Enjoy Hokkaido’s Hot Springs in Winter! A Relaxing Stay at Noboribetsu Onsen
Thanks to its sprawling volcano-dotted landscape, Hokkaido is a hot spring haven. Home to some of the most impressive and diverse onsen towns in Japan, the region attracts visitors from all over Japan – and the world – who flock to this northern island to soak up the tranquil ambiance and soak in mineral-rich waters in style.
From the lush, fall-foliage flanked Jozankei Onsen in Sapporo, and the picturesque baths of Toyako Onsen, nestled on the shores of Lake Toya, to the mountain-surrounded town of Kawayu Onsen, situated in Akan Mashu National Park, Hokkaido offers a near-endless array of onsen retreats. The hardest part about onsen-vacationing in Hokkaido, however, is deciding where to start.
Photo by Pixta
While each onsen town has its own unique appeal and reasons for visiting, making it near-impossible to rank, as a first-timer looking for the perfect solace to begin, Noboribetsu Onsen is a highly recommended destination.
The Features of Noboribetsu Onsen, Hokkaido’s Prominent Hot Spring Resort
Photo by Pixta
Noboribetsu is located inside Shikotsu-Toya National Park in the southwest of Hokkaido and conveniently positioned not far from Sapporo City and New Chitose Airport, making it easy to access and an ideal one or two-night onsen escape.
With most of its hot springs fed with water flowing from the steaming Jigokudani (Hell Valley), Noboribetsu boasts nine different kinds of thermal waters, each with unique healing properties. The resort is also home to a family of traditional ryokans and public baths, each within walking distance. The onsen resort is stunning year-round, but it's especially magical in winter. Enjoying a steaming hot soak while surrounded by falling snow, there's nothing quite like it!
Standing proud overlooking the steam-billowing landscape of Jigokudani is Takimotokan, a sprawling ryokan and onsen facility with a history spanning over 160 years and attractions for all types of travelers.
Offering five types of different hot springs, and with a selection of rooms both western and Japanese style, Takimotokan is regularly listed as the area's best ryokan. If you've ever wanted to experience Japan's onsen and ryokan culture in luxurious, relaxing style, but aren't too sure how to begin, here's a guide to enjoy Noboribetsu in winter, from check-in to bathing, dining, and check-out.
Takimotokan, a Historical Ryokan in Noboribetsu Onsen
For a more 'insider' and specialist perspective on Noboribestu and how best to enjoy an onsen and ryokan visit, we spoke with Mr. Yusuke Chiba, a spokesperson for Takimotokan.
The evolution of Takimotokan is a fascinating one; as Mr. Chiba explains, “in 1858 Kinzo Takimoto, the founder of the ryokan went deep into the mountains of Noboribetsu, on the hunt for a hot spring that would help cure his wife of her severe skin ailments. Once he found Noboribetsu onsen, they built a modest bathhouse for her treatment. Over time, Takimoto's wife's skin troubles were cured, and he started running a bathhouse to help others. This became the origin of Takimoto's “Aisai no Yu” (literally “Beloved Wife Hot Spring”').
As Hokkaido's longest-standing ryokan, Takimotokan has always been at the forefront of Noboribetsu Onsen's evolution, right up until today.
A Guide to the Onsen and Ryokan Experience at Takimotokan
Check in Early to Make the Most out of Your Stay
Typically, at most ryokan facilities, check-in is around 15:00. If you can get there around then, it’s highly recommended to do so, as it’ll allow you ample time to get ready, settle into your room, maybe take a look at the surroundings and enjoy a leisurely hour or so in the baths before dinner. During the check-in process, the staff will take a minute or two to explain the facility, where the baths are located, dinner protocols, and ask you about when you’d like to schedule breakfast the following morning.
If you can check in early, chances are you have now around two to three hours free to enjoy the facility before dinner is served. If you’re an explorer, you can spend a little time strolling through the streets of Noboribetsu and possibly even visit the neighboring Jigokudani. Do be wary, though, that in winter the sun sets early, around 16:30 - 17:00, so the most effective use of your time would be to get straight into the bath.
During the daytime, before check-in, there are fewer people in the baths, so if you are staying here for consecutive nights or you come by early, you can enjoy the baths more spontaneously. The gentlemen’s bathing area offers splendid views of Jigokudani (Hell Valley) so we definitely recommend enjoying the hot springs during the daytime.
Enjoy Exquisite Kaiseki Cuisine for Dinner
One of the greatest appeals of staying at a ryokan is enjoying the lavish kaiseki cuisine served for dinner and a well-balanced Japanese-style breakfast. Kaiseki is a style of Japanese multi-course dining, most often made with locally sourced ingredients that showcase the best seasonal cuisine the region has to offer.
“At Takimotokan, there are dishes that use the drinkable hot spring water as a broth,” explains Mr. Chiba. “It gives the ingredients a mellow taste.”
Picture courtesy of Takimotokan
Hokkaido is also a region greatly respected for its incredible seafood of which you’ll have ample opportunity to enjoy during your stay. Winter is the season when snow crab is at its most delicious so the dinner menu includes a lavish snow crab hot pot.
At many ryokans, depending on the room in which you stay, dinner is served in the room. During check-in, you can organize what time you’d like your meal to be served at the front desk. It’s hotel room service done traditional Japanese style. The entire dinner experience takes around two hours and is a wonderfully leisurely way to enjoy both the ambience of your room as well as some world-class cuisine.
