A quiet countryside Onsen resort boasting the townscape that retains its traditional Onsen atmosphere and the rich nature represented by “Shima Blue“
Table of Contents
Introduction / Overview
Shima Onsen is an Onsen resort located at Nakanojo Town, Gunma Prefecture, Kanto, Honshu, the main island of Japan.
It is located at 150 km northwest of Tokyo.
It is a small Onsen resort with about 35 Ryokan, and a capacity of the total of about 2,000 people, and is crowded with about 300,000 guests per year.
It has been famous in Japan as a Onsen area with good spring quality since ancient times, but it is rarely known worldwide, and foreign tourists account for about 2% of the total.
“Shima” of Shima Onsen is a word that represents the number 40,000 in Japanese and is said to have the meaning of a Onsen that heals 40,000 diseases.
Shima Onsen is especially recommended for the following people:
Those who want to enjoy Onsen trip just like Japanese people enjoy.
Those who want to go to a place that is not well known to foreign tourists on their second and third trips to Japan.
Those who want to spend a quiet time (especially recommended on the last day of a trip in Japan).
Shima Onsen is a traditional Japanese Onsen area that continues to protect the Japanese Onsen culture, as you can see from the fact that it is designated as the first “National Recreation Onsen” by the Ministry of the Environment.
So the biggest highlight here is staying at Ryokan, that is, staying at Onsen Ryokan and enjoying a Japanese-style room, Onsen and Japanese food.
As some say that Onsen trips are deeply embedded in the Japanese DNA, trips to Onsen Ryokan are the mainstream of Japanese travel culture as well as trips to shrines and temples.
You can enjoy a rich Japanese culture at an inn called “Ryokan”, which is completely different from general hotels, as well as “Japanese food” that is registered as World Heritage sites and “Onsen”.
The best way to enjoy Shima Onsen is to walk around the Onsen town that retains its Onsen culture and Onsen atmosphere, and enjoy the rich nature represented by “Shima Blue”.
Shima Onsen Association
4379 Shima, Nakanojo 377-0601 Gunma, JAPAN
Nakanojo Tourism Association
938, Nakanojo 377-0424 Gunma, Japan
Sights and activities
Walk around the Shima Onsen area
Shima Onsen is a dead end Onsen area, and the town extends along Shima River.
It is about 6km from Shima Pit (Shima Ouketsu) in the foreground (south) to Shakunage (rhododendron) Waterfall at the innermost.
Of these, approximately 3km from the Onsen entrance to Hinatami is the Onsen area.
It is divided into four areas: Onsenguchi, Yamaguchi, Arayu and Hinatami.
Let’s take a stroll around the Onsen town from north to south.
Onsenguchi (entrance) is literally the entrance to the Onsen town and is a quiet area.
There are many public institutions, including a police box, post offices (with English-corresponding ATMs), clinics, and one-day Onsen facility “Shima Seiryu-no-yu”. The scenery from “Shima Bridge” and “Asahi Bridge” over Shima River is also amazing.
There is also a “Kibarashi Studio” where you can enjoy a simple woodworking experience.
This area is said to have had a Onsen for the longest time, and there are many spring sources from the bottom of Shima River.
In this area, you can enjoy free footbaths at “Kaorisabo Okinaya” and “Yamaguchi Kawane Footbath” on the opposite bank of Shima River.
There is also a local bathing facility, Kaminoyu, which anyone can enjoy for free from 9 am to 3 pm. How about a naked communication with locals?
The wooden former Nakanojo Town 3rd Elementary School, which is located on a slightly steep hill in front of “Kaori-sabo Okinaya”, has a retro atmosphere.
The narrow road ahead is the old road of Shima Onsen, and a regular carriage service used to be running.
Although it is a narrow road where one car can finally pass, there is a place where there are many stone monuments called “Hyaku Koujin” on the side of it, where you can feel nostalgy.
Arayu / Kirinokidaira
This area is lined with restaurants and small shops.
This is a must-visit area for exploring the Shima Onsen town.
Let’s walk the shopping street!
The shopping street starting from Shima Onsen Association, the information center for Shima Onsen, is lined with a rental bicycle shop, Yakimanju (grilled bun), Onsen Manju (Onsen bun), liquor stores where you can buy local sake, souvenir shops and restaurants.
These shopping streets are the remnants of the Onsen cure culture of Shima Onsen and create a retro atmosphere, so it is fun to just walk slowly.
Shimamura is a shop of Gunma specialty sweets and Yakimanju (grilled buns). A sweet miso sauce is added to a bun made of wheat like bread and baked on the spot.
