Vegetarian's Japan Guide

The Must-Visit Spots Along Ikaho Onsen Stone Steps

The Ikaho Stone Steps, or Ishidan Stone Stairway (石段街) in the center of Ikaho Onsen, is the town’s symbol. Along the Stone Steps, restaurants and souvenir shops line, so reaching the top surely won’t be a tiring task as you will likely be side-tracked at some point. While in Japanese, the stone steps are engraved with Chinese zodiac signs and a Japanese poem, giving you another reason to slow down your steps to discover something that doesn’t normally exist in your daily life.

The stone stairway wasn’t as long when it was first completed in 1576 to pray for the area’s prosperity 400 years ago. However, because a year has 365 days, the locals increased the number of staircases to 365 stairs, hoping Ikaho Onsen thrives every single day. As it is such a long staircase, the difference in elevation from the bottom to the top is a whopping 68 meters!

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As each staircase is numbered, how about taking a photo with the staircase numbered with your birthday?

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Moreover, the 12 zodiac signs engraved on the staircases aren’t just a random decoration. In the Edo period, the inns and bathhouses on the sides of the stone steps were divided and given a zodiac sign. The golden signs on the floor indicate the zodiac assigned to the traditional building behind it.

Tip: Remember to bring a towel to dry your feet after soaking them in the free foot spot available at Ishidan Stone Stairway. Wearing pants that can be rolled up at the hems is best.

The Must-Visit Spots Around Ikaho Onsen Stone Steps

Tip: It is best to enjoy the street food and shopping during the day and the hot spring and foot spa at night as the shops usually close by 6 pm or until sold out.

Komaguchi (小満口/小間口) and the Engraved Poem

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The stone steps weren’t just made to make it easier to climb up the hill. The waterway for the hot spring was built underneath the stairway so that the onsen could be distributed to each part of the hot spring town.

The spot where the hot spring channel is split is called Komaguchi. This distribution system was established in 1639 and remains mostly unchanged.

4 out of 16 Komaguchi in Ikaho Onsen can be found at Ikaho Stone Steps. A unique window is set up to make it easier for us to understand how the hot spring is distributed so people can see the water flow underneath the stone surface!

Besides Komaguchi, a Japanese poem is engraved on a section of the stone steps. It was a poem written by a famous Japanese writer, Yosano Akiko (与謝野晶子), describing the Ikaho Onsen that she had when she visited the hot spring town.

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Chaya Tamaki (茶屋たまき)

Chaya Tamaki isn’t one of the shops on the sides of Ishidan Stone Stairway, but since it is opposite the starting point of the Step Stones, we thought to include it in the article.

The café offers a wide range of desserts. Among them, the must-try is Teyaki Agari Mochi (手焼きあがり餅). The rice cake filled with lightly sweetened red bean or black sesame paste is lightly grilled, giving it a light brown color and crispy skin.

If you are in a rush, take it away. Otherwise, enjoy the rice cake and the view of Ikaho Onsen’s landmark at the counter seats!

If you like rice cakes, order an Irodori Tamaki Set (彩りたまきセット). It comes with five grilled rice cakes topped with different toppings (seaweed, cheese, spicy pollack roe, red bean paste, and soybean powder). If you are a vegan or vegetarian, remember to ask the staff to replace the toppings you can’t eat with other plant-based flavors. In addition to the rice cakes made from Gunma Prefecture‘s sticky rice, it also comes with a small plate of pickles to cleanse your taste buds, as well as apple gelato.

On a hot summer day, order Chaya Tamaki’s apple gelato. Although the café calls it “gelato”, it is actually sorbet as it doesn’t contain dairy. It is made from the apples harvested from the café’s orchard. Their apple pies are amazing, too!

If you like chestnuts, their Mont Blanc is phenomenal. It goes really well with the nicely brewed coffee.

Tip: If you order a dessert set that comes with a cup of Hojicha tea, check with the staff if they can refill it for free.

Chaya Tamaki’s Business Hours and Access Information

  • Chaya Tamaki is open from 9 am to 5 pm from Wednesday to Monday.

Former Kingdom of Hawaii Minister’s Villa (ハワイ王国公使別邸)

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From the bottom of Ikaho Onsen Stone Steps, the first main attraction along the staircase is the Former Kingdom of Hawaii Minister’s Villa. When Hawaii was still a kingdom, Robert Walker Irwin was the Kingdom of Hawaii’s Minister to Japan.

