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Hotel Review: Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

Hotel Review: Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

Half board, Yukata, and Japanese baths at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel – Review

If you read my last post for my one day itinerary of Noboribetsu, you will remember that I mentioned staying at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel. This is my review of my stay and also my experience with the different facilities in the hotel. I hope you find this helpful in deciding where to stay while in Noboribetsu Onsen.

Booking Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

I did my reservation on Expedia. For those joining us for the first time, I have always been an advocate of Expedia more than that of Agoda. The reason here being that I tend to get the best rates from Expedia thanks to their highly generous price guarantee programme. Unlike Agoda, Expedia appears to normally not only match the lower price but refund you the difference. So for example you booked a room for USD125 on Expedia and discover a similar room going for USD100. Expedia will refund you USD50 (USD25 to match and another USD25). If you would like to know more, you can read about it here. That said, Agoda sometimes offer pretty good rates especially through their secret deal programme. I covered some Agoda travel hacks in my other post where I teach you how to “cheat” when using their secret deal feature.

Interestingly, the hotel offers something called “half board”. Noboribetsu Grand Hotel offers a dinner package on top of the usual morning breakfast. This I believe is for the benefit of the hotel’s guests as Noboribetsu Onsen is really out of the way and there are not many restaurants able to cater to the large number of tourists visiting the area. When I booked, I had no idea what this “half board” will be like. Fortunately for you, I documented by dinner (with loads of photos) and will be sharing them with you below.    

Good Location for Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

The hotel is ideally located being about 200m from the bus stop where you will be dropped off when coming in from Noboribetsu Station. The hotel is prominently located and is easy to spot once you get off the bus. There is therefore no need to worry of getting out your maps/phone to find your way and/or the hassle of dragging your luggage around the small town.

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While walking over to the hotel, try to see if you can make out the slight smell of sulphur in the air!

Checking-in at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

Check-in time is 3pm. The hotel staff at Noboribestu Grand Hotel appears to be very particular with this. Unlike other hotels that will process your check-in and then inform you to return at a later time to collect your keys, staff here appear to not entertain any such check-ins. Instead, they will politely inform you of the check-in time and ask if you would like to deposit your luggage with them. We just dropped our luggage with them before heading out for our lunch and visiting Hell Valley, Oyunuma Pond and also the Oyunuma River Foot Bath.

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By the time we were done with our foot baths at Oyunuma River Foot Bath and having walked back to the hotel, it was already 4.20pm. We proceeded to the reception for our check-in. The staff spoke good English and it check-in was quick. We were asked to select our dining slot. Apparently, this hotel splits its dinner timing into two blocks: 5.30pm to 7pm and 7.30pm to 9pm. This may be to help facilitate with crowd control and ensure that the restaurant isn’t too pack.

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We decided to go for the earlier slot as this would free up the rest of the evening for us to enjoy the Japanese Baths provided at the hotel.

Rooms at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

Wow! This room was much larger than the one we had stayed at while in Hakodate. Although a bit dated, the room was spacious. We did not get the feeling that we had to squeeze past each other and/or get around our luggage to move about the room. The sheets were clean and the beds soft. The room also had the expected writing desk, beverage area and an in-room safe.

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One interesting observation I had would be how the toilets/bathroom are done up in the rooms. Having travelled quite a bit, I have not seen a prefabricated toilet/bathroom installed in a hotel room. However, it appears to be the norm at least in all the hotels I stayed while in Japan. You will notice that the bathrooms look out of place and often not flushed against the floor of the room being slightly elevated. While not a major point, it still marks something unique. 

Speaking of uniqueness, for those travelling to Japan expect to be amazed by their butt washing technology. Most of their modern toilets are equipped with special toilet seats that come with washlets. Washlets have heated toilet seats and also water spray technology that helps wash sensitive parts. I assure you that water results in a much cleaner surface than plain old toilet paper. The heated seats felt great especially in the morning. No more cold shocks!

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Other than the usual green tea bags, the hotel doesn’t offer any other beverages. There are, however, vending machines out along the corridor and also at the ground floor where the gaming machines are located. Yes, there are slot machines in the hotel. For a sure-win machine, be sure to try out the drinks and ice cream vending machine. These “slots” offer a 100% win rate!    

