Kusatsu Onsen (草津温泉) is ranked as one of the top three hot springs in Japan due to its high water quality and history. Only three hours away from Tokyo, this quiet onsen town makes for a perfect weekend getaway from the busy life of the city. The water is thought to warm the body and kill harmful bacteria. Kusatsu Onsen is a wonderful spot where you can enjoy high-quality hot springs, ryokan, delicious food, and a beautiful nighttime view. Kusatsu is also known for the World Heritage Sites Tomioka Silk Mill, and Minakami. Located at an altitude of 1,200 meters above sea level, the temperature around Kusatsu is around 7-8 degrees lower than Tokyo, so visitors often come here to escape the summer heat or to see some snowy sights. In this article, we’ll talk about how to get to Kusatsu Onsen, and what to do there besides dipping in the onsen!
How to get to Kusatsu Onsen
From either Tokyo or Shinjuku Station, getting to Kusatsu Onsen is fairly easy making Kusatsu Onsen one of the best onsen towns near Tokyo. Taking the Kusatsu Onsen bus from either station costs around ¥3,000 to ¥4,000 and takes around 3 hours to arrive. From Karuizawa station, you can also take the local bus operated by Kusatsu Kotsu. This bus costs about ¥2,000 and takes a little over an hour to arrive.
What to do in Kusatsu Onsen
Kusatsu Onsen is a popular tourist destination that holds the record for the largest volume of hot spring water of any hot spring in Japan, originating from the nearby active volcano Mount Shirane (2.160m). The small onsen town has been attracting visitors with its healing waters and fresh mountain air for centuries. In summer the small town offers a welcome escape from the summer heath and in winter, snow lovers can go down the slopes of Kusatsu Ski Resort. There is much to explore around the traditional onsen town of Kusatsu, let’s have a look.
Only five minutes on foot from the Kusatsu Onsen Bus Terminal you can visit one of the main attractions of Kusatsu Onsen: Yubatake (湯畑). This is the first place many people will visit as the steam will welcome you into the town, a sight that might remind you of the Beppu Hells located in Kyushu. Yubatake, which means hot water field, was created in the centre of Kusatsu in order to cool down the piping hot spring water (60 to 67 C) and collect the yunohana – the minerals from the water. The hot water flows through the wooden gutter and flows out the other end like a waterfall. This allows many facilities here to use the free-flowing hot springs in their natural state. In the area surrounding the Yubatake you will find many bars and restaurants too.
2. Yukemuri-tei foothbaths
Footbaths are a great place to relax your feet after a day of exploring and shopping. Next to the Yubatake is Yukemuri-tei (湯けむり亭), a foot bath area. The baths are molded after Matsunoyu, a public bath that used to be here during the Edo period (1693-1868). Another foot bath area Jizo no Yu, is located 3 minutes from the Kusatsu Onsen Bus Terminal. All foot baths are open 24 hours and can be used for free.
Netsunoyu (熱乃湯) , an elegant two-story bathhouse serves as the main source of Kusatsu’s hot spring water. Daily visitors can watch a yumomi dance show. Yumomi is a technique where you mix the hot spring water with a wooden board to cool it. The method has been practiced since the Edo Period to help cool the waters down and allow people to bathe in them. The method is a dance performance accompanied by traditional folk songs. During the show women dressed in a traditional yukata singing the Kusatsu-Bushi song, “Kusatsu yoi toko ichido wa oide” (Kusatsu is a great place you have to visit at least once), while they stir the hot waters with the board rhythmically. You can watch the live performance six times a day (¥500) and visitors are encouraged to participate.
4. Sainokawara Park
Surrounded by volcanic rocks, Sainokawara Park (西の河原公園) is another great attraction in Kusatsu, about a 20-minute walk from the Kusatsu Onsen bus terminal and the Yubatake. The way to the park passes Sainokawara Street, a street lined with many shops selling souvenirs and snacks and stylish, traditional Japanese ryokan. The surrounding lakes and streams are filled with hot spring water and the park contains the largest open-air bath in Kusatsu Onsen – Sainokawara Rotemburo. This 500-square meter outdoor bath consists of two large outdoor hot springs which can be entered for ¥600.
5. Hot spring facilities Kusatsu Onsen
1. Otaki no Yu
Otaki no Yu (大滝乃湯) is a facility with indoor, open-air, private baths, a sauna, a lounge, and eateries. One bathing method to try is awaseyu. It’s a way of taking baths, where you bathe in multiple baths heated between 38 degrees to 46 degrees. This is done to allow your body to get used to the heat and minerals. Private baths are also available, so this facility is recommended for those who wish to enjoy their time with their family, friends, or someone special.
