2017 . 07 . 30

Tokyo’s Neighbour Trip: Gunma

location: Gunma, Japan

Living in Tokyo surely has its many perks, but this biggest city in the world can be depressing as hell, too. With its constantly moving people, rushing trains and convenience stores that never sleep, I often find it hard to recognize the halcyon Japan I met through Ozu’s eyes or Natsume Soseki’s words, here in Tokyo. Sometimes even almost impossible, that I keep dreaming of leaving for its rural areas to see again the Japan that once captivated my heart.

Then on one weekend, I did so.

Interestingly enough though, there are vast reaches of Japan’s countryside around Tokyo that seem immune to modernization and quench my thirst for such stillness, when the capital city is too suffocating to be lived one more day. Some of them are counted as alternative tourist destinations, which definitely are not my preference in the quest of quietude, but then, there are also some hidden deep in the mountains and exist whether any tourist find them or not, timelessly, as if they are present in their own world. Among the latters, I chose Gunma.

This prefecture is located right in the heart of the Japanese islands, at the center of the Honshu island. Three-hour drive from Tokyo got us to Minakami, a mountainous town known best for its hot springs abound. Along the way we found ourselves surrounded by mountain’s lush vegetation, moving from one tunnel to another, crossing red iron bridges where a steamy stream ran underneath. Even the road already tasted calming, and I felt like I could go on like this without a pause, but eventually my fiancé was fed up of driving. So we settled ourselves for a night in Takaragawa Onsen, an old ryokan established in 1940 by the river of Takara. Upon arrival we were offered a wide array of yukata choices to wear during our stay, something that perhaps we can’t find in other typical ryokan as it is usually handed to us more as a “uniform” rather than freedom.

We dumped our weekender bags in the room, changed into the delicate yukata wear and immediately aimed for the rotenburo, the outdoor bath. It was cloudy outside, and breezy wind gently whispered around, made me completely forget we were in the midst of Japanese torturing summer season. Out from the ryokan building, hanging there an old wooden bridge connecting us to the other side of the river, where the rotenburo laid. We crossed, and past it was another adventure before the dip. It always amazed me how the Japanese build something, which was made obvious through the architecture of the rotenburo. They were literally built around, and following the sloping texture of the riverside that your eyes couldn’t tell which ones were its end and from where the river began. It was perhaps the best physical translation of what a man-made harmony is, an ally to the nature instead of against it.

We made our venture through the stoned pathway and mossy forest, where the end of it was a junction to choose among the total four baths. There were three mixed baths, and one dedicated exclusively for women. I took the privilege of being a female and chose the women-only bath as my first try. We were required to wash ourselves clean before we soaked in, and could opt to wear the special bathing cloth or take the liberating decision for a skinny dipping, in a much civilised connotation, of course. Yet undoubtedly, I preferred the latter. Carefully I stepped down into the bath. The water was boiling than warm, but quickly my body adjusted to the heavenly feel, and so did my eyes to the hazy steam. I crept to the edge of the bath, where beneath was the river. In that end I could barely move. My body was suddenly paralysed by the sight, the sound, the grandness that overwhelmed me. I desired nothing but silence.

It was a foreign momentum for me. Yet I kept reminding myself that this was exactly what I longed for three hours ago before we arrived. All I could hear was the gentle noise of the rushing stream below, and yet when I looked up, it was the sound of stillness, of the misty forests, perhaps haunted, but the tranquility couldn’t be more inviting. At some point I felt I was transported to somewhere out of this world, then I realized my feet were grounded solidly on the granite bath floor. I thought I came in this realm of silence to hear myself thinking more clearly. I never saw it coming that what I heard instead was myself thinking about nothing.

The night fell faster and the morning rose earlier. A countryside’s luxury. I woke up at dawn when the local wildlife quietly awoken and went my way straight to the rotenburo, again. Nobody else was there but the shy morning dews, and the sun was just about to show itself. This time I went nuts. I tried all four of the rotenburo and anxiously looked around while dipping, making sure I didn’t miss a scene. It was still overwhelmingly hard for me to understand how such a place existed, frozen in time, untouched and undisturbed by the fast-pacing world around it. My soliloquy was suddenly stopped by the sound of dripping rain and the sight of a cute couple making their way down the rotenburo in Japanese transparent umbrellas. I knew it was time for me to go. I took a last glance over before I wrapped my towel around, and stepped back to reality. In this poetic moment, I was present, I was there, and yet, I had already been dreaming of going here again.

The rotenburo are best during the autumn season, and perhaps in winter as well. Yet if you’re visiting in summer like me, the perk is you’ll have the chance to see the blooming lavender field in the town of Numata, just an hour away from the ryokan. There are not many lavender fields across Japan, and the famous one resides far in northest island of Hokkaido, so this could be a good shot, too. We drove another 30-minute away to Shibukawa town and arrived at a large private farm, where they had flocks of cows, rabbits, goats, horses and sheep nestled in a vast green field like those in the New Zealand. It has a unique-looking contemporary art museum too, just across the field, but we didn’t have the time to pay a visit.

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HOW TO GET THERE

Takaragawa Onsen is accessible by train from Tokyo using the JR line, which is fully covered by the Japan Railway Pass. From Tokyo station, get on board with JR Takasaki line towards Takasaki station for approximately 100 min. journey, and from there change to JR Joetsu line to Minakami station for another 60 min. journey. From the Minakami station, they can arrange a pick-up for you at a designated time, but a prior reservation is required when you make the booking. If you don’t fancy an overnight stay, this place also offers a daytrip option, where you just come for the dip and leave.

Takaragawa Onsen
〒379-1721群馬県利根郡みなかみ町藤原1899
(Ph.) 0278-75-2611
For more information, visit their English website here:
http://www.takaragawa.com/english.html

Tambara Lavender Park also operates as a ski resort during the winter time, which can be another option to complete the trip plan. It’s about 2 hour and 30 minutes from Tokyo using the Joetsu shinkansen, and you can ride the famous Japanese old locomotive too along the way!

Tambara Lavender Park
〒378-0071 群馬県沼田市玉原高原
(Ph.) 0278-23-9311
For more information, visit their English website here:
https://www.tambara.co.jp/lavenderpark/access/

Access to Ikaho Green Bokujo is similar to how you reach Takaragawa Onsen, except that you have to get off from the Joetsu line in Shibukawa station instead of Minakami. From Shibukawa, take the Ikaho Onsen bus and get off at “Green Bokujo Mae”, it’s around 15 min. journey.

Ikaho Green Bokujo
〒377-0027 群馬県渋川市金井2844-1
For more information, visit their English website here:
http://www.greenbokujo.co.jp/english/

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