Roadtrip to Hokkaido: The stinky valley (Pt. 3)


A surprise to no one, it seems like Hokkaido’s north is pretty cold, even when judging from spring’s average weather. That’s why, it is time to head to the south, where belated hanami blossoming (compared to the rest of the country) awaits. The first stop is Noboribetsu (登別), which with your new-found Ainu vocabulary skills from a previous post you already guessed is some kind of a river; a dark river.

Blossoming cherry trees on the way to Noboribetsu

As you get close to Noboribetsu-onsen, a village in the outskirts of Noboribetsu, no matter how you move, by car, by bus or on foot, you are going to notice giant statues of red and blue demons. Eleven of them, to be precise. These are actually ogres (oni 鬼), but of the benevolent kind, which are locally referred to as Yukijin (湯嬉神). The name literally means ‘spirits of the enjoyment of hot spring water’, it sure doesn’t sound scary. They use their thorny baseball bats, called kanabo, to protect the village from danger. What kind of danger, you ask? Well, it seems that the village of Noboribetsu-onsen is built atop the entrance of Hell itself.

Some of the blue and red ogres that are scattered around the village

The whole area is actually the mouth of an active volcano, which emits sulfuric fumes and pumps hot water on a daily basis. The barren, aggressive landscape is what gave the area the name Jigokudani (地獄谷), literally ‘Hell’s valley’. The natural hot springs of Noboribetsu onsen (登別温泉) belong to Shikotsu-Toya National Park, named after two large volcanic lakes nearby, and is the most famous onsen resort in Hokkaido. Of course, with all the fumes, it looks like the perfect home for all kinds of hell’s demons, hence the folk imagination resulted in creating the Yukijin for protection.

As soon as you get outside, even before the park’s gate, you can smell the characteristic odor of rotten eggs. As you get closer to the valley, the odor becomes stronger and heavier. The view that greets you is a reddish caldera, with steam coming out from the ground and strange green colored water pouring out. In the summer, the valley is all lit up with illuminations and firework displays. Ogres appear, pouring out fireworks from their bats in an annual celebration ritual.

Noboribetsu’s Hell Valley
View of hell’s valley from the top. There is a path to follow in order to get closer to the volcanic activity.

As you climb down the stairs, the first sight is a small shrine devoted to Yakushinyorai (薬師如来), the ‘medicine Buddha’. As the story goes, in 1861 a vassal came to the valley in order to explore the sulfur reserves to use in the industry. For some curious reason, he thought it would be nice to wash his eyes with hot spring water (seriously, don’t try this at home), and magically his eyesight problems disappeared. From that day, the spring became known as ‘hot spring of the eyes’. A big sign warns you not to leave the wooden platform, although there should be a safe path inside the valley, as the carefully positioned stone pointers betray. Then, there comes Tessen Ike (鉄泉池, iron hot spring pond), an 80°C geyser that erupts regularly. There is a custom in Japan, where one throws metallic coins in a pond in order to make a wish come true. It seems that a couple of people tried to do that in Tessen ike, which the park management did not appreciate, and now they have set up signs to discourage it.

Yakushinyorai shrine
Tessen pond
A path in hell
Sign at tessen pond

The volcanic activity in the area is actually due to multiple volcanos; the Kutara active volcano (which created the perfectly round volcanic lake Kutara), as well as the ones at Mt. Hiyori and Oyunuma lake. All of them together form the volcanic complex of Noboribetsu onsen. Oyunuma lake is formed on a 1km deep crater of a 377m active volcano. A sulfuric hot spring gushes out at the bottom of the crater at 130°C and cools down to about 40°C at the surface. The water close to the shore is covered with green-black grease, due to the abundant mineral contents of the lake.

Oyunuma lake from above

Right next to Oyunuma is a smaller, steaming hot pond, Oku no yu. This one is a black sulfur spring, visibly hotter, with surface water at 85°C.

Okunoyu pond

Walking around can take an hour or so, thus it sounds like a good idea to relax your tired legs at Oyunuma brook natural footbath. There are some cushions available, so you can just take one, sit on the wooden deck, and dip your feet in the hot spring water that comes down from the aforementioned lakes. Now, be careful! In one of the pictures below, you can see the exact moment when the phone fell out of my pocket and became a sacrifice to the volcano god (don’t be like belleelene, avoid putting phones in your pocket when you are close to bodies of water). At least, the water was so enjoyable, that it didn’t bother me too much.

