There are some people who live in Tokyo and rarely leave it’s concrete confines.
There are also people in the world who think that God created the world in seven days, that women belong barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, that Art Bell is serious and that Superman can kick Batman’s ass.
Sometimes the only healthy way to deal with the city is to run as fast and as far from it as possible. So when a friend invited me on a trip to Hokkaido, I said yes before she finished asking the question.
She was going to Noboribetsu, famous for it’s onsen with mineral waters straight from Jigoku-dani, or Hell’s Valley. If you travel around the world, or attempt the modern equivalent and bring up a web browser pointed to google.com, you’re likely to find more than a dozen distinct places called Hell’s Valley or some variation of that name.
They’re usually inhospitable, but more often than that they’re just really ugly.
Noboribetsu is ugly and stinky. The town sits on the mouth of a volcano, which gushes 3000 liters of hot water a day. The city is hideous, gray square buildings that scream for a feature on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” more than any redneck ever did.
The natural wonders are beautiful, however, so after dumping the luggage in the ryokan room, we went for a walk up to the mouth of the hot springs.
It was getting dark, and the sun had already set behind the mountains guarding the valley. The alien orange light endemic to winter sunsets created a strangely beautiful contrast with the rust-colored rock formations and mineral deposits visible through the snow.
We hiked further and further, the path narrowing as it rolled genttly up and down. Every misstep found my leg buried up to mid-thigh in cold, blue snow. The path ended at the base of a mountain overlooking Oyu-numa, a lake whose waters were darker than the evening sky above.
Steam rose from the black lake like something out of a rejected Lord of the Rings special effect, and merged higher up with the steam rising from the mouth of the volcanic mountain.
We hiked back quickly, since we were severely not dressed for the rapidly dropping night temperatures. It was a strange and beautiful evening, the hiking path empty of other travellers, and it would be the best part of the trip, except for the onsen’s baths.