Top 20 Things to Do in Gunma and Niigata Prefectures - Explore the Hidden Traditional Side of Japan!
Many people want to visit Japan because they love its traditional side. However, not many international tourists know of Gunma and Niigata, two prefectures close to Tokyo that beautifully showcase the traditional side of the country. Both prefectures are teeming with ancient shrines and temples and are well known for all kinds of traditional crafts, such as the beloved daruma doll. They also happen to be excellent tourist destinations in general, with the perfect landscapes for nature photography and a wide variety of outdoor sports. So, in a bid to introduce more people to these two stunning regions, we’ve compiled some of the top things to do and places to visit in Gunma and Niigata.
Mar 11 2021
*This article was written in collaboration with the Hokuriku-Shin'est District Transport Bureau, Gunma Prefecture, and Niigata Prefecture.
Gunma is an exciting quick getaway for the residents of Tokyo, being just 50 minutes away by shinkansen (bullet train). The landlocked prefecture is renowned countrywide for its hot springs and gorgeous mountainous landscape, the latter of which makes it an amazing place for all sorts of outdoor activities, such as hiking, skiing, and rafting. It also has a rich history that can really be seen in the many small cities and towns that dot its lands, offering a more nostalgic look into Japan.
Whether you’re completely new to Japan or an experienced tourist looking to explore a lesser-known side of the country, there’ll definitely be something about Gunma that you’ll fall in love with. So, below, we cover ten places within this prefecture that we believe best show off the charms of the region.
Classic Spots to Visit in Gunma Prefecture
Kusatsu Onsen: One of the Top Three Hot Springs in Japan
Situated deep in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture, Kusatsu Onsen is one of Japan’s top three hot spring villages, boasting the largest natural spring water output of any hot spring in the country.
Each year, around three million people visit Kusatsu Onsen to bathe in its hot spring waters, once said to have amazing health benefits by German doctor Erwin von Baelz, who served at Japan’s imperial court back in the 1800s. What kind of health benefits, you may ask? According to some people, “it can cure any ailment except heartache.” In fact, a recent study has shown that its waters can even inactivate up to 99% of COVID-19!
Many of the hot spring bathing facilities in Kusatsu Onsen are centered around the Yubatake, one of the area’s main sources of hot spring water. The Yubatake is a sight to see in itself, but there’s more to the area than just hot springs. You can go hiking over at Mt. Shirane, a series of peaks just outside of the town that give exceptional views of the surrounding mountain ranges, between mid-April to early November. In the winter, enjoy a day of skiing and other winter activities. Whatever your interest, there’s something for you at Kusatsu Onsen!
Haruna Shrine: A Serene Getaway
This 1,400-year-old shrine is located within the forests of Mt. Haruna in central Gunma. It is the prefecture’s top “power spot,” which is a term that refers to the spirituality of a place. Despite being precariously situated on top of a cliff, it has remained in place for years, garnering the shrine a reputation among test takers and job hunters for granting good luck and success. Many visitors also come to pray for bountiful harvests, happiness in marriage, and prosperity with business.
What’s interesting about this shrine is its buildings. The six buildings that line its 150,000 sq.m. grounds are designated as National Cultural Heritage Sites, and many of them have beautiful carvings that are worth observing up close. The main shrine, called the “Honden,” is also unique for its architecture, having been built against and partially into the mountain cliff’s walls.
Another reason why many people like to visit Haruna Shrine is because of how peaceful the trip is. The road leading up to the shrine is 700 meters long. It follows a bubbling brook and takes you through a forest filled with giant, ancient cedar trees. This makes for an incredibly relaxing, spiritual walk, especially in the early morning.
Shorinzan Daruma-ji Temple: A Daruma Doll Paradise
Built in 1697, this temple stands out from among the rest for its extravagant display of Japanese daruma dolls in every corner of its premises. These popular eyeless dolls are good luck charms; you fill in its left eye (your right) when you make a wish, and once that comes true, you fill in its right eye (your left). At the end of the year, locals bring the doll back to the temple and burn it, then buy another doll for the upcoming year.
