January 17, 2020

Journey to Mt. Haruna

Considered to be one of the three sacred peaks of Gunma, Mt. Haruna is chock full of all sorts of attractions such as shrines and hot springs.

A statue of a winged tengu in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture near Mt. Haruna

Many moons ago, during my days as a graduate school student, I had a short-lived stint with a dark triad femme fatale by the name of Haruna. Perfectly nailing that impossibly razor-thin line between sexy and insane, this provocative little succubus was the type of seductress that’s utterly irresistible. Despite any and all rational arguments that I could conjure to run for the hills, my moronic younger self was inescapably drawn to this siren like a moth to an open flame. While I’ll spare you the grim details of how it all went to hell in a handbasket, know that my relationship with this highly manipulative lass was just as ill-fated as you’d expect.

While I haven’t run into Haruna since getting death threats from other men she was simultaneously also playing, the name somehow has always continued to captivate my attention. Whenever I come across it, I’d always perk up and zero in on the conversation or text. I guess the scars run deep as they say. Anyway, recently, while doing research for my ever growing bucket list, I stumbled across a site in Gunma called Mt. Haruna. Unable to help myself, I inadvertently started doing some research to see what this place was all about. To my surprise, Mt. Haruna was nothing like the vixen of my past. In fact, as I would discover, this ancient mountain was about as sacred as they come.

Now, all across the breadth of the Japanese archipelago, there are many instances of similar mountaintop spiritual enclaves (e.g. Mt. Takao in Tokyo). What makes Mt. Haruna and its main sepulcher of Haruna Shrine worth visiting over someplace else? Well, for starters, you should definitely know that this magnificent shrine is about as old as they come. The antediluvian complex is said to have been first created at the behest of Emperor Yomei in the late 500’s. Fashioned back in the days of yore, Haruna Shrine is also home to as many as six National Important Cultural Properties and has long been a training center for mountain asceticism.

As if Haruna Shrine alone wasn’t reason enough to make the trek to Gunma Prefecture though, note that Mt. Haruna is also home to a number of other allures as well. For example, this now dormant volcano has a sprawling caldera that has filled with water over the years to form Lake Haruna. Moreover, on the eastern slopes of Mt. Haruna, you’ll also find Ikaho Onsen. This hot spring town is one of the best in all of Japan and is definitely worth a visit. All in all though, whether for a day trip or an overnight excursion, this yet to be spoiled part of Gunma Prefecture is certainly worth your time.

Getting to Mt. Haruna

A Gunma Prefecture-bound bullet train on the Joetsu Shinkansen Line

OK, let’s take a quick breather to cover some logistics. As noted, Mt. Haruna can be found to the north of Tokyo in Gunma Prefecture. Like with many other destinations in the region (such as Kusatsu Onsen), you’ll need to make use of several different means of transportation to reach your destination. While Japan may indeed have the best train network on the planet, it’s just not possible to run rails this deep into the mountains. Instead, you’ll need to hop a bullet train to Takasaki Station in Gunma and then navigate the local buses to reach your final destination.

For the first leg of the journey, you’ll want to take one of the Joetsu bullet trains from Tokyo Station to Takasaki Station. This major hub is like the gateway to Gunma and many people living in the prefecture use it to commute into Tokyo on a daily basis. While there are regular departures, you’d do well to refer to the ever-helpful Hyperida or a similar service to see which works best for you. If you’re trying to do Mt. Haruna as a day trip, I suggest getting an early start. When I visited, I took a 7:00 AM train up so that I could make one of the first buses to Mt. Haruna.

Speaking of buses, once you’re in Takasaki you’ll need to exit the station via the western exit and make your way over to bus stop number two. From there, the journey will take approximately fifty minutes or so. Note that you’ll need to pay in cash and cannot use an IC card like a Suica. While you can change money on the bus, the machine cannot handle big bills so make sure you have either plenty of coins or a couple of one-thousand yen bills on you. Your final destination will be the Haruna shine (“Haruna-jinja” in Japanese) bus stop. The total trip should cost 1,120 yen.

