Ikaho: An Onsen Town Rich in History, Culture and Ambiance
By Karen Ma

A long flight of stone steps lined with old shops and inns. Men and women, dressed in yukata and bath towels in hand, click-clack along in their geta. It’s a nostalgic spa-town scene that calls to mind a slower era, one you don’t expect to see any more in modern Japan, save for perhaps, in an old Japanese film. But then surprises do happen, especially for those who venture to the resort town of Ikaho in Gunma Prefecture with some friends.Ikaho is quite hilly given its location on the eastern slope of Mt. Haruna. This makes the stone steps, or “ishidan,” more than a cosmetic addition – they’re also quite sensible. My companions and I began our tour of the town by exploring the “ishidan gai” in the heart of the town. The steps were hidden from view when we first arrived by bus – they were tucked behind some hotels on a small hill. The narrow stairs, 360 to be exact, seemed to ascend straight to the sky. While steep, however, the staircase was lined on both sides with souvenir shops, inns, restaurants, local spas and food stalls along the way, making our climb more fun than strenuous. We munched on freshly baked senbei and steamed sweet manjus, our eyes feasting on the many colorful local handicrafts.


Ikaho is characterized by its famous “ishidan-gai,’’ or the stone-steps, which are lined on both sides with souvenir shops, inns, food stalls and restaurants.

The staircase eventually lead to a dark, old shrine on the top of a mountain, where locals come to pray for good health and safety. Locals told us the steps date back 420 years ago, built to commemorate Ikaho as the first government-established onsen town. It’s obvious people take great pride in the history. The old town feel is well preserved, with many of the narrow, winding side lanes kept in appearance much the way they would have been centuries ago. Their reverence for the hot spring is also evident: small glass cases dot the steps, offering a glimpse of the steamy brown thermal water streaming down the slope. A local town guide traces the original hot spring back some 2,000 years, pointing to an Ikaho citation in the ancient poetry collection of “Manyoshu.




This colorful two-tier pagoda at the famous Misawa Temple is said to be very rare, and is a designated national cultural treasure.

“The Backstage of a Meiji Novel”
But it wasn’t the stone steps that made the spa town famous. Most of the onsen-goers did not discover Ikaho until the book “Hototogisu,” was published in 1900 by the Meiji novelist Roka Tokutomi. Tokutomi made his first visit to Ikaho in 1898, staying at the historic inn of Chigira Jinsentei, which is still standing today. He was quickly charmed by the town, and began frequenting Ikaho and the ryokan as he wrote the novel. Much of the book’s setting came straight out of Ikaho, although the tale is about the turbulent life of a woman living under the harsh confines of feudal Japan. Today, as you climb the steps, you can almost hear Namiko, the heroine in “Hototogisu,” sighing, “Next life, let me not be born a woman again.”
With “Hototogisu”’s backdrop in mind, we chose to stay at Chigira Jinsentei. We were glad we did. The sizable Japanese inn is a pleasing three-story building with a black tile roof, white walls, and a long series of wood-paneled windows.
  Its Taisho-era style building stands in striking contrast to the tall, dull high-rise hotels that crowd the immediate vicinity. The innkeepers told us Chigira Jinsentei has been around since 1502 and is the oldest inn still operating in the area. The current structure was rebuilt roughly a century ago after a fire.

The room we stayed in was on the second floor and was12 tatami mats in size. It also had an enclosed veranda with two rattan chairs overlooking the beautiful mountain range of Mikuni. All 30 rooms at the hotel also have a private toilet and sink.

One thing the ryokan has no shortage of is baths. Guests have a choice of two indoor baths – their use is rotated between men and women in shifts – two outdoor baths that are divided between men and women; and four private family baths. I particularly enjoyed the indoor Takenoyu, a cascade bath. The thermal water was reddish brown and is supposed to be good for feminine ailments.

The modest previous summer residence of the Minister of the former kingdom of Hawaii is a lovely little museum with a colorful history. It is conveniently located near the base of the town’s stone steps.

Dinner was another highlight of our stay. We were served grilled fish, tempura, sashimi, a yummy fish-and-vegetable soup, several side dishes of vegetables and a very tender and juicy Gunma beef steak. The staff assured us the beef was local, and free of problems, and it was in fact quite delicious.

We spent the following morning exploring Tokutomi’s footsteps at the hotel. Kazuko Chigira, the hotel’s owner, kindly showed us room 386 on the third floor, where Tokutomi spent much of his time writing “Hototogisu.” Chigira said Tokutomi made frequent visits there even after completing the novel. In 1927, when he fell seriously ill, he insisted on moving back to the hotel and renting a bungalow by the main construction site, where he later died. Today, the bungalow is preserved in a nearby commemoration hall (Tokutomi Roka Kinen Bungakukan) devoted to the novelist’s artifacts.

