A four-day tour of Gunma's premier onsen destinations
Last updated: December 21, 2020
Add some warmth to your Japan travel experience by dipping into the country’s onsen culture. Gunma’s hot spring towns are prime destinations to discover this soothing pastime, with each location offering something different—be it water properties, scenery, history, or cuisine. Visit Gunma’s four most famous onsen resorts to discover the diversity of hot spring culture.
The drive to Ikaho from Tokyo takes around 2 hours 15 minutes. Upon arrival, stroll the quaint onsen town, and browse the shops and cafes that line the long flight of stone steps in the center of the resort. Get a taste for local food culture by sampling tama konnyaku—konjac balls boiled in soy broth and served on skewers with Japanese mustard—or try onsen manju, brown, steamed buns with a sweet bean paste filling; believed to be an Ikaho original. After some old-fashioned fun in the retro shooting galleries, enjoy your first experience of onsen by soaking your feet in the free footbath, about halfway up the steps. At the top of the steps, you are rewarded with views across the area from Ikaho-jinja Shrine.
Follow the path that runs alongside the shrine to Ikaho Open-Air Bath, and enjoy soaking under a canopy of Japanese maples. The bronze-colored river along the route to the bath is a hint to the resort’s iron-rich water. You can taste the warm, metallic water from a drinking station along the path.
Mizusawa Kannon Temple is a short drive from the town center. Head here to explore the temple’s beautiful, ancient grounds and to enjoy a lunch of Mizusawa udon noodles. Several noodle shops line the temple approach, where you can taste the chewy noodles that have garnered a top-class reputation nationwide. While visiting the temple, be sure to turn the pagoda’s pedestal three times—doing so is said to bring you good luck. Head back to Ikaho to check in to your ryokan inn, change into a yukata and further explore the town.
If you have more time to spend in Ikaho, read our itinerary for 36 hours in Ikaho.
After a leisurely morning at your Ikaho ryokan inn, drive to Kusatsu, one of Japan’s most famous onsen towns, just over an hour away. The centerpiece of the Kusatsu resort is Yubatake, a large hot water field. The copious steam that billows from Yubatake adds to the town’s ambiance. Kusatsu has many bathhouses to choose from, including three free bathhouses open to the public: Shirahatanoyu, Chiyonoyu, and Jizonoyu. The hot, highly-acidic water that fills the area's bathtubs comes from six different spring sources, so no two bathhouses are quite the same.
Get to know local Kusatsu culture by heading to Netsunoyu, located next to Yubatake. In this bathhouse, six “Yumomi girls” stir piping-hot onsen water with large wooden paddles while performing traditional song and dance. The yumomi cooling technique was used in the Edo period (1603–1868) to cool down the water before bathing. Now it is a popular performance, and a symbol of Kusatsu. Performances are held six times a day, at 9:30 a.m., 10:00 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 3:30 p.m., 4:00 p.m., and 4:30 p.m.
Sainokawara Park is a 10-minute walk from Yubatake. The park has numerous free footbaths to dip your toes into. The footbaths are lit up by atmospheric purple and green lighting after dark. Wander further into the park to the outdoor bath, where bathers can relax in the waters for a small fee.
If you have more time to spend in Kusatsu, read our itinerary for 36 hours in Kusatsu.
While bathing in Gunma’s therapeutic onsen might dominate the itinerary, be sure to take some time to enjoy the prefecture's natural scenery. On the hour-long drive to Shima from Kusatsu, make a stop at Shima Potholes, a cluster of circular pools in the bedrock, eroded by small stones swirling in circular currents. A short drive from there, you will reach Shima Onsen. The Shima River runs through the town, and you will notice “Shima Blue”, the pretty blue color the water within Shima is known for. If you have time before check-in, drive to Lake Okushima, one of the best places to see the cobalt blue color at its most vivid.
After checking in to your hotel or ryokan inn, spend the remaining daylight hours strolling along the river, relaxing in quaint cafes, and taking pictures of the ryokan thought to have been an inspiration for Studio Ghibli’s animated film “Spirited Away.”
Before settling down to a restful night in your accommodation, head to the open-air baths at Shima Seiryu no Yu. The facility has views of mountains from the women’s bath and of the Shima River from the men’s. Shima’s gentle hot spring waters contrast with the strongly acidic waters of Kusatsu.
If you have more time to spend in Shima, read our itinerary for 36 hours in Shima.
Wake up relaxed and energized for a day of outdoor adventure in Minakami—an hour’s drive from Shima. In the warmer months, head to the Tone River for a morning of whitewater rafting with Canyons Ltd.. The outdoor company provides all the equipment and expertise you need to have a safe, action-packed day. Thrill seekers should book a tour during spring when snowmelt from nearby mountains causes the fastest-flowing water.
In the winter months, don’t miss the opportunity to ski or snowboard at one of Minakami’s snow resorts. Choose Minakami Hodaigi Ski Area for less-crowded slopes and a range of runs from nursery to steep. Experienced winter sports enthusiasts can ride slopes with a maximum angle of 40 degrees. Alternatively, try Minakami Kogen Ski Resort—an excellent spot for families with an extensive play area for snowshoeing, sledding, and snowmobiling activities.
After an active morning outdoors, take a short drive to Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku. Japan’s largest outdoor hot spring is open to both guests and day visitors, and the riverside baths provide views of the surrounding scenery. In winter, bathing along the river’s snow-covered banks as the snow falls is a memorable experience.
If you have more time to spend in Minakami, read our itinerary for 36 hours in Minakami.