Oyunuma natural hotspring bath

After Noboribetsu onsen, we drove around lake Kuttara (倶多楽湖), but sadly no picture could capture its roundness. That’s why we went to lake Toya, another perfectly round volcanic lake with some small islands inside. Lake Toya (洞爺湖) is close to Mt. Usu volcano, which is easily distinguishable from the main road because of it’s piercing tip. A popular activity at the lake is horse riding at lake Toya ranch, great for beginners like me. My horse was named Marchi (basically he was March, the month), he was quiet and obedient. A lot of times, he stopped to eat fresh leaves next to the path and I had to pull him to continue moving. He really likes the grass. For once, the gloomy weather was actually welcome, because as the rain stopped, a rainbow hovered above lake Toya, making the view even more amazing.

View of lake Toya with a rainbow from horseback

As for accommodation, our base was the small city of Muroran. Two places caught my eye there; a lawless night street and an ultra-conservative shrine. Nightlife establishments at the entairtainment district in Muroran looked like the picture below, which was pretty amusing if you are looking for the raw spirit of the town. Yakiniku paradise serves excellent ‘Genghis Khan’ meat and other BBQ dishes. It seemed like a proper restaurant for football fans, because it was covered with team t-shirts and posters. This fact is basically a guarantee that the food is good and cheap, because it targets locals.

The night district at Muroran

Because of my fad with goshuin stamps, I decided to get one from Nakajima shrine at Muroran. From the outside it looked just like any other shrine, with its torii gates, purification fountain and car blessing grounds. However, as you enter the shrine office, you get it. There are posters talking about ‘making Japan great’ depicting soldiers, mothers and babies, memorabilia exhibits from the war era and a sign collection box against Beijing’s Winter Olympics. While religious establishments in Japan are generally conservative, because of the connections between shinto and the imperial family line, normally you don’t witness such blatant calls to political action.

Nakajima shrine

However, among the exhibits was also an interesting black and white photograph of two dozens of samurai and a suit-wearing westerner with his child among them. The photo is from 1868 and the westerner is the Dutch advisor to emperor Meiji, Guido Verbeck. The comment mentions that these samurai are the ones that protected Japan from foreign powers. Then it pushes the position of the current LDP-led government, that the constitution’s article 9 should be amended in order to protect Japan (basically to allow Japan to have formal military apart from the self-defence force). First time I see something like that, but I guess it is not unexpected in small places at the countryside.

On a happier note, I got a chance to enjoy blossoming cherry trees in another temple, at Usu Zenkoji. It had a nice large garden and several stone monuments. It is a historical temple with a wonderful thatched roof.

Usu Zenkoji Temple
Sakura blossoms in Usu Zenkoji Temple

On the way back, I also stopped at some other shrines in Date village. The guardian statues were wearing posters with anti-covid measures. A priest gave me blessed salt to protect me during transport and travel, while he explained to me his theory that the speed of light is actually faster than what we currently have established scientifically. A day full of absurdity, that’s Noboribetsu, Toya, Muroran and Date for you!

Date temple

This post concludes the series on Hokkaido roadtripping. If you haven’t yet, you can read the other posts in the series (below) or check other destinations in this blog. Until next time!

Other posts from this trip

The roads of Hokkaido

Japan is made up of 4 main islands and thousands of smaller ones. One of the latest acquisitions is the northernmost island of Hokkaido, “courtesy” (more like genocide) of the indigenous Ainu. In the past, it used to be refered to as Ezo by Japanese and Ainu Moshir…

Roadtrip to Hokkaido: Looking for the natives (Pt. 1)

If you are good with hints, then you probably noticed already that a post about Hokkaido was long overdue. In previous posts, you already got a sneak peek of what spring roads look like in the far north, as well as understood more about the climate of the…

Roadtrip to Hokkaido: All is white (Pt. 2)

At the end of last post, we left lake Akan to head towards Biei, which presents itself as ‘the most beautiful village in Japan’. tldr; it may well be, but I visited in the wrong season. Nevertheless, despite being known mainly as a hot photo spot for the…

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