About two and a half hours by train and bus from Tokyo, Ikaho Town in Gunma Prefecture is a great day trip for tourists looking to escape the crowds of Tokyo. This slightly touristic but laid back town is situated alongside a mountain and is perfect to visit in the fall. The town's most dominant feature is the 365 stone steps leading to the shrine at the top of the mountain. If you walk a bit further past the shrine you will come upon a rotemburo (outdoor bath) notable for its iron rich waters. As you get closer to the bath you will notice the coppery color of the soil around the gutters that are a testament to the amount of minerals in the water. After paying admission and entering the gender segregated bathing areas, you will find the space is shockingly open. This traditional style bath does not have showers, and there are limited lockers available to store customers’ clothes. After disrobing, signs in Japanese instruct you to squat by the pool with a shallow bucket and rinse yourself off before hopping into the communal water. Once in however, the 40 degree (Celsius) water warms your body from the cool autumnal air. While you may purchase towels at the ticket booth before entering the bath, it is highly recommended that you bring your own. For those who are a bit shy about being naked in front of strangers, there is still an opportunity to interact with the special hot spring water. Along the path up to the rotemburo is a small traditional water fountain where guests are encouraged to smell, feel, and taste the metallic hot spring water. Locals advertise that the iron rich water is especially good for women's health and women who wish to become pregnant are encouraged to drink and soak in it.
After relaxing in the bath, descend down the path and pause to admire the views at the Kajika Bridge. This striking red wooden bridge stands out from among the foliage as it straddles the ravine where the hot spring water flows. Walk a few more steps and stop for a hardboiled egg cooked in the hot spring water from a small stand run by kind elderly locals. Strolling a bit further down the road will reunite you with Ikaho’s famous stone steps. Here you can watch through glass windows as fresh manju buns are steamed, tantilizing passersby with their sweet smell. The shop windows also display numerous local made crafts and trinkets that would make great souvenirs. At the halfway point on the steps you can catch a spectacular panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. This view is especially beautiful in the fall while the leaves are changing colors. You will not be alone if you stop pedestrian traffic in order to snap a photo. Another attraction along the steps is an old-fashioned Japanese arcade from a time before electricity. It is worth stepping inside this building to feel transported back in time. Finally at the bottom of the steps is the restored Meiji-era Hawaiian Villa, now museum. This villa served as a residence for the Hawaiian Minister when Hawaii was still an independent nation and is a small window into the area’s history. Admittance is free.
As you head back to the bus terminal please keep your eye open for a small curry udon restaurant. Currently undetectable on google maps, this establishment is run by an adorable elderly couple in the front room of their home. The bowl of curry udon is brimming with local seasonal vegetables, and the handmade noodles have a delectable texture, consistency and thickness. For the more adventurous foodie I would also recommend their homemade amazake. Found throughout Japan during the cooler seasons, this creamy fermented alchoholic drink is served hot. The version provided by this lovely couple is particularly dense with fermentation. If you compliment them on the meal, they may explain to you (in Japanese) the processes they used to make the details of their dish come together. They may even bring out the jar they use for fermentation and encouraged you to smell it, laughing kind heartedly as you crinkle your nose. It’s moments like this that make Ikaho really special. While it may be a town for tourists coming to marvel in the views and soak in the onsens, it also offers a quaint traditional small town atmosphere perfect for those hoping to get away from the city and take life more slowly.
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Brittany is a firm believer in trying all foods at least once, spending as much time outdoors as possible, and taking advantage of any opportunity to experience traditional Japanese culture. Originally from the Adirondack Valley in Upstate New York, she is currently living and teaching English in Japan's majestic and landlocked Tochigi Prefecture.