View of Gunma from the top of Kanayama

5 Little Known Things About Gunma Prefecture Travelers Will Love

Gunma is what I like to call the forgotten prefecture of the Japanese people. There’s a ranking published by the travel industry every year based on how charming people find a prefecture and Gunma ranks second to last.

Which is the problem. If they were last, they’d at least be the butt of jokes. Instead, Ibaraki Prefecture is last — and it’s an open secret they actually take pride in that. Street interviews have Ibaraki residents saying that being last is what they’re famous for, and that they hope things stay that way.

Well, well, well...

I lived in Gunma for two years and nine months. It was where I learnt how to speak better Japanese (parts of the Gunma dialect have become a permanent fixture in my speech, for better or worse), where I learnt how to drive (from scratch, since I didn’t have a driver’s license in my home country) and where, even after nine years in Japan, I feel most comfortable calling my Japanese hometown, even if I don’t live there anymore. (I do live very close by — all it takes to get to Gunma from where I am is to cross a river.) 

Some of you reading might be schooled enough about Japan’s prefectures to boast that yes, of course you know Gunma is home to Kusatsu Hot Springs, and it even has a UNESCO World Heritage site, a silk mill in Tomioka City that was established in the 1800s to introduce silk reeling technology from France. You might even know that Gunma’s mascot, Gunma-chan, is actually a pony, and not a horse.

Photo by エメ on Photozou. Gunma-chan, winner of the 2014 Prefectural Mascot Contest.

But this article is about the stuff that’s pretty much off the beaten track, things that tourists might not even think of associating with Gunma. Over here you won’t be introduced to Mizusawa udon or the international art exhibition Nakanojo Town hosts every other year. You won’t find out about how popular Minakami Town is for this extreme water sport called ‘canyoning’, and neither will you learn about the national park in Oze famous for its unique vegetation. 

Let’s begin.

1. Gunma Has a Safari Park

A rather sad picture of the entrance, but the entrance all the same.

A safari park is, apparently, a type of drive-in zoo. I know I’m saying this as if I’ve never visited before, but I word it thus because it’s still a highly novel concept for me. The zoos I’m familiar with feature animals within enclosures and the humans viewing them from outside; visiting the Tomioka Safari Park was my first time being within an enclosed space while the animals walked freely on the outside.

Giraffes and Park Car

I liked how, if they didn’t have a car, visitors could travel in a bus around the park and even feed the animals with raw meat hanging off the ends of tongs.

Feeding lions from the bus.

I’m not sure about safari parks in other countries, but as far as my virgin experience was concerned, Tomioka Safari Park brought me closer to animals than I’ve ever been.

It’s worthy to note that as far as safari parks in Japan are concerned, they aren’t unique to Gunma — there are roughly 10 such parks around Japan — but the one closest to Tokyo is this one. It’s worth the 2-hour train ride if you’re interested in animals, or have kids who are.

Tomioka Safari Park

1 Okamoto, Tomioka-shi, Gunma

Admission fees: 2700 yen (high school - adults), 1400 yen (3 years old - junior high)

2. Gunma Has Some Uniquely Curated Museums

Travel back in time and catch a glimpse of the retro Showa era (1926 to 1989).

Ikaho, a hot spring town, is home to some interesting museums. There’s the Life and Sex Museum, showcasing exhibits that detail the human life cycle from conception to death, and the Ikaho Papercutting Art Museum, where one can view various papercutting art exhibits and even try a hand at making their own. I’ve not been to either of these museums, mainly because they’re not Ikaho’s most visited — that title belongs to the Ikaho Toy, Doll and Car Museum. It’s unique because it doesn’t specialize in one thing — it has a Showa-esque section housing bromides of entertainers of that time, imported teddy bears, classic Japanese cars…The list goes on.

