Visit Shima Onsen with the JR TOKYO Wide Pass
Shima Onsen is a hot spring town in Gunma famous countrywide for its scenic views and local specialties such as soba noodles and onsen manju (sweet buns). While the best way to enjoy a visit here is by spending a night at a local hot spring ryokan, those who want to visit just for the views and food can come on a day trip from Tokyo.
The itinerary introduced below features wonderful views to be enjoyed both on the way and once you arrive at Shima Onsen. We'll be using the JR TOKYO Wide Pass to travel to the nearest station by Shinkansen, steam locomotive, and local trains.
Our tour of Shima Onsen includes the scenic views around the town, lunch at an excellent local soba noodle restaurant, a coffee break at a cozy cafe amid green surroundings, and delicious local treats.
Temples, Onsen And Great Views! Sightseeing In Gunma With The JR TOKYO Wide Pass
7:45 -- Tokyo Station: Purchase the JR TOKYO Wide Pass
The JR TOKYO Wide Pass is a convenient travel ticket priced at 10,180 yen and valid for three consecutive days. It can be used on all the trains in the JR EAST network, including Shinkansen and sightseeing trains with no additional fees.
The pass can be purchased from the JR EAST Travel Service Centers located in major stations like Tokyo, Shinjuku, and Ueno. Please be aware that the JR TOKYO Wide Pass can be purchased only by holders of foreign passports. At the time of purchase, you will be asked to show your passport. Please check the official webpage of the JR TOKYO Wide Pass for details.
Since you'll be traveling to Gunma, how about riding the SL Gunma Minakami, a steam locomotive operating between Takasaki and Minakami on weekends? In addition to the historical feel of the ride, the views of the mountainside in Gunma along the way are truly worth seeing.
To make sure you get a seat by the window, we recommend reserving your seat beforehand using the JR-EAST Train Reservation page. To register, you'll have to insert your name, date of birth and credit card data. This data will be used only to identify you when you pick up the tickets from a JR EAST Travel Service Center. Please rest assured that no payment will be processed without your confirmation. JR TOKYO Wide Pass holders don't need to pay an additional fee for SL Gunma ticket.
After you register, select the train you'll be riding (for this itinerary: SL Gunma Minakami), the date and time of departure, and the interval (from Takasaki to Shibukawa).
You can pick up your SL Gunma ticket when you purchase your JR TOKYO Wide Pass. The staff will be able to check your reservation using the credit card that you registered with.
The JR EAST Travel Service Center – Tokyo Station opens at 7:30. To avoid crowds and the risk of missing your train, make sure you come early (at least at 7:45) to buy the JR TOKYO Wide Pass. You'll be able to use the pass for three days from the time of purchase.
8:24 - 9:18 -- Head to Takasaki Station by Shinkansen
To catch the SL Gunma in Takasaki, we recommend taking the 8:24 Shinkansen Max Toki 307 which reaches Takasaki at 9:18. In order to go to the platform, show your JR TOKYO Wide Pass to the staff at the ticket gates.
Onse you reach Takasaki, you have time to pick up some snacks from the station stores or take pictures of the steam locomotive train SL Gunma Minakami.
9:56 - 10:34 -- Ride a Steam Locomotive Train! To the Mountains with SL Gunma Minakami
SL Gunma Minakami operates mainly on weekends and national holidays. It is a coal-burning steam locomotive that allows passengers to enjoy a railway trip like in the old days. The cars are usually full of families with children enjoying the ride. You might also spot elder travelers wearing kimonos and looking nostalgically out the window.
At Shibukawa Station, the train will stop for about 30 minutes. If you want a commemorative picture of your ride, go near the locomotive. The staff stationed there will be happy to take your picture.
11:10 - 11:35 - From Shibukawa Station to Nakanojo Station
At Shibukawa Station, please go to platform 1 to take a local train to Nakanojo Station. This train takes you further deep into the mountains, and the views are stunning!
12:02 - 12:42 -- Take the Bus from Nakanojo Station to Shima Onsen
Once you arrive in Nakanojo, exit the station. The bus to Shima Onsen departs from bus platform 1, which is located right in front of the station.
You'll be paying for the bus ride before getting off. Please have 950 yen in cash at hand as the local buses don't give change. You'll be getting off at the Shima Onsen Bus Terminal, which is the last stop.
This bus ride gives you a chance to see the beautiful nature of Gunma. Lush green hills, rice paddies, gardens and homes with potted flowers - the peacefulness of the surroundings is really soothing.
13:00 - 14:00 - Lunch at Soba Zanmai Nakajimaya
By the time you reach Shima Onsen, you'll probably be hungry. Just two minutes walk away from the bus terminal is Nakajimaya, a family-owned soba noodle specialty store acclaimed for their quality dishes. They use a blend of buckwheat flour from Tsumagoi, a village in Gunma renowned for its delicious vegetables, and from Hokkaido.
Soba (buckwheat) is one of the specialties of Shima Onsen. The soil here and the climate create the ideal environment to grow flavorful buckwheat, which the locals carefully ground by hand and make into tasty noodles.
