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  • Writer's pictureKimberly OLeary

"Up North" in Japan: the relaxed vibe & natural beauty of Hokkaido

Paul & I have lived many places during our 39-year marriage, but we lived the longest in Michigan - over 20 years. In Michigan, when you want to relax, you go, "Up North." Depending on how far north you live in Michigan, "Up North" is anywhere from the middle part of the lower peninsula to the upper part of the upper peninsula. And if you want "True North," you go to Canada! We have made many trips "up north" to take in the natural beauty, the relaxed vibe, and an annual autumn leaf tour. After five weeks in Osaka (with a one-week interlude in Shikoku), we left the island of Honshu and traveled "Up North" to Hokkaido - Japan's northernmost of it's main islands.

You can get there from Osaka by train, bus, automobile (including a ferry) and plane. We opted to fly. Our relaxation started at the airport where we had drinks, lunch, and a lovely piece of chocolate cake. Although we might have been served by a robot waiter, sadly, we were not (but we did see it delivering other orders). Flying in Japan is pretty inexpensive - our flight to Hokkaido on domestic airline Peach cost $232 for both of us one-way from Osaka. This included an extra legroom upgrade and 3 checked bags. However, we had to add the cost of a taxi from the Osaka airport to our first destination, Noboribetsu-onsen, to visit "Hell Valley" & indulge in it's famous hot springs. The taxi was pricey at $145 (it was an hour away); we could have taken a bus at a much lower price, but we always indulge in a taxi on travel days as our trade-off for having several big bags. Total cost to get there: $377 USD.

And, we were treated to a lovely sunset with mountains on one side and ocean on the other.

We stayed at the Dai-Ichi Takimotokan, the most highly rated onsen hotel in the area. Paul wanted to splurge. He had been to Hokkaido several times in the 1980's, when he worked for Delco designing engine controls for Isuzu cars that would be sold in the United States. He did cold weather testing in Hokkaido in the winter - driving the test cars in the snow. He returned to Hokkaido in 2019 with our children (you can see pictures of that trip here), and visited the region, going into one onsen (hot springs) while they were there. But, even though he traversed Noboribetsu each time, he had never stayed at an onsen hotel. We chose to stay three nights. We couldn't get a Western-style room (the hotels are very popular there in October, November, and into the winter months) so we stayed in a Japanese style room. Sleeping on the floor causes some difficulties for us, more me than Paul, and mostly getting up and down. We just don't have the upper-leg muscles that most Japanese people have. Paul suffers from the stiff joints of arthritis, and my hip bursitis makes laying on my side, on the floor, painful at times. But we felt it was worth it. When we checked in, and the English-speaking clerk, a man about our age, noticed we were staying in a Japanese room, he said, "Thank you for trying our way of life."

The itinerary for an onsen hotel visit is basically, "Eat, onsen, eat." Getting the all-you-can-eat meal package (breakfast & dinner) is highly recommended, and we did that. The first night, we dined on crab (regional specialty), and other combinations of Japanese & western foods, looking out over a beautiful garden. We had a sake flight. We tried on the yukata - onsen hotels provide yukata for all patrons, and in some places you can tell which hotel people are staying in by the yukata pattern. This hotel had a lovely green pattern that Paul is wearing in the photo below. Most Japanese people, we are told, put on the yukata when they get there and basically stay in it, going in and out of the hot springs, the entire time they are there. The XL fit Paul, but it was too small for my hips. Fortunately, Paul had given me a tailor-made silk yukata in 1988, which I had altered over the years, and it fit me well.

Over the next few days, we visited the onsen pools. Dai-Ichi Takimotokan has pools that date back to the late 19th century. There are more than a half dozen pools inside, with a large window view of the mountainside, and four pools outside, with lovely garden views. In Japan, men & women soak separately. You go into the appropriate dressing room, you put everything into a locker except one small towel, then you go into a bathing area, naked, and wash with soap and water. Then, you go into the pool. People with tattoos are generally asked to cover them with patches you can buy in many stores. The pools had different temperatures, different chemicals (salt in some, sulphur in some) and different features (a heavy waterfall effect, for example, in one to pound out kinks in your back and neck). After 3 days of "eat, onsen, eat", even I was relaxed. There are no photos allowed in the onsen areas.

We strolled along the streets of Noboribetsu-onsen, & ate light lunches there. The valley is named "Hell Valley" because the hot springs and steam gave rise to a legend of demons living in the mountains. You see little demons everywhere, often holding little towels to go to onsen! The giant clubs are meant to be used by the demons.

We hiked in the surrounding national park. We were unable to hike the lower trails, closer to the bubbling pools, because the river had flooded the night before. Our hotel basement was flooded and staff worked non-stop for two days to clean it and make the facilities available to guests. I was impressed by how hard they worked, but below the radar. Some of the staff never left the main areas, assuring that guests were not bothered by the muddy mess.

Here you can see how the hotel is nestled into the mountainside. The onsen pools face the mountains.

On the third day, we checked out of the hotel and traveled to Upopoy, the National Ainu Museum. We spent the day at this wonderful institution, learning about the history and culture of Japan's oldest indigenous culture, the Ainu people in Japan. The culture dates back over a thousand years, where people traveled south from what is now Russia. It has a long history and, like many indigenous cultures, was conquered by other more dominant cultures and the language almost died. However, in 2009 major efforts were made to keep the language alive, and in 2019 the Japanese government recognized the Ainu culture under the UN declaration for the rights of indigenous peoples. We highly recommend a visit to this museum and park.

After visiting Upopoy, we traveled to Sapporo. We were treated to beautiful views of villages, mountains, ocean, and another sunset. We saw a lot of solar arrays along the way.

We spent the next 3 days/4 nights in Sapporo. We stayed at a Travelodge in the heart of the city. The room was very small, but the western bed was welcome. At about $67 USD per night, we had only the basics, but that was fine. We found Sapporo to be a walkable, friendly city with beautiful parks, a large shopping arcade, great food and the best coffee we've had in Japan, Baristart. The site of the 1972 winter Olympics, you can see the Olympic rings. We ate in "ramen alley," at a small izakaya sampling Sapporo's signature miso-based ramen broth. We had crab at a crab/sushi place in the arcade. We had seafood with rice. &Sapporo beer. It was all delicious. And, we had a Halloween-themed "high tea" at a hotel. Walking around, we found the pace to be noticeably slower than in Osaka. At the end of our week in Hokkaido, we were truly relaxed.