Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Every place, town, or area in Japan has something that it is famous for, be it a festival, unique food, or any other cultural odd or end. Gunma Prefecture is famous for it's Onsen, or hot springs. The backbone of the Japan Alps that thrusts through the far end of Gunma and the near end of Niigata prefecture are standard tectonic mountains, created by faulting and uplift. On the forefront of those peaks are a series of volcanoes that lend their heat to a ton of hot spring resorts.
One of those onsen towns that is close to Maebashi is Ikaho, perched high on the slopes of Mt. Haruna. Ikaho is a very pretty little town, with its stairs and winding roads dotted with stores, hotels and delicious noodle restaurants. The lifeblood of the town, the spring water and the tourists, share a steep route right through the center of town. The water cascades through old pipes and channels, some with a clear top allowing you to see the iron rich hot water as it flows to the various hotel and public baths.
At the top of the stairs lies a shrine that is a centerpiece of a big festival in September. Reportedly, the festival simply involves carrying large portable shrines up the 300 meters of steep steps, but having had enough trouble hauling my own bulk up those steps, I can't imagine helping carry anything larger than my camera up there!
Walking around the side of the town we passed this delightful little restaurant that sold boiled Oden, tea and onsen eggs, eggs cooked in the hot spring waters. It was a chilly day, and the tea and warm fire was just what the doctor ordered! Just past this spot is the actual spring, and a small outdoor public bath that I am just dying to take a dip in.
Having had so much fun just walking around Ikaho on a chill, cloudy evening I returned a week later when the weather was gloriously clear. We rode a gondola to a small mountaintop park that promised excellent views, and we weren't disappointed. To the north we could see the Nikko Mountains in neighboring Tochigi Prefecture, and to the west we could clearly see the Echigo Mountains of Niigata Prefecture, a view of which is below.
The views were wonderful to me, but it was far from my first fantastic mountain vista. My two compatriots were flatlanders (one from Florida), and these high snow capped peaks were a rare treat indeed for them.
This panorama looks back towards Maebashi, the bulk of which is off screen to the right. The large mountain in the right center is Akagi-san, while the Nikko Mountains, home to the great Nikko shrine that entombs Tokugawa Ieyasu, are seen in the distance behind Akagi.
For being such a close and easy drive, Ikaho is a lot of fun, and I imagine I'll spend another weekend or two up there, especially as I really want to try the actual onsen baths which is why the town is famous in the first place!