My piano teacher friend, Mayumi, invited me to come along on an onsen (温泉) trip to the southern Hokkaido town of Shiraoi (白老), and we decided to do some sightseeing as well. Shiraoi has some pretty interesting sights to check out, especially in regard to its preservation of Ainu culture, but we missed all that and actually did sightseeing in the nearby town of Noboribetsu (登別). In hindsight, it would have made more sense to do the reverse, since Noboribetsu is one of the most famous onsen destinations in Japan, a place whose name is synonymous with hot springs. Oh well, there’s always next time.
On Wednesday December 28th, the plan was to check out Noboribetsu’s aquarium and then the volcanic vents at the source of the town’s natural hot springs, a place called Jigokudani (地獄谷 – “Hell Valley”). After that, it was off to a Shiraoi for a soak at the onsen that Mayumi can procured discounted tickets to. Right away, upon exiting the expressway at Noboribetsu, we were greeted by a gigantic statue of an oni (鬼). At 18 meter tall, with red skin, horns, and a spiky killing club, the demon displayed a fearsome countenance. However, he pointed all visitors towards the Noboribetsu Onsen, which I took as a welcoming gesture.
Oni (鬼) are ogre-like creatures from Japanese folklore. Generally speaking, oni have horns, sharp teeth, and either red or blue skin. They’re usually big and ugly, and often carry a large club. While originally depicted as fierce and frightening menaces, oni also have plenty family-friendly depictions, pretty much analogous to Shrek in the western world. When Japanese kids play the game of Tag, the person who’s “it” is called the “oni”. Oni also feature in the February holiday of Setsubun (節分), where kids throw beans at ogres to repel them from the house, and in turn, shoo away bad spirits for good luck.
In Noboribetsu, oni are everywhere, as they have basically been adopted as the town mascots. Oni signs and trinkets abound, and there are various oni statues peppering the town, including some that stand as talismans of good luck in randomly specific things like romance, success in business, and passing exams. Apparently there’s even a Jigoku Matsuri (地獄祭り – Hell Festival) in August, which sounds pretty hot.
The aquarium we visited immediately struck me as a bit usual, defying my expectations. I was expecting all the interesting stuff to be inside the building, similar to the Seattle Aquarium, so I was a bit surprised when we pulled up to a little castle town that had its own Ferris wheel. The Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe (登別マリンパーク二クス), it turns out, is more than just sea creatures.
The main aquarium facilities are contained within a German-style castle, with a moat and everything. This building is called “Nixe Castle aquarium” (水族館二クス城). Flanking the castle on either side are two auditorium structures called, “show pools”, where sea lions and dolphins perform shows for humans’ amusement. Directly in front of the castle is an open courtyard, called Nixe Square (二クス広場), and this plaza is encircled by quaint little storefronts where all the architecture has a distinctly European style. And while it wasn’t operating in winter, adjoining this Little Deutschland there is an amusement park. Nixe Land (二クスランド) comes complete with a Ferris wheel, bumper cars, train ride, go-karts, and a carousel.
While I could have used more time taking in the stimulus overload, we had to hurry the sea lion pool to see a performance by Hal, the sea lion. Trained to bow, clap, and smile on command, Hal also caught rings and balance balls for the audience’s amusement. I was honestly shocked at how trainable the sea lion was. Even though he was clearly working towards the reward of more fish, I wondered if he had a concept of how unnecessary it all was, and if he got bored of performing, or wanted to be free. Perhaps he enjoys the attention, as well as the fish, but I kind of doubt it.
Next we entered Nixe Castle to see some of the main aquarium exhibits. In the center of the building was a four-story tall open room. The chamber had two escalators in the center, taking visitors from the second story to the top, while the bottom floor was completely filled with water. Deep pools covered the floor, providing a public home for various large sea creatures, including sharks, manta rays, and schools of random fish. It was quite an awesome spectacle, and the unlikely combination of steel escalators, undecorated gray walls, and deep blue shark tanks made me feel like I was in a Bond villain’s secret lair. The hallways of the castle also contained copious items of Atlantis and seafaring memorabilia, and some of the more fantastic touches made me think of the Water Temple from The Legend of Zelda. The whole place was much more interesting than I had expected.
