Noboribetsu: Japan's Premier Hot Spring Destination

Noboribetsu: Japan's Premier Hot Spring Destination

In the heart of southwestern Hokkaido, just a two-hour drive from Sapporo, lies Noboribetsu, a city celebrated across Japan for its exceptional hot springs. Positioned by the Pacific Ocean, this area, especially the onsen town within it, attracts numerous visitors with its rich tradition and soothing natural baths.

The hot springs of Noboribetsu date back to the early 19th century, appearing in Japanese records for the first time. Originally used by the indigenous Ainu for their healing properties, these thermal waters are now a cornerstone of the local culture and tourism. The town boasts nine distinct types of hot springs, each with a unique blend of minerals, known to aid in treating various ailments.

For those looking to enjoy the warmth and benefits of these springs, Noboribetsu offers a range of high-quality hotels and ryokans. There’s also a beloved public bath that locals frequently visit. Visiting Noboribetsu provides a warm, inviting glimpse into a tradition deeply woven into the fabric of Japanese culture.


Noboribetsu Onsen Town


Exploring Noboribetsu City

Situated in the southwestern part of Hokkaido, Japan, Noboribetsu City lies along the shores of Uchiura Bay on the Pacific Ocean, covering a sprawling area of 212.21 square kilometers (81.9 square miles). With its mountainous terrain, the city's population, about 44,000 as of December 2023, mostly resides in the lower, more accessible areas around the middle of the city and along the coastal belt.

The heart of Noboribetsu's residential life pulsates in three coastal towns: Noboribetsu, Horobetsu, and Washibetsu, with Horobetsu being the largest and often considered the central hub of the city instead of the smaller Noboribetsu town.

While Noboribetsu is famously known for its therapeutic onsen hot springs located approximately 6 kilometers north of the town center, the city also vibrates with cultural festivities. Notable events include the Noboribetsu Onsen Festival and the Hell Valley Demon Fireworks, which light up the city with excitement and color.


Hell Valley Demon Fireworks


The city isn't just about hot springs; it thrives on a robust blend of agriculture, dairy farming, and fishing. Local delicacies that you must try include freshly caught salmon, Sakhalin surf clams, squid, and uniquely local products like natto (fermented soybeans), pickled wasabi, cheese, and creamy milk pudding. Noboribetsu invites everyone to enjoy its rich culture, breathtaking events, and warm, welcoming atmosphere.


Local delicacies of Noboribetsu


The Story Behind Noboribetsu's Name

The name "Noboribetsu" traces back to the Ainu language, spoken by the indigenous Ainu people of Japan and Russia. Originally called "nupur pet," it translates to "a river with deep color." Historical travel documents from the mid-19th century once described the river as having a cloudy white or yellowish hue, a result of the minerals from the nearby Hell Valley (Jigokudani) hot springs.

The term "nupur" not only refers to deep or intense color and taste but also symbolizes strength of mind. In Ainu culture, where every element of nature is believed to embody a spirit and is revered as a deity (kamuy), the river was revered as a mighty god. This veneration was due to its distinctive color and the believed healing properties of its waters.

A Tour of Hell Valley

Adjacent to Noboribetsu onsen town lies Hell Valley, a dramatic crater formed by the eruption of Mount Hiyori around 10,000 years ago. Spanning about 450 meters across, this geothermal wonder is dotted with geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles that emit steamy vapors.

The valley is a vital source for the hot spring waters used in the town, producing an impressive 3,000 liters of mineral-rich water every minute to feed the local onsen facilities.


The Hell Valley of Noboribetsu Onsen


The Natural Beauty of Noboribetsu

Covering most of Noboribetsu are lush forests and towering mountains, creating a green canopy over the city. The area boasts several peaks including Mt. Raiba at 1,040 meters, followed by Washibetsudake, Kashayama, and Kamuynupuri. Despite historic logging activities that reduced much of Hokkaido's ancient woodlands, Noboribetsu has managed to preserve parts of these old forests, offering a glimpse into the region's natural past.

Surrounding the onsen town and near Lake Kuttara, a caldera lake to the west, these preserved forests provide a haven for nature lovers. Additionally, the Kiushito wetland between Horobetsu and Washibetsu stands as a testament to the unique wetland ecosystems along the coast and is recognized as one of the 500 important wetlands in Japan.

For those interested in the area's ecology, the wetland features accessible boardwalks and a visitor center where you can learn about the local wildlife and plant life.


Lake Kuttara


Shikotsu-Toya National Park

Noboribetsu, with its striking Hell Valley and other natural attractions, is integral to Shikotsu-Toya National Park. This park encompasses five distinct areas across southeastern Hokkaido, each marked by its own volcanic features and ecological importance.

The park includes the pristine waters of Lake Shikotsu and Lake Toya, the majestic Mt. Yotei, the thermal springs around Jozankei onsen town in southern Sapporo, and the vibrant surroundings of Noboribetsu onsen town.


Shikotsu-Toya National Park


Onsen Hot Spring Hopping at Noboribetsu

Visiting an onsen in Noboribetsu offers a unique way to relax and absorb the local culture. To start, onsen baths are enjoyed without any clothing; swimsuits and towels are not permitted in the water.

