There are 2 big things that Japan’s largest and northernmost prefecture, Hokkaido, is known for: sweeping wilderness landscapes, and fantastic seafood (more on the food in another post!). Our desire to experience some of Hokkaido’s deep and beautiful back country led us to Noboribetsu.
Initially, Noboribetsu looks like nothing more than a small, generic hot spring resort town; but, the source of these hot spring waters, in Shikotsu-Toya National Park, is what makes this area more than just a place for a weekend spa escape.
When we arrived the weather was grey and cold. Hokkaido’s mild weather makes it a popular domestic destination during the summer, with many tourists moving north to escape the cloak of humidity that engulfs the central Honshu area of Japan. But Noboribetsu’s weather was more than just pleasantly cool – it was full-on chilly. I instantly regretted not packing a sweater. Then, there was the smell: That distinctive, egg-y smell of sulphur. The kind of smell that is strong at first, but then within minutes you can feel it seeping into your skin and your clothes, and suddenly you don’t notice it anymore.
As we walked down the town’s single road, we could hear a bubbling noise that sounded a bit like a tea kettle boiling over. We followed a trail of steam to a small geyser, which was spluttering and spitting out scalding hot water. Japan, as a whole, is a very volcanic place (which, in part, accounts for the popularity of hot springs), but this was the first time I had seen how powerful this volcanic activity could be.
For a town so small, it somehow managed to fit in dozens of places for visitors to pose with the town’s mascot, the Noboribetsu demon.
Why a demon mascot? Well, because a short walk from Noboribetsu town is the strange Jigokudani, also known as Hell Valley, which is an uneven gorge carved out of the ground by an ancient volcanic eruption. I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate name than “Hell Valley” for this expanse of raw earth, steaming pools and gurgling geysers.
Despite its barrenness, the yellow sulphuric residue, earthy minerals, and patches of alpine vegetation managed to give the valley a muted colourfulness; while the hot steam drifting through the air imparted an almost ethereal quality.
We followed a trail from Hell Valley to Oyunuma, a lake which looked like a large, overheated, natural bathtub. A sulphur spring courses near the bottom of Oyunuma, creating surface temperatures of about 50°C. The overcast weather seemed like an appropriate backdrop for this area’s brooding, volcanic nature.
Oyunuma funnels into a warm river, which flows through the forests of Shikotsu-Toya National Park. There are chairs and benches set up periodically along the river, inviting hikers to dangle their feet into the tepid waters. I couldn’t get over the warmth of the water, which was being heated by nothing more than the earth itself. We climbed down to the river to stick our feet into the hotter waters found upstream from the benches. Because, really, I don’t know about you, but I can’t spend all day watching steam swirling around boiling water pools without being tempted to test whether the water really is as hot as it looks.
Although the smell of sulphur still clung to our bodies on the train ride home, it was worth enduring the raised eyebrows of our fellow passengers for the opportunity to walk through this hostile, but eerily beautiful park.
Have you every visited a volcanic park?