There is Kashiwaya Cafe across from Shimamura.
You can enjoy pottery at “Ceramics Experience Mugendai (infinite)”. You can make your favorite vessels such as mugs and dishes with clay. After drying, the potter will bake and ship the products, where overseas shipping is available.
Shio-no-yu Drinking Onsen is a facility for drinking Onsen. It is said that Shima Onsen is good for the gastrointestinal tract when taken. Please try a slightly salty Onsen.
In addition, you can buy Japanese sweets such as Onsen Manju at Fugetsudo and Takadaya, local sake at Nakamuraya, pickles at Matsubaya, and souvenirs of accesories and sweets at Marumiya, Choraku and Iwaneya.
Under Hagi-Bashi Bridge near a bus terminal, there is a local bathing facility, Kawara-no-yu, which anyone can enjoy for free from 9 am to 3 pm as well as Kami-no-yu in Yamaguchi area.
Sekizenkan, a Ryokan with a cultural property building, is slightly to the left of the bus terminal of Shima Onsen. It is said to be the oldest existing Yuya architecture in Japan, and has been designated as a cultural asset in Gunma Prefecture.
In addition, it is said to be one of the models for Studio Ghibli’s animated movies, Spirited Away, and there are always customers who take commemorative photos here.
The restaurants will be explained in detail in a separate section.
The innermost area of Shima Onsen is the Hinata area.
Aside from Hinatami Yakushi, there is a local bathing facility, Gomuso no Yu and a footbath that can be enjoyed free of charge by anyone from 9am to 3pm.
You can take a leisurely stroll to the innermost Hinatami Yakushi, while being surrounded by a forest while enjoying facilities, where you can enjoy footbaths and drinking Onsen, and the waterfalls, which you can see from the side of the road such as Koizumi Fall and Oizumi Fall.
Hinatami Yakushido, which is also designated as an important cultural property of the country, is a building that retains the style of the Muromachi period.
It is a temple deeply related to the legendary opening of Shima Onsen.
The story of the legendary opening of Onsen is as following:
Around Eien 3 (989), Raiko Minamoto’s retainer, Sadamitsu Usui, was going through a night at Hinatami, and he was chanting a sutra all the night, there, a child appeared in his dream. The child said, “I was impressed by your chanting thus give you a Onsen to cure 40,000 illnesses.” When he woke up, there was a Onsen at the bedside, this is the legend. It is the beginning of Hinatami Yakushido that built a hall and enshrined the statue of Yakushi Nyorai as a principal image.
Enjoy the nature of Shima Onsen
The proudest of the nature of Shima Onsen is the color of water called “Shima Blue”.
It is blue that is full of transparency. It is especially beautiful from winter to May, and you can enjoy it in all around Shima Onsen, such as Okushima Lake, Shima Ouketsu, and Momotaro Fall.
Okushima and Shima Lake
Both are artificial lakes, but they are small lakes where you can enjoy Shima Blue.
Okushima Lake is a 4km-long lake at the innermost of Shima Onsen, where you can tour the lakeside. On the lakeside, you can often encounter wild animals such as Japanese monkeys and antelopes.
You can also enjoy water sports such as canoeing, SUP, and canyoning.
The best time to see Okushima Lake is during autumn leaves, winter snow scene, and spring fresh green season. One of the major objectives of the dam lake is to prevent heavy rains, so the water level on the surface of the lake drops significantly during a rainy season (June to September). This time may not look so good.
Shima Lake is an artificial lake for hydroelectric power generation located 8km in front of Shima Onsen. The water level is stable throughout a year. You can also enjoy canoeing and SUP here.
Shima Ouketsu (Pit, pothole)
Ouketsu (a pit) is a large hole at the bottom of a river; a larger one is as big as 3 m in diameter and 3.2m in depth, and Shima Blue can shine.
It is a famous spot designated as a natural monument in Gunma Prefecture at the entrance of Shima Onsen.
This pit is said to have been formed by erosion of river stones over many tens of thousands of years. It is especially recommended during an autumn leaves season.
Water-rich Shima Onsen has many beautiful waterfalls along Shima River and its tributaries.
Among them, Momotaro Fall, Koizumi Fall, Oizumi Fall, Shakunage Fall are the waterfalls that are easily accessible from a road.
If you enjoy walking a little, Maya Fall and Kokura Fall are recommended.
You can also enjoy water activities at Shima Onsen.
We especially recommend canoeing and SUP on the surface of the lake where you can enjoy the feeling of floating in the air with excellent transparency.
At Okushima Lake, you can enjoy canoeing and SUP. Canyoning that starts right below Okushima Lake is also recommended during summer.
