Maebashi, Takasaki, and Kiryu: A Trip of Art and Traditions in the Cities of Gunma
Gunma Prefecture, situated in the northern part of the Kanto region with easy access from Tokyo, is most famous for its spectacular wilderness. However, the often overlooked urban side of Gunma is equally worth exploring, including the intersecting nature and cityscape of the capital Maebashi, the ancient transportation hub of Takasaki, and Kiryu, a haven for history and tradition blessed with vast greenery. Each of these cities feature cutting-edge art and sustainable development blended with age-old culture, breathing fresh life into stale infrastructure to create places for locals and visitors to interact. In this article, we’ll showcase the best of urban Gunma by introducing several accommodations, restaurants, museums, and more in Maebashi, Takasaki, and Kiryu.
Jan 23 2023 (Feb 07 2023)
*This article was made with cooperation from Gunma Excellence partners.
What Is Gunma Excellence?
“Gunma Excellence” certification is awarded to tourism facilities within Gunma Prefecture actively seeking to attract international visitors through an inviting, hospitable environment, amongst other criteria. Many of the places introduced in this article are Gunma Excellence certified, guaranteeing that travelers of all kind will be welcomed with open arms for a fun, relaxing Gunma trip.
Maebashi City: The Capital of Gunma
Maebashi is the capital city of Gunma Prefecture, and is characterized by artistic streetscapes, fine dining, and plentiful parkland. It flourished in part due to the prosperous local silk trade, but is now a mostly quiet, small-scale city.
To entrench Maebashi as Gunma’s core of contemporary creativity, Arts Maebashi opened in 2013 alongside the bustling bohemian Babakawa-dori Street in the city center. Serving as a “creative focal point,” the gallery supports and encourages art and culture through a catalog of both permanent and temporary exhibitions from local artists and more.
Arts Maebashi was converted from a disused shopping center, helping to revitalize the city without tearing anything down. The structure’s original facade is stylishly dressed in sleek perforated aluminum, giving off a gleaming, futuristic appearance. Inside, each gallery room is uniquely shaped and sized to define the individual exhibitions, with the shopping center layout tying them together in an easy-to-navigate loop.
Special exhibitions at Arts Maebashi, which alternate around four times a year, are centered around an intertwining theme linking a diversity of artists and mediums, ranging from paintings to photography, sculptures, music, dances, and more. Artists with a connection to Maebashi or Gunma are heavily featured, providing stimulating insight into the local character. The accompanying shop and cafe also serve as a warm, welcoming hangout, while the sizable library will help deepen your general knowledge of Japanese art and culture.
Before entering Arts Maebashi, keep an eye out for the “Your Sky, My Sky” digital billboard displaying photos of the sky taken in collaboration with local children atop the adjacent parking tower, along with the “Tiny Thing I Lost” balloon sculpture hanging from a tree in front of the gallery.
Current exhibitions at Arts Maebashi can be viewed in English on the official website.
After seeing the modern face of Maebashi, it’s time to travel back to its past. The crowning gem of Maebashi’s yesteryears is Rinkokaku, a grand, Meiji Period complex encompassed by a gorgeous Japanese garden facing the Tone River on what was once the grounds of Maebashi Castle.
The humble wooden two-storied “Honkan” main hall was built in 1884, designed in early-modern, refined “sukiya-zukuri” architecture. It boasts a long, prestigious history of hosting dignitaries, including Emperor Meiji in 1893 and Emperor Taisho in 1902 and 1908, while also briefly serving as a city hall, amongst other roles. Alongside its network of small, interconnected straw-matted and carpeted rooms is a mini museum detailing the rich history of Rinkokaku and Maebashi itself, including fascinating tidbits such as the establishment of Maebashi as a capital, the prosperous local silk industry, and the city during wartime.
The Bekkan annex, which now serves as the main entrance to Rinkokaku and is connected to the Honkan via a long hallway, is best known for its cavernous second floor hall. It was constructed in 1910 to help receive guests in anticipation of the 14 Prefecture Association Fair held in Maebashi, and is covered by a staggering 150 straw tatami mats accompanied by a wooden stage, decorative alcove, muted wooden ceiling, and encircling corridor. Despite its enormous size, the warm colors and soft matting makes it feel snug and comfortable.
