Welcome to a village where the water steams and forms pools as it seeps from the ground around every corner. Considered among the top 100 hot springs of Japan, Kusatsu Onsen Village in Gunma is well worth the trip.
While the town is very calming, it is a popular destination and can become quite crowded. To avoid the main tourist crowd, start the day early by taking the first train. From Gunma’s Takasaki station you will spend approximately 1.5 hours on the JR Agatsuma Line before disembarking at Naganohara-kusatsuguchi station. Along this route you will travel through mountain tunnels that open for brief views of sparsely inhabited areas of Japan. This is especially beautiful as the sun is rising.
Once you arrive at the train station, board a 30 minute bus that brings you to the town center (Kusatsu Hot Springs Bus Terminal). Most of the main attractions are centrally located making this town easily walkable. Take advantage of the early morning light by walking to the northeastern part of town and exploring the Sai no Kawara Park. Take your time soaking in the scenery and perhaps even dip your hand in one of the many pools of the hot spring water bubbling up to the surface along the path. As you approach the end of the path you are met with a small waterfall, commemorative statue and local shrine.
Please take a moment to read the little plaques written in both Japanese and English explaining the history of this area. Behind the waterfall is a Visitor’s Center and the town’s largest outdoor bath. Enter the Visitor’s Center and you will be greeted by a lovely staff member who will recommend some bath houses and give you a coupon book for some of the larger ones.
The large outdoor bath at the top of this park is highly recommended if you have the time and funds. The scenery is beautiful and the atmosphere is very peaceful. However, for the budget traveler Kusatsu offers many small baths that have no admission charge. As long as you bring your own towels and toiletries, you are welcome to use these facilities.
After leaving the park as you walk towards your next destination, be prepared for the onslaught of manju shop workers as they pass out free freshly steamed sweets and hot green tea to every passerby in hopes that he or she will stop to purchase their souvenirs. This makes a great mid-morning snack as you continue toward central Kusatsu.
You may also consider checking out Kusatsu’s other most famous bath, Otaki-no-yu onsen. This large facility is mostly indoors with one outdoor bath. Don’t skip out on this onsen’s awase bath experience. This room consists of 4 small baths each holding 4 people that cascade down the steps from the water source. Begin by soaking in the first bath at the bottom where the water is coolest at around 39 degrees Celsius. Relax there while you wait for your turn to join the hotter baths up the steps.
When a space opens up, manners dictate that the person who has waited in your bath the longest has first choice to move up. The baths increase one or two degrees in temperature as you climb the steps towards the supply with the top bath reaching around 45 degrees. If the heat becomes a bit unbearable, rest on the benches alongside of the baths, take a few breaths and cool off. When you are finished here, take your time exploring the remainder of the baths.
The relaxation these baths provide has the potential to leave your body feeling better than any massage, however please be careful to keep yourself well hydrated, and to stand up from the baths slowly as the hot water can easily give you a head rush.
When you are sufficiently rested and the baths have soothed every muscle in your body, head back into town to stop at the symbol of Kusatsu—the Yubatake. This attraction is the source from which all the onsen water for the town pours from. Here you can see and smell the sulfuric quality of the water, while strolling through town looking for something to eat. The open wooden troughs expose the water to the open air to aid in cooling down the water to a more acceptable bathing temperature. If you stoop to look at the posts in the railing surrounding the Yubatake you’ll notice some recognizable names engraved into them.
If you are feeling a bit playful, stop for a bit of fun at the arcade just alongside the Yubatake. This arcade has a mix of classic and modern video games and a few purikura photo booths. Surprisingly, the little soba restaurant inside served quite a delicious lunch of fresh tempura fried mountain vegetables, maitake mushrooms and steaming bowls of soup for a reasonable price. From here please visit one or two more local onsens before leaving. While Kusatsu is spectacularly beautiful in the autumn, for those who enjoy winter sports Kusatsu is also an ideal getaway for skiers with the slopes conveniently located near the center of town.
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Brittany is a firm believer in trying all foods at least once, spending as much time outdoors as possible, and taking advantage of any opportunity to experience traditional Japanese culture. Originally from the Adirondack Valley in Upstate New York, she is currently living and teaching English in Japan's majestic and landlocked Tochigi Prefecture.