Before I forget, the rooms have each a stack of yukatas of varying sizes. There is a sheet explaining how to wear and also the corresponding sizes for different height ranges. Girlfriend insisted we wear that for dinner ><. The instructions are self-explanatory. However, the only things left unsaid was what do you wear beneath your yukata and also how to tie the belt. For me, I went with a pair of shorts (for some sense of decency) and I decided to recall from memory the knot I used to tie for my judo gis. I thought the knot would be appropriate (well… they are all Japanese belts and knots right?).

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Dinner Service / Half Board at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

We were down at the Grand Hall at 5.30pm sharp and there was a queue already. I soon found out why.

Dinner service is actually a buffet service. So it made sense to go early to maximise your allocated 1.5 hours. The spread is wide so take your time to go scout for the good stuff. Once you are done, join the queue and collect your plates, chopsticks and utensils before eating your money’s worth. Some of the better items would be the sushi, the crabs, tempura (did you know tempura is a portuguese dish?), the roast beef section and also the desserts. I shall let my photos do the talking:

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Cheese melting station – Where chef melts a whole block of cheese and drizzle some of that goodness on roasted potatoes

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All in all, the food was pretty good. Don’t expect anything outstanding though.

While there are service stands pouring out beers on tap, do not be tricked into believing it is part of the dinner. Alcoholic beverages are additional items. Poor me was “forced” to buy two drinks as I felt too embarrassed to cancel my orders for fear of appearing to be a cheapo.The drinks, in any event, per affordable.

Japanese Baths at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

This was one of the more authentic baths I have experienced so far. Authentic here refers to the type of baths on offer. If you read my post on my half day Bangkok Itinerary, you will have read about me soaking in a “Japanese” onsen while in Bangkok. I had also tried out Korean baths while in Seoul and Busan last year.

The actual bath experience is about the same. You can’t really bathe differently can you?

But what sets these baths apart is the type of baths offered. The baths in Bangkok and Korea either used ordinary water or water artificially enhanced with minerals. The onsen at Noboribetsu taps into the natural sulphur rich waters in the region and is evident from the cloudy greyish brown colour of the water. The onsen also offers the more typical salt baths and also iron baths (pools filled with water rich in iron). Each type of bath has own benefits but since we are in Noboribetsu, I decided to soak longer in the sulphur baths.

One awesome feature at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel’s onsen is its outdoor baths. The hotel offers both indoor baths and outdoor baths. I encourage everyone to try the outdoor baths. Brave the cold, run out nude before dipping into that soul comforting hot pool. The experience is truly enjoyable and beyond words. Just imagine the temperature being close to 0 and you just laze about in the warm pool with snow falling all about you. Perfect.

I will explain in another post how such baths work for those interested. It is really an eye opening experience especially for visitors not used to nude bathing!

Breakfast at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

Breakfast was again at the Grand Hall. However, unlike dinner service, there are no specified time slots for breakfast (i.e. No split service). Instead, breakfast is from 7-9am. The spread is wide with the usual (bread, yogurt, sausages for a more Western oriented breakfast and porridge, miso, rice for a more Oriental breakfast). Okay, that was an understatement. The spread is quite varied as is evident from the photos below. Nothing too spectacular but do keep an eye out for the Natto beans.

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I think this is one unique item on the buffet spread. Natto beans are fermented soybeans. The way you prepare Natto beans is to pour soy sauce (yes, let it soak in its own essence) over it and give it a good mix. It will become all slimy and sticky. Pop that goo over a hot bowl of rice and it’s ready to eat. Taste wise, it tastes better than it looks. Just make sure you have a napkin to wipe away that goo on your lips!

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Onsen Eggs

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Checking out and heading back to Noboribetsu Station

Checking out was easy. The staff had no difficulty in locating my bill from the previous night. I was in and out within 3 minutes. Heading over to the bus station took another 3 minutes.

And we were stuck.

We had forgotten to check the bus schedule and had to wait. So, please either check the timing the day before when you arrived or pop by to the station after your hike. Beats waiting at the station with your luggage.

For those headed to Sapporo, there is a bus service from Noboribetsu. 1.5 hours if I’m not wrong. You can consider this if you don’t already have a rail pass activated.

