It was another very rainy day as I headed off on the express train from Ueno station on a 2 hour journey to Nakanojo, where I then transferred to a local bus bound for Shima Onsen. Shima Onsen is a beautiful mountainous retreat located in the northern region of Gunma Prefecture and is named according to its legend of healing 40,000 illnesses (40,000=yon man = shi ma). I had selected Shima Onsen following my great memories of Kusatsu Onsen, also located in Gunma Prefecture. This trip included an overnight stay, so I will cover my adventures over 2 blogs.
On arrival at Shima Onsen I stood in the pouring rain after the bus left and knew that I had to find the first onsen I could, as it certainly wasn’t the weather to be enjoying a walk around town. I wandered (make that huffed and puffed!) my way up a very steep hill from the bus stop and discovered Tamura, a ryokan with a 500 year history! I checked at the reception if they offered any onsen to day trippers, and lo and behold they had 7, so this was my spot! Both the exterior and interior of the ryokan were very impressive, so I couldn’t wait to see the baths. It was around 11:30am and very peaceful as most guests had checked out and new guests were not due to arrive until 3pm. Admission for the onsen was 1700 yen with the option of an onsen/lunch package for 2200 yen.
Multiple onsen experiences
Due to the size of the establishment, it was an adventure just to find the various onsen. A kimono clad hostess kindly showed me the 2 main wings and highlighted the fact there were 3 baths on each side, plus an outdoor bath. Only 2 of these baths however, had facilities for washing and showering so I was told to be sure to visit one or these first. I was also given a “Stamp Larry” piece of paper which was a novel way to record my bathing experiences by using the decorative stamps located outside each bath.
It was quite a unique adventure to be able to visit several baths in one ryokan. Each of the baths was individually named and all featured unique entrances and norens. My first port of call was to the largest bath known as Iraku-no-yu.
The bathing area did not disappoint. It was a large area featuring several baths which had been sectioned off with varying temperatures from around 39 degrees up to approximately 43 degrees celcius. Some of the bathing area felt slightly dated, but overall the wooden benches, shoji screens on the windows and wooden baths exuded a rustic charm.
The bath was great, and I was soon keen to explore the other baths, but the only disappointing thing was I had to put my day clothes back on to go to the next bathing area as a yukata was not included for day visitors.
In the opposite wing of the building I found my favourite bathing areas. Firstly there was a beautiful little outdoor bath, which I had all to myself. You can see from the surface just how much rain was pouring down, but this did not detract from the stunning, tranquil bathing eperience in the aquamarine waters. If anything, the rain added another sensual dimension, gently cooling my face as tensions melted away from my body in the hot spring waters.
Within the building there was a full wooden bathroom, with wooden slats in the window for the light to shine through. The overall atmosphere was very subdued and relaxing with lamps in the corners, providing a contrasting experience to the outdoor bath. It was also much more intimate compared to the large Iraku-no-yu.
After spending a few hours at Tamura, I was on my way again. If it had not been for the heavy rain, I would have loved to have walked down the valley, however the bus was the more sensible option on the day. I quickly discovered that there was only about one bus per hour, so it was pretty important to do some advance planning about how long I stayed in the bath!
Along the route to the bus stop, I admired the exterior of Sekizenkan Ryokan (featured as blog cover photo). Sekizenkan is designated as an important cultural asset of Gunma and an iconic landmark for Shima Onsen.
There was to be one more onsen experience at Seiryu-no-yu, 5 minutes by bus down the road from Shima Onsen. This onsen was conveniently on my way back to Nakanojo, and was in a scenic spot by the riverside. This was a relatively new facility, with a very reasonable entrance fee of 500 yen and seemed to be enjoyed by both travellers and the locals.
There were both indoor and outdoor baths to enjoy as well as a lovely relaxation area. From the outdoor bath, there was a distant view of the river, but I really loved the beautiful waterfall at the rear of the property.
Following my visit to Seiryu-no-yu, it was time to catch a bus back to Nakanojo in order to transfer to another bus to reach my evening destination of Sawatari Onsen. More about that on my next blog.
From Ueno take the Kusatsu Limited Exress train to Nakanojo (2 hours 5 minutes) and tranfer to the public bus bound for Shima Onsen (30 minutes)