Shima Onsen is a place where the past and present merge; where ancient traditions are in harmony with modern conveniences. Nestled in the mountains of Gunma, three hours away from the bustling centre of Tokyo, the waters of Shima Onsen are said to be so pure that they can cure thousands of ailments. Hence the name Shima Onsen, which literally means 40,000 hot springs.
With hundreds of years of history behind it, Shima maintains its quaint charm and sleepy village feel despite the dozens of ryokans, bathhouses, foot baths and drinking fountains that are sourced from the natural springs that abound in the area. A magnificent mountainous landscape blanketed with trees envelopes the three distinct areas of the upper, central, and lower towns that are spread along the Shima River Valley. The upper town, where the earliest discovered hot spring still bubbles, is the furthest of the three areas and is accessible only by car. It is home to the Yakushido Temple, which is dedicated to the founding of the town and at the very end of the valley is the Okushima Lake formed by the Shimagawa Dam and many waterfalls.
While a rental car is required to visit the upper town, the central and lower towns are accessible by bus and are more pedestrian friendly. The central town boasts Sekizenkan, a 300-year-old ryokan that is said to be one of the inspirations behind Hayao Miyazaki’s beloved film Spirited Away. The magic of the area begins on the way to Shima Onsen, on Route 353, which has grooves along the road known as melody lines which play the film’s theme song Itsumo Nandodemo when the vehicle runs at a particular speed.
Visitors can stay at the many traditional inns and luxuriate in the baths. The lower town has some of the nicest riverside traditional Japanese inns to stay. The river here forms the Kamagafuchi Abyss, a small but beautiful gorge carved from the running waters of the Shimagawa River. Strolling through the narrow alleys, guests have the opportunity to eat the local speciality of baked bamboo as well as their special grilled manju. There are old school pachinko parlours and game arcades to visit as well as many tiny shops that sell locally made alcohol. While the surrounding nature and hot springs are enough reason to come, Shima Onsen is also famous for its sake and beer that use the spring waters to create a distinct taste.
Shima Onsen is a wonderful place to visit all year round but the views in autumn between late October and November are some of the best. In spite of its remoteness, Shima Onsen is well connected from central Tokyo and visitors can grab a bus or trains from Tokyo Station.
Shima Onsen Overview
NAVITIME TRAVEL EDITOR