Ikaho Onsen | Japan’s Hot Spring Resort on a Volcano
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Ikaho Onsen | Japan’s Hot Spring Resort on a Volcano
Ginzan, Beppu, Kusatsu… Japan has lots of hot spring resort towns, but few are located literally on top of a volcano. Ikaho Onsen, just below the summit of Mount Haruna, has a cluster of ryokan inns, souvenir shops, and other amusements rising up from the slope. All of these are wrapped around an ancient stone staircase forming the main street that runs through town.
Well-loved by locals, Ikaho is relatively unknown outside of its native Gunma Prefecture, so you can avoid the worst of the touristy crowds and just relax and enjoy a true taste of traditional Japan. Ikaho is also only a few hours north of Tokyo, so it makes an easily day trip. But if you can swing it, an overnight at an inn and a long soak in the bath is where the real relaxation starts.
Ikaho Onsen Stone Steps: The Heart of the Onsen Town
365 stone steps run through the heart of this mountain hot spring resort, one for each day of the year! As you climb, you will pass by shops selling soba noodles,sweet buns, and even eggs cooked in hot spring steam. You can rest your feet in one of the foot baths along the way, shop for souvenirs, or play a round at one of the old time carnival-game arcades. Display pools and windows in the stairs show the onsen water running down the mountain, and you can hear it rushing beneath you every time you pass one. You can even keep track of your progress up the long flight of stairs by glancing down at the little number placards.
Turn around every once in a while for views of the surrounding mountains during the day. And, at night, strings of lights crisscross overhead perfect for a date night atmosphere.
Potted plants, bonsai moss, and garden gnomes adorn the stoops of the residences along the stairs. And possibly the oddest of them all, a doorway-sized shrine seems to be devoted to rubber ducks. Is this part of the bath town theme? Apparently, the ducks actually come from the shooting games in the carnival arcades. Rubber ducks are among the mix of knickknacks and toys you can shoot down as your prize. If you win one, it’s become a traditional to write your name on it and add it to the shrine.
At the end of the stairs, pass through several torii gates to reach a shinto shrine at the top of the hill. This shrine houses the gods of hot springs and medicine. If you want, you can pray here for the courage to enter a public bath with a bunch of naked strangers. You might ask yourself, why would I want to do that? Read on to find out.
Ikaho Onsen Hot Spring Baths
Ikaho’s hot spring is called kogane no yu, or golden water, for the reddish-brown color caused by the high iron content of the water. The locals believe bathing in and even drinking this mineral-rich hot water provides a host of health benefits. I cannot verify this either way, but I will say it is very relaxing and there are several ways to soak in the waters!
Public foot baths are the most accessible and beginner-friendly. Sit down on the bench that surrounds the bath, kick off your shoes, and stick your feet in. No need to even talk to any reception staff.
Traditional Communal Baths
The more adventurous can try one of the public bathhouses, or a day bath at a ryokan hotel. Gender-segregated communal baths have been at the heart of Japanese culture since ancient times, and they are still the most common way to relax in a hot spring today. Some are indoor, and some are outdoor (in a private area). The tubs range from the size of a one person hot tub to the size of a shallow backyard swimming pool. The best part is many bathing facilities will have multiple tubs of varying design, materials, and temperature to try.
These are bathing facilities, so you’ll need to take off your clothes to use the bath. While it may feel strange at first to get into a tub with other people, I’ve found that once you get used to it, it’s sort of liberating. Seeing women of all ages, shapes and sizes just chilling in the baths and walking around in their birthday suits makes me feel like I don’t need to worry about my body either. And I’ve had many a good conversation with friends in this relaxed, intimate setting.
If you’re not sold on the communal bath thing, though, don’t fret. Private onsen baths are also available at many of the ryokan. These are perfect if you’d rather bathe by yourself, or for mixed gender couples. Make sure to reserve in advance, as the slots for day guests fill up fast!
Lastly, the most relaxing way to enjoy the onsen is before turning in for the night at one of Ikaho’s many ryokan hotels.
To learn more about Japanese onsen, see our detailed article here.
Ryokan Hotels at Ikaho Onsen
Ikaho Onsen is home to lots of ryokan, i.e. traditional Japanese inns. Here you can dine on elaborate Japanese meals, sleep on traditional futon, and lounge in the onsen bath all day if you want. Many of Ikaho’s ryokan provide yukata for guests to wear around town, for the perfect photo op. Read up on the full ryokan experience here.
Kajika Bridge: Ikaho’s Iconic Red Bridge
Just past the top of the stone steps, Kajika-bashi Bridge (河鹿橋) stretches across a ravine where the onsen water flows. This bright red lacquer bridge is a great spot for photos, and it’s the perfect place to view red and orange maple leaves in the fall.
