Are you looking for a way to enjoy winter, but with the chance to thaw in a traditional hot spring bath as well? Kusatsu Onsen in the Japanese Alps of northwestern Gunma prefecture is just the ticket. Here you will find a delightfully welcoming small town atmosphere, multiple public hot springs baths, some unique onsen practices, and -- in the winter season -- nearby ski fields and other winter sports.
Kusatsu's reputation as one of Japan's best onsens is centuries old. When Meiji Period Western advisor Dr Erwin Baelz discovered Kusatsu, he wrote in his diary: “In addition to its unrivalled hot springs for baths, Kusatsu has the best mountain air in Japan and splendid water for internal use.”
Indeed, Kusatsu's water is something quite special, being infused with sulfur, aluminum, sulfate and chloride that make the water highly acidic and give it antiseptic properties. The town is also infused with the scent of these elements, which the water picked up as it moved through the volcanic rock of nearby Mt Shirane. The active volcano is also responsible for the extreme heat of the water, which bubbles out of the ground at 51C to 95C.
It would be impossible to bathe in such hot water, but undesirable to dilute its potency by adding cold water, so Kusatsu developed Yumomi (stirring the bathwater), a process of using wide planks, about 180 cm long, to stir the water and cool it. Local museums display late 19th century photos of Yumomi being done at Kusatsu's outdoor baths, but in our modern age, the only place to see the process is Netsu-no-Yu, a bath theater. In six daily performances (9:30, 10 and 10:30 a.m. and 3:30, 4 and 4:30 p.m.), a group of women in traditional garb sing traditional songs as they demonstrate how the water is stirred. The steam rising from the bath as they stir is ample evidence of the cooling effect of the process.
Historically bathers themselves stirred the water as a pre-bathing exercise. In keeping with that tradition, members of the audience are also invited to participate. The entire performance begins with a video explaining the history of the area and of Yumomi (with translation into several languages available via a free app) and also includes performances of some local Kusatsu dances. Get a 50 yen discount with this coupon.
Netsu-no-Yu sits in the town center, just above Yubatake (hot water field), where 4,000 liters of onsen water per minute pushes its way into a pool from which it is directed into sluice boxes. As the water runs through the sluice boxes, it is cooled, causing some of its minerals to drop away to be harvested later for packaged bath salts. It's a fascinating sight, especially in the winter when steam is rising off the running water.
But Yubatake isn't the only hot spring source in Kusatsu. In fact, 32,300 liters per minute of water bubbles out of the ground at over 100 locations across the town.
Another place to witness this phenomenon is Sai-no-Kawara, a small valley about a 10 minute walk from Yubatake. In this park, there are several places where the water is emerging from the ground and gathering into small -- and sometimes large - -pools before eventually flowing into a stream that continues on through the town. The pools are different colors, depending on their source. Watch your step on the sqooshy ground, but wander around and check it out. Here you'll also find a foot bath and a discreetly walled off public outdoor bath, the largest in Kusatsu.
There are several public baths to check out all over the town. Carry a small towel with you, or buy one at your first stop. Buy a Santo Meguri coupon for 1,600 yen for discounted admission to Sai-no-kawara, Goza-no-yu, and Otaki-no-yu, the three most popular public baths in Kusatsu (the coupon contributes to their popularity, perhaps?).
Most baths are in the traditional Japanese style, but at Therme Therme (on the theme of a Roman bath), a bathing suit is required. Rentals are available, but if you're not Japanese-sized, you may want to come prepared. Many of the public baths have refreshment facilities available as well.
If you are staying overnight in Kusatsu (recommended), you can also count on an onsen bath in your accommodation. There is a wide range of accommodation available and a helpful office directly across from Kusatsu Onsen Bus Terminal can help. Some of the large historical hotels probably offer the best overall experience and many are conveniently located near Yubatake. Several more modern "resort hotels" are also available on the outskirts of the town, and have shuttle bus service to/from Kusatsu Onsen Bus Terminal.
The center of Kusatsu is a pretty compact and easily walkable. Several roadways radiate from Yubatake and it can be fun to just wander them, ducking into shops at whim to explore...and warm up. There are shops selling local foods, souvenirs, and novelty items, as well as plenty of restaurants and coffee shops.
To reach some of Kusatsu's attractions, the Kusatsu Loop Bus can be particularly useful. Also known as the Round Bus, you can reach about 20 of the town's most famous spots for just 100 yen per ride. The bus originates at the Kusatsu Onsen Bus Terminal with Yubatake as its second stop and passes each stop about every 40 minutes.
One of the stops of the Round Bus is Kusatsu International Snow & Spa Resort. Kusatsu has over 100 years of downhill skiing history; Japan's first ski lift was built here in 1948. Like any good ski resort, ski gear is available to rent.
Twelve lifts take skiers all over the flanks of Mt Tengu and Mt Shirane, with beginner, intermediate and advanced slopes. Guided off-slope skiing and snow shoeing are also available depending on snow conditions (advance reservations required).
There is also an hourly free shuttle bus (roughly on the half hour) from Kusatsu Onsen Bus Terminal to the ski resort and then further up the mountain to the Shirane Kazan Ropeway. For skiers, this may be the best way to start from the top of the mountain (a special combined ropeway/lift ticket is available), but the ropeway is also good for less athletic tourists to check out the Alpen winter wonderland with a minimum of effort. Whatever your choice of winter fun, when you've had your fill of the cold and the snow, you know the healing waters of Kusatsu Onsen are waiting to welcome you back.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about traveling in Japan. See her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today