Gunma is a prefecture some two hours train journey to the northwest of Tokyo. Gunma is far more relaxed and much quieter than the capital but that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of amazing sights and things to do. If you have a craving for rugged areas of great natural beauty or want to hunt for Daruma related gifts, then Gunma is the place for you. Train stations are far less frequent when compared to Tokyo and these sights are widely spaced, so a hire car likely will be required if you wish to take in all of the landmarks listed below.
Your main transport hub on the way into Gunma is likely to be Takasaki, a spotlessly clean and modern city which is Japan’s biggest producer of Daruma good luck dolls. Just outside the city stands the Takasaki Kannon, a pristinely white figure that dominates the horizon. Built in 1936, this towering monument watches over nearby Takasaki and is said to bring peace and posterity to all of its inhabitants. There are some nice panoramic views of the local area from the foot of the statue but if these are not enough, you can enter the interior of the structure for a small fee for an even more elevated view of the surrounding landscapes. If you chose to walk to the Takasaki Kannon you must endure some steep inclines and pass through residential areas which can be confusing if you do not have navigational assistance. At the summit the usual temple gifts are available for purchase such as fortunes and the like as well as the aforementioned Daruma dolls that are iconic to the region.
Mount Shirane is a volcanic peak in the Kusatsu area of Gunma prefecture. It is accessed via a short hike that shouldn’t be too strenuous for people with a decent level of fitness. There are a number of nearby trails that can be undertaken if you are a more ardent hiking aficionado and there are some lovely scenes and locales to take in and wander around. One of the main attractions of this region is the Yagama Crater Lake which is a striking cyan colour owing to its extremely high sulphur content. Other evidence of the peak’s volcanic properties can be seen around many of the available hikes in the shape of smelly sulphurous emissions and conspicuous yellow coverings on certain surfaces. If you catch specific weather conditions you can stand at the peak and marvel as fast-moving clouds roll in from the distance in true apocalyptic fashion. Due to regular volcanic activity, certain areas around Mount Shirane can be closed off to the public at very short notice. Be sure to check on this before you head off for a visit. If you make only one stop during a visit to Gunma then I would highly recommend making it here.
Haruna Shrine is situated some 50 minutes or so outside of Takasaki. Set atop a small mountainous incline, Haruna is accessed by mounting a long flight of winding stairs that should take 15 minutes – at a continuous steady pace – to conquer. On your way up this steep incline you will pass a number of unusual statues that represent gods important to the shrine. These include female muse-like deities, chubby Buddha lookalikes and a staff-wielding fellow with a rather large conehead! Once you reach the shrine proper you are in for a treat. There are a number of aged buildings to admire including a very fine pagoda and shrines that appear to sprout from the surrounding rocky outcrops. There are a number of signs warning of falling rocks and this is unsurprising when you peer upwards and take in the giant boulder perched precariously atop a small peak directly above the beautifully crafted shrines. I visited when it was raining quite heavily but, rather than spoil my visit, I felt the weather enhanced the site’s mystical aura.
Haniwano Sato Park
Although Haniwano Sato might not worth going out of your way to see it is definitely worth stopping off for a quick visit if you are passing it by. Haniwa are small clay figures formed into various guises that were buried with the dead during Japan’s Kofun period. This park houses a great number of different haniwa figures from simple pots and cylinders along its border to humanoid warriors and animals such as horses and cows at its more important locations. There is a reconstruction of an ancient burial mound built in a stepped pyramidal shape which allows for a unique glimpse into the ritualistic habits of the ancient Japanese. Festivals take place here throughout the year so be sure to check for any upcoming events if you plan on stopping by.
If you’ve played video games anchored in Japanese folklore you’ll recognise Tengu by his long nose and mischievous temperament. Located high in the peaks of the Tengu mountain range, Kashozan Temple is a complex dedicated to this mountain dwelling messenger to the gods and is adorned with hundreds of sculptures, carvings and masks made in his likeness. Be careful not to knock yourself unconscious on one of the huge protruding noses and steel yourself for a few unsettling moments as you wobble beneath the penetrating gazes of the many giant eyes that seem to follow you everywhere. There are plenty of opportunities to buy souvenirs in Tengu’s guise too, from the aforementioned masks to keyrings and ornaments to display on the walls of your home. Keep your eyes peeled for other religious iconography such as the impressive Thousand Hand Kannon Goddess.
Mount Miyogi is home to some arduous hiking trails and is a good place to visit for a solid workout. On these hikes you can admire the rugged beauty the area is famous for and observe innumerable rocky outcrops that seem to rend the sky like giant’s teeth. There are a number of trails that cater for different levels of hiking skill. Anyone trying the more strenuous routes must be prepared for some instances of steep climbing that must be traversed with the aid of chains and shouldn’t be attempted by beginners or those with a nervous disposition! Near the end of one of the trails stands Nakanotake shrine which has a number of statues depicting the jovial Daikokuten (who is closely associated with wealth and the household) holding aloft a number of implements such as mallets and swords. Taking pride of place is a giant golden variant that towers above its brethren and immediately draws the eye. There are also brightly decorated shrines protected by colourfully painted Komainu guards nearby which are well worth checking out.
Onioshidashi is a park littered with enormous volcanic socks blasted into the atmosphere by an eruption of the nearby Mount Asama, the most active volcano on the main Japanese landmass. As you meander between the jagged protrusions you can’t help but wonder at the force of an explosion that was able to propel rocks of this size such a great distance. If you are lucky enough to visit when Asama is in a more placid mood you will be rewarded with the chance to see huge volcanic clouds billowing from the crater. Be aware that, similar to areas around Mount Shirane, during periods of intense volcanic activity the roads can be closed off at short notice. It took three attempts for my group to make a successful visit to Onioshidashi but in the end it was worth it!