Combine relaxation and nature activities at this secluded onsen resort
Last updated: December 21, 2020
Clear lakes and rivers, lush hillsides, a nostalgic atmosphere, and rejuvenating hot springs make Shima Onsen a prime destination to relax and unwind. The secluded resort town can provide a weekend getaway or restorative stop in a longer Japan trip that combines onsen bathing with activities among beautiful natural scenery.
Shima Onsen is easily accessible from Tokyo. Two expressway buses per day run from Tokyo Station direct to Shima Onsen and take about 3.5 hours. Alternatively, take the shinkansen to Takasaki Station (50 minutes) and then change to a local train (50 minutes), followed by a local bus (40 minutes).
Parts of the town of Shima are best explored on foot, but many sights, like Lake Okushima, are better accessed by car. A car allows you ultimate freedom when traveling around Shima—and the rest of Gunma as well. There are several rental car outlets near Takasaki Station, so visitors should consider arriving in Gunma via shinkansen, then driving the final leg to Shima.
Stretch your legs after your journey with a walk through the town of Shima Onsen. Follow the Shima River that runs through the heart of the town as you navigate narrow streets with ryokan inns and quaint shops. The village retains an old-fashioned feel, with the mountainous surroundings adding to the magic. Pass the hundred-year-old ryokan that is said to have inspired “Spirited Away,” the popular Studio Ghibli animated film, and stop at a free-of-charge footbath when you need a break.
Once you have acclimated yourself to the town of Shima, check into your traditional-style inn, such as Shima Onsen Kashiwaya Ryokan. Take a quick bath, either in a public bath or in Kashiwaya’s private indoor and outdoor baths—some attached to the room and others available for rental. Watch the sunset over the river from your room’s patio before enjoying a locally sourced dinner. The healthy, multi-course meals change regularly, and their flavors and ingredients reflect the season.
Enjoy a traditional Japanese breakfast at your accommodation before setting off for a day of exhilarating adventure. Join a half-day canyoning tour to hike, jump, and slide through the area’s clear waters. Guides will make sure your day is as safe as it is thrilling.
In colder months, canyoning isn’t an option. Instead, spend your morning enjoying the peace of this quiet town. Sample its onsen water from a drinking fountain, purported to be a stomach-soothing tonic. If your feet get chilly, bathe them in the free footbaths dotted around the town, or warm up with a coffee in one of the town’s cute cafes, such as Cafe Floresta.
Break for lunch at one of the small restaurants and cafes in the town of Shima Onsen before seeing the waterfalls and gorges that punctuate the Shima River. These views are picturesque in every season, from lush greenery to colorful foliage to white, snowy backdrops. From the Momotaro Waterfall, hike about a kilometer to the Shima Potholes, a cluster of smooth depressions in the riverbed created by thousands of years of erosion. Then head further upstream to Lake Okushima. The lake’s cobalt hue is sometimes termed “Shima blue,” and although it is most vibrant in April and May, its waters are remarkably clear year-round. Its forested shores reflect the area’s seasonally changing beauty.
Head a bit farther afield for your accommodation on your second night. Choose from one of the six small, rural onsen that make up the Kuni no Sato Onsen area. Head to Shiriyaki Onsen for a large outdoor bath fed directly from the riverbed or Hanashiki Onsen, which has a history dating back to the Kamakura period (1185–1333). Alternatively, consider getting even closer to nature without sacrificing creature comforts by booking a glamping stay in Shima Onsen. Relax with a local dinner and rejuvenating bathing at your lodging before another adventurous day.
After a hearty breakfast, set out for a half-day canoeing tour on Lake Shima. Choose a tour appropriate for your experience and fitness level, and see the lake’s beauty and its surroundings from a new perspective. Beginners can feel at ease with instruction from experienced guides. Or opt for a similar lake tour on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP), which gives a different vantage point. If you stayed in the Kuni no Sato Onsen area the previous night, enjoy the scenery in Lake Nozori or stroll around Chatsubomi Moss Park, instead.
Please note that the road to Lake Nozori is closed from late November to late April and Chatsubomi Moss Park is only open from late May to the end of November.
Canoeing and SUP are available from spring to autumn and require advance reservation.
Grab lunch in the town, then head to the outdoor bath at Shima Seiryu no Yu to unwind. Enjoy Shima’s mineral-rich onsen waters for the final time as you take in the scenery—mountains from the women’s bath and the Shima River from the men’s. You will leave feeling refreshed and ready for your journey back to Tokyo or onward to another Gunma destination.