Let’s Go to Kusatsu in Gunma! A Remote Paradise of Hot Springs and Winter Adventure
Kusatsu Onsen is a picturesque hot spring town nestled within the mountainous northwest of Gunma Prefecture. Considered one of Japan’s leading hot spring areas, Kusatsu is most famous for its central “Yubatake” pool of geothermal water surrounded by bathhouses, traditional inns, and a historical temple. Throughout the town, over 32,300 liters of natural hot spring water well up every minute - the most in Japan! This is coupled with a profusion of local delicacies, exciting activities, as well as skiing and snowboarding during winter! Come along as we embark on a two-day midwinter tour of Kusatsu to uncover the full breadth of what this remote paradise has to offer.
Feb 28 2022
*This article was written in collaboration with Gunma Prefecture.
How I Planned My Trip to Kusatsu
While Kusatsu is renowned throughout Japan, its fame has yet to spread overseas. Being in such an isolated location with limited public transport, traveling to Kusatsu without any prior research can prove a challenge. To help us prepare for this foray into rural Japan, we checked out the official Visit Gunma website, which helped us plan through a wealth of useful English information and travel tips. This includes a showcase of tourist destinations with the “Gunma Excellence” certification - meaning the prefectural government has verified that they are suitable for international visitors with support like language assistance, free Wi-Fi, western-style toilets, and more. Plus, with information coming straight from Gunma Prefecture itself, you know it’s trustworthy.
The Visit Gunma Kusatsu page, for example, is chock full of information detailing local sights, activities, events, accommodations, and more, as well as recommendations on when to visit and how to get there. Their handy “Trip Planner” feature can be used to build a customized itinerary by browsing through locations, finding those you’re interested in, and clicking on the map icon on the lower right side of each image to add it to your plan. While it’s tempting to just wing it, doing the research and designing a proper itinerary in advance ensures that you will make the most of your trip without any regrets (even if you change it later).
Getting to Kusatsu
Despite being in an alpine region on the edge of Gunma Prefecture, getting to Kusatsu via train or bus is not overly difficult. One of the easiest routes is the expressway bus from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, which will take you directly to Kusatsu Onsen in just over 4 hours. Alternatively, you can board the JR Joetsu or JR Hokuriku bullet train from Tokyo Station to Takasaki Station, then transfer to the JR Agatsuma Line to Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi Station, and finally take a bus to Kusatsu Onsen.
However, for our trip, we rented a car and drove. If you have the means, renting a car is the most convenient and efficient way to sightsee within Kusatsu and surroundings. We picked up our rental car from the nearby Karuizawa Station and drove to Kusatsu, which took us roughly one hour. However, be aware that temperatures in Kusatsu go below freezing during winter and roads can get icy and snowy, so make sure your car is equipped with snow tires, a shovel, and that you understand how to drive on snow. You can rent a car from a large travel hub with a terminal station like Takasaki, Karuizawa, or Nagano first and then drive to Kusatsu.
Kusatsu itself also has a public bus route servicing the main local attractions for a flat fare of 100 yen per ride. A copy of the timetable can be picked up at many of the tourist destinations within Kusatsu or viewed online (Japanese only). However, once you get to the center of town, most of the prominent sights are walkable, so you probably won’t need to take the bus within Kusatsu too often.
Day One in Kusatsu: Freezing Temperatures, Thrilling Slopes, and Healing Hot Springs
Yubatake and Netsunoyu - An Intimate Encounter With the Waters of Kusatsu
After arriving at Karuizawa Station and picking up the rental car, day one of our journey in Kusatsu began with the iconic “Yubatake.” Literally translated as “hot water field,” it serves to naturally cool the hot geothermal water before it is pumped to the local inns and bathhouses.
Despite having traveled Japan extensively, we were blown away by such remarkable scenery and the elegant streetscapes surrounding it. It superbly captured the essence of “Taisho Roman,” a style recently popularized by anime like Demon Slayer where the rustic yet charming aesthetics of the Taisho period (1912-1926) are romanticized.
