Shima Onsen (四万温泉, lit. "Forty-thousand Hot Spring") is a sleepy hot spring town in the northwest mountains of Gunma Prefecture. Considered among the top four hot spring towns in the prefecture (alongside Kusatsu, Minakami and Ikaho), Shima Onsen is also thought to be one of the oldest in Japan. It is so named because it was once said that bathing in its abundant spring waters could heal as many ailments as its name implies.
With over 40 separate hot spring sources within its borders, the town relishes in its resources with dozens of ryokan, public bath houses, foot baths and hot spring water drinking fountains for visitors to enjoy. Despite its many attractions, Shima has managed to keep itself from becoming overdeveloped, preserving a small-town atmosphere. Nestled in a mountain valley, it also boasts a beautiful natural backdrop of mountains, waterfalls, a reservoir lake and a river that winds through the town. In autumn, the trees covering the slopes around the valley offer great views of autumn colors, usually peaking between late October and early November.
The Sekizenkan Ryokan in the town center
Shima Onsen is spread along the Shima River Valley and has three distinct town areas, each about a kilometer away from the other. The lower town area near the southern entrance to the valley is perhaps the quietest and is home to some of Shima's nicest riverside ryokan. The river also forms a small but beautiful gorge known as the Kamagafuchi Abyss in this area.
The central town area is the heart of Shima, where visitors can stroll down narrow streets lined with small shops, nostalgic game arcades, foot baths and hot spring water drinking fountains. Many of the town's ryokan and hotels are located in this area, including the standout Sekizenkan, a centuries-old ryokan with a beautifully preserved Taisho Era Roman-style indoor bath.
The narrow main street in the central town area
The upper town area is furthest back into the valley and higher in elevation than the lower areas. In this area you can bathe in the town's earliest discovered hot spring source at the Gomusoyu public bath or pray at the nearby Yakushido Temple which is dedicated to the town's founding. At the very end of the valley lies Okushima Lake, a reservoir lake formed by the Shimagawa Dam, as well as several waterfalls.
While the lower and central town areas are navigable on foot and are within reasonable walking distance of each other, the upper town area is more spread out and less amenable to pedestrians, especially in the remote Okushima Lake area. Buses run only as far as the Shima Onsen bus terminal in the central town. A rental car is recommended for exploring all of Shima's areas at your own pace.
Lower Town Area
Central Town Area
Upper Town Area