Finally, across the idyllic garden sits the modest Rinkokaku teahouse. Designed by an esteemed Kyoto carpenter, the teahouse radiates a homespun simplicity defining the “wabi” aesthetic (a rustic, austere, and quiet beauty), and was funded on donations spearheaded by the first Prefectural Governor of Gunma Motohiko Katori, remaining today as Rinkokaku’s crowning gem.
Gyuya Kiyoshi (Gunma Excellence Facility)
One of Japan’s principal breadbaskets, Gunma is known for a hoard of highly-coveted produce like shiitake mushrooms, green onions, “konnyaku” yam cake, and premium “Joshu” Japanese Black wagyu beef - and the best way to savor the intrinsic flavors of each is with “sukiyaki” or “shabu shabu” hotpots.
Gyuya Kiyoshi, a recently-renovated Maebashi restaurant with traditional yet stylish overtones, is a local favorite for hotpot dishes with Gunma ingredients. Operating since 1959, they pride themselves on acquiring top-tier A5-ranked local Joshu beef from Japanese Black cattle and other fresh and nutritious Gunma goodies.
As pictured, Joshu wagyu exhibits bold, thick marbling, which melts in the mouth to unleash a juicy blend of sweetness and umami. The green onions, a particularly succulent variety grown in Shimonita in western Gunma, have a tender yet firm bite, soaking up the broth to deliver a savory piquancy. Other staple ingredients at Gyuya Kiyoshi include enoki mushrooms, gelatinous shirataki noodles, tofu, and more.
Pictured above is Gyuya Kiyoshi’s self-serve sukiyaki hotpot, which is prepared by briefly boiling ingredients in the restaurant’s own soy sauce-based broth before dipping them in raw egg, combining to intensify the natural tastes of each ingredient. The kind staff, all elegantly clad in kimono, will demonstrate how to properly enjoy each dish, alleviating any worries about messing them up.
Shiroiya Hotel (Gunma Excellence Facility)
From the traditional Rinkokaku to the cutting-edge Arts Maebashi, it’s only fitting that a day in Maebashi is capped off at an “art hotel.” Shiroiya Hotel, right down the street from Arts Maebashi, is a hip and up-market accommodation facility bristling with quirks to entice the senses, from evocative artworks to custom-designed rooms, and more.
Like Arts Maebashi, Shiroiya Hotel was renovated from a disused building that once hosted the prestigious “Shiroiya Inn,” which served travelers, celebrities, and even imperial guests for around 300 years. Forced to close in 2008 due to economic woes, it was saved from demolition and given new life by ambitious entrepreneur Hitoshi Tanaka (founder of a famous chain of casual Japanese eyewear stores), who teamed up with accomplished architect Sou Fujimoto and a band of leading creatives like conceptual artist Leandro Erlich, photographer and contemporary artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, and product designer Jasper Morrison to rebrand as “Shiroiya Hotel.”
Rather than providing simple accommodation, Shiroiya Hotel is a complete sensory experience. The main “Heritage Tower” is a feast for the eyes, with the original concrete left bare to form a vivifying contrast with the profuse indoor greenery, while the gutted upper floors give it an open, airy feel linked by cascading staircases and the illuminated pipe artwork of Leandro Erlich. Walls are bestrewn with artwork, including the intriguing “Inverted Discussion” and “Unity Channelled” by British artist Liam Gillick, the soothing “Sea of Galilee, Golan” by Hiroshi Sugimoto, and the giant hanging drapes of “Lightfalls” by Yoko Ando.
Diverging from the communal main facility, guestrooms are an oasis of privacy, each independently crafted by designers of varying aesthetics to be utterly unique. Highlights include the mellow wooden ambience of the minimalist Jasper Morrison Room (left); the artsy Leandro Erlich Room, covered by exposed pipe sculptures harking back to the original abandoned building (right); and the flamboyant Deluxe Room, speckled with colorful playing card graphics.
Next to the Heritage Tower is the “Green Tower,” a Hobbiton-like hill engulfed in grass hosting several guestrooms, three types of saunas, and more in a blissful slice of metropolitan nature.
