KUSATSU: A must-visit onsen town

Photos by Ichiro Katayanagi
Photos by Ichiro Katayanagi

KUSATSU: A must-visit onsen town

by Ichiro Katayanagi
Stripes Okinawa

Where are the best onsen hot springs in Japan? I believe it is Kusatsu Onsen. This is without a doubt one of the onsen areas many Japanese would like to visit once in their lives, and I was no exception.

Last fall, I made the 3-hour trek via train and bus to this hot spring mecca. At JR Ueno Station, I hopped on the Tokkyu Kusatsu, a limited express train, bound for the JR Naganohara-kusatsu-guchi Station. It was about 2.5-hour ride, then a 30-minute bus ride to the Kusatsu Bus Terminal. 

About Kusatsu Onsen Resort

Kusatsu Onsen, along with Gero Onsen in Gifu and Arima Onsen in Hyogo, is one of the three most renowned in Japan. At 32,300 liters of water flowing per minute, the onsen holds the title of the most water flow in the country. Bearing a strong smell of hydrogen sulfide, these waters are also the most acidic.

Kusatsu Town sits 1,200 meters above sea level and the weather makes it a great spot for soaking in the hot springs and skiing in the winter and hiking, cycling and golfing in the spring and summer. And, if you have tattoos, this area has various baths which are tattoo-friendly and do not require you covering them up.

Yubatake (Hot Spring Field)

About a 10-minute walk from the terminal took me to Yubatae, or onsen field, which is the symbol of the onsen resort. It was designated one of Japan’s national scenic spots in 2017. From here, you can walk to all of the major attractions in the area. As much as 4,400 liters of hot spring water well up from this field per minute. The field adjusts its temperature, which is suitable for bathing as it flows into wooden barrels and is distributed to local hotels and public baths. Try the foot baths around this area for a relaxing break.

Mannen-ya (Maitake Mushroom Restaurant)

Before hitting the onsen, I grabbed lunch at Mannen-ya, a restaurant specializing in maitake mushrooms. The “mai” in maitake means dance, and “take” means mushroom.  In ancient times, maitake was very precious, and people who found maitake were so excited that they danced for joy. The restaurant uses fresh maitake that is picked and delivered every morning from neighboring Kuni Village. It offers soba, or buckwheat noodles, udon, rice, stir-fry and tempura. I chose soba noodles because Kusatsu is famous for them. The dried bonito stock-based soup matched with the fresh maitake and it hit the spot. There are many soba restaurants in Kusatsu, but I assure you that this is the one you must try. I drool whenever I remember the taste of my delicious lunch.

Chouju-ten (Bun shop)

After lunch, I made my way to Saino-kawara, but not before a manjyu shop I passed caught my attention. Chouju-ten sells manjyu sweet buns with different fillings. Three cheerful, elderly staff members stood on the street aggressively offering fresh, piping-hot buns paired with a free cup of green tea. You can pick between sweet red bean paste, chestnut paste, and green bean paste. This is a great opportunity to have a little sweet dessert after lunch.

Saino-kawara park & outdoor bath

Saino-kawara Park is located only about 500 meters from Yubatake. Here, about 1,400 liters of hot water wells up and makes an onsen river. There are several free foot baths, giving tourists time for rest. A few minutes’ walk from the entrance took me to Saino-Kawara Outdoor Bath. According to my guidebook, the men’s section is large enough to accommodate around 100 people at a time. The women’s is a bit smaller, and still the combined dimension is about 500 square meters. Most onsen do not accept bathers with tattoos, but this one does! I felt as though I was bathing in luxury with the wonderful mountainous view this onsen provides.

Royal course

For my overnight stay, I booked the Kusatsu Onsen Hotel Village. This hotel is surrounded by lush forest and was a regular lodging choice for the former emperor and empress on state visits to the annual Kusatsu International Music Academy. The next morning, I joined a guided tour for the Royal Course offered by the hotel. This is a guided hike on a trail favored by the former emperor and empress. The guide was a wealth of information and this nature walk was invigorating. Hotel guests can participate in the guided tour, but the trail is open to the public.

Otaki-no-yu Onsen

I finished my trip to Kusatsu with one last bath at the Otaki-no-yu Onsen, a 10-minute-walk from the hotel. The onsen is famous for awase bath, which has a set of several baths with different temperatures. The baths in the men’s section ranged from 38 to 46 degrees Celsius. You start at the lowest temperature bath and then gradually move up, as it is believed to be a healthier way of taking a bath. It was a funny experience for me to move from a bath to another several times in a short minute.

After my relaxing and healthy bath, I left the onsen and hopped on the loop bus headed for the terminal for only 100 yen.

The onsen town has excellent baths and restaurants, and its symbol, Yubatake, is superb enough to have tourists to come back to see it again. The surrounding nature is also a plus as it will refresh and heal visitor’s hearts and minds. Make plans for your relaxing getaway to Kusatsu soon!

Katayanagi.Ichiro@stripes.com

Kusatsu Onsen Tourism Association
Address: 28 Kusatsu Town, Agatsuma County, Gunma Prefecture
Hours: 8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.
URL: https://www.kusatsu-onsen.ne.jp
Tel: 0279-88-0800

Mannen-ya (Maitake Mushroom Restaurant)
Address: 386-3 Oazakusatsu, Kusatsu Town, Agatsuma County, Gunma Prefecture
Hours: 11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m., 6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m.
URL: https://tabelog.com/gunma/A1004/A100402/10000991/
Tel: 0279-88-4649

Chouju-ten (bun shop)
Address: 495−1 Oazakusatsu, Kusatsu Town, Agatsuma County, Gunma Prefecture
Hours: 7:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m.
URL: http://www.chojuten.com
Tel: 0279-88-6661

Sai-no-kawara Onsen
Address: 521-3 Oazakusatsu, Kusatsu Town, Agatsuma County, Gunma Prefecture
Hours: Apr – Nov 7:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. / Dec – Mar 9:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. (entry closes at 7:30 p.m. all the year)
URL: http://sainokawara.com/en/
Tel: 0278-88-6167 

Otaki-no-yu Onsen
Address: 596-13 Oazakusatsu, Kusatsu Town, Agatsuma County, Gunma Prefecture
Hours: 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. (entry closes at 8 p.m.) 
URL: http://ohtakinoyu.com/en/
Tel: 0279-88-2600

Tattoo-friendly onsen
According to the Kusatsu Onsen Tourism Association, the following onsen baths allow patrons with tattoos. No tattoo coverings are required, nor are there any other rules regarding size or amount of tattoos. If you have any questions, please check with the onsen at the websites below.

Facilities with private onsen available

Kusatsu Onsen Hotel Village
Address: 618 Kusatsu, Kusatsu Town, Agatsuma County, Gunma Prefecture
URL: http://www.hotelvillage.co.jp/en/
Tel: 0279-88-3232

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