Hiking in summer; skiing in winter; but the milky, acidic onsen is good year round.
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 in Gunma Prefecture. Compared to neighboring Kusatsu Onsen, a more famous hot spring that draws big crowds throughout the year, Manza Onsen is a little off the beaten track. The trip up from Tokyo is around four hours by train or car.
Cool temps and amazing skiing
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.
At 1,800 meters above sea level — approximately half the height of Mt. Fuji — Manza Onsen is pretty high up. On 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. Plenty of snow is expected by mid- to late-December, and it is possible to ski and snowboard through April.
Acidic hot springs
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. Many of the inns feature rotenburo (outdoor baths) overlooking the mountains and valley and that is why Manza Onsen is listed as one of GaijinPot Travel’s Top 15 Winter Onsen getaways.
Many of the hot springs in Manza Onsen are for konyoku, or mixed-gender bathing. This does, naturally, take some getting used to, but you just have to let your inhibitions go to have a good time. 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.
Hiking at Manza Onsen
Manza Onsen offers many opportunities for short hiking trips.
Right behind most of the hotels, there is a small mountain called Mount Kumashiro 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. Some hikers decide to take the 6.2 km trek up part of another mountain called Mount Shirane, which is hard to get to in winter but offers views of the striking volcanic crater lake called Yugama, that is best viewed in summer and fall. There are said to be bears in the mountains, so bring a bell — or something that rings — while hiking.
Manza Onsen is a terrific spot for a mini adventure from Tokyo in any season.