If that sounds interesting, we're sure you're raring to buy your own daruma doll here. However, daruma dolls are not the only thing that keep people coming back. Shorinzan Daruma-ji Temple displays all sorts of daruma dolls throughout its premises and even has a museum showcasing more non-traditional daruma dolls. This makes for amazing pictures and an even more interesting time.
If you can, we recommend visiting on the 6th or 7th of January, which is when the temple hosts a daruma doll market, the Daruma Ichi. This is the best time to purchase a daruma doll if you’re looking for a little good luck for the following year! Other things you can do at the temple that involve daruma dolls include painting your own daruma doll or adding your name to one. For more details, please check the temple’s official website.
Tomioka Silk Mill: A Key Contributor to the Modernization of Japan
Established in 1872, Tomioka Silk Mill is the first modern silk factory in Japan. It was one of many efforts by the government at the time to modernize Japan. The result was a smashing success that earned Japanese silk the status of a major international commodity and made the textile industry Japan’s most important industry for many years. In 2014, the mill finally earned a designation as a World Heritage Site for its important role in Japanese history.
Although the silk mill stopped operating many years ago, thanks to the efforts of many, the factory and all its buildings are still in amazing condition today. You can actually go on a guided tour around the silk reeling mill and the east warehouse! There are several exhibits detailing the silk production process in English and multilingual audio guides (200 yen; supports Japanese, English, French, Chinese, and Korean) for those who don’t understand Japanese.
When you do visit, we recommend observing the architecture as well. The factory was built with guidance from French specialists, and this is reflected not just in the modern machinery used but also in the building design. You can read more about how our trip to this history-filled place went here: 4 Days Off the Beaten Track in Gunma and Niigata: History, Art, and Sake in Japan’s Snow Country
Kaneko Seeds Gunma Flower Park: Seasonal Beauty Abound
Japan has four distinct seasons, with different types of beauty to experience in every season, and one of the best ways to enjoy its seasonal delights is by visiting Kaneko Seeds Gunma Flower Park. Located within Maebashi, this park covers an impressive 18.4 ha and contains a bevy of attractions that’ll keep you occupied from day to night.
The highlight of this park is definitely its impressive display of a wide variety of flowers and plants. Apart from the main area which showcases seasonal flowers in a way that’ll make you feel as though you’re in a painting, there’s also a traditional English garden, a gorgeous rose garden, a lovely cherry blossom trail, and even greenhouses that keep tropical flowers and plants from all over the world! Regardless of the time of year, you can definitely enjoy some kind of flower scenery at this park.
Kaneko Seeds Gunma Flower Park is also an excellent place for those looking to snap a picture or enjoy time with their loved ones. There are several play areas and activities for small children and families, including a hedge maze and petting zoo. Special flower-themed events and exhibitions happen multiple times a year, and illuminations can be enjoyed on days such as Christmas. You’ll also find a few food spots where you can indulge in dishes made with local ingredients.
Discover a New Side to Japan with These Lesser-Known Gunma Spots
Tsukiyono Firefly Village: See the Ephemeral Part of Japan
Fireflies are a rather rare sight worldwide, as they tend to flock in areas with pristine water, and those are dwindling by the year. In the town of Minakami, a firefly protection group worked tirelessly to conserve fireflies in the town’s Tsukiyono Firefly Village area. As a result, today, the site is known for having the most fireflies in the entire northern Kanto region!
The best time to view these fireflies is during the Minakami Firefly Festival, which takes place from mid-June to mid-July. Come between 8:00 pm and 9:00 pm for the best views. There is a well-traversed walking course that’s nearly two kilometers in length and takes about an hour to complete, during which you can spot at least three varieties of fireflies shining against the darkness of the night, creating a mystical scene that can’t be found elsewhere.
Rinkokaku: A Must-Visit for Fans of Japanese Architecture
This complex, made up of three wooden buildings, once served as a state guest house. Its main building was constructed in 1884 and is a wonderful example of not just Japanese woodwork, but also Japanese architecture from the beginning of the country’s journey to modernization. In fact, all three of the complex’s buildings are beautiful showcases of modern Japanese wooden architecture, to the point where the whole complex was designated as one of the country’s Important Cultural Properties back in 2018.