Shateki, a simple carnival game in which you collect the prize you shoot.
The large photo features The Drifters, a boy band that’s been active since 1964. They were the opening act for The Beatles’ first Japan concert.
Bears!
More bears!
More toys!
Japanese puppets — kind of creepy, to be honest, but still cool.
The car from Initial D!

Initial D is a manga that many car enthusiasts who are also into Japan will be familiar with. Set in Gunma, it was published in 1995 and serialized up until 2013, it’s about a high schooler whose family runs a tofu business — he delivers tofu in the family car, hones his driving skills through it, and eventually vows to be the best street racer in all of Gunma. It really put Gunma Prefecture on the map for a niche group of people!

Other cool cars that were nice to look at!
I don’t know why, but there’s a (live) squirrel exhibit here too. You can purchase feed to drop it into a little case at the bottom (shown in the second picture) for the squirrels to collect and eat.

If you’re in Ikaho for the hot springs and aren’t in the mood for nature activities, I’d recommend a trip to this museum. There’s lots more these pictures don’t cover: a wines-and-beers-of-the-world section, retro cinema exhibits, and even some Japanese pro-wrestling collections. You also get to decorate your own Kewpie doll free-of-charge, and bring it home as a souvenir:

You draw on skin-coloured doll ‘shells’ with markers and get these!

Note: The Kewpie doll decoration has been suspended until further notice due to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The Ikaho Toy, Doll and Car Museum

2145 Kaminoda, Yoshioka-machi, Kitagunma-gun, Gunma

Admission fees: 1100 yen (adults), 880 yen (students), 440 yen (children)

3. Gunma Has a Braziltown

Records show that Japan has the highest number of Portuguese speakers in Asia, largely due to their significant Brazilian population, and one of the places in Japan with the highest concentration of Brazilians is Oizumi, Gunma. The Brazilian presence is even felt in neighboring cities — Ota City, where I lived for almost three years, has a large mall that has signage written in Portuguese:

Aeon Mall Ota, with the sign for the entrance in Japanese, English and Portuguese.

Personally, I’d never met anyone from Brazil or had Brazilian food before coming to Japan, but the Brazilian presence is so strongly felt in Gunma that before having to network for long, I was meeting people who had roots in Brazil or were half-Brazilian.

Many Brazilians who come to work in Japan are descended from Japanese Brazilians who had gone to live in Brazil. When Japan relaxed immigration policies for people of Japanese descent in 1990, a large number of Brazilians came to live in the industrial neighborhood of Oizumi, gaining employment at the factories in the town.

A big draw of Oizumi is the food. My favourite restaurant is Restaurante Brasil. Here, you can savour authentic churrasco while enjoying amazing choices from the salad bar:

A sampling of churrasco!
A lovely meal which included feijoada, a meat and black bean stew, and farofa, toasted cassava flour, to be eaten with rice. For good measure, I ordered Guarana, a Brazilian soft drink that’s made from the fruit of the same name.

Oizumi also seems very different from other cities and towns around it. I’ve always thought there’s a lot more greenery, and roads seem a lot wider. Here are some pictures to give you an idea of how the neighborhood is like:

A rather uniquely-coloured lamp post for Japan, don’t you think? Yellow and green are the colours you’ll see often in Oizumi! (It’s a coincidence that those are the colours for the prefectural bank, Gunma Bank, as well)
An apartment building with shops on the first floor. None of the signs are in Japanese!
One of the local supermarkets.

I would highly recommend you visit Oizumi Town for the food. The atmosphere is definitely interesting for a seasoned traveller to Japan, so if you’re curious about how a foreign culture blends into a Japanese one, this might just be the place for you too.

Restaurant Brasil

Website

5 Chome-5-3 Nishikoizumi, Oizumi, Ora District, Gunma

How to Get to Oizumi Town

If you’re coming in from Tokyo, take the train to Nishi-koizumi Station (Tobu Koizumi Line) or take a train to JR Kumagaya Station (in Saitama Prefecture) and ride the bus to Oizumi from the North Exit (head to Bus Stop 6 and wait for the bus that says “For Nishi-koizumi Station” [西小泉駅行]; roughly 50 minutes and 510 yen one-way).

