With more than 100 hot springs producing 36,000 liters of hot water per minute, Kusatsu has the highest volume of naturally discharged hot water in Japan. Its Hot Water Field is almost a national onsen shrine. In fact, Kusatsu onsen has been chosen by the Japan’s top travel agents as the country’s number one hot spring for 10 consecutive years in the 100 Best Hot Springs in Japan. Here is my guide on how to enjoy both the indoor and outdoor onsen is this classic hot springs town.
Bathing evokes an almost religious fervor in Japan. Since it is very active geothermally, more than 28,000 onsen hot springs dot the length of the country, the styles varying from a water hole on the side of a river to complete onsen theme parks. While many hotel and ryokan hot springs deliver a five-star experience, municipal bath houses and foot baths offer everyone the opportunity to take the waters. Depending on their specific mineral content, hot springs are said to help anything from bruises, sprains, and haemorrhoids to skin inflammations, indigestion and respiratory problems. Although the science is inconclusive, at the very least, an onsen bath works a charm with chills and joint pain not to mention drawing away the cares of the day.
Yubatake Hot Water Field
On a sunny afternoon, I wander over to the Yubatake hot water field in the center of the mountain spa town of Kusatsu, 180 kilometers northwest of Tokyo. Here searing hot pools of sulphurous waters are channeled through rows of glass-topped wooden troughs that carry the precious spring water to each of the inns in town. Below the Yubatake, water splashes over dark emerald rocks into an aquamarine pool. Vacationers…many dressed in summer kimonos called yukata…bathe their feet and stroll around the site, some eating yakitori chicken on skewers, others sampling manju, sweet buckwheat buns filled with bean paste, chestnuts, or green peas. All have come to commune with the waters.
Adjacent to the Yubatake is the Netsu No Yu hot spring which gushes out of the ground at 54 degrees. I enter the wooden bathhouse to watch the ancient tradition of yumoni or water kneading. Eight women dressed in red yukata with black and white jackets take long wooden paddles and stir, bash and knead the water to cool it down naturally rather than diluting the minerals by adding cold water. The two-story auditorium is filled with Japanese visitors of all ages, many of whom sing the Kusatsu folk song along with the performers. Some are even offered the opportunity to try their hand at synchronized water bashing, which isn’t nearly as easy as it appears.
History of Kusatsu onsen
As far back as the 16th century, Kusatsu had become popular with samurai who came here to heal their wounds. The first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, arranged for his servants to bring Kusatsu water to his castle in Tokyo. With the restoration of the Meiji emperor in 1868, a German doctor by the name of Erwin Baelz became court physician and was one of the fathers of modern western medicine in Japan. He was convinced of the healing properties of Kusatsu hot springs and presented his findings in Europe, opening up Kusatsu to the West. Since then, they have developed a reputation as being the most health giving of Japanese onsen and are recommended as a cure for “every illness except love sickness”.
How to enjoy Kusatsu hot springs today
Today, visitors stay in ryokan inns and modern hotels to soak in the hot springs and enjoy the winter sports for which the town has been famous since it constructed Japan’s first ski lift in 1948. I choose a traditional ryokan called Naraya, run by the same family for five generations. Before dinner, I change into the blue yukata and yellow jacket that have been left in my spacious tatami-mat room and head for ryokan’s onsen (divided into male and female baths) on the lower level, which also features a parlor with stone shrine and amusing cartoons of bathers. According to Japanese etiquette, I sit on a small stool to suds myself up and use the shower head to wash away all the soap before soaking in the steamy baths. There is an indoor and an outdoor bath and two or three women move between the two, with tiny bath towels on their heads, the perfect place to keep them dry. Glowing from the bath and dressed again in my yukata, I head for a private room in the inn’s restaurant to savor a series of delicate kaiseki dishes that balance the taste, texture, appearance and colors of local seasonal food.
The next morning dawns a chilly moody grey. I walk through the narrow streets of town lined with shops, cafes and municipal baths. Trout are grilled on sticks over barbecues outside one cafe, another sells hot drinks made from quince. Shops specialize in rice crackers, wild mountain vegetables, manju buns that are steamed over the hot springs, and yu no hana or hot water flower, which is dried mineral sediment from the springs.
Sainokawara open-air onsen
Soon I reach the Sainokawara National Park where swirling mists mingle with the sulphuric steam rising from the Yukawa hot spring river that flows through the surreal volcanic landscape. One of the pools is named the Devil’s Kettle because its bubbling noise sounds like a boiling kettle, only the noise stops as soon as you approach, starting again when you leave. I discover a bust of Dr Baelz, not far from several stone Jizo statues, one of the most loved of all Japanese divinities and guardian of children, particularly those who have died before their parents. Each of the statues wears red bibs and, because it is so chilly here, caps to keep their heads warm. There are little stone pillars everywhere as the Jizo help save children from having to pile stones eternally on the bank of the mythical Sanzu River on the way to the afterlife. The landscape certainly looks like a crossroads between this life and the next.
My destination is the Sainokawara rotenburo or open-air onsen, one of the most beautiful in Japan. The mist has turned to sleet as I enter the women’s side of the cedar building to leave my clothes in a locker. A huge natural pool framed by volcanic rocks and surrounded by maple and larch trees welcomes me and I soak in the steaming waters as tiny snowflakes crystallize in my hair. A dozen women, young and middle-aged, single and in groups of two or three, soak in the baths, sit on the rocks, gaze across the misty waterscape. In a country that functions according to a strict behavioral code here, naked in the wilderness, there is space to be free.
There are so many onsen centers dotted all over Japan. Check out this Photo Friday blog post on the snow monkeys which have their very own hot springs.
I would love to hear about your favorite hot springs.
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