Gunma Prefecture Overview
The abundance of natural hot spring water in the north of the Kanto region supplies Gunma Prefecture with some of the country’s most highly frequented onsen towns with Kusatsu Onsen in the northwest of the prefecture the most popular of the bunch. As one of just eight landlocked prefectures in Japan, Gunma is predominantly mountainous resulting in a small population but plenty of skiing and hiking opportunities.
A visit to Gunma Prefecture is an escape out of Japan’s fast paced cities into cosy towns whose sole purpose often appears to be hosting holidaymakers on relaxing weekends away. While the majority of Gunma’s population inhabits the centre and southeast of the prefecture, the north has been left relatively wild, enticing adventurers into the vast mountains and the Nikko and Oze national parks which cross over from Tochigi Prefecture into the northeast of the prefecture. Snow sports lovers are recommended to head to the better known Mt. Shirane and Mt. Haruna during the winter months for an excellent selection of ski resorts.
Soaking in hot springs has been the unofficial pastime of the people of Gunma for centuries. In the 1970s, the number of visitors to the prefecture took a massive leap following the mass building ofーnow very datedーonsen resorts designed to welcome in the newly wealthy people riding high on the economic bubble. Although the resulting crash has meant that much of the architecture remains stuck in the ‘70s, Gunma’s onsen are still a popular weekend getaway destination.
Kusatsu Onsen is said to be among Japan’s top three hot spring resorts with further options including Shima Onsen, Manza Onsen located at an altitude of 1,760 metres and Kawarayu Onsen which hosts the annual Yukake Festival on January 20. As bathing is the main activity on offer, be sure to make the most of the bathing opportunities: inside baths, outside baths, colored baths, and even performances of bathing rituals including the water-cooling yumomi.
With onsen the main event in Gunma Prefecture, several snacks are creatively steamed in the surrounding hot spring water: Onsen tamagoーor hot spring eggsーare semi-boiled eggs which spend just a few minutes in the hot water before you crack in; onsen custard pudding is another favourite while the ubiquitous sweet snack has to be the spring steamed buns known as onsen manju.
Outside of the onsen towns lie Tomioka known for its silk production, which can be discovered at the UNESCO World Heritage Site Tomioka Silk Mill, the vibrant Gunma Flower Park, and Katashina Melody Road, which is one of a handful of roads around Japan whose structure is designed to sound like music as you ride along.