4. Gunma Has a Unique Type of Castle Ruins

The entrance to the ruins.

If you’ve visited Japan to see the vestiges of ancient Japanese history with your own eyes, you’re the sort who’d know that castle ruins dot all of the Japanese islands, with some more well-known than others. Ota’s isn’t extremely famous, but it certainly is unique: the Kanayama Castle Ruins sit atop the Kanayama Mountain (‘Golden Mountain’), making it one of the few castle ruins in Japan that show how Japanese hill castles looked like in ancient times.

A hill castle is a type of castle that is built into an elevated landscape, instead of on lowland. Kanayama Castle is thus said to have provided a bird’s eye view of the city, as shown in this picture taken from a platform that’s set on the top of the mountain:

The platform! Note that this is not a restored feature, but a structure erected by the restoration team.

The ruins themselves might not be impressive to the layman, but history buffs will recognize that these remnants of the Sengoku period document things relevant even to the people of today, like military tactics, transport and irrigation systems, and architectural techniques.

This is a defense feature of the west wing of the castle. The stone walls are meant to intimidate the attacker, and beyond these walls there are multiple paths that function as a maze for the purpose of deterring enemies.
View of Gunma from the top of Kanayama
View from the top.

There is also a guidance centre for people interested to find out more about the ruins. This guidance centre was designed by renowned architect Kengo Kuma, who is responsible for buildings such as the New National Stadium, to be used for the Tokyo Olympics, and the Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Tokyo.

Guidance Center. Photo by Toru Iizuka from Wikimedia Commons. Definitely one of the fanciest buildings in Ota!

Ota is easily accessible from Tokyo, and you have the option of taking the cheaper, local Tobu Isesaki Line that trundles through Saitama and stops at every stop, or the express Ryomo train that brings you from Kita-senju or Asakusa to Ota in about an hour and a half. Both are on the Tobu Line; details for the Ryomo are here.

5. Gunma Has 10 Musical Roads

Melody Line ahead! Do you see the cartoon character on the sign? That’s Gunma-chan, Gunma’s forever-seven-year-old, genderless mascot pony.

In some countries around the world, there are some special roads that play a melody when you drive over them at a designated speed. To the naked eye, the road looks like any other road, but there are actually grooves in the road which cause the car to vibrate, and spacing out different sections of groves would give rhythm to the melody. Japan is one of those countries with such musical roads, and Gunma is home to 10 of them, the most in any prefecture.

The following pictures were taken by my spouse. It features the Melody Line that straddles Kiryu City and Midori City on National Route 122, the musical road closest to where we used to live.

That sign there marks the beginning of the musical road. It says that if you drive at 50 km/h, you’ll be able to hear the tune of Usagi to Kame (‘The Hare and the Tortoise’).

According to Gunma Prefecture’s website on its melody roads, there are three purposes to having the Melody Lines (that’s what the prefecture calls their musical roads):

  • To tame the speed of cars, since drivers will have to slow down to hear the music.
  • To awaken sleepy drivers, since a melody suddenly playing in the car will startle someone.
  • To improve the area’s image as a sightseeing spot, since the melodies are related to the place.

Regarding #3: The road in Kiryu-Midori, for example, features a nursery song with lyrics composed by a songwriter, Ishihara Wazaburou, who was from Midori City. Another road in Takayama Village plays When You Wish Upon a Star from the Disney movie Pinocchio because the Gunma Astronomical Observatory is located in the village.

Find out where you can drive on Gunma’s melody roads in the map below.

There are so many things to appreciate about Gunma and these five have barely scratched the surface, but I hope through this article you’ve seen what is special about Gunma, and perhaps, just perhaps, that would help you recognize that it deserves way more than a second-last place on a list of charming prefectures.

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