Transfer to Noboribetsu Onsen
Following our inclusive hotel breakfast, we checked out and took the bus to Memanbetsu Airport. This visit brought home what a small airport this is, although we did get a similar (but limited) impression on arrival a couple of days previously. We were able to go up to the observation deck to see the arrival of our aircraft, a De Havilland Canada Dash 8 Q400, operated by All Nippon Airways (ANA). The flight to New Chitose Airport (code CTS, serving the Sapporo metropolitan area) was fairly basic, but pleasant enough. The load factor was around the 50% mark and the somewhat unusual in-flight offering was a cup of hot consommé paired with my more conventional choice of apple juice. Better than all that, however, was the knowledge that today we were heading for what would undoubtedly be the highlight of the trip: a two-night stay at a Ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel).
We had a light lunch at CTS, consisting of an awful Croque Monsieur, before riding a busy bus to Noboribetsu Onsen, a journey of about 1hr 30mins in the snowy conditions. We then had a short walk to what we expected to be not just our next base, but indeed a destination in its own right: Takinoya Ryokan.
The Ryokan experience
Right from the moment of arrival at Takinoya Ryokan, we knew that this was going to be a fabulous place – even better than the Ryokan at Kaga that we stayed at in 2014, and that had been superb! Here at Takinoya, we had one of several examples of their top suite type, which was bigger than either my apartment or Bruce’s in the UK. Shortly after we arrived in our room, a welcome amenity of Matcha green tea was served, and this already gave clues about the standards of culinary presentation that we should expect this evening.
Around 4pm, after getting settled in, we went to the baths on Floor -2, carefully adhering to proper Japanese etiquette (which was explained in the room). Men and women were segregated at all times, bodies had to be thoroughly cleansed before entering the pool, and to proceed into the pool you needed to be completely, stark naked. A further rule was no cameras or phones, but Bruce managed to sneak a couple of non-compromising pictures! It was an amazingly restful and therapeutic experience, even though one of the baths was outside, with snow lying on the ground. Surprisingly, we were alone for most of the time.
Later, we tried out our own, outdoor bath prior to dinner. One of the benefits of our suite type was that we didn’t use the dining room. Dinner – a multi-course affair and beautifully presented – was served to us in our own dining room, with the server entering through a special door. We ordered a ‘medium’ bottle of sake. The whole meal constituted an utterly fabulous experience on so many levels, thanks to wonderful service, exquisite presentation and delicious food. (It’s a struggle not to run out of suitable adjectives!) I enjoy keeping a photographic record of memorable meals when I’m on my travels, but I can’t recall any similar occasion where I was just constantly reaching for the camera!
Our beds, close to floor level, were discreetly made up while we ate, and once dinner was over, it wasn’t too long before we both felt like turning in for an early night.