These activities are organized by Green Discovery.
You can enjoy canoeing and SUP at Shima Lake in the foreground, and there are several companies such as Lake Walk and Lotus Outdoors.
In Shima River, where the water is clean, you can also enjoy mountain stream fishing. Fishing period is from March to September, and you can catch mountain stream fish such as rock fish and mountain female fish.
A fishing ticket is required for fishing. As of 2019, there are no fishing gear rentals in Shima Onsen.
Trekking and Mountain Walking
Shima Onsen is an Onsen area that is long and thin along Shima River, so you can enjoy walking surrounded by nature just by walking along the paved road, and there are actually many tourists who do so.
If you want to enjoy nature, you can enjoy various mountain walks.
The easy way is trekking to Ogura Fall and Maya Fall.
Regarding Maya Fall, there is an entrance to the promenade at just a bit from Hinatami Yakushido in Hinatami district, and you can reach the fall in about 40 minutes one way from there along the promenade surrounded by a forest.
It is a waterfall with a drop, and you can feel very cool in the mist around the waterfall.
Regarding Ogura Fall, there is an entrance to the promenade around the Shima Sport Forest, which is located upper along the forest road from Shima Onsen Association, and you can reach the fall in less than an hour one way from there.
The flow like drawing a thread on the rock is also called feminine.
Next easiest is Suisho Mountain (Crystal Mountain). As the name suggests, you can find small crystals by looking closely at the rock surface along the mountain trail.
There are two mountain trails from Yamaguchi area and Hinatami area. We don’t think it takes even 3 hours to walk slowly.
From the summit you can see Shima Onsen town.
If you take a day to walk, there is Inatsutsumi Mountain, which is a mountain at the border of Niigata prefecture.
There is a mountain trail entrance at the back of Okushima Lake and takes about 3 hours one way.
The summit is located along the ridge of Mikuni mountain range on the border of Niigata Prefecture, and this ridge is called the “Gunma Prefectural Border Ridge Trail” where you can enjoy a 100km long trail. Proceed about 10 minutes on the ridge from the summit of Inatsutsumi Mountain to west, then you can reach to Misaka Touge; down from the Misaka Touge to north (Niigata side), then you can reach to Naeba, which is famous of ski and Fuji Rock Festival.
Also, if you don’t climb to the top of the mountain and turn right at Akazawa Rest House, you can reach Hoshi Onsen, which is an inn next to Shima Onsen.
In addition, there are famous mountains such as Takada Mountain, Take Mountain, and Iwabitsu Mountain.
Sakura (Cherry Blossoms)
The cherry blossom viewing season is one of the best seasons for traveling to Japan.
Shima Onsen has a higher altitude, so the cherry blossom season is a little later than a plain.
Usually the best time is late April.
Along with the cherry blossom season, the best time to travel to Japan is during an autumn leave season. The autumn leaves of Shima Onsen is from late October to mid-November.
It is no exaggeration to say that Shima Onsen is a famous spot for autumn leaves.
You can enjoy various autumn leaves such as Ouketsu, along Shima River, Okushima Lake, Onsen town, and autumn leaves from open-air bathes.
In the Showa 40s (until around 1980), it was snowing enough to ski at Shima Onsen, but recently it has decreased compared to that time.
However, snow falls frequently from late December to February and you can enjoy watching the snow.
Snow viewing from an open-air bath, Shima Lake, the forest and snow, especially the snow scenery that spreads out on a clear morning after it snows, are worth seeing.
Enjoy Onsen other than inns
Shima Onsen Kashiwaya Ryokan has rooms with open-air baths and private open-air baths that can be used free of charge, so you can fully enjoy Onsen only at the inn.
However, Shima Onsen is the first National Recreation Onsen with excellent potency and plenty of hot water, so why not enjoy Onsen also in the Onsen town?
You can enjoy Onsen in various ways at Shima Onsen.
Onsen Hopping !
Outdoor Bath / One-day Onsen
There are three communal baths at Shima Onsen: Kami-no-yu, Kawara-no-yu, and Gomuso-no-yu. These baths are for locals only, but are open to tourists for free from 9 am to 3 pm.
There is also a one-day Onsen facility, Seiryu-no-yu, for a fee.
In these baths, you may also communicate with the locals in naked.
Please be sure to bring some towels because these baths are not equipped with a towel.
Some Ryokan also accept one-day Onsen.
Here are some recommended baths.
Yamaguchikan boasts a “themed open-air bath” with a symbol of the sutra engraved in a large rock on a large open-air bath along a river.
