Gunma Prefecture is a hot spring paradise that is easily accessible from Tokyo, so you can enjoy a short trip.
There are many hot spring areas in Gunma, but today I will focus on two that I consider to be the best, Kusatsu and Ikaho.
Let’s think about which of the two will be more refreshing as a casual, one night hot spring trip. Please note that this is a personal opinion with the purpose of relaxation and stress relief .
Now, Let me introduce the differences between Kusatsu and Ikaho.
Types of hot spring sources
Both Kusatsu and Ikaho are hot spring heaven! First, I would like to compare their hot spring sources.
One of Japan’s three famous hot springs (Arima Onsen, Shimoro Onsen, Kusatsu Onsen), it has the largest amount of natural hot springs in Japan, and you can fully enjoy the fresh “flowing directly from the source” spring water at any inns or day trip hot springs.
In Kusatsu, there are seven main hot spring sources. All sources are rare and strongly acidic, around pH of 2.
Due to the strong acidity, it is a bit tingly, but you can feel that your skin becomes smooth and the body stays warm for a long time. The voice of the body will say “It works!”
On the other hand, be careful that strong acids can melt and damage rings and necklaces. You should take them off before taking a hot spring bath.
Ikaho is very historic hot spring area and it appears in one of Japan’s oldest (7th century) anthology of poems called Manyoshu (万葉集). There are two main sources called “Golden source (黄金の湯)” and “Silver source (白銀の湯)”. Among them, the older source is the golden source. It contains a lot of iron, and when the iron comes in contact with the air and oxidizes, it becomes a goldish brown color.
It is also said that if you take this hot spring, you can have a baby. Because it warms up slowly, and is gentle less irritating, it can be used as a baby’s hot spring debut.
However, this golden hot spring source unfortunately has a small amount of hot water and can only be used at traditional inns in Ikaho. If you want to enjoy the golden source at your accommodation, you should check if they have this source in advance.
I will also introduce another newly developed hot spring source, “Silver source”, which is a hot spring with a high concentration of metasilicic acid, but the temperature of the source is not warm and you cannot take a bath unless you heat it. In addition, it does not contain much other hot spring-like materials, and some people have the impression that it “feels like just mineral water.”
I like strong fresh hot spring water so in this hot spring source comparison, Kusatsu has advantage.
If you want to fully enjoy the strong acidity of the fresh flowing hot springs, you should choose Kusatsu.
If you are concerned about skin irritation, you should choose Ikaho.
Day trip hot spring facility
I recommend to stay at an inn with a hot spring. Because you could have special experience at Ryokan (Japanese style inns). Both areas have day trip hot spring inns.
In Kusatsu, there are inns where you can use their communal bath without a reservation, but there are also specific day trip hot springs such as “Sainokawara Onsen (西の河原温泉),” “Gozanoyu (御座之湯)” and “Otakinoyu (大滝乃湯).”
This time, I would like to focus on “Sainokawara Onsen”.
It is a vast open-air hot spring with a size of 500 square meters with separate areas both men and women where you can enjoy nature and an overwhelming sense of openness. The hot spring source is called “Mandaiko no yu”, which contains a lot of metasilicic acid (a skin-beautifying material contained in moisture type lotion), so you should be able to feel the smoothness of your skin after bathing.
However, since it is strongly acidic with a pH of 1.5, you may feel a little irritation.
The other day trip hot spring facilities “Gozanoyu” and “Otakinoyu” are also very beautiful and are definitely worth visiting.
At Gozanoyu, you can enjoy two hot spring sources, both are also strongly acidic.
At “OtakinoYu”, you can experience the “Awaseyu” which is traditional way of bathing and has baths with different temperatures, where you start from one with a low temperature and gradually work your way up to a hot spring with a high temperature.
Each of the three day trip hot spring facilities have its own characteristics, so if you can’t choose one, it is recommended that you purchase a special ticket that allows you to visit the three hot springs separately. After visiting all three you will receive a “hot spring master” certificate.
Ikaho also has inns where you can take a day trip bath, so I will introduce their day use hot spring facilities as well. There are “Ikaho open air bath”, “Ikaho Onsen Ishidan no Yu” and “Kogane no Yukan” as day use facilities of Ikaho.
Here, I would like to introduce “Ikaho open-air bath”. At the Ikaho open-air bath you can enjoy the golden hot spring source. There are two types, hot and tepid water, and although it is not so large, you can enjoy the atmosphere of a secret hot spring in the mountains.
However, even though it flows directly from the source, it does not have the fresh feeling of flowing with hot water like those in Kusatsu. I also felt that the facilities in Kusatsu were better maintained, including cleaning.
