Let’s Go to Ikaho In Gunma! Awesome Onsen, Autumn Leaves, and Ancient Temples Just a Stone’s Throw from Tokyo
Ikaho is a small town in the mountains of central Gunma Prefecture, which lies to the north of Tokyo. Among Japanese people, it is a popular getaway spot nestled in a beautiful location that is far less crowded than other onsen towns located close to Tokyo. However, it is far less known to international tourists, which is surprising given all of its charm. I recently took a two-day trip to Ikaho and came back with great new memories of hot springs, udon noodles, kokeshi dolls, mystical “power spot” shrines and temples, and so much more.
Dec 15 2021 (Dec 27 2021)
*This article was written in collaboration with Gunma Prefecture
How I Planned My Trip to Ikaho
I had heard the name Ikaho in passing before but didn’t actually know where it was or what it had to offer until I came across it on a website called Visit Gunma. The wonderful thing about Visit Gunma is that the information is coming directly from the prefecture itself, and many of the spots introduced have “Gunma Excellence” certification, meaning the prefectural government has verified that they are suitable for foreign visitors, with foreign language support and signage, free Wi-Fi, and western-style toilets (hurrah for not worrying about squat toilets!).
Once I saw the eye-catching picture under the category “Relaxation,” which showed an open-air onsen bath with colorful leaves outside, I knew I wanted to go there. I opened the page about Ikaho and started looking through the sights. One of the coolest features of Visit Gunma’s site that I’ve never seen elsewhere is the Plan Your Trip feature. This feature will automatically plan and optimize your travel itinerary around your selected destination and save it for you on an interactive map that you can bring up later while traveling around.
As you browse through the sights, restaurants, activities, etc. on Visit Gunma, all you have to do is tap a button to add the spot to your trip.
This is how I went about figuring out where we would go on our short two-day getaway to Ikaho that we took in early November, 2021.
Day One: Noodles, Dolls, Cars, and Foliage
Our first day was a busy one, and I still can’t believe how many sightseeing spots we managed to hit in one day. We got up bright and early and left Tokyo Station on a Tanigawa Shinkansen bullet train heading north on the Joetsu Line. The shinkansen was speedy, smooth, and took us 100 km north of Tokyo to our destination of Takasaki, Gunma in just 50 minutes. From there, we walked to the rent-a-car shop minutes from the station to begin the quick drive up into the mountains.
Should You Rent a Car?
It’s definitely possible to enjoy a trip to Ikaho using only public transit, but if you’ve only got a couple of days like us and you want to enjoy more sights in the nearby area, I highly recommend renting a car. The good news for those who may feel uncertain about driving on the left side of the road in a foreign country is that Gunma is very rural, and the roads are wide and well-maintained for the most part. Just be sure to get the full insurance coverage just in case, and you won’t have to worry about anything.
First Stop: Usaburo Kokeshi
The first stop on our itinerary was a kokeshi doll workshop called Usaburo Kokeshi. In case you aren’t familiar with them, kokeshi are wooden dolls that have been made in Japan for over 150 years. They originated in the Tohoku region of northern Japan and were traditionally shaped like a peg. A more modern and free form of kokeshi was born here in Gunma, seeing the creation of kokeshi of various shapes, sizes, colors, and designs that are quite popular to this day. One of the oldest workshops in the area is Usaburo, which continues to produce some 15,000 kokeshi per month.
If you’re fascinated by the craftsmanship that goes into these dolls or looking for an excellent souvenir to bring home, you’ve got to make a stop here while in Gunma. You can watch the artisans at work as they create kokeshi, see the incredible works of kokeshi art on display in the second floor gallery, shop for the perfect kokeshi to bring home, and even try your hand at painting your own kokeshi.
This is what I wanted to do, and I spent an hour creating my own custom doll to take home to my daughter. You can freely use the workspace and paint for just the price of the blank doll of your choice (mine was just 2,200 yen incl. tax) and decorate it in any way that you please. I was inspired by a collection of antique kokeshi shaped like tanuki upstairs in the gallery, so I decided to make a tanuki kokeshi of my own. I think it turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself.
Ikaho Toy, Doll, and Car Museum: Retro Japan and Popular Anime Initial D
Our next stop was the Ikaho Toy, Doll, and Car Museum, located just a 3-minute drive up the road from Usaburo. The museum is quite large and displays an eclectic mix of, well, toys, dolls, and cars. However, I don’t think the name does justice to the exciting and surprising exhibits you’ll find inside!
