Friday, November 20, 2015

Hokkaido Autumn Guide: Koyo-chasing (fall foliage) in Jozankei, Hoheikyo Dam, Porotokotan and Noboribetsu!

This is one post of a multi-part series covering our Two weeks Tokyo & Hokkaido Travel Guide:
    ▫ Singapore Airlines Suites Class from Singapore to Tokyo
    ▫ Three Days in Tokyo: Off the Beaten Path
    ▫ Sapporo, Otaru and Cape Kamui: Scenic Self-Drive Guide
    ▫ Furano, Biei, Sounkyou and Asahikawa: Amazing Autumn Colours
    ▫ Jozankei, Noboribetsu and Hakodate: Unparalleled Beauty
    ▫ Scoot's ScootBiz Class from Tokyo to Singapore

Initially, we hadn't planned on staying the night in Sapporo; we wanted, instead, to pamper ourselves at a nice ryokan in the hot spring town of Jozankei Onsen. The spirit is willing but the bank account is weak, though, so we checked ourselves into Route-Inn Sapporo Chuo and used Sapporo as a day-trip base camp.

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Route Inn Sapporo Chuo

The plan is to day-trip to the nearby Hoheikyo Dam, one of Hokkaido's most stunning autumn leaf viewing spots, followed by a couple of hours of day-use hot spring at Jozankei Onsen, before heading back to Sapporo for the night. We'd then head south, stopping at Shiraoi and Noboribetsu Onsen on our way to our final city/destination this trip: the port town of Hakodate.

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Jozankei Hoheikyo Dam Shiraoi Noboribetsu

We've got a plan; and the plan looks good, so let's go ahead and execute!

It's pretty amusing how people react to the word 'free.' We initially wanted to head to either the Curb or Nijo markets for yet more 海鮮丼 (KaisenDon) for breakfast, but that plan went out the window the moment we found out the hotel provided free breakfast.

OK, it's true that the breakfast isn't really free, it's factored into the room rate, but you get the point.

Anyway, for a business hotel with a room rate barely above ¥10,000, the breakfast was surprisingly substantial, with the usual mix of Western-Japanese items.

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Route Inn Sapporo Chuo buffet breakfast

Suitably fuel'ed up for the day ahead, we start up the car and head over to the Jozankei Onsen area, slightly over an hour's drive away. Jozankei Onsen and the surrounding sights are close enough to Sapporo that apparently many residents consider it part of the Sapporo area. Sort of a 'greater Sapporo' designation, and not a separate city/location in itself.

Anyways, our first destination isn't the onsen town, but rather Hoheikyo Dam. Annoyingly, the public car park is about a full kilometre away. ¥620 buys you a return journey on one of the many electric buses travelling to the dam, but we decide to be cheapskates and walk through the tunnels instead!

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Hoheikyo Dam Tunnel

Whether you decide to walk or take the bus, you'll eventually end up at the dam itself, which is indescribably gorgeous at this time of year. We'll let the photos do the talking:

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Hoheikyo Dam
Hokkaido Autumn Guide Hoheikyo Dam
Hokkaido Autumn Guide Hoheikyo Dam
Hokkaido Autumn Guide Hoheikyo Dam

Aside from the breathtaking views, there's a visitor's center where you can read up in more detail of the dam's specifications and which has an extensive collection of preserved butterflies, beetles and other insects found around the area; and a cafe on the hill where you can sip a beer and eat genghis khan while overlooking the dam.

Hokkaido's Autumn weather can be quite finicky: It can be clear blue skies one minute, and cloudy the next. Just as we're winding up our visit the winds pick up and it starts to rain, so we double tail it back through the tunnels to our parked car, ending up partially soaked. Being cold and wet isn't fun at all, so we make the decision to visit a hot spring at one of the resorts at neighbouring Jozankei Onsen.

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Jozankei Onsen

We semi-randomly settled on Shogetsu Grand Hotel, which charges slightly under ¥2,000 for day-entry plus towel rental to its hot spring. It's a lovely place: There are both indoor and outdoor pools, and a unique hinoki (Japanese Cypress) wood pool which imparts aromas of the forest to the hot water.

Oh and if you're wondering, a room for two inclusive of breakfast and dinner goes for about ¥31,000.

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Jozankei Onsen Shogetsu Grand Hotel
Photo courtesy of Shogetsu Grand Hotel

With the wind and rain chill out of our bones we head out to explore the town! It's a pretty charming place (if a little small), and rather uniquely has a number of public foot baths where you can soak your feet in hot spring water. Not entirely sure how you'd dry off before putting your socks and shoes back on, though.

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Jozankei Onsen
Hokkaido Autumn Guide Jozankei Onsen

Once we're done exploring we head back to Sapporo, to catch an early dinner at Daruma Honten! This joint serves up one of the best Genghis Khan (charcoal-grilled lamb on a cast-iron dome) in town. It's a small restaurant, thought, and is so popular that there are easily queues of a few dozen people during peak dining hours.

