Destinations, Experiences, Japan, Japan

Hokkaido: Hot spring town and the charming world of musical toys

My trip to Hokkaido was the final part of a two-week tour of Japan during the cherry blossom season. I, along with my travel companions, covered most of Honshu in 10 days (yeah we did have a tight schedule as we wanted to cover as much as possible!) before taking the bullet train (Shinkansen) from Sendai to Hokkaido.

Despite having a Japan Railways (JR) pass, we had to reserve seats (mandatory for Hokkaido Shinkansen) at the ticket counter to board the Hayabusa Shinkansen bound for Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station in Hokkaido. After getting down at Hakodate, we took the Super Hakuto limited express to Noboribetsu, a town famous for its hot springs. Except for the seat reservation (~ 9000 yen/person) for Hayabusa, the expensive train journey (~12200 yen) was free of cost with JR pass. Since our 7-day JR pass was reaching its expiry date at midnight, it was necessary for us to get to Hokkaido that day, and we made it right on time! The journey to Noboribetsu took nearly five and a half hours. We caught the last bus (at 9.34 pm) right outside the station and reached the onsen town in 10 minutes. You can access the Noboribetsu bus schedule here. Our hotel was a short walk from the onsen bus terminal.

Though tired, I could barely hold my excitement on entering the hotel. It looked like a mini township, complete with a departmental store, gift shop, gaming arcade, karaoke rooms, vending machines, restaurants, cafe & bar, roman bath, and an open-air onsen. Noboribetsu being our final destination in the country, we wanted to get a full on experience of the hot spring resort in Hokkaido. And, we did!

I freshened up quickly and, slipping into a yukata that I found in the room’s closet, headed for the open-air onsen. Some parts of the onsen area were still covered in snow, but once in the water, it was difficult to imagine the cold outside. It was exhilarating!

After a refreshing soak, we headed for a very late dinner at one of the traditional restaurants on the second floor of the property. The kind waitress patiently explained all the dishes on the menu in English so that we could choose appropriately without second-guessing. This made the meal all the more delightful. After a leisurely walk around the hotel, we were finally ready for bed.

Day 12 was practically the final day for sightseeing as we had an early flight to catch the next day. And, what better place to end our spring sojourn in Japan than Noboribetsu, Hokkaido’s most famous hot spring resort town?

After an elaborate buffet breakfast at the hotel, we set off to explore the town. Passing huge man-made canals carrying hot spring water, statues of Yukake-kizo (demon for good health) and Tomu-Kun (the city’s PR character), and the Sengen geyser park (geyser that spouts out hot sulfuric water every three hours), we finally reached Hell Valley, or Jigokudani, the main attraction in Noboribetsu.

Right after the main signboard of Jigokudani, we came across Oni-Bokora, the shrine of a praying demon believed to originate from the Edo era. On one side of the shrine was the statue of a standing red demon while the other side had a blue seated one.

We were completely taken by the mesmerising valley dotted with boiling sulfuric hot springs, sulphurous streams, and hot steam vents spewing volcanic gas. The name ‘Hell Valley’ suited the place perfectly with strong smell of sulphur pervading the surrounding air. It was quite an extraordinary experience.

From the valley, we followed the walking trails, freshly cleared of snow, through the wooded hills above the town.

Returning to our hotel, we checked out quickly, and took the bus to Noboribetsu station where we purchased tickets for Minami Otaru (3200 yen/person without seat reservation). We then boarded the Limited Express Hokuto train bound for Sapporo. For lunch, I bought hot Ramen cup noodles and sakura flavoured ice-cream from the vending cart on the train. The ice-cream was surprisingly delicious.

At Sapporo station, we kept our luggage in coin lockers (read: how to use coin lockers in Japan) and then boarded the local on Hakodate line to get to Minami Otaru station. It took us almost three hours to reach Otaru – a beautiful harbour town in Hokkaido with a strong European influence – from Noboribetsu.