While you can’t enter Yubatake, there is a free footbath and sink to soak your feet and wash your hands in its nourishing warmth. There are also day-trip bathhouses nearby to further heal your body.
Complementing the bright daytime scenery is an after-dark illumination, which further transforms this spectacle into a mystical, dreamlike world. Incidentally, according to a study by researchers at Gunma University, the hot spring water of Kusatsu also has potent sterilization properties, which can help protect against viruses like COVID-19.
Despite the temperatures ranging between 50℃ - 90℃, the geothermal water of Kusatsu isn’t diluted to cool it down. Instead, the long slides of Yubatake serve to cool it to a tolerable temperature while the time-honored “yumomi” technique ensures it’s suitable to bathe in. Through these simple yet ingenious methods, the piping hot temperature is reduced without weakening the water’s intrinsic beautifying and healing benefits.
At the adjoining Netsunoyu bathhouse, we were able to witness one of the several daily yumomi performances. Here, local women in dazzling traditional outfits rocked, mixed, and splashed the hot water with wooden paddles while singing and dancing until it cooled. Exuding a delicate, graceful air, we were surprised at the intense, raw power they exhibited. Before COVID-19, visitors would also have the chance to try yumomi for themselves. However, this is currently held only on certain days which vary depending on the situation. Check the website for the latest schedule before you go.
Kosenji Temple: A Stunning Spiritual Complex Safeguarding the Bathers of Kusatsu
Perched at the top of a steep hill hovering over Kusatsu Onsen is the magnificent Kosenji Temple, which we headed to next after a quick dip in the footbaths. Just as we ascended the steep stone stairway and set our eyes upon the complex, the bleak winter skies parted way to grace the temple with an enchanting glow. The scene was a joy for me to photograph!
Kosenji Temple was established over 800 years ago and is a part of the Buzan-ha sect of Shingon Buddhism. The temple grounds house several fascinating structures, including the main temple gate midway up the stairs, a majestic temple bell, and an imposing statue of Kukai - the deeply revered founder of Shingon Buddhism. The temple also provides a fantastic vantage point for a panoramic view of the Kusatsu townscape, meaning Yubatake can be looked upon in all its glory.
Also on the temple grounds is Gautama Shrine, which was commissioned in 1703 to protect visitors to the baths of Kusatsu. Small and modest, we felt this outlying shrine and its rustic thatched roof showcased the true age of the complex more than Kosenji Temple itself. It is said to grant the wishes of late bloomers who feel their best hasn’t yet arrived, making it popular with worshippers about to embark on a new journey in life. While we were here, I tested my fortune with an “omikuji” fortune-telling slip. “Moderate luck,” it read.
Honke Chichiya - A Quick Break With a Traditional Japanese Hot Spring Manju
Feeling a tad tired, I decided to re-energize with an “onsen manju” at Honke Chichiya, a traditional Japanese sweets store with three outlets in Kusatsu. We knew from previous travels in Japan that manju, a flour-based pastry often filled with sweet anko bean paste, are the go-to snack for hot spring vacations.
Honke Chichiya has two main kinds of onsen manju - a standard brown manju filled with coarse anko bean paste, and a special white manju with chestnut paste cased in smooth anko. The latter is a one-of-a-kind Honke Chichiya specialty, so we opted for that instead of the regular. It was smooth and sweet, and the chestnuts kicked in a delightful nutty flavor. And since they're bite-sized, we were able to continue our strolls throughout the townscape while eating! You can purchase onsen manju at Honke Chichiya individually or as a box set to bring home and share. Just keep in mind that manju don’t last long, especially when unwrapped, so best to eat them within the next few days.
Lunch: Donguri - A Venerable Hub of Western Cuisine
With our appetites whet, it was high time for a proper lunch. As our accommodation would be providing a traditional Japanese meal in the evening, we decided to change things up with a visit to Donguri, a restaurant serving up local takes on western-inspired cuisine.
