A few weeks ago I ventured north from home in the capital city of Gunma towards Mt. Haruna in search of Ikaho Onsen Town, a small town famous for beautiful mountain views and iron-filled hot springs. Ikaho is easily accessible by car, but for those of us without a set of wheels the trip may seem slightly more daunting. I made the venture on my own via public transportation and a good set of walking shoes, and it made for a wonderful and easy-to-plan day-trip. I highly recommend making this trip to Ikaho if you find yourself with a free day, and I hope my itinerary and experience can be of some help.
I caught an early morning train to Shibukawa Station, the closest possible stop to Ikaho Town and a bus to Ikaho Green Bokujo, a farm area I had heard wonderful things about!
Decked out for the Halloween holiday, this vast petting zoo was the perfect way to spend a Saturday morning. Filled to the brim with adorable little animals – goats, sheep, cows, bunnies – Ikaho Green Bokujo allows visitors the opportunity to see farm animals up close. Very close! Be sure to try your hand at cattle-milking or horseback riding, and taste some of the local dairy products — particularly the ice cream!
In my opinion, the highlight of this stop was undoubtedly the Sheep Dog Show. Much to my surprise and delight, a Kiwi man stepped out onto the field and spoke to the audience in English! When he asked, “Is English okay?” I gave a ‘whoop!’ and then laughed because I was the only person who thought speaking English would be fine! He understandably switched to Japanese for the remainder of the show.
“Ikaho Green Bokujo allows visitors the opportunity to see farm animals up close. Very close!”
The show consisted of three New Zealand sheep dogs wrangling dozens of sheep at the delight of the audience. The dogs were so genki and excited – they fed off the energy of the audience and vice versa! It was a great show!
Though Ikaho Green Bokujo is obviously intended for children, but really was a delight for me as a 20-something-year-old. If not for the opportunity to pet sweet little animals, at least for the chance to stare at the gorgeous mountains surrounding this perfectly maintained patch of greenery.
Across the lot from Ikaho Green Bokujo resides a contemporary art museum! 1000円 will get you in to the Hara Museum ARC which also has a location in Tokyo and is known for it’s Warhols and elaborate installations. It was great to walk around the building itself (it really is a piece of architectural art), quietly observing some of the interesting and some of the strange works that claim residence there.
Next on my itinerary was the Ikaho Sistina Museum which boasts a full-scale recreation of the Sistine Chapel. It is a short walk from the Hara Museum, a quick bus ride, or a cheap taxi fare away. The walls of this museum are painted with works that are specifically meant to be posed with a camera – 3D murals they call, “trick art.” Take some photos of yourself wrangling a whale, in the mouth of a gorilla, or feeding some tame deer! The Sistine Chapel portion of the museum is a theatre featuring more trick art, and a monkey show that plays several times daily.
From there, I took off to the actual town of Ikaho by bus for some lunch and an opportunity to dip into an onsen!
Ikaho town is gorgeous. It’s famous feature is a set of stairs (ishidan gai) that lead to a small temple, lined with shops and restaurants to poke your head in along the way. The steps up to the temple are a blast to walk up; lined with quaint shops, hot springs and hotels. To walk slowly from the bottom step to the top only takes about fifteen minutes, and is a great opportunity to window-shop for a place to eat! I checked out each restaurant as I passed and settled on one cafe that sold burgers and curry (what a combo!).
After sufficiently filling my stomach with delicious curry, I proceeded to the temple at the top of the steps. I snapped a photo or two of the picturesque red structure against the lush green trees, and then headed down the other side of the hill to see what else Ikaho had to offer.
Next, I made my way to the Kajika Bridge, a gorgeous red structure that arches over the orange river below. Yes, an orange river! The waters of Ikaho are filled with iron, turning the rocks into a vivid orange color. I had the chance to taste the warm water as I made my way to the onsen – it was like having a mouth full of coins. Very metallic and supposedly very good for you!
Ikaho is, of course, famous for it’s hot springs and I wanted to check one out for myself. If you have not yet soaked in one of Japan’s thousands of natural hot springs, visiting Ikaho would be starting if off with quite a bang! (Do not forget your onsen etiquette!) Ikaho is said to be one of the top onsen towns in Japan, and certainly one of the best in Gunma, and the natural hot springs here are not only rich in minerals that are wonderful for your skin and health, but very very hot! Most of the onsen will put you back about 500 yen without a towel rental, and is the most popular way to spend an afternoon in the area.
Ikaho Rotemburo is an outdoor bath located up further from the top of the stone steps and features two separate outdoor baths of different temperatures. Ishidan no Yu is an indoor onsen that can be found along the stone steps, and in the building you can view the original stone steps before the reconstruction.
“The natural hot springs here are not only rich in minerals that are wonderful for your skin and health, but very very hot!”
Once I reached the Ikaho Rotemburo onsen, I decided to hit up the foot bath on the Ikaho steps instead. Quick, easy, and the best part: it is free! So, I headed back towards the temple, and back down the steps. About halfway down the steps sits a lovely foot bath with natural running water at a cozy temperature. I dunked my feet in for a while, observing people as they passed by and snapping the occasional photo.
Next up is the Mizusawa Temple, only a short bus ride from Ikaho Town. Unfortunately for me, it was too late in the day to go, but a short taxi ride can get you there in a crunch! Mizusawa Temple boasts many beautiful Buddhist shrines, and is one of the most famous places in Japan for udon noodles. There are many shops along the road, so be sure to grab a bite to eat while you are here!
I definitely recommend Ikaho as a day trip for anyone living in Gunma (or even those interested in spending a few days here). It is a trip that can easily be done without a car. With the admissions to the museums, lunch and transport, I was able to keep the costs under 6000円!
I created an itinerary that will take you from my neck of the woods (Maebashi) to Ikaho and all around the area. During my day trip my plan was not followed very closely, but it may be of use to someone else wanting to venture up north, so feel free to take a look at it here.
For more information on getting to and around Ikaho, visit the Japan-Guide page.
In any case, if you have not already visited Ikaho, I hope you will take the oppertunity to spend a day at this gorgeous local area. Happy Day Tripping!