The Japanese-style breakfast served at Takimotokan consists of several side dishes; this healthy, well-balanced meal will surely give you the energy for a fun day of exploration.
Picture courtesy of Takimotokan
Guests can enjoy breakfast at Yu no Sato, the elegant restaurant within Takimotokan.
Relax at the Hot Springs
The Ladies’ Sulfur Hot Spring Bath at Takimotokan. Picture courtesy of Takimotokan
If you're new to the onsen bathing experience, the hot spring bath can seem a little intimidating. A carefully-followed world of rules, protocol and the fact that it all has to be done nude can scare some foreign folks off what is a wonderfully relaxing and rejuvenating experience. Most places now have posters describing the steps in clear, easy-to-follow rules, but there are a few basic points to touch on.
1) Wash your body before entering the baths; it's a courtesy for other patrons and allows the bathwater to stay clean.
2) Don't put anything into the bath that includes soaps, towels, basically any outside objects.
3) Pay close attention to your body; in terms of how you feel, it is easy to feel very hot very quickly; if you feel dizzy or lightheaded, take some time to cool down either outside of the bath or in the cold water baths.
4) Enjoy as many different baths as you can. This is the most important point when visiting Noboribetsu! The baths boast different mineral contents and offer different effects on the skin and body – with descriptions of said qualities often displayed by the bath – so don't be afraid to do some onsen hopping. If you are in the area in winter, take advantage of the outside baths; the open-air baths flanked by snow are the epitome of Hokkaido tranquility. That said, we'd suggest entering the outside baths before washing your hair because Hokkaido gets mighty cold, and the last thing you want is frozen hair!
The Men’s Large Bathing Area. Picture courtesy of Takimotokan
Takimotokan offers five types of baths, each with unique features and healing properties: the Sulfur Spring, which improves blood circulation, the Alum Spring, believed to be effective against dry skin, the Ferrous Sulfur Spring, whose minerals soften the skin, the Salt Spring, which stimulates blood circulation and helps warm up the body, and the Sodium Spring, also known as the “beauty bath,” which softens the skin and helps relieve eczema.
The Ladies’ Bath with a View.. Picture courtesy of Takimotokan
Taking the time to relax in each of these heavenly hot springs is a blissful experience that we highly recommend.
Appreciate the Style and Comfort of Japanese Rooms
Picture courtesy of Takimotokan
These days, many ryokans throughout Japan offer both western and Japanese style rooms, but if you want the most authentic experience, we'd suggest choosing the traditional style room with futon bedding.
Although futon bedding – traditional Japanese style bedding on the floor – doesn't look as fluffy as a western-style bed, these mattresses are deceptively confirmable and snug, and when folded up, allow maximum space efficiency. Also, don't worry about having to make your bed, as when you're at the hot springs, or at some other predetermined time, one of the ryokan staff members will set everything up for you.
Superior Twin Room at Takimotokan East Building. Picture courtesy of Takimotokan
Takimotokan also has western-style rooms. The rooms are spacious and decorated with elegant Japanese motifs.
Premium special room in Takimotokan West Building. Picture courtesy of Takimotokan
For a luxurious stay, consider staying in one of their premium special rooms, which are available in both Japanese and western styles. One of the western-style premium rooms is very wide, with several compartments, and includes private onsen baths with amazing views of the surroundings.
Sightseeing in Noboribetsu Before Checking out
Before you check out and head on over to your next destination, be sure to put aside time to explore the stunning scenery of Noboribetsu, a highlight being the neighboring area.
“Jigokudani was created naturally by the hot spring water collected in the ruins of an explosive crater created by the eruption of Mount Hiyori about 10,000 years ago,” explained Mr. Chiba. “The steam rising up from the crater is so powerful and magnificent that it seems as if the earth is breathing. A boardwalk leads from the observatory, which is also illuminated after sunset.”
Beyond Winter: A Seasonal Guide to Noboribetsu
Jigokudani in the fall. Photo by Pixta
Mr. Chiba, who spends most of his days at Noboribetsu, gave us some precious tips on what to enjoy in the area throughout the four seasons.
In Noboribetsu, spring starts around late March - beginning of April. However, the best time to view the cherry blossoms is in May, a little later than mainland Japan.
Summer (July to August) is a time of beautiful contrast between the sunshine, blue sky, and the deep green of the foliage. It doesn't get too hot during the day so summertime is also very refreshing. This is also the season of summer festivals and events.
Fall foliage sake service at the onsen within Takimotokan. Picture courtesy of Takimotokan
From late October to early November, the fall foliage around Jigokudani looks stunning, while the abundance of fresh seasonal food is sure to please your taste buds.
January to February is the best time to visit if you like winter sports. Sunlaiva Ski Resort is located near Noboribetsu Onsen. This is also the time of year when the steam coming from the Jigokudani Valley looks most impressive.
How to Get to Noboribetsu Onsen
If you’re flying into New Chitose Airport, it’s an easy 90-minute journey to Noboribetsu. Take the JR Rapid (green line) to Minami-Chitose Station, then switch to the Hokuto Limited Express headed to Hakodate and get off at Noboribetsu Station. The trip costs just under 4,500 yen each way.
*Main image courtesy of Takimotokan