On a busy weekday morning, I headed to the west exit of Shinjuku Station to meet friends from the Kimono circle. It was a muggy and cloudy day in the last week of the summer break. Despite the rain forecast over the next two days, we were going on a trip to a hot spring village in Gunma prefecture, Kusatsu Onsen.
The Spa-resort liner bus from Shinjuku took us to Japan Alps via the Kan-Etsu expressway. After a two hour drive on the highway, the bus switched to the local road in the mountainous area of West Gunma. We spent another two hours on the winding road before reaching our destination.
Kusatsu Onsen is said to be one of the three best hot springs in Japan. It is located in the Valley of Shirane Mountain, about 1,200 meters above sea level. Kusatsu hot spring resort was famous among the wounded samurai for its medicinal benefits since the Muromachi and Sengoku period. Important figures in Japanese History, such as Tokugawa Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyoshi were also interested in the curing power of the springs. In the Edo period, Kusatsu’s visitors were mostly political figures and warriors. There was a saying that, in order to keep this Kusatsu Onsen peaceful and safe for the treatment, Shoguns had a rule among themselves not to fight a war in this town.
Kusatsu Onsen gives around 32,300 liters of hot spring water per minute, making it the most productive natural hot spring in Japan. The spring is also ranked number one in the 2012 survey on the Top 100 Hot Springs in Japan by the Tourism and Business Newspaper (観光経済新聞). The resort offers year-round leisure and activities for visitors; beautiful scenery and nature during the summer, coloured leaves and variety of local agricultural produce in autumn and winter sports in one of Japan’s longest ski trails, Kusatsu International Ski Resort (草津国際スキー場), from December to April.
Strolling the streets in Japan’s traditional costume is one thing you should not miss doing in Kusatsu. Since this is a late summer trip, I dressed in the summer gown – Yukata (浴衣) and explored this little town with my friends. A big group of girls in Yukata is a very fitting scene among the old-fashioned buildings. The streets are lined with neat rows of stores and Ryokan (旅館-Japanese-style hotel). We visited the shrine, public bath house and had traditional Kaiseki (懐石料理) dinner together. Overall, Kusatsu is the place where one can relax and appreciate the beauty of nature and Japanese culture.
Yubatake (湯畑) or the hot spring field is located in the center of Kusatsu hot spring resort. It is also a symbol of Kusatsu and the source of water used in near by Ryokans. After scooping the water out of the ground, these wooden troughs will cool down the water temperature before transporting it to hotels. The names of 100 famous visitors of Kusatsu since the Edo period are carved on granite columns around Yubatake. Visitors can enjoy the view, the unusual sulfur odor and the brightly lit-up lights of Yubatake from the public foot bath (Ashi Yu – 足湯) named Yu kemuri Tei (湯けむり亭) near by.
Kou Sen Ji (光泉寺) is the temple on the steep slope at the back of Yubatake. Visitors can enjoy the birds eye view of Yubatake from this temple.
Netsu no Yu (熱の湯) – Yumomi and the dance show(湯もみと踊り) is the process to lower the temperature while maintaining the spring’s natural efficiency. Imitating the tradition in the Edo period, performers will dance with the big wooden paddle (Rokushakuita-六尺板)and sing the famous rhyme, “Kusatsubushi”. Visitors can also participate in the dance at the end of the show.
Venue: Netsunoyu, in front of Yubatake
Fee: Adults 500yen, Children 250yen
Schedule: April 1st to April 30th: 10.00/10.30/16.00/16.30
May 1st to October 31st: 10.00/10.30/15.30/16.00/16.30/17.00
November 1st to November 30th: 10.00/10.30/15.30/16.00/16.30
Public Bathhouse – Hotesl may offer you the hot spring bath (Onsen-温泉) in your accommodation, but you should not miss experiencing how the Japanese enjoy Kusatsu hot springs in the traditional way. There are three famous public bathhouses, indoor and outdoor, that have a different source of water. Goza no Yu (御座之湯), re-open in spring, 2013, is the legendary bathhouse from the Edo and Meiji era that combines 5 sources of spring water in Kusatsu to one place. Sai no Kawara (西の河原) is the open air public bath in the garden and Otaki no Yu (大滝の湯), which has all the facilities (Sauna, Outdoor and Indoor bath) in the beautiful wooden building.
Goza no Yu (御座之湯) http://www.gozano HYPERLINK “http://www.gozanoyu.com/”y HYPERLINK
Location: In front of Yubatake
Hours: 7.00 – 21.00
Entrance Fee: Adults 500 yen, Children 300 yen
Sai no Kawara (西の河原) http://sainokawara.com/
Location: 15 minutes walk from Yubatake
Hours: 7.00 – 20.00 (9.00 – 20.00 in winter)
Entrance Fee: Adults 500 yen, Children 300 yen
Otaki no Yu (大滝の湯) http://ohtakinoyu.com/
Location: 5 minutes walk from Yubatake
Hours: 9.00 – 21.00
Fee: Adults 800 yen, Children 400 yen
Kusatsu International Ski Resort (草津国際スキー場) – even in summer and autumn, this ski resort offers you family activities, such as, golf, hiking, and mountain view from the ropeway
Access: Free shuttle bus from Kusatsu Onsen Bus Terminal every hour
Kataoka Tsurutaro Art Museum – located in front of Sai no Kawara park, this art museum displays water color drawings and calligraphy from the famous Japanese actor and artist, Kataoka Tsurutaro. Visitors can relax in the art café whilst listening to the sound of the water fall from Sai no Kawara spring near by
Access: 10 minutes walk from Yubatake
Hours: 8.00 – 18.00
Entrance Fee: Adults 950 yen, Students/Children 600 yen
Chizou no Yu (地蔵の湯) – 5 minutes walk from Yubatake (Direction: to the bus terminal)
Chizou no Yu is the open-air public footbath in front of a small shrine. It is very peaceful and quiet compared to Yubatake.
Gourmet Food and Souvenirs
Maitake Udon – is the noodle dish with a mushroom topping.
Onsen Manju – is the sweet brown bun, stuffed by red bean or black sesame paste.
Yu no Hana – is the product from Yubatake. It is used as the bath salt. The yellow soft flakes made of sulfur, calcium and aluminum, which Japanese believe are good for the skin.
Recommended Hotels and Ryokan
Hotel Sakurai – a 5 star hotel with all the facilities and entertainment
Hotel Ichii – Yubatake’s view from your room window
Naraya – Traditional Ryokan with Japanese art and decoration
Kusatsu Now Resort Hotel – The western style resort with its own resort liner from Shinjuku
Kusatsu’s closest station is Naganohara Kusatsuguchi (長野原草津口) for the regular train and Karuizawa (軽井沢) for the Shinkansen. The bus from Naganohara Kusatsuguchi will take about 25 minutes while the bus from Karuizawa will take 1.30 – 2 hours. There are also resort liners departing from Shinjuku, Ueno, Saitama and Yokohama.