Out of the many Onsen towns all over Japan, Ikaho Onsen is probably one of the most underappreciated by foreign tourists. In my opinion, and after visiting countless Onsen over the years, Ikaho Onsen is one of the best Onsen in Japan. Let me convince you. In this post, I will give you all the information you need about Ikaho Onsen, what to do there, where to stay and how to get there.
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What to do in Ikaho Onsen
Ikaho Onsen is a small onsen town with a lot of charm and surprisingly a lot to do. Everything revolves around the stone steps. There are 365 steps leading from the bottom (where the bus stop is located) to the top (where you will find Ikaho Jinja, the local shrine). Here are the top activities for your stay.
Visit the Onsen
The main reason for wanting to visit Ikaho Onsen is the Onsen. Of which there are many. On my 3-day 2-night visit together with a Japanese friend, the main goal was to relax and enjoy the Onsen facilities outright. I think we managed to do that.
In case you are planning your first visit to an Onsen, have a look at this post about the Japanese Onsen Etiquette.
The Onsen at your Ryokan (Japanese hotel) should be first on your list. It is super convenient to just leave your room, enjoy the Onsen and then head back to your room to relax.
You can also enjoy Onsen facilities at other Ryokan or hotels in town, many offer their facilities for non-guests in exchange for a fee. Depending on the hotel these fees can be quite expensive, many asking for more than 1000 yen (10$). So, we decided to save the money.
Ikaho Onsen Rotenburo
There are two public Onsen in Ikaho Onsen, one is the Rotenburo, the open-air bath, a little walk away from town. While the facility is quite small it is the best feeling in the world to relax in the Onsen while enjoying the fresh mountain air and the cool breeze on your skin. The Rotenburo and also the other public Onsen in Ikaho Onsen are not only popular with (mainly Japanese) tourists, but also the locals. A public bathhouse is a social meeting place in Japan and especially popular with the elder population.
When visiting a public Onsen like the Rotenburo you will need to bring your own towel. If you don’t have one you can purchase a very cute Ikaho Onsen towel at the entrance of the Rotenburo for 1000 Yen. If will make for a cute souvenir for sure.
The vending machines in front of the Rotenburo are quite expensive (200 Yen for a bottle of water), and therefore I recommend you either bring something to drink or even better you head to the drinking fountain on the way back to town. The spring water is cold and super delicious especially after your dip in the Rotenburo.
Ishidan no Yu
The other public Onsen is Ishidan Hot Spring (石段の湯), right at the stone steps (around step 100). It features one big Onsen pool and multiple shower facilities to clean your body. In older times, when it was still uncommon to have a bath at home these public Onsen and bathhouses where the place to take your daily shower. Ishizaka Onsen is still used very much by locals every evening and can, therefore, get quite crowded.
Another highlight of any Onsen town is the town Ashiyu (足湯) the public footbath that is free to use. It is especially nice after walking up the steps a couple of times to sit down and dip your feet into the hot Onsen water. In Ikaho Onsen there are two Ashiyu. They are both quite central, while the bigger one is located directly at the steps, the smaller one can be found on a side street.
Sitting at the Ashiyu is a great place to make further plans for the day or to enjoy an Onsen Manju, a sweet steamed dumpling filled with red bean paste sold in many shops in Ikaho Onsen.
Again, don’t forget to bring a small towel to dry off your feet afterward. The smaller bath provides clean towels for you to use, which is very convenient if you didn’t bring one, but you can also buy a small towel for 200 Yen at a shop right next to the bigger Ashiyu.
Exploring Ikaho Onsen
So, what can you do when you are not soaking in the water of one of the many Onsen? How about exploring the area of one of the best Onsen in Japan?
The Stone Steps
As I mentioned before, in Ikaho Onsen everything you might be interested in is located around the Stone Steps, the central part of this little Onsen town. Along the 365 steps, there are many shops, restaurants and other things to explore. In our 3 days, we walked up and down the stair countless times, and it can get very tiring. Therefore, I recommend to take it slow and make many stops along the way to look inside the many small shops.
Nothing says Onsen town more than the many shops offering games to enjoy after your Onsen visit. In Ikaho Onsen there are many shops offering all kinds of popular games like ring throwing or target shooting, all with the chance to win a price.
At the top of the steps is Ikaho Jinja, the local shrine. The Japanese pay a visit to it at least once, to make a wish while ringing the bell (to wake up the gods). You can also buy an Omikuji, a little piece of paper with your fortune written on it.
On the way to the Rotenburo from Ikaho Jinja, you will come across a red bridge spanning over a small river. This is the perfect spot to take some pictures and enjoy the surrounding nature. It is supposed to be especially beautiful in fall when the trees turn their color.
The Food at Ikaho Onsen
In my opinion, one of the most important things about a relaxing weekend at an Onsen is eating a lot of delicious food. At Ikaho Onsen there is plenty to enjoy. When I arrived at the bottom of the stone steps I went and got a little area map with all the different restaurants and their lunch specials from the tourist information. We took out this paper multiple times during our stay to decided where we wanted to eat. I have to say our choices were very good and I can recommend the following foods wholeheartedly.
Three Kinds of Soba at Ikeya
On our first night, we wanted to have Soba and the special menu of Ikeya (いけや) introduced on our little lunch map caught my eye right away. There different kinds of cold Soba and some Tempura as a set. Unfortunately, the restaurant is quite far away from the stone steps, about one kilometer downhill on the way there (uphill on the way back). A good exercise. After that, you really earned your food.