Many visitors choose to bring a small towel to keep their head cool while soaking or to maintain modesty while walking around the spa, although it's important not to submerge this towel in the bath water. Instead, rinse it off in the designated washing areas.

While mixed-gender onsens are increasingly rare, Noboribetsu's facilities are separated by gender. Before entering any onsen, it's essential to wash thoroughly with soap and rinse off in the shower area.

Onsen spas, particularly the upscale hotels and ryokans in Noboribetsu, often provide complimentary soap, shampoo, and conditioner, so guests only need to bring themselves for a relaxing soak.

For those with long hair, tying it up is advised to keep the water clean. Lastly, remember that onsen waters are for soaking, not swimming, maintaining the serene atmosphere of these healing waters.

Top Onsen Facilities in Noboribetsu

Ready to experience an onsen bath? Noboribetsu offers a rich selection of onsen facilities, each with its own charm.

  • Daiichi Takimotokan: Established in 1898, this is one of Japan's top onsen destinations. Featuring waters from five distinct sources, it was the first onsen in Noboribetsu and quickly became a favorite among the local Ainu, workmen, and samurai.

  • Hotel Yumoto Noboribetsu: This hotel provides baths fed by four unique types of onsen waters, catering to various preferences.

  • Noboribetsu Grand Hotel: Known for its three varieties of onsen waters - sulfur, salt, and iron - this hotel boasts an acclaimed outdoor bath overlooking a stunning garden.

  • Meitonoyado Park Hotel Miyabitei: Here, guests can enjoy five different onsen waters, though the baths are exclusive to overnight guests, making a stay here a must for the full experience.

  • Noboribetsu Sekisuitei: While offering only one type of water, the baths here offer serene views of the mountain forest, enhancing the relaxing atmosphere.

  • Yumoto Sagiriyu Public Bath: For a more local experience, try the smaller baths at this public bathhouse, popular among the town's residents.


Noboribetsu Grand Hotel


The Healing Powers of Noboribetsu's Onsen Waters

Noboribetsu is renowned for its variety of mineral-rich onsen waters, each believed to have specific health benefits:

  • Sulfur: Milky white, known for its skin healing properties.

  • Salt: Clear and beneficial for nerve pain and backaches.

  • Acid: Clear and effective against eczema and rashes.

  • Iron: Reddish-brown, recommended for anemia and chronic skin conditions.

  • Sodium sulfate: Clear, enhances blood circulation and can help with high blood pressure.

  • Sodium bicarbonate: Known as "the bath of beauty," this clear water helps with skin ailments and wound healing.

  • Alum: Slightly yellowish-brown, known for treating skin diseases.

  • Green alum: Brown and beneficial for anemia and chronic eczema.

  • Radium: Clear, helps relieve nerve pain and rheumatism.

While many onsen spas offer multiple types of water, visiting several is the best way to experience the full range of healing properties available in Noboribetsu.

Natural Onsen Experience

For those who love a more natural onsen experience, the Oyunuma river's natural footbath is an ideal choice. Starting from a parking area near Hell Valley, a brief hike up a mountain trail leads you through a serene forest to this unique spot. The footbath, fed by the nearby Oyunuma pond, offers a wonderfully warm soak in a picturesque outdoor setting.

The Oyunuma pond itself is a sulfur spring located at the base of Mount Hiyori. The sulfur content gives the water a distinct cloudy white appearance. While the pond's surface temperatures range from 40-50°C (104-122°F), water emerges from sulfur vents on the pond's floor at much higher temperatures, even reaching 130°C (266°F).

By the time this water flows into the river and reaches the footbath area, it has cooled to a perfect, soothing temperature, making it an excellent spot for a relaxing pause in your journey.


Oyunuma Pond


What to Do in Noboribetsu City

Once you've had your fill of the tranquil hot springs in Noboribetsu, there's much more to see and do around the city. Packed with interesting sites and activities, Noboribetsu offers plenty of attractions right in town. And if you're up for a little adventure, the surrounding cities provide even more opportunities to fill your days with excitement and fun.

Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe

The city offers an array of attractions, and one standout is the Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe. Positioned right in the heart of Noboribetsu town, this aquarium and amusement park is a treasure trove of marine life and fun activities.

Get up close with dolphins, jellyfish, sea lions, fur seals, and penguins. Watch in awe as sardines and jellyfish glide gracefully in their tanks, and don't miss the daily parade featuring charming emperor and gentoo penguins.

For those seeking a bit more thrill, the amusement park section has you covered with various rides, including a merry-go-round and a towering 30-meter Ferris wheel. As you rise above the park, you'll be treated to breathtaking views of Uchiura Bay, making it a memorable part of your visit to Noboribetsu.


Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe


Noboribetsu Date Jidai Village

Just outside Noboribetsu town, the Noboribetsu Date Jidai Village offers a captivating journey back to traditional Japan. This unique theme park showcases the rich history of the Edo period (1603–1867) through meticulously crafted replicas of wooden structures like a daimyo (feudal lord) residence, merchant shops, and commoners' homes.