In the middle of checking out the main castle, we had to run back outside to see a scheduled “penguin walk”. By this point, the interesting sights and warmth contained within the main building sounded far more appealing than venturing back out into the frigid winter cold, but I followed Mayumi’s lead. As it turned out though, the outdoor attraction was quite entertaining. Just like it sounds, the penguin walk was simply penguins walking, but it’s not something you see every day. Staff led the penguins, parade-style, around the square, while the gathered onlookers snapped as many photos as possible. As cool as it was to see the penguins so close up, it was much more interesting to see grown men and women fervently trying to capture the cuteness on digital media; priceless. The flightless birds all had colored rings high up on their wings and I wondered exactly how comfortable it was for them to wear the tags.
After penguins, we reentered Dr. Nixe’s secret lair and continued exploring the castle. Like the Seattle Aquarium, there were petting pools for people to gently touch the sea creatures. But in addition to the usual starfish and sea anemones, there was also a “touch pool” (タッちプール) for sting rays! This was irresistible to me, and despite the cold, I just had to dip my hand in feel the slick skin of a sting ray. In a rather bare, unembellished pool, the sting rays swam at a constant speed, in a counter-clockwise motion. As magical as it was to pet their smooth backs, I couldn’t help but reflect on how limited their lives would be in such a drab cage. The beautiful and majestic creatures are naturally inclined to fly through the ocean waters, but here the pool was only two feet deep. I honestly felt sorry for the little guys.
There was also a touch pool for horseshoe crabs, which really blew me away. Somehow, in all of my days in the Pacific Northwest – and I suppose, biology classes in school – I had never seen such a creature before. Between the armor of their shells and the long rigid tails, the crabs looked very alien, and their spidery legs underneath made “creepy” an accurate descriptor. If such a thing were to ever appear in a sci-fi video game, the natural response would be to shoot it dead and ask questions later. Of course, it was my ignorance of horseshoe crabs, and not their looks, which was shameful. In Japanese, horseshoe crabs are called kabutogani (かぶとがに), literally meaning “helmet crab”, a name which I think is more fitting. While they are fascinating creatures, their shells aren’t at all that interesting to feel.
We needed to interrupt our castle exploring a second time and make our way to the dolphin pool, where another show was about to start. Now, I had already spent the day wondering about the welfare of the animals we had gotten to see – the sea lion, the penguins, the sting rays – but if there’s only one animal whose welfare in captivity seems questionable, it’s got to be the dolphin. This is especially true in Japan, thanks to the 2009 documentary The Cove. A pair of dolphins swam around and performed jumps for our amusement. Well for our amusement and the Pavlovian reward of fish. I suppose they didn’t seem unhappy, and they seemed to get along with the trainers well enough. But I still wondered what kind of feedback the dolphins would give if they were capable of human speech.
After the Flipper stage show, we were back in the castle again, finally finishing up the tour of the facilities. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the final part of the castle walk included an underwater tunnel portion. The tunnel actually cut through the pool that was at the bottom of the castle’s central chamber; the escalator room that had impressed me in the beginning. The sharks and sting rays and schools of fish were even more magnificent from an underwater perspective, as they swam alongside and above the transparent tube. I tried to take close-up pictures of the sharks, but the low light and surface reflections made getting a good shot quite difficult. Emerging on the other side, our tour of Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe was complete.
Our next tourist destination was a sulfuric gorge that goes by the name Jigokudani (地獄谷), meaning “Hell Valley”. The volcanic vents of Jigokudani supply Noboribetsu’s hot spring spas with natural spring water, rich in minerals. The first thing I noticed when we got out of the car was the pungent stench of rotten eggs. The volcanic vents have quite a high sulfur content, meaning “Hell Valley” smells strongly of brimstone year-round. Near the precipice, Jigokudani is rather breathtaking. Since it was the middle of winter, snow covered everything. In the gorge however, hot vents kept some surfaces too warm for snow cover. A constant fog of steam lifted off the barren landscape, lending to the eerily accurate hell comparison.