During his time in Japan, he married a Japanese woman and built a summer villa in Ikaho. Originally located elsewhere, it was moved to where it is now in 2013.

Unlike the villas in Karuizawa that are mostly in Western style, Irwin’s villa is in Japanese style with wooden flooring and tatami mat rooms. Since he purchased the villa in 1891, the Irwin family spent all their summers at Ikaho until Robert passed away in 1925.

Note the 2nd floor of the villa is only open on weekends and public holidays and during the Hawaiian Festival (ハワイアンフェスティバル).

Former Kingdom of Hawaii Minister’s Villa’s Museum

The villa also has a museum next to it, which is divided into 4 sections where historical materials of Ikaho, Hawaii Kingdom, and the Irwin family are exhibited. You will also find diplomatic information about Japan and Hawaii in the Meiji period and the repair & relocation of the villa.

With the exhibits, the museum is where you can feel the connection between Japan and Hawaii. So even if you visit Ikaho on a weekday and can’t access the villa, there is not much you would miss out on. The interior of the villa looks similar to another traditional Japanese house.

As there aren’t many buildings related to the Former Kingdom of Hawaii, the villa was designated as a historical landmark of Shibusawa City. In addition, because of the connection that Robert established between Hawaii and Ikaho, Shibusawa City became a sister city to Hawaii County. This is why a Hawaiian Festival (ハワイアンフェスティバル) is held in Ikaho each year!

For more information about the Former Kingdom of Hawaii Minister’s Villa and the Irwin family, refer to the Official English Pamphlet.

Former Kingdom of Hawaii Minister’s Villa’s Opening Hours, Admission Fees, and Access Information

  • The Former Kingdom of Hawaii Minister’s Villa is open from 9 am to 4:30 pm from Wednesday to Monday.
    • If Tuesday is a public holiday, the villa will close on the next business day.
  • The admission fee of the museum is :
    • 200 yen for adults
    • 100 yen for elementary to high school students
    • It is free to enter the villa on the 28th of October.
  • The Former Kingdom of Hawaii Minister’s Villa is a 1-minute walk from the bus stop, Sekisho-mae (関所前) or a 3-minute walk from the bus stop, Ikaho Ishidangai (伊香保石段街).

Ikaho Sekisho Checkpoint (伊香保関所跡)

Ikaho Sekisho was the checkpoint established in the Edo period. At the time, one of the government roads, Mikuni Kaidō (三国街道), passed through Ikaho, so it received a large amount of tourists. In addition, the town was where worshippers on their pilgrimages would break in.

As a large part of Ikaho was the Tokugawa shogunate’s territory, having so many strangers gathering in the town worried the Tokugawa clan. As a result, a checkpoint was set up in 1631 to confirm the identity and the purpose of travel of everyone who wished to proceed further.

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The dioramas in the house demonstrate the checking scene.

That said, based on the information provided in the museum, it seemed like the check was generally loose. Many locals were acquaintances, so a passing permit wasn’t required if the guard knew your face. For performers and artists, all the guard asked was for a performance to them to prove their identity. The only exception was women.

At the time, feudal lords’ female family members, such as their wives, were often held as “hostages” in the Tokugawa shogunate’s territory. The guards needed to ensure the female travellers weren’t related to a feudal lord to prevent them from escaping.

While the checkout was abolished in the Meiji period in 1869, it was renovated into a museum for you and me to get an idea of what it was like to be a tourist a few centuries ago. The best thing is it is free to enter! So if you want to examine old documents, matchlock guns, travel permits, armors, and more, visit Ikaho Sekisho Checkpoint!

Ikaho Sekisho Checkpoint’s Opening Hours, Admission Fees, and Access Information

  • Ikaho Sekisho Checkpoint is open from 9 am to 5 pm.
    • It is closed on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday. If Tuesday is a public holiday, it will close the next business day.
  • It is a 1-minute walk from the bus stop, Sekisho-mae (関所前) or a 3-minute walk from the bus stop, Ikaho Ishidangai (伊香保石段街).

Ikaho Crêpe CREAM (伊香保クレープ CREAM)

When you travel to Japan, you might already know that crepes in Japan are usually rolled into a cone shape, and it is delicious! The great news is that Ikaho Onsen also has a crepe store!

At the 55th staircase, there is a small shop selling savory and sweet crepes. The crepes here are made with flour ground from wheat harvested in Japan. A blue smiley character marks the shop, so you surely won’t miss it (^_-)-☆.