For me, the best part was the Showa Retro Park section of the museum which basically felt like being on an old Japanese movie set. There were various rooms with recreations of Showa era (1926 - 1989) shops showing off a huge collection of antique toys, games, prizes, and candies.
In one room, a line of pinball-like games were available to try out for 300 yen. Just like in the old days, if you got a high enough score, you could win a prize. I gave it my best shot, and managed to win a retro paper toy. When I asked about the game, I found out that it is actually the predecessor to pachinko, the Japanese gambling machines that are still quite popular today.
Other than the retro area, the display that most caught my interest was the exhibit featuring props from Initial D, the famous manga and anime series about drifting that is set in the area around Ikaho. Inside on the museum’s second floor is a recreation of the storefront of the tofu shop from the series.
The set is made from actual parts of the real-life tofu shop that it was based on, which was located in nearby Shibukawa City until it closed in 2006. Parked in front of the shop is the infamous black and white Trueno AE86, as well as a yellow RX-7 that used to belong to Shuichi Shigeno, the author of the series. Down in the gift shop, too, were a collection of Initial D-themed items, including T-shirts, noodles, and even a real license plate from the protagonist’s car!
There were many other interesting exhibits in the museum, including showrooms lined with vintage Japanese cars, a collection of British Mini cars, a “Military” section with full-sized tanks, rooms full of teddy bears of all sizes, and other rooms full of antique Japanese hina dolls! You could easily spend several hours wandering through the museum without running out of new things to discover.
Lunch: Mizusawa Udon at Tamaruya
Just a little bit up the road from the museum is a street that winds up the mountain and is lined with restaurants all serving the same thing: Mizusawa udon. Many parts of Japan have their own special type of udon noodles, each with a slightly different recipe, shape, flavor, texture, etc. Out of the famous types of udon, Mizusawa udon has a long history and is considered to be among the three best in Japan. It originated as a souvenir sold to visitors to Mizusawa Kannon Temple more than 400 years ago and continues to be popular to this day. Everyone who visits Ikaho has to try this famous local specialty for at least one meal!
We knew that we wanted to visit a restaurant called Tamaruya, which is located at the very top of the street, near the gate to the temple. Tamaruya was founded in 1582, and is said to be the birthplace of Mizusawa udon. Once we tried the noodles for ourselves, we knew we had chosen the right place to eat! The noodles gave off a sweet aroma of wheat and were sumptuous, chewy, and utterly delicious. Compared to standard udon, I would describe Mizusawa udon as having a slightly softer texture and exceptional fragrance suiting a variety of seasonings.
Since there were two of us, we ordered two different meals to compare. The first was Tamaruya’s signature Hotei-sama Fukuzen set(1,980 yen incl. tax), which came with classic Mizusawa Udon noodles, seasonal tempura, and three more side dishes. The noodles were intended to be enjoyed by dipping them into a thick sesame sauce or soy-based sauce, both of which were delicious. The noodles on their own have a wonderful texture and flavor, and we even tried dipping them into the tempura salt to delicious effect. The variety of the meal was delightful.
However, I was also intrigued by the Koden Kirimugi (1,210 yen incl. tax), which was a simple bowl of thick, whole wheat noodles served in the broth they were cooked in. When I asked about them, I was told that they are a Tamaruya original creation that are intended to really show off the natural sweetness and aroma in the wheat itself. This is why they are served simply with salt from Okinawa and olive oil, which you dip them into as you eat. Long ago, udon noodles used to be made of whole wheat, and these noodles are supposedly a recreation of the original form with a modern twist in the seasoning.
Both of the meals were fantastic, and we left the restaurant filled with renewed energy, ready to take on the rest of the day.
Mizusawa Kannon Temple: A Spinning Pagoda and Local Sake!
Just steps away from where we had our lunch is a temple called Mizusawa Kannon. The temple complex is located at the top of a very steep set of old stone steps, and as soon as you enter through the large red gate, you can feel the ancient and mystical energy of the area.
The first thing that caught my eye was an enormous tree that is more than 700 years old which stands on the side of the premises. The tree had a certain presence, and it felt like it was watching over the temple. However, we found out that the temple has actually been here much longer than the tree, dating back over 1,300 years.
We prayed at the main temple building before moving on to the most interesting thing at Mizusawa Kannon—a large pagoda that is designated as an Important Cultural Property of Gunma Prefecture. Whereas most pagodas you’ll find can only be admired from the outside, this one is actually a prayer wheel that anyone can take a turn to push. It’s believed that if you push the wheel three times around while thinking of a wish, it will come true.
