You might not be aware of it but Gunma Prefecture is sometimes nicknamed as the Kingdom of Hot Spring. Why? Aside from the famous Kusatsu Onsen, there are a couple more renowned hot spring towns in the prefecture, such as Shima Onsen (四万温泉). Unlike the touristy Kusatsu Onsen, Shima Onsen has a very natural and traditional setting with a couple of picturesque natural attractions for outdoor activities! Furthermore, there is a ryokan that is rumored to be the stage of the Ghibli movie, Spirited Away!
Shima Onsen is located in Gunma Prefecture’s Agatsuma District (吾妻郡). In addition to the public bathhouses and more than 30 accommodations facilities, the hot spring town also has foot spas and drinkable hot spring fountains scattered across.
A List of Shima Onsen’s Attractions
- Around the bus stop, Shima Onsen
- From Shima Onsen’s town center to Shima Lake
- Close to Shimagawa Dam
Click HERE to skip to Shima Onsen’s access information.
Shima Onsen’s History
If you read Kanji, you might wonder why the hot spring town is named “Forty Thousand (四万)”. Apparently the name comes from the legend that the hot spring at Shima Onsen is able to heal forty thousand different kinds of illness. While the hot spring source is said to have been discovered in the 11th century, the first accommodation facility at Shima Onsen wasn’t opened until 1563. Since then, a hot spring town has gradually formed.
In the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), a hot spring union was formed and roads were paved, enabling the town to become a popular spot for medical hot spring treatment. And in 1954, Shima Onsen was officially recognized as the first hot spring resort for recuperation (国民保養温泉地).
The other two hot spring resorts that are designated as Japan’s hot spring resorts for recuperation are the Sukayu Onsen (酸ヶ湯温泉) in Aomori Prefecture and Nikkō Yumoto Onsen (日光湯元温泉) in Tochigi Prefecture.
Shima Onsen’s Medical Effects
So what is so great about Shima Onsen’s hot spring that it passed the nine requirements to be a designated national hot spring resort for recuperation?
The hot spring gushing out at Shima Onsen is said to be gentle on the skin and is effective for neuralgia and recovery from fatigue. So since the good old days, Shima Onsen is known as Kusatsu Onsen‘s Agari Yu (草津の上がり湯), suitable for rinsing your body after indulging in Kusatsu Onsen’s strong acidic hot spring.
In Japan, hot spring isn’t just for bathing. Some onsen are also suitable for water drinking! So in Shima Onsen, you will find a couple of onsen fountains where you can drink the hot springs flowing out of them. In fact, the hot spring is also used for cooking because it is said that drinking the hot spring at Shima Onsen is good for your digestive system and even relieves constipation!
But if you want to drink it, please follow the instructions at each fountain so you don’t overdrink it. And note that the spring’s temperature can be hot.
Shima Onsen’s Four Seasons
- Shima Onsen’s cherry blossom season usually peaks in late April. The popular spots to adore the flowers are:
- Shima Onsen’s fall foliage season is from late October to early November. The best way to enjoy Shima Onsen’s nature at this time of the year is by canoeing and seeing the autumn leaves along the mountain from Lake Okushima.
How to Get to Shima Onsen
- From JR Nakanojō Station (中之条駅), take the local bus bound for Shima Onsen (四万温泉) and get off at Shima Onsen.
- The bus trip will take around 40 minutes.
- Refer to HERE for the bus service’s timetable. You can translate it using Google Chrome’s translation function.
- You can also take Shima Onsen-gō (四万温泉号) departing from Tokyo Statoin’s Yaesu South Exit (八重洲南口). Please ask for the JR Express Bus stop (JR 高速バスのりば) if you are unsure.
How to Get Around Shima Onsen
Because the attractions in the hot spring town aren’t exactly close to each other, you might want to rely on a mode of transportation instead of traveling on foot if you don’t have access to a car. Because there are probably still no taxis serving the area, here are two other methods you can utilize:
- Bicycle rental service called Shima Chari (四万チャリ) at the Shima Onsen Association.
- The local bus has at least one service per hour.
- HERE is the bus timetable. You can translate it using Google Chrome’s translation function at the right of the address bar.
Events at Shima Onsen
Chōchin Walk (ちょうちんウォーク)
On Friday nights between mid-July and August, an event called Chōchin Walk is held at Shima Onsen. It is where people walk around the hot spring town at night with a lantern in their hand. If your ryokan has Yukata rental service, put it on and make yourself an unforgettable memory!
If you are interested, apply at your accommodation’s reception by 5 pm on the day.