Apparently, the shop was opened on the day when the torch relay of the Tokyo Olympics passed through Ikaho Stone Steps, so there is a crepe called Torch Crepe (聖火クレープ), which replicates the shape of the Olympic torch. Instead of the usual flat fan-shaped, the paper wrapping the crepe is rolled in a torch shape. Furthermore, the crepe is topped with red berry jam, representing the torch’s fire.

Another good crepe option is Kuromitsu Kinako Crepe (黒蜜きなこクレープ). The traditional style flavor consists of homemade lightly sweetened whipped cream, brown sugar syrup, and soybean powder. It also has a nutty taste.

Tip: If you don’t want to eat while walking, there are benches at the Ikaho Sekisho Checkpoint opposite the stone steps.

Ikaho Crêpe CREAM’s Business Hours and Access Information

  • Ikaho Crêpe CREAM is open from 10 am to 6 pm.
  • It is a 1-minute walk from the bus stop, Sekisho-mae (関所前) or a 2-minute walk from the bus stop, Ikaho Ishidangai (伊香保石段街).

Ishidan no Yu (石段の湯)

Ishidan no Yu is a public bathhouse at the 94th staircase of Ishidan Stone Stairway. The appearance is rustic, but the bathtub is made of granite. Kogane no Yu flows in Ishidan no Yu’s onsen tubs continuously, so there is no need to be concerned about hygienic issues and chemicals used to disinfect the hot spring.

The majority of the bathtubs have a depth of 60cm, with the side facing the entrance having a 30cm “bench”. So when you enter the hot spring pools, it is safer to enter from where the handrail is.

Body soap, shampoo, and other amenities are available, so all you need to bring to enjoy hot spring at Ishidan no Yu is money and towels (if you don’t want to purchase one).

If it gets too warm in the indoor bath, there is a terrace at the back of the bathing area for some chill air.

Ishidan no Yu’s Resting Area

After a hot spring session, head to the tatami mat-covered resting area on the 2nd floor. It is the best spot to chill. The best thing is you can bring the food and drinks to the resting area, so you might find the locals enjoying their homemade food here.

In fact, delivery services are available from the nearby restaurants during lunchtime!

Note that Ishidan no Yu’s bathing tubs aren’t spacious and only have a capacity of around 10 people for each gender. Because of its location, it can sometimes be crowded, and there might be a queue, especially on weekends and public holidays.

Tip: While it is for the shoes, the coin-operated locker next to the shoe rack is free, as your 100 yen coin will be returned to you when the key is returned. The ones in the changing room aren’t free.

Ishidan no Yu’s Business Hours and Access Information

  • Ishidan no Yu is open from:
    • 9 am to 9 pm from April to October
    • 9 am to 8:30 pm from November to March
    • The last admission is 30 minutes before closing time.
    • It is closed on the 2nd and 4th Tuesday. If Tuesday is a public holiday, it will close the next business day.
  • The admission fee is:
    • 410 for adults
    • 200 yen for children
    • 100 yen for elderly 65 years old and older
  • Ishidan no Yu is a 1-minute walk from the bus stop, Sekisho-mae (関所前) or a 3-minute walk from the bus stop, Ikaho Ishidangai (伊香保石段街).

Ishidan Tama Konjac (石段玉こんにゃく)

Opposite Ishidan no Yu, you will see a shop selling skewers of brown-colored balls. If you have seen Japan’s salted plums, you might think those balls are pickled plums and make you hesitate to give the skewers a try. But don’t worry. They aren’t skewered plums that are too salty to have on their own. They are flavored with konjac.

Because around 90% of Japan’s konjac comes from Gunma Prefecture, the plant is made into balls, flavored with soy sauce, and sold as street snacks. Feel free to season the flavored-Kojac with some very spicy mustard and Japanese mixed chilli pepper mix!

As one konjac ball is large, you will be full by the time you finish three of them. It is best to share the konjac skewer with your families and friends.
Tip: There are benches close to the store.

Tip: There are benches close to the store.

Important: The soy sauce used to make Tama Konjac will likely contain bonito extract.

Ishidan Tama Konjac’s Business Hours and Access Information

  • Ishidan Tama Konjac is open from 10 am to 5 pm or until sold out.
  • One Tama Konjac skewer only costs 100 yen.