Today, the complex has become a splendid tourist attraction. You can easily visit and take in the gorgeous exterior and retro interior, the lovely Japanese garden that changes with the seasons, and the splendid scenery that comes with its optimal location in front of the Tone River, called one of Japan’s three great rivers. This scenery is particularly beautiful in the spring thanks to the cherry blossoms that bloom in Maebashi Park, located next to Rinkokaku. Its annex is also still used as a reception area for all sorts of events, including tea ceremonies and exhibitions.
Oze National Park: Gorgeous Natural Scenery Awaits
This national park covers about 372 sq.km. stretching across the prefectures of Fukushima, Tochigi, Gunma, and Niigata. It is an excellent hiking destination, even for beginners, thanks to its well-maintained trails, gorgeous greenland and wetland scenery, and variety of wildlife and vegetation. There’s plenty for visitors to enjoy all year round—daylilies in the summer, gorgeous red and gold foliage in the fall, and a lovely carpet of snow in the winter. However, as the national park is only open to experienced hikers and local visitor centers are closed during the winter season (late October until early May), most visitors tend to visit between late spring and early summer to take in the blooming perennial wildflowers at their peak.
Its two most popular spots are the Ozegahara Plateau and Lake Ozenuma. Ozegahara is Japan’s largest highland marsh, sitting at an altitude between 1,400 and 1,700 meters, and has hundreds of small, distinct pools as well as many plants that can only be found there due to the area’s unique terrain. Ozenuma offers equally beautiful scenery, as the plateau and can be circled in around half a day. Many people stop to take pictures at its eastern shore, which is where you can see the nearby Mt. Hiuchigadake reflected on its waters.
Kashozan Mirokuji Temple: Stare in Awe at Gigantic Tengu Masks
Just like the aforementioned Shorinzan Daruma-ji Temple, you can see something truly unique at Kashozan Mirokuji Temple. Instead of daruma dolls, this 850-year-old temple features masks of the tengu, a red, long-nosed creature from Japanese folklore. The reason for this stems from the temple’s past: it was said that upon his death, Chuhosan—a monk who did a lot of good for the temple and was said to possess strong spiritual powers—left behind a tengu mask. Over time, people started to believe that he was a tengu, and so praying to him would grant you blessings and divine favor.
The best time to visit the temple is in the autumn between late October and mid-November, when the surrounding trees are covered with red and gold leaves. After admiring the wide variety of masks, including the largest tengu mask in the whole country, take the time to make a prayer for the safety and peace of Japan. The customary way to pray at the temple is by purchasing a small tengu mask before prayer and donating it back the following year. Even if you don’t manage to come back the following year, however, the tengu mask would make a great souvenir of your time at the temple!
Mizusawa Kannon Temple: The Origin of One of Japan's Top Three Udon Noodles
This centuries-old landmark is believed to be over 1,300 years old, though its main hall, bright red gate, and pagoda were constructed during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Many of the buildings and features of the temple, including the main hall, are designated as Important Cultural Properties by either the prefecture or the town of Ikaho, where this temple sits. Taking in the gorgeous wooden architecture of the buildings as well as the various statues placed throughout the premises can definitely make for a fun time.
The street right below the temple is also worth taking note of as well. Many of the restaurants that line the road specialize in Mizusawa Udon, which is recognized as one of the three most famous types of udon noodles in the entire country! The noodles are made with wheat and spring water from Mt. Haruna and take two whole days to knead. It's an intensive process that results in some truly incredible noodles! The udon was originally served to guests at the temple because they wanted visitors to try dishes made with local ingredients. Please try this unique local delicacy that beautifully showcases the ingredients of Gunma Prefecture, a land that has been cultivating wheat for ages thanks to the good drainage of its soil.
