Soak in geothermal baths and traditional atmospheres just hours from the capital
Last updated: December 21, 2020
Gunma’s mountainous landscape was shaped by volcanic activity, meaning the prefecture is dotted with natural, geothermically heated hot springs. Scenic onsen towns, many with a history dating back hundreds of years, are a highlight of a Gunma vacation in any season.
Gunma’s location in the northern Kanto region means many of its onsen are near Tokyo. Takasaki, the prefecture’s main gateway, is just 50 minutes from the capital by shinkansen. From there, local trains and buses run to the main onsen destinations. Between spring and autumn, an alternative is to rent a car near Takasaki Station for the ultimate freedom in exploring hot spring resorts, their traditional-style ryokan inns, and the surrounding natural beauty.
One of Japan’s most famous hot spring destinations, Kusatsu Onsen, is remarkably easy to get to from Tokyo. It is 2 hours 40 minutes from Ueno Station by a combination of train and bus or 4 hours from Shinjuku on a direct expressway bus.
The town centers around Yubatake, a hot water field and the source for most of the area’s baths. Steam rising from Yubatake backdropped by the town’s traditional buildings creates an image of classic Japan. The area is particularly photogenic when snow covers the streets in winter or when you stroll around in Japanese-style clothing—a yukata from your ryokan inn or a rented kimono.
Choose from various day-use baths, including outdoor baths like the Sainokawara Open-Air Bath and historical, wooden bathhouses like Gozanoyu and Otakinoyu. The town has a range of accommodation, but the highlights are traditional-style ryokan inns such as Naraya and Hotel Takamatsu. Other options include larger hotels with Western-style rooms like Kusatsu Now Resort Hotel and comprehensive resorts like Kusatsu Onsen Hotel Village.
Between baths, you can enjoy some of Kusatsu’s many activities. On the cultural side, head to Netsunoyu to view and participate in the yumomi water cooling ceremony. Kusatsu’s onsen water emerges from the spring too hot for bathing, and one method of cooling it is to stir it with large paddles, with synchronized chanting and dancing. Outdoor options include hiking the nearby Yoshigadaira Wetlands or, in winter, hitting the slopes of Kusatsu Onsen Ski Resort.
With a 1,000-plus year history, Ikaho Onsen is the perfect place to immerse yourself in a classically Japanese atmosphere. The journey from Tokyo takes 2.5 hours by direct expressway bus or just over 2 hours by limited express train and local bus.
Two separate springs feed the baths here: Kogane no Yu (“golden water”), with high iron content and a reddish color, and Shirogane no Yu (“silver water”), a more recently discovered spring with clearer water. The Ikaho Open-Air Bath, one of the town’s premier public baths, lets you soak in golden, iron-rich water fed directly from the source while basking in the fresh air. Opt to stay in Ikaho overnight to experience Japanese hospitality at a ryokan inn like Moriaki Ryokan or Oyado Tamaki, both centrally located.
An iconic set of stone steps form the main thoroughfare of the town of Ikaho. Shops, cafes, ryokan inns, and public baths line these steps, giving Ikaho a quaint feel and making it easy to explore on foot. Check out sights like Ikaho-jinja Shrine and Kajika Bridge, dine at one of the many udon shops next to Mizusawa Kannon Temple, and snack on onsen manju—a sweet steamed bun filled with red bean paste thought to have originated in Ikaho. Its brown color is distinctive to the area.
Manza Onsen is a smaller onsen town at 1,800 meters near Mt. Kusatsu-Shirane, just to the northeast of Kusatsu. Access from Tokyo takes about 3 hours 15 minutes by a combination of shinkansen, local train, and bus.
Not only is Manza one of the highest-altitude onsen in all of Japan, but its water is also among the most acidic—giving it a milky white color and purportedly blessing bathers with various health benefits. The abundance of outdoor baths in Manza Onsen means visitors can see steam rising throughout the town, a particularly picturesque scene among winter snowfall. While in Manza, you may catch a glimpse of Manza Karabuki, an ancient volcanic crater that emits steam and gas nearly constantly. If you visit in winter, try the beginner and intermediate trails of nearby Manza Onsen Ski Resort.
Step back in time with a visit to the remote hot spring resort of Shima Onsen. The central ryokan inn in Shima was the inspiration for the beloved Studio Ghibli animated film “Spirited Away” and retains a feel of bygone days. Despite its secluded feel, Shima Onsen is easy to get to from Tokyo—just 3.5 hours away on a direct expressway bus.
The Shima River runs through the town, and male bathers at the Shima Seiryu no Yu outdoor bath are treated to views of its water. Female bathers have scenic woodland views. Opt for the full onsen experience with a stay at a traditional inn, such as Shima Onsen Kashiwaya Ryokan, Sekizenkan, and Shima Tamura.
Shima’s natural attractions and activities are some of the area’s biggest draws. Take a canoe or stand-up paddleboard tour to experience the vibrant cobalt color of Lake Shima and Lake Okushima, or hike to the Shima Potholes carved in the bed of the Shima River.