SOAKING UP TRADITION IN HOT SPRING RESORT
Located about 200 kilometers northwest of Tokyo, the famous Kusatsu Onsen hot spring resort in Gunma Prefecture has long been rated among the best hot spring spots in Japan.
The resort town of Kusatsu certainly lives up to a famous folk song phrase, “Kusatsu yoitoko ichido wa oide” (Kusatsu is a wonderful place, so come visit at least once in your life) thanks to various attractive aspects,including the quality of the spring water and appealing scenery.
Back in the old days, Kusatsu was visited by many famous historical figures. Among them were Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147–1199), who established the Kamakura shogunate, Maeda Toshiie (circa 1539–1599), the founder of the Kaga domain whose castle was in Kanazawa, and famous haiku poet Kobayashi Issa (1763–1827).
In the Edo Period (1603–1868), Kusatsu was already a bustling health mecca. The place claimed the top spot of east ozeki (the highest ranking at that time) in the onsen rankings published during the era.
Records showed that the Tokugawa shogunate has transported barreled hot spring water from Kusatsu to Edo. In the middle of the famous Yubatake (hot spring field) in the center of the resort, the remnants of the partition reportedly used to draw hot spring water for the eighth shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684–1751) still exists today.
Ranked No. 1 in surveys
In the present day, the fame of the town nestled in the mountains of the northwestern prefecture hasn’t wavered.
In the “100 Best Hot Springs in Japan” survey organized by Kankokeizai News Corp. and selected by “professionals in the tourism sector” such as travel agents, it has remained on top for 15 consecutive years as of 2017.
Meanwhile, in Biglobe Inc.’s “Public Vote Onsen Grand Prix” conducted through online and postcard voting, Kusatsu Onsen has won first place in eastern Japan for 10 years in a row.
Its popularity and reputation are certainly attributed to Kusatsu’s hot spring water itself. The resort boasts hot springs that gush more than 32,000 liters of natural spring water every minute. This adds up to 46 million liters per day, enough to fill about 230,000 barrels.
With its source being Mount Shirane, an active volcano situated in the area, the resort utilizes 100 percent natural spring water flowing from the mountain. The astonishing quantity enables the inns, hotels and spa facilities in the resort to continuously supply spring water to their guests without having to reheat or dilute it.
High-quality spring water
Capitalizing on nature’s blessing, Kusatsu is committed to hold senshitsu-shugi (or “onsen-ism,” which means preserving and maintaining spring quality). In addition to abundant flow, the water is renowned for its high quality, featuring natural antibacterial properties.
German doctor Erwin von Balz, who visited Kusatsu several times in the Meiji Era (1868–1912) to analyze the waters and teach therapeutic methods, praised the resort saying, “If this location were in Europe, it would surely be extremely popular.”
Kusatsu features a unique bathing therapy, known as jikan-yu (timed bathing). Guided by a yuchō (headmaster), this method involves a series of acts including yumomi (stirring the bathwater with 30-centimeter-wide, 2-meter-long planks to cool down the water to bathing temperature), kaburiyu (repeated pouring of water over a bather’s head) and a three-minute bath in the 48-degree-Celsius water. Bathers are expected to repeat the process four times a day.
The act of yumomi came up as a method to lower the temperature without adding cold water so as not to lose spring quality. Spring water in Kusatsu is too hot for bathing at around 65 degrees, and doing yumomi cools down the water to a bearable 48 degrees, according to the website of Kusatsu Onsen (https://www.kusatsu-onsen.ne.jp/guide/en/). The act also serves as a warm-up exercise for the bather.
Tourists can get a glimpse of yumomi in a show involving a dance at the Netsu-no-Yu facility located near Yubatake. The show is held every day, three times each in the morning and afternoon with admission of ¥600 (¥300 for elementary school students).
At the facility, visitors (elementary school students and older) can also try yumomi themselves from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays for a fee of ¥250.
Strolling around onsen town
Walking around the town also provides visitors with a unique and unforgettable experience.
Situated in the center of the resort, Yubatake is the symbol of Kusatsu, where onsen water gushes up from the ground. Seeing clouds of steam rising from the water field, simply walking around surrounded by a promenade made of ceramic roof tiles gives visitors a unique and unforgettable experience both day and night.
There are various types of restaurants in the town, from typical Japanese, ramen and sushi to grilled barbecue, so visitors will be sure to find something that suits their needs.
What visitors cannot miss is Sai-no-Kawara Park. It is about 10 minutes on foot from Yubatake via the lively Sai-no-Kawara Street that is lined with traditional-style inns, as well as shops selling manjū (bean jam buns) and various souvenirs.
The 8.5-square-kilometer park in the western area of the resort has numerous wells, where hot water springs out to create a flowing river featuring clouds of steam. Legend has it that a demon lives there and visitors should not speak loudly lest the demon appear.
FAMILY-FRIENDLY SKI RESORT OFFERS FUN FOR ALL LEVELS
Famous ski resort
Kusatsu also boasts a ski resort nearby. It is the long-established Kusatsu Onsen Ski Resort, formerly known as Kusatsu Kokusai Ski Resort until earlier this year.
The Kusatsu ski resort was founded in 1914, making it the second oldest in Japan, with its ski lift being the first constructed in Japan in 1948.
Boasting high-quality powder snow, the resort features five ski slopes and six trails, as well as eight lifts to accommodate various levels of skiers. With its slope reaching 1,600 meters above sea level, visitors can witness magnificent views.
The Tenguyama Slope, the main run at the resort with a length of about 450 meters, is for beginner, medium and advanced-level skiers. Night skiing is available on Saturdays and other designated days. From the Aobayama First Slope, suitable for medium and advanced-level skiers, Mount Fuji is visible on days with clear skies.
KUSATSU ONSEN TOURIST ASSOCIATION
Additionally, first time skiers and children can practice at the Family Slope with an average slope of eight degrees. Children can enjoy skiing with no worries at the Kids Park slope, in addition to sledding and playing in the snow.
During the winter, a free shuttle bus is available to the ski resort from the Kusatsu Onsen Bus Terminal every 30 minutes from 9:00 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For more information on the ski resort, please visit https://www.932-onsen.com/winter/index.
RELAX IN SPLENDOR AT ONSEN WONDERLAND
Besides staying at inns and hotels, visitors can also experience Kusatsu’s superb hot spring water at various bathing facilities in convenient locations across the town. Each bathhouse has different, unique features, so bath-hopping enables visitors to fully appreciate what Kusatsu has to offer. Here, we introduce three famous bathhouses in the town.
About a six-minute walk from Yubatake, this facility features various baths, including a huge outdoor bath with a waterfall, sauna and a series of tubs at various temperatures.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Fee: ¥900 (¥400 for children aged three to 12)
Sai-no-Kawara Outdoor Bath
Around 13 minutes on foot from Yubatake, this 434-square-meter bath is the largest outdoor bath in Kusatsu. Guests can unwind surrounded by natural scenery while leisurely soaking in this massive tub.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Fee: ¥600 (¥300 for children aged three to 12)
This traditional wooden building right by Yubatake houses both wooden and stone baths, filled with water from two different sources — the Yubatake Springs and the Bandai Springs.
Hours: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Fee: ¥600 (¥300 for children aged three to 12)
Note: Guests with tattoos are welcome at all of these facilities.
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