After making our wishes, we looked around the rest of the temple and found a few little shops selling tasty snacks and goodies to bring home at the other end of the complex. One shop had a line of sake bottles on display, and as we stood outside, the shopkeeper called out to us in a very friendly voice to invite us in for free samples of delicious jet black steamed manju he said were made with bamboo charcoal, matcha, and adzuki beans. He spoke in English and said that he once lived in New York, so we had a great time chatting. We asked about the sake and he said that it is a special local sake called Gotokusan, which was named and blessed by the head priest at the temple. Apparently, this shop here is the only place in the world where you can buy it!
After I heard that, I had to try some, so I bought a small bottle for just 580 yen. (Upon my return home I tried it and can report that it is excellent.) We left the temple with sake bottles in hand and climbed back down the very steep steps to our car (although we later realized that there is also a parking lot up at the level of the temple, so it’s possible to get there without having to climb the steps).
The Center of Ikaho: A Long Stairway Lined With Shops
Driving a bit further into the mountains, we finally arrived at the town of Ikaho, which is centered around a very long flight of 365 stone steps that climb up the mountainside. This is the liveliest part of town, and even on a Monday there were quite a few visitors making their way up and down, visiting the various eateries, shops, and souvenir stalls along the way. Our main destination was Ikaho-jinja Shrine, which sits at the very top of the stairs overlooking the town and surrounding mountains.
On our way up, we passed several stalls selling finger food, but one in particular that caught our eye was an old shop run by an elderly man selling skewers of what looked like “dango” (boiled rice dumplings) dipped in a soy sauce glaze. They turned out, however, to be “konnyaku,” a stiff, chewy jello-like food made from a particular type of potato that Gunma is known for. When we asked, he told us that the konnyaku was homemade (one skewer of Tama Konnyaku for 100 yen), and indeed it had a lovely (almost crisp?) texture that paired deliciously with the soy sauce coating. Apparently the shop is quite popular, because he sold out right after I bought my skewer.
After meandering up the steps and making a couple more stops in a few shops, we finally arrived at Ikaho-jinja Shrine, just as it started to rain. The shrine is fairly small, but boasts a long history stretching back to the 9th century and enshrines two gods related to onsen and healing (very fitting for the shrine’s location close to the source of Ikaho’s precious hot spring water). We said a prayer at the main building and then looked around to see if we could catch a glimpse of the mountain scenery, but were unable to see much now that the rain had settled in. Instead, we headed back down the steps, which were now illuminated with strings of overhead lights! The lights added a touch of magic to the scene, and the rainwater on the stone created beautiful reflections, giving the poor weather an upside.
Our Hotel In Ikaho
If you visit Ikaho, I recommend going all-out and enjoying a stay at a “ryokan” (traditional Japanese inn) for the full Japanese hospitality experience. If this sounds like your cup of tea, Oyado Tamaki is the perfect place for such an experience. Tamaki is an onsen ryokan with a long history and excellent location right at the bottom of the stone steps in the center of town. As with any high-end ryokan, a room here is a bit pricey, but for the money you’ll get a wonderful, authentic Japanese stay with incredibly delicious home-cooked “kaiseki” (course) meals and access to some wonderful hot spring baths.
Since we planned so many activities for our trip and wouldn’t be spending much time at our lodgings, we opted this time to stay somewhere less expensive, and chose the Stayview Ikaho. The hotel is located right across the street from Tamaki, and is actually run by the same company, so the rooms have an excellent finish that is both comfortable and affordable.
There are no meals included with the stay, so instead you’ll have to go out on the town yourself and find a place to eat like we did. Luckily, the building directly next-door contains a delicious ramen shop where I got the Shunkashuto Ramen, which was crammed full of toppings including chashu, nori, and a boiled egg for just 800 yen (incl. tax).
There are also no onsen baths at the Stayview Ikaho, which is perhaps the main reason why people come to stay in Ikaho. However, for just 1,000 yen you can get access to the amazing baths at Tamaki next door, which is what we did to enjoy a soak before bed. The hotel even has yukata robes and sandals that you can wear as you walk to and from the bath, just like at a ryokan. Overall, it was a great deal and we had a lovely stay.
Kajika Bridge: Idyllic Japanese Autumnal Scenery
After dinner, our very last stop for the day was the Kajika Bridge, a famous spot in Ikaho to see autumn leaves. During peak color season, the bridge is illuminated at night, meaning you can enjoy the gorgeous scenery even after nightfall.