Shima Onsen Autumn Festival (四万温泉秋祭り)
Shima Onsen Autumn Festival is held each year on the 7th and the 8th of October. Similar to other festivals across Japan, the locals would tour the town with splendid festival floats. But in Shima Onsen, tourists are allowed to join the parade!
It is your chance to see adorable children with white makeup beating the Taiko drums. Yagibuchi (八木節) is also performed during the festival.
Yudate Festival (湯立祭)
Yudate Festival is held in late January, on the coldest day of the year (大寒) according to the lunar calendar. It is a ritual for the locals to express their appreciation for the hot spring and to pray for good health.
At Gomuso Hot Spring (御夢想の湯), the hot spring is boiled in a cauldron before it is sprinkled around the hot spring. After the ritual, Lucky Manjū buns are thrown to the crowd (福まんじゅう投げ) and mochi rice cakes are pounded (湯餅つき).
Shima Onsen’s Hot Spring Facilities for Day Visitors
While spending a night at Shima Onsen is recommended, if that isn’t an option for you or you would like to hop between different onsen facilities in the hot spring town, Shima Onsen also has a couple of places you are welcome to visit!
For more information, refer to our article on Where to Enjoy Hot Spring as a Day Visitor at Shima Onsen (=ﾟωﾟ)ﾉ.
The Must-Try Eateries and Street Food in Shima Onsen
Although Shima Onsen isn’t known as a spot for fancy food, it has a couple of cafes, restaurants, and street food you need to try out during your visit. Some are traditional snacks or sweets unique to the area, and others are just delicious because fresh ingredients sourced locally are used, and dishes are made to order.
So refer to our article on The Must-Try Eateries and Street Food in Shima Onsen!
Shima Onsen Association (四万温泉協会)
Shima Onsen Association is one of the nicest tourist centers in Japan. While the exterior is indifferent to the surrounding concrete building, the interior design is simple but elegant. Decorated by many stunning photos of the natural spots in the hot spring town, even spending time at the Shima Onsen Association can be an enjoyment!
Shima Onsen Association also provides the following services:
- Luggage storage
- Toilet facility – very clean
- Bicycle rental (Shima Chari, 四万チャリ)
In addition to tourist information, the Shima Onsen Association also rents out bicycles. As Shima Onsen’s attractions aren’t exactly close to each other, renting one of the electric-assisted bicycles would be a better option than taking a bus if you don’t drive.
Why electric-assisted ones? It is to make your life easier to cycle uphill to Lake Okushima.
- Shima Chari service is available from 9 am to 4:30 pm, April to November or December, depending on the road condition.
- The service will be suspended during bad weather.
- The rental cost for electric-assisted bicycles is 1,000 yen per 2 hours.
- For an additional hour, it will be an extra 500 yen.
- Remember to bring your ID.
☛ One of Shima Onsen’s drinkable hot spring fountains, Shio no Yu Fountain (塩之湯飲泉所) is just a 2-minute walk from the Shima Onsen Association. As it is free to use, how about giving it a try? It should be effective for those with a poor appetite or digestive system-related issues.
☛ Get a Shima Onsen Passport (四万温泉よってんべえパスポート) for 100 yen from the Shima Onsen Association. While all in Japanese, it includes coupons for various facilities in the hot spring town.
Shima Onsen Association’s Opening Hours and Access Information
- Shima Onsen Association is around a 10-minute walk from the bus stop, Shima Onsen.
- You can also get off the bus at Kiri no Ki Daira (桐の木平), which is just a 1-minute walk from the tourist association.
Amongst all the ryokans in Shima Onsen, Sekizenkan, which has more than 300 years of history, is the most famous. Not only it is because the main building is the oldest hot spring inn architecture in Japan, but the ryokan is also rumored to be the stage of Spirited Away as there are three spots inside Sekizenkan that resemble the scenes in the Ghibli masterpiece! And if you can understand Japanese and are lucky, the ryokan owner might even give you a Sekizenkan history tour!
For more information, please refer to our article on Sekizenkan.
Yanagiya Playground (柳屋遊技場)
An attraction perfectly fitting to Shima Onsen’s Shōwa ambience is an amusement arcade filled with old-school gaming machines. In the past, Shima Onsen has had multiple arcades, but only Yanagiya survived since 1966. On the arcade’s wall, you will find many autographs from celebrities who previously visited Yanagiya!
Yanagiya has been entertaining visitors with its Smart Ball machines and shooting games. While the machines are old, it doesn’t mean the balls would fall easily into the hole you would like them to fall into. According to the grandma who looks after the shop, it all depends on your luck and maybe your skills!
