Nestled deep within the mountains of Gunma Prefecture lies the town of Minakami. Although it may seem like an average small-country town, Minakami is the perfect place to explore all the beauty and intrigue that Japan has to offer. Hidden train stations, mountain hikes, canyon rafting, and relaxing hot springs are just some of what you’ll find here.
With so much to see and do, it can seem overwhelming—particularly with the language barrier. Thankfully, the Visit Gunma website makes planning a trip to the area easy. The site has loads of information about various activities throughout Gunma and the convenient itinerary tool allows users to create a custom travel plan as they explore the website. If you’re not sure where to begin, their website is the perfect place to start!
Minakami is easily reached by the Joetsu Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo Station, arriving at Jomokogen Station in just over an hour. Although a rental car is probably the best option for getting around, buses, taxis, and local trains can also get you where you want to go.
Mid-morning to lunch: Doai Station and Tanigawadake drive-in
After you arrive in Minakami, start your trip off by visiting Doai Station. It may seem strange to visit a train station during your trip—after all, you traveled by train to begin with!—but this is no ordinary station. Doai Station is Japan’s deepest train station, situated 70 meters (230 feet) below ground. What’s more, there is no elevator or escalator—just 486 steps that connect travelers from the top to bottom! If it seems like the kind of place custom-made for movies, you wouldn’t be far off, as it has been featured in past films. The grungy atmosphere of the station makes for some good exploring and unique photo opportunities, as well.
After exploring Doai Station you’ll probably be pretty hungry, so pay a visit to the nearby Tanigawadake drive-in. The food is excellent, offering a traditional Japanese meal with local flair. There are also various sweets and items sold here, so it’s a good spot to pick up some treats to take back home.
Afternoon: Bungee jumping, rafting, and natural views
After lunch, head over to the Suwakyo Bridge. Situated 42 meters (138 feet) above the Tone River, the views from the bridge are spectacular. For thrill-seekers, it is even possible to bungee jump off the bridge over the Tone River gorge below. If you need more of an adrenaline rush, head further up the river to Canyons Adventure Tours. Canyons offers world-class tours, including rafting and canyoning in the surrounding streams and rivers. Rafting options include advanced level-4 adventures in the spring, with more subdued level-2 offerings later in the year. No matter what season, the views are beautiful from start to finish. Even if you’re a bit nervous about the experience, the staff at Canyons are professional and kind and will make sure you enjoy your time.
Evening: Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku
One of the best places to stay in Minakami is the famous Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku. Situated along the Takara River, this hot spring ryokan (Japanese inn) is the perfect place to relax after a busy day of travel. One of the most unique aspects of Takaragawa Onsen is its outdoor hot spring baths. With several hot spring baths located directly on the river, guests can soak in the naturally heated waters while enjoying the calming views and sounds of nature. Unlike many onsens in Japan, these outdoor baths are not divided by men and women (excepting one area that is only available to women) and guests wear bathing towels while in the onsen.
After a refreshing soak in the natural hot waters, head back to the ryokan for a delicious Japanese dinner, made with fresh local ingredients. As the day comes to an end, a comfortable Japanese-style tatami room is waiting for you. In warmer months, you can open the windows and listen to the stream below. In the colder winter months, you’ll probably want to enjoy the snowy scenery and keep warm inside your room with windows closed. Either way, you’ll go to sleep knowing you made a good choice for your stay!
Morning: Hot spring, breakfast, and hiking
Start day two with another soak in the public hot springs baths, followed by a tasty breakfast at the inn. Next, head over to the Tanigawadake Ropeway. Although you can hike Mount Tanigawa, this would require a full day so the ropeway is a great choice for a quick trip. The journey from Doaiguchi Station (at the bottom) to Tenjindaira Station (at the top) is almost two and a half kilometers (about 1.5 miles) and takes about 15 minutes, with stunning natural scenery in all directions.
After you reach the top, you can either enjoy hiking around the area or head a bit further up using the ski lift for even better views. Due to the elevation, Mt. Tanigawa offers a true seasonal experience. Skiing is possible as early as December and as late as May. During summer, the mountain offers a respite from the warmer temperatures below. In autumn, fall foliage takes the stage, offering some of the earliest colors in the region. No matter when you go, you can expect epic mountain views and an opportunity to explore nature.
Afternoon: Pizza & local crafts
If you’re hungry following your morning on the mountain, you’ll want to visit the Pizzeria La Bière. You may not expect to find authentic pizza in a town like Minakami, but pizza lovers won’t want to miss the chance to try the exceptional dough made from Minakami's water. With a cozy atmosphere and uniquely delicious pizza made from local ingredients, La Bière is the perfect place for a relaxing and tasty lunch.
Heading into the afternoon, travel a bit further to the southwest to Takuminosato to experience a number of traditional Japanese cultural crafts. In this rustic community of craft shops run by local artists, you can learn how to make washi paper, weave bamboo, or make soba from scratch, among other things. If you want souvenirs to take back home but also want experiences to remember, this is a great option and is a lot of fun by yourself or with a group of friends.
Another craft option in Minakami is the Tsukiyono Vidro Park, which is a glass factory offering a myriad of glass-related experiences. The factory offers simple glass decorating experiences, as well as a museum of glass that includes relics from ancient Rome and even glass artwork designed by Picasso himself. But the premiere experience is making glass for yourself. After choosing your design and coloring, you will enter the factory floor where a professional glass worker will help you create your glassware from scratch, including blowing the glass and shaping it directly from the furnace. The Tsukiyono Glass Factory has been in business for over a hundred years, so along with a unique experience, you also get to participate in a bit of local Minakami history.
As you can see, Minakami may seem like a small town, but it’s full of opportunities for adventures and memories. This is just a small taste of what the area has to offer. Make sure to check out Visit Gunma to find more options to explore in the area.
No matter what itinerary you choose, as you head home on the Joetsu Shinkansen, you’ll find your short trip flew by but was packed memories to last a lifetime. As Gunma’s beautiful mountain views speed by from the bullet train window, you’ll probably find yourself thinking about when you can visit again!