Soaking in the culture at the Kusatsu Onsen
By Andrew Smith
For having such sweltering summers, Japan’s colder seasons can be surprisingly harsh. As a Texas native I often find myself dreading even the short walk outside to the train station each morning. Fortunately, thanks to the country’s abundant natural hot springs, there are plenty of places to stay warm during winter, and there is no feeling quite like watching the snow fall while relaxing in one of Japan’s greatest treasures.
One of my favourite spots is the ever-steamy Kusatsu Onsen located in the Gunma prefecture of Japan. Although the prefecture is well known for its plentiful hot springs and other resorts, Kusatsu stands out among the rest. In fact, this beloved onsen has been voted the top in Japan for many years running. After visiting, it’s easy to understand why.
Not only does Kusatsu have the largest amount of natural, refreshing hot spring water gushing out, but the the atmosphere itself is a delight. Since the Edo period, Kusatsu has provided visitors with healing waters, and despite its modern-day popularity, the onsen has preserved that old charm.Photo by Eddy Chang
The buildings in the area have maintained their old-timey look, and fellow guests can be seen outside in traditional onsen wear as they enjoy a calm walk in the warm, misty air provided by the old yubatake in the center of the resort which moderates the water’s temperature. But Kusatsu doesn’t just look cozy and old-fashioned from the outside, it is traditional through and through.
Stepping into one of its many nearby ryokan is almost like stepping back in time. I stayed at a tiny, rustic ryokan in Kusatsu near the center run by a kind elderly couple who did everything they could to welcome me and ensure that my my stay was comfortable and enjoyable.
The room was surprisingly warm thanks to the furnace, and the private bath filled of course by the same water from around the resort also ensured I wouldn’t be spending any time shivering in the old ryokan, despite the building’s time-worn structure. Staying overnight is the best way to make the most out of your trip because it is so intimate at memorable.
Another way to soak in the full Kusatsu Onsen experience is to join one of the yumomi performances throughout the day. Yumomi is an old technique used to cool the bath while preserving its natural healing qualities by mixing the water with large paddles.
During the show, Japanese women masterfully perform the technique while singing beautiful, traditional folk songs which can be heard throughout the whole resort. They even invite guests to participate during the show by allowing them to handle the paddles themselves and sing along. The presentation is also conveniently given in English.
Even if you are not a an avid onsen tourist, Kusatsu is still worth a visit for the the historical and traditional value along. It is also a great place to wind down with friends after an exciting skiing trip at one of the nearby slopes in the winter. Some resorts or travel plans even offer busses to take travelers to the famous hot springs after a long day of hiking or skiing.
People travel from all over Japan to visit Kusatsu Onsen because it truly is worth it. This hot spring resort has a lot more to offer than just a nice bath. The experience of Kusatsu is almost indescribable, and visiting in the middle of a long, dreary winter may be just what you need.