Being something of an onsen enthusiast living in the Kanto region (the area surrounding Tokyo), I have visited the “Big Three” onsen towns of Gunma Prefecture in the north: Kusatsu, Ikaho and Minakami. But Gunma is rich with many other smaller hot spring resorts too, including the delightful Shima Onsen.
Named after the Shima River that roars through the steep valley upon which the onsen town is built, Shima Onsen maintains an old-timey feel. Narrow pathways wind their way through rickety old wooden shacks, and everywhere is the sound of rushing water coupled with that distinctive sulphuric aroma. True, like many other onsen towns Shima has accrued some concrete eyesores, but it more than makes up for that with some invigorating natural vistas.
From the bus drop off point, you're right on the doorstep of Shima’s most famous sight: a little up the street and on your left is Sekizenkan, an onsen hotel. If the red lacquer bridge and handsome wooden facade look familiar, then it's because you've seen them in Studio Ghibli’s movie Spirited Away. Be sure to come back at night for a truly atmospheric sight.
You don’t need to be booked into Sekizenkan to enter, and indeed you should: this historic building is the oldest onsen building in Japan. For a small fee, you can gain entrance to the Roman-style baths, a complimentary towel, and free reign to roam around the corridors of the old main building. Bear in mind that access to non-guests is only open from 10am to 4pm.
From Sekizenkan, follow the winding narrow street opposite. There’s a cluster of earthy restaurants and an old-fashioned games parlour here: the latter is particularly recommended for playing a fun game of pinball (don’t worry, this one isn’t gambling). You’ll eventually cross a bridge and be on the Shima Highway. Follow the road upstream. Urban gives way to rural, and your walk takes you through some stunning valley scenery. Stop by the free open air foot bath on the way to rest and soak in your surroundings.
You'll eventually come to a fork in the road. There's things to see in either direction, so if possible try to leave time to see both. To your left, the valley continues to climb, culminating in the “Gomusou no Yu” (御夢想の湯) hot spring baths. This fetching wooden building is shrouded in legend, said to be the first hot spring to be founded in Shima Onsen. As it sits right at the head of the valley, the steaming waters pack a pretty powerful punch. Best of all, entrance is free!
If you take the fork to your right, you can take the winding road to the top of the Shima Dam. The view from atop is worth the effort, with a lake surrounded by rolling hills. It's especially beautiful in the autumn when the trees flush red, orange and yellow. There's also a very good chance you'll spot some of the wild monkeys here, just don't get too close and never feed them!
And during your travels, you may have noticed that many of these features carry an ink stamp. It's all part of a “stamp rally” challenge that is good fun and anyone can take part in at any time for free. Simply grab one of the blank stamp sheets from any of Shima Onsen’s major attractions and get collecting those stamps! If you collect a certain number, be sure to stop by the tourist information office before you leave to collect your free local gift.
Shima Onsen is a great onsen town that tends to get overlooked for its more famed neighbours. While that is undeserved, take advantage of the quieter surroundings and enjoy some of the best hot springs in the Kanto region.
Shima Onsen is more remote than the more famed onsen hotspots, but that is one of its charms. Head to Nakanojo (中之条) station, about 2 hours from Tokyo station if you're taking the Shinkansen or 3 hours if you're taking the slower trains. From Nakanojo, you'll need to take a 40 minute bus up into the mountains: look for the Number 1 bus stand from the North Exit of Nakanojo station. The last stop the bus makes is Shima Onsen. Upon arrival, be sure to take note of the bus schedule so you can catch your return bus.