For foodies, Shiroiya’s main dining facility “the RESTAURANT” is run by experienced Gunma chef Hiro Katayama under the supervision of the owner-chef of Tokyo’s Michelin-starred French restaurant Florilège. Like the hotel itself, time-honored regional flavors are given a fresh spin through innovative culinary creations that alternate regularly. There is also all-day dining at “the LOUNGE,” plus an in-house bakery, patisserie, “Blue Bottle Coffee Shiroiya Cafe,” and weekend-only bar, all open to the public.
Shiroiya Hotel also runs several reservable activities like hiking, canoeing, tea ceremony experiences, and kimono dressing, to dig deeper into the landscape and culture of Gunma.
Takasaki City: The Gateway to Gunma
Takasaki, the prefecture’s most populous city, is directly connected to Tokyo via multiple bullet train lines, making it the entrypoint for most to Gunma. Despite the urban sprawl, Takasaki is filled with ancient traditions and art, rewarding those who explore with fascinating local cultures.
Imai Daruma Shop NAYA (Gunma Excellence Facility)
Daruma, a traditional Japanese doll bearing a grumpy yet endearing expression symbolizing good fortune, are one of Takasaki’s most recognizable icons. Daruma have been crafted in the area for over 200 years, and local workshops account for around 80% of all domestic production. There are numerous spots throughout Takasaki to see, purchase, and even make your own daruma, along with open workshops to witness master craftspeople at work.
One such establishment is Imai Daruma Shop NAYA, a 90-year-old family-run workshop nestled in the suburbs of Takasaki. While staying true to tradition, Imai has given the ancient art an upgrade through stylish, fun designs and collaborations, all within a snazzy, refurbished facility.
Complementing the classic auspicious red “Fukuiri Daruma” is a riveting lineup coming in all different colors, designs, sizes, and more. Catching the eye are the teal-colored “Amabie,” a mermaid yokai who has enjoyed newfound popularity for its supposed ability to defend against epidemics; the minimalist “Designer Daruma” which slots in seamlessly with modern homes; the glittering “Platinum Daruma,” and even the limited-edition FIFA World Cup daruma, used to help cheer on Japan.
All Imai daruma are hand-crafted on site by Hirohisa Imai, CEO and Chief Craftsman, together with his family and employees. Each batch takes around a week to complete, starting from the paper mache body to the colorful base coat and intricate painting of the eyebrows and mustache.
Imai Daruma Shop NAYA also uses eco-friendly materials, such as recycled paper, natural clay, and crushed oyster shells, upgrading their appeal with a sustainable edge. If browsing isn’t enough, Imai also runs a “Daruma Painting Experience,” where you’ll be able to design your own original daruma!
Like Maebashi, Takasaki is home to an ambitious community of entrepreneurs transforming disused facilities into new community centers. Orion-za Cafe, a spacious 300-square-meter cafe housed in an old movie theater, is one such project. Here, you can enjoy a coffee, drink, or light meal while admiring the striking contrast between the chic interior design and rough, unpolished remnants of the original structure. Exposed brick flooring and concrete columns are exhibited intact, dressed up with appealing art and cozy seating. Outside, the cinema facade is unspoilt, preserving a valuable slice of local history.
Orion-za was a cinema on the Takasaki Chuo Ginza Shotengai, a 430-meter-long shopping arcade. Like many such arcades, which flourished in the Showa era (1926-1989), the Chuo Ginza Shotengai has long since passed its heyday in favor of large-scale shopping malls, and the Orion-za Cinema closed its doors in 2003, remaining abandoned until 2021.
To the new owner of Orion-za Cafe, real estate manager and local Masayuki Yagi, initiatives like his are key to achieving the sustainable revitalization of cities like Takasaki. Using the modern appeal of cafes, Masayuki plans for Orion-za Cafe to grow into a springboard of local culture by encouraging intermingling between locals, travelers, and creatives, attracting new business to the arcade to set its renaissance in motion.
Alongside drinks and food, Orion-za Cafe also hosts shows, gigs, art exhibitions, pop-up restaurants, and more, which can be checked on the official Instagram page (see below). With plenty of seating, you’ll be able to thoroughly unwind without having to worry about taking up space, a rarity in the cramped cafes of Japan.
