NOBORIBETSU: I've been to hell and back - and it's actually quite nice this time of year.
On my parents' last weekend here we took a train down to Noboribetsu Onsen, a famous hot spring town. The park pictured is called Jigokudani, basically 'Hell Valley', a tumultuous topography of volcanic rock and spewing sulfur vents. For centuries the area has been seen as the place where Hell and Earth meet; delightfully cheesy Oni ('demon', devil) statues bedot the numerous walking paths, which wind through incredibly luscious decidious forest. Much of the vegetation here, actually, reminds me of that back home; now moving through fall, sharp patches of red, yellow, and brown are emerging amidst the unbelievably rich green of Hokkaido's forest, to quite beautiful effect. The sulfur, of course, made me a little lightheaded, but I think that only contributed to the whole experience.
Courtesy my folks, we stayed in the biggest, poshest hotel in all of Noboribetsu (a tourist town with MANY hotels). A lovely woman in a floral kimono walked us to our room and sat down to tea with us while she explained the hotel amenities! An amenity to which I was most amenable was the hotel's MASSIVE onsen (hot spring bath). This was my first onsen, and I was most pleasantly surprised. (Onsen are where you go in and get naked with everybody. Today, most onsen are seperated by sex, though this hasn't long been the case.) Two floors held about 10 baths of different temperatures and 'healing properties', as well as several other interesting features: primarily, the indescribably soothing 15-foot waterfall-stream-massager, where you sit on a marble block at the bottom and let the steady plop and platter of drops and splatter ply your head and shoulders till the aches of the day are gone. Then there was the walking loop, with about 4 inches of cold water to help chill you between soaks. Periodically on the loop appear out of the tile contoured foot massagers that heal you from the bottom up. Perhaps my favourite, though, were the outdoor tubs, where the cool air and night sky breeze by you, and the warm water enwombs you.
We also hopped up a tram lift to check out the view of a perfectly circular crater lake, circumference 1 km. It is an interesting feature of all Hokkaido maps, and much cooler than I could make it sound. Atop the mount we also viewed the inhabitants of the Noboribetsu Bear Museum, a combination live-action, real-thing zoo and informational, dead and stuffed museum. Bears are amazing creatures. They are huge. They have so much personality. They are beautiful. Seeing them was enjoyable.
Yet, as with Maruyama Zoo (and perhaps all zoos), the living conditions left a great deal to be desired. I am left with mixed memories. The most prominent involve "The Human Cage," where you can stand in a little room and drop nuts through little slots, as the bears eagerly bang up against the window, and follow the shadows of your hand on the glass, hoping for their next treat. Outside people taunted the bears with nuts to make them stand upright and clap their hands. The bears might not have pride, but somehow it still felt demeaning. So, yea, mixed memories.
In an inexplicable strip next to the bear park lay 4 or 5 traditional Ainu grass huts (Ainu: Indigenous population of Hokkaido, basically iradicated or assimilated since the Meiji era, 1860's). Pretty near every single city and town in Hokkaido has some or other "Ainu Museum," which is a great tribute to efforts in cultural revitalization, and, perhaps, sometimes, just a little bit of a less than exhillarating money grab. Regardless, the dried-grain houses were remarkably ingenuitive, and much of the authentic assemblage was interesting to see.
OTARU: The weekend previous, we went to Otaru for just a day, and by no means did we explore all the activites and sites. Still, it was a nice visit. Otaru is a small city an hour's train southwest of Sapporo. The town, an unremarkable harbour on the ocean, has an undeniably beautiful cannal, surrouned by moss-laced brick and stone heritage buildings, many upwards of 150 years ago. We watched a tourist help make some blown glass - a fascinating and elegant process - and were content to peruse the numerous glassware shops. Other than that, we just walked around the town, which is a mind-boggling mix of old and new, touristy and industrial, fascinating and downright ugly.
JOZANKEI: I also haven't mentioned Jozankei, where we went two weekends ago. Jozankei is another onsen town, much smaller, just on the southern outskirts of Sapporo. There were two main features of interest: first, a pretty park in the centre of town with a small walking path and, delightfully, a stone-lined foot-bath where you can soak your feet and chat with the friendly fellow soakers.
Second: an unattended Shinto shrine that has an ordinary looking door at the back. A little box quietly asks for 300 yen. The door leads to a 200 metre, narrow tunnel dug into the side of the mountain. Dim lighting and dripping water aid the mysterious and mystical aeshetic as you wind through the tunnel. Dug into the sides of the tunnel are 30 or so alcoves that house small altars with intricate statues of religious characters (none of whom I knew anything about). The whole thing was... weird. I can't really convey.
SAPPORO: Just briefly, I wanted to mention that some of the most enjoyable wandering was within the city limits. Sapporo has several stunningly beautiful and serene parks scattered throughout, as well as tourist attractions like museums, galleries, and the TV Tower at the centre of town. The most wonderful thing, though, are the surrounding mountains and the way they hug the city. Please check out my flikr for a more in-depth profile.