October 4, 2019

Manza Onsen

Manza Onsen is one of Japan's highest hot spring towns. Here, you can quite literally soak away all of your worries while bathing in the clouds.

The sun rises over Manza Onsen and the volcanic caldera of Gunma's Mt. Shirane

“Uhhh…. Where the F@$#ing hell am I?” I asked myself aloud as the bus turned a sharp corner into yet another blanket of mist. Supposedly, the vehicle was bound for the Manza Prince Hotel but with the utter lack of visibility, I had to wonder whether the driver even knew where we were going. From what I could tell from Google Maps, we seemed to be heading in the general direction of my destination yet given the piss poor cellular mountain service, it was hard to know for sure. As I lazily gazed out the bus window, a car heading the opposite way appeared out of nowhere only to vanish again into obscurity soon after. It was then that it hit me. This wasn’t fog; we were literally driving into the rain clouds that had been trapped by the surrounding peaks. No wonder Manza Onsen is called the highest hot spring town in Japan!

Haven’t heard of Manza Onsen before? Don’t worry, it wasn’t until recently that I too discovered this amazing hidden gem. Nestled deep into the westernmost reaches of Gunma Prefecture, this secluded cluster of traditional ryokan and hotels sits at an altitude of over 1,800 meters above sea level. As described in my opening anecdote, Manza Onsen’s location is so high that it often ends up being completely whited out by low hanging storms. Moreover, from what I can gather online, the hot spring waters here at Manza Onsen rank among the most sulfuric in all Japan. These high acidic levels cause the steamy liquids to take on a whitish hue. Though the rich sulfur content certainly has its own distinct odor, these baths are said to provide some serious health benefits that include improved blood circulation and metabolism.

Alas, while Manza Onsen might seem like heaven on earth for hot spring aficionados like myself, all that glitters is not gold. Unlike the more well known Kusatsu Onsen which sits on the other side of Gunma’s Mt. Shirane, Manza Onsen lacks the traditional trappings of a Japanese hot spring town. As such, there is little to actually do outside of soaking away the world’s worries. Thankfully though, for those seriously in need of a retreat, Manza Onsen is heaven on earth. During my two-day, one-night stay, I think ventured down to the baths a good seven or eight times. Honestly, following three back-to-back business trips, I cannot imagine a better way to unwind and relax than a visit to this lofty hot spring collective.

By the way, if you are unsure about proper onsen etiquette, be sure to refer to my highly rated guide first before continuing. In order to keep this piece on topic, I will not be covering what to do for first-timers. Should you have any concerns about getting naked with your fellow bathers, my article will almost assuredly put your unease at rest.

Getting to Manza Onsen

The bullet train exit at Nagano Prefecture’s Karuizawa Station, the easiest way to access Manza Onsen

Though technically still located in the Greater Tokyo area, making the trek to this cloistered collection of hot springs is by no means easy. After all, it’s not like Japan’s bullet trains can just nonchalantly coast up the side of a mountain. To reach these coveted pools of rejuvenation, you’ll need to take a train to the closest major hub then make the 1,800 meter ascent via bus. Alternatively, a rental car is another good option for those who can drive but just be sure you’re confident in your skills behind the wheel first. Should it be raining and you encounter blankets of fog like I did, you’ll barely be able to see your own hood. In cases like these, it might just be safer to leave it to the locals of the region who are accustomed to the conditions.

Now, while you can technically reach Manza Onsen via only public transportation, I am not going to recommend it. You see, the buses that depart from the JR Manza Kazawaguchi station are both infrequent and difficult to navigate for non-Japanese speakers. In fact, I’d wager that foreign tourists would have a better time decoding an Egyptian stone epitaph than they would the bus schedule. What’s more, if you miss one of the departures, you are doomed to waste precious hours of your time in Japan waiting for the next one to come (and that’s assuming there’s one still coming). Seeing as there is literally nothing else to do near the station, I’d encourage you to avoid this risky situation entirely.

What’s a hot spring addict to do? Well, luckily there’s an alternative. Seeing as a trip to Manza Onsen basically necessitates overnighting in one of the local lodgings, these hotels and ryokan have set up their own transportation networks to make the journey a little bit easier. While I cannot speak for any of the other facilities, both the Manza Prince Hotel where I stayed and its sister property, the Manza Kogen Hotel, offer a shuttle service for guests. Given that the pickup point is over in neighboring Nagano Prefecture’s town of Karuizawa, this makes the whole trip much more simple. Though the ride is ninety minutes long, it beats trying to navigate the arcane local buses.