Sekizenkan’s “Genroku-no-yu” is a retro-style bath built in Showa 5 (1945). There is also a “steamed bath” that steams like a sauna with the heat of Onsen.
In Shima Tamura, you can enjoy many kinds of bathtubs.
Shima Onsen is also known as a drinking Onsen.
It is said that it is good for gastrointestinal tract when taken.
There are many places where you can enjoy drinking Onsen at several locations, including Kashiwaya cafe in Arayu Shopping Street, “Shionoyu Drinking Onsen” near Yakimanju Shimamura, the bus terminal of Shima Onsen, and Yuzuriha Drinking Onsen.
It will be fun to taste the subtle differences of each source.
There are several footbaths in the Onsen town.
They are all free.
Even though you can just soak your feet in Onsen, the whole body will warm up, so it is recommended for winter walks.
There are Okinaya footbath, Yamaguchi Kawane footbath, Yuzuriha Mori footbath, and Hinatami Yakushi footbath.
Shima Onsen has approximately 35 accommodations, all with Onsen.
Most of them are Japanese Ryokan style with dinner and breakfast.
There are various facilities such as a guest house with about 5 rooms and a large inn with 100 rooms.
For now (September 9, 2019), there are no private overnight stays in Shima Onsen.
Restaurants in Shima Onsen are introduced.
There are few facilities for dinner at Shima Onsen because there are mostly accommodation with dinner, but lunch is substantial.
A Soba and Udon shop that can be said to be a staple of Japanese lunch.
Tonkatsu restaurant using local pork.
A restaurant specializing in Onsen steamed eel and a river fish dish.
French, ramen, sushi, etc.
There aren’t many restaurants where you can have dinner, but you can enjoy sushi, taverns, tonkatsu, ramen, French, and so on.
Getting there and away
To go to Shima Onsen
When Using Trains
The nearest station of Shima Onsen is Nakanojo Station on JR Agatsuma Line.
If you use trains, you will reach Nakanojo Station via Takasaki Station.
Shinkansen (Hokuriku Shinkansen, Joetsu Shinkansen) from Tokyo, Hokuriku Shinkansen from Nagano / Hokuriku, and Joetsu Shinkansen from Niigata come to Takasaki Station.
Here, change to local JR Agatsuma Line and head to Nakanojo Station. It takes about 50 minutes from Takasaki Station to Nakanojo Station.
Agatsuma Line runs about once every hour.
In addition, there are only two round trips a day, but there are also direct express trains from Tokyo (the first train at Ueno Station) without transfer in Takasaki. The limited express Kusatsu train arrives from Ueno to Nakanojo Station in about 2 hours, so this limited express is the most convenient if you are coming from Tokyo by train. It departs Ueno Station at 10 am and 12 am.
From JR Agatsuma Line, change to a bus bound for Shima Onsen, operated by Kanetsu Kotsu, and head to Shima Onsen in about 30 minutes. The bus fee is 930 yen as of September 2019.
There is a taxi in front of the station, and the taxi fee is about 6000 yen to Shima Onsen.
The bus frequency is about one per hour, but it is almost linked to the arrival time of the trains, so you can get on without having to wait too much.
When Using an Express Bus from Tokyo
There is also an express bus “Shima Onsen” that goes directly from Tokyo (Yaesu Street, Tokyo Station) to Shima Onsen.
One round trip per day is basic, but it will be increased to two round trips from winter to spring.
It is convenient without transfer, and 5200 yen for a round trip, the price is reasonable, so it is very popular with foreigners.
Using a Car
If you are good at driving a car, we recommend renting a car.
This is because there are so many attractions around Shima Onsen that you can enjoy your trip.
It is good to rent a car at airports such as Narita and Haneda, but if you drive while avoiding congestion in the city center, it may be easier to go to Takasaki or Jomo Kogen by Shinkansen, and from there, to rent a car.
Transportation within Shima Onsen
Shima Onsen is about 7km from Ouketsu at the entrance to the innermost Shakunage Fall. Cars, local buses, bicycles (rental), and walking can be used to move around this area.
There are several free parking lots in Shima Onsen (there is no paid parking lot), so if you come by car, it may be easier to move by car. Please note that there are some narrow places.
By the way, there is no signal !
There is a local bus from Nakanojo Station to Arayu area bus terminal about one per hour. One way to get away is to use this route bus.
Operated by Kan-etsu-kotsu Co.
However, please be aware that there is no public transportation running from Arayu to the innermost area (Hinatami area or Okushima Lake area) including route buses.
Since Shima Onsen is just right in terms of distance without steep climbs, traveling by bicycle may be the most convenient.
