyunuma pond as well as in the Oyunuma river is cloudy white. The surface water temperature in Oyunuma pond is about 40–50°C (104–122 °F) but at sulfur vents in the bottom, there are bursts as hot as 130°C (266°F). The water has of course cooled down when it reaches the footbath area.
For more travel inspiration, see our sample itinerary including also a visit to Noboribetsu: Cultural Getaway to South Hokkaido in the Peak of Autumn.
What to do in Noboribetsu city?
So, what else can you do at Noboribetsu other than soak in a relaxing healing bath? Well, there are numerous interesting sites to visit and activities to do in the city itself and if you cross the city border to the neighboring cities, your options grow even further.
Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe (登別マリンパークニクス) (an outbound link) is an aquarium and an amusement park located in the center of Noboribetsu town. Some of the marine animals you can meet at the park are dolphins, jellyfish, sea lions, fur seals, and penguins. You can admire the amazing colorful shoals of sardines and jellyfish swimming about in their tanks, or enjoy the daily penguin parade performed by the cutest inhabitants of the park: the emperor penguins and the gentoo penguins. In the amusement park, you find rides like a merry-go-around and a 30-meter-tall Ferris wheel, which offers an excellent view of Uchiura bay.
Another fun place to visit on the outskirts of Noboribetsu town is Noboribetsu Date Jidai Village (an outbound link), also known as Noboribetsu Date Jidaimura (登別伊達時代村). This theme park about traditional Japan hosts a bunch of old wooden buildings—such as a daimyo (feudal lord) residence building, merchant shops, and commoners’ dwellings—and all the staff is also wearing traditional Japanese costumes; dressed as geishas, ninjas, and samurais. The period the park represents is in Japan known as the Edo period (1603–1867); the time which probably comes into your mind when you think about traditional Japan. Many of the buildings in the theme park are replicas of daimyo Masamune Date’s feudal domain in Sendai. So, why a Date clan-related theme park in Hokkaido, you might ask? Well, when the daimyos lost their power at the end of the Edo period, a branch of the Date clan decided to start anew and moved to newly annexed Hokkaido. The place where they settled is now known as Date city, a neighbor of Noboribetsu.
You can enjoy the atmosphere of the olden times just by walking around the Noboribetsu Date jidai village and peeping into the buildings but the village also offers other ways to enjoy yourself. There are daily ninja and oiran (a high-class courtesan) shows, workshops, restaurants, shops, and a monster house to visit, and you can do all this dressed up as a ninja or a samurai. The village also hosts several museums and other displays—for example, the Kanata sword museum, Ninja resource center, and Katakura History Museum—so you can also learn something new.
If you like to get to know more about the indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido and their history and culture, you should pay a visit to Upopoy (ウポポイ) in the neighboring Shiraoi town, a little further away from Noboribetsu. Opened in the summer of 2020 Upopoy (an outbound link) is a nickname for ‘the Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony’ (民族共生象徴空間), and it is home to the first National Ainu Museum in Japan (国立アイヌ民族博物館) (an outbound link). Upopoy consists of the Ainu museum and a park with traditional Ainu houses, workshops, a culture exchange hall, and a memorial site. The museum has a permanent exhibition about the history of Ainu and the current Ainu culture as well as frequently changing exhibitions related to Ainu or indigenous people in general. In the museum park, you can get to know the Ainu culture in very concrete ways by taking part in workshops, listening to traditional Ainu sagas, or visiting a traditional Ainu cise (house).
You can read more about the Ainu and Upopoy in our earlier blog column Shiraoi: The town of the Ainu.
Be it onsen hot spring spa touring, enjoying the wild nature of Hokkaido, or seeking fun cultural experiences, Noboribetsu has it. If you feel that Noboribetsu deserves to be your next dream travel destination, let us know in the inquiry form!