Jazz It Up, Jozankei

Fall is in the air. After two weeks of consecutive pummeling by typhoons, the dipping temperatures and clear blue skies are a much welcome respite. Fall also happens to be my favourite season. It’s the season when leaves turn into brilliant hues of red, orange and yellow – a phenomenon the Japanese term 紅葉 (literally, “red leaves”) or みもじ. And one of the most popular places in Hokkaido to catch the fall colours is the Jozankei Onsen (定山渓温泉) district. Like Noboribetsu, this sprawling valley of monolithic hotels also happens to have some of the best hot spring (onsen) waters flowing through it. The story goes that a monk by the name of Miizumi Jozan discovered the hot springs in 1866, and opened a healing spa. Today, there’s a statue of the monk near a free hot spring footbath to commemorate the reverend’s contribution. So while it’s perhaps too early to witness the area blanketed in a sea of red and yellow, I had made the trip last weekend to enjoy the bubbles.img_20160911_160434_hdrJozankei’s close proximity to Sapporo makes it an ideal day trip, or a weekend getaway. Express direct  (直行便) buses whisk you from the Sapporo Bus Terminal from berths 7 or 8 straight to the onsen area every hour and the 70-minute journey will cost you about 840 yen one way. However, you could also opt for the more frequent “Rapid” (快速) buses (770 yen one way) from the same berths. But these would take a good 15 minutes more, as they stop at every bus stop along the way.

I found myself struggling to decide which onsen I should visit. Most of the hotels in this area have an onsen onsite that are open to day trippers but it’s always good to check in advance. Eventually, I settled on the furthest one, the Hoheikyo Onsen (豊平峡温泉), which is also the final stop on this route.dsc01715For onsen regulars, Hoheikyo Onsen might come across as a little on the expensive end. Its 1,000 yen admission fee notwithstanding, there’s also a 500 yen rental fee for towels (though you do get back 300 yen after your bath). The trick is to bring along your own towels, so you would only have to pay for the admission.

This onsen essentially has only two pools. As far as traditional onsens go, this definitely has some of that rustic feel. Stepping into the shower area adjoining the indoor pool, you can’t help but notice the potholed floor – the result of various stages of erosion by the spring waters. The main attraction, undoubtedly, is the rotemburo (露天風呂) or outdoor pool, with its landscaped gardens complete with a stationary water mill. It almost feels like being part of a Japanese bonsai. Come autumn or winter, when the surrounding hills are draped in red, yellow or white, they would provide a picturesque backdrop to enjoy your soak.137© http://jozankei.jp/

Interestingly, the onsen also has a buzzing restaurant that reportedly sells some of the best Indian curry in Sapporo. Strange combination in my opinion – onsen, curry and naan – but hey, if it rocks your palate, who is to judge? I decided to give it a miss since Indian cuisine is not that much of a novelty where I come from.img_20160911_172344_hdrLeaving the onsen, I took the bus for a couple of stops and alighted at the main Jozankei Onsen area. Here, a half dozen drab giant slabs of concrete and glass line both sides of the valley. One look at the hotels and you can tell that these have been here for ages. However, a check on the Internet may give you a shock! Many of the properties in this area go for upwards of 15,000 yen (or about 147 USD) a night. The smaller boutique hotels would probably charge at least 26,000 yen (or about 255 USD) per night. And we’re not talking about state-of-the-art facilities!

Many of the reviews I came across on various hotel sites such as Booking.com and Expedia pointed to the outdated décor and furnishings. Some complained that the rooms reek of cigarette smoke. It seemed a little exorbitant, to be paying top dollar for at best mediocre accommodation, to be honest. If anything, you are probably just paying for the scenery! So while the idea of spending a weekend here sounds incredibly enticing, the hotels really have to do a major makeover before they get my vote. For now, I’m content with just hopping from one onsen to another.  LS

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