Sleeper train to the hot springs - Japan
On an early November night I set off from Tokyo to Japan's northern island, Hokkaido. The gardens of Tokyo were still autumnal red but in the north it had started to snow. I was on a journey to visit Hokkaido's onsens (hot springs) where sinking into the steaming water is the perfect foil for the cold air. I had rejected flying north or getting the faster bullet train in favour of the 16 hour sleeper Hokutosei. I love sleeper trains in the winter, they make me feel cocooned, cosy and like a character in a Hercule Poirot mystery. My sleeping cabin was spotless with complimentary Japanese slippers and dressing gown. On board there were piping hot showers (that you can use after buying a 6 minute token), a velvety red dining cabin and a lounge car playing Mamma Mia on loop. I slept as the train crept north and, in the morning, having crossed under the sea to Hokkaido, woke to snow and spectacular coastal views.
From Sapporo, the Otaru Ryotei Kuramure, is a short local train ride away. Designed by Makato Nakayama and fusing the traditional Otaru warehouse architecture with the comfort of a luxurious ryokan, Kuramure pipes water from the Asarigawa onsen into the deep private bathtub in each room and the public baths. The open air bath is gently lit and faces onto the nearby hillside with a carefully placed frosted pane which protects passing walkers from seeing your pink bits without detracting from the view. It's open until midnight and nothing can beat lying in the piping hot water catching glimpses of the stars through the snowflakes.
Further south, the onsens of touristy Noboribetsu are fed by Jigokudani (or "Hell where the trolls live"), a furious sulphuric cauldron. I hiked to Lake Oyanuma which was created after an eruption from the steamingly active volcano Mount Hiroyiami. From the lake, I followed a river through dense forest to a natural footbath. Walking deeper, I realised that I had escaped the tourists and, peeping through the volcanic fog, I wouldn't have been surprised to see a dinosaur stomp past.
Winter is ideal for a journey north into Hokkaido: eating crab fresh from the icy Japan Sea; gazing out of the window as your train hugs the wild coastline and, as you reach your destination, the welcoming sign of onsen steam rising from the snow.
- www.japanrail.com gives timetable and price information on most tran services in Japan including the Hokutosei.
- One crucial fact about the Oyado Kuramure that I have saved until last is that once you are there the drinks are free. From single malt's (I tried not to abuse this too much, really I did) to carefully chosen Sake, you can snuffle down in the warmth of the library or with an LP in the listening room and sip and watch the snow and sip and sip.....www.kuramure.com
- In Noboribetsu, I stayed at the Oyado Kiyomizuya which isn't quite as garish as some of the other hotels and has some very nice baths. www.kiyomizuya.co.jp
- I flew from London Heathrow direct to Tokyo Narita airport with British Airways. www.britishairways.com
- Sapporo is crab city. You can have them on ramen noodles at one of the tiny restaurants in Ramen Alley or have the delicious 6 course king a queen crab-a-thon at Hyosetsu-no-mon (telephone number - 011 5213046)
- This is an edited extract from a blog following my bathing journey through Japan from Kyoto to Hokkaido. You can read the full blog at www.japan-dippingmytoein.blogspot.com or for an excellent insight into traditional japanese bathing check out Eric Talmadge's book "Getting wet: Adventurers in the Japanese bath".