Field Report:  Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma, Japan (16 November 2018)

I love onsen towns, even though I’m not inclined to take the waters myself. With their narrow streets, relaxed atmosphere, old-fashioned architecture and rustic charm, even non-bathers will find them an excellent place to unwind, far removed from the hustle and bustle of Japan’s megacities. Today, we’ll stroll around a splendid little corner of Gunma Prefecture that might interest Tōkyō-based holidaymakers.

Welcome to Kusatsu Onsen.

Where out-of-town excursions from Tōkyō are concerned, there are places closer to the city – and easier to reach – than the famous hot spring resort of Kusatsu Onsen (草津温泉). For one, there’s the sheer distance involved: more than 140 kilometres as the crow flies, and even longer in terms of actual road or railway length.

There’s also the lack of direct rail connections between there and the Japanese capital. All travellers making their way by train will have to transfer onto a bus at some point, whether the tracks run out for them at Karuizawa or at Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi. (I’ve written about the transport options in a separate post, and there’s also a good summary on Japan-Guide.) The only seamless means of getting there is by car or highway bus: can’t do the former as I don’t drive, can’t do the latter as I have no energy or patience to spare for a 4+ hour road journey.

That said, people do still venture out to this quiet corner of Gunma Prefecture – and they do so in droves. After all, Kusatsu Onsen’s got plenty to offer in return for the trek out there and back … even for a casual day-tripper like me who can’t even be bothered to take a soak in its famous waters.

Long journey, early start. It’s almost surreal to see Tōkyō Station so uncharacteristically devoid of people.

Time to spare for a bit of trainspotting. Here’s an E3 Series Shinkansen, type E3-1000, set number L54. She’s had an interesting life up to this point: born in 2005 as six-car set R25 before being taken out of service, losing one car, gaining two others from former set R24, receiving a new lick of paint and reentering service in 2014.

And here we have E7 Series Shinkansen set F8, delivered to JR East in 2014 for use on the Hokuriku Shinkansen.

The train I eventually boarded is another E7, set F9, also delivered in 2014. I’ve posted pictures of the interiors in a separate transportation report.

Now for a spot of breakfast.

Well, more than just a “spot”. (Long day ahead – nothing wrong with fuelling up.)

After a nearly three hour journey on two trains and a bus – more about that here – I finally reached Kusatsu Onsen’s bus terminal…

…from where I set off on a leisurely stroll to this resort town’s most famous landmark. Incidentally, the route I actually took doesn’t quite match any of the auto-generated paths shown below.

My steps took me past a hillside temple, in front of which was a gate with steps leading down to the main square. This gave me an elevated vantage point from which to observe the beating heart of Kusatsu Onsen…

…the iconic Yubatake (湯畑). This rather ingenious construction funnels Kusatsu’s scalding-hot spring water – which emerges from the ground in excess of 70 C – down a series of open wooden channels, allowing the cool mountain air to disperse excess heat. The water then cascades into a rock-lined collecting pool, and eventually through pipes for distribution amongst the town’s bathing facilities.

I’ve just referred to the Yubatake as Kusatsu Onsen’s beating heart, and it is. From this wellspring gushes forth the very lifeblood on which this town’s commerce relies.

Legend has it that a Japanese prince was the first to test these waters, all the way back in the Yayoi Period. Another tale has Minamoto no Yoritomo washing away his stress – and perhaps the blood of his Taira rivals – here or hereabouts in the 1100s. Much later in history, during the long peace of the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), Kusatsu became a favoured soaking destination for residents of distant Edo (present-day Tōkyō), with one shōgun even ordering his retainers to draw water from the Yubatake for use in his palace.

The onsen town’s modern-day fame was cemented during the Meiji Era, when the German physician Erwin Otto Eduard von Bälz (1849-1913) wrote about the therapeutic potential of these spring waters. One imagines that many of the day-trippers or overnighters who now roam the streets of this spa village have leisure and relaxation in mind, rather than the medicinal properties of its baths, but it’s just a mark of how Kusatsu Onsen’s appeal is broader than merely as a resort destination.

For one thing, it pulled me in – a chap with no interest in onsen bathing but who dearly loves a good strolling destination. And in my experience, onsen towns are absolutely perfect for a simple walking around (the baths, if you’re the sort to take the waters, are an added bonus).

As we’ve seen earlier, the Yubatake sits right in the heart of town, surrounded by ryokan and bath houses. It’s a pleasant setting for a casual walk…

…which I extended west, through the town’s narrow streets lined with charming shops and inns, as I gradually moved towards my next stop.

Nestled in a small valley west of the town centre is Sai-no-kawara-kōen (西の河原公園), a rocky riverbed sprinkled with bubbling pools and rippling streams of hot spring water.

It’s not large as parks go, but it’s marvellously scenic. A peaceful slice of nature right next to a busy resort town. Perhaps not untrammelled nature, given the obvious signs of beautification and maintenance, but a reasonable facsimile thereof (especially in the eyes of this city dweller).

For many visitors, the park’s key attraction isn’t this otherworldly landscape…

…but the famous open-air bath at its western end.

The Sai-no-kawara Rotenburo (西の河原露天風呂) consists of a large hot spring pool with separate sections for men and women. It is, no doubt, a memorable setting for a good soak…

…except that I didn’t venture any further inside than the entrance.

I’ve already written about my lack of interest in onsen bathing – but I have a particular aversion to the local custom of, er, presenting oneself au naturel in front of strangers. Yes, I’m sure no one cares enough to look and it’s an accepted tradition and all that … sorry but it’s not for everyone, and certainly not for me.

(I should stress again that this isn’t the only reason why I avoid taking the waters, even though I enjoy visiting onsen towns. There are usually private facilities available in a ryokan or bathhouse somewhere, and they’re not particularly expensive. Prudish disposition aside, I’m just not of the soaking sort.)

With that, I turned around and headed back east through the valley…

…zeroing in again on the town centre. Easy enough to find, thanks to the carved stone “Yubatake” signs set into the pavement.

And here we are again. Much as I enjoyed having another look at this impressive landmark, with its wooden conduits channelling Kusatsu Onsen’s most precious natural resource…

…I was here for something else. But of a similar nature, in that it’s for taking a bit of the heat out of the water.

The Netsu-no-yu (熱の湯) is a wooden building located right next to the Yubatake. Quite beautiful to look at, both inside and out…

…and a lovely setting for regular performances of Yumomi (湯もみ). This is an old technique for cooling down freshly sourced hot spring water to a safe temperature, developed as an alternative to adding cold water (which might dilute the natural product’s therapeutic properties). The labour-intensive process involves some vigorous stirring and beating with long wooden paddles, the actions timed to match the rhythmic beats of a wooden clapper and accompanied by traditional songs.

At one point, volunteers from amongst the spectators were allowed to have a go at it themselves. (I chose not to put my hand up, lest my careless water-bashing end up cooking half the audience.)

Ah, now that was a lovely morning. Bathers will no doubt wish to linger at least until the afternoon or evening, perhaps even extending to the next day at one of the local inns and hotels. For my part, I’ve had my fun and was ready to head back to Tōkyō.

But not before swinging by the ginormous Christmas tree standing near the Yubatake.

It’s only mid-November, but hey … why put a damper on the Christmas spirit? (^_^)




Things to see and do : Japan Guide / Kusatsu Onsen Portal (JP) / Onsen-ism Kusatsu

Transportation : Within Striking Distance / Japan Guide / Kusatsu Onsen Portal (JP) / Onsen-ism Kusatsu

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