Strawberry Milk Specialist Strawberry Bomb (いちごミルク専門店「strawberry bomb」)

Although strawberry milk is found in supermarkets around the world, freshly made strawberry milk with no artificial flavors and locally harvested strawberries is rare. At Ikaho Onsen, there is a strawberry milk specialist at Ikaho Step Stones’ 166th stairs. Because Shubusawa City, where Ikaho is located, produces a large amount of strawberries, the strawberry milk made at Strawberry Bomb is fresh and sweet. The drink sold here is so delicious that many Japanese TV shows interview Strawberry Bomb because of it!

With one sip, you will understand why Strawberry Bomb’s strawberry milk is so popular. Mixing the sweet and juicy strawberries with milk sourced from the local farms, the flavored milk isn’t too sweet and has a nice aroma. The tiny strawberry pieces in the milk allow you to feel the fruit’s texture, but it is still easy to drink!

In winter, instead of the cold strawberry milk, the hot one is better to warm you up (^_-)-☆.

If you don’t like dairy, there are other strawberry drinks available. Beer and wine are also sold here.

Strawberry Bomb’s Business Hours and Access Information

  • Strawberry Bomb is open from 10 am to 6 pm.
  • It is a 3-minute walk from the bus stop, Sekisho-mae (関所前) or a 4-minute walk from the bus stop, Ikaho Ishidangai (伊香保石段街).

Shooting Booth Osakaya (射的大阪屋)

© 渋川伊香保温泉観光協会

A must-do when you visit a hot spring town in Japan is to play shooting games. While it seems easy, hitting a target can be hard with a simplified gun. Ihako Onsen has several shooting booths. Osakaya, located at the 219th staircase, is the most recommended.

With just 300 yen, you will get 10 attempts to hit any of the objects on the shelf. The owner is friendly and is more likely to give you freebies. If this is your first time playing shooting games, check with the owner for how to hit the target. If you don’t speak Japanese, the owner should still be able to teach you using body language.

Opposite Osakaya, there is a free foot spa to relax your body if the shooting games got you tensed up!

Shooting Booth Osakaya’s Business Hours and Access Information

  • Osakaya is open from 9 am to 5 pm from Friday to Wednesday.
  • Osakaya is a 2-minute walk from the bus stop, Jinja-Shita (神社下), or a 4-minute walk from the bus stop, Sekisho-mae (関所前), or a 6-minute walk from the bus stop, Ikaho Ishidangai (伊香保石段街).

Yamashiroya (民芸 山白屋)

So where to find souvenirs around Ikaho Onsen Stone Steps? Close to the top of Ishidan Stone Stairway at staircase 271, Yamashiroya is a souvenir shop selling a variety of small traditional Japanese items. The shop has many small figures, such as Gunma Prefecture‘s famous Daruma dolls and rabbits. Even if you aren’t interested in buying any of them, window shopping at Yamashiroya is fun!

So why rabbits? Yamashiroya was an inn in the Edo period, and the zodiac sign assigned to it was a rabbit. This is why many items sold in the shop have a rabbit as a motif.

If you are after something useful after you get home, Ikaho’s onsen-infused soup and face lotion are good options. The rabbit-shaped oil-blotting facial paper is another cute souvenir for your female friends. Yamashiroya also sells cutely wrapped snacks, cooking utensils, and traditional wooden clogs and hand towels.

Yamashiroya’s Business Hours and Access Information

  • Yamashiroya is open from 10 am to 6 pm.
  • The shop is a 1-minute walk from the bus stop, Jinja-Shita (神社下).

Tanakaya (湯の花まんじゅう田中屋)

When it comes to Ikaho Onsen’s specialty gourmet food, you can’t miss onsen manjū. Although Tanakaya wasn’t the first, but the second manjū maker to open in Ikaho Onsen, their buns here sell out quickly.

The traditional shop front from the Edo period creates a perfect vibe for a traditional confectionary maker. If you are interested in the manjū workshop, take a peek from Tanakaya’s shop front! Compared to the most renowned manjū shop, Shogetsudo, Tanakaya’s buns are more moist and chewy.

Tanakaya can sell freshly made manjū one by one. As the buns are hot, don’t put the entire thing into your mouth in one go. The red bean paste inside the soft bun skin isn’t as sweet as most traditional Japanese desserts, so even those who don’t usually like manjū find it delicious.

As the size of Tanakaya’s manjū is the smallest in Ikaho Onsen, they are the best snack for eating while walking.

Tanakaya’s Business Hours and Access Information

  • Tanakaya is open from 9:30 am to 6 pm or until sold out on weekends and public holidays.
  • The manjū maker is a 1-minute walk from the bus stop, Jinja-Shita (神社下).