Hotel Coco Grand Takasaki (Gunma Excellence Facility)
For accommodation in Takasaki, we recommend the Hotel Coco Grand, which is conveniently located adjacent to Takasaki Station in the heart of the city. The high-rise, up-scale complex is fitted with a host of rooms suiting various budgets and styles, from traditional Japanese to modern Western, with breathtaking views of the cityscape and mountains to boot. The earthy, organic tones and natural materials of the hotel’s interiors offer a retreat amongst the urban clamor, nourishing the soul through lavish use of wood, stone, water, and even plants grown in open beds of soil.
For the weary traveler, Hotel Coco Grand Takasaki provides a spacious bathhouse with both indoor and open-air carbonated spas coupled with saunas (dry Finnish-style for men and rock salt for women) and bedrock baths. Being on the 10th floor, guests will be treated to sweeping panoramas during the day, and a sea of twinkling city lights at night.
For the bliss of absolute privacy, several rooms at the Hotel Coco Grand Takasaki also come with private spa baths. The cream of the crop is the Premium Coco Suite, which has its own open-air bath, indoor spa, and bedrock bath, ideal for special occasions.
Dining is also a delight, with the restaurant “Coco Ciel” serving up creative French-style dishes with local Gunma ingredients for dinner, while breakfast is a buffet of Japanese-Western fusion cuisine.
Kiryu City: An Oasis of Nature in Gunma
With just over 100,000 residents, Kiryu is a much smaller city than Maebashi or Takasaki, and is instead known for its vast greenery and well-preserved historical streetscapes, which prospered thanks to the ancient local textile industry.
Watarase Keikoku Railway
Departing from Kiryu Station, the historical Watarase Keikoku Railway cuts through the suburbs of Kiryu deep into the dense Watarase River Valley, running all the way to Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture. The railway operates several trains, including the Torokko Wasshi, offering superb scenery from its windowless carriage (windows are installed in winter), and the two Torokko Watarase Keikoku trains, pulled by an old-school diesel locomotive.
The carriage interiors are plain yet comfortable, while the views, which gradually evolve from urban sprawl to boundless wilderness, pull at one’s attention from every angle. Seasonal highlights include the dazzling track-side flowers in spring, including cherry blossoms and nanohana; the fiery fall foliage peaking between late October and late November; and the feathery winter snowfall illuminated by enchanting after-dark light-ups.
The Watarase Keikoku Railway originally opened in 1912 to transport copper and more from the prosperous Ashio Copper Mine. After the mine was closed in 1973, it struggled to survive as its customer and cargo load dwindled, forcing its closure in 1985. However, being a beloved icon, it was saved from dismantlement by locals, and was acquired by the Watarase Keikoku Railway Company, founded in 1988, to reopen as a semi-private railway in 1989, soon becoming one of Gunma’s most famous attractions.
Along the railway are several notable stations, tunnels, and more, many of which are registered as Tangible Cultural Heritages. Highlights include multiple arched brick tunnels like the No.2 Kambai Tunnel, built through a notoriously precipitous cliff in 1912; the crude brick Ashio Station Dangerous Goods Storehouse; the solemn stone Sori Station outbound platform and rustic wooden waiting room; and the flashy blue No.2 Watarase River Bridge, the longest bridge on the Ashio Railway.
When purchasing a ticket for the Watarase Keikoku Railway, we recommend speaking to a station attendant before boarding. They will show you the timetable, so you can choose which train you’d like to ride.
Mizunuma Station Onsen Center
While riding on the Watarase Keikoku Railway, hop off for a quick break at the unmanned Mizunuma Station. Here you’ll find the Mizunuma Station Onsen Center, the only natural hot spring bathhouse attached to a train station in the entire Kanto region.
The Mizunuma Station Onsen Center opened in 1989 on the platform of Mizunuma Station, drawing geothermal water from the nearby Sarukawa Hot Spring into both an indoor and open-air bath bolstered by a sauna.
Rather than an up-market, trendy establishment, Mizunuma Station Onsen Center is an offbeat, authentic snapshot of everyday Gunma life. The facility is decorated by endearing vintage posters, toys, records, and more, while the baths are surrounded by charming seasonal vistas. Staff and regulars welcome guests from all walks of life with open arms, and are often keen for a chat. There is also a small restaurant with eat-in meals and take-out bento boxes specializing in Kiryu delicacies like “sauce-katsu.”
