One of my Japan travel goals is to see all of its prefectures, 47 in total, and I am almost halfway to this goal, yaay. For Christmas, I wanted to go on a short getaway, preferably to a destination with snow, that is why I chose Gunma prefecture, which is not so far away from Tokyo (2-3 hours by bus or train). Gunma is a mountainous region famous for its great onsen (hot springs), especially Kusatsu Onsen, Manza Onsen or Ikaho Onsen. I wanted to go to the famous Kusatsu Onsen but after a search on booking.com, I found a really nice ryokan (Japanese traditional inn) in Ikaho so decided for Ikaho after all, even though is not as famous as Kusatsu. I usually choose cheap youth hostels for my travels around Japan so this was my first authentic ryokan experience and it was much more than I expected! It was just like in the movies…
How to get there?
The easiest and probably the cheapest way to go from Tokyo to Ikaho (or Kusatsu) is highway bus from Shinjuku station. One way was 2,600 yen and it took 2.3 hours to reach our destination. The bus also stops in a parking area for about 20 minutes so don’t worry if you get hungry along the way and forgot to bring something because you can surely find something there.
I would like to recommend the place we stayed at, called Mimatsukan 美松館 roughly translated as “The House of the Beautiful Pine Tree”. So, looking for a place to stay on booking.com, this place caught my attention mainly because of the rooftop outdoor onsen they have. Outdoor onsens are the best, and if you can also get a pretty view, then that is guaranteed to be a nice experience.
Check out their booking.com page here, where they also have a very good score of 8 out of 10 or their official site here (Japanese only). Although photos can often be misleading, this was not the case for Mimatsukan. It was just as pretty in real as it was in the photos I saw online. The outdoor bath, the food, the service, everything about this place was amazing, which made my first ryokan experience a memorable one. We chose a traditional Japanese room, which was really huge, and I loved that we could have dinner & breakfast in the room (that’s usual for ryokans but still, I was positively impressed by this). And the staff was really nice and welcoming as well, I could feel the real omotenashi (which means Japanese hospitality, offering the best service without expecting anything in return). Overall, it was very good value for money, so in the end, it was worth choosing Ikaho just to experience this beautiful ryokan. One ryokan room is considerably more expensive than a youth hostel one (or just a bed in one) but considering the many facilities, the nice meal and so on, it is worth choosing this option once in a while. Our room was somewhere around 26,000 yen and it was a room for 4 people.
A nice and rich dinner, including sashimi, fried fugu, chawanmushi, shabu shabu
Udon with duck meat
What to see & do?
Unfortunately, I didn’t find the white Christmas I was looking for in Ikaho, as there was no snow there, but nevertheless, the town was pretty even without snow. It is not one of those must see Japan places, I can say it is a bit off the beaten track for foreigners but many Japanese go there for a nostalgic atmosphere. It is an old town, you can see many old buildings, posters from another era and many target game shops. It is one of the oldest onsen towns in Japan.
Here are some of the attractions of Ikaho:
The main attraction of this small town is Ikaho Ishidangai or Ikaho Stone Step Street, a street featuring 360 stone steps, up to Ikaho Shrine. As an aqueduct runs down the stairs, you can see the orange colored water rich in iron, famous for this area. There are many souvenir shops, restaurants, hotels & inns and target game shops along this street. You can stop for a bowl of delicious udon noodles, a quick niku man or something sweet such as a delicious sweet waffle. Another nice place where you can warm up and have the best sweets & coffee in Ikaho is Rakusui Rakusan! It’s a bit hidden from the main street but thanks to Google maps, we found it!
Ikaho Shrine is a small shrine that is believed to have been built during the Heian era. Walking for a few minutes on the right of the shrine, there is Kajika Bridge, another main Ikaho attraction, especially beautiful during autumn, when the red of the arched bridge against beautiful momiji leaves forms a great landscape.
On the left of the shrine, you can enjoy a little hike through the forest to Uenoyama park. There is a nice Ice Skate Rink there that we didn’t even know about but it was the perfect way to spend some time before soaking in the onsen at our ryokan. From Uenoyama, we took the ropeway back to Hototogisu station (ahh last year’s Japanese literature class became nostalgic after hearing the name of this station…). After a cold day exploring around, nothing is better than a nice meal and a hot bath! There are not so many things to see in Ikaho so one day was more than enough.
Beware of wild boars!
As I said, I don’t regret choosing this place over more popular destinations because staying at a ryokan was a great experience and the small town was very pretty as well, as you can see in the photos 🙂 . Thank you for stopping by!