While the menu at Donguri is extensive - including curries, seafood, pasta, and more - we went with the restaurant's signature dish, the “Donguri Hamburg.” Lovingly prepared by the chef-owner himself, who has run Donguri for 40 years, this hamburg steak is an original recipe made from cheese-covered pork smothered in a topping of bacon, mushroom, capsicum, onion, and more. All this is soaked in a specially made demi-glace sauce with a side of broccoli, carrots, and potatoes. With each mouthful, we were treated to an eruption of hearty, wholesome flavor that reminds one of home-cooked goodness.
Keep in mind that Donguri is only open for lunch and there is no English menu. So if you want what we had, ask for the “Donguri Hamburg.”
Kusatsu Onsen Ski Resort: Thrilling Slopes for All Levels
Kusatsu is one of the coldest places in Japan and a haven for winter sports. During our time there, it was even colder and snowier than usual, so we struggled to drag ourselves away from the steamy hot springs and onto the slopes of Kusatsu Onsen Ski Resort.
However, once we witnessed the fantastic facilities, activities, and range of slopes on offer, we quickly changed our minds. Kusatsu Onsen Ski Resort is a mid-sized, comprehensive skiing and snowboarding center boasting 5 slopes with 8 lifts. There are both easy and fun beginner and family courses - which is what we went with - in addition to intermediate and advanced courses for the more experienced. Best of all: with full rental gear available including clothes and skis, we were able to turn up completely empty-handed.
Before skiing, however, I decided to first test my courage on the Ban Zip TENGU ziplining ride. This heart-pounding midair dash sees thrill-seekers reach speeds of up to 70 km/h as they race down the slopes on a zipline for half a kilometer. Needless to say, I was terrified. However, after being securely strapped into a sturdy harness, I felt totally safe and ready to launch! Once pushed off the deck, it felt strangely liberating to glide over the skiers, snowboarders, and trees as I reached the bottom in mere seconds.
Now thoroughly warmed up, we donned some skis and started on the “family slope.” Being amateurs, we didn’t want to risk the steeper slopes without a little more practice. Thankfully, the skiing grounds are open and spacious, with plenty of room for kids, beginners, and professionals alike to enjoy freely without getting in each other’s way.
Sainokawara Open-Air Bath: Outdoor Hot Springs Surrounded by Nature
With the excitement of skiing wearing off, it didn’t take long for the -8°C chill to penetrate our ski wear. During times like these, there’s only one place to go - hot springs! Thankfully, the Sainokawara Open-Air Bath was just a 15-minute walk from Kusatsu Onsen Ski Resort, making it the ideal destination for us to rest and warm up.
Following an enchanting snow-covered path, the hot springs appeared before us like an oasis promising an escape from the unbearable cold. These baths are famous for being some of the largest in Japan, and they are enclosed by lush, untouched forest demonstrating the beauty of the winter season.
While they can be enjoyed all year round, bathing outdoors amongst deep snow and freezing air is a surreal, must-try experience. The water used at Sainokawara comes from the Bandai Gensen hot spring source, which is the closest body of water to Kusatsu’s underground magma and therefore one of the warmest hot springs in the area. After hopping out, I felt heated to the core and was confident I could spend the rest of the day in a t-shirt - for about 10 seconds before the cold hit me again.
Kusatsu Onsen Boun: Spending the Night at an Ancient Traditional Inn
The accommodation we chose for the night was also equipped with its own hot springs, along with toasty rooms, open fireplaces, and plenty of hot food. We stayed at Kusatsu Onsen Boun, a traditional Japanese “ryokan” inn - conveniently located just 5 minutes on foot from Yubatake. Established in 1559, it’s one of the most well-respected inns in Kusatsu and has been frequented by numerous Japanese celebrities since its founding.
