After visiting two large cities, it was time to get into the countryside a bit more. Hokkaido is an island, which Lonely Planet recommends exploring by car, but actually, there is a surprisingly good network of public transport. It’s just a little tricky to find the information in English. Thankfully, the tourist information offices everywhere can help with that. Armed with a Japanese bus map of Hokkaido (sadly only available in Japanese), we set off for the onsen town of Noboribetsu, which is unfortunately two bus rides and 4 hours from Asahikawa. After spending the night couchsurfing with our new friend (Thank you Maria!) we woke early and boarded our bus.
We arrived into Noboribetsu onsen around 1pm (after getting a local bus from the train station) and were immediately hit with a strong stench of sulphur. Not the most pleasant smell and unfortunately it stays with you all the while you are here, but it’s meant to be beneficial for all kinds of ailments. There is so much sulphuric water coming out the ground that the river which flows through the valley constantly covers everything with this special scent. We had decided not to visit the onsens here as we only had the afternoon, and due to the frankly quite ridiculous cost of accommodation in town. Instead, we dedicated the afternoon to walking around the area to see a few of the sites. Our first stop was hell valley where sulphurous yellow/white rivers run towards town and steam billows out of the ground. We really got a sense of volatile our planet can be, but also visited the main spring which provides so much wealth to this little town. Walking up the hill a little further takes you to a viewpoint and then back down to a volcanic lake. The lake edges are black in colour due to some sulphur combination and we caught glimpses of the boiling muddy water between the sulphurous fumes. Above the lake is a quietly steaming volcano which created this lake. Only a little way further on, is a footbath in a warm stream among the trees, which was a nice break from walking. Our walk took us back down to town via a geyser which produces spurts of water up to 8m high that are accompanied by rumbling thuds. Back in town, we grabbed a snack of Onigiri (stuffed rice balls) and jumped back on the bus to the station. Since the next bus to Muroran was around 40 minutes away we decided to try our luck again and hitch hike. It paid off, and we got a lift to the centre of Muroran before the bus arrived.
Muroran is quite an industrial town with a large harbour and a peninsula famous for whale watching. Unfortunately, it wasn’t whale season and all we were in town for was a cheap nights accommodation. We had time to find a yummy ramen shop near the train station and have dinner before we started our search. Our choice of accommodation was a manga kissa, where we rented a booth each for 9 hours for just 2000 yen plus membership fee (most hostels cost around 3000 yen pppn). This fee included free hot and cold drinks, showers and ice cream, which we helped ourselves to. The booths were small but big enough and comfy enough to get a good night’s sleep. Manga kissa are a truly Japanese phenomenon: they are a combination of library and internet cafe. As the name suggests, they offer a huge selection of manga comics (read thousands). They rent out different types of booths: some are just for reading, while others come with a tv and dvd player, pc and or video consoles. Some kissas even have karaoke booths. More active customers can chose between table tennis, dart or billiard. Despite the slight lack of privacy (both walls are only about 1.70m high and cannot be locked) they are definitely a good and cheap last minute option in Japan.
The next morning we failed to hitch a ride to Toya, so we boarded the bus to Date and then a second to Toya onsen instead. We knew Toya onsen had a few large hotels with onsens, along with some nice walking routes, so that was really the main reason for a journey there. What we hadn’t expected was to be plunged into a history of volcanoes which has saved lives all over the world. The volcano responsible for the development of our current monitoring technologies is Mount Usu. The first seismometers were installed here around 1910 and collected data about the behaviour of Mount Usu. It sits on the coast separating Toya town from Toya lake (Toyako) where we were staying. Like all onsen towns it’s not cheap to stay but we felt it was much more than just an onsen town. Mount Usu was a dormant volcano, but became active around 1600, and remains so to this day. It generally erupts every 20-50 years with the two most significant recent eruptions being in 1910, 1977 and 2000. The eruptions in 1910 led to the discovery of hot springs and the creation of Toyako onsen by the side of the Lake Toya. Lake Toya is a caldera lake and comes complete with 5 volcanic islands at it’s centre. Mount Usu’s latest eruption in 2000 caused massive devastation of Toyako onsen and significant changes to the landscape which we got the chance to explore. One of the changes was that a section of the ground rose by 70m while creating graben fault line next to it. It also created new craters which, together with the uplifted land, cut off to road to Toya; leaving some houses on its side cut off (our hotel was one of them). Since then, they got re-connected and even got their own bus stop.
Our first day was a little rainy but gradually cleared up giving us the chance for a lake side walk and footbath in one of the free hot springs. There are only a few small walking trails around Toyako onsen but each of them tells a story of the areas history both im Japanese and English. Our first walk took us through the forest and over Showa shinsen, one of the newest lava cryptodomes before descending towards Toyako via some fumaroles (steaming holes in the ground) and some of the newest craters. On our way back to the hotel we took a walk up through one of the valleys where mudslides damaged houses, kindergarten buildings and also removed bridges. They are all still in situ as memorials to the damage a volcano can cause. It was eerie to see apartments filled with mud and dented where a road bridge was washed into the block. Thankfully, no one was killed in 2000, but the eruption did prompt the building of dams to slow mud flow and channels to protect the resort areas. Climbing over the dams, we reached a crater top which had just suddenly appeared and become a beautiful crater lake. At the top of the trail we reached our hotel for the night and checked in. Our hosts were lovely and offered to take us back down to town for dinner, where they recommended a hotel restaurant. We both instantly thought of cost before our host revealed it was a one coin restaurant. They had a small selection for ¥500 but also more refined and expensive options. We chose a set meal of pork with rice and ramen and paid just 1000 yen for 2 huge portions. It just shows local knowledge is very important.
The next day we had another small trail to follow, to see how a new fault line had emerged and created a graben (stepped fault). This fault was just a few hundred meters from our accommodation and had created a lake and turned a downhill road into an uphill road. The information signs showing old photos allowed us to compare how much the earth’s crust has changed and the images were pretty humbling. The deserted roads and buildings were better than any words to describe the effects a volcano can have on people’s lives. It was also fascinating to see how movable the land was and what can be created, such as a 70m hill where the land was once flat. Once the hail showers started, we returned to our hotel a little soggy for a break. Matthias picked up a hard boiled egg which had been grilled on hot stones and had a fairly smoky smell but it tasted delicious. We walked down to the town expecting more rain with the plan to visit the museum of volcanic science. Luckily, the sun came out so we stayed dry and had a nice wander around town, before settling on a burger restaurant for a late lunch. Later we visited the volcano science museum which informed us with even more information about volcanoes. It’s divided into two parts; a free section about volcanoes, Toyako and the national park and an exhibition on volcano science costing ¥600. We opted to be cheapskates and felt we got plenty of free information to peruse.
Overall our time in Shikotsu-Toya national park was very interesting and even though we only put our feet into the hot spring water we felt fairly rejuvenated.