With the heaviest snowfall in mainland Japan, Niigata is one of the best prefectures in the whole country for all sorts of winter sports, including skiing and snowboarding. Its position as one of Japan’s largest rice producers also makes Niigata a culinary hotspot, with its Japanese sake, senbei (rice crackers), mochi (sticky rice cakes), and other rice-related foods attracting tourists from all over the country. And with approximately 25% of its land designated as part of either a national or prefectural park, you can enjoy all kinds of unspoiled natural scenery within the region.
If this description has got you itching to visit the prefecture, continue below to read about our top ten picks for places that we feel best represent Niigata. We are sure that at least one of the below spots will have you falling in love with the prefecture, just like we did!
Classic Spots to Visit in Niigata Prefecture
Kiyotsu Gorge: Nature Mixed with Art
Kiyotsu Gorge is one of Japan’s most scenic destinations, having been designated as a Place of Scenic Beauty and a Natural Monument by the national government. This spectacular canyon offers a gorgeous look into the beauty of nature, with blooming flowers in the spring, verdure in the summer, red and golden leaves in the fall, and a pure white blanket of snow in the winter.
The best way to enjoy its seasonal beauty is from the Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel, which was built in 1996 to provide a safe place to gaze at the gorge from. In 2018, it was renovated and became a part of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale. Within the atmospheric tunnel, you’ll find various artworks that add to the beauty of the resplendent scenery, such as the breathtaking “Tunnel of Light” that utilizes a pool of water to mirror the majestic canyon scene.
Hoshitoge Rice Terraces: A Wondrous View on Foggy Days
Niigata Prefecture is famous within Japan for its top-quality rice, but what few tourists know is that its rice fields are equally as famous for their majestic beauty. In particular, the Hoshitoge Rice Terraces in Tokamachi City are a must-visit.
These rice terraces are so beautiful that the area was selected as one of the 100 most beautiful villages in Japan! In the early morning, if the weather conditions are right, they can fog over, creating a mystical sight almost like out of a movie or story.
From spring (around June, when the snow melts away) to autumn (until the snow starts falling around late October), the rice terraces fill up with water and reflect the surrounding scenery like a mirror. You'll surely fall in love with just how beautiful they look, sparkling while reflecting the morning sun's rays.
There is an observation area where you can view this somewhat nostalgic sight, so if you have the time and you’re in the area, please do try to see these gorgeous rice terraces for yourself! Many people try to visit in the spring and autumn, which are when water fills up the fields, and as you can see in the above photos, the rice terraces are stunning during this snow-free period.
These rice terraces have been protected by the locals for decades and are still used for rice farming now. Please enjoy them while making sure to observe proper etiquette, such as not entering the fields and instead watching them from the observation area.
Hachi & Seizo Tashima Museum of Picture Book Art: A Fun Spot for the Whole Family
This former elementary school was transformed into a small art museum by picture book artist Seizo Tashima and the local residents after its closure. Inside the classrooms and even outside the school, you’ll find all sorts of clever artworks that follow the theme of the art museum, “The School Will Never Become Empty,” which features the last three students attending the school—Yuki, Yuta, and Kenta—along with a whole host of ghosts. A walk through the museum will surely stir feelings of not just amusement, but also nostalgia.
The museum is part of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale—an international art event featuring artwork spread across the regions of Tokamachi and Tsunan. When you're done exploring the museum, including its cafe where you can indulge in dishes made with top-quality, local ingredients, you can take a gander at some of the other nearby pieces of art. See below for two articles that we wrote on the area. Regardless of your age, you're sure to have a grand time exploring not just the museum, but the whole Echigo-Tsumari area!
Ponshukan: Try Out a Japanese Sake Vending Machine
Located within JR Niigata Station, Ponshukan is the best place to visit if you’re looking to indulge in one of Niigata’s specialties, Japanese sake.
The sake tasting room is one of Ponshukan’s most popular facilities. For just 500 yen, you can drink up to five cups of sake, choosing from a list of nearly 100 premium Japanese sake from breweries all over Niigata. The fun doesn’t just lie in the tasting, but even the payment process, as the sake is poured via a vending machine!