Resisting the urge to make a beeline for the baths, it was once again time to fill our stomachs after a day of action-packed adventure. As expected, the dinner was full of lavish, intricate dishes cooked and crafted with painstaking love and attention. Being in the style of Japanese “kaiseki ryori” cuisine, each portion was small and beautifully arranged on its own individual plate. While you’re free to dig in as you like, the accompanying menu carefully explains the order for each dish. Of course, even for someone who has studied Japanese like myself, the language is pretty difficult, so feel free to ask the staff or do some quick research online.
With each serving being just as remarkable as the last, describing the dinner in detail would warrant an article in its own right. Instead, I’ll let you know my personal highlight - the sashimi platter of fresh flounder, kuruma prawn, horse mackerel, and “ginhikari,” a rare type of rainbow trout living in the mountain streams of Gunma. Only served within the borders of Gunma, I felt truely honered to be presented with such a rare delicacy! Each morsel of fish had a soft, tender texture, exuding the kind of heavenly zest only seen in fresh sashimi of the highest quality.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Japanese cuisine without something new and unusual. For me, this was “shirako,” the seminal fluid of fish (also known as milt - left in the picture above). It had a soft, creamy texture, almost like a thicker, less watery mayonnaise, with a mild, savory taste highlighted by the vinegary ponzu sauce. While it may be tough for some, I’d definitely recommend giving it a go!
The main course was sukiyaki with beef, mushrooms, and vegetables simmered in a flame-heated iron pot right before our eyes. While I’d had my fair share of sukiyaki in the past, this time I wanted to try it the authentic Japanese way, which meant pouring raw egg into a bowl and dipping in the ingredients before eating. While a little strange at first, I felt the raw egg providing a hint of additional umami - drawing out the intrinsic flavors of each ingredient.
We paired our meals with a bottle of pure rice ginjo sake from Gunma’s own Nagai Sake Brewery. Being freshly pressed and undiluted with water, it boasted an invigorating crispness and distinctive sweetness similar to the Japanese soft drink “ramune.” We also enjoyed two bottles of Gunma’s popular “Kawaba” beer, which had a firm, malty character complementing the flavor of our dishes.
The selection of three hot springs at Kusatsu Onsen Boun were also incredible. Drawn from two different local sources, each is housed in rustic, old-fashioned wooden architecture which radiated a gentle, serene atmosphere. Best of all, the hot springs are open almost 24 hours, with only a short cleaning break during the early morning when the men’s and women’s baths are alternated.
The rooms were equally spacious and warm, and virtually every corner of the inn was colored with gorgeous Japanese flair like samurai armor, seasonal flowers, and adorable “kokeshi” dolls, which are famous in Gunma.
Day 2 in Kusatsu: Local Treats, More Onsen, and Jaw-Dropping Views
Otakinoyu: Indulging Ourselves With a Final Dip in Kusatsu’s Hot Springs
We kicked off the day with a visit to another of Kusatsu’s most distinguished hot springs: Otakinoyu. With the temperature still in the negatives and the streets smothered under a layer of fresh snow, we felt it best to first warm ourselves up to start off on the right foot!
Otakinoyu is another of Kusatsu’s main public baths with free-flowing, mineral-rich geothermal water from the Nikawa Springs. The most famous bath here is the “awaseyu,” which also utilizes the Yubatake technique of having hot water flow down several tubs to cool it naturally.
Unlike Yubatake, we were actually able to hop in this water to soak in its rich warmth. However, immediately entering the first bath closest to the source would be unbearable, so we followed the guide and started from the coolest tub, working our way to the hottest. Otakinoyu also houses a sauna, an open-air hot spring, massage center, cafe, break room, and eatery if you want to extend your time here. If you’re squeamish about bathing in public, a private reservable bath is also available to enjoy alone or with family.
There’s also a tap outside with free-flowing thermal water to wash and warm up your hands.
Kusatsu Undojaya Park Roadside Station: Stock Up on Local Goodies
Rather than keeping the bounties of Kusatsu a secret, I wanted to bring home some local specialities to share the joy of Gunma with friends and family. For this, we stopped at Kusatsu Undojaya Park Roadside Station, which stocks a wide-range of local foods, snacks, handicrafts, and more - all within charming German-style buildings.