Mayumi and I walked the trail out into “Hell Valley”, getting a close-up view of the craggy, moonlike surface, and the cloudy creeks, yellow with sulfur. Steam rose from the ground in several different spots around us and the air was humid. I couldn’t help but imagine that this was precisely the place Gouki (Akuma) from Street Fighter would train. He’d probably then unwind at the end of the day by soaking in a sulfur bath. Eventually we made it out to a large volcanic vent that had a deck surrounding it for easy viewing. Steam gushed out from it, as it was essentially a geyser that bubbled instead of erupting. This hole in the ground, four feet in diameter, would make the perfect tub for Gouki, I thought.
The path at Jigokudani was quite active with other tourists. The snowy trail was a little tight in places and precarious with visitors coming and going. While I was the only white guy in sight, the other tourists definitely weren’t speaking Japanese. And one point, Mayumi said, “Urusai, kankokujin,” (「うるさい韓国人」), or “These Koreans are noisy.” To be fair, if I were walking my family into hell, I think I’d probably be a bit loud about it myself.
After Jigokudani, we finally drove to our main target, the onsen in Shiraoi. Since onsens are separated by gender, this was the first time that I had visited the baths completely on my own. I didn’t have any friends to imitate, no lead to follow, but I was pretty used to the whole thing by that point, so I was quite comfortable. Relaxing in one of the hot baths, I stared up at the ceiling. The condensation of hot, humid air collected above the bath to produce a canopy of hanging raindrops. I reflected on how unintentionally beautiful this stippled surface was, like a hydromorphic Sistine Chapel. It’s the little things in life…
For some reason, I decided to challenge myself to a hot/cold bath circuit. After getting uncomfortably warm in the hottest bath available, I walked over to the cold tub and carefully plunged in. Sitting down with the frigid water up to my neck, I focused on my regulating my breathing and tried to remain absolutely still, motionless. Initially, the cold is quite a shock to the system. I could actually feel my heart starting to work harder and my breathing became a bit erratic. The icy cold spurred me to escape for the first 30 seconds or so, but then the cold surrounding my body became rather tranquil. My skin seemed to get used to the external chill, while my body’s core felt warm by comparison. My heart pumped warm blood throughout my system, holding off the cold at the surface. After a minute, I felt like I could sit there all night.
I was so still in the cold bath that little air bubbles collected on the undersides of my arms. It began to look kind of like I was soaking in 7-Up. After what was probably five minutes, I climbed out feeling very refreshed. In comparison to the cold bath, the air was warm and I felt like I had a blanket wrapped around me. I still had some time to kill, so I did the hot/cold thing a second time. After a second run, I felt like a million bucks.
On Monday January 2nd, with Japan still in full New Year’s swing, Mayumi and I decided to take advantage of some holiday deals and see more animals. We started in the morning with a trip to Maruyama Zoo (札幌円山動物園) in Sapporo’s Maruyama Park (円山公園). The park is 60,000 square meters nestled into Sapporo’s western neighborhoods. In addition to the zoo, the park’s features include the spectacular Hokkaido Shrine (北海道神宮), Maruyama “Primeval Forest” — the perfect spot for viewing cherry blossoms in springtime — athletic fields, tennis courts, and a baseball stadium. At least these are the things I’ve heard of, because this was my actually first visit to the park.
In my experience, zoos are summer attractions, kind of like amusement parks. I had thought that people only visit the zoo when the weather is warm and sunny. Maruyama Zoo appears to be unique in that it operates year-round. So, in the dead of winter, Mayumi and I ventured out to see the animals.
January 2nd was a special day at the zoo and we arrived at the precise moment that they were giving away free hot drinks. A warm can of tea was a nice touch, because the weather was frigidly cold and we were going to be doing plenty of walking outside. Inside my boots, my toes quickly went numb.
The zoo was completely snow-covered. The path, the trees, the animals’ pens, everything; a think blank of white accented every level change. It was a beautiful spectacle, although to be honest, even the monkeys looked cold. I expected the snow leopards and polar bears to be at home with the cold, but to my surprise, several animals from tropical or sub-tropical environments were also outside in the snow. African lions, hyenas, and a Bengal tiger, for example, were just chilling out in the freezing temperatures. There was a large building that was kept toasty warm for the giraffes, antelope, and ostriches to stay in, but even the hippopotamus decided to venture outside of this safe haven for his snack. I always thought that snow and hippos just don’t mix.