2. Shirahata no Yu
Shirahata no Yu (白旗の湯) is a hot spring near Yubatake rated highly for its water quality. The wooden bath makes the experience all the more calming, adding a nostalgic feeling to the facility. There are baths with hot and lukewarm water, but both are quite hotter than average baths. You can bathe here for free.
Santo Meguri Tegata
The Santo Meguri Tegata coupon is available for purchase if you wish to visit multiple hot springs and save money. If you visit Sainokawara open-air bath, Goza no Yu (an Edo-style wooden building), and Otaki no Yu, it will cost ¥2,100 normally. However, with the coupon, the fee will be discounted to ¥1,600!
6. Mount Shirane
As mentioned before Kusatsu Onsen offers some of the best high quality onsen waters thanks to the nearby active volcano Mount Shirane (白根山). This source of all the water in Kusatsu Onsen is also known as Kusatsu Shirane to differentiate it from the Mount Nikkō-Shirane located near the famou town of Nikko, another popular getaway from Tokyo! Hiking Kusatsu Shirane is possible from mid April to early November, with trails starting at the centre of Kusatsu Onsen leading all the way to the top of the mountain. From the top you have a spectacular view over the mountains and the sulfurous, baby blue Yugama Crater Lake. However, the being an active volcano you should always check the volcanic alert level before going there – the trails can be closed off.
7. Kusatsu cuisine
There are many restaurants and souvenir shops around Yubatake and Sainokawa Street. Onsen Manju is a local delicacy which is sold at numerous shops in the town and a must-try when visiting the onsen town. The flavors of Manju vary from shop to shop, for example Age-Manju, a deep-fried onsen Manju with sesame seed coating is very popular among Japanese locals. Other delicacies include soft-serve ice cream, senbei rice crackers, and a rich creamy egg cooked in hot spring water. You can also find many shops selling yakitori.
Joshu wagyu beef is a local delicacy of Gunma. The cows used for the beef are raised in lush green fields and given clean mineral water to tenderize the meat. A popular BBQ yakiniku restaurant in the area is Shitatsuzumi. It’s owned and operated by a butcher and is a favorite among the Japanese locals.
8. Local illuminations
Illuminations aren’t just for the winter in Kusatsu Onsen. In the evening the Kusatsu area lights up with beautiful illuminations. The Yubatake and Sainokawara Park area lights up after sundown, creating a dreamy scenery. Kosenji temple, located right by the Yubatake is particularly beautiful. From March to November on the second and fourth Saturday or holiday is the Yume no Akari event occurs, where 1,200 candles in clear cups create a masterpiece on the stone steps of the temple.
9. Kusatsu Ski Resort
In winter, Kusatsu receive a good amount of snow, giving the town not only a romantic feeling, but also making it attractive to winter sports fanatics. The slopes of Mount Shirane offer one of longest runs in Japan, nearly to 8 km in length. Kusatsu Kokusai Ski Resort is a great place for families and/or beginners with relatively easy slopes. The ski resort is located only 5 minutes from Kusatsu Onsen and a free shuttle bus runs every 30 minutes, so a day of fun on the slopes can easily be topped off with a refreshing dip in one of the many hot springs of Kusatsu Onsen.
Where to stay in Kusatsu Onsen
First opened during the Taisho period as a western-style hotel, Kusatsu Hotel is a very popular accommodation in the area. It was later renovated into a ryokan in 1952. The hotel has a stylish open-air bath and private baths where guests can relax and be comfortable while enjoying the Kusatsu scenery.
Kusatsu Onsen Boun is a historical hot springs ryokan that has been in operation since 1599. There are six baths that source free-flowing water from both the Sainokawara and Bandaiko springs. You can enjoy the soothing waters while taking in the green surroundings.
Every once in a while you’ll feel the need to get out of the city. Kusatsu Onsen is a great place to spend the weekend outside of Tokyo. The traditional history combined with the scenic nature will leave everyone breathless. While it could be a day trip, we recommend to stay overnight and enjoy the several natural hot spring of Kusatsu Onsen!
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Jamila Brown is a five-year resident of Japan, teaching in the day and writing at night. She enjoys movies, reading, cosplaying, and eating good food in her downtime.
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