Haruna Shrine on Mt. Haruna

The main hall of Gunma Prefecture’s Haruna Shrine

While there are a number of things to see and do on Mt. Haruna, I think that the best way to experience it all is to start with the mountain’s shrine. From there, you can slowly make your way around to the other spots in a logistically sound way. While those with rental cars need not follow my advice, others taking public transportation should know that the buses are both hard to navigate and infrequent. Rather than coming up with your own plan, I highly recommend that you don’t deviate from what I’ll suggest hereafter as there’s a real risk of getting stuck out in the Japanese countryside.

Assuming you listen to me on this one, your journey will start at the large torii arch that can be found near the Haruna Shrine bus stop. From there, you’ll need to hike about four-hundred meters up a gentle slope. At the top, you’ll find the gate leading to the inner Haruna Shrine precincts. This foreboding structure serves as the entry point to the complex’s consecrated territory and is a holdout from this establishment’s syncretic honoring of both Shinto and Buddhist traditions. While decidedly only Shinto now, Haruna Shrine’s former duality is still apparent to those who know what to look for.

After passing under the gate (which is oddly reminiscent of the one at Mt. Haruo in Yamagata), you’ll be met with a long approach that winds deep into the shrine’s grounds. This path is lined on both sides with hundreds of towering cedar trees. Additionally, you’ll also encounter statues of the seven Japanese gods of good fortune as well as a three-story pagoda while en route to the main sanctum. Also, be sure to keep your eyes out for a behemoth tree when reaching the water ablution pavilion as this timber is said to have been planted by the legendary warlord Takeda Shingen himself!

While all of the Haruna Shrine grounds are indeed impressive, perhaps nothing surpasses the innermost ares. As can be somewhat seen in the shot above, one thing to specifically admire is how the main shrine is built directly into a large, naturally occurring pillar. This soaring stone column is known as the Mizugata rock and the shrine’s haiden (prayer hall) and honden (main hall) are built right into it. I’ve read online that the Mizugata Rock actually has a small cave at its base in which Haruna Shrine’s object of worship is place. Unfortunately though, access is only permitted for religious rites.

In addition to the main buildings, there are many other architectural gems to check out at Haruna Shrine. What’s more, many of these are also considered National Important Cultural Properties. In the interest of brevity, I’ll opp to not detail each of these in turn. That said though, do take your time to savor the spiritual and historic vibe that permeates the air at Haruna Shrine. Even for the fastest of walkers, you’ll want to spend at least a good hour here to get the most out of Haruna Shrine.

Mt. Haruna’s Lake Haruna

A volcanic caldera in the center of Gunma Prefecture’s Lake Haruna that looks like Mt. Fuji

After exploring Haruna Shrine, you’ll want to make your way up to Mt. Haruna’s picturesque caldera. Here, you’ll find the tranquil lake portrayed above. Known as Lake Haruna, this body of water accumulated over the years following the former volcano’s final eruption. While not exactly a must-see, reaching the next attraction, Ikaho Onsen, will necessitate that you first make a transfer here. As such, I highly recommend budgeting for an hour or so to thoroughly experience the lake and maybe even have lunch. Are you starting to see why you need to get an early start yet?

When it comes to things to check out, Lake Haruna has a few cool things to offer. For starters, know that the lagoon is home to a sizable hill that bears a shocking resemblance to Mt. Fuji as can be seen above. While there’s a ropeway that will take you to the top, the view is actually nothing to write home about. Instead, this miniaturized version of Japan’s most iconic mountain is best viewed from the lakeside. Unless you are running ahead of schedule AND have access to your own set of wheels (the ropeway is rather far away), I am of the mind that you’re better investing your time elsewhere.

While this won’t apply to day-trippers, note also that Lake Haruna is a popular summertime spot for boating and camping. At a lakeside shack, you can procure one of those infernal, self-powered swan boats if you’re the type who likes sculling. During the winter though much of the lake freezes thereby making boating impossible. Instead, the colder months of the year afford a chance for skating and ice fishing for wakasagi. If you’re interested in trying either of those two activities, consider staying overnight in the area as Lake Haruna is home to a few hot spring equipped accommodations.

