Gunma was a prefecture that gave me a bit of a problem deciding where I would be covering. As an area that is deemed literally as "The countryside" or 田舎(Inaka) by Tokyoites, Gunma has it's fair share of convenience problems in terms of proximity to some of it's landmarks.
Planning for a day trip is much more of a challenge for me since Gunma is more famous for it's mountains and hot springs (温泉ーOnsen). As someone who is tied up by a certain budget, this meant that a stay in a ryokan (旅館) - a traditional Japanese inn where most of the hot springs are, is certainly out of the question. Trying to fix in a one-night stay in an area of Gunma seems a bit excessive since you could do a day trip to the prefecture if you're staying in Tokyo either way, so there wasn't a reason to go particularly out of the way to visit the prefecture.
Why Mt. Haruna?
As previously mentioned, Gunma prefecture is famous for 2 things: The mountains and hot springs. Since staying in a ryokan is basically out of the question, it makes sense to visit the other option. As a Kancolle fan, Gunma is home to the namesake of 2 of it's major naval ships: Haruna and Akagi. Mount Akagi is out of the question as there wasn't a direct route to it during this time of year (December), so I've opted for the more convenient route instead: Mount Haruna.
Getting To Mt. Haruna
From Tokyo station, it's best to take a bullet train (新幹線-Shinkansen) to Takasaki station. As seen from the picture, it costs me 3190 yen for a one way trip that takes me just under an hour to reach. There is a cheaper JR Takasaki rapid line that costs just under 2000 yen but over double the time to reach Takasaki and since I'm on a day trip, there wasn't the luxury of time so I wouldn't recommend it.
Once you've alight at Takasaki station, take the west exit which will bring you out to the overhead bridge. As you look down from it, you will notice several lanes of road right below on the ground level. Make your way to the building right across the station and head down to the bus-stop with this particular sign. It displays the schedule of the buses that will be stopping at this particular bus-stop. If you can't read Japanese, this can look a little intimidating as there are several bus routes that goes to different places, but keep calm. What you need to find is the Kanji for the word Haruna Lake which is represented by the Kanji "榛名湖". It's the bus schedule 2nd from the right in the picture. As can be seen in the picture, the bus comes only once every hour from 8.30a.m to 3.30p.m. Haruna Lake is at the top of the mountain. If you would like to also visit the shrine, you will have to alight 2 stops before you reach the lake. Look out for the kanji "榛名神社" for your stop. Board the bus and pay by cash once you reached your destination.
Something important to note is that halfway through the bus journey, the bus will be stopping at a particular place called Murota (室田). This is one of the terminals for some of the buses from the same bus stop that you board the bus from. DO NOT ALIGHT THERE. If you're on the bus that goes up to Haruna Lake (榛名湖), it is only there for a brief 15 minutes break for people from that area to board the bus to head up to the mountain. Just stay put and they will eventually resume the journey.
This 3-forked road is your stop for the shrine.
This giant torii gate is the immediate thing you see as you reach the stop. It's interesting to note that there are various quint little inns en-route to the main shrine, presumably for a more peak season like during the summer, where places like Mt. Haruna is a hotspot for the holidays. Needing to live so high up a mountain has truly fostered a sense of community within the little town as I observed a resident from a nearby local inn casually strolling up to her neighbour's house just across the road and having a meal together. It was a really humbling sight.
Anything is good with a picture of Shibe.
Follow the road with shops and houses that line up both sides of it and you will eventually reach the entrance of the shrine.
What's good about most of the landmarks in the boonies is that most of them don't even charge you for entrance fees. Haruna Shrine is having none of your capitalist shit.
The main shrine is a 700 metres walk uphill from the entrance with natural and man-made beauties lining up your path along the way.
Lights like these line up the path up the shrine most likely for the New Year's. As much as it is a time for parties for the Western audiences, New Year's is of huge cultural significance for the Japanese.
As you walk uphill, you will find really interesting formations like these on the adjacent side of the little valley.
The Juroujin (寿老人), one of the seven Gods of Fortunes (七福神- Shichifukujin), makes it appearance here. It's adapted from the Chinese mythology of the Shou Xing (寿星), the immortal that symbolizes longevity which is one of trio of the Fu Lu Shou (福禄寿).
This is a fountain that reveals your omikuji (おみくじ), or fortune paper. There is a fortune slip you can get up the shrine that comes blank. You will come down to dab the slip with some of the water here to reveal your fortunes.
Soon, you will reach the rest area/management office of the shrine. It also holds the shop of it where you can buy your charms and get your fortunes. Up this flight of stairs and then some will have you finally reaching the main shrine.
