Best of Kusatsu Onsen

Discovering the best parts of Japan's famous hot spring town
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For my summer getaway this year, I did almost the unthinkable of visiting Japan in July! Unthinkable because it’s the summer season then, and all I could say was my furry paws and body was just sweating profusely in the hot humid weather years ago when I went to my favourite country during the hot summer months. Nevertheless, GS my travel buddy convinced Y and I that we could escape to the nearby highlands like Karuizawa which had a cooler climate during summer. We’ve always wanted to visit this area, and I figured it must be a sign when I was watching the latest season of Terrace House on Netflix, also set in Karuizawa (Yes, guys, watch this series, it can get terribly addictive) ! One of the day trips shown in the series was when Tsubasa and Shion goes to Kusatsu Onsen, a 42km drive away, and that gave me an idea to also visit this place while in Karuizawa.

View of Kusatsu Yubatake – a key landmark for photo taking

Kusatsu Onsen, part of the Gunma Prefecture, is worth a visit for any onsen lover like me, as it’s considered one of the top onsens in the whole of Japan. It has probably the largest natural flow of hot spring water in the entire country, much of it surfaces in the hot water field in the town center also known as Yubatake. The waters here is highly acidic with a surprisingly bearable sulphur odour (I can’t take some of the sulphur hot springs like the ones in Taiwan which smells too much of urine). The temperature of the water here can go up to more than 70 degrees Celsius, but the hot spring water is cooled down in the yubatake’s wooden conduits by a few degrees before it gets distributed to the various ryokan and public baths. What’s interesting is they use a really interesting method of cooling down the water to a more reasonable bathing method – called Yumomi, which includes dancing and singing. Performances are held daily and can be viewed at Netsunoyu. To be honest, this 20 minutes show can seem slightly touristy, and as everything is in Japanese, foreigners won’t understand a thing they are saying, but they are all pretty jovial and even get visitors to participate in the process, if you are game for it. We all shied away from it and just observed.

1. Yubatake – Japan, 〒377-1711 Gunma Prefecture, Agatsuma District, Kusatsu, 草津町Kusatsu, 28 . Tel: 0279 88 0800

2. Yumomi Performance at Netsunoyu – located directly next to the Yubatake. Tel: 0279-88-3613. Show times in afternoon: 15:30, 16:00, 16:30. 600 yen per adult.

My tourist shot at Yubatake!

Cute host introducing to us Yumomi.

Getting the audience to particpate in Yumomi.

What I noticed while walking around, is this place doesn’t have so many foreign tourists and has more local Japanese tourists, which is a nice change. The main concentration of shops and key restaurants are also within walking distance from Yubatake, making it easy for us to explore on foot some casual places for lunch and coffee for the afternoon before going to our ryokan to rest for the night.

Kusatsu is well-known for their soba, and one of the most famous soba shops with the longest queues is Mikuni Soba (386 Kusatsu, Kusatsu-machi, Agatsuma-gun, Gunma-ken 377-1711, Tel:+81 279-88-2134, www.mikunisoba.com) which unfortunately still had throngs of people waiting in 35°C hot sticky weather. We ended up grabbing soba from further up the street at Soba Hanashigara そば処わへい (486-2 Kusatsu, Kusatsu-machi, Agatsuma-gun, Gunma-ken 377-1711, Tel: +81 279-89-1233). Lucky we went in time, as they sold the last two bowls of soba noodles to us, decent meal though I won’t say it’s the best I’ve had, but it was definitely the smartest choice given the sweltering heat!

Soba in comfort at Soba Hanashigara.

Checking out some shops in Kusatsu town.

As mentioned, be sure to walk around and check out the shops near Mikuni Soba. You would see shops selling Onsen Manju – which is soft buns with red bean paste. Another signature product are the Japanese crackers if you like those, but I guess I am not a real snacky person, give me cake and ice cream over crackers anytime. There was even a sesame specialty store selling everything from Sesame soba noodles to salad and shabu shabu sesame dressings, which I love! If you feel too tired from the walking, you can always walk back to Yubatake and enjoy a foot onsen but we preferred to hide out in a cafe instead.

Our quick cafe stop for the day was at the ground floor tea cafe of 草津温泉 奈良屋 Naraya Ryokan (396番地 Kusatsu, Agatsuma District, Gunma Prefecture 377-1711, Japan, Tel: +81 279-88-2311). The environment was really relaxing and the coffees here are served in drip style. I had an interesting combination of umeshu (plum liquor) with iced coffee, which surprisingly went well together and was so needed. I met Yumomi-Chan, the official mascot toy of Kusatsu Onsen, who had some stories to tell me about their hot spring town.

Footbath at Yubatake.

Sesame specialty shop in town area.

With Yumomi-Chan, enjoying my coffee.

The coffee barista at Naraya Ryokan. 

Kusatsu Onsen is possible as a day trip from Karuizawa, but we decided to stay a night here and head back to Karuizawa the next day. We stayed at Tsutsujitei Ryokan つつじ亭 (639−1 Kusatsu, Kusatsu-machi, Agatsuma-gun, Gunma-ken 377-1711, Tel: +81 279-88-9321, Website for booking). Since it was only for a night, we decided to indulge and book the priciest room and also largest room to pamper ourselves, which cost 48,750 yen per person for an night, inclusive of breakfast and dinner.

Enjoying some tea in the reception area upon arrival.

Chilling out in my room.

My favourite part of the room, the dining area.

Overall, if I had to review the room only, no complaints. It was done up in a traditional Japanese style, and was pretty spacious, and comfortable, with double sinks in the bathroom. We had 2 tatami mat rooms – so we decided to use one to place our luggage, and one other one to sleep in. And we also had a separate dining area, slightly more modernised, for our meals which was perfect. The private bath (onsen) is linked to the shower area, and what I liked about it was it had windows we could open to enjoy the garden view at the back and also get some air in. We checked out the public onsen area, but we were happy with our own private onsen so didn’t really venture out beyond the room. My other favourite part of the ryokan is the lounge area for guests to chill out, with complimentary tea served. It’s pretty cosy and decorated with some interesting glass lamps done by local artisans, and a central fireplace, which I can imagine will be so cosy in winter. Us gals hung out there for a bit after dinner before heading back to sleep.

Taking a dip immediately after checking in!

Our room’s private hot spring!

Admiring the lights in the lounge area.

Enjoying some tea in the lounge.

With GS checking out the ryokan.

The interesting lounge area.

For the food aspect, I was unfortunately not as wowed. I can’t say it’s bad, but there was nothing memorable, or distinctive that seemed to highlight the local area’s produce. Usually with every ryokan I have been to, there’s always been at least one to two signature dishes, but in this case there wasn’t really any. So yes, perhaps I was a bit disappointed with the food aspect. Nevertheless, at least the room was comfortable, and we had a good rest here before bidding farewell to the staff and making our way next to Karuizawa.

Breakfast before we head off!

Some of the dishes I had at dinner, with the last picture being my breakfast.

Our last pic in the gardens of Tsutsujitei.

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