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Japan’s year-round heaven on earth in Gunma Prefecture
Enjoying one of Japan’s best hot springs: Kusatsu Onsen
To many Japanese, Kusatsu Onsen needs no introduction. Located in Gunma Prefecture about 200 kilometers north-northwest of Tokyo, Kusatsu Onsen has been rated one of the top-ten hot springs in Japan for 12 consecutive years, as well as the number one hot spring in Japan by Japan’s top travel agents for 10 years running. Famed for its unrivaled natural spring waters, Kusatsu Onsen welcomes over three million visitors each year who also come for its nearby ski slopes, hiking trails, and parks.
I visited Kusatsu a few months ago; it was my third trip there, but my first during summer. As I left the bus station and entered into town, I was greeted by the nostalgic smell of sulfur in the air—one of the many special qualities of Kusatsu’s highly acidic waters, which also contains aluminum sulfate and chloride. I walked around the town’s signature Yubatake (Hot Water Field), staring with everyone else as steaming hot water gushed out from somewhere deep within the earth through wooden channels into a beautiful pool of azure green.
After checking into my hotel, I headed back towards the Yubatake and spent a few minutes soaking my feet in the foot-bath located there. It’s one of the friendlier places in town because you can sit shoulder-to-shoulder with others and collectively scream “Atsui!” (hot!) as feet start entering the water (striking up a conversation with a perfect stranger can be made easier after you’ve both endured the same suffering). From there it was exploring the many hot springs that Kusatsu has to offer, each with its own atmosphere and personality. I did that until the sun went down. Absolutely paradise.
The next day I woke up—again with the aromatic tinge of sulfur in the air. My adventures this day would include some of the other features of Kusatsu and its neighborhood.
Yumomi (water stirring) is a traditional water-cooling ritual that’s performed at the Netsu-no-yu Bathhouse, located on the south-west side of the Yubatake. Because of the intolerably hot temperatures of Kusatsu’s spring waters (between 51 and 94 degrees Celsius, in fact), Yumomi is the process of stirring the water with large wooden paddles, thereby introducing air and naturally lowering the water’s temperature. Alternative methods, such as adding cold water, would negate the water’s healing benefits by also lowering its pH and mineral content, which is the source of the water’s therapeutic nature. What makes watching Yumomi interesting is the accompanying folk song and dance that’s put on by the eight-to-ten (usually women) paddlers while they work.
There are six Yumomi performances each day, three in the morning and three in the afternoon. Each 30-minute performance begins with a brief explanation of the event, and then several volunteer audience members are allowed to try their hand at stirring the water. Afterwards, the audience is treated to the real deal, followed by another set of volunteer audience members having a go. It’s a very popular Kusatsu attraction, one that I would highly recommend. Just make sure you arrive at least 30 minutes before start time to purchase your tickets and get in line early. Seating is first come first served—it does get crowded, even with second floor seating.
Omiyage (souvenirs) is a necessary part of any tourist trip in Japan, but it’s especially fun in Kusatsu. Walking from shop to shop along winding backstreets only adds to the town’s old school Japan vibe, and the shop vendors are notably friendly. There are all kinds of omiyage available, everything from souvenir standards like handkerchiefs, towels, and t-shirts, but if you’re looking for something that’s truly Kusatsu-only, then I would suggest Kusatsu Yunohana bath salts, hot spring water, or the town’s famous onsen manju (sweet bean cakes). There are some 15 different stores in Kusatsu that sells their own onsen manju, my favorite happens to come from the Matsumura Manju shop. They’re best eaten fresh and have a very short eat-by date, so make sure to buy them on your way home!
Kusatsu Onsen can be enjoyed any time of year; I plan to return in autumn to complete my seasonal stays there. If the thought of spending hours relaxing in various beautiful hot springs appeals to you, then why not visit? Book as early as you can though, being rated the number one hot spring in Japan means everyone else is already on their way!
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