Ponshukan also has a souvenir shop where you can get all of your last-minute shopping done. They work with local producers to bring the best of the best to their shelves, so you’ll be spoilt for choice, whether you’re looking for sweets, regional ingredients, or sake. There’s even a hot spring section where you can dip your toes in water containing sake, which can help with your blood circulation and relieve any tiredness from your trip. We have another article that goes into more detail on what you can expect at Ponshukan, but just know that it’s a must-visit if you’re in Niigata!
Yahiko Shrine: One of the Most Ancient Shrines in Japan
This well-established shrine with over 1,000 years of history is said to possess the greatest spiritual energy of all the shrines in Niigata Prefecture. It enshrines Ame-no-Kagoyama-no-Mikoto, the great-grandchild of the sun goddess Amaterasu, and is home to the Shida-no-Otachi, a sword designated as an Important Cultural Property of Japan. With so much to boast about, it’s no wonder that this shrine is incredibly popular, with over 200,000 people visiting it every year during the New Year holiday.
There’s much to see within the shrine’s enormous grounds other than the shrine itself. It is surrounded by ancient cedar and keyaki trees that are about 400 to 500 years old, so you can view stunning foliage in the autumn. There’s also a traditional Japanese garden called “Rokuen” where about a dozen deer, designated as Natural Treasures, are kept. Nearby, you’ll find Yahiko Park, home to gushing waterfalls, mountain streams, and tunnels that majestically display the beauty of Japan’s four seasons. It’s quite easy to enjoy the shrine and surrounding areas by yourself or together with family and friends!
We explored this shrine in the past and have written about it, so if this description has got you interested in visiting, please take a look at the article to know what to expect: 4 Days Off the Beaten Track in Gunma and Niigata: History, Art, and Sake in Japan’s Snow Country
Unearth a New Japan with These Lesser-Known Niigata Spots
Sanjo Blacksmith Dojo: Learn Traditional Japanese Blacksmithing
Located in Sanjo, a city in the center of Niigata Prefecture that’s famous for the manufacturing of traditional Japanese nails, knives, and other metalwork, Sanjo Blacksmith Dojo is the perfect place to learn more about Japanese blacksmithing. It was founded in 2005 as a training center for those wanting to learn more about the craft, as well as to preserve and revitalize it.
For a fee, you can join a workshop run by one of the facility’s experienced blacksmiths and learn how to make various things, such as your own letter opener. If you bring a knife, you can also learn how to sharpen it properly. It’s a unique way to learn a new skill as well as discover more about this fascinating traditional Japanese industry, so do stop by the next time you’re in the area.
Types of workshops available: Traditional Japanese nail making, letter opener making, knife sharpening
Sado Island: An Island Paradise Full of Unspoiled Nature
Sado is the largest island in the Sea of Japan. Located off the coast of mainland Niigata, it is home to beautifully clear sea waters, spotless beaches, and pristine primeval forests teeming with all sorts of unique vegetation and wildlife. A good part of the island is designated as part of various national parks—specifically, Sado-Yahiko-Yoneyama Quasi-National Park and Kosado Prefectural Nature Park—which means that it’s the perfect place to visit if you’re looking for unspoiled natural scenery.
If you’re looking for a unique experience, there’s no better activity than cruising through the sea around the island on a "tarai bune," a wooden tub-turned-boat. This ancient method of sea travel is extremely popular among tourists, especially among Ghibli fans as it was a method of transportation utilized in Spirited Away, so don’t hesitate to give it a try!
There’s also the Sado Kinzan, once the most productive gold mine in all of Japan. After it closed, it was transformed into a museum showcasing fascinating displays and models about its operation back in the day and the histories of the island and the gold mine workers.
Last but not least is the Toki Forest Park, the center of "toki" (crested ibis) conservation efforts in the country. These birds were once extinct in Japan, but the locals’ efforts over many years bore fruit, and today they are an endangered species that you can actually see for yourself not just within the park, but even out in the wild!
