Christina M. Spiker

Christina M. Spiker

Art Historian | Professor | Digital Humanist

Noboribetsu’s Jigokudani: Frozen Hell

Noboribetsu (登別; comes from the Ainu word nupur-pet for “dark-colored river”) is just one of those strange places where the natural landscape utterly fascinates me. My latest trip was in the beginning of March, and I was amazed at how different the landscape looked after having visited in early winter and summer. In February, the alien landscape of Jikokudani (地獄谷, lit. “Hell Valley”) was covered in a layer of glistening snow, with the powder forming what could only be called “snow bubbles” around the various heat sources. With no trees blocking the path, small crystals of diamond dust swirled over the mounds, mixing with bursts of steam. However, in early March, much of the snow had melted to reveal the red crust of the earth, introducing a beautiful contrast of orange against the cool blue hue of the lingering snow. All of this looks quite different from the summer landscape of orange, yellow, and red against the background of a lush green forest (a view that is found on most tourist postcards).

Seasons of Noboribetsu

Screenshot 2014-03-14 21.10.21 (2)_editedThere are a number of postcards of Noboribetsu found in Hakodate City Central Library‘s digital archive (デジタル資料館), one of my favorite resources for old Japanese postcards.  Although the more artistic renderings of Jigokudani are definitely compelling, I am always fascinated by the process-printed kitsch postcards that adopt the rainbow colors of a surreal landscape. The real colors (which, at times, can seem just as alien) are eschewed entirely. High drama, indeed. I believe that this particular set was put out by a popular tourist shop, Kisendou (貴泉堂), that still exists on the main street of Noboribetsu’s onsen town today. I couldn’t get close enough to confirm the printing process, but The Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City has a wonderful website breaking down these processes for the curious.

I always enjoy checking out old postcards from places that I visit. When looking at various views of Jigokudani, I was shocked to see people playing in the mounds amongst the stream and sulfur!  Now you are limited to a wooden footbridge that takes you into the heart of hell…