att.JAPAN Issue 56, June 2011
Gunma Prefecture, located almost at the center of the Japanese archipelago, is an inland prefecture with 2,000-meter high mountains in the western and northern parts and the Kanto Plain in the southeast. This nature-blessed land with more than 100 hot springs and vast marshlands is known as a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Gunma is roughly divided into five areas.
The Agatsuma Area
– The Agatsuma area is in the northwestern part of the prefecture and blessed with nature, hot springs, valleys, and ski resorts.
Kusatsu Onsen is a famous hot spring with the largest amount of natural hot water in Japan. In the center of the town is Yubatake, the largest hot spring supplying Kusatsu Onsen, with cascading gushes of spring water of as much as 4,000 liters per minute. This dynamic, overwhelming display is a must see.
Netsu-no-Yu is a facility where you can experience yumomi, the traditional process of lowering the temperature of the hot water by stirring it with wooden blades about 1.8 meters long so as not to lose the good benefits of the hot spring water of Kusatsu Onsen by diluting it with cold water.
The water of Kusatsu Onsen is highly acidic and is said to melt a one-yen coin in one week and a big nail in ten days. Th e water is very beneficial; the only disease it cannot cure is said to be lovesickness. There are many day-trip bathing facilities and public baths. Don’t forget to try onsen manju (Japanese steamed cake with a sweet red bean paste filling) and onsen tamago (eggs slowly cooked in hot springs to the point where the whites are still soft but the yolks are slightly hardened) with a custard cream-like texture.
Yugama is a crater lake located at the top of Mt. Shirane about 30 minutes from Kusatsu Onsen by bus. The strongly acidic lake (pH 1.2) is a beautiful emerald green seen against the backdrop of the stark landscape. The mountains are dotted with ski slopes, so this area is also a good place for winter sports.
To the east of Kusatsu Onsen is Shima Onsen, surrounded by mountains. Yamaguchi Rotenburo (open-air bath) along the river is a free public bath open to anyone. The water of Shima Onsen is good for drinking and is believed to cure stomach and intestinal problems. At various locations in the town, you can find places to drink the hot spring water. Don’t drink too much at first. Try a bit and see how you feel. Dishes made with the freshwater fish from the Shima River are a must. There are many different types of hotels in this area, from traditional ryokan (Japanese-style hotels) to modern hotels.
The Tone/Numata Area
– This area provides the beautiful scenery of the valley of the Tone River winding through hot spring villages, outdoor activities in the mountain streams, and the opportunity to hike through one of Japan’s largest marshlands.
Minakami Onsen, located along the Tone River, is famous for its beautiful valley setting. You can relax there in the midst of abundant nature overlooking Mt. Tanigawa-dake. Located east of Minakami Onsen is Takaragawa Onsen with a large open-air bath that is popular. In summer, you can enjoy rafting and canyoning (US: canyoneering) down the valley streams. You may want to try catching trout by hand and picking fruit, or decide to participate in any small local festival you come across. The many winter activities including skiing at Tenjin-daira Ski Resort and snowy nature tours are sure to be fun.
Takumi-no-Sato is a village offering a variety of hands-on activities. You can learn woodwork, bamboo work, indigo dyeing, and straw work from expert artisans at the craft studios. Because the village is large, renting a bike is a good idea.
Oze, the most renowned marshland in Japan, is a popular destination for trekkers. The colonies of white arum and daylilies are breathtaking in early summer, and the beautiful red autumn leaves are splendid in fall. Hatomachi Pass, the starting point for trekking, can be accessed from Numata Station on the JR Joetsu Line. Make sure to prepare for a real mountain hike: wear shoes suitable for climbing and hiking, bring rain gear, and so on.
The West Area
– This area includes many interesting places to visit including Takasaki City, one of the largest commercial cities in Gunma, and Tomioka Silk Mill, Japan’s first mechanical silk mill.
Takasaki City is the local traffic hub and has a bullet train station. The population is 370,000 and is the largest city in Gunma Prefecture. The Byakue-daikannon (a large statue of the Kannon Goddess in a white robe), 41.8 meters high, is located about 20 minutes from Takasaki Station and has been a beloved symbol of Takasaki since its foundation in 1936. The inside of the statue is nine stories high, and, from the top floor is a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains.
Takasaki also has the largest production of papier-mache daruma (Japanese dolls modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism), usually colored vivid red and in a cute round shape. Shorinzan Daruma-ji Temple is the origin of these good luck daruma. The Daruma-ichi (daruma market) is held on January 6 and 7 every year, and the more than 100 stalls selling daruma attract many people. It is about 20 minutes by bus from Takasaki Station to the temple. Daruma can be purchased throughout the year at Daimon-ya across the Usui River from the temple. This shop is popular because you can draw the eyes and/or a mustache on a daruma to make an original face. If you are at Takasaki Station, try the popular Daruma Bento ekiben (box lunches sold at stations).
Tomioka Silk Mill in Tomioka City, the first government-run industrial silk mill, was established in 1872 by the government aiming to modernize the country. In those days, it was one of the largest silk mills in the world. After closing down in 1987, it was designated a national historic site, an important asset with original warehouses and silk reeling factory. Furthermore, it was inscribed on Japan’s World Heritage Tentative List in 2007. When you step into the silk reeling factory, you will be amazed by the huge area without supporting pillars for the silk reeling mill that was operated by 300 workers.
