What struck me as we were driving into Noboribetsu was that the place was reminiscent of Genting Highlands. It had a tacky theme park feel with monstrous demon statues scattered around town, and the hotels looked like they had seen their heydays back in the 80s.
Our hotel for the next 2 nights was Park Hotel Miyabitei. We had paid S$247.40 per night for a western-style twin room with buffet breakfast, dinner and parking included. There was no option for a western style double bed, just twin-beds were available. The hotel was as well past its prime as the rest, and the room reeked of cigarette smoke. Fortunately, it was relatively cool even in high summer in Noboribetsu and we could sleep with the windows opened.
Aside from that, the hotel was decent value. The room might have looked dated, but it was clean and well maintained. The bathroom had seen a recent overhaul and was brand new. Guests could use the onsen at the hotel's basement at no extra charge. Buffet breakfast in the morning had a good variety.
The show stopper of the hotel though has got to be its buffet dinner which featured an endless supply of fresh seafood like salmon sashimi, ebi tempura and Hokkaido snow crab! The buffet dinner which was included in our room rate really stole our hearts.
The hotel was an easy walk away from the town centre and the various places of interest. The town centre had a handful of shops, restaurants and pubs. Shrines dedicated to various demons symbolizing success in exams, luck in love, prosperity in business, etc. were scattered about town. Being an onsen town, hotels provide yukata (bathing cloth) for guests' use and many tourists wore the yukata about town in the evenings. It gave Noboribetsu an authentic and unique Japanese old town ambience.
One of the most popular attractions at Noboribetsu are the volcanic hot springs at Jigokudani (Hell Valley). During the summer months of June and July, a 30-min oni hanabi (demon fireworks) performance by the guardians of the hot springs takes place at Jigokudani on Thursdays and Fridays at 2030 hrs. It's a highly popular show, so we arrived there 30 mins early to gain standing room in the observatory.
Jigokudani was also the starting point for the Jigokudani-Oyunuma Walking Trail. We followed the trail into primeval woods and witnessed the most magical sight. Not far from the beginning of the trail, we spotted a fluffy owl resting on a branch. It was elegantly white with grey speckled wings. A snowy owl perhaps? The forest was a popular birdwatching area, but that owl we saw did not match any of the pictures on the birdwatchers' information board. All of a sudden, the owl took flight and was joined by a flock of 5 or 6 of its mates. The flock flew alongside us, leading us deeper and deeper into the woods. Then as suddenly as they appeared, they vanished from our sight. It was like a page out of a Harry Potter fantasy novel.
The walk through the woods was very pleasant. At the end of the trail, we were rewarded with the sight of Oyunuma, a bubbling hot lake which is the source of Noboribetsu onsen. From there, it was a short walk to Oyunuma Natural Footbath, where we had fun soaking our tired feet in the clear hot spring water.
We had an afternoon to spare after completing the walking trail, so a last minute decision was made to drive to the town of Muroran to visit Cape Chikyu. Muroran itself was an industrial town and it had nothing much to offer in terms of tourism. In fact, the town looked rather sad with many shuttered, vacant buildings. A reminder of the declining and aging population in Japan. Having said that, the spectacular sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean from Cape Chikyu were well worth the 30 min drive from Noboribetsu. The spot was off-the-beaten-track and we were able to enjoy the view in relative solitude.
On our way back to Noboribetsu, we stopped at a hypermart by the sea called Super Center Trial. We bought a foot-long salmon sashimi sushi roll for JPY199 and a bowl of kaisen don for slightly more for a satisfying lunch. We parked by the sea and enjoyed the roar of the surf crashing into the breakwater as we tucked into our food. Ah...the simple joys of a road trip.
Our last stop before our adventure at Noboribetsu and its surrounding area drew to a close was Lake Kuttara, the roundest lake in Japan. Lake Kuttara is a calm, blue caldera lake formed by volcanic activity more than 80,000 years ago.
After checking out Lake Kuttara from its lookout point, we continued our journey towards Niseko. Noboribetsu had exceeded our expectations, and we made a mental note to return with family in tow one day.