Kusatsu Onsen is considered one of Japan’s top three hot springs, along with Gero Onsen in Gifu, and Arima Onsen in Hyogo. The reason I chose Kusatsu is because of its reputed therapeutic effect on illness. The water there has a strong level of acidity, giving it a power of sterilization that can treat everything from minor skin diseases, to diabetes or hypertension. For this reason, many Japanese people go to Kusatsu seeking recovery. Even in ancient times, wounded samurai journeyed to Kusatsu in order to heal their injuries.
I booked the trip through ‘Pension Sakunage’, as they gave me the cheapest quote. For 4,500 yen I received one night's accommodation, as well as travel to and from Tokyo. The shuttle bus left from Ikebukuro station, and took around 4 hours including two fifteen minute breaks.
When I arrived in Kusatsu I headed straight for Yubatake, literally "hot water field", one of Kusatsu’s main drawing points. The nearer I walked toward the source of this hot spring, the more I could smell the sulfur and see the vapors rising from the drains. When I reached Yubatake, it was both beautiful and smelly. On first sight, it looks a lot like a waterfall, with the emerald green water cascading from a wooden pipe above. Upon closer inspection, however, you can see the steam rising up, and how underneath the water's surface white mineral deposits, or ‘yunohana’, cluster together and form. Yunohana can be used at home as a bath preparation, and is one of the more popular souvenirs for travelers.
Kusatsu town has lots of small, charming alleyways for visitors to explore. Poking around them, I followed two couples who looked as if they knew the area well. Whenever I visit strange places, I always follow the local people to see where they are going and which restaurants they eat in. This practice involves some small risks, but also great rewards when you happen upon unexpected sights. Following this couple, I found the ‘Otakinoyou.’ For an 800-yen entrance fee, I had three hours to enjoy its various features, such as its large indoor bath, outdoor bath and ‘awaseyu.’
‘Awaseyu’ includes four baths with different temperatures from 39C~45C. I’d advise you to move up from the lowest temperature bath to the highest gradually in order to minimize the shock.
Early the next morning, I got up and went to the nearest free bathhouse, Shirohatanoyu, which is situated right next to the Yubatake. The smell of sulfur here is incredibly strong, and the water is completely white. When I washed my face, I noticed a kind of salty taste and couldn’t open my eyes properly because of the sting. It was too hot for me to soak my body in immediately (it felt much hotter than 45 degrees) so I splashed the water on myself for 10 minutes until I was comfortable with the high temperature. After the bath, I read a sign on the wall informing people that the ph (potential of hydrogen) level is 2.02 (compared to the 3.2 of a lemon). Guests are not permitted to use shampoo or soap at this bathhouse, and are required to bring their own towels.
At around 52 degrees, the water in Kusatsu requires cooling before people are able to enter the baths, using a method referred to as "yumomi". I attended a yumomi performance, as I was curious to see how this method of cooling is carried out. At first, I was a little disappointed because their performance didn’t seem very efficient, but later they encouraged us to participate and experience it, so I gave it a try and even received a certificate. It only lasted for 30 minutes in total, but was so much fun. After that, I took a walk and had a look around Sainokarawa Park. The park’s nickname “spring water of the devil” may seem strange at first, but is soon explained when you see its chilly scenery.
If you are visiting Kusatsu, I recommend stopping by a restaurant called “Dan”, or “暖” in Japanese, located on the 2nd floor next to Yubatake. I had delicious mountain-vegetable soba noodles there, and the atmosphere was fantastic. I'd also recommend going there if you are a fan of antiques.
I am planning on returning to Kusatsu soon, to relieve my body and soul at some of the 18 free onsens around the town. If you want to heal one of your physical ailments, please consider a trip to Kusatsu. But if it’s a problem of love you need fixing, it’s probably better to head to the nearest ‘izakaya.’