5 Minutes Outside of Town: Noodles, Temples, and Sheep
The fun continues a few minutes down the road from the stone steps, at Mizusawa.
A few minutes drive down the mountain from Ikaho, a good fifteen udon noodle shops line the road. They all serve Mizusawa Udon, and some of the shops have been in business for over 400 years. Mizusawa Udon is widely regarded as one of Japan’s 3 most famous types of udon noodles. The texture is firm and chewy, almost but not quite al dente. The noodles are usually served cold with sauce or broth to dip them in.
The shops often serve maitake mushroom tempura with the udon, which is my favorite part. Maitake literally means “dancing mushroom”, and apparently the name comes from the fact that people used to dance with joy when they found it in the wild. It’s got multiple layers of petal-like caps, and the fried tempura batter layered into these petals of umami make a heavenly combination.
Bukkosan Hosuiji Temple
From the road, Bukkosan Hosuiji Temple looks distant and etherial beyond a long flight of wide stone stairs. You’ll notice that stairs are a theme of this whole resort town–make sure to bring comfortable shoes. Anyway, on your walk up these steps, you’ll be cheered on by a series of cute mini monk statues doing various daily life chores. At the top you can enjoy a sweeping view of Mount Akagi, Mount Komochi, and Mount Onoko.
The temple is run by a Taiwan-based Humanistic Buddhist organization, and the architecture of the temple itself is distinctly Chinese rather than Japanese. Swirling painted designs and murals decorate the outer walls. The large 2-story building features multiple Buddhist statue displays and prayer rooms that are open to the public. There is a cafe with a view that serves bubble tea and Taiwanese dumplings. The subtle smell of incense wafts through many of the rooms. Don’t forget to look up as you explore—you might find enormous lucky lotus flowers painted on the ceiling.
Ikaho Green Bokujo
Ikaho Green Bokujo is a farm-turned-amusement park just a few minutes from Ikaho. It’s got a petting zoo with sheep, rabbits, and other farm animals. For kids and families who want to get even more hands-on, you can milk a cow or churn your own butter. There are several restaurants, cafes, and gift shops with fresh milk, ice cream, cow-shaped creampuffs, and other dairy goods.
Nature Exploration: Hike or Bike to Lake Haruna
The mountainous landscape around Ikaho is all trees and greenery, and a great way to see it is to stretch your legs and make the trek or ride to the nearby caldera lake.
Hike from Ikaho to Lake Haruna
There are several trails along the slopes between Ikaho and Lake Haruna. This route hits the main peaks while still being fairly direct, and takes about 4 hours. But you are free to wander more around the trails in Ikaho Forest Park along the way, or avoid the ups and downs and search for a more gradual route. Once you get to the lakeshore, you can climb further up to Mount Haruna Fuji, or take the ropeway if you’re already spent—either option will lead you to the top for excellent views.
There is a local bus from the lake, so you can hike up and take the bus back, or take the bus out and hike back. Either way, note that it only runs a few times a day, so plan accordingly.
Bike from Ikaho to Lake Haruna
The Ikaho Tourism Association rents out e-bikes by the hour or by the day. You could take these for a short spin to Mizusawa or other close by attractions, but if you’re feeling like getting in a good ride, why not try the climb up to the summit of Haruna’s paved roads?
The road is well-paved. You’ll have to share with cars, but there’s a passing lane for large chunks of it, so you won’t have to worry about cars zooming by right next to you for those bits. Thick forest lines both sides of the winding road, and there are several view points along the way. Nagamine Park viewpoint gives you a nice little view of Ikaho rising up from the trees. Then Takane Observation Deck delights with sweeping views of the mountains and valleys of northern Gunma. Finally, arrive at Lake Haruna, and take a victory lap around if you’d like. There’s only one main road that leads from Ikaho to the lake, so you shouldn’t get lost, but you can punch in the view points along the way to make sure you’re on the right path.
For those looking to get a massive climb in, consider following our guide on cycling Mt Haruna from Takasaki City. Just a 50min train ride from Tokyo it makes for a great day on the bike!
How to Get to Ikaho Onsen
There is no train to Ikaho Onsen (which makes sense, since it’s on top of a mountain), so it’s a bit of a hassle to get there. There is a direct highway bus from Shinjuku in Tokyo that takes about 2.5 hours and runs several times a day. You can also opt to take the Shinkansen to Takasaki and take a local train and bus from there. Local buses run from Shibukawa Station fairly frequently. See here for full details on public transport options.
There are several paid public parking lots by the stone steps, and free parking for spots outside of town, so driving is a good option if you have a car.
If the ride from Ikaho to Lake Haruna doesn’t sound like enough for you, consider cycling up the whole mountain. See our Guide to Cycling Mt Haruna 榛名山 for details on this scenic hill climb.
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