Ikaho is a district of Shibukawa Onsen, in Gunma prefecture, north of Tokyo, which became popular especially in the end of the 16th century, when injured samurai of the Sengoku Judai (Warring States Era) come here to heal their wounds in the thermal baths rich in Ikaho.
Nowadays, along with Kusatsu and Minakami, Ikaho Onsen is one of Gunma’s most popular hot springs and is often visited alongside Mount Haruna, a dormant volcano overlooking the lake that formed in its caldera, beloved by the Japanese artist Takehisa Yumeji.
Visit Ikaho Onsen
I must admit, Ikaho is not a destination that I recommend for a first trip to Japan, but it can be instead an interesting option for those looking for a place to recharge the energy, reconnect with nature, and “purify” mind and body. In fact, Ikaho is not only an onsen destination where heal fatigue, but it is also the ideal place to purify the body with good quality food, especially vegetables, and nourish your mind with art, spirituality or even a little nostalgic lightness.
The main tourist spot is certainly the Ikaho Stone Steps that leads to the Ikaho Shrine. 365 steps lined with souvenir shops, local products shops and cafes. In the evening the stairs are lit up and the atmosphere is really suggestive, you feel right in a typical village of old-times Japan.
The surrounding nature and nearby Mount Haruna, a dormant volcano overlooking the lake formed in the caldera, make the Shibukawa Onsen area a perfect place to enjoy the natural landscapes that Japan offers, especially in autumn (if you visit Ikaho this season, be sure to photograph Kajikabashi bridge with the beautiful momiji around).
The onsen of Ikaho
In Ikaho there are two types of spring waters: “Kogane no yu“, golden waters and “Shirogane no yu“, silver waters.
In particular, the golden waters, discovered first, owe their name to the fact that, despite spring in transparent color, the high content of iron oxidizes in contact with the air transforming the color of the water in a golden brown. These onsen are particularly good for wound healing, and for this reason, Ikaho became a popular destination for samurai.
Other hot springs, discovered recently, have a different concentration of minerals, that don’t cause any color change and are so-called silver waters as opposed to the previous ones.
Unlike other onsen-towns, in Ikaho there are only two public baths: Ikaho Rotenburo with two outdoor pools, one with Kogane no yu and one with Shirogane no yu, and Ishidan no yu with only indoor pools of golden water. All hotels and ryokans in the area offer indoor and outdoor pools with both types of thermal water and accept also day-entrance without overnight.
Along the Ikaho stone steps, there is an ashiyu of golden waters, where you can dip your feet in the thermal waters for free.
Nourish your mind with Buddhism and art
And as the Romans said “Mens sana in Corpore sano”, at Ikaho Onsen you can visit a number of places that will fill our mind’s appetite. For art lovers, there are three art museums in Ikaho: Hara Museum ARC of contemporary art, Hoshina Art Museum which collects various works by modern Japanese artists and the one I visited, the Takehisa Yumeji Memorial Museum, dedicated to the Japanese artist and poet famous for his paints of everyday life in the Taisho period (he spent long holidays here in Ikhao, enchanted by Mount Haruna, which he also painted as a background of one of his last jobs when illness prevented him from returning to Ikhao, where he willed to spend his last days of life.
Takehisa Yumeji Memorial Museum: open daily 9.00-18.00 (17.00 December-February), admission 1,800 yen
Lovers of anime and manga may know Ikaho for being the set of “Initial D” and they, as well as the nostalgic, will certainly find the Toy and Doll Museum interesting. As the name suggests, here a series of trinkets and objects from the past are collected, especially from the Showa era (1926-1989) and you will find Teddy Bears exhibits, cars, movie posters, plates, and above all objects that will remind you of the your childhood, from cartoons to the first video games, passing through Japanese music from the 60s and 70s and the first idols.
Toy and Doll Museum: open every day 8.30-18.00 (17.00 November-April), admission 1,100 yen
If, on the other hand, you are more interested in the spiritual side and temples and shrines relax you, you can visit the Mizusawa Kannon temple, founded 1300 years ago. Several buildings including a beautiful entrance gate where you can also be access for free, a pagoda and several richly decorated buildings. The street in front of the temple is known as Mizusawa Udongai and there are various restaurants specialized in Mizusawa Udon, one of the three most famous types of udon in Japan.
But in Ikaho there is also a corner of Taiwan: the Hosuiji Temple is the Japanese branch of the Fo Guang Shan Temple in Taiwan (I realized that I only mentioned it in the article on Kaohsiung but I have not published the dedicated article anymore! I’ll fix it soon), headquarters of Humanistic Buddhism. The complex is quite large and with several rooms to visit. It also offers the possibility of various experiences such as zazen meditation or sutra copying. Unfortunately, I had little time to visit it, but I plan to come back soon and I recommend that you consider an abundant half day to visit the whole complex, starting from the base of the stairs, which will then take you to the splendid gate from which to turn and admire the valley. Here there is also a vegan cafe with Taiwanese flavors, as per religious canons. I don’t really like vegetables and such, but I highly recommend the fried daikon they serve here!
To complete our “healing”, we certainly cannot forget what we put into our body. This area is famous for its delicious udon, it is also rich in mountain herbs and roots and offers high quality vegetables thanks to the perfect sun exposure and water quality. The konjac produced in the area is also of excellent quality. Ikaho is also looking to develop as a vegan-friendly destination, so it could really become a perfect destination for those who want to do a food detox too!
Not to be missed, the aforementioned Mizusawa Udon, rather thick, soft and compact udon with a 400-year-old tradition. They are usually served cold, soaked in soy sauce or sesame sauce.
Onsen manju was also born in Ikaho, sweets filled with red bean cream, now widespread throughout Japan.
Where to stay
The best solution is definitely to overnight in a ryokan and then try this wonderful experience including the traditional kaiseki dinner and the typical breakfast.
There are several ryokans all of excellent quality and it seems that Miyazaki was inspired by the interiors of the Yokotekan ryokan for the drawings of “Spirited Away”.
We stayed at Nyoshin no Sato Hibikino, about ten minutes walk from the Ikaho stairs and we were very satisfied. The path leading to the dining rooms reproduces a path through a traditional garden and the ryokan is surrounded by nature (too bad we were there at the end of winter, with bare branches and no snow!). The outdoor onsen has no roof and you feel truly immersed in nature! The rooms are very traditional, with a style that is perhaps a bit old-fashioned, but which I personally love, but it is still equipped with all the necessary comforts.
Another accommodation that I can recommend is the Oyado Tamaki ryokan, right at the foot of the staircase.
How to get to and around Ikaho Onsen
The best solution is the direct buses that connect Shinjuku Station to Ikaho Onsen in 2.5 hours and cost 2,500 yen.
Alternatively you can take the shinkansen (or even cheaper but slightly slower express trains) to Takasaki or Shibukawa and then reach Ikaho by frequent local buses. With the shinkansen, it takes about two and a half hours and about 6,000 yen, with the normal train at least 3 hours and about 3,000 yen.
Once at your destination, the places that cannot be reached on foot are served by rather frequent local buses that stop near the points of interest.
Want to see a preview of Ikaho Onsen? Watch my YouTube Video (with English subtitles)
This article follows the tour organized by Gunma Prefecture in collaboration with Hatago Travel.
All anti-Covid protection regulations were respected and all participants underwent a preventive PCR test.