Secluded Gunma hot spring resort makes ideal weekend getaway

By Alena Eckelmann

Gunma doesn’t get much respect on the tourist circuit. The landlocked, mountainous prefecture is only a few hours away from Tokyo, yet it seems so far off the beaten track that even the most comprehensive guidebooks barely mention it. Unlike its more popular neighbor, Niigata, Gunma is still a sleeping beauty waiting to be discovered.

Surrounded on three sides by the Joetsu Mountains, with peaks more than 1,000 meters high, the area is prime territory for skiing in winter and hiking during the warmer months. Its remote mountain villages have a rustic, old fashioned charm, and the hospitality of the locals is remarkable. The real reason for putting Gunma on your itinerary, however, is the abundance of onsen to be found there. Japanese spa connoisseurs rank the prefecture among the best places in the entire country for hot water bathing.

One of the approximately 80 hot springs in the prefecture is Shima Onsen, a spa resort that dates back to the 10th century. Its quiet streets are lined with inns, Japanese eateries, shops selling regional delicacies and, of course, hot spring baths. Some of the outdoor tubs were built on the edge of the river, meaning that you can enjoy a soak while listening to the cool stream rushing by, all the while admiring the beautiful scenery and breathing in the pristine mountain air. Dipping after dark is especially recommended, when you can lie back and gaze at the millions of stars in the firmament.

The locals will proudly tell you that the waters of Shima Onsen can cure 40,000 ailments. Rich in sodium chloride, they are believed to be good for treating rheumatism, skin disease and neuralgia, and to cure stomach problems when drunk. (Shima Onsen is apparently one of only 100 onsen in Japan whose waters can be ingested.) Whatever the veracity of these claims, the spa has been declared a National Health Resort by the Japanese government—and there’s no arguing with that.

Shima Tamura Ryokan is one of the oldest inns in the village, run by successive generations of the Tamura family, a local clan with samurai ancestry. Traditions are still very much maintained: upon entering the thatched building, you are greeted by the family crest and a shrine to the ancestors.

There are no less than 10 different baths to choose from, both indoors and some outside, providing many hours of soaking all in one place. The highlights are the Mori-no-Kodama (echo of the forest) rotenburo overlooking the river and the Hinoki-buro, a wooden steam bath where vapor rising through the cypress planks creates a mysterious atmosphere as it envelopes bathers. Unusually for a ryokan, there is also a large outdoor pool, ideal for cool bathing in the summer.

The Tamura estate also includes Tamura Mori, a private forest that stretches out behind the ryokan. Approximately eight times the area of Tokyo Dome, the woods teem with foxes, monkeys and deer. From there, a short hike takes you to other nearby attractions, including Ogura and Maya waterfalls. It’s paradise for nature lovers—and when you’re done, you can always go back for another dip.

Trip Tips

The most convenient way to get to Shima Onsen is by Kanetsu Tour bus, which travels direct to the village from Tokyo Station exit 22. The journey takes four hours and costs 3,000 yen one way or 5,000 yen round-trip. Bus schedules and reservations are available at (Japanese only). English-language information about Gunma Prefecture can be found at To make a reservation at Shima Tamura Ryokan (, call 0279-64-2111 (English spoken).

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (

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8 hours on a bus. Make that 10 hours for getting to Tokyo Station. Not worth it for a weekend break. Especially when you spend Mon-Fri. commuting on public transit.

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I will just fill up my tub with hot water and put in one of those mineral bars.

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"8 hours on a bus. Make that 10 hours for getting to Tokyo Station. Not worth it for a weekend break."

I like a man who stays put.

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cool im may try their hot springs if i ever get to go to japan i realy realy want to go to japan im dying to go i love japanese culture so much.<3

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Ohhh hot spring! i want to go ;D

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8 hours on a bus...boohoo. take the shinkansen to takasaki, then get a bus or local train or both from there. Better yet, take a road trip.

As for the hospitality of the locals...well, Ive been here long enough to know that if you speak Japanese you will get thetime of day, but not much more. Now kyoto, even though I was not allowed into countless bars, the everyday people there were so courteous and friendly it was a shock after being in Gunma for so long.

ALso the comment about fresh air, I guess that place must realy be up in the hills, becase the prefecture has one of the highest percentages of car use per-capita in Japan. In the low-lying cities, it is anything but fresh. Still cleaner than Tokyo though.

But enough negativity, Gunma is huge and empty in many parts. Lots of rivers and mountains and forests, and not that difficult to get to from tokyo. Its only just on the other side of Saitama after all. You dont have to go as far as that place to enjoy some of it. And like I said, shinkansen to Takasaki will get half the journey over in no time. Maybe 2.5 hours on limited express from shinjuku.

I recommend checking out the Minakami area too. Especially if you like outdoor adventure activities such as rafting, caving, or canyoning.

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OK so I exaggerated the comment about the locals, I'll give'em a break, They are really quite lovely once they get to know you...

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