There comes a point each summer in Tokyo when you just cannot take another day of the combination of the oppressive heat and humidity, and you’ve just got to get out of the city to escape to a cooler place.
Well, if you only want to be warm while soaking in a natural hot spring, then a great, relatively convenient option is Manza Onsen (万座温泉) in Gunma Prefecture.
Compared to neighboring Kusatsu Onsen (草津温泉), a more famous hot spring that draws big crowds throughout the year, Manza Onsen is a little off the beaten track. Don’t get me wrong! It is relatively quiet, although lots of travelers visit Manza Onsen every year.
While certainly accessible by car, particularly during the peak summer break period, be prepared for massive traffic jams in and out of Tokyo. That’s why my wife and I opted to take a direct train from Ueno Station.
We visited in mid-August and were amazed by the 15 degree difference from Tokyo.
The effortless trip to Manza Kazawaguchi Station takes about 2-1/2 hours and offers great views of the countryside after reaching the mountains. From there you simply transfer to a local bus that will get you to Manza Onsen in about 45 minutes. Another, slightly faster—and more expensive—option is to take the bullet train to Karuizawa and then take a bus during the rest of the way. Some hotels will even pick you up at the bullet train station.
Once getting off the bus at Manza Onsen you will immediately be hit with a blast of sulphuric gas. The rotten egg smell is everywhere, but it only takes a few minutes to get used to it. The next thing that you’ll notice is the refreshing, cool air. We visited at the height of summer in mid-August and were amazed by the 15 degree Celsius difference from Tokyo. Our hotel room did not even have an air-conditioner!
The primary reason for the temperature variance is, of course, the elevation. At 1,800 meters above sea level — approximately half the height of Mt. Fuji — Manza Onsen is pretty high up. We were told by a local that the flip side to the cool climate in the summer is the harsh winter. In the winter it is, apparently, not unusual for Manza Onsen to have a string of days when the mercury never rises above -10 degrees Celsius.
Manza Onsen is also home to a beautiful ski resort which is known for its powder snow. 2015 is, by the way, the 60th anniversary since the founding of this ski resort. As a result, most of the lifts are being rebuilt, and there are many events being planned for the coming winter. Plenty of snow is expected by mid- to late-December, and it is possible to ski and snowboard through April.
Besides the beautiful scenery and ski resort, Manza Onsen is famous for its sulphuric hot springs which resemble a giant milk bath. You will literally disappear after sliding in only a few centimeters into the bath. The warm water is filled with yu no hana (湯の花), small flakes of sulphur. The hotel at which we stayed features large rotenburo (露天風呂) outdoor baths overlooking the mountains and valley. These baths are open 24 hours a day.
Many of the hot springs in Manza Onsen are for konyoku (混浴) or mixed sex bathing. This does, naturally, take some getting used to, but you just have to let your inhibitions go to have a good time. Women are, by the way, provided with an extra-large bathing towel which is to be wrapped around the body and can be worn into the bath. Quick drying, loosely fitting elastic bathing suits for women can also be purchased on site.
The guys, however, are provided with just a regular, skimpy little bath towel which is supposed to be used to hide one’s privates while getting in and out of the bath but not actually dipped into the water. Many of the men do not bother with this extra step, however, and simply let it all hang out! Apart from the “scenery” in the immediate bath area, after dark the baths are an ideal location for star gazing. It’s amazing how many stars are visible in the mountains.
Manza Onsen offers many opportunities for short hiking trips. Right behind most of the hotels there is a small mountain called Kumashirosan (熊四郎山) that has a stone staircase with probably 1,000 steps leading up to the summit from which you can get a really good view of the whole area. Upon consulting the front desk of our hotel about a slightly more rigorous hike, they suggested a 6.2 km trek up part of another mountain called Shiranesan (白根山).
The only catch was that bears had been sited along this trail relatively recently. The clerk at the front desk said, “Not to worry, as we’ll lend you one of these,” holding up a small bell that looked like it might belong to a St. Bernard. I almost burst out laughing when he explained that bears do not like the sound of small bells and, therefore, “you’ll be fine.”
The next morning—armed with our bells—we set off on this fairly strenuous hike with meticulously well maintained trails where we only passed a few fellow hikers. It did not take long to be reminded of the natural beauty of Japan’s forests. Although we thought that we heard some movement in the bushes at one point, our trusty bells served their purpose, and we avoided the bears. After about 4 hours of hiking we made it back to our hotel safe and sound…and ready for another dip into the hot spring.
Manza Onsen is a terrific spot for a mini adventure during any season. I cannot wait to visit again this winter.
Address: Manza Onsen, Tsumagoi-mura, Agatsuma-gun, Gunma 377-1595 Japan
From the Manza Onsen Prince Hotel Website:
By Fast (and most expensive route) Train
From Tokyo Station, take the Nagano bullet train bound for Nagano and get off at Karuizawa Station (60 min.). From the south exit of Karuizawa Station, there is a free shuttle bus for guests staying at either Manza Prince Hotel or Manza Kogen Hotel (105 min.). The bus departs Karuizawa Station at 8:30 am and 1:30 pm and arrives at Manza Prince Hotel 90 minutes later. Return buses depart Manza Prince Hotel at 10:30 am and 3:30 pm, arriving at Karuizawa Station 90 minutes later. Advance bookings are required and can be made by contacting Prince Hotels. Bus capacity is limited to 25 passengers.
By Slower (but more direct route) Train
From Ueno Station, take the Kusatsu limited express train and get off at Manza Kazawaguchi Station (2-1/2 hours, 5,500 yen). From there connect by bus to Manza Onsen (40 minutes, 1350 yen). Please note that there are only around two round trips per day.
Admission: Weekdays (10am-midnight) 1240 yen / 980 yen after 9:30pm.
Weekends (9am – midnight) 1500 yen. Crowded on weekends.
Kanetsu Expressway Nerima IC→Shibukawaikaho IC→Route17/353/145/292→Route466→Manza-Onsen Ski Resort (3hr40min)
Website: http://www.manzaonsen.gr.jp/index.php [Japanese]
Rules: No tattoos, no loud or obnoxious behavior, no clothing or swimsuits in the onsen water