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Episode 2: High Times in Manza

The Naked Stranger is an aficionado for all things Japanese. People in his country even consider him an expert on the subject. He loves regale them with funny stories from Japan. Like the one about the railway employees with white gloves in Tokyo who push people into trains at rush hour, or how people die from eating puffer fish. They love that story the best. 

He is adept at remembering particularly complex kanji (Chinese characters) when necessary as well, like the kanji for sake at convenience stores. Others pose some difficulties, like the characters for “man” and “woman” in izakaya toilets. He wonders why the Japanese don’t use the picture of a man in top hat smoking a pipe like other civilized countries.

His inability to read kanji has its advantages though. It’s his excuse for having his wife pay the phone and electricity bills. It also led him to the beautiful onsen town of Manza.

The Naked Stranger’s original plan was to go to another famous hot spring town in Gunma Prefecture called Kusatsu. People had raved about the spectacular Sai-no-Kawara rotenburo, a natural onsen park near the town center, where you can relax in one of the largest outdoor baths in Japan. 

But somewhere down the road, while his Japanese-speaking, Japanese-reading wife was sleeping comfortably in the passenger seat, our friend the Stranger came to a fork in the road marked by a sign that looked like a Taiwanese buffet menu. Faced with the choice of stopping and asking for directions, waking up his wife or using his finely tuned instinct, The Naked Stranger did what any red-blooded male would. With little or no change in vehicle momentum, he confidently headed in the wrong direction.

Yet sometimes poor choices can lead to profound revelations, and Manza was definitely a pleasant surprise. Manza is Japan’s highest onsen resort and the Manza Onsen Hotel is the highest bath in town. If you have an “onsen bucket list”, follow the signs so you can tick off the “highest bath in Japan” box. 

Manza is surrounded by the Joshinetsu Kogen National Park and has spectacular views of Mt. Shirane and Mt. Osama volcanos. There are no convenience stores, snack bars or karaoke, just natural wilderness, steaming vents and scorching onsen water. It was traditionally a place where people with terminal illness would come to seek a cure in the thin air and sulphurous water. Although the claims it assists with such diseases as cancer and diabetes may be a stretch, there is no doubting the power of the volcanic landscape to inspire your spirit just a little.

Manza Onsen Hotel Manza, Gunma

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Address:  Tsumagoi-mura, Gotsuma-gun, Manza Onsen, Gunma Prefecture 377-1528

Cost: Adult ¥1,000 (Includes a towel)

Tel: (0279) 97-3131 

Web: www.manza.co.jp

The Upside: Surrounded by national park, it is far less commercial than most onsen towns. There is also a great ski resort good hiking and alpine flowers in summer.

The Downside: The toll road up to Manza is expensive (¥1,100 one-way). Bath-only (higaeri onsen) prices at the hotels are a little expensive as well, so it is best to get a package deal and stay the night. 

The Bare Facts:

  • 100% natural sulphur baths.
  • The water is said to be remedial for many things including cancer, diabetes, purifying blood, asthma, high blood pressure and skin ailments.
  • Six types of timber baths, including a hinoki bath (special aromatic pine) and an excellent rotenburo (outdoor bath). 
  • The timber baths are all at different temperatures with the hottest bath coming in at a scorching 42 degrees for those who like to test their pain threshold.

Accommodation: Prices at the Manza Onsen Hotel start at ¥6,450 per person per night including two meals. There are package deals including a round-trip bus from Shinjuku from ¥8,800. Further information can be found on their Web site (English and Japanese).

Food: Tsumagoi Village is the number one producer of cabbage in Japan. The Manza Onsen Hotel specializes in simple, seasonal foods with an underlying macrobiotic philosophy.

Nearby Attractions: Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, Tsumagoi Bokujo (Farm), Shirane Crater, Manza Onsen Ski Resort.

Access: By Car: Manza is about 40 minutes from Kusatsu. Access depends where you are coming from, but note the high mountain passes are closed in winter. The simplest route from Tokyo would be via the Joshinetsu Expressway to the Ueda-Sugadaira I.C. exit then follow Route 144 towards Kusatsu. From the village of Tsumagoi, take the Manza Toll Road to Manza Onsen. There are a few ways to arrive at Manza Onsen Hotel using public transportation. The quickest is to take a Nagano bound Shinkansen from Tokyo St. to Karuizawa (60 minutes). At Karuizawa Station, transfer to a comfortable JR or Seibu highway bus and in 80 minutes after passing the picturesque Mt. Asama and entering the Joshinetsu National Park, you can arrive at Manza Onsen Hotel. Total travel time is about 2 hours and 10 minutes. A more reasonable route is to take the “Kusatsu express” train from JR Ueno Station, which is on the JR Joetsu Line to Kusatsu Station, then transfer to the Agatsuma Line to Manza Kazawa Guchi St. where you can transfer to a JR or Seibu bus arriving at Manza Onsen Hotel in 40 minutes. Total travel time is about 3 hours and 20 minutes.

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