Our Plan for the day
We planned to drive westward towards Noboribetsu Onsen and spend half a day exploring Hell valley and its surrounding areas. In the afternoon we would visit Lake Kuttara which was practically next to the hell valley before leaving for Lake Toya.
On the way to Lake Toya we intended to make two stops, the first one at some fruit farms and the the second stop at Mount Usu. Our final destination was Lake Toya where we would explore the lake areas before settling down for the night at a hotel by the lake. The journey for today was estimated to be at about 130 km.
We achieved all our targets except for Mount Usu. The weather was very foggy so we decided to postpone our trip up Mount Usu till the next day.
Breakfast at Toyoko Inn
It was a free breakfast provided by the hotel (Toyoko Inn Tomakomai). The spread was very simple nothing fancy but good enough to fill the stomach and tasty enough to keep us happy. It was very convenient to just eat at the hotel.
We checked out of our hotel immediately after breakfast and drove southwest toward Noboribetsu Onsen, Hokkaido most famous hotel spring resort. The drive was about 53 km and the time taken about 1 hour.
Our first sightseeing destination of the day was Hell Valley at Noboritbetsu Onsen. Our GPS systems guided us to the carpark closest to the valley. The parking fee was very costly, at ¥500 per entry and the car could be left there for the whole day. But I only intended to park just for 30 minutes and then drive off to the next sights. ¥500 for half an hour was too expensive so we drove around looking for a cheaper carpark or somewhere we could park for free. Unfortunately there was none so we had to returned to the first carpark.
The carpark attendant gave us a very detailed walking map of the area and after studying it we realised that the area was not as big as we thought. A 3km walk (loop) would cover all our targeted sights. It looked like we could leave our car in this carpark until we were done with this place. So ¥500 carpark fee no longer seem too expensive.
As we walked toward Jigokundani (hell valley) Lookup point we saw a large board with a map showing all the different walking trails, their distances and their expected walking duration. There were three places we intended to visit, they were Hell valley, Oyunuma Lake and the Oyunuma Brook Natural Footpath. Based on the Guide Map and our walking pace we estimated we would need about three hours to leisurely enjoyed this place.
When I was planning my visit to Noboribetsu Onsen area there was a lot of uncertainties. The walking paths on the Google Map were very confusing and I was not able to find a good walking map on the web. This was one place where I thought I would have to waste a great deal of time searching for the right routes to the three sights I wanted to explore.
Upon arriving at Noboribetsu Onsen all my previous worry disappeared, there were many well constructed walkways and detailed maps to guide tourists through its attractions.
Jigokudani “Hell Valley”
It was a short walk from the carpark to Jigokundani Lookup points. There were two lookup points very near to each other and they were already crowded with tourists.
The valley was very spectacular, there was a mixture of colours – white, black, orange and brown. It was named as the hell valley because one could see a number of hot steam vents spurting out sulfurous steam and bubbly ponds of bluish water in the valley (just like hell?) From the deck of the lookup point, we could see walking trails leading up and down, up to the wooded hills and down into the hell valley where there were many more hot vents.
We decided to walk down into the white-grey-brown colored valley first. We had to go down some steps before reaching a long boardwalk leading to the center of the valley.
On the way we saw a small shrine, based on the inscription (in chinese characters) on the stone this shrine was in the remembrance of 薬師如來, English translation meant – Buddha of Medicine and in Japanese – Yakushi Nyorai.
We passed the shrine and continued our walk down the slope till we reach the boardwalk. The long boardwalk was crowded with many people moving in both directions. The sky had started drizzling and the boardwalk was wet so we had to walk slowly and carefully.
Oyunuma Brook Natural Footbath
Our next destination was a natural hot spring footbath. This natural footbath was created from a small stream that flow out of Lake Oyunuma. From Lake Oyunuma we had to walk upslope on a tar road before seeing a sign board (Natural footbath) pointing to the right. We turned right and walked down a number of steps to reached a gentle sloping boardwalk that was built on one side of the stream.
This boardwalk was directly beside and on top of the stream, it made it possible for us to following the stream as it flow downhill.
As the stream flowed through the green forest hot steam was constantly floating off the water surface and entering into the air. In the meantime the drizzle had not stopped yet so the air was also full of tiny raindrops. The hot steam and the cool raindrops merged in the air creating a very foggy and mystical environment.
I liked this mystical looking environment very much. It was mysterious and yet not scary. It was cool and yet I could felt the hot steam floating past me. The place looked rugged with the natural stream and dense vegetation and yet the boardwalk was so comfortable to walk on. The silence of the place was only broken by the sound of the flowing water.
Who would have thought that there was such a lovely place here.
By about noon we were done with all the important sights at and around the Hell valley so we moved on to our next destination, Lake Kuttara. The lake was just to the east of Noboribetsu Onsen and could be easily accessable from the Hell Valley.
Lake Kuttar is a near circular caldera lake of circumference of about 8km. It has the highest quality water in the whole of Japan. With a transparency of 10 metres, ranked second only to Lake Mashu.
We drove up to Ogigata Observation deck to have a top down view of Lake Kuttara. Unfortunately the weather had turned foggy so suddenly and by the time we reached Ogigata Observation Hill the whole place was all misty.
We parked our car and came down to have a look. Standing at the observation deck and looking out I could not see more than 3 metres ahead. The lake was totally obscured by the heavy mist.
We refused to give out without seeing the lake so we drove further down the road. The road slope downward which brought us closer to the water level of the lake. We found a big beautiful house with balcony and deck just beside the water.
