Family-friendly mountainside onsen town
Last updated: December 21, 2020
This historic onsen town is easily accessible from Tokyo, making it ideal for a relaxing getaway of any length. People come to this onsen town in the foothills of Mt. Haruna to breathe fresh air, bathe in iron-rich water, and enjoy a relaxed pace of life. The town centers around 365 stone steps, around which you can explore ryokan inns, souvenir shops, and cafes. Ikaho is steeped in history, too—the area is mentioned in Manyoshu, Japan’s oldest collection of poems, which dates back to the 7th and 8th centuries.
The family-friendly activities nearby give plenty of options for a long weekend in the area. Try hiking or boating at Mt. Haruna and Lake Haruna, explore the craft workshops and art galleries, visit ancient shrines, and sample local delicacies.
Culture plays an important role in Ikaho's history. Get your grounding by visiting some of the museums just a short walk from the steps.
A 10-minute walk away, the Takehisa Yumeji Museum features an extensive collection of works by Takehisa Yumeji, an artist and poet from the turn of the 20th century, known for his paintings of beautiful Japanese women. The museum was built in Ikaho in memory of his frequent visits to the town.
Check into your hotel and change into the yukata robe provided in your room. Wandering Ikaho in traditional dress adds to the charm of exploring this pretty town.
Take a couple of hours to familiarize yourself with Ikaho. This charming town is centered around 365 stone steps. Take the journey slowly, venturing off the steps to explore scenic side alleys and to browse souvenirs, including local noodles, konjac sponges, and geta—Japanese wooden sandals. Along the steps are numerous opportunities to pause and enjoy the slow pace of life; take a free foot bath at step number 212, people-watch at a rest area, or stop to sample some street food.
At the top of the steps is Ikaho-jinja Shrine, which dates back to 825. The shrine is an excellent place to rest and look out across Ikaho before continuing to Kajika Bridge, an easy, relatively flat five-minute walk away. This vermillion bridge is a popular photo spot, particularly when it is framed by the fiery foliage of Japanese maples in autumn. Just beyond, on the way to the Ikaho Open-Air Bath, is a spot where you can drink Ikaho’s warm, metallic-tasting golden spring water at the source.
Most ryokan are clustered close to the stone steps, which is the most convenient place access to Ikaho’s major sights. The town is very relaxed in the evenings, making it a good time to unwind and make the most of your accommodation’s facilities. Most ryokan provide a multi-course Japanese meal which you’ll eat as your futon bed is prepared. Before retiring for the evening, take a dip in your accommodation’s onsen bath for a warming, soothing end to the day.
From the center of Ikaho, drive around 20 minutes to Lake Haruna, passing along one of Japan’s famous Melody Roads as you arrive. As you drive over this section of the road, you can hear “Shizuka na Kohan,” a similar tune to “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” This scenic crater lake is an idyllic setting for canoeing or swan boating. Alternatively, take a ride along the edge on a horse-drawn carriage.
Mt. Haruna is a striking backdrop to the lake. You can hike to its summit in around an hour or take the nearby ropeway, which runs all year round. At the top, you can visit its small shrine, Haruna-fuji-jinja, and spot Shibukawa, Maebashi and—on especially clear days—Tokyo Skytree and Mt. Fuji.
Visit Mizusawa Kannon, a beautiful temple with a history dating back more than 1,300 years. A hexagonal pagoda housing statues on a rotating pedestal, is a highlight of its grounds. Turning the pedestal three times is said to be good luck.
Before you leave the area, enjoy lunch at one of the restaurants lining the approach. These shops specialize in Mizusawa udon, a local take on the thick and chewy wheat noodles.
Before returning to your accommodation, stop at Ikaho Open-Air Bath to unwind. Soak in one of two baths under the canopy of Japanese maples in warm water that emerges from the source at around 43.5-degree Celsius. One bath is slightly cooler than the other but each is filled with the town’s famous, iron-rich water. The crisp mountain air makes it easy to linger, even in the hotter bath.
Hara Museum ARC is a great place for the whole family to while away a couple of hours. Its outdoor exhibitions allow you to breathe in the fresh mountain air while appreciating exhibits, including a giant Andy Warhol soup can. Indoor exhibits include contemporary art by international and Japanese artists, including Morimura Yasumasa, Miyajima Tatsuo, and Nara Yoshitomo.
Ikaho Green Bokujo, a farm-themed amusement park, occupies the same land. This kid-friendly park has a petting zoo of farm animals and offers hands-on farm-related activities, including butter-making, that will keep the family entertained for hours.
Continue the day’s cultural theme with a visit to Usaburo Kokeshi. This facility is the best-known maker of sosaku kokeshi—modern versions of traditional wooden pin dolls. Choose from Daruma, Miffy, Disney, or Gunma-chan kokeshi dolls as a souvenir, or try painting your own.