There’s more than one way to travel between Tōkyō and the famous hot spring town of Kusatsu Onsen. Moreover, it’s possible to do the entire journey for free with a Japan Rail Pass. In this report, we’ll try two different routes that rail pass holders can use at no extra cost.
Note: This report covers a day trip to Kusatsu Onsen done on Friday, 16 November 2018. Please bear in mind that train and bus schedules may change without notice.
In this post, the terms “free” or “at no extra cost” (or words to that effect) ignore the initial cost of the JR Pass. Given that the price of a JR Pass exceeds the cost of a single round trip between Tōkyō and Kusatsu Onsen, travellers who do not plan to take other long-haul journeys on the JR network are better off purchasing separate tickets for the trains/buses described here (since a nationwide pass would not be cost-effective).
Kusatsu Onsen isn’t directly served by train services. The closest railway stop is Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi Station on the Agatsuma Line, where bus connections are available for the remainder of the journey.
As we’ll see later, the whole trip is covered by the nationwide Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass), whereas some regional train passes that cover the general area aren’t valid for the bus leg.
Let’s break this report up into two main parts: the rail journey between Tōkyō and Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi, and the bus journey between Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi and Kusatsu Onsen.
One: We’re staying near Tōkyō Station. This of course means that Tōkyō Station itself is our jump-off and return point. If you’re staying elsewhere in the city, the routes and connections required to reproduce these results may differ.
Two: We’re using the nationwide Japan Rail Pass. In addition to trains, the full JR Pass – i.e., the version accepted by all passenger companies of the JR Group – also covers local (i.e., non-highway) bus travel on many routes served by JR subsidiaries. This includes the JR-run bus line between Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi and Kusatsu Onsen.
Note that some regional rail passes issued by JR East aren’t accepted on the bus to/from Kusatsu Onsen. There are two exceptions as of this writing: the Tōhoku Area Pass and the Nagano-Niigata Area Pass, both of which became valid for select local bus routes in the JR East zone from 1st June 2018.
PART ONE: TŌKYŌ to/from NAGANOHARA-KUSATSUGUCHI
There are three ways to complete this phase of the journey: (1) a shinkansen ride plus a local service from Tōkyō Station; (2) a limited express train ride from Ueno Station (requiring a short train ride to connect from Tōkyō Station); (3) and local trains all the way from Tōkyō Station. I used the first two options on my day trip and will discuss those in detail here.
Option 1: Shinkansen between Tōkyō and Takasaki, local train between Takasaki and Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi
This was the course I settled on for the outbound trip from Tōkyō. Here’s a summary of the journey I took:
Tōkyō dep. 06:28 — Hakutaka 551 (Hokuriku Shinkansen) — 07:18 arr. Takasaki dep. 07:26 — Local service on the Agatsuma Line — 08:49 arr. Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi
Needless to say, there are many other possible combinations.
Without a JR Pass, the trip would have cost me a total of 6,010 yen (using an Ordinary Car reserved seat for the shinkansen leg). The entire journey is free for travellers using an Ordinary JR Pass. Since I was using a more expensive Green JR Pass, I booked a comfortable Green Car seat for the shinkansen leg – which would have bumped up the total journey price to 7,550 yen – at no cost whatsoever.
Here’s the beast that will take me to Takasaki: an E7 Series Shinkansen train, preparing to depart as the Hakutaka 551 service. This particular set is F9, delivered in 2014.
And here we are in the Green Car. Note that the Ordinary compartments will have a tighter arrangement of 5 seats to a row, with less floor space and more basic equipment (no leg rests, etc.).
If you’re planning to visit Kusatsu Onsen on a day trip from Tōkyō, you’ll want to take an early set of trains in order to maximise your sightseeing time. Note that the initial run to Takasaki will take about 50 minutes – more than enough time to tuck into a meal whilst on board (there are many options available at Tōkyō Station’s bentō shops and convenience stores).
After arriving at Takasaki Station, I transferred to the local line platforms and boarded a normal commuter train for the second leg to Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi Station.
Later in this post, we’ll go over the bus ride that followed my arrival at Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi.
Option 2: Limited express train between Ueno and Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi
I used this option for my return to Tōkyō. If you’re also bound for the capital, note that it’s possible to make train reservations at the Kusatsu Onsen bus terminal (where JR maintains a ticket window).
JR East’s Kusatsu limited express service offers a direct link between Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi and Tōkyō’s Ueno Station, covering the distance in about 2.5 hours each way. The catch? This train only runs twice a day on weekdays, with one additional trip available on weekends and up to four trips total on certain busy holidays. Use HyperDia to look up schedules.
In addition, please note that Kusatsu services don’t go all the way to Tōkyō Station itself. That said, the relatively short stretch between Tōkyō and Ueno Stations is easily covered by one of the many rail services plying this route – amongst them, trains serving the Yamanote, Keihin-Tōhoku, and Ueno-Tōkyō Lines.
As of this writing, a one-way reserved seat Ordinary Car ticket will set you back 5,470 yen. A first-class Green Car ticket bumps the cost up to 6,810 yen.
The Kusatsu is normally operated using 651-1000 series EMUs. The train I boarded was set OM206, originally delivered as set K109 in 1992 and modified in 2013 (when it acquired its present number).
These shots are of the Green Car, with a roomy 2+1 seat configuration (versus 2+2 in the Ordinary compartments). As befits a tourist-orientated train, there are luggage racks near the end of the car, but do note that space is limited.
The final link between Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi and Kusatsu Onsen is a local bus service, which we’ll now discuss in more detail.
PART TWO: NAGANOHARA-KUSATSUGUCHI to/from KUSATSU ONSEN
After getting off the train at Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi Station, I simply walked out of the exit and got on the JR Bus parked next to this stop sign. Bus services are timed to match train arrivals, so you’re not likely to wait long.
Here’s an enlargement of the timetable in that sign. This schedule was current as of the date of my visit (16 Nov ’18) but is subject to change without prior notice. Use it only as a general guide for approximating departure times and frequencies.
Upon boarding, I presented my JR Pass to the bus driver, who copied down a few details before handing the card back to me. And that was that: no tickets, no further payment. (The ride would have cost me about 700 yen without a pass.)
The journey between Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi and Kusatsu Onsen takes about half an hour, depending on traffic conditions and stopping patterns.
These are the timetables posted at Kusatsu Onsen’s bus terminal for the return journey to Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi. Note how each service is timed to coincide with onward train departures from the JR station.
Those coloured red and labelled 急行 (kyūkō) are scheduled to connect with Kusatsu limited express trains. In my case, I was travelling on the Kusatsu number 2, leaving from Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi at 13:07. I therefore took the 12:00 bus, which got me to the station on time for my onward departure.
Bus tickets should be purchased from the terminal’s service window prior to boarding. As for those using a JR Pass: no payment is required since the pass will cover the bus journey, but I can’t recall whether I simply got on the bus and showed my card to the driver (as I did on the inbound journey to Kusatsu Onsen) or whether I had to request a free boarding ticket at the window beforehand. Best to err on the side of caution and approach the ticket counter first, rather than queue up at the bus just before departure only to be told later that a ticket is necessary.
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