Apparently the mist were all in the upper atmosphere of the lake. Down at the lake level there was still no mist. The house was a cafe cum lake cabin. The view of the lake and the lake cabin was very scenic and we stood there for a long time admiring the scene. The place was very peaceful and felt very secluded and serene.
A while later, we could see dense rolling into the lake from across the bank and soon the house was covered in by the thick fog.
We decided that it was time to leave the place, before the fog made it difficult for us to navigate. We backtracked and returned to Noboribetsu Onsen .When we reached Noboritbetsu Onsen we found the place covered in dense fog. At the Hell Valley Lookup deck the visitors could only see a patch of white.
We counted our lucky star that we had already explored the hell valley earlier in the day or there would be nothing to see.
Driving to Lake Toya
There were several routes that we could take to reach Lake Toya from Lake Kuttara. We could take a shorter but windier route through the highland or a longer but straighter route using the express way.
We chose the shorter but windier route that would passed through the highland as we felt that it would be a more scenic route. The road was not as windy as it had appeared on the google map. It was wide and easy to drive on. We occasionally ran into some fog but was still able to drive on smoothly. The scenery was nice and pleasant and we were not bore at all. Our car was practically the only car on the road for most part of the journey.
Just when we were about to reach Lake Toya, we drove past Sobetsu Fruit Village. This was a sightseeing farm with 21 orchards, selling both fresh fruits and finished products like fruit juices and jams.
We stopped at a small fruit store sitting by the side of the road (Usu National Highway 453) and went in and bought some pink cherries. The cherries were the best I had tasted so far during this trip.
There were many other bigger stores selling more variety of products along the same stretch of the road.
Postponing our trip up Mount Usu
In our original plan, after Sobetsu Fruit Village we would go up Mount Usu. At Mount Usu we would be able to enjoy a top down view of Lake Toya and its surrounding. Unfortunately the sky was still very foggy so going up Mount Usu would be a wasted trip as there would be no lake view. We decided to postpone Mount Usu visit to the next morning and by then hopefully the fog would be gone.
At about 3 pm we reached our hotel, Ohno Pension at Lake Toya. Our hotel was just by the bank of Lake Toya and it was in our plan to arrive early so that we could check in and drop our bags before going out to explore Lake Toya. Though it was still drizzling and the lake was foggy we refused to be held back.
Lake Toya is a caldera lake, it is 11 km from east to west and 9 km from north to south and has a circumference of 43 km. Lake Toya is an ice-free lake and visitors come here all year round. Fireworks events are held at the lake throughout the year.
As it was still drizzling there was not many people out and about and similarly there was not much activities a the lake too.
We knew that there would be a firework display on the lake in the evening so we decided to recee for a good place to view the firework. Our hotel owner had already told us of a good place to view the firework which was the public park just in front of our hotel.
We had other idea, we would like to go to a higher ground where we could see the town, the lake and the firework all in the same frame. We drove around, driving onto several roads that led uphill. Most of these roads led us away from the town so there was no view overlooking the town and the lake. Finally we found a suitable road. It had wide kerbs on both sides and along one section of the kerb that faced the lake we could see the town and the lake below. The time was 5pm which was too early for firework so we marked the location on my google map so that we could find this place again when we returned in the evening.
We found a restaurant on the second level of a souvenir cum grocery store just by the lake. The price of the food was reasonable so we went in. Besides us there was only one other family in the restaurant. We chose a table by the window overlooking the lake and leisurely ate our dinner, enjoyed the view and caught up with our emails and whatapps message.
Ten minutes before the firework was to start, we reached the road on the hill where we had earlier identified as the location we wanted to view the firework. Besides the headlights from our car the whole place (road and kerbs) was pitch dark. There was no street lamp and since it was still drizzling the sky was gloomy and full of cloud, so even if there was a moon that night we did not get any moonlight.
The fireworks started on time and initially we could see the fireworks. Unfortunately as the boat from where the fireworks were launched moved further away, the fireworks become dimmer and dimmer. This could be due to the thicker layer of fog that was in between us and the fireworks.
Though it was drizzling and I was wet and cold, I still enjoyed viewing the fireworks from up the hill. Previously whenever I saw fireworks they were always high up in the sky. This time the fireworks looked different they looked as though they were sitting on the water. The reflection of the fireworks in the water also seemed to the extend the firework right into the water. Very beautiful and very unique.
Midway through the fireworks, we heard voices and footsteps walking on the pavement coming toward our direction. They sounded like two women talking very fast in Japanese. Then we saw two middle age local women carrying umbrellas and torches, walking to just a few metres from us. They came to view the firework too!!!
Accommodation for the Night
Our accommodation for the night was at Pension Ohno just next to the lake. It was a twin room that came with ensuite bathroom and breakfast. The cost was ¥14600 for one night. The rate was rather pricey but for a place so near the lake such price was the norm. Others that were cheaper were not near the lake and did not come with ensuite bathrooms.
We checked in at about 3pm after parking our car in a lot directly outside the pension. We were very happy to park so near the hotel entrance as we would be able to transfer our luggage quickly under the light drizzle.
Unfortunately there was no slope on the ground that lead up to the pension doorway so we had to lift our luggage a couple of steps to enter the pension. Our room was on the second level and there was no elevator, so a second round of lifting, up twenty steps before reaching our room.
The twin room was very spacious, from our room windows we could look out to the lake. As for the ensuite bathroom it was rather tight. Toiletries were very minimum, just two bars of mini soap, no toothbrushes, liquid soap, comb or shaver. One item that was in abundance was slippers. There was in-bedroom slippers, out-of-bedroom slippers and outdoor slippers. Wifi was available everywhere in the Pension.