There were other indoor exhibits that helped me regulate body temperature, like the birdhouse, ape house, and a building designed to make wolf and bear viewing easier. My favorite part of the zoo had to be the orangutan exhibit, which featured a toddler orangutan that was just about two years old. Apes always fascinate me (purely out of self-interest, being an ape myself) and watching the little one play was delightful. He was actually too small for the exhibit’s cage to hold, and he effortlessly slipped between the bars, although he was still separated from zoo patrons by a thick pane of glass. A staff member was coming and going in this space, cleaning up a bit, and the little guy followed him with childish curiosity. I felt an undeniable ancestral bond with the humanlike little ape.
Overall, the Maruyama Zoo in the snow was pretty magical. Mayumi told me that in the summer, the zoo would look completely different, so I should check it out again sometime. We hit the gift shop on the way out and I picked up some postcards to send back to the States. Some young boys with Ultraman masks were getting their Power Rangers on, play fighting just outside the door. Mayumi pointed out one of the candy items on sale, called gorilla no hanakuso (ゴリラの鼻くそ – gorilla boogers). As she explained, marketing humorous food grotesqueries to children as candy is popular in Japan too.
After the zoo, it was off to Otaru for lunch, and a visit to the Otaru Aquarium (小樽水族館). Much like Noboribetsu Marine Park, the Otaru Aquarium had an adjacent amusement park, which was currently closed for the winter. So far, this seems to be a consistent theme, with Ferris wheels being part and parcel of the aquarium experience. While it didn’t have a castle exterior, the Otaru Aquarium was situated on the side of steep hill, facing the sea, so it properly would make for a quality fortress against invasion.
Just inside the door, right next to the gift shop, the Otaru Aquarium has a pool of seals to welcome all on comers. Its small size allows everyone to get very close to the seals, making photos obligatory, but such close proximately gives one the sense that you could reach out and pet the animals. Multiple signs warn that the seals will bite your fingers off and reaching in to give them the opportunity is strictly prohibited. The seals swam around, bobbed up and down, simply laid there on a dry patch, and generally looked adorable, meanwhile everyone with a cell phone or digital camera tried their hardest to capture the moment.
Otaru’s aquarium had beautiful tanks displaying all manner of sea creatures; sting rays, eels, octopi, sharks, crabs, venomous lionfish, stonefish, blowfish, seahorses, and even arapaima from the Amazon that were over a meter long. Judging from the gift shop emphasis, someone apparently expected anago (あなご – garden eel, conger eel) to become the next big thing. My personal favorite was a rescued sea turtle, who was missing one of his front flippers. I have a natural affinity for turtles, but this guy had real character.
Much like the penguin walk in Noboribetsu, the Otaru aquarium had an indoor pelican walk. While everyone tried just as hard to get pictures of the pelicans, I got the general impression that these birds weren’t quite as docile. From the moment they came running out of their pen with wings outstretched, it looked like the big one was waiting for an excuse to start a fight. While being paraded around, the group of birds huddled together defensively, and I got the impression that they liked the exercise, but not the attention.
Eventually we made our way to the show pool for some animal-performance based entertainment. A covered catwalk connected the show pool to the main building, but a vicious Siberian crosswind made traversing it surprisingly unpleasant. Once inside, we sat down for a sea lion performance. At Otaru there were three sea lions on stage together and they performed feats like solving math problems, gymnastically forming a pyramid, and “playing” musical instruments (piano, bass drum, and cymbals). While the math and music stuff was clearly contrived, the athletic bits were very impressive.
Next, the trainers brought out a walrus. Ironically, everything the trainers had taught the walrus to do involved either sucking or blowing. He blew bubbles, kissed volunteers from the audience, and hooted – producing pitches like he was whistling. It was a unique spectacle, but I really wished he would’ve taken a shot at the musical instruments; there’s a Beatles tune just begging to be covered there.
Finally, three dolphins came out for the show’s headlining act. They swam at a rapid pace around the pool and shot out of the water for some high jumps. At one point, they slid out of the water completely to greet the poolside audience face to face. I just hope these majestic creatures aren’t bored to tears from their job.