Mizunuma Station itself is a whimsical scene of picture-perfect Showa simplicity. It opened in 1912 as a station on the Ashio Railway to handle cargo for mining operations, demonstrated by the long, wide platform unneeded for the small-scale sightseeing it hosts today. For its attached hot spring and encompassing allure, Mizunuma Station was selected as one of the “Top 100 Train Stations of Kanto.”
Temple Hotel Kannon-in (Gunma Excellence Facility)
Tucked within the suburbs of Kiryu, the compact grounds of Kannon-in Temple host a sizable assortment of Buddhist attractions. Alongside the magnificent “Hondo” main building is a radiant prayer hall adorned by evocative red lanterns, a myriad of solemn Buddhist statues, a quaint Shinto shrine sat under a picturesque maple tree, and much more.
Next to the Hondo is Kannon-in’s accommodation facility, which is a part of the Japan-wide “Otera Stay” network. Modeled on the philosophy of a simple Buddhist life, Kannon-in’s Otera Stay is a clean, uncluttered, and airy yet intimate space circling around a serene mossy garden.
The “Ori” room flaunts traditional Japanese refinement through straw-matted flooring and futon beds, topped off with a private rock garden facing an open-air bath. The shared kitchen is set up with plenty of cooking utensils, and an English-language guide to temple life sits upon the dining table.
Kannon-in is a highly prestigious temple of the Shingon sect established in 1644. It is the 10th stop on the Kanto 88 Temple Pilgrimage, and it enshrines a sacred statue of the Holy Kanseon along with multiple statues of Jizo, the guardian deity of children and travelers. The temple is rich with legend, and the resident monks are kind and welcoming. A temple festival market is also held on the 24th of each month, which is the best time to see it in full swing while meeting the locals!
Kannon-in also invites all visitors to join in with temple activities, including sutra chanting held every morning, along with “shakyo” sutra copying for overnight guests, where you’ll use a brush and ink to copy Buddhist scriptures. While sounding difficult, they are made to be accessible, and the provided guidebooks will run you through what to do.
Okiya Guest House (Gunma Excellence Facility)
Like Maebashi and Takasaki, Kiryu is full of forgotten spaces with boundless opportunities for revival. The charming Okiya Guest House, a 7-minute walk from Kiryu Station, has taken full advantage of these resources by tactfully converting a 100-year-old folkhome into a cozy accommodation and community hub.
“Okiya” is the Japanese word for a traditional geisha house, and the property was named in honor of its long and proud history as a home for war orphans training to become geisha. While there are no longer any geisha in Kiryu, this immense legacy was passed down to Kiryu-born Yuko and Gabriel from Argentina, who have sought to reinvigorate the neighborhood by attracting tourists and locals to dine, drink, and intermingle.
Devastated to see such a precious building left to rot, Yuko and Gabriel set about renovating Okiya into a guesthouse and Mediterranean-themed tapas bar while taking care to uphold its inherent charm. Gabriel, a professional chef, brings his talent and creativity to the kitchen, serving a diversity of meals to guests and non-guests alike, including empanadas, pizza, pasta, and paella with a selection of imported wines and traditional South American mate. The lounge area is comfortable and homely, with traditional Japanese tones enlivened by jazzy Argentinian paraphernalia.
Upstairs are three traditional Japanese-style rooms, along with a shared kitchen, bathroom, and outdoor decking area. Bikes can be rented to explore the surrounding townscape, which includes the sublime “Kiryu Shinmachi Important Preservation Districts for Groups of Traditional Buildings” just a short ride away.
As you can see, the Gunma Prefecture cities of Maebashi, Takasaki, and Kiryu are much more than high-rise buildings and suburban sprawl. Within lies a bastion of culture, both ancient and contemporary, alongside art, history, nature, and cuisine, much of which has been made highly sustainable by innovative locals. After you’ve finished hiking the vast mountains and bathing in the hot spring towns of outback Gunma, stay an extra few days to explore the equally appealing cities!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.