Written by Ramona (GREATERTOKYO_Explorer)
Temples, Onsen And Great Views! Sightseeing In Gunma With The JR TOKYO Wide Pass
The JR TOKYO Wide Pass is a convenient ticket valid for three consecutive days that allows unlimited rides on all the JR train lines in the designated area around Tokyo. We used this ticket today to explore wonderful places in Gunma Prefecture!
While Tokyo has many attractions that could keep you in the city for days, how about taking a day trip to an area outside the capital? Each region will provide insights into the authentic Japanese lifestyle and culture, in addition to wonderful sightseeing spots.
Visitors to Japan can take advantage of the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, a very convenient pass that is valid for three days and offers unlimited rides on any JR trains in the designated area around Tokyo - all this at the price of only 10,000 yen!
This time we will introduce the model course for a day trip to Gunma Prefecture, an area with splendid nature spots and beautiful temples whose sight will enrich your experience of Japanese culture.
8:15 -- Tokyo Station: Purchase the JR TOKYO Wide Pass
The JR TOKYO Wide Pass can be purchased at the JR East Travel Service Centers located within major train stations in the capital area such as Tokyo Station, Shinjuku Station, Narita Airport or Haneda Airport.
The JR East Travel Service Center at Tokyo Station is located right by the Marunouchi North Exit.
Upon acquiring the Wide Pass, you will be asked to show your passport. One of the great features of the JR TOKYO Wide Pass is that it can be used by visitors to Japan but also by long-term residents as long as they are holders of foreign passports.
In addition to information in English regarding how to use this convenient pass, you will also receive a pamphlet with a map of the areas where it can be used.
Priced at 10,000 yen, the JR TOKYO Wide Pass is nominal and valid for three consecutive days from the time of purchase. This means that you can travel all you want in the area covered by the pass for three days.
Please be aware that the JR TOKYO Wide Pass shouldn't be inserted into the ticket gates. You need to show it instead to the JR staff at each station.
For further details on the features and usage of the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, please refer to the official web page of JR East: http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/tokyowidepass/?src=pcbp
8:44 -- Taking the Shinkansen to Takasaki in Gunma
Our destination today is Gunma, so we took the Shinkansen Hakutaka departing at 8:44. We reached Takasaki Station at 9:34. It is here where we start our exploration of Gunma.
The first place we wanted to visit was Mizusawa Kanzeon, a beautiful temple with a rich history located in the heart of Gunma Prefecture. In order to go there, you need to take a bus from platform No. 2 of the bus terminal in front of Takasaki Station.
We took the 9:55 bus bound for Ikaho Onsen and reached Mizusawa Kannon bus stop at 10:58. The bus ride cost 1000 yen.
11:05 -- Visiting Mizusawa Kanzeon, A Beautiful Ancient Temple!
Mizusawa Kanzeon is one of Gunma's famous temples, with its origins going back 1300 years ago. Dedicated to Kannon Bodhisattva, the deity of mercy, this temple is a popular pilgrimage destination, being visited by thousands of people daily.
Starting with the main prayer hall (hondo), there are several beautiful structures within the temple grounds. These buildings feature impressive details and are representative of early Japanese Buddhist architecture.
The picture above shows the Rokkakudo, or hexagonal hall, a prayer hall housing the Buddhas watching over the six worlds the universe is made of in Buddhist cosmology. In addition to this, visitors can see the bell tower, the pond housing a statue of Benzaiten, the goddess of music and arts, a small shrine uphill and many other structures.
The temple grounds offer even more beautiful sights in the autumn when the foliage turns into bright reds and golds.
You can end your visit to Mizusawa Kanzeon by exiting the grounds through Niomon, the eastern gate, itself a very impressive structure which can be visited on the inside too!
11:30 -- Lunch at Tamaruya - Try the Famous Mizusawa Udon Noodles
Just one minute walk away from the Niomon Gate of the Mizusawa Kanzeon Temple, you will find Tamaruya, a select Japanese traditional restaurant (ryotei), which specializes in udon noodle dishes. In fact, the whole street is lined with Mizusawa udon specialty restaurants.
At Tamaruya, you will encounter the kind of Japanese hospitality that is reflected in every detail of the service - from how the food is served to how the rooms look like and how the seasonal flowers are arranged in every corner.
The most popular dish at Tamaruya is the Hotei-sama Fukuzen (1836 yen) which consists of a generous portion of udon noodles, two types of dipping sauce (tsuyu), tempura, and several small vessels containing side-dishes. You'll notice right away the quality of the udon noodles, which have a springy texture and a gentle taste.
Take your time to fully enjoy this satisfying meal. Every detail of it reveals the thoughtfulness and the refined tastes of the locals, telling a lot about the culture of the area you're visiting.
