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IF Tokyo is your city-slicker cousin, Kyoto your cultured uncle and Osaka your easy-going, rough-and-ready nephew, then Gunma must be your squeaky-clean country relative - a picture of rosy-cheeked health from all that fresh air, clean water and lush, farm-grown produce.
Whatever ragged condition you're in when you visit Gunma, it won't take long for the healing onsen waters, ryokan hospitality, ridiculously perfect scenery and wholesome local ingredients to put you in a blissful state of mind. You may not be able to get your hands on freshly caught seafood since it's surrounded by mountains but hey, this is Japan - the good stuff isn't so far away that Ta-Q-Bin can't get it to your chosen ryoken in double quick time. Besides, all that mountain terrain, natural hot springs and fast-flowing clean rivers and streams create the perfect conditions for agriculture. Which means some amazing mountain and local vegetables, rice, award-winning beef and pork (restaurants in Tokyo usually specify if they serve Gunma pork) and, of course, sake.
We first discovered Gunma by chance several years ago as onsen newbies. It was our first time at Bettei Senjyuan (http://www.senjyuan.jp/e/) in Minakami, at the foot of Mt Tanigawa offering some amazing views depending on the season - dazzling white snow in winter, curtains of cherry blossoms during sakura season, and richly coloured foliage in autumn. The fact that each room comes with a private outdoor bath with water piped directly from the springs, means you can enjoy the benefits of the water without having to bare all in the public - but admittedly more scenic - baths.
What we were too naive to realise was that Gunma prefecture doesn't stop at just the onsen hotspot of Minakami and Mt Tanigawa. There are a mindboggling 100 mountains in this vast area set in central Japan, fitting in 12 cities and even more towns and villages with plenty of land to spare. You can drive some 25km to 30km from say, Minakami to the village of Kawaba or the capital city of Maebashi in around 40 minutes and cover barely a speck of the entire prefecture. But it's enough of an introduction to this immensely charming country getaway to make you want to return and cover more ground.
To kick off your little sojourn, get on the Shinkansen from Tokyo station and ride 70 minutes to Jomo Kogen station. Resist the temptation to fuel up at the solitary soba shop at the station. Depending on where you're staying, the ryokan will either pick you up at Jomo Kogen itself or you'll need to take a local bus to Minakami train station. Once you're there, just relax and let nature show you around. Here are just a few ideas to start you off:
Where to stay
Yutorian, 451-1 Kawabayubara, Kawaba-mura,
Tone-gun, Gunma. http://kawaba-yutorian.jp/
This mid-priced ryokan is a stunning replica of a 150-year-old traditional building. The current owners took over the original structure but completely rebuilt it from the inside out. If you don't ask, you'll never know the interiors are barely five years old. Every room is filled with traditional Japanese furniture as well as the owners' massive collection of antiques that spill into corridors and fill its in-house museum. But you know this place is well-steeped in the present with its driverless golf carts that take you from your room to the lobby. If you're on a higher floor, it has its own cable car (really) that takes you down to street level while treating you to a bird's eye view of surrounding rice paddies. Each room has its own bath for soaking, but they are small and filled with heated tap water rather than spring water. You still need to go to one of several outdoor baths to enjoy the real thing. You can opt for room packages that include dinner and breakfast. We picked the room-plus-breakfast package but the food was pretty average. It might be a better idea to enjoy the ryokan for its facilities, but eat out elsewhere.
Ryokan Tanigawa Minakami Onsen, Tanigawa,
Minakami, Tone District, Gunma.
While not as upscale as its sister property Bettei Senjyuan, the family-run Ryokan Tanigawa offers its own charm and cosy surroundings. A few of its rooms feature private baths, and they're the real McCoy - piping in water directly from the hot springs. You won't need body moisturiser when staying at either of the two properties - the soothing water is good for the skin, leaving you with the cliched "baby soft" smoothness. A soak before bedtime and you'll be asleep before you know it. The food is also good at both properties, and Ryokan Tanigawa serves up a killer curry rice for lunch. It's one of the best versions we've ever had.
Where to go
Kichijyoji Temple, Kawaba
A short distance from Yutorian is this spacious zen garden of a temple that isn't nicknamed "Flower Temple" for nothing. It looks like a living floral convention, with lush gardens bursting into bloom everywhere you look. Take in the tranquil surroundings, observe the ancient Buddha figurines in numerous forms, make a donation and ring the giant bell for good luck. But mostly immerse yourself in this hands-on lesson in botany, and indulge in the myriad photo opportunities.
Den-en Plaza Kawaba
This sprawling village complex is a lovely walk in the park - cafes, restaurants and ice-cream bars cater to your cravings while you stroll across the perfect green astro turf and watch the swans gliding across the man-made lake. A spacious farmer's market is the main attraction, with locals snapping up fresh greens by farmers whose names are right there beside plump daikon radishes and crisp lettuce. There's also a huge array of local specialities from apple juice to rice and condiments. Konnyaku is a signature item here so lug some back if you've got space.
Gunma is a fruit paradise, and famous for its apple orchards. Honey apples - the super-sweet fruit with the tell-tale "star" markings at its core - are synonymous with the area. The apple juice is a must-try, with its heady, all-natural sweetness. At the height of the season - October/November - the sight of short, squat apple trees weigha sea of red fruit is one to behold. Many of them are also open to visitors coming in to pick what they want for a small fee. In other months, strawberries are plentiful in spring, cherries appear from June, plums and peaches from July and grapes from August.
Hotel Sl, 2419 Yachi, Tone-gun, Kawaba-mura 378-0101, Gunma
Train enthusiasts might get a thrill out of the antique train that runs a grand total of 150 metres on the hotel grounds. Strictly for kids and tourists, the SL D51 steam locomotive goes through the motions with much fanfare - loud horns, chugging, photo opportunities in the driver's seat - even if all it does is ride back and forth. Still, the majestic train is an impressive sight.
Where to eat
Soba Watanabe, 414-2 Hakodacho, Maebashi, Gunma
Housed in a quiet cottage off the main street, you'll find some excellent homemade soba by a chef who moved from Tokyo to Gunma because the water makes better soba. There are two versions - the familiar regular buckwheat noodle and a thinner, beige-hued version that is lighter, chewier and refreshing. You can wolf down second helpings of this slippery noodle dunked into a mellow dipping sauce. Order a side of light, crisp tempura of local mountain vegetables. With a view of a garden bursting in bloom, it's a perfect lunchtime treat.
Kura Cafe, Yubinbango 378-0115 Tone-gun, Gunma.
Located right beside the Nagai sake brewery, this cafe/shop is a treasure trove of Gunma delicacies as well as a sake retail outlet. Open only for lunch, it offers a simple but tasty menu that incorporates sake into its dishes. Sample the Kawaba lunch bowl of sauteed chicken marinated in soy sauce and koji - a culture used in sake brewing, or Daiginjo sake lees ice cream.