The area where the main shrine is located is just awe-inspiring. It is surrounded by cliffs on 2 sides, with trees that you can clearly see are hundreds of years old just by looking at how massive and thick the trunks are. It almost feels like you are being transported back to a bygone era. Other than the glass planes that line one it's buildings by the side, there were almost nothing that resembles that of the modern age.
The path to the main shrine is actually a 2-forked road. One obviously leads up to it while the other lets you walk side by side with a river stream that leads further up the mountain. Being the guy that I am, I took the chance to also take a hike up this other path.
As you continue your way up, you will eventually reach what seems like a dead end here with a wall that acts like a waterfall for the river stream that you were walking along. It even has a picnic bench at the side of it. You can feel that this place is a really good place to be during the summer rather than the winter with a secret scenic picnic spot. The path that you walk will eventually lead to stairs that head up onto the top of the waterfall. However, from what little I can read of the signs that are placed in the area, it says that there are people who are doing some repair works on the improvised stairs that literally cuts into the earth and will only be done after a few months, though strangely enough, it was not condoned off to restrict access for people. I took a chance and laboured my way up and finally onto the top of the wall, only to see an even arduous flight of stairs that weaved up and down and disappeared somewhere. I took into consideration that the path may prove quite wild, and while I wouldn't mind the climb up to the lake, this is the dead of winter with limited hours of daylight and virtually nobody in sight if you were to need help, so I decided to cut it short and head back to take the bus up instead.
About a 10-15 minutes ride will take you from the shrine to the top of the mountain. It was late December when I'm up there, and temperatures are around the 4-5°C range, so you won't exactly find snow around the place. The best it got was just frost of ice sitting by the side of the road.
The side of the mountain I was on is the accommodation/shopping area on the mountaintop. Only 2 rest area/restaurant were open that day, with the obaa-sans of both the shops trying their damnedest to welcome you into their little place like a manekineko (招き猫- an ornate cat that brings in fortunes). The lack of people around means every customer counts. I considered patronizing them due to the freezing weather but ultimately decided to resist the temptation as I man up and put up with it. Sorry obaa-sans, not this time.
And since there were nothing of significance that are opened on this side, I decided to walk round the lake and head to the recreational area of the top of the mountain. Buses are few and far between in the off-season, so missing it will mean that you will have to wait close to an hour for the next one to arrive. That said, it wasn't that much of a hike as it only took about 15 minutes on foot to reach that side of the lake.
I didn't remember to take any pictures but there are a bunch of facilities here like shops, a museum, boat rides out onto the lake during the warmer seasons and even an onsen. It also happened to have Christmas illumination during the festive period, but since I came a few days after, the people here were already in the midst of tearing it down. Further beyond the this area will eventually bring you to the cable cars that heads up to the tip of Mt. Haruna. I would really have wanted to head up and take in the view, but it just wasn't at the right moment for me. The sun sets at around 4p.m during this time of the year and it was already close to 3p.m when I was there. A dark winter night up on a mountain wouldn't be the best of idea when traveling solo. The buses that heads down the mountain also leaves at 3.30p.m and then the hour after(The last bus). Considering the fact that I have to also walk my way round the lake and back to my initial drop-off point, I just didn't want to squeeze in a hurried trip up on the cable car and then back down after only 10 minutes. That wouldn't be an experience I am after. So I begrudgingly held off the plan and end my trip here as I made my way back.
Granted, I wasn't able to do as much as I would have wanted up Mt. Haruna. I came at the wrong time of the year which limits the things that I was able to do. However, I take solace in accomplishing what I've came here to do: Get a charm which will be pinned up on my map for having visited the prefecture of Gunma. I took whatever experience I could've taken up on the lake with me and made a mental note of what I would want to do the next time I'm here, for I've already decided in my mind that I will come back eventually to finish what I've left off at this moment of time. During the correct time of the year.
This trip up the mountains have showed me just how big Japan is. I've always pondered what I would do next once I've eventually complete visiting all 47 prefectures of Japan, and it's moments I've spent up Haruna that proved that having only been to just ONE place in a prefecture just wouldn't be able to justify what they have to offer to the people that are willing to travel. It would be an honour of mine to cover as many places as I can of Japan regardless of where they are and continue to spread my experiences to whoever is reading this blog of mine, be it just one person or a thousand. I have discovered that Japan is a country that I would potentially end up spending my entire life in exploring at the expense of other places around the world. And even then, I'll still do it.
Best time to visit Mt. Haruna:
At the peak of each season i.e Sakura blossoms, Summer vacation, Fall foliage, Winter during the snow. As much as you would like to take off-peak seasons to visit, places like this just isn't able to feed off times where nobody is hanging around so a lot of things will be closed.