Staff Reports
Joe's Japan Travel Journal
by Joe, staff writer of japan-guide.com

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2014/10/29 - Autumn Color Report: Shima Onsen

Shima Onsen from above

While Japan is blessed with an abundance of gorgeous, well-known and easily accessible spots to enjoy views of autumn leaves changing color, the less-known, off-the-beaten track spots are often just as rewarding. Yesterday, Stefan and I made our way to Shima Onsen in northwestern mountains of Gunma Prefecture to visit just such a place.

Shima Onsen is a small hot spring resort town considered amongst the top four in Gunma, alongside Kusatsu, Minakami and Ikaho. The sleepy, nostalgic town features a surprising 43 separate hot spring sources within its borders, around which beautiful ryokan and public bath houses have sprung up. It gets its name, literally "forty-thousand hot spring" from the story that bathing in its baths have the power to heal as many ailments. Having a car will make getting here and getting around much easier and more enjoyable, but by public transportation, the town is accessible from Tokyo in about 3-4 hours. The nearest train station to Shima Onsen is Nakanojo Station on the JR Agatsuma Line, from which a 40-minute bus ride will get you into town.

The usually quiet town comes to life in autumn with leaf-watchers and ryokan guests. When we arrived, we were greeted by some incredible fall color. The town sits about 700 meters above sea level, and at this midway point in the season, many mountain areas at this elevation in north and central Japan are peaking. Luckily for us, Shima was no exception.

Momiji (Japanese maple) trees in full color along the Shimagawa River
The foliage all around the town is at peak color this week
Autumn color around town
The main road through the central town area

After driving around and getting a feel for the town, we also made it a point to explore the town's many public bath houses, foot baths, and hot spring drinking fountains. The town's lifeblood are its onsen, and the town features some true jewels. Some of the ryokan in town are hundreds of years old and lend the town a nostalgic atmosphere.

One such ryokan which really captivated us was Sekizenkan. With a history of more than 300 years, it is not only the oldest ryokan in town, but one of the oldest in all of Japan. The beautiful traditional exterior and rustic interior reflect its age, but the baths here are the real gem. Built in a style that was in vogue in the Taisho Era (1912-1926), the baths evoke the feel of a Roman bath house, with large arched windows and tiled floors. While other Taisho-Roman bath houses dot the country, this one is particularly evocative, and was even purportedly used as a source of inspiration for the bath houses that appear in the wildly popular animated film by Studio Ghibli, Spirited Away. Open to day visitors for a 1000 yen, it's absolutely worth a visit.

Gomusonoyu public bath and footbath
Centuries-old Sekizenkan ryokan
Sekizenkan was one of several ryokan across Japan that served as inspiration for animators of the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away
A walkway over a small stream at Sekizenkan
Sekizenkan's Roman-style baths; tiling and large windows in bath houses were in vogue at the turn of the 20th century
An old faucet in Sekizenkan

In addition to Sekizenkan, we also visited a few other ryokan (and several public bath houses). Yamaguchikan, in the lower town area, was another standout ryokan with several impressive indoor and outdoor baths available. The riverside bath here was particularly nice, and even had views of some autumn color across the river. Kashiwaya, also in the lower town area, was a lovely place to spend a night with excellent cuisine featuring locally sourced food and drink.

The riverside bath at the Yamaguchikan ryokan, which is open to both ryokan guests and day visitors
A private bath at Yamaguchikan
A delicious sweet potato, mushroom and burdock root dish we enjoyed at our dinner at Kashiwaya ryokan
A private bath at the handsome Kashiwaya ryokan, where we stayed for a night

Besides the onsen, the town is set amongst some wonderful natural scenery. With the autumn color at its peak here, the hills and mountain slopes are brilliant oranges, reds and yellows. There are a great deal of clear, brilliant blue streams and rivers running through the town, too, which make for some impressive complimentary colors to enjoy. Of particular note is the highest area in the back of town. Best accessed by car, the road circling the Shimagawa Dam and Okushima Lake offers great mountain and lake views, and this week offered some amazing fall color as well. There are also several waterfalls around the lake which are worth checking out.

In general, the town made for a great spot for an overnight ryokan stay, with plenty of small, but interesting and unique attractions to make a short visit definitely worthwhile.

Walking along one of many beautiful small streams in town
The Kamagafuchi Abyss
A blizzard of autumn leaves
The autumn color around Okushima Lake, formed by the Shimagawa Dam, was stunning today
Even the partially submerged trees in Okushima Lake were showing their fall color
Shakunage Falls, near Okushima Lake
We found a lot of interesting sideline attractions around town, including these natural holes, called oketsu, carved into the rock by this river
Some brilliant red momiji (Japanese maple)
A ginkgo tree lit up at night
A lantern inscribed with the town's name

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List of Posts:
2018/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2018
2017/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2017
2016/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2016
2016/03/24 - Setouchi Triennale 2016
2015/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2015
2015/12/04 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2015/12/03 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2015/11/19 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2015/11/18 - Autumn Color Report: Mount Mitake
2015/11/16 - Autumn Color Report: Mount Takao
2015/11/12 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2015/11/11 - Autumn Color Report: Fukuroda Falls
2015/10/30 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2015/10/26 - Autumn Color Report: Bandai
2015/10/22 - Autumn Color Report: Northern Alps
2015/10/21 - Autumn Color Report: Northern Alps
2015/10/20 - Autumn Color Report: Mount Fuji
2015/10/15 - Autumn Color Report: Hachimantai
2015/10/14 - Autumn Color Report: Towada
2015/10/13 - Autumn Color Report: Hakkoda
2015/10/08 - Autumn Color Report: Nasu
2015/10/06 - Autumn Color Report: Nikko
2015/04/14 - Cherry Blossoms 2015: Yoshino
2015/04/13 - Cherry Blossoms 2015: Miharu
2015/04/08 - Cherry Blossoms 2015: Matsumoto Report
2015/01/29 - Crabs, Peonies and Castle Cruises in Shimane

2014/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2014
2014/12/16 - Seasonal Illumination: Osaka
2014/12/15 - Seasonal Illumination: Kobe Luminarie 2014
2014/12/09 - Seasonal Illumination: Ashikaga Flower Park
2014/12/05 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2014/11/28 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2014/11/26 - Autumn Color Report: Nara
2014/11/25 - Autumn Color Report: Kyoto
2014/11/18 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2014/11/13 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2014/11/07 - Autumn Color Report: Tokyo
2014/11/04 - Autumn Color Report: Hakone
2014/10/29 - Autumn Color Report: Shima Onsen
2014/10/21 - Autumn Color Report: Nikko
2014/10/16 - Autumn Color Report: Alpine Route
2014/10/08 - Autumn Color Report: Nasu
2014/10/07 - Autumn Color Report: Nikko
2014/09/26 - Autumn Color Report: Nikko
2014/08/20 - Kusatsu Onsen Beautification