Some inns, such as Shima Onsen Kashiwaya Ryokan, offer rental bicycles that guests can use.
Bicycle rentals are available at Shima Onsen Association and Renta Shima station, and bicycles with electric assistance are also available with a fee.
Because it is Shima Onsen in a valley surrounded by forest along Shima River, it is very comfortable to move slowly on foot. There are many tourists who make a round trip to Okushima Lake on foot.
From Shima Ouketsu to Okushima Lake 5km
From Onsen entrance to Shima Lake 4km
From Arayu Bus Terminal to Okushima Lake 2.5km
* As of September 2019, there is no taxi if you simply move within the Shima Onsen. You can call a tour taxi from Nakanojo Station.
Shima Onsen is located on a plateau about 650m above sea level. Therefore, unlike in Tokyo and other areas, it is easy to spend in summer, and the four seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter are clear.
Spring (March, April, May):
It is still cold in March and snow is not uncommon.
The lowest temperature in March is about minus 5 °C, and it can be as low as minus 10 °C on a really cold day.
In April, there is almost no worry about snow. The minimum temperature is almost never below 0 °C.
During the day, it’s about 10 to 15 °C, making it easy to spend the second half of April. The cherry blossoms are in full bloom in late April.
May is the freshest and most enjoyable time of the year and has a high clear sky rate. On warm days, the temperature rises to around 20 °C, and people often spend with their short sleeves in Shima Onsen.
Summer (June, July, August)
The rainy season is from mid-June to mid-July, and the temperature difference between sunny and rainy days is large.
On a clear day, the temperature rises to near 30 °C, but some days do not reach even 20 °C when it rains.
From the second half of July to August after a rainy season is over, Shima Onsen reaches the hottest time of a year.
The maximum temperature is a little less than 3 °C, and it’s quite hot, but it cools all the way from dust until morning, and around 20 °C even on hot days.
Autumn (September, October, November)
There will be hot days in September, but it will rarely exceed 30 °C, and will fall below 15 °C at night.
In October, most people will spend with long sleeves at Shima Onsen.
The temperature will continue to drop and the minimum temperature will drop below 10 °C in late October, and frost may be observed.
From late October, the autumn foliage progressed all at once, and in November, some days have the minimum temperature below 0 °C.
The first snow may be observed in the second half of November.
Winter (December, January, February)
In the winter of Shima Onsen, especially in the early morning, the temperature drops drastically, and there are days when the temperature falls below minus 10 °C in a cold morning. Snow also begins to fall, and it is not uncommon for snow to accumulate from December to February.
Since Shima Onsen is not so snowy, amount of a single snowfall is about 30cm.
At Shima Onsen, English is available at some accommodations, but most of them use only Japanese.
However, the people of Shima Onsen are so friendly that they will do their best to communicate.
Within Shima Onsen, cash settlements are the norm, and there are places where you can’t use a credit card even in accommodations. Don’t forget cash because there are many places where you can’t use credit cards at restaurants.
ATM / Changing
English is available at Shima Post Office ATMs and cards issued overseas can be used.
Foreign currency cannot be exchanged at Shima Onsen.
The number of places where Wi-Fi is installed has increased in Ryokan, but there are few places where you can use Wi-Fi in the Onsen town.
As of September 2019, the places where you can use free Wi-Fi outside of the Ryokan are, such as one-day Onsen, Shima Seiryu-no-Yu, Washinoya Liquor Store, Shima Onsen Association, Kashiwaya Cafe, Takadaya, Kurenai, and so on.
Shima Onsen is referred to as a national recreational Onsen, so there is only one Izakaya (tavern) and one Karaoke snack (bar).
JNTO Japan Visitor Hotline (Emergency Call)
NHK world Japan
JNTO (Japan Safe Travel) on twitter
The history of Shima Onsen is old and there are various theories about from when it has been used.
According to the legend of Onsen discovery in Hinatami, hot water was discovered around Eien 3 (989).
In addition, Hinatami Yakushido is a late Muromachi period (1336-1573) building, so it seems that the Onsen were actively used at that time.
In the area of Shima Onsen, in Kamakura period before that, people seemed to live, using it as a highway connecting Gunma Prefecture and Niigata Prefecture via Misaka Pass, and famous warlords such as Kenshin Uesugi and Mr. Sanada seem to have been used as a highway to and from Kanto and Niigata.
There is also a document describing that the current Shima Tamura ancestors opened an inn in Yamaguchi area around 1570.
So, it can be said that Shima Onsen is an old Onsen resort with a history of more than 500 years at a minimum.