The Central Area
– The area including Maebashi, the prefectural capital city, is home to a variety of distinguished local foods. Ikaho Onsen in the western part is a nostalgic hot spring resort, famous for its stone steps.
Maebashi is located at the foot of Mt. Akagi and is blessed with the beautiful waters of the Tone and Hirose rivers. If you have time, visit the 153-meter-tall prefectural building, the tallest prefectural government building in Japan excluding the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Tower. It offers great views of the mountains from the free observatory on the 32nd floor.
Some of the largest pork shipments in Japan come from Maebashi and it is known for tasty pork. Many restaurants in the city serve a variety of pork dishes, including pork shabu shabu (thinly sliced pork submerged in boiling water for a few seconds, then dipped in a sauce), pork soup, and horumon (pork giblets). You must try souce katsudon (pork cutlet on rice topped with Worcestershire-like sauce), said to have originated in Gunma. The tender pork and crispy batter with sauce-soaked rice is yummy!
The dome northwest of Maebashi Station is the Green Dome Maebashi, Japan’s first allweather indoor track for keirin, track cycling races originating in Japan. Enjoy the unique atmosphere heavy with the excitement of fast racers and the excited audience.
Ikaho Onsen, a hot spring resort located 800 meters above sea level on the slopes of Mt. Haruna, is one of the four major hot spring resorts in the prefecture along with Kusatsu, Minakami, and Shima. The stone stairway at the center of the town is a symbol of Ikaho and game halls and souvenir shops line both sides. Kogane-no-Yu is one of the water sources for Ikaho and is said to have been one since the 6th century. The water is originally transparent but turns brownish-red on contact with the air because the water contains a large amount of iron. The bath of the municipal Ikaho Onsen Rotenburo (open-air bath) is filled with the pure hot spring water, naturally heated and no water added. Ikaho’s must-try food is the brownishred onsen manju, cakes with bean paste similar in color to Kogane-no-Yu. Now, a variety of onsen manju are sold at hot spring resorts all over Japan but Ikaho’s was the first of its kind.
Mizusawa udon (wheat noodles) is a specialty of Mizusawa, a town near Ikaho. It is known as one of the three best udon in Japan, along with Sanuki udon of Kagawa Prefecture and Inaniwa udon of Akita Prefecture. The thick noodles with nice, firm texture pleasantly slip down the throat. There are more than ten udon restaurants in this area alone. Don’t miss this taste treat!
The East Area
– The warm climate and beautiful flowers in this area welcome you.
Kiryu is a town famous for textiles, indicated by the ancient saying “Nishijin (Kyoto) in the West and Kiryu in the East.” The town has many factories with saw-tooth roofs and Western-style houses, which show the town prospered by the fabric industry. Rental bikes are free at some facilities around the north exit of JR Kiryu Station. Ride around and see the interesting architecture.
Watarase Keikoku railway is a private railway running 44.1 kilometers from Kiryu Station to Matou Station in Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture. The train goes through the beautiful valley along the Watarase River. Early summer with the beautiful bright green leaves and fall with the brilliant autumn leaves are particularly recommended. Special torokko trains (tour trains with open carriages) run on weekends and peak tourist seasons.
The region including Ota and Oizumi, located south of Kiryu, has many factories for Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., known for producing Subaru vehicles. Many engineers from various nations live around the factories, and restaurants and supermarkets serve and sell international foods and other products. You may find something you cannot find anywhere else in Japan. Ota’s specialty is yakisoba (wheat noodles stir fried with vegetables and flavored with a Worcestershire-like sauce). Unlike regular yakisoba dishes, Ota’s yakisoba noodles are thick, cooked with cabbage only and flavored with a thick original sauce.
Tatebayashi, located east of Ota, is home to Tsutsujigaoka Park known for its beautiful azaleas. The gorgeous blossoms of more than 50 kinds of azaleas can be seen from late April to early May. Among the unique azaleas, there are large azalea trees 800 to 1,000 years old, and “space azaleas” from seeds that travelled in space for two weeks in the space shuttle Columbia (launched in 1994) with Ms. Chiaki Mukai, the Japanese astronaut from Tatebayashi City.
Gunma Prefecture is a place with a variety of enjoyable things to do and see. Many areas can be reached from Tokyo in only 1-2 hours. Why not include Gunma in your list of travel destinations for this summer?
Ueno (Tokyo)→Naganohara Kusatsuguchi: 2 h 30 min by JR Limited Express “Kusatsu”
Ueno (Tokyo)→Minakami: 2 h 20 min by JR Limited Express “Minakami”
Tokyo→Jomo-Kogen: 1 h 20 min by JR Joetsu Shinkansen
Tokyo→Takasaki: 50 min by JR Joetsu Shinkansen
Tokyo→Annaka-haruna: 50 min by JR Nagano Shinkansen
Tokyo→Maebashi: 65 min by JR Joetsu Shinkansen and JR Ryomo Line via Takasaki Sta.
Tokyo→Kiryu: 100 min by JR Joetsu Shinkansen and JR Ryomo Line via Takasaki Sta.