Don’t forget to drop in the Oosawaya for a bowl of the famous Misawa udon noodles during your visit to the Misawa Temple.


A Magnet Drawing Numerous Celebrities

Ikaho has hosted many other celebrities as well. Takehisa Yumeji, an early 20th century artist made famous for his depiction of sad women in kimono, is a name that keeps surfacing locally. Every gift shop here sells reproductions of his work, many on handkerchiefs, scarves and small prints. Takehisa evidently made frequent trips to the area to make sketches of the beautiful Lake Haruna.

Those interested in the originals, including watercolors and brush paintings, can travel to the nearby Takehisa Yumeji Kinenkan Museum a short bus ride away from the “ishidan gai.” Although we found the two museum buildings aesthetically-pleasing enough, the entrance fee at 1,500 yen seemed rather steep, particularly given the relative emptiness of the show rooms.

One small gem we discovered before departing the town was the previous summer residence of the Minister of the former kingdom of Hawaii (Kyu Hawaii Koshi Bettei) located right at the base of Chigira Jinsentei. Until the turn of the century, Mr. Robert W. Erwin, his Japanese wife and their five children spent every summer at Ikaho. Today, their summer home, a modest two-story building, has been turned into a small museum, where a handful of the envoy’s books, dishes and household items are still on display.

The museum is rustic and charming, the little bit of history rich and colorful. Best of all, it’s free to the public, making the visit all the more irresistible. This is a must see.

General Area: Ikaho is located in the heart of Gunma Prefecture halfway up the slope of Mt. Haruna overlooking the breathtaking Mikuni Mountain Range. Hotels and inns are available in abundance, but surprisingly few tasteful inns are in sight. Most establishments come in the form of dull, concrete buildings. Aside from the famous Chigira Jinsentei, the Kanadaya, a smaller, traditional hotel hidden on a side lane from the “ishidan gai,” offers an elegant decor and rooms are available from about 10,000 yen per person on weekdays.

How to Get There: Take the Shinttokyu Kusatsu or Shinttokyu Minakami trains from Ueno and get off at Shibukawa. From there, take the Ikaho-bound bus to the final stop. (Total traveling time is 1.5 hours by train and 30 minutes by bus)
Hotel: Ikaho Spa Chigira Jinsentei
Rates: From ¥15,000 with 2 meals on weekdays and ¥20,000 on weekends.
30, all Japanese-style, all with a sink and private toilet. Address: 45 Ikaho, Kita-Gunma gun, Gunma Prefecture. 377-0102

Ikaho Shrine, located at the top of
the stone steps.


Area Information:
Nearby Side Trips:

*Spas for Day Trippers—Ikaho offers a few local public spas with good atmosphere that are perfect for day-trippers. “Ishidan no Yu,” located at the bottom of the stone steps, allows you to soak all day for just 500 yen. You are also free to use their lounge and visit a small museum within. Or you can walk up the 360 steps and the extra 500 meters to the open air bath of Ikaho Rotenburo, which costs 400 yen. The hike is well worth it, and after the bath you can walk a couple extra steps to view the thermal headwaters of the Ikaho hot springs. Two commercial spas: Bealz Spa and Spa Grand, are also easily accessible near town. Both have a variety of different baths, plus saunas, lounging areas, game corners and restaurants. Entrance fees for both are around 1,000 yen on weekdays and 1,300 yen on weekends.
The historical Chigira Jinsentei, claimed to be the oldest hotel in Ikaho, has been in business since 1502. One of two buildings at the Takehisa Yumeji Kinenkan Museum.

*Mizusawa Temple Area —This temple is slightly out of the way from the town of Ikaho (about 15 minutes by bus or 10 minutes by car), but well worth a visit. The colorful temple dates back 1,300 years, and is well known for its “Mizusawa Kannon” (the Mizusawa Goddess of Mercy), which is somehow connected to “Chuzenji Kannon” in Nikko. One surprising find here is a rare two-layer pagoda with a built-in mill. Visitors can rotate the mill three rounds from the left to “turn their misfortune around.” Don’t miss the opportunity to try out the famous homemade “Mizusawa Udon” noodles at restaurants in the area. Among the 11 specialty shops offering the dish, Oosawaya in front of the bus stop came highly recommended by our bus driver. Their noodles were indeed fresh and delicious, and went very well with the maitake mushroom tempura.

*Lake Haruna Area—
the lake is about 20 minutes by bus from Ikaho in the direction of Takasaki, and is worth the trip if you have the time. Rising in the middle of the lake is the majestic Mt. Haruna, which is sometimes called the “Haruna Fuji” by locals. The peak is accessible by ropeway (430 yen each way). You can also enjoy boating, carriage rides, hiking, fishing and camping, as well as some stunning views. (1,612 words)


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