12:30 -- A Visit to Ikaho Onsen: Climbing the 365 Steps
Because the number of buses going to Ikaho Onsen is limited, please try to make it to the 12:22 bus departing from the Mizusawa bus stop (located right in front of Tamaruya, across the street).
After an 8 minute ride, you'll be arriving at Ikaho Onsen Ishidangai, a part of the town stretching along a 365-step stone staircase. Please take a good look at the bus stop as this is where you'll be taking the bus towards the next destination.
The stairs lead to Ikaho Jinja, a shrine located on top of the hill. Their number 365 corresponds to the days of the year and it is considered auspicious to climb all the way up.
Along the Ikaho Onsen Ishidangai, you'll be able to find not only many small shops where you can stop for refreshments but also foot baths! While climbing the stairs, take a rest and let your feet indulge in a hot spring bath. In fact, along the stairs, you can notice glass windows showing the hot springs gushing out from the mountain - an amazing view that can be enjoyed only here at Ikaho Onsen.
Having reached the top, you'll be able to visit Ikaho Shrine which is believed to answer prayers for good health and prosperity. The history of this shrine goes back to ancient times and you'll notice the dignified atmosphere of its grounds. This shrine is actually considered to be a power spot, energizing the visitors and filling their hearts with hope.
On your way back to the station, stop for some delicious onsen manju (sweet buns) at Shogetsudo, which is located right at the base of Ikaho Shrine. The shop has been in business since 1910 and is famous for its onsen steamed buns called "Yu no Hana Manju".
Made with a dough that contains black sugar and filled with sweet red bean paste, these buns are steamed in hot spring water, thus their name "onsen manju". They are extremely soft and tasty - an ideal snack during a stroll that involved climbing. You can either eat them on the spot or take some as souvenirs. A representative local treat, these manju are a must-try when visiting Ikaho Onsen.
13:50 -- Mt. Haruna Ropeway: A View over Gunma from Above
If you take the 13:26 bus departing from Ikaho Onsen Ishidan, you will get to Mt. Haruna Ropeway at 13:43 (Harunasan Ropeway-mae bus stop).
A visit to the top of Mount Haruna, which you will reach in less than 3 minutes by ropeway, will offer an unobstructed view over Gunma, from the surrounding mountains and Lake Haruna, which is close by, and even as far as Tokyo. The peak rises above the clouds so the view is truly splendid.
The scenery is beautiful at any time of the year, but is especially gorgeous in the spring when all the cherry trees on Mt. Haruna go into bloom and in the winter at nights, when a large scale illumination event is held in the area called Haruna Winter Festival.
On the summit, you can visit Haruna Fujisan Jinja, a very old shrine dedicated to Konohana Sakuya Hime, the guardian deity of homes and marital relationships. The ema (wooden plates carrying the wishes and prayers of the visitors) offered at this shrine are decorated with a charming image of the goddess.
While on the summit of Mt. Haruna, look around and you'll find many small things like this which will warm your heart and feel lucky to have had the chance to visit here.
15:30 -- Leaving for Takasaki Station from Lake Haruna
After returning to the base of Mt. Haruna, how about enjoying a walk around Lake Haruna? Proceed towards the left when you reach the lake which is only about 3 minutes away on foot from the ropeway station. A path will lead you around the lake toward the Harunako bus stop, where you can take the 15:30 bus for Takasaki Station.
Before boarding the bus, enjoy the view of Lake Haruna which is surrounded by peaks on all sides. It's a wonderful, calming view that makes you appreciate the fact that you can spend a few hours in nature.
It takes one hour and a half from here to Takasaki Station by a direct bus, a time during which you can enjoy gazing out the window at the stunning nature and beautiful townscapes of Gunma prefecture.
If you take the 17:02 Shinkansen, you'll be reaching Tokyo Station at 17:58.
Use the JR TOKYO Wide Pass to explore Eastern Japan!
Remember that your JR TOKYO Wide Pass is valid for three consecutive days on all the JR lines within the designated area. Make the most of it and get to know all that Japan has to offer beyond the great metropolis of Tokyo.
JR TOKYO Wide Pass - Gunma Course Summary
Tokyo Station → Takasaki Station → Mizusawa Kanzeon Temple → Lunch at Tamaruya → Ikaho Onsen → Mt. Haruna Ropeway → Lake Haruna → Takasaki Station → Tokyo Station
JR TOKYO Wide Pass (valid for 3 days on all JR lines within the designated area) 10,000 yen
Local buses, ropeway: around 2500 yen
Lunch, souvenirs etc.: around 3000 yen
Supported by East Japan Railway Company