For each game, you will get 50 balls to play and the rules are simple. Pull the launch lever to release the ball one by one. If your ball falls into the holes marked “5” or “15”, more balls might come out of the Smart Ball machine.
Unlike contemporary arcades, Yanagiya sometimes gives its customers bonus balls or even a cup of tea and sweets. And if you speak Japanese, we are sure that you will have a pleasant time chatting with the grandma or her son who now takes over Yanagiya.
The friendliness of the owner is probably the best charm of the arcade!
As a side note, the machines in Yanagiya were made in 1970. Because no one manufactures these machines anymore, visit the arcade before the machines reach an unrepairable state!
Yanagiya Playground’s Business Hours, Cost, and Access Information
- Yanagiya is open daily except Thursdays from 10 am to 3 pm.
- Each game costs 500 yen.
- Yanagiya Playground is around a 3-minute walk from the bus stop, Shima Onsen.
Tokiwasure no Yado Yoshimoto (時わすれの宿 佳元)
Although Tokiwasure no Yado Yoshimoto requires some walking to get to, it is a ryokan that you will definitely love! Although staying at Tokiwasure no Yado Yoshimoto isn’t cheap, the experience is worth your money. The service, the food, the view, and the ryokan itself are all absolutely top-notch!
For more information, refer to our article on Tokiwasure no Yado Yoshimoto!
Ōizumi Falls (大泉の滝)
On the way to Shimagawa Dam (四万川ダム), make a detour to Ōizumi Falls by following the promenade. The peaceful, gurgling waterfall is slightly different from most waterfalls in the world. Because the water contains hot spring minerals, the waterful basin is an emerald green color. You will also notice the rocks and riverbeds turning brown. Surrounded by greenery, the 5-meter-tall Ōizumi Falls is a lovely place to relax and soak up the negative ions.
Amazingly, the waterfall won’t be frozen in winter, so the charm of Ōizumi Falls can be felt throughout the year.
While you might feel that overlooking the waterfall from above is enough, it isn’t until you get to the waterfall basin that you will realize that the Ōizumi Falls is quite powerful!
In addition, Ōizumi Falls is where the canyoning ends. So in the warmer months, you might want to slide down this waterfall!
For a list of canyoning tour providers, refer to our article on Lake Okushima.
Important: The stairs to Ōizumi Falls are slippery when wet, so choose your footwear carefully.
☛ On the way to Ōizumi Falls, take a rest at Yuzuriha Drinking Fountain・Mori no Ashiyu Footspa (ゆずりは飲泉所・杜の足湯). There is even free WiFi at the pavilion!
☛ Koizumi Falls (小泉の滝), just a one-minute walk away, is a great spot for autumn foliage hunting. The fall foliage around the waterfall is so stunning that the spot is nicknamed Hōsenkyo (楓仙峡).
How to Get to Ōizumi Falls
- Ōizumi Falls is around a 15-minute walk from the bus stop, Shima Onsen.
- Cars can be parked at Takimi Danchi (滝見園地), around 150 meters away from Ōizumi Falls. The parking lot in front of Koizumi Falls (小泉の滝) can also be utilized.
Shimagawa Dam (四万川ダム) and Lake Okushima (奥四万湖)
A must-visit spot when you come to Shima Onsen is Shimagawa Dam and Lake Okushima. It is the best spot in the hot spring town to indulge yourself in nature! Those who love outdoor activities can also enjoy a range of watersports there (=ﾟωﾟ)ﾉ.
For more information, refer to our article on Shimagawa Dam and Lake Okushima!
Shakunage Falls (しゃくなげの滝)
Shakunage Falls is located at the far back of Lake Okushima, close to the trailhead to Mt Inazutsumi (稲包山). Compared to other waterfalls in Shima Onsen, the 25-meter-tall Shakunage Falls is the biggest. As the name suggests, you can see the waterfall surrounded by rhododendrons from late April to early May.
The waterfall’s observation deck is close to the car park. So while it only offers a side view of Shakunage Falls, the waterfall’s beauty can be easily adored.
How to Get to Shakunage Falls
- Shakunage Falls is around a 15-minute drive from the bus stop, Shima Onsen.
- There is a small car park at Shakunage Falls.
Important: There might be no reception around Shakunage Falls, so remember to download the map first.