It was obvious once we arrived why the spot is so well-known. Old maple trees with large branches draped with colorful leaves surround a traditionally shaped Japanese pedestrian bridge, forming an idyllic scene. We were told that we had missed peak color by just a few days, but even still, it was breathtaking. Although it was dark and drizzling, there were quite a few people there, and it definitely felt like the place to be on an autumn night in Ikaho. If you visit in the autumn, be sure not to miss a visit to Kajika Bridge.
Mt. Haruna: Beautiful Views (Unless There’s a Rainstorm)
On the second day, we awoke to pouring rain and wind; definitely not ideal weather for our plan of visiting Mt Haruna. Mt. Haruna is a dormant volcanic peak that, along with Lake Haruna at its base, is the premier spot for outdoor activities in the area. There are many hiking trails around the mountain and surrounding area, including a trail that leads to the summit, while boating and fishing can be enjoyed in the lake. For those who wish to go to the top of the mountain without hiking (a.k.a. us), there is also a ropeway that sweeps you to the top in just a few minutes.
On a clear day, the view from the mountain is supposed to be spectacular, offering unbroken views that can even extend as far as Mt. Fuji to the south. Unfortunately for us, the rain and fog concealed all traces of this view, and we felt instead as if we were inside a cloud.
After getting off the lift, we climbed some stairs that led a bit further up to the high point, where we found a small shrine called Haruna Fuji Shrine. We said a quick prayer, and then headed back down while trying to avoid being blown over by the gusting wind. Hopefully we can come back again on a sunny day in the future to see the stunning view from the top.
Lunch at Okkirikomi no Furusato: Eating Like a Gunma Local
Our next stop after the morning of hiking in the rain was a restaurant called Furusato, which serves a local Gunma specialty called “okkirikomi.” Okkirikomi is a hearty noodle soup made with seasonal vegetables and special wide udon noodles.
In contrast to the Mizusawa Udon that we had yesterday, which has always been served as a high-end meal for visitors, okkirikomi is a comfort food typically enjoyed at home by locals.
There are many restaurants across Gunma prefecture that include okkirikomi on their menu, but only about four that specialize soley in the dish. Furusato is one of these restaurants, and the okkirikomi that we ate here was outstanding. Okkirikomi is traditionally made in a large pot, where all the ingredients are cooked together, including the noodles. For this reason, the noodles are wide and thick so that they don’t turn too soft and fall apart. Also, as compared to normal udon noodles, which are made with quite a bit of salt in the dough, the udon noodles in okkirikomi have very little or no salt, and instead get their flavor from the soup broth, which is rich and delicious.
We tried both a normal bowl of okkirikomi and a bowl that had the addition of a green chili pepper paste to give it a kick. As we were a bit cold and damp, it was truly the perfect thing to eat, and it warmed us up from the inside out. It’s easy to see why the locals love okkirikomi so much, and I could imagine eating the dish regularly at home.
Seihoutei: Local Ikaho Sweets to Take Home
One of the local specialties you can find at many shops and stalls in Ikaho is a type of sweet steamed manju called Yu no Hana manju. These treats are a clump of sweet red bean paste encased in a light and thin yet fluffy skin.
One of the most popular places to get these manju is a shop called Seihoutei that is fairly close to the center of town. The popular shop has a long display case filled with boxes of various sizes that are perfect for souvenirs, and in the back you can see the dumplings being made in an open kitchen. We opted for a pack that included both the classic brown Yu no Hana manju and a white version filled with Japanese chestnut paste.
Each shop that makes Yu no Hana manju has a slightly different recipe, and there are subtle differences between the flavors of each. Seihoutei’s have a delicate skin that is a bit saltier than others, creating a lovely contrast to the sweetness of the filling. Both of the flavors in our box of manju were delicious, and they made for a perfect snack on the shinkansen ride home.
Ending Our Journey
After stopping to pick up the manju, we began our drive back to Takasaki to return the rental car before making our way home to Tokyo by shinkansen. Although the weather was a bit disappointing, we managed to have a great little getaway while enjoying a variety of activities along the way. Luckily, it was really easy to figure out our itinerary thanks to the info and trip planner tool on the Visit Gunma website. I’m glad we chose Ikaho, and I’m looking forward to going back again for another visit! If you’re seeking a special experience at an onsen town with easy access from Tokyo, I highly recommend Ikaho.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.