Sarou Sen (茶楼 千)

Towards the top of Ikaho Stone Steps at the 263rd stairs, Sarou Sen is a stylish café where you can reward yourself for climbing up hundreds of staircases. The café is elegantly decorated, and the desserts sold here are well presented using unique containers or topped with cute edible decorations.

Ikaho Kaoru Soft Cream (伊香保薫るソフトクリーム) is a must-order at Sarou Sen. The ice cream with a rich milk flavor is topped with a fruity jam of your choice. A Monaka that has its shape changed to match the season or a cute animal is then placed on the side of the soft serve cream.

Daruma Milk Puddin (だるまミルクプリン) is another popular dessert at Sarou Sen. The container with a Daruma face drawn is just unique. Plus the slightly bitter Hojicha-flavored dressing brings the pudding’s deliciousness to the next level!

The best seats at Sarou Sen are the counter seats on the second floor because they offer a clear view of Ikaho Step Stones.

Sarou Sen (茶楼 千)

  • Sarou Sen is open from 10 am to 5 pm.
  • The café maker is a 1-minute walk from the bus stop, Jinja-Shita (神社下).

Yunohana-Manju Shogetsudo (湯の花饅頭 勝月堂)

Although onsen manjū can be found in all of Japan’s hot spring towns now, the traditional confectionary originated from Ikaho Onsen.

At the 298th stairs, you will encounter the hot spring town’s manjū maker, established in 1910. Apparently, onsen manjū became a thing in all of Japan’s onsen towns because Shogetsudo’s onsen manjū was offered to Emperor Showa!

The lustrous brown color of Yunohana Manjū from the brown sugar takes the motif of Kogane no Yu’s golden color. As Hokkaido’s highest quality red beans are used to make the red bean paste in the bun, the deliciousness is guaranteed. In addition, the sugar level is reduced, so even if you don’t normally like desserts, the level of sweetness should be just about right for you.

While there is no way for us to confirm the accuracy of the statement, how the buns are made, and their taste is said to remain unchanged since Shogetsudo was established a century ago.

When you visit Shogetsudo, remember to tell the staff that you want to eat one immediately. The buns will be served on a plate. From the steam from the bun, you can tell they were just taken out of the steamer! If you like the buns, the shop will pack your order in a box so that you can enjoy it later on without accidentally crushing them!

Compared to Tanakaya, the skin of Shogetsudo’s manjū is softer.

Important: The manjū only has a shelf life of only 2 days as no preservative is used.

Tip: As the manjū is usually sold out by noon, visit Shogetsudo early to avoid disappointment!

  • Shogetsudo is open from 9 am to 6 pm or until sold out.
    • It is closed on the 1st of January.
  • The manjū maker is a 1-minute walk from the bus stop, Jinja-Shita (神社下).

Uruoshi-Dokoro (うるおし処)

Ikaho Shrine at the top of Ikaho Step Stones is the last attraction along the long staircase. If you are thirsty when you reach the top, how about a cup of homemade ginger ale from the street food shop next to the shrine? Not only will the drink rehydrate you, but the drink is also a fortune slip!

The secret is hidden at the back of the green cup sleeve. There are usually 3 or 4 cup sleeves placed at the shop counter. The owner will ask you where you want your drink to be placed. After paying for the drink, you can then take off the cup sleeve and read your fortune written on the back of it!

An interesting thing about the ginger ale is how it is written in Japanese at the shop. “神社応援” means supporting the shrine, but it is pronounced as ginger ale. So when you say to the shop owner, “Please give me a cup of ginger ale”, he will reply with “Thanks for supporting the shrine”!

Furthermore, a red heart-shaped ginger is placed in the drink, and a small spell is cast on the drink so that it will feel like some blessings are received by drinking the ginger ale!

Uruoshi-Dokoro’s Business Hours and Access Information

  • Uruoshi-Dokoro is open from 10 am to 5 pm on weekends and public holidays (but may sometimes open on a weekday).

Exploring Other Parts of Ikaho Onsen

Click the photo for more information about Ikaho Onsen’s attractions!

While Ikaho Ishidan Stone Stairs is surely a spot in the hot spring town not to be missed, Ikaho Onsen has a couple more interesting or picturesque attractions that you will want to visit.

So refer to our Best Guide to the Must-Visit Spots in Ikaho Onsen to plan your visit!