Kusatsu: Onsen in the Mountains

If we wished we’d stayed for a shorter time in Kanazawa, we wished we’d stayed longer in Kusatsu. Kusatsu is one of Japan’s most popular hot spring resorts, it sits 1200 meters above sea level in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture.

We stayed in the Kusatsu Hotel (Japanese link) during our two day, one night visit. It was the priciest hotel this trip; I wanted my wife to relax and have a great Japanese onsen experience as it was her first. And it was worth every penny; the hotel was exquisite, the interior was classically Japanese, the rooms were large and the service was impeccable.

I hadn’t called ahead to arrange for a pick-up, but the hotel already had someone waiting at the bus station for scheduled guests. It was a happy surprise; I’d thought we would be able to walk from the station to the hotel, but it turns out that Kusatsu’s roads are small and winding. Not that it couldn’t be done (we saw others doing it) but it wouldn’t have been pleasant with luggage.

Once we reached our room, we didn’t want to leave. It was the largest room we’d ever had in our visits to Japan, and we were overjoyed to finally have our own toilet again after days of sharing. After resting up, we went out to explore the little town.

The yubatake, or hot water field, is the heart of Kusatsu and one of the resort’s main sources of hot spring water. You can smell the sulfur before you see it, but it didn’t reek as bad as some hot springs we’d been to before. Inns and shops are clustered around the yubatake, which is a short walk down from the Kusatsu Hotel.

We decided to take a break inside this cafe near the yubatake. I had my doubts, but this quaint little cafe in the mountains of Japan served one tasty pizza.

For dessert, this unbaked cheesecake was to die for. Light and creamy, it was quite unlike any cake I’d had before. Kusatsu was turning out to be another example of “a boring place with character”, a place with few attractions which are surprising in their depth. If we’d stayed longer, I would have happily come back to this cafe again for another slow afternoon, basking in the wooden interior, enjoying the cake of the day with piping hot coffee, chatting with my wife.

As the day wound down, we visited Sainokawara Park, which is right behind the Kusatsu Hotel. Covered in snow, with mist rising in the evening light, the park was a white haven of peace when we visited. As the light fell, I felt a deep calm inside, and not for the first time, deep gratitude that I could experience such beauty together with my wife.

That feeling of calmness was soon replaced however, with one of unbearable fullness. The Kusatsu Hotel booking came with dinner, and it was huge. Coupled with the pizza and cheesecake we’d earlier, it nearly did us in — but it was so good we just had to finish it. Luckily for us, the Kusatsu serves dinner (and breakfast) in your room, so we could take our time eating (and lying down when I needed to).

The Kusatsu has private family bathing rooms which can be booked ahead of time. It was a great way for me to ease my wife into the Japanese onsen experience, as she isn’t used to communal bathing. The room was bigger than I’d expected, it’d probably have fit a family of five. We had the room for about 40 minutes, and then we wandered the hotel halls, enjoying its vintage Japanese decor.

The next morning, we visited the Kusatsu Tsurutaro Kataoka Art Museum, which is next to the Kusatsu Hotel. We fell in love with the artist’s whimsical paintings, with their vivid colours and strong sense of focus. This was the only time we went mad for souvenirs, buying postcards and prints of his work. What can we say, we’re complete art geeks.

We’d only seen a little of Kusatsu and were sorry to leave early. It’s a small town, but it’s a beautiful place to unwind and rest your bones.

There aren’t any trains running directly to the Kusatsu onsen resorts, you have to take a bus from the nearest station. You must be careful however, that station is not Kusatsu Station (in fact, there are three Kusatsu Stations in Japan), but Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi Station. See the ever useful Japan Guide for details.

Note: I benefitted from reading fellow travellers’ experiences as I was planning this visit, and these posts are my way of paying it forward. However, I’ve realised that reading about what to do in a foreign land isn’t complete without knowing the people writing about it.

My wife and I don’t enjoy hurried visits, we’re travellers who prefer to take our time getting to know a place. We’re not big on shopping, and prefer cultural to party places. We love standing in nature, and would give up a day in the mall for a day in the mountains. If you’re planning for your own visit while reading my recommendations, I hope you’ll keep these caveats in mind.

Originally published at 21dragons.com on April 7, 2013.

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