In my opinion, one of the must-do things in Japan is experiencing onsen, the traditional hot springs. Actually, our blog readers previously voted on their favorite onsen to visit in winter.
Third place in that poll was Kusatsu Onsen in Gunma prefecture.
*we also have blog about Onsen manners in Japan, check it out!
When my family came to visit me in Tokyo, I made sure to take them to Kusatsu. Although we went in winter, it is an all year round destination. It is ideal to stay for one or two nights, making it a popular weekend getaway from Tokyo.
For those of you who have JR passes, the easiest way to get there from Tokyo is taking a Shinkansen (bullet train) to Takasaki, before changing to the JR Agatsuma line. The station you would be getting off at is Naganohara-kusatsuguchi.
If you don’t have the JR pass and would like to save money, you can also take local trains to Naganohara-kusatsuguchi for a total of 3020 yen each way. You can look up the train route at http://www.hyperdia.com/en/
From Naganohara-kusatsuguchi there are buses to the hot spring area. It is a 25 minute trip and costs 700 yen each way.
Yubatake town center
The Yubatake, or “hot water field” is an icon of Kusatsu and marks the center of the town.
The structure in the middle is actually a contraption for cooling the water before people bathe.
I thought the white particles stuck to the rocks looked gross at first, but they are actually valuable minerals that are harvested and used as bath salts.
Kusatsu is famous for its green tinged water.
Right next to the Yubatake is a foot bath. It is free for everyone to use – you can just roll your pants up and step in. If you have children with you be careful that they don’t splash around.
For accommodation, I highly recommend staying at traditional style inns (known as ryokan). Some have private baths in the rooms, but most have communal baths to share with the other same-gender patrons. Although the ryokan we stayed at only had shared baths, when my mother and I went it was just the two of us!
The water in Kusatsu is naturally acidic and has antibacterial properties. Although the general rule with onsen is to not rinse your body after leaving the bath, the chemicals at Kusatsu are very strong so you can rinse your body in the shower if you have sensitive skin.
Outdoor bath (rotenburo)
Although many ryokan only have the normal indoor baths, many people want to try an outdoor bath, known in Japan as rotenburo. The one we went to was called Sainokawara.
Although there was plenty room to move around, it was quite crowded especially compared to the empty bath at our ryokan. Also, some people might be nervous about being naked in front of strangers. I was a bit nervous at first, but quickly got used to it as no one looks at each others’ bodies.
There are many restaurants in the area, including many ramen places and izakaya (casual pub-like eateries). Many of the restaurants have no English menu or English-speaking staff but places around the Yubatake area are more likely to have pictures or English menus.
For snacks, you definitely should try Onsen Manju. These are sold pretty much anywhere there is an onsen. These buns are filled with sweet red bean paste and are steamed using the hot water from the onsen.
On your trip to Japan, I highly recommend making a trip to Kusatsu. It is a relaxing break from the fast paced lifestyle in Tokyo, and is perfect for families and groups of friends.
That’s all for today. See you next blog!