There’s certainly more to explore on the island than the three things we mentioned above, but sightseeing isn’t the only thing to look forward to there. The island is a treasure trove of seafood, including crab, shrimp, and oysters, thanks to its pristine waters. It is also home to Sado cattle, a rare, ancient breed whose meat you can rarely find sold outside of the island. So, you’re in for a feast on top of a merry time when you visit Sado Island!
Niigata Senbei Kingdom: Try Your Hand at Grilling Senbei Crackers
Niigata is actually Japan’s top senbei producer in terms of volume, and one of the prefecture’s most beloved senbei is the banana-shaped “Bakauke,” made by Kuriyamabeika Co., Ltd. To celebrate the senbei and their best selling product, the company created Niigata Senbei Kingdom, a theme park dedicated to the wonders of this delicious snack.
Here, you can not only learn more about how senbei and Bakauke are made, but also try your hand at grilling senbei yourself! They offer a variety of cracker sizes, including an extremely large one that you can personalize using the soy sauce and brush they give you. The senbei you make will be packed carefully so that it doesn’t break or crumble during your travels.
Of course, you can also purchase a variety of senbei and Bakauke there, so it’s an amazing place to visit if you’re looking for a souvenir. Furthermore, there’s a refreshment corner where you can enjoy a variety of drinks, many of which include senbei or Bakauke in some shape or form. There's even senbei soft-serve ice cream! It promises to be an exciting and delicious time for everyone, regardless of age or gender!
Sekijousan Saifuku Temple: A Temple Like a Work of Art
This roughly 500-year-old temple in the Uonuma area stands out for its design. From its transom to the "fusuma" (traditional Japanese sliding doors), the temple is filled with the artworks of legendary artist Uncho Ishikawa, who has been called the Japanese Michaelangelo. His work on the temple attracts tourists from all over Japan and has even resulted in the temple being designated as a Tangible Cultural Property by Niigata Prefecture. (If you wish to take photos of the temple, please contact them beforehand.)
One of the main attractions of the temple is the colorful ceiling sculpture. This amazing artwork was completed in the late Edo Period and took a whopping six years to make! It is also worth taking a look at the bronze statue of Uncho Ishikawa, which was erected to celebrate what would have been his 200th birthday. No pictures or statues of the artist actually remained after his death, so the bronze statue was instead made based on the guidance of his 6th-generation descendant!
Northern Culture Museum: Protecting the Legacy of the Ito Family
This museum is housed in the former mansion of the Ito family, once one of the wealthiest families in the Echigo area. It was turned into a private museum after World War II, when land reforms prevented them from keeping their estate. Inside, you’ll find around 6,000 paintings, sculptures, calligraphy, ceramics, and other artworks on display that once belonged to them.
What’s displayed on the inside of the mansion isn’t the only splendid thing about this museum. Many parts of the estate are open to the general public, including the main house, banquet hall, tea house, and so on. The gorgeous architecture will leave you in awe and the well-maintained interiors will give you a glimpse into what life must have been like for the family and their employees at the time. There’s also a lovely garden laid out over a span of five years by Taiami Tanaka, a famous gardener who also worked on a garden arrangement at Ginkakuji Temple in Kyoto. It is a sight to behold in all seasons, especially in spring with its delicate Yoshino cherry blossoms and autumn, when it is lit ablaze with magical red and gold maple leaves.
Whether you’re into architecture, artwork, history, or nature, you are sure to fall in love with some aspect of the Northern Culture Museum. We certainly did when we visited, and you can read more about our thoughts here: 4 Days Off the Beaten Track in Gunma and Niigata: History, Art, and Sake in Japan’s Snow Country
Explore the Hokuriku Region!
Now that you have an idea of what sort of wonders these two prefectures hold, don’t you feel like actually visiting them to see these places for yourself? Both Niigata and Gunma are ripe with opportunity for even the more experienced travelers of Japan, with all sorts of culinary delights, traditional crafts and industries, and gorgeous natural scenery waiting to be discovered. Give them a try, and we’re sure you’ll leave with a brand new outlook on Japan.
For more information on Gunma and Niigata, visit the links below:
▼ Gunma Prefecture
▼ Niigata Prefecture
If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you'd really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.