There's more to one of Japan's most famous onsen resorts than just soaking in hot springs
Last updated: December 21, 2020
Kusatsu Onsen is about three hours by express train and bus from Tokyo, offering relaxing hot springs, family-friendly skiing, and spectacular hiking. The town is centered around Yubatake, a sprawling system of wooden channels designed to direct the abundant natural hot spring water to nearby baths. Make the town your base for outdoor adventures, then finish the day with a relaxing soak in the mineral-rich waters.
Catch a yumomi performance at Netsunoyu, an elegant two-story bathhouse right in front of Yubatake. The water temperature is over 51 degrees Celsius and too hot for bathing, so since the Edo period (1603–1868), this technique was used to cool the water by stirring it with wide wooden paddles. This method, called yumomi, cools the water without diluting its mineral content. The method became a performance in 1960 when its rhythmic performance started to be accompanied by traditional folk songs. The yumomi performance is held six times a day (the last performance starts at 4:30 p.m.).
Before dinner, visit the free footbath facility next to Yubatake. For those who would like to soak their feet in the hot spring water while enjoying a drink, Yubatake Souan has a Footbath Cafe. There are so many ways to recharge in Kusatsu Onsen.
There are many accommodation options in the historic town center. For a traditional stay, try Naraya. This luxurious ryokan inn, dating back 140 years, combines traditional and modern design. A unique feature of the property is its "Yumori," somebody who controls the temperature of the hot spring water in the facility according to the day's weather.
The ryokan's meals incorporate local ingredients and exquisite presentation. Visit the cafe and bar after a day of exploring, and enjoy traditional sweets or a nightcap. After dinner, stroll to the magical sight of Yubatake, illuminated and wreathed in steam.
If you're looking for a home away from home, Kusatsu Onsen Gensen Ichinoyu is just right. There are a range of room types to choose from, some of which have a private onsen bath fed by the Yubatake spring. Cook meals in a mini-kitchen, or explore local restaurants. The hotel has a cozy bar with an open fire in winter.
After a hearty breakfast, stroll along Sainokawara Street towards Sainokawara Park, just a 10-minute walk from the town center. The street is lined with restaurants, craft ateliers, and sweet shops selling onsen manju, a sweet bun filled with bean paste. Try not to fill up on all the free samples on the way.
The park, set by a river, is marked by rising steam and the sound of trickling water. Explore its pools of hot spring water, some of which are warm enough to soak your feet in, with seating built around them. The walking trail through the forest behind the pools is well marked and exceptionally beautiful in fall. Unwind after a hike at Sainokawara Open-Air Bath, or come back later for an evening soak.
Chatsubomi Moss Park is a must-see from early summer to fall, just a short drive from Kusatsu Onsen. The acidic waters that bubble out of the rocks of this former iron ore deposit provide the perfect conditions for lush green moss to grow, and it is one of the few places in the world to see this type of moss. The area is known as an anajigoku or "hell hole," a hollow where acid springs bubble forth, but the view is quite heavenly. You can also enjoy a cup of the park's signature moss-colored gelato (the flavor is tea).
Around an hour's drive from the park is Yoshigadaira Wetlands, which looks straight out of a fairytale. High on the slopes of Mt. Kusatsu-Shirane, the soft green landscape is dotted with ponds and marshes, often blanketed in mist. The area's parking lot provides a sweeping view of the marshland area, and there are walking paths and boardwalks through the wetlands. It is an hour’s drive back to Kusatsu Onsen from here.
If you're in Kusatsu Onsen on a Friday, you can experience mixed-gender bathing at Sainokawara Open-Air Bath, Japan's largest outdoor onsen. The baths are open until 8 p.m., so you can relax in the healing waters while gazing at the stars. There are separate baths for men and women, but on Fridays, men's outdoor baths are open for mixed bathing. During this time, bathers can wear swimsuits or towels and enjoy the hot springs together.
Spend a relaxing day at Manza Onsen, one of the highest-altitude hot spring resorts in Japan. This onsen town is set near Mt. Kusatsu-Shirane, an active volcano. Many of the hotels and inns have open-air baths with sweeping views and, in winter, you can soak in a hot bath surrounded by snow. The area is less than an hour's drive from Kusatsu Onsen.
The popular Manza Onsen Ski Area above the hot spring town has panoramic views of Mt. Asama. In winter, the nine courses provide a mix of beginner, intermediate and advanced runs, and an ungroomed area. Manza Prince Hotel is a luxurious modern hotel at which to extend your snowy adventure.
One of the benefits of staying at a traditional Japanese inn is not having to decide where to eat. Local specialties are served in your room or in the dining room. After dinner, relax, take a bath, and try Gunma's famous sake. If your accommodation does not offer meals, take the opportunity to explore the local cuisine at a nearby restaurant. Sukiyaki is a signature dish, combining many local ingredients like beef, cabbage, and konnyaku.