Japan has several volcanos and the culture of refreshing one’s body by bathing in hot spring water that has bubbled up from the ground has existed here since long ago. Now, there are expansive baths called yubune, onsen facilities to enjoy, the unique bathing method and way to enjoying the experience which are the culture that Japan prides itself on. You can find these onsen (hot spring) in many places in Gunma.
Considered to be one of Japan’s three most renowned onsen along with Arima and Gero, this famous onsen even took the top place (the Ozeki of the East) in an Edo period ranking of onsen. It also boasts 13 consecutive years as the number one spot in the Top 100 Onsen of Japan. As much as 32,300 liters of natural hot spring water which flows in every minute is the highest flow rate in Japan. This is enough water to fill about 230,000 barrels of water in one day. The minerals contained in the water vary by its source, but the basic composition of the water is acidic, hypotonic, and hot. The onsen water’s special feature is the strong acidity shown by the pH level of 2.1 (at the Yubatake water source). In the area around the symbol of Kusatsu, Yubatake (a wooden facility for thermal morderation of the water), which manages the 4,000 liters of water that flow out of the spring every minute, rows of accommodation facilities and souvenir shops stand and it creates a unique atmosphere of the onsen resort.
Gunma boasts many onsen, but Kusatsu Onsen is particularly famous. One theory claims the name of this onsen came from a passage in the Dai-hannya-kyo (Buddhist scriptures) that refers to a “famous Kusatsu spring in the south.” The Dai-hannya-kyo, which contains as many as 600 volumes, was brought from India to China by the Buddhist monk Xuanzang (also famous from the fictional account of his story in “Journey to the West”) in the Tang period. After that the scriptures were brought across the sea to Japan. Gunma has been connected to the world even before the era of airplanes and Shinkansen. I thought about the ancient past while soaking in onsen with medicinal benefits.
Opened long ago, Ikaho Onsen was mentioned in Manyoshu (the oldest existing collection of poems in Japan which is thought to have been compiled from the late 7th to late 8th century) and texts from the Nanboku-cho period in the 14th century. The stone steps that are the symbol of this onsen resort are said to have been firstly made during Japan’s Warring States period (a period from the end of the 15th century to the end of the 16th where war frequently occurred in Japan) when Takeda Katsuyori* ordered Sanada Masayuki* to build a place for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Nagashino* to recuperate with onsen. On both sides of the stone steps are souvenir shops, game halls and shops selling onsen manju (steamed bun with sweet red bean filling). You can enjoy strolling the stone steps area wearing Yukata as it gives the onsen resort unique atmosphere. Ikaho is also famous as the place where onsen manju originated, and the familiar golden brown coloring of the treat is patterned after “Kogane no yu”, golden-colored hot spring water of Ikaho Onsen. Ikaho Onsen is unique because it features two different sources of onsen: “Kogane no yu” which has existed in Ikaho since the ancient past and “Shirogane no yu” which was confirmed recently.
*Takeda Katsuyori: a famous warrior in the Warring States period.
*Sanada Masayuki: a warrior who worked for Takeda.
* Battle of Nagashino: A battle in 1575 where the allied armies of Oda and Tokugawa defeated Takeda Katsuyori by using firearms, which were a new weapon at the time.
Since the summer home of Robert Walker Irwin, the Hawaiian Minister to Japan from when it was still an independent kingdom, was located here in Ikaho, this town has a deep relationship with Hawaii. The Villa of the Minister from the Former Kingdom of Hawaii is a traditional Japanese-style wooden house built in the beginning of the Meiji period (1868-1912), and it is the only building of the Kingdom of Hawaii left in Japan. Also, since Ikaho has this connection to Hawaii, every summer, Ikaho Hawaiian Festival is held, featuring events like hula sessions (recitals), hula shows, and Hawaiian jam sessions. It envelops the onsen resort in a tropical mood.
Minakami Onsen Area has nine onsen resorts, including Tanigawa Onsen, Takaragawa Onsen, and Yubiso Onsen. The opening of the Joetsu Line at the beginning of the Showa period spread this area’s fame throughout Japan and it is well known as the onsen area loved by many writers such as Dazai Osamu, Yosano Tekkan and his wife Akiko, Kitahara Hakushu, and Wakayama Bokusui. Located in the glan of the Tanigawa mountain range with the flow of clear water of Tone River, this onsen area is truly surrounded by rich nature. Recently, this area has become popular as a spot for outdoor adventure, such as skiing, snowboarding, rafting, and canyoning.
If you want to experience what it felt like to be a writer of the past, how about riding the SL (steam locomotive) “D-51” or “C-61” being run regularly between Minakami and Takasaki Stations on JR Joetsu Line to visit Minakami Onsen Area? The steam locomotive billowing thick smoke as it runs through a majestic natural landscape is a sight to see. There is a place to watch the turntable where the SL’s direction is changed at Minakami Station and the station is filled with railway fans when it’s running.
This onsen resort has a lot of history: legends say it was founded in the start of the Heian period (794-1185), Sakanoueno Tamuramaro (a famous general of the Heian period) bathed there during his campaign of the subjugation of northerners called Ezo. And in 1954, it was chosen as the first Nationally Certified Onsen (onsen areas recognized as having hot spring waters with potential health benefits and wholesome environments) in Japan. The quiet onsen resort spreads out along the bank of Shima River, and it is divided into five areas: Onsenguchi, Yamaguchi, Arayu, Yuzuriha, and Hinatami. The soft water (sodium and calcium chloride, sulfate spring) has an effect on digestive diseases, nerve pain, and skin problems. The water is moist and easy on the skin. Foot baths, public baths, and drinkable springs are in various places in the resort and can be enjoyed at your leisure. Moreover, beautiful natural scenery like Lake Okushima, Maya Falls and Ouketsu (potholes) make this resort a place for nature lovers as well.
Shima Onsen is popular as a quiet place with no bright and bustling facilities because it is a Nationally Certified Onsen. Recently, it is also famous because a ryokan here is one of models for the onsen that appeared in the animated film, “Spirited Away”. Young people taking photographs on the red bridge in front of that ryokan are a common sight. On Route 353 (which leads to Shima Onsen), grooves on the road called “melody line” play the melody of the film’s theme song “Itsumo Nandodemo”.
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