Minakami Onsen is located in northern Gunma Prefecture along the Tone River with the Tanigawa mountain range visible from the town. Mt. Tanigawa-dake is the most famous mountain in the range and as a favorite with many climbers has led to the town becoming something of a climbing base.In the town itself, the Tone River is a hot spring area of breathtaking natural beauty long enjoyed by literary types including poets and novelists such as Akiko Yosano, Osamu Dazai, Bokusui Wakayama and Hakushu Kitahara.
In 1563 a Buddhist monk at Kenmei-ji Temple in the town was the first to notice the clouds of steam rising from the area around the bottom of the cliffs bordering the Tone River and upon taking a closer look noticed naturally heated water gushing from a cave halfway up the cliff face. Wanting to use this water to bless people in his services he then faced the predicament of how to transport the water away from the cave. Ingenuity came to his rescue however, as he filled cracks in the rocks with clay to create a smooth, watertight surface but when that failed, his prayers to Buddha coupled with the reciting of sutra led to him mixing small stones (on which he had written sutra texts) in with the clay to enable him to make a pipe of sorts Ð capable of carrying the liquid.
There is another anecdote concerning the origins of the hot spring though with some saying that 400-years-ago, a monk visiting the village saw the same clouds of steam from the same cliff by the river and over a period of 3 years piled up enough stones to create a kind of aqueduct-cum-pipe to transport the water to the village. Strangely, after achieving his goal one day in August, the monk vanished leaving only his straw sandals as proof of his existence.
Minakami Onsen is 2 hours from Tokyo on the Kan-etsu Highway or, by train, 1 h 20 mins on the Shinkansen Bullet train or 2 hours on regular JR limited express.