Exploring Gunma along the Northward Golden Route with JR EAST PASS
After a long day at Saitama, we took a JR train (Asama 617) from Omiya station to Takasaki station (31 minutes) and then an hour-long taxi ride to Ikaho Onsen Fukuichi (8, Ikahomachi Ikaho, Shibukawa-Shi, Gumma, 377-0102, Japan) - our stay for the night of Day 2 of our trip along the Northward Golden Route with JR EAST PASS. This is a very atas ryokan with a long history that dates back to the 1500s. I was really amazed at how big the rooms are at Ikaho Onsen Fukuichi ryokan. Don't worry if you don't see a bed in the room. While you are having your dinner at the ryokan (included with your stay at Ikaho Onsen Fukuichi), the ryokan staff will have setup a mattress on the floor and dim the lights in the room.
For dinner at the ryokan, we were treated to a sumptuous feast featuring vegetables and beef that you can only find in the Gunma prefecture. The sukiyaki with Jyoshu beef is the highlight of dinner. You will enjoy a mix of more heavy-flavored dishes (the sukiyaki) with lighter ones i.e. tempura and fresh sashimi. Another must try is the local sake - try a lighter flavored one to complement the heavier tastes of the sukiyaki dish.
Ikaho Onsen Fukuichi is well-known for its hot spring onsen of course! Ikaho Onsen refers to the area that this ryokan is located in and this area is known for its many hot springs. Many years ago, Ikaho Onsen had healed a lot of samurai warriors of their injuries from battles. Ikaho was also known as one of the three top resorts along with Nikko and Hakone. The onsen is also known to have purification abilities that can treat infertility. Ikaho Onsen offers two different types of Onsen water, Kogane-no-yu and Shirogane-no-yu. Kogane-no-yu Onsen is known for its characteristic color of yellowish brown caused by the oxidisation of iron when exposed to air. Shirogane-no-yu Onsen is transparent water. You get to experience these different types of Onsen water and both indoor and outdoor Onsen pools too. There are segregated baths for male and female and you are expected to be naked when in the Onsen.
Another important landmark is the Stone stairways of Ikaho onsen - a 300 meter long series of stone stairs (ishidan gai) progresses upwards through the middle of the mountain town of Ikaho, flanked by souvenir shops along the way. The stairs measure 365 steps in total and have been renovated over the years. Along the way, you will find foot baths, fountains to drink the water of the hot springs, and tea shops.
Day 3: Gunma
We started our day in Gunma at Usaburo Kokeshi (1591, Nagaoka, Shinto-mura, Kitagunma-gun, Gunma Prefecture, 370-3501) where we got to experience the Japanese tradition of kokeshi doll. At the factory, you get a behind the scene look at the various cute Kokeshi dolls being made. They even have Star Wars themed ones. You can find more designs at the Usaburo Kokeshi doll shop e.g. spiderman, doraemon ones. However do note that each of these dolls sell for about 4300 Yen + (about S$60).
We got to experience Kokeshi doll painting at the shop – for 864 Yen (about S$10+), you can paint your own Kokeshi doll with guidance from the shop staff. You will be provided with paint, brushes, a small kokeshi doll and apron. There are samples around the area so you can take a look to draw inspiration on what you want to paint. You can paint anything you want – quotes, pictures, actual kokeshi doll designs.
Our next activity was a unique one – we got to take a traditional steam locomotive train i.e. those that you see in movies e.g. Harry Potter and those that go “Choo Choo!” This train is called the SL Retro Minakami and it is operated by the East Japan Railway Company as a coal-powered steam locomotive that serves the Joetsu Line between Takasaki and Minakami Stations during the tourist season and on Saturdays and holidays.
Along the journey to Minakami, you will be greeted with friendly waving children and train photography enthusiasts on “strategic spots” e.g. bridges and even rooftops to take photos of the train as it passes by them. The landscape you will enjoy along the journey is also quite breathtaking e.g. Myogisan (Mount Myogi), Akagisan (Mount Akagi), Harunasan (Mount Haruna) and the beautiful gorge of Tonegawa (Tone River).
After alighting at Minakami station, we proceeded to the Minakami Kogen Resort 200 (6152-1 Fujiwara,Minakami-machi Tone-gun, Gumma, 379-1721) – a popular resort for locals who can engage in all sorts of snow activities e.g. skiing, tubing or just plain snow play. You don’t have to bring any heavy equipment or even snow wear (although wear a few layers as it can be quite cold at Minakami in January) as you can rent anything at the resort. At the resort, we tried our hand at dog sledding. While it is a dog sledding experience, we were driven around on snowmobiles too – so if you want the thrill of being driven around on a snowmobile – this is a bonus (you don’t get to drive it though – you will need a license for that).
During the dog sledding ride, you will be expected to encourage the dogs by shouting praises at them e.g. Good job boy, Keep it up. It is quite an interesting experience – if you are too quiet during the ride, some dogs may stop and look back at you. The guide will always be shouting the praises and commands – you can add on your praises for the dogs so as to encourage them to keep running 🙂 Our last stop for the day is the Tsukiyono Vidro Park (737-1, Gokan, Minakami-machi Tone-gun, Gumma, 379-1305) where we got to experience sandblasting i.e. creating a smoked glass effect by blasting the glass with fine grain sand at high pressure. First you select the stencil designs you want from a book filled with very cute designs. You can choose as many as like to fill up as much of the mug surface as you want but do note that for complicated designs, it can take you quite some time to stick the stencils. After you have pasted the stickers onto the mug, you can go to the sandblast machine where “as the name suggests”, sand will be blasted towards the glass mug at high speeds and thus imprinting the designs on the glass mug. You don’t need a lot of skills to do this – you just have to ensure that the sand is blasted as evenly as possible across the surface.
Besides the sandblasting experience, you can visit the impressive glass museums and sign up for glass-blowing experience at the workshop. The store also sells all kinds of glassware that you won’t be able to find in Singapore. We wrapped up our day with a stay at Tatsumikan 辰巳館 (052 Kamimoku, Minakami-machi, Tone-gun, Gunma Prefecture 379-1303) – a ryokan that has a very homely feeling. The ryokan Japanese-style room is huge and there is an electrically heated blanket for you to use when you are using the coffee table. There are in-room yukatas but if you want prettier kimonos, there is a huge selection to choose from and you can rent them for use during your stay at the ryokan. Having experienced sukiyaki at the Ikaho Onsen Fukuichi, we tried a different Gunma specialty here at Tatsumikan – grilled vegetable and beef – also known as Irori Kensan-yaki (Charcoal grilled mountain village cuisine). Our table came with a basket full of vegetables, beef and chicken innards as well as rice balls.
This concept of Irori Kensan-yaki started when a long time ago, samurai warriors skewered wild vegetables and river fish on their swords and cooked them over an open fire. Then we started grilling fishes – as Gunma is a landlocked prefecture, these are river fishes. Based on past experiences with river fishes, I had expected them to come with a bit more fishy smell but I was pleasantly surprised to taste the freshness of these grilled fishes. You don’t have to grill them for long as they are already cooked. Once you are done grilling them (to heat them up), you can eat the grilled fish right off the stick.