Kibarashi Kōbō (木ばらし工房)
If you like wooden craftwork, stop by Kibarashi Kōbō when you visit Shima Onsen. Many wooden works are displayed on the wall at the entrance, including many cunning Karakuri Zeiku (mechanical toys)!
Not only is the workshop filled with handicrafts, but the building is worth some attention!
The 400-year-old building was originally in Kyoto but was later relocated to Shima Onsen to be a ryokan before moving again to the current location and reopening as a workshop.
If you are a fan of Japanese literature, regardless of whether you are interested in wooden craftwork, Kibarashi Kōbō is a spot you have to visit. When the traditional building was used as a ryokan, it was where the famous literary master, Dazai Osamu (太宰治), stayed when he visited Shima Onsen!
Kibarashi Kōbō’s owner was a cabinetmaker before he moved to Shima Onsen with his wife. The workshop was opened partially as he loved and enjoyed making wooden crafts. So besides making and selling toys and decor, he also holds wooden craftwork workshops.
Kibarashi Kōbō’s Opening Hours, Workshop Costs, and Acces Information
- Kibarashi Kōbō is open daily except for Thursdays from 9:30 am to 5:30 pm.
- The workshop is closed from mid-December to February.
- Workshop fee:
- 2,500 yen for adults
- 1,500 yen for children up to elementary school students
- Kibarashi Kōbō is around a 5-minute walk from the bus stop, Seiryu no Yu Iriguchi (清流の湯入口) or Onsenguchi (温泉口).
Kashiwaya Ryokan (柏屋旅館)
While there are a few ryokans with long histories, the best ryokan at Shima Onsen to spend a night in is Kashiwaya Ryokan. Although the food, service, and onsen are all extremely high quality, what makes them truly exceptional is how accommodating and flexible the ryokan is! Not only do the staff there try their best to make you feel at home, but they can also accommodate those with a vegan diet!
For more information regarding the lovely ryokan, refer to our Kashiwaya Ryokan article!
SHIN Toji Lulud (SHIN湯治 LULUD)
Besides Kashiwaya Ryokan, another Shima Onsen accommodation with single rooms is SHIN Toji Lulud. The hotel, renovated from an abandoned ryokan, now has a contemporary and stylish look. But retaining the beauty of a Japanese ryokan, SHIN Toji Lulud also has Japanese-style guestrooms that are a lot more spacious than its double rooms and dormitory-style single rooms.
Just note that the dishes served at their fancy-looking cafe are not vegetarian/vegan, although you can surely enjoy desserts there!
How to Get to SHIN Toji Lulud
- SHIN Toji Lulud is a 10-minute walk from the bus stop, Shima Onsen.
Hinatami Yakushidō (日向見薬師堂)
On the way to Shima Onsen‘s best natural spot, Lake Okushima, how about a detour to Hinatami Yakushidō? The temple with a thatched roof is the legendary birthplace of the hot spring town. In addition, it also has a connection with the Sanada clan, a famous samurai family in the late 16th century!
For more information, refer to our Hinatami Yakushidō article!
Shima Potholes (四万の甌穴群)
Around 3km away from Shima Onsen’s town center, you will encounter eight potholes in Shima River. The potholes filled with river water exhibit a beautiful turquoise blue color that enchants visitors. Surprisingly, this spot is easy to get to because it is located just next to the main road!
If you look carefully, you might be able to find a small stone in the process of creating a new pothole with the help of the water flow! You should also be able to see small fish swimming in the river too!
In addition, don’t forget to trek down to Momotarō Falls (桃太郎の滝) for an equally amazing natural scenery (=ﾟωﾟ)ﾉ.
For more information, refer to our Guide to Shima Potholes, Momotarō Falls, and Shima Lake!
四万湖 (Shima Lake)
Shima Lake is the dam lake of Nakanojō Dam (中之条ダム). Like Lake Okushima, the mysterious color of the lake water draws the hearts of those who see it.
The lake is another spot at Shima Onsen where you can enjoy canoeing and SUP. If you are interested, contact one of the tour companies to reserve a spot.
For more information, refer to our Guide to Shima Potholes, Momotarō Falls, and Shima Lake!
Discover Attractions in Kusatsu Onsen
If you haven’t already, plan a visit to Kusatsu Onsen, one of Japan’s most well-known hot spring towns!
In addition to the public and communal bathhouses, Kusatsu Onsen has a lot to offer. Whether it is soba noodles, traditional sweets or outdoor activities, such as obstacle courses and skiing, you surely won’t be bored at Kusatsu Onsen!
For more information, refer to our article on Kusatsu Onsen (=ﾟωﾟ)ﾉ.