For us, it was back to the railway station and on the next Sapporo bound train.

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1 Day Noboribetsu Itinerary – What to do and see while in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

1 Day Noboribetsu Itinerary – What to do and see while in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

This is my one day itinerary covering Noboribetsu. Noboribetsu is a small town strategically located between Sapporo and Hakodate and makes for a good layover for travellers going from one city to another. The town is rather quiet and laid back and the main attraction is to experience Hell’s valley, a place so desolate that it is befitting of Dante’s circles of hell. Join me as I experience walking in Hell’s own valley. Just before your mind  starts playing tricks on you, the Onsen dates back to the Edo period and only started to play up the hell theme now. The Onsen traditionally had no links to the demons and devils currently associated with it. But with all that sulphur smelling air, it does not require too much imagination to associate the place with hell.

Getting to Noboribetsu Onsen

Noboribetsu can be reached by train from either Sapporo or Hakodate via the Hakodate line. The train ride will take approximately two hours from Hakodate. Once you get off at the station, exit the platform and head out of the station. Look out for the bus stop on your right. There is a regular bus service that takes you to the onsen area. The fare is 340 yen and operates in the same manner as the trams in Hakodate (perhaps a similar system across Japan? As to how it works, I covered it in my other post here). So prepare your coins! If you don’t have exact change, there is a coin exchange machine built into the same payment box. Drop your 500/50 yen coins into the coin slot to have it broken down into 100s/10s. Once you have your exact change, make the necessary payment.

However, unlike the trams in Hakodate, the numbers on this bus’ ticket don’t jump in order; it appears that some stops share a similar ticket number. This caused some confusion as we had the impression that we were still far from the Onsen when in fact we had actually reached. If it helps explain this better, the screen at the front of the bus would display the price payable for each ticket number. We had expected there to be at least 10 fares displayed before reaching Noboribetsu Onsen as it is the eleventh stop for that route (the 10 fares corresponding to the 10 earlier stops). Instead, only six to seven fares were shown. The only indication we had reached was the fact that the fare payable for our ticket had risen to 340 yen. Please take note of this!

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Going to be a tight squeeze. So try to get a seat asap!

Lunch at Noboribetsu: What to eat

You will likely arrive in Noboribetsu Onsen around 1pm thereabout. Head over to your accommodations to deposit your your luggage as it will be too early for you to check in (it appears that 3pm is a common check-in time). With that out of the way, head over to the main shopping street (Gokuraku Shopping Street) for your lunch.

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Don’t expect to be surrounded by loads of eateries or be overwhelmed with choices. You are no longer in Sapporo/Hakodate anymore!

We went to a small eatery that is diagonally opposite of a Family Mart store. The place appears to be a bar serving simple but good food. We ordered Takoyaki (Octopus Balls), Seafood Okonomiyaki (a kind of Japanese Pancake) and a beef bowl. Although simple, the food tasted great! The stronger flavours offered a good break from the lighter tasting seafood bowls we ate while in Hakodate (if you haven’t read it yet, I shared my experience of visiting and eating in Hakodate’s morning market here).

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There are other food stalls along the road but some of them were closed. So have a look around and see what is available. You can consider trying ramen which I read is also pretty good.

Walk to Noboribetsu Hell Valley (Noboribetsu Jigokudani) – What to see and do

A short walk from Gokuraku Shopping Street is the Hell Valley (also known as Jigokudani) which surprisingly is a free attraction! No tickets required to visit the Hell Valley and its neighbouring attractions (i.e. Oyunuma Pond and Oyunuma River Foot Bath)

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Oyunuma Pond and River Oyunuma Foot Bath

Somehow, during my research, it appeared to me that most bloggers/travellers do not venture beyond the valley to the Oyunuma Pond and the Foot Bath area. Well, at least that was based on the blogs I read. Most visitors tend to keep to the valley as it is the most accessible.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the valley is perfectly fine a spot with pretty decent views of a land so barren from the volcanic activity in the region. However, the fact that it is highly accessible also means large hordes of tourists being let loose in the area.