At Nakajimaya, the menu is illustrated with pictures, so it's easy to order even if you can't read Japanese.
We ordered the Tenzaru Soba set meal (1,350 yen with tax), which includes soba noodles, vegetable and fish tempura, and pickles. The noodles are very aromatic and light, and the tempura is delicious, full of the flavor of the vegetables (mushrooms, eggplant, pepper, etc.) it is made with.
At the end of the meal, a small quantity of sobayu (the water that the noodles were boiled in) is brought to you. Mix some of it with the dipping sauce and drink it as a soup. It's very refreshing and tasty.
14:00 - 15:00 -- A Stroll around Shima Onsen
After lunch, take you time to explore Shima Onsen by foot. The town is not large but is full of beautiful places to see.
One of them is Sekizenkan, a well-established ryokan operating in Shima Onsen since 1694. The exterior of its three buildings has a retro atmosphere that blends in with the natural surroundings to create a fairytale-like scenery.
The hot spring baths at Sekizenkan can be used by day visitors, too, so how about renting a towel and enjoying the blessing of a hot spring bath here?
Another beautiful view is that of Shima River. Its blue hues are stunning, making one wonder what mineral properties of the soil and water make them possible.
The stone structure by the river is Kawara no Yu, a public hot spring bath that can be used for free every day until 15:00. There are two compartments - for women and men, and you'll just need a towel to take a bath here. Simple towels can be bought at local souvenir shops.
A walk through town will reward you with many beautiful sights: public art, a retro pachinko parlor where visitors pass their time with the locals, waterfalls, and a shrine with a large, white torii gate. If you venture for about 20 minutes by foot along the road going north from the town, you can reach the base of the impressive Shimagawa Dam.
At the base of the dam is Hinatami Park, an open space with benches and flowers. Behind the dam is Lake Okushima. Its blue waters have inspired the naming of this hue "Shima Blue."
15:00 - 15:50 -- Take a Break at Shima Blue Cafe
Mid-way between the town center and Shimagawa Dam is Shima Blue Cafe, which is part of Shima Blue Onsen Glamping, a camping facility for those who wish to enjoy the nature and hot springs of Shima Onsen at a slow pace.
The cafe welcomes any visitors. Its stylish, cozy interior spreads on two floors that allow views of the forest. The laidback ambiance is enhanced by relaxing music.
Their menu includes light meals, desserts, and drinks, including local craft beer.
We suggest taking a coffee break here and recharging with some of their excellent desserts, such as waffles topped with seasonal fruit (1,100 yen with tax). The Shima Blue Soda (660 yen with tax) is their iconic drink, inspired by the blue hues of Shima River. It's a refreshing cider drink with pieces of transparent blue pinapple jelly inside. It is really tasty!
16:10 - Pick up Souvenirs! Delicious Onsen Manju Buns
To make it back to Tokyo on the same day, it's advised to take the 17:10 bus for Nakanojo Station at the latest. On your way back to the bus terminal, drop by Tabi no Yakata, the large building right by the station. There is rest area inside.
Takadaya, a traditional confectionery store, is located inside this building. They specialize in confectionery made with sweetened Hana ingen beans. These beans are thumb-sized and purple in color. If you're curious about the plant that makes them, take a look at the potted plants in front of the store. If you're lucky, you might spot the red flowers of the plant.
There are various sweets made using with these beans. We recommend the famous onsen manju (80 yen/piece before tax) - steamed buns filled with smooth bean paste and flavored with brown sugar.
If you're looking for a unique gift, the pastry called Oiran Furo Hana (1,200 yen/piece before tax) is a great choice. It is a refined confectionery that combines the flavor of sweetened Hana ingen beans with a castella cake made with sweet potato and matcha green tea.
17:10 -- Back to Tokyo
If you take the 17:10 bus back to Nakanojo Station, you'll make it in time for the 18:21 train that goes all the way to Shin-Maebashi. Here, change to a train that goes to Takasaki. There is one at 19:18.
Once you reach Takasaki Station, we suggest waiting for the next Shinkansen heading to Tokyo (19:42). Usually, unreserved seats are available, but if you want to make sure you have a seat, drop by the ticket counter and ask for a seat reservation. As a holder of the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, you won't need to pay any additional fees.
We hope you enjoy your day trip to Shima Onsen, a truly enchanting place with such beautiful nature!
Remember that your JR TOKYO Wide Pass can be used for two more days! What will your next destination be?
Tokyo Station → Takasaki Station → SL Gunma Minakami ride → Shibukawa Station → Nakanojo Station → Shima Onsen → Lunch at Nakajimaya → Shima Onsen stroll → Shima Blue Cafe → Takadaya (onsen manju) → Nakanojo Station → Tokyo Station
JR TOKYO Wide Pass: 10,180
Bus to Shima Onsen roundtrip: 1,900 yen
Lunch, coffee, snacks, souvenirs: around 4,200 yen
For more information on convenient travel passes for the Tokyo area and Eastern Japan, please visit this website: https://www.jreast.co.jp/e/
The writer visited these facilities on June 30, 2019.
Supported by East Japan Railway Company
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