It’s time for ‘Japan by Prefecture‘ again! This is the series that aims to provide the highlights of each prefecture of Japan, along with my personal favourites and suggestions from readers. This week, we’re looking at Gunma Prefecture (群馬県).
Gunma Prefecture is part of the Kanto region (関東地方), just north-west of Tokyo. It’s an area mostly known for its hot springs, and the capital is Maebashi (前橋市). Maebashi is apparently known as the ‘City of Water, Greenery and Poets’, and is the birth place of a number of contemporary poets, including Sakutaro Hagiwara (萩原 朔太郎) (1886 – 1942).
As mentioned by three readers in last week’s comments (Japan Australia, Zooming Japan and Uncovering Japan), Kusatsu Onsen (草津温泉) is Gunma’s number one attraction. Kusatsu is one of Japan’s best hot spring resorts, and yet it is not so well-known with foreign tourists. The hot spring town offers large volumes of high quality water which is said to cure numerous diseases.
Nearby is Mount Shirane (白根山), or Shiranesan, often also known as Kusatsu Shirane (as there are other mountains called ‘Shirane’ in Japan). This series of volcanic peaks is a popular destination for hiking, and also for skiing in the winter. The crater lakes there look absolutely amazing!
Another hot spring town in Gunma Prefecture which I think is worth mentioning is Minakami (水上). Minakami is even less well-known than Kusatsu among foreign visitors to Japan, but I think it’s a hidden gem! The most famous baths in Minakami are in Takaragawa Onsen, and some of the largest and most famous rotenburo (露天風呂 / outdoor hot spring baths) in Japan can be found here.
Takasaki (高崎市) is a city in Gunma Prefecture which I think would be worth visiting. Takasaki is hometown of the Daruma doll (達磨), which is a symbol of good luck said to represent Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk who lived in the 5th or 6th century. In Takasaki there is a whole temple dedicated to Daruma called Shorinzan Darumaji (少林山達磨寺). When you first buy a Daruma doll the eyes are blank. The owner is supposed to paint one eye in whilst thinking of their heart’s desire, and after that wish has been fulfilled they show their appreciation to the Daruma by painting in the other eye.
Also in Takasaki is the Byakui Dai Kannon (白衣大観音), which is on my list of big Buddhas I haven’t yet been to see! This particular statue of the Goddess of Mercy is 41.8 metres tall and was built in 1936.
Another famous site in Gunma Prefecture is the Tomioka Silk Mill (富岡製糸工場), which is Japan’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site (as of June 2014). This is Japan’s first modern silk factory, established in 1872. At the time of its construction this silk mill was one of the world’s largest, and silk produced in Tomioka has a good reputation around the world for its high quality.
Finally, I couldn’t talk about Gunma without mentioning the 2014 Yuru-kyara Grand Prix winner: Gunma-chan (ぐんまちゃん)! Gunma-chan, the cute yellow mascot of Gunma Prefecture, was crowned winner of the national mascot character contest last year and has been bouncing around on the internet ever since. Boy is he cute! In case you’re not sure what Gunma-chan is (I wasn’t!), he’s a pony. Gunma-chan does a pretty good job of representing his prefecture by selling lots of merchandise!
Gunma may not be number one on most people’s itineraries, but it certainly has a lot to offer! Check out this fabulous little video of Gunma starring the wonderful Gunma-chan…
The Omiyage Section
Gunma Prefecture doesn’t have many famous souvenirs (or ‘omiyage’ / おみやげ), but you’ll be sure to find a lot of Gunma-chan goods around, like some of those pictured below. As it’s the home of Daruma dolls, you can of course buy those in Gunma too (pictured middle bottom). Traditionally Daruma dolls are red, but nowadays lots of different varieties are available. Bottom left is a great souvenir I found whilst browsing online – chocolate silkworms from Tomioka! Sousaku Kokeshi dolls (creative, modern wooden kokeshi dolls) are said to be from Shibukawa (渋川市) in Gunma Prefecture, near Ikaho Onsen (伊香保温泉), one of Gunma’s other main onsen towns. An example of these gorgeous dolls is below, top left.
Next week I will be writing about Saitama (埼玉県). Have you been there? What’s good to eat there and what omiyage should I buy? What are the best sightseeing spots or hidden gems? Please do share your thoughts below, and join me next week for Japan by Prefecture!