Thankfully, it appears that Oyunuma Pond and also the River Oyunuma Foot Bath have eluded the tourists. Both attractions together make whole the entire Noboribetsu experience and should feature in your travel itinerary if you do visit Noboribetsu.

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The Hell Valley is at the bottom right. Take the green trail to the main crossing before taking the loop up to Oyunuma Pond and then towards the Foot Baths.

Don’t be put off by the map. Both attractions are actually within short walking distance from the Hell Valley. To reach the River Oyunuma Foot Bath from the Hell Valley via Oyunuma Pond would take approximately 1.5 hours with multiple stops along the way for photos. Just continue following the path and the directional signs placed along the route. The climb starts off pretty gentle before becoming physically demanding as gentle inclined slopes become replaced with steps. So for those who may have difficulty climbing, you might want to give yourself some extra time to take it slowly. Do take care especially when attempting the hike after a bout of wet weather. As the paths are mainly dirt paths, they become wet and muddy. At certain areas, the path becomes slippery from the wet mushy layer of dead leaves covering it. The hike is the toughest at the earlier stage as you climb up to a peak overlooking the pond. Thereafter the hike is mostly downhill:

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Oyunuma Pond is a huge body of water that is 50 degrees (metric) at its surface and 130 degrees (metric) at its deepest point. Take some time to wash the waters bubbling away from the thermal heat radiating from the earth’s molten core. Be mindful of the wind direction as a strong gust in the wrong direction will have you covered in a warm sulphur smelling mist!

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Once you are well soaked by the sulphur smelling mist, the Oyunuma River Foot Bath is about a 15 minutes walk away. Follow the sign and stay on the road. Do stop once a while and look back for a different perspective of Oyunuma Pond. Isn’t the view splendid?

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The pond is emptying out into a small river. This is the start of the Oyunuma River.

You will soon be diverted off the road and back onto a path down into the trees. This path will bring you right down by the edge of the river. The water is still hot but has cooled down considerably in the short distance it flowed since it last left the Oyunuma Pond. Keep following the river and you will spot a man made structure further downstream: A wooden platform parallel to the river. You reached the foot baths!

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The Oyunuma River Foot Bath offers a unique experience of being able to enjoy a natural hot spring right at its source in the middle of a forest. A truly authentic experience! The water temperature here is actually cooler than I expected it to be. If you been to a man made bath, you will be used to waters ranging from 37 degrees to 39 degrees. These waters would have likely been artificially heated back up to achieve such temperatures. Here, the foot bath feels slightly cooler than that. Well, maybe slightly above body temperature? I do suggest testing the water first before dipping in just in case sudden volcanic activity had heated the water up. The water depth here is shallow and you can wade in the river barefooted. Look out for the plastic sheets available on a nearby rack that you can sit on if you don’t want to get your pants wet or dirty.

 

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From the foot baths, it’s about a 10 minutes’ walk back to the edge of the town. Along the way, you may notice tourists bringing their own towels and making their way to the foot baths. If your accommodations are close to the edge of town, you can always consider popping by again later in the evening or early in the morning for a quiet soak.

This is my 1 day itinerary for Noboribetsu covering all the must sees and must dos while in Noboribetsu. If time permits, you may consider including in a visit to the bear park (which was closed for inspections when I was there). As to my dinner, I will cover it in another post where I will review my stay at the Grand Hotel in Noboribetsu and also its half board service. Be sure to look out for it in the coming days.

Bonus Content: Visiting Noboribetsu while on a budget

For those travelling on a budget, there is an alternative itinerary that you can consider that can help you save some money. Instead of staying one night at Noboribetsu Onsen, the other alternative is to make it a side trip on route to either Sapporo or Hakodate and have your luggage deposited at the station while you are there (there are both coin lockers and left luggage services). This will allow you to save on your accommodations as hotels at the Onsen area are typically more expensive than in the main cities.

Take an early train into Noboribetsu Station before 10am. This leaves you almost the entire day to explore Noboribetsu Onsen. You can visit the Hell Valley, Oyunuma Pond and the foot baths before heading back to Gokuraku Shopping Street for lunch. You can then for a small fee visit any one of the baths offered by the hotels and/or the public baths for a soak. Once you are done, you can then take the bus back to the train station, retrieve your luggage before heading to your intended destination.

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