JETSETTER

Hot In Hokkaido

There’s a whole price spectrum of hot springs in southern Hokkaido

January 2019

There’s a whole price spectrum of hotels and hot springs in southern Hokkaido 

Hokkaido is more than just Niseko and Sapporo. 

The ski slopes and hot springs in and around the mountain resort and capital city respectively may be as irresistible to most Singaporeans as cheap sushi in Tsukiji. But Hokkaido is a big island and there is a lot more to see, eat and soak. 

So instead of flying into New Chitose airport from Tokyo Haneda or Narita, a left-field alternative would be landing at Hakodate in the south. 

Hakodate airport is a 25-minute limousine bus ride to Hakodate town and smack in between these two is the Yunokawa Hot Spring Resort. 

Yunokawa Onsen is one of Hokkaido’s three main hot spring areas and in addition to the healing powers of its clear water, its most attractive feature is its location next to the pristine Tsugaru Strait.

Yunokawa Prince Nagisatei 
One hotel that overlooks this channel of water separating Hokkaido from the main island of Honshu is Yunokawa Prince Nagisatei. 

This 12-storey building has rooms with an ocean view and a rotenburo or open-air bath, so that you can soak with the sea right in front. 

And depending on which floor you’re on, you can see a bit of Oma town on the tip of Honshu. 

But the reality is slightly different. 

Walk into the Yunokawa Prince Nagisatei and be immediately impressed by its recently refurbished reception and lobby areas in warm tones of brown and beige with soft lighting. 

But step into the room and you realise the renovation budget didn’t take the elevator up – it is salaryman shabby, complete with stale cigarette smoke. 

An amusing touch is the “no smoking” sign beside one of three ashtrays in the Japanese/Western-style room with two single beds and a tatami living area. 

As for the outdoor bath, it looks like someone filled the balcony with water. The view of the ocean is as advertised though. 

The buffet dinner fares better, with a huge range of Japanese and Western dishes of acceptable quality. 

You will be shown to your seats by polite servers. But what will make them smile even more broadly is if you order from the alcohol menu, with its surprisingly honest descriptions of “less sour’’ wine.

Four Points by Sheraton
If you insist on visiting the Hakodate Morning Market, an excellently located hotel is Four Points by Sheraton. 

It is in front of the bus and rail terminal, and next to the markets. 

Best of all, the rooms are new and clean. 

They aren’t very large but they are spacious enough to lounge around in between outings.

But behind the front desk could be the ex-discipline master from Boys Town because check-in time of 2pm is strictly enforced. 

However, there is no punishment for leaving your luggage with the concierge if you arrive early. 

What is really nice about Four Points though, is the huge omiyage souvenir store next door, as well as the interestingly different 7-Eleven and snack outlets in the train station across the road. 

All of them carry an interesting range of goodies made from Hokkaido dairy and other farm produce.

Noboribetsu onsen 
Proximity to the Hakodate train station is also an advantage if you are headed for more upmarket accommodations in a hot spring resort town like Noboribetsu. 

Noboribetsu is one of the three main hot spring resorts in Hokkaido and its name means “milky white river’’ in the language of the indigenous Ainu people. 

From Hakodate, the onsen town is just a 2.5-hour train and a 20-minute bus ride away. 

Actually, the journey is the only strenuous part of an onsen holiday. Soaking in a hot spring is a sedate activity that is unlikely to become an Olympic sport, especially since mostly old people are to be found poaching in one. But the steaming mineral waters are wonderfully therapeutic for folks of all ages. 

Noboribetsu 0nsen town has a wide choice of big and small hotels. There are large faceless establishments such as Dai Mahoroba, Noboribetsu Grand and Dai-Ichi Takimotokan, as well as smaller inns along the shopping street.  

And then there are pricey options like Takinoya. 

There are actually two establishments named Takinoya. Both are owned by the same company but one is the budget alternative. 

The one you want is a modern ryokan by the main road against the hillside with its beautiful foliage and waterfalls. 

This luxury ryokan, which also has rooms with a private onsen, offers five types of thermal waters with varying acidity and alkalinity. 

The white, sulfurous version looks so milkily salubrious you might believe that it will instantly heal whatever ailments you have.

Unfortunately, it’s not that hot – figuratively speaking of course; it doesn’t even make your skin noticeably smoother.  

But the lush settings for the open-air baths – one each for men  and women – mean Takinoya’s is the picturesque choice in Noboribetsu. 

In fact, there are few luxury ryokans in Japan where there is a bigger and more beautiful place to soak in, especially amid autumn colours. 

Less memorable are the meals. Breakfast and dinner are provided but like the sulfur spring water, they don’t make much of an impression.

Hell Valley 
What has a bigger impact is Jigokudani or Hell Valley. 

Hike up the mountain to view the spectacular source of all that hot spring water. An active volcano gushes and spews steam angrily from ponds and fissures, and there are various walking trails that lead you to bubbling pools of sulfur. 

And oh, take photos of the various giant statues of demons along the way. These are the guardians of Hell Valley, and they are less menacing and more welcoming than they look. They are also supposed to chase bad luck away and bring good fortune and happiness. 

If you’re not looking for physical activity or Toto results, Sengen Park where the main street loops around allows a closer look at all that steam without traipsing over hill and dale. 

This is where a geyser spits and steams from a grotto surrounded by the demons’ giant cudgels. 

It can be a bit scary at night, even if the small park is next to a couple of well-lit hotel buildings. It’s proof that not all hot spring resorts are boring.

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