So, in the second comparison “day trip hot spring”, Kusatsu is the winner!
If you want to enjoy the fresh flowing hot spring water, I would recommend Kusatsu because it has plenty of flowing hot spring water.
The main tourist attraction of Kusatsu Onsen is Yubatake. At Atsunoyu, the public hot spring next to Yubatake, a “Yumomi Show” is held.
“Yumomi” is to stir with an elongated wooden board to lower the temperature of the hot spring. The temperature is lowered without adding water, so the hot spring will not be diluted.
At the Yumomi show Yumomi ladies dance, sing, and demonstrate Yumomi, and then if you want you can experience Yumomi yourself!
In addition, there are foot baths, souvenir shops, and sweets shop around Yubatake. Yubatake is fantastically lit up at night, so you can enjoy a peaceful late night walk.
For sightseeing spots in Ikaho, the main street is actually made up of 365 stone steps.
There are souvenir shops, steamed bun shops, shooting galleries, footbaths, etc. on both sides of the stone steps, so there are many places you can stop and take a look while walking the steps.
Looking up from below, you can feel the atmosphere of a good old time of hot spring town.
At the top of the stone steps is Ikaho Shrine, and if you go further along the street, you can go to the Ikaho open-air bath.
If you walk in a yukata (casual version of kimono, usually Japanese style inns have some in guest rooms), it’s a great spot for photos.
In the third comparison, sightseeing spots, the victory goes to Ikaho Onsen!
Yubatake and the production of Yumomi shows in Kusatsu are very fun, but let’s feel extraordinary and refreshed here at Ikaho where you can enjoy the old-fashioned scenery.
I think that dinner and breakfast are often served at the accommodation, so I would like to introduce mainly lunch.
There are many restaurants near Yubatake with a wide variety of genres.
Soba and maitake mushroom tempura are famous in Kusatsu. Hakukoutei (柏香亭), a soba and udon noodle restaurant that has been operating in Kusatsu for over 100 years, is a popular restaurant which always has a line. When I visited, I lined up for about 30 minutes, but it was delicious, so worth the wait.
Mizusawa Udon, is one of the three major udon noodle producers in Japan (Sanuki udon, Inaniwa udon, Mizusawa udon). While it is a little expensive at tourist spots (Udon and maitake mushroom tempra is about 1800 yen) it can be a fun experience to go to a udon restaurant that is considered to be the Udon Palace.
In the 4th comparison, lunch, Ikaho has the advantage!
Let’s enjoy Mizusawa Udon at Ikaho.
Access from Tokyo
The “Limited Express Kusatsu” is convenient for getting to Kusatsu Onsen from Tokyo. From Ueno Station, stop at Akabane Station and go to Nagano Kusatsuguchi. It takes about 2 hours and 20 minutes from Ueno Station. It takes about 25 minutes by bus from Nagano Kusatsuguchi to Kusatsu Onsen. It is very convenient because the bus departs according to the arrival time of the limited express Kusatsu.
You can get there by limited express Kusatsu and bus in a total of about 3 hours for about 6,000 yen.
If you want to reduce transportation costs even more, there are also high way buses from Shibuya, Shinjuku, Tokyo Station, etc. Depending on the schedule, you can travel one-way for 3,060 yen.
The train “Limited Express Kusatsu” is also convenient when going from Tokyo to Ikaho Onsen. Change to a bus at Shibukawa station and arrive at Ikaho Onsen in just over 2 hours. The price is less than 5,000 yen.
If you use the highway bus, there are days when you can get there from Tokyo Station for less than 2,000 yen one way.
The 5th comparison “Access from Tokyo” is that Kusatsu is much farther from Tokyo, so it takes time, but it is easy to transfer from train to bus because the schedule is adjusted, and there are other ways to access other than by train.
It’s a draw!
Result announcement! Which is better, Kusatsu Onsen or Ikaho Onsen?
As a result, Kusatsu wins the comparison of best hot spring for relaxation and stress relief.
If you want to fully refresh yourself at the hot springs, Kusatsu Onsen would be better.
If you want to feel the extraordinary feeling of time slipping, you can enjoy the old stone steps of Ikaho Onsen.
I often choose Kusatsu because soaking in the hot springs is the most refreshing thing.
popular inns in Kusatsu Onsen
Finally, I would like to introduce my recommended, popular inns in Kusatsu Onsen. Every inn has its own characteristics, so it is recommended that you choose an inn that suits your purpose.
La Vista Kusatsu Hills