The restaurant itself is really cute and authentic Japanese. The house is just one story made of wood. Inside is also very Japanese. You take off your shoes at the entrance and sit down in a tatami mat room equipped with low tables and pillows to sit on.
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There are different kinds of Soba on the menu but I really recommend you try the restaurants special, which is three different kinds of Soba with Tempura, Santensoba tenmori. The different Soba is made from different ingredients and also have each have a different texture and flavor. You dip the cold Soba into Tsuyu in which you mix spring onions and wasabi. The dish with Tempura (Santensoba tenmori) costs 1730 Yen (17 USD) only the Soba was 1080 Yen (10 USD).
Handmade Tofu and so much more at Dandan
The little shop called Dandan in one of the side streets at the stone steps in Ikaho Onsen has been renovated recently. It is a small restaurant with 4 tables. The specialty is Tofu of different kinds. If you don’t know anything about Tofu, no problem. Just order the Omakase Lunch for 1250 Yen (12 USD) and leave it to the owner to create a wonderful lunch with three different kinds of Tofu and other interesting small dishes. The lunch comes with rice and soup. The menu is vegetarian.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed to take a picture of my lunch. But it is better to enjoy it than to take a picture of it and I recommend you go there not for the picture but because of the great and authentic Japanese taste.
The Best Cheese Burger I have had in a long time at Nigel Burger Stand
Nigel Burger Stand is not a Japanese restaurant at all. If reminded me much more of a cozy restaurant you might find somewhere in a small town in the US or Europe. The restaurant serves burgers and fries and also imported beers and lemonades. I ordered a four cheese burger (1200 Yen, 12 USD) and I have to be honest it was one of the best burgers I have had in a while, and the best burger I have had in Japan.
So, if you would like to get a little bit of diversity into your menu, or you crave some non Japanese food, Nigel Burger Stand is the place to go during your stay at Ikaho Onsen.
Onsen Manju Everywhere
The Onsen Manju is the perfect snack for in-between meals. So, we ate a lot of them. You can buy an Onsen Manju at many stores along the stone steps in Ikaho Onsen, many with hundreds of years of history.
The best time to buy an Onsen Manju is in the morning when they come fresh out of the steamer and are still soft and hot inside. We bought some around 10 on our second day, and another on the day we went home at 9 shortly after the shop opened. Just be careful not to burn your tongue.
Onsen Manju is also nice to take with you, but be careful, they usually just keep 2 days so it is not really an option as a gift for your family at home.
Where to stay in Ikaho Onsen - Ishizaka Ryokan
We booked our two-night stay at Ishizaka Ryokan right in the center of Ikaho Onsen. The location was perfect, right around step number 170. It was relatively close to everything we were interested in.
Our room was a simple Japanese style room with Kotatsu (a heated table) and a separate sitting area in front of the window. The room had a toilet but no bath, which was just right, because we wanted to use the Onsen facilities on the property.
The bath with Onsen at Ishizaka Ryokan consists of a changing room and the bath itself. In the bath, there are about 6 showers with not only body soap and shampoo but also all kinds of peelings and body scrubs for you to try. The Onsen pool is not large, but also not small and comfortably fits 5 to 6 people. We were alone most of the time and could enjoy the space like a private Onsen.
After your bath, you can enjoy some ice-cold tea in the lobby before heading back to your room.
You can book your room including dinner and breakfast, but we didn’t because we wanted to try the food at the restaurants in Ikaho Onsen. So, I can’t tell you how good the food at Ishizaka Ryokan is.
How to get to Ikaho Onsen from Tokyo
Ikaho Onsen is a small town in Gunma Prefecture, roughly 140 km north-west of Tokyo.
The easiest way to get from Tokyo to Ikaho Onsen (and back) is by Expressway bus. The bus leaves from Shinjuku Bus Terminal. A one-way ticket costs 2600 yen and will take about 2.5 hours to arrive at Ikaho Onsen.
Beware that there are two bus stops in Ikaho Onsen. The one called Ikaho Onsen is about one kilometer away from the city center, so stay on board until you arrive at Ikaho Stone Steps Street right at the foot of the steps. I got out at the wrong stop (because I didn’t know better) and a super-nice Japanese couple who lived in Ikaho Onsen gave me a ride to the right place. Just another small experience that shows how nice Japanese people really are.
On weekends the bus can get quite crowded so be sure to reserve your tickets in advance. You can use the website to do it or buy a ticket in advance at the Shinjuku Bus Terminal.
In my opinion Ikaho Onsen is one of the best hot spring towns in Japan. It is not yet on the radar of too many foreigners and still manages to preserve the real Japan feel. There is a lot to do here and it is super easy to get to Ikaho Onsen as a weekend trip from Tokyo.
If you want to experience something else than the hustle and bustle of Tokyo (for example after staying in Tokyo for 5 days) then heading to Ikaho Onsen is a perfect option. Other great day trip options include Kamakura and a trip to see Mount Fuji.
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None of the experiences in this post are in any way sponsored and have all been payed for by myself. The opinions stated are all my own and have not been influenced in any way.
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Lena is the creator of the Social Travel Experiment. Planning her trip around the world took a lot of effort. To make it easier for future world travelers she has made it her mission to teach others how to have an unforgettable trip around the world, through short stays with locals, without wasting valuable time or money.