Since time was limited, first we visited Otaru music box museum (Otaru Orgel Doh in Japanese) – Japan’s largest music box store – before it closed for the day. It was about 500 meters from the station. The store was housed in an impressive 19th century historical building with a charming steam clock at the entrance.

On entering the building, we were greeted with the sight of rows and rows of glittering music boxes of different shapes and sizes. There were all kinds – toys, souvenirs, gift boxes, miniature carousels and musical instruments, picture frames, stuffed bears – made of different materials including glass, wood, ceramic, and metal. The place transported us to a magical, fairytale-like world.

After exploring the Music Box Museum, we crossed the street and continued straight towards Sakaimachi-dori, a tourist street dotted with historical buildings and glassmaking workshops and retail outlets selling glassware. Otaru is famous for its glass lamps, fishing net floats, and tableware. Right at the beginning of Sakaimachi-dori street was the landmark building of LeTAO pastries shaped like a tower. LeTAO is a household name in Hokkaido, famous for its western confectionery.

Since the glassmaking workshops were already closed, we hopped from outlet to outlet, marvelling at the exquisite glass lamps, tableware and other decorative items.

On reaching the other end of Sakaimachi-dori, we took a right towards Minatomachi street and continued walking on Minatomachi. Five minutes later, we spotted the main attraction of Otaru – the Otaru canal. Although it was not the best season for taking a stroll along the promenade, we did it anyway! The waterway was still lined up with ageing stone warehouses which had been converted into shops and restaurants. The promenade, lit up with gas lamps illuminating the water’s surface, radiated an old world feel.

After a quick stroll by the canal, we took a brisk walk to Otaru station which was closer to the canal than Minami-Otaru station. We purchased the ticket at the counter (750 yen/person) and boarded the local for Sapporo.

On arriving at Sapporo station, we decided to cover another popular attraction in Hokkaido – night-view from Mt Moiwa. Exiting the station, we walked around 300 meters to Sapporo subway station and took the subway on Toho (blue) line to Odori. [Note: You can also reach Odori on the Namboku (green) line. Both Toho and Namboku lines connect Sapporo with Odori.] The brightly lit Odori park right outside the station looked quite inviting. However, due to paucity of time, we gave it a miss. Instead, we walked about 100 meters to Nishiyonchome station and hopped into a streetcar that took us to Ropeway Iriguchi Station. A 10-minute walk brought us to the entrance of Sapporo Mt Moiwa Ropeway. There was also a free shuttle bus available every 15 minutes, but we didn’t want to wait for it. At the ropeway terminal, we opted for the round-trip combo ticket (1700 yen/person) which included both the ropeway and Morris car to reach the summit.

During our ascent, all we could spot were the numerous city lights twinkling below. The gondola dropped us at the Moiwa Chufuku Station from where we boarded the Morris car which resembled a mini roller-coaster. A couple of minutes later we were on the summit. We climbed a flight of stairs to reach the rooftop observation deck. The nightscape truly lived up to the hype. Luckily, the sky was clear and, though chilly, we immensely enjoyed the 360 degree view of Sapporo.

15 minutes later we headed down and then returned to Sapporo station by the same route. We collected our luggage and bought tickets (1150 yen/person) for New Chitose airport. After a 50-minute train ride, we reached the airport. Since we had an early morning flight back home the following day, we had booked rooms in advance at the airport hotel inside the domestic terminal. It turned out to be a very good decision as we could manage a few hours of undisturbed sleep (much needed too!) followed by a good breakfast (included in the room price) the next morning before beginning the check-in process. The international terminal was easily accessible through an enclosed walkway.

Although Japan has plenty to offer, in my opinion, considering our lean budget and the limited time at our disposal, we actually managed to cover plenty of visit worthy places and bring back wonderful memories. If you wish to make the most of your time in the country, I would recommend that you follow my itinerary. You won’t regret it!

Check out top 14 things to do in Japan during the cherry blossom season below.

Also read: Day trips to Kyoto and Nara from Osaka , 48 hours in Tokyo city , A day in historical Osaka city

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