Because of the mountainous landscape, Gunma-ken does not seem like the most exciting travel destination, but there is much more than meets the eye. And guide books. Gunma is known for two things: hiking and eccentricities. If you’re looking for a real life Twilight zone, head on over to Gunma Prefecture for some bizarre fun.
The Best Places in Gunma
Konnyaku Park – When I said “weird,” I wasn’t lying. Konnyaku is a yam gelatin so popular that Gunma went and made an amusement park for it. Watch videos, play with manufacturing items, and learn all about this fabulous culinary treat. You can even make your own! Though the explanations are all in Japanese, there’s English pamphlets and other information at the reception desk to reference.
Ikaho Toy, Doll, and Car Museum – Another facet of eccentric Gunma would be this museum that has vintage cars from around the world, retro memorabilia, rare Barbie dolls, black and white historical photographs, a squirrel garden (yes, you read that right), and a café with outlandish menu options.
Gunma Safari Park – There are 3 ways to see the safari zone. You can ride a big cat bus that lets you feed the animals safely from the windows for 1300 yen per person (entrance fee is separate), ride with a ranger who gives an in-depth look into the animals as well as the park, or take your personal car through the area. There are chances to get up close with birds, watch shows and take dozens of photos of lions, tigers, giraffes, elephants and more.
Address: 370-2321 Gunma-ken, Tomioka Okamoto 1
Website: http://www.safari.co.jp/ (English available)
Gunma Onsen Resorts – When you ask the locals what Gunma is known for, they will surely mention the hot springs. Due to the mountains, the waters are mineral-rich and are said to heal all kinds of ailments. The following are the most popular throughout the prefecture:
- Manza Onsen – Located 1800 meters above sea level on the slopes of Mt. Shirane. The waters are acidic and will improve metabolism and circulation. If you want to bathe in a hot spring during the winter, Manza is the best place for it. Through December to April, Manza Onsen also offers ski and snowboard packages.
- Minakami Onsen – A thrill-seekers paradise! Found amongst snow-capped mountains and babbling brooks, Minakami rests on the hills of Mt. Tanigawa. Take a long dip in the healing springs after hours of canoeing, kayaking, cycling and hiking. At the nearby canyons, you can even go bungee jumping.
- Kusatsu Onsen – The waters of Kusatsu have the Imperial seal of approval for fixing everything but a broken heart, despite being located along Japan’s Romantic Road. People flock to Kusatsu to bathe in the medicinal waters, ski, hike and watch the Yumomi Performances that is held daily at the Netsunoyu building.
- Ikaho Onsen – Aside from the iron-rich, reddish brown waters of this famous onsen, Ikaho has gorgeous visuals of Mt. Haruna, caldera hiking excursions and the awe-inspiring Mizusawa Kannon temple.
- Ikaho Stone Step Street – the famous route leading up to the onsen. Old-fashioned shopping arcades line the side roads.
- Ikaho Green Farm – As the name implies, this place is an agricultural and livestock sanctuary. There’s beautiful cherry trees, a Sheep Dog Show, sheep, carriage rides through the fields and farm-fresh food offerings. Website: http://www.greenbokujo.co.jp/
- Shima Onsen – One of the oldest onsen towns in Japan, you will find a breadth of resorts, ryokan, public baths and foot baths along the streets. The best time to go is during autumn, when the landscape is covered in oranges and yellows. Shima Onsen is also said to be the inspiration for the bath house from Spirited Away.
Mt. Tanigawa – Also known as Tanigawadake, this mountain is one of the Top 100 in Japan, and probably not for the best of reasons. Over 800 people have “disappeared” while climbing Tanigawadake. That’s 4 times more than those claimed by Mt. Everest. One reason is the severe storms that happen around the mountain, but most people vanish without a trace. July through November are the safest times to visit for a hike.
- Tanigawadake Ropeway – An alternative and safer way to reach the peak is to ride the ropeway, which can also bring you to the next top attraction, the ski resort.
Tenjindaira Ski Resort – Ready for some killer slopes? Though there’s only 5 chairlifts, Tenjindaira on Tanigawadake is one of the best and closet ski resorts to Tokyo. The backcountry trails are vast. Some even allow for you to blaze your own path down the mountainside. However, since there is no on-site lodging, you will need to find accommodation if planning to stay for longer than a day.
The Best Food in Gunma Prefecture
Not hungry for Konnyaku from the amusement park or fresh ice cream from Ikaho Green Farm? No worries there! There is a lot to sample in Gunma, including some prefecture-based specialty udon noodles, Gunma sukiyaki, yakimanju, and luscious Maikaze Sake. Here is a list of some of the recommended places outside of ryokan and hotels to get a mouth-watering meal:
Bonaji Sobakiri (凡味そばきり) – A traditional setting for a very Japanese-style meal. The handmade soba noodles can be prepared in a variety of ways to suit whatever you are craving. The rich broths for dipping are also full of vegetables. The tempura is always made-to-order, so you are getting it at the height of crunchiness.
Address: Gunma, Takasaki, Tonyamachi Nishi 1-8-6
Closed on Tuesdays.
Saitou (さいとう) – Although the price is high, Saitou serves up amazingly succulent sushi and sashimi dishes. The presentation is always picture perfect. Aside from sushi, you can get soups, rice bowls, pickled vegetables and sake.
Address: Gunma, Kiryu Aioichio 3-518-6
Phone: (+81) 277-52-7338
Sumikou (炭こう) – For a sampling of Gunma’s renowned yakiniku, Sumikou is one of the best options. You can be assured you are getting the finest selection of beef, as well as other grilled recipes. Dishes are not limited to meat, either. There’s a number of salads, soups and rice-based dishes to try too.
Address: Gunma, Takasaki Shimowadamachi 4-5-13, north of the Minami Takasaki station exit.
Closed on some Tuesdays.
Tamaruya (田丸屋) – Right on the grounds of the Mizusawaji Temple, this is a very popular spot to get Gunma udon in Ikaho. The building itself seats around 350 people. Though you should definitely get the udon, other dishes include tempura-fried mushrooms, dumplings, and tamagoyaki.
Address: Gunma, Shibukawa Mizusawa Ikahomachi 206-1