Whilst resisting the urge to snap up as many of these goodies as possible, I eventually settled on a set of Kusatsu smoked eggs, which were flavored with salt, kombu, and soy sauce before being smoked with mountain cherry tree and oak wood chips. They yielded a rich, deep taste perfect for a bowl of ramen or as a side to sake. Being smoked, they will last up to two months if unopened.
I also picked up a packet of prawn crackers seasoned with Gunma’s own Shimonita Negi, a local variety of thick green onion that apparently melts in the mouth when cooked. Paired with the satisfying crunch of thin prawn crackers, each bite filled my mouth with a rich, satisfying umami that lingered for hours.
Nakaiya: A Hearty Lunch With a Historical Twist
We settled on soba for our final meal in Gunma - another of the region’s most acclaimed dishes. While there were plenty of eateries to choose from, we were most intrigued by Nakaiya, an eminent local restaurant serving fresh soba noodles made from scratch in a special on-site kitchen. They are also known for their hefty lineup of native mountain vegetables, which are mostly deep fried and served as crunchy tempura.
Nakaiya also has a historical undertone that similarly intrigued us. Its name, Nakaiya, comes from the legendary Nakaiya Jubee, a forerunner in trade at Yokohama and founder of the once-prosperous Gunma textile industry. He was born in the area in 1820 and remains as its greatest claim to fame. At the back of the restaurant is a small museum crammed with related historical materials and relics detailing his riveting life. While there’s little English, history buffs will surely be intrigued nonetheless.
We ordered pork soba and the tempura set, two of Nakaiya’s big-name dishes. The soba noodles were firm and bouncy - an entirely different experience from those you buy at the supermarket. Further flavored by juicy pork pieces, spring onion, and vegetables - all enhanced by a topping of zesty yuzu citrus - this voluminous bowl delivered an explosive helping of savory, wholesome goodness.
The tempura was also on another level, offering an alluring mix of staple ingredients like pumpkin, prawn, maitake mushrooms, and sweet potato embellished by some more unusual additions like mitsuba leaf, chrysanthemum, ginkgo nut, chikuwa fish cake, water celery, and lotus root. However, the cream of the crop was the fiery red autumn maple leaf, which - yes - you can eat! Each piece carried its own unique flavor which burst through the casing of thin, crunchy batter.
Mt. Asama Magma Stone Park: Stepping Into a Surreal, Alien World
Our final stop in Gunma was Mt. Asama Magma Stone Park - and we truly saved the best for last! This uncanny, dream-like landscape set against the backdrop of the active volcano of Mount Asama felt totally disconnected from the rest of the nearby scenery. Despite the eerie stillness, the concentrated scattering of rugged rocks born from cooled molten lava pulsated with an electrifying presence, embodying the power hidden beneath the earth.
The scenery of Mt. Asama Magma Stone Park is perfectly captured by its Japanese name, which means “the demon who threw.” This refers to a legend about a demon who went mad and threw out rocks from inside Mount Asama causing the deadly eruption roughly 235 years ago. From the entrance, we ascended the icy path to the opulent temple perched atop the hill. As you can see, the dynamic landscape renders beautifully on film, making it a must-visit for photographers seeking fresh, exciting material within Japan.
Get Ready for Warmth, Adventure, and Good Food in Kusatsu
From soaks in secluded hot springs to exhilarating winter sports and divine dishes, our multifaceted trip in Kusatsu perfectly captured the diversity of the region itself. Despite the biting cold, the winter weather made our appreciation for the hot springs and nourishing cuisine of Kusatsu all the greater, reinforcing that winter is a fantastic time to visit. While getting to Kusatsu is a little difficult, we promise it’s well worth going out of your way for! Plus - once you actually arrive, a surprising amount of the attractions are concentrated around the central Yubatake, making exploring the town on foot a breeze. If you’re yearning to let your adventurous side loose without straying too far from Tokyo, then I definitely recommend Kusatsu in Gunma!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.