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 covered most of Honshu in 10 days (yeah, it was a packed schedule as I wanted to cover as much as possible!) before taking the bullet train (Shinkansen) from Sendai to Hokkaido.

Although I had opted for a Japan Railways (JR) pass, I 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. On reaching Hakodate, I 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, this expensive train journey (~12200 yen) was free of cost with JR pass. Since my 7-day JR pass was reaching its expiry at midnight, I simply had to get to Hokkaido that day, and I made it right on time! The journey to Noboribetsu took nearly five and a half hours. I caught the last bus (at 9.34 pm) right outside the station and reached the onsen town in 10 minutes. My hotel, Noboribetsu Grand, was a short walk from the onsen bus terminal.

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. Since Noboribetsu was my final stopover in the country, I wanted to get a full on experience of the hot spring resort in Hokkaido. And, I did!

Slipping into a yukata that I found in the closet of my room, I 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, I 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 I could choose appropriately without second-guessing. This made the meal all the more delightful. After a leisurely walk around the hotel, I was finally ready for bed.

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

After an elaborate buffet breakfast at the hotel, I 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), I finally reached Hell Valley, or Jigokudani, the main attraction in Noboribetsu.

Right next to the main signboard of Jigokudani stood 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.

I was 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, I followed the walking trails, freshly cleared of snow, through the wooded hills above the town.

Returning to the hotel, I checked out quickly, and took the bus to Noboribetsu station where I purchased tickets for Minami Otaru (3200 yen/person without seat reservation). Ticket in hand, I boarded the Limited Express Hokuto train bound for Sapporo. From there, I was supposed to take the local train to Otaru. 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, I kept my 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 almost three hours to reach Otaru – a beautiful harbour town in Hokkaido with a strong European influence – from Noboribetsu.

Since time was limited, I quickly headed towards 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, I was 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 me to a magical, fairytale-like world.

Back on the street, I crossed to the other side 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, colourful 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, I hopped from one retail outlet to another, marvelling at the exquisite glass lamps, tableware and other decorative items.

From Sakaimachi-dori, I took a right and continued walking on Minatomachi street. Five minutes later, I was by the Otaru canal. Although it was not the best season for taking a stroll along the promenade, it was still worth it. The waterway was 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, I headed to Otaru station which was much closer than Minami-Otaru station. After purchasing my ticket (750 yen/person) at the station counter, I boarded the local back to Sapporo.

On arriving at Sapporo station, I couldn’t resist covering another popular attraction in Hokkaido – night-view from Mt Moiwa. Exiting the station, I 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 to Odori.] The brightly lit Odori park right outside the station looked quite inviting. However, due to paucity of time, I gave it a miss. Instead, I headed to Nishiyonchome station and hopped into a streetcar that took me to Ropeway Iriguchi Station. A 10-minute walk brought me to the entrance of Sapporo Mt Moiwa Ropeway. There was also a free shuttle bus available every 15 minutes, but I didn’t want to wait for it. At the ropeway terminal, I bought a round-trip combo ticket (1700 yen/person) which included both the ropeway and Morris car to reach the summit.

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

15 minutes later, I headed down and then returned to Sapporo station by the same route. Collecting my luggage from the station locker, I bought a ticket (1150 yen/person) for New Chitose airport. After a 50-minute train ride, I reached the airport. I had booked rooms in advance at the airport hotel inside the domestic terminal. It turned out to be a very good decision as I could manage a few hours of undisturbed sleep (much needed too!) followed by a good breakfast (included in the room price) early 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 my lean budget and the limited time at my disposal, I 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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