To recap, if you’re going to be staying at Manza Onsen, be sure to book your accommodations at a venue that offers transportation from Karuizawa. Then, just hop on any of the bullet trains bound for Kanazawa. If you’re coming from Tokyo, this leg of the journey can be made in under an hour but refer to the ever helpful Hyperdia or a similar service to calculate the best route for you. Note that you’ll need to contact the hotel a day ahead of time to book your seat to Manza Onsen. Though it’s entirely free for staying guests, the bus reservations are first come, first served and you’ll still be liable for cancelation fees should you not be able to make it.

Choosing a Manza Onsen Hotel

Some of the hot spring-equipped hotels at Gunma Prefecture’s Manza Onsen

When it comes to planning a trip to Manza Onsen, the most important choice you’ll have to make is where to actually stay. Put rather bluntly, there isn’t a whole lot to do outside of the confines of your hotel or ryokan. As such, which facility you choose greatly impacts the quality of your trip. Though I’d imagine that you cannot go wrong with any of the available options. my research indicates that there are a few listings that stand above the rest. For brevity’s sake, I’ll link them each in turn below along with a short description. Be sure to do thorough research before booking while paying special attention to things like dining facilities before reserving.

  • Manza Prince Hotel
    This hotel has a collection of outdoor baths that offers some amazing views of the surrounding landscape. In total, you’ll find three open air pools that are shared by both genders (unlike in some other locations, you can cover up with a towel here) as well as another bath strictly for the ladies. Additionally, there are also indoor facilities for both genders.
  • Manza Kogen Hotel
    This resort is also managed by the Prince Hotels group. It offers a large outdoor bath as well as seven mixed gender pools. Like with the Prince Hotel Manza, it too has indoor facilities that are separated by gender. Note that I’m pretty sure that guests of either the Manza Prince Hotel or the Manza Kogen Hotel can use the other lodging’s baths but don’t quote me on this one.
  • Nisshinkan
    This ryokan style property has indoor and outdoor style baths. Unlike the two Prince Hotels group facilities, all bathing locations here are separated by gender. If the thought of someone potentially seeing your naughty bits is off putting, opt for the Nisshinkan instead of either of the Prince Hotels group lodgings.

As mentioned before, I opted to stay at the Manza Prince Hotel. Choosing to lodge here was a calculated move on my part. In addition to solving the logistical challenges of getting to Manza Onsen, the Manza Prince Hotel is also said to have an outdoor bath with a killer view. Sadly, the visibility during my time at this hot spring town was at an all time low. While I was initially a little bit bummed about this, the mist eventually grew on me once I remembered that I was actually having the once-in-a-lifetime chance to bathe among rain clouds. Moreover, the vapor was the perfect way to cool off after steeping myself in the hot sulfuric waters.

For those wondering when is the best time to visit Manza Onsen, know that any time of year can be magical. For those who stay during the winter, the almost guaranteed blanket of snow makes the nearby slopes great for ski and snowboard junkies. What’s more, this climate continues all the way through to April meaning that you can enjoy winter sports well into spring here. As for the hotter months, know that Manza Onsen tends to be considerably cooler than Tokyo, meaning that it’s a great reprieve from the sweltering summer conditions in Japan. Lastly, due to its mountainside location, the sweeping slopes come ablaze with vibrant hues in fall, making it a great time to visit.

Attractions Near Manza Onsen

Manza Onsen’s yubatake hot spring source in Gunma Prefecture

Like I’ve mentioned throughout this article, there’s little to do outside of your accommodations here at Manza Onsen if it isn’t ski season. While you’ll find a small network of quaint walking trails above the town, these are by no means a must see. All that’s really here are a few small shrines as well as Manza Onsen’s yubatake (lit. “hot water field”). If you’ve witnessed Kusatsu onsen’s Yubatake before, this might get you excited but know that the one in Manza Onsen simply doesn’t compare. In fact, it’s little more than just a small pool where the thermal waters accumulate. To make matters worse, these hills are also infested by bears lately so if you don’t want to end up being Yogi Bear’s lunch, just head on back for another dip in the hot springs.

If you really want something to do, rather than dilly dally in Manza Onsen, I suggest you take the earliest bus possible back to Karuizawa. This area truly deserves its own post but know that there’s an endless list of things to see and do in the area. What’s more, there are also a ton of outlets to explore at the Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza. Seeing as you need to come through this area anyway on your trip back to civilization, I’d recommend that you budget for an extra hour so to see what Karuizawa has to offer before hopping on your bullet train.