Unless, like us, you show up close to their 5:00pm opening time :)

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Genghis Khan Daruma Honten

For a full review of the restaurant head on over to our guide to eight foods you must eat in Hokkaido.

The agenda for the rest of the night: Window shopping at Pole Town, Tanukikoji and Mitsukoshi's depachika, and a soak in the hotel's hot tub while waiting for our laundry to dry.

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Laundromat

After a restful sleep full of dreams of charcoal-grilled lamb fat, we wake up, have breakfast, and set out on the drive to Noboribetsu, with a pit stop at Shiraoi. We're here to check out Porotokotan, an Ainu museum.

Ainu? Well, the Ainu were the indigenous people of Hokkaido before, you know, the Japanese integrated them into the Japanese language, culture, and way of life. The Ainu culture is pretty much gone from any of the major cities, surviving only in museums like this one.

Having said that ... we found porotokotan to be somewhat underwhelming. There's a museum building, a few cages for dogs and bears, 5 or so traditional Ainu huts, and a 20-30 minute Ainu-way-of-life performance that's explained exclusively in Japanese. ¥800 entry fee for adults.

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Porotokotan
Hokkaido Autumn Guide Porotokotan

Journeying on, then, the town of Noboribetsu Onsen, where we first head to the Noboribetsu Bear Park! Entry (including parking and a cable car ride up the hill) comes up to almost ¥5,000 per person, so it's not the cheapest attraction around.

What's waiting for you on the top is a small, and honestly rather pathetic mini-Ainu museum on one side of the park. The other side's much more interesting, though! There's a small enclosure with a few cute baby Hokkaido Brown Bears ...

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Noboribetsu Bear Park

There's a mini race track for ducks ...

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Noboribetsu Bear Park

And a periodic mini dog show that isn't half bad.

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Noboribetsu Bear Park

The main attraction, though, are the two pits for the adult bears (separated by males and females). The park sells bags of carrots, salmon and biscuits which you can use to feed the bears!

Years of daily feedings by visitors mean that pretty much every single bear has its' own 'trick' to try and get your attention: Some beg, some stand, some wave and beckon, trying to get your attention (and the piece of salmon in your hand). It's a very impressive, if perhaps not exactly PETA-approved, spectacle.

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Noboribetsu Bear Park
Hokkaido Autumn Guide Noboribetsu Bear Park

Highly recommended if you have properly-aged kids. Or even if you don't.

We had lunch at the cafe at the Bear Park, which was a huge mistake - it's absolutely horrible. Ahem. Anyways, once we're done feeding the bears we head back down the mountain to explore the sights, sounds, and natural bubbling hot springs around Noboribetsu Onsen Town ...

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Noboribetsu Onsen
Hokkaido Autumn Guide Noboribetsu Onsen

... and finally head to one of the most striking locations in Hokkaido: Jigokudani! This literally means 'hell valley,' and is so named because all the natural hot springs bubbling to the surface fill the area with spouts of steam and stench of sulfur.

There are also a number of trails suitable for beginners and the unfit, and are a great way to explore the surrounding area's beauty.

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Noboribetsu Jigokudani
Hokkaido Autumn Guide Noboribetsu Jigokudani
Hokkaido Autumn Guide Noboribetsu Jigokudani
Hokkaido Autumn Guide Noboribetsu Jigokudani

After two or three hours of casual hiking and enjoying the fresh air, we check in to the best ryokan in the area: Dai-Ichi Takimotokan. It costs a relatively pricey ¥31,400 per night inclusive of buffet breakfast and in-room kaiseki dinner, but we think it's really worth the money.

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Noboribetsu Dai-Ichi Takimotokan

Why we say it's the best ryokan - it's got what is arguably the best indoor onsen in the whole of Japan. Both the men's and women's baths have pools with an unparalleled seven different types of water (well, water with different chemical compositions), and have a majestic view of the Hell Valley. Simply amazing.

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Noboribetsu Dai-Ichi Takimotokan

The in-room kaiseki dinner is served at a time of your choosing. It's quite therapeutic, after a long hot soak in the hot springs, to rest and relax in the comfort of your room with a multi-course Japanese dinner. Food isn't all that great though, to be honest. Perhaps the logistics of cooking for a few hundred people at a time doesn't quite lend itself to really fine-dining quality.

Hokkaido Autumn Guide Noboribetsu Dai-Ichi Takimotokan Dinner
Hokkaido Autumn Guide Noboribetsu Dai-Ichi Takimotokan Dinner

Do check out our guide to eight foods you must eat in Hokkaido for more photos of the dinner.

With that, we conclude this part of our guide! Tomorrow, we head further down south to the port town of Hakodate, renowned the world over for freshness and quality of its seafood. Click here for the write-up!

And if you haven't read it already, do visit our previous post in this series for some amazing autumn colours in Sounkyo Onsen and Mount Kurodake.


  1. I really enjoy reading your postings and looking at all those beautiful pictures. Could you let me know what dates you visited the places mentioned in this post?


    1. Hi Nina, our travel dates were 4th-17th October.