The park is modeled after the historical domain of the daimyo Masamune Date in Sendai. Following the decline of the daimyo power at the end of the Edo period, descendants of the Date clan relocated to Hokkaido, eventually founding what is now Date city, near Noboribetsu.

Visitors to Noboribetsu Date Jidai Village can wander through the village and step into these traditional buildings, enjoying a vivid recreation of a bygone era. Staff members, dressed as geishas, ninjas, and samurais, add to the immersive experience. The village not only entertains but educates with daily shows featuring ninjas and oiran (high-class courtesans), interactive workshops, and various cultural displays.

For a deeper dive into history, the village hosts several museums including the Kanata Sword Museum, Ninja Resource Center, and Katakura History Museum.

For those feeling adventurous, you can even try on ninja or samurai attire. With its rich array of exhibits, performances, and shops, Noboribetsu Date Jidai Village is a treasure trove for anyone interested in Japanese culture and history.


Noboribetsu Date Jidai Village


Learning About Ainu Culture at Upopoy

If you are interested in the rich heritage of Hokkaido's indigenous Ainu people, a visit to Upopoy in Shiraoi town is a must. Opened in the summer of 2020, Upopoy, which means 'Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony', is home to Japan's first National Ainu Museum. The facility is dedicated to promoting understanding and appreciation of Ainu culture and history.

Upopoy features a comprehensive Ainu museum alongside a park that houses traditional Ainu dwellings, cultural workshops, an exchange hall, and a memorial site. The museum offers a permanent exhibition that delves into the Ainu's historical journey and their contemporary culture, supplemented by temporary exhibits focusing on indigenous peoples from around the world.

In the expansive museum park, visitors have the opportunity to engage directly with Ainu traditions. You can participate in cultural workshops, listen to ancient Ainu epics, or explore a traditional Ainu cise (house), providing a full immersion into the life and culture of the Ainu people.




Enjoying Nature in Noboribetsu

Noboribetsu offers more than just its renowned hot springs; it's also a haven for nature lovers. The area's lush forests and towering mountains provide a perfect setting for outdoor adventures.

You can wander through an ancient forest near Noboribetsu onsen town or challenge yourself with a hike up Mt. Raiba, Washibetsudake, Kashayama, and Kamuynupuri. For those seeking a more relaxing experience, Lake Kuttara awaits with its crystal-clear waters, ideal for a serene day in nature.

Kiushito Wetland

Nestled between Horobetsu and Washibetsu, Kiushito Wetland stands as a vital ecological site, recognized as one of Japan's 500 important wetlands.

Visitors can traverse this unique landscape via boardwalks, enjoying up-close views of its diverse wildlife and lush vegetation. The on-site visitor center offers insights into the wetland's ecosystem and the species that thrive within it.


Kiushito Wetland


Seasonal Festivals and Events

Noboribetsu comes alive with various seasonal festivals and events that showcase the area's vibrant culture. The Noboribetsu Onsen Festival in August is a highlight, featuring parades, traditional dances, and a grand fireworks display.

Another must-see event is the Hell Valley Demon Fireworks, where dazzling pyrotechnics light up the night sky. These festivities are wonderful opportunities to engage with the local community and partake in the jubilant atmosphere.

Planning Your Visit to Noboribetsu

How to Get There

Noboribetsu is well-connected and easy to reach from anywhere in Hokkaido. The closest airport is New Chitose Airport, which is about 70 kilometers away.

From there, you can catch a train or a bus directly to Noboribetsu. If you're coming from Sapporo, expect a journey of around two hours whether you choose to travel by train or by car.

Where to Stay

Whether you're looking for luxury or affordability, Noboribetsu has accommodations to fit your needs. For a truly memorable stay, consider booking a room at one of the local ryokans. These traditional Japanese inns offer warm hospitality and often include access to private onsen baths, making for a relaxing retreat.


Local ryokan of Noboribetsu


Local Cuisine

The culinary scene in Noboribetsu is heavily influenced by its access to fresh seafood and local dairy farms.

Be sure to try some regional dishes that incorporate fresh salmon, Sakhalin surf clams, and squid. Also, taste the local natto (fermented soybeans) and pickled wasabi. For a sweet finish, treat yourself to desserts like cheese and milk pudding crafted from fresh, local dairy.

Beneficial Tips For Tourists
  • Language: English may not be commonly spoken everywhere, but you'll find English signs and service in most tourist spots and hotels where the staff often knows basic English.

  • Currency: The Japanese Yen (JPY) is the currency used here. While credit cards are widely accepted in most large hotels and restaurants, carrying some cash is recommended for smaller shops and transport services.

  • Weather: Expect chilly winters and gentle summers in Noboribetsu. It's wise to dress warmly if you're visiting in the colder months.

Wrapping Up

Noboribetsu, with its inviting hot springs, vibrant culture, and stunning natural surroundings, offers a variety of activities and experiences for every visitor. Whether it's relaxing in the thermal waters, wandering through beautiful landscapes, or indulging in the local culture, Noboribetsu ensures a visit filled with relaxation and discovery.