Ikaho Onsen: Gunma's Unique Onsen Town

Ikaho Onsen: Gunma's Unique Onsen Town

Alison Taylor

While Ikaho onsen in Gunma prefecture isn't the flashiest of hot spring towns, it is still a charming, relaxing place to explore and an easy day trip from Tokyo. The town's history dates back to the warring states period; Ikaho's thermal waters made it a perfect spot for troops to relax, and eventually, Ikaho town was developed. Today, the best way to get to the onsen involves climbing up 365 stone steps but fortunately, there are plenty of stops along the way.

If you start from the bottom near the bus stop and information center, one of the first landmarks you will see is the former villa of the Minister of Hawaii. The villa was built when Hawaii was still an independent kingdom, and it is notable for being one of the few remaining buildings from the Kingdom of Hawaii left in Japan. The villa is a pretty Japanese style wooden house, and the small museum introduces the relationship between Ikaho and Hawaii. For those interested in Hawaiian culture, a Hawaiian festival is held in Ikaho every August. Across the road, you will find the Ikaho checkpoint. The checkpoint was used during the Edo period when travelers were required to have permits. The small museum displays these permits as well as other documents and historical artifacts. Both are free to enter.

From there, you can proceed up the steps to the central part of town. The steps are lined with many cafes, restaurants, and souvenir shops as well as narrow alleys leading to hotels or more shops. One of the quirkier features are the old arcades. Here you can play old fashioned carnival games like ring tosses or shooting games for a few hundred yen. It's a charming look back in time that will obviously appeal to children (and those who are still children at heart). Even if you don't partake, it's worth poking your head inside to see the games and the old posters and ads. Another must-try are the onsen manju. These bean paste filled confections are traditionally cooked by an onsen’s stream though now, the name is used for any manju sold in an onsen town.  These manju originated in Ikaho, and you can find vendors selling them along the stairs. You can also find a free foot bath, which is the perfect way to rest your weary feet after climbing up or down the stairs.

At the top of the stairs, you will find the Ikaho shrine. It was established in 825, with its present structure dating back to 1884, and it is one of the three major shrines of the former Kozuke providence. It's a humble but lovely, peaceful shrine surrounded by trees. It is believed that the god of hot springs and medical care is enshrined there, and given the town's amazing water, it is easy to believe the town is blessed. The shrine also marks the start of a hiking trail that will take you further up the mountain in about 40 minutes

If you follow the path behind the shrine, you can follow the road to the main onsen. It's a quiet, winding mountain road with gorgeous mossy walls and a great lookout point just past the shrine. As you walk, you can see the brown streams that serve as the source of the hot springs, and there is even a spot where you can try the water for yourself. A little before the onsen, you will reach the Kajikabashi bridge. This picturesque vermillion bridge is especially photogenic when the leaves change colors. The trees are even lit up at night in the fall. Regardless of the season, it is one of Ikaho’s most photographed spots, and it is said to be a “power spot.”

The walk up to the onsen is beautiful, peaceful and almost as relaxing as the onsen itself. Of course, Ikaho Rotenburo is the real star. While the facilities of this outdoor bath are sparse and simple, the onsen itself is wonderfully relaxing. The bath is divided into two sections, one for hot water and the other for warm. However, neither baths are scalding hot, and during my summer visit, I didn’t find the temperature overwhelming.  The water is a reddish brown due to the water's high iron content, and it has been dubbed kogane no yu or golden water. It is said to help with a variety of ailments, and it is especially popular for women who are looking to conceive as the waters are said to help with fertility.  While the iron smell does linger, it really does relieve any fatigue. The onsen is set at the edge of the forest so you can bathe surrounded by nature. I really loved being able to look out at the stunning greenery, and the outdoor setting made the onsen all the more relaxing. It’s easy to lose all sense of time here as you soak away your troubles. Entrance is only ¥450 and towels adorned with cute mascots are available for purchase.  Be sure to check out the observation point right across from the onsen where you can see the source of its waters.

Ikaho's other public onsen, Ishidan no Yu, is located at the bottom of the steps. Entrance is only ¥410 to enter these indoor baths. Here you can experience Ikaho's iron rich water, and while the Rotenburo outdoor bath is the more impressive public onsen, it is worth a visit as well, especially for those who prefer an indoor bath. The second floor is also home to a lounge if you enjoy relaxing even more after your bath. There are, of course, many ryokan in the area that offer both shared and private onsen for their guests. Many of these feature kogane no yu, but you can also experience shirogane no yu or silver water, which more closely resembles the typical onsen.

If you are looking to extend your trip, Ikaho can be combined with the other attractions around Mt. Haruna. Buses will take you to Lake Haruna, with its Fuji-shaped conical projection in the center of the lake, or the Hara Museum ARC, a modern art museum. Another popular spot is Mizusawa Kannon, a 1300 year old temple notable for its hexagonal pagoda and its famous udon, is about ten minutes away by bus. The information center as well as many shops and arcades have print outs of the bus timetable though be warned that buses only come once every hour or two.

While Ikaho may not be as esteemed as more famous onsen towns such as Dogo onsen, it is still a worthwhile place to visit. Ikaho offers all the charms of an onsen town–and, of course, a spectacular outdoor bath–as well as unique features that make it a fascinating place to visit. It is about two hours outside of Tokyo, and you can take the train as far as Shibukawa, from which you must take a bus to Ikaho. To Shibukawa, you can take a Shinkansen (bullet train) to Takasaki before transferring to a local train (about an hour and a half and ¥5000) or a direct limited express from Ueno (¥4000). Alternatively, local trains and highway buses are about half the cost if you are on a budget and not in a rush. From Shibukawa, the bus to Ikaho takes about 20 minutes and costs ¥570. Once you alight, the town can easily be explored on foot. If you find yourself in Gunma or the Kanto region which includes Tokyo, Ibaraki, and Tochigi, Ikaho is the perfect place to relax and explore.