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August: The Return of Souls

August is peak summer season in Japan.  We can look forward to some of the most spectacular fireworks displays and festivals in the world, ...

Old ~ Ichinobe Onsen

Old ~ Ichinobe Onsen

Photo taken at 1a.m.

After thoroughly soaking away the stiffness in my back,  in a mineral rich  hot spring bath for thirty minutes, I could slowly feel the tension ease away down through my legs.     While in that state of peace I reflected on the events of the day and what was to come the next day.   Dinner  and drinks with a local girl was fantastic tonight.    I had met her  a few times,  once in Nagoya and the second time in Tokyo, and this time in Gunma - her hometown.  Nice being served chilled sake again, like how her nimble fingers delicately held the bottle when she poured the sake in my cup.   I like how she rested her hands under her chin after serving me,  while watching me sip the rice brew.

Ichinobe is another off the beaten track hot spring / onsen town; no street lights after dusk.  Nights are so quiet you can hear mosquito wings.   Autumn nights are nice in Gunma.  A bit chilly, but comfortable enough to wear a flannel and some sandals.   Dinner that night was grilled squid over bottles of chilled sake.  Gunma Prefecture is not well-known for fish and that  is because it's sort of in the middle of everything.  If you visit this prefecture try the pork cutlets, miso paste, sake, and pickled foods.   And of course, the great natural outdoor spas.

While there may be famous landmarks here, like statues and temples and stuff, I have not visited them.   I think people visit Gunma for the nature and the camping expeditions. In the picture there's a fire main for water.   I have personally visited this region dozens of times to enjoy camping and driving.   The scenery offers excellent vistas, especially in Autumn.    There's even a wild safari park for the kids.   Gunma is easily accessible by car or train - two hours. 
Gunma could even be day-trip for some people if you live in Tokyo.   

Another caveat I wanted to mention was that there aren't many restaurants around small onsen communities in Gunma, so bring your own food and drinks after dark.  And if there're any restaurants  they probably close early.   The nearest major train hub is Takasaki Station and they have everything there.   If you are the type of traveller who enjoys solitude and being away from the crowds and don't mind going solo, then Gunma would be the place.   

There are quite a few hotels at reasonable rates that offer tatami rooms for under 7000 yen ( $60 ).   I specifically chose a room with tatami flooring for relaxation.   Japan imports 70% of its tatami from China and is therefore cheaper and inferior in quality than Japanese tatami which is made using real "Igusa"  a type of grass with medicinal benefits that soothe the senses.   Everybody knows real tatami is very expensive, but since modern flooring and bedding has replaced traditional flooring in most Japanese homes, real tatami / washitsu has lost its popularity.   

I especially enjoy relaxing on a tatami in summer, particularly after a long soak in a spa.   The coolness from the straw and the heat from the body emit a very grassy smell that makes you feel like you are outside and sprawled out on a grassy knoll.   The window is wide open behind me and a gentle breeze comes in through the paper doors and dries the excess moisture from my skin.   I can hear the gentle sounds of the bush warbler.   It's a type of heaven....

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