Follow in the footsteps of daimyo lords and samurai along Gunma's ancient highway, with soothing onsen retreats and bracing adventures along the way
Last updated: March 03, 2023
The Mikuni Kaido is an ancient highway that connects Niigata and Takasaki in Gunma. In the Edo period (1603–1868), the route was used by the daimyo of Echigo (Niigata) and their retainers as they traveled to the capital, Edo (Tokyo). Post towns along the way served as places to rest and stay. Some of these towns still offer accommodations and onsen for weary travelers. Hikers can follow the Mikuni Kaido along quiet forest paths and charming rural roads, and experience local crafts, thrilling river adventures, and relaxing hot springs along the way.
The Mikuni Kaido served as the route for the warlord Uesugi Kenshin (1530–1578) known as the “Dragon of Echigo”, on his campaigns to capture the Kanto region (including modern day Tokyo and surrounding prefectures). Later, during the Edo period, the Mikuni Kaido was the main route for the daimyo of Echigo on their way to Edo. The Tokugawa Shogunate established a policy of alternate attendance to maintain control over the daimyo lords, requiring them to make the journey from their provincial domains to the capital to reside every other year. The post towns of Gunma served as rest stops for the grand retinues as they traveled to Edo via Takasaki. The Mikuni Kaido also connects to the Nakasendo, an ancient mountain route between Edo and Kyoto.
Along ancient highways such as Mikuni Kaido and the Nakasendo, post towns were places for weary travelers to rest and relax, and refuel for the next leg of their trip. These post towns included shops for restocking supplies, teahouses, lodgings, and rejuvenating hot springs to wash away the aches and grime of a long journey.
One such post town along the Mikuni Kaido was Nagai-juku in Minakami. It was the first post town on the Joshu (Gunma) side of the Mikuni-toge Pass, a notoriously difficult part of the trail. In the seventeenth century, the town developed as a trading post for rice, flourishing until the Joetsu railway bypassed the town in the nineteenth century.
Although little remains of the original post town, a row of traditional houses indicates the ancient road. Visitors can stop by the Nagai-juku Folk Museum to see historical records and artifacts including samurai armor dating to the sixteenth century (explanations are in Japanese only). A short walk from the town, Misaka Sansha Shrine on the border between Joshu and Echigo, is the highest point on the Mikuni Kaido.
Hoshi Onsen Chojukan is a traditional ryokan and onsen with over a century of history. A National Tangible Cultural Property tucked away in a cedar forest, Hoshi Onsen Chojukan is one of Japan’s most famous secluded hot springs, and a popular rest stop along the Mikuni Kaido. Hoshi Onsen’s spring was discovered over 1,200 years ago, and is rich in calcium and sodium sulfate, ideal for soothing tired muscles. The main building was constructed in 1875 and resembles a traditional Edo-period post town inn.Three historical bathhouses include the elegant Hoshi no Yu bath house with high ceilings of cedar wood, and Tamaki no Yu, with indoor and outdoor bathing along the banks of the Hoshi River.
Sarugakyo Onsen prospered in the Edo period as a post town and checkpoint for travelers. The Sarugakyo checkpoint is said to have been established in the seventeenth century to prevent weapons being carried into Edo, and to prevent daimyo families, who were effectively held hostage in Edo, from returning to their hometowns. Located along the shore of Lake Akaya, Sarugakyo Onsen has a range of accommodations, many with views of the lake, and outdoor onsen. For a different view of the area, take a dive over Sarugakyo gorge, with Bungy Japan.
Takuminosato is the perfect place to end a leisurely exploration of the Mikuni Kaido. This charming town was formerly the post town of Sukawa-juku. An irrigation canal flows along the main street past traditional folk houses and a charming water wheel. Some of the houses now have restaurants, cafes and craft ateliers. Nearby, Sukawajuku Museum displays documents and artifacts related to the daimyo lords who once traveled the Mikuni Kaido. The site of the museum was once an inn for daimyo.
Visitors to Takuminosato can try their hand at traditional crafts, from woodworking and bamboo crafts, glass etching and indigo dyeing, to making washi paper and even soba noodles. Each craft atelier is within walking distance of the others, making for a pleasant day visiting workshops and trying new experiences.
Taineiji Temple is an impressive structure hidden away amid a grove of trees, just a 15-minute walk from the main street of Takuminosato. This Important Cultural Property is famous for around 2,000 hydrangeas that bloom in early summer. The main hall was built in 1309, and features masterful carvings drawn from the teachings of Buddha.
The Gunma section of the Mikuni Kaido stretches from the Mikuni-toge Pass to Takasaki. Due to urban development, some of the old atmosphere of the road has been lost, particularly near large towns and cities. The most picturesque section runs through Minakami. For a pleasant two-day hike, start in Mikuni-toge or the post town of Nagai-juku, and head towards Takuminosato, with an overnight stay at Hoshi Onsen. On the second day, take the backroads through Sarugakyo-juku, before finishing in Takuminosato. The route passes through a mix of unpaved forest paths and rural roads, and is suitable for most fitness levels.
Add some more adventure to your hike with thrilling outdoor experiences in Minakami. Try seasonal activities from skiing down snow-covered slopes, bungee jumping at Sarugakyo and Suwakyo Gorge, white water rafting on the Tone river, and canyoning in the Minakami area.
Fruit picking farms also dot the area and, at various times of year, you can pick cherries, blueberries, plums, grapes, apples, and strawberries. Several orchards and strawberry farms can be found near Takuminosato.