The JR Hokuto line reaches the southern coast of Hokkaido an hour after its departure from Sapporo Station. Snow in the region has all but disappeared under a sun persistent enough to melt spring back into the coastline. It is still January, I caution myself. If anything, my recent journey to Otaru has taught me a lesson about this island – it is colder than it appears.
A few more minutes of coastline train ride leads me to my destination, Noboribetsu. Noboribetsu is a small town at the edge of Hokkaido’s southwestern seaboard. It is surrounded by mountains to the west and north. In the winter, this place receives snow in prodigious quantities. But due to its unique topography, they would occasionally melt, especially near the coast where the land is low.
Radiating sapphire blue, the majestic Pacific Ocean reflects against the milky texture of the sprawling clouds. Gusts of wind blast through like invisible veils against the scores of seagulls over the cliffs.
Noboribetsu is widely admired for its exceptional onsen. Its volcanic range produces over 11 different types of thermal water, featuring a rich variety of mineral contents like sulphur, salt, iron, and radium. In winter, they flow out of the mountain steaming hot, forming low bands of sulphuric mist above the barren rocks. Many take advantage of this hellish phenomenon by following the water downstream, where the temperature is more pleasant, to enjoy natural foot baths.
Being a devotee of rotenburo, or outdoor onsen, there is no way I would pass up the chance to dip into one of those blissful soup. A seven-kilometre hike north would take me to Daiichi Takimotokan, one of the best rotenburos in Japan. It has zen-like rock pools perched on a ledge with a magnificent view of Noboribetsu mountain range. Imagine being cocooned by an outdoor hot spring in winter, as the naked body harmonize in unison with a divine snowscape over a tranquil sunset – that is simply too hard to walk away from.
Still, there is a place I should explore before hiking up to the onsen – the Ayoro Coast. Located at the opposite side to the onsen, this site is a road much less traveled. Ayoro Coast, which is part of the southern shoreline of Hokkaido, borders the Pacific Ocean and is practically deserted in winter. Its breathtaking beauty is undeservedly ignored by the torrents of travellers who arrives the town fixated on one thing and one thing only – get into the onsen as soon as possible.
Getting to the shoreline requires a hike over a mountain and down a steep trail that is often blocked by snow. Fortunately, snow around the sea level has been melting, so the weather is on my side. The hike is more taxing than expected. Even with winter boots I walk carefully, exerting even pressure to avoid slipping on the black ice. Tall straw bushes line the sides of the trail like golden walls. And gentle streams, the water still half frozen, echo quietly through the mountain, leading me forward with their gleaming reflections.
Imagine being cocooned by an outdoor hot spring in winter, as the naked body harmonize in unison with a divine snowscape over a tranquil sunset – that is simply too hard to walk away from.
Around two thirds of the way up the trail I see the lighthouse. Here the trail narrows as the wild straws grow oppressively tall. I am now on the final ascend. As sweat begins to roll down my face, I advance up the steep, slippery slope. Turning a final corner amid dehydration, I emerge onto the peak dominated by a wild, spectacular landscape.
Radiating sapphire blue, the majestic Pacific Ocean reflects against the milky texture of the sprawling clouds. Gusts of wind blast through like invisible veils against the scores of seagulls over the cliffs. An immeasurable distance away, a dot of sun blazes a blinding trail of reflection on the waters to the west.
I stand in awe, enthralled by the vastness of the sea, the infinity of the sky, and the grandeur of the land. I quietly partake this sight nature has bestowed upon me. At this moment, which precious few before me has experienced, I reach a deeper awareness of our insignificance, and the immortality of nature.
At last, I start my descend onto the shore. So incredible are the cold ocean that the snow in my hands seems cozily warm. Sheltered against the cliff, I now listen to the rhythm of the waves as they hit the rocks along the coastline. I know it is time for me to hike back for the onsen. But all of the sudden, it doesn’t seem so urgent anymore.