Mt. Haruna’s Ikaho Onsen

The stairs that lead up and through Gunma Prefecture’s Ikaho Onsen

Moving on, let’s cover Ikaho Onsen next. As previously mentioned, this popular hot spring town is built into the eastern slopes of Mt. Haruna. Famous for its reddish brown, iron-laden thermal waters, Ikaho Onsen is one of Gunma’s top attractions (considering that the prefecture is also home to the likes of the legendary Kusatsu Onsen, that’s really saying something). While a good soak is often just what the doctor ordered, what makes Ikaho Onsen really stand out is the town’s atmospheric layout. Much of the action here is centered around a three-hundred meter long set of stone steps. All the way up on either side, you’ll encounter a variety of traditional ryokan and shops.

According to the locals, the thermal waters that spring forth from the ground at Ikaho Onsen have special regenerative properties. Allegedly, these springs have been helping the wounded heal their traumas for centuries. In fact, the infamous warlord Takeda Shingen is credited with establishing Ikaho Onsen as a resort where his soldiers could rejuvenate themselves after battle. According to the history books, over the years the shoddy encampment that his forces erected evolved into the town center of present-day Ikaho Onsen. While you might not be a history buff, this kind of trivia can be enjoyed by anyone!

Strewn about the length of the central set of stone steps, you’ll find a number of interesting little things to check out. Here’s a short list of allures that you might consider during your visit to Ikaho Onsen. For your convenience, I’ll include Google Map links so that you can find everything on your own.

  • Hawaii’s Villa
    For reasons that escape me, Ikaho Onsen actually had some ties with the former Kingdom of Hawaii during the Meiji period (1868–1912). This Japanese style townhouse provided lodging for the minister when he visited and was recently restored to its former glory.
  • Ikaho Checkpoint
    This is a replica of the former establishment that once stood here. In years gone by, officials would use this facility to control traffic along the highway that connects Gunma with neighboring Niigata .
  • Ishidan-no-Yu
    Located towards the bottom of the flight of stone steps, the indoor facilities at this public bathing venue boasts the area’s signature rusty brown waters. A soak will run you only around 400 yen.
  • Ikaho Shrine
    Found at the top of the town’s three-hundred plus stone stairs, this quaint shrine is your final reward for making the trek up.
  • Kajika Bridge
    Found just beyond Ikaho Shrine, this archway spans a valley through which runs Ikaho Onsen’s iconic brown water. Kajika bridge is especially picturesque during autumn when the fall foliage is at its peak.
  • Ikaho Rotenburo
    Japanese for “outdoor bath,” rotenburo are one of my favorite hot spring experiences during the colder months of the year. You’ll find this facility just a few meters away from the source of all of Ikaho Onsen’s waters. Entry here will also run you around 400 yen.
  • Ikaho Ropeway
    If you want to get a killer view of the Japanese alps, you absolutely must ride the Ikaho ropeway to the observation deck high above. While it’s a bit pricey of a ride, the vista awaiting you easily justifies the cost.

In addition to the above list, one other allure of Ikaho Onsen is the town itself. Like with most hot spring getaways, a leisurely stroll throughout the network of narrow streets is an attraction unto itself. Though day-trippers will need to be mindful of buses returning to the nearest train station, anyone overnighting at Ikaho Onsen is highly encouraged to spend ample time just wandering about the picturesque streets.

Attractions Near Mt. Haruna

Takasaki City, the capital of Gunma Prefecture

While what I’ve covered thus far in this piece should easily be enough for an aggressive day trip, those who opt to spend time in Gunma might need a few additional allures to round out their itineraries. What follows is a brief index of other attractions that synergize well with a trip to Mt. Haruna…

  • Mizusawa Temple
    Much like Haruna shrine, this location lays claim to well over a thousand years of history. The complex honors the Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, and can be found halfway between Ikaho Onsen and Shibukawa Station. Note that this area is quite famous for its Mizusawa udon and all noodle lovers should certainly not skip this one!
  • Byakue Dai-Kannon
    This statue of Kannon can be found back in Takasaki and stands over forty meters tall. For the price of only 300 yen, visitors can go inside and ascend to the top of the structure. Additionally, there’s also a nifty little shopping street on the approach to the Byakue Dai-Kannon. By the way, note that getting here will again require divining local bus schedules.
  • Takasaki Pasta
    As it turns out, this section of Gunma Prefecture is actually one of the top producers of wheat in all of Japan. As such, many of the local restaurants are known for their fresh pasta. What’s more, every year in the month of November all the Italian eateries in the area gather to find out how their unique concoctions stand up against the competition.

And with that, I bid you farewell until next time fellow travelers…