Kusatsu Onsen is the most popular hot spring resort in all of Japan. Moreover, it has been sticking around as the #1 hot spring destination for 15 years now – something that not many other places in Japan can take pride in. Kusatsu Onsen is located in Gunma prefecture and is famous for its extremely hot water, which is rich in sulfur and is said to cure all illnesses except lovesickness. The fact that Kusatsu water is hotter than your average hot spring gave birth to a few traditional bathing styles and water cooling techniques, which you can also experience if you visit the resort. Lastly, Kusatsu is a great place to take a breather from the bustling atmosphere of Tokyo, as it is only 200 km away, and can be easily reached by bus or train. Without further ado, let’s see how you can enjoy Kusatsu onsen!
1. How to reach Kusatsu Onsen?
There are two convenient options to reach Kusatsu Onsen. The first one, which is the fastest and easiest option, is the highway bus, which leaves several times per day from the Shinjuku Station Bus Terminal, and costs ¥3300. The ride takes approximately four hours, but it’s the best option for getting from point A to point B without any complicated transfers. However, if you have a JR Rail Pass, JR Tokyo Wide Pass, JR East Nagano Niigata Area Pass, JR East Tohoku Area Pass, or JR East South Hokkaido Pass, the train would be your best bet, as most trains from Tokyo to Kusatsu are covered by these passes. The fastest option is the limited express you can take from Ueno station, and get off at Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi (around ¥5000 without the pass). From there, there are buses to the Kusatsu city center, which cost ¥690, and are not covered by the rail passes.
2. Where to stay in Kusatsu?
Kusatsu boasts a whole lot of accommodation options. From $20 hostels to high-end ryokan with their own public baths, you can stay pretty much anywhere. As it is an onsen resort, Kusatsu has places to stay at virtually every corner – so you can just pop into a place and get a room once you’ve arrived. However, if you’re not that adventurous, here are a couple of recommendations for all budget ranges:
Kusatsu Kotodama is a great hostel for people on a tight budget. Available on Booking.com and located close to the city center, the hostel only charges around $25 per night. However, you might need to bring your own towels and bath amenities, as those are available for an extra fee.
Kusatsu Onsen Eidaya is a traditional Japanese ryokan which has its own baths for its guests, so you can soak into the famous Kusatsu water without going to an actual public bath (which is an interesting experience, but it can get really crowded.) The ryokan also offers in-room breakfast and dinner options for an extra cost, as well as all the commodities you might need for your stay. Rooms start at roughly $155.
Ekinariya Ryokan is an amazing stay – the rooms are spacious, elegant, and rather huge for a Japanese ryokan, the food is top-notch (in-room dinner and breakfast are included in the room price), and they have several public baths for guests to choose from and enjoy. Ekinariya Ryokan is truly a high-end experience, but the prices are also pretty high. Double rooms go for around $500, but you can share them with a friend and split the price for a better deal.
3. What to see in Kusatsu?
Kusatsu is some than just a town full of bathhouses – there’s actually much more you can do during your stay.
The Yumomi performances are a must. Yumomi is the traditional ceremony of cooling the hot spring water to bring to the perfect temperature for the city’s public baths – something performed with singing and dancing, and in traditional costumes. There are several yumomi performances per day, and a ticket costs around ¥600.
Another must-see site in Kusatsu is the yubatake, which is a huge wooden slide that allows the steaming hot water to cool down as it flows down into a pool, from which it is distributed to the town’s public baths. The yubatake and hot water pools around is are particularly beautiful in the night time, as the illumination makes the steam look almost surreal.
Sainokawara park is another great destination, particular grace to the bubbling pools of hot water that create steam and give the whole place a surreal atmosphere.
Kosenji temple is another very beautiful place for people who don’t want to wander too far out of the city.
Hikers will know that nearly volcano Mt Shirane is a great spot for hiking, with numerous lovely views. However, as it has erupted in 2018, hiking tracks have been temporarily closed, and people are advised to wear safety gear when approaching the area (mostly due to falling rocks.)
4. Where to bath in Kusatsu?
There are several kinds of bathing you can experience in Kusatsu. Footbaths are usually free and widely available throughout the city. There are ones near the most famous attractions like the yubatake as well, so make sure you try it out.
Next, you might want to try regular onsen bathing – and you can do that in one of the town’s many free or paid public baths. Entrance fees are usually between nothing and ¥800, but some places do charge for towel rent and other amenities. Alternatively, if you stay in a ryokan with its own bath, you can enjoy the regular onsen experience there.
Lastly, if you’re feeling adventurous, try the jikan–yu style of bathing. There are only a couple bathhouses offering it, including Shirohatanoyu, and it implies having extremely hot (70 degrees Celsius) water poured over your head and sitting in it for no more than three minutes.
5. What to eat in Kusatsu?
Kusatsu boasts a wide variety of restaurants and cuisines. From traditional Japanese to Chinese and Italian, and from bakeries to late-night izakayas, you have a bit of everything to choose from. However, some local specialties you must try include the onsen egg (a soft boiled egg cooked slowly in the onsen water, served in a cup), onsen manju, which are hot steamed buns with different fillings, and soba, which is a particularly popular ‘onsen food’. The onsen manju are also popular souvenirs, and you can take some home with you from any souvenir store in town.
Kusatsu Onsen offers a splendid experience for people who are looking for a bit of a breather from the big city life. It is the perfect destination for a weekend getaway, as there are just enough things to keep you busy for two full days.
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