Known for its large volume of high-quality flowing spring water, Kusatsu Onsen, located about 200 kilometers northwest of Tokyo, is one of Japan’s most famous hot springs. Locals have claimed that these famous hot springs can heal any illness or ailment, with the only exclusion being a broken heart.
History and Background
Kusatsu Onsen has been a popular destination in Japan for hundreds of years, but its notoriety skyrocketed when Erwin von Balelz, a German doctor of the imperial court, endorsed these springs for their healing powers.
The source of these springs is located in Mt. Shirane, an active volcano, which continuously provides the town and their guests with antibacterial, unadulterated waters. Due to the spring’s high acid content, wooden channels made of Japanese Cyprus are used to carry the hot spring waters to the pools. Japanese Cyprus can not only withstand the acidity but also helps to create the rustic and traditional atmosphere throughout Kusatsu.
As mentioned above, these hot springs are highly acidic, with the main minerals in the water being sulfur, aluminum sulfate, and chloride. The mixture of high acidity and minerals creates the spring’s antibacterial properties which can kill almost all bacteria, fungi, and microorganisms. Due to this characteristic, Kusatsu Onsen is said to have excellent therapeutic effects.
The Hot Springs
There are two different, and equally relaxing, styles of hot springs in Kusatsu; Jikan-yu bathing and Yumomi Bathing.
For anyone who wishes to experience Jikan-yu bathing, visitors are required to pay respects by praying to a small shrine before entering. As a sign of respect to the shrine and gods, bathers are asked to pray so that their bodies will be receptive and accepting of any treatment received.
When the spring water initially flows into the baths or pools, it is often too hot for people to bathe in, being that it averages around 65 ° C or 145 ° F. In order for guests to bathe in these waters, the traditional Japanese method called yumomi is used. Yumomi, a highly honored and respected process by the Kusatsu people, is a technique for cooling the spring’s hot water to a suitable temperature.
Below is a basic breakdown of yumomi:
- Long planks stir the bathhouse to cool it down to a usable temperature of 48 ° C or 118 ° F. This stirring process is called yumomi.
- Even at 48 C, one would think that the water would be too hot to bathe; however, due to the acidity of the water (hydrogen sulfide) and the high quality of the water, it is possible.
- As the hot and cold waters homogenize, it mixes with the sun’s rays and air, causing salt crystals to form. This process is called yunohana and forms the spring’s natural salt baths.
- The yunohana present throughout the bath encompasses your skin in tiny salt particles, which softens your skin as it creates a protective barrier that helps the water feel cooler on your skin.
While performing yumomi helps to make the bathing experience more enjoyable, the act of yumomi is important in itself. Yumomi is seen as a rigorous practice that prepares your body physically, through exercise, as well as internally, from the steam inhaled during stirring. It is this unique cooling element of yumomi bathing that makes these hot springs so special.
How To Stay Cool While Getting Hot
Soaking in hot springs can be a shock to your body. Kusatsu Onsen promotes the kaburiyu method of pouring water over your head repeatedly to help keep your body regulated.
When a bather enters the hot spring water, the rush of heat can cause guests to feel dizzy. Kaburiyu is a practice in which a bather wears a towel on their head and repeatedly pours water down the back of their head and neck.
The cerebellum, which regulates body temperature, is located in the back of the brain. When cool water makes contact with the skin in this area, blood vessels in the brain dilate. At the same time, the rest of the body’s blood vessels also open wider, preventing the body from feeling faint and, or anemic.
Additionally, kaburiyu can encourage pores to open up which can aid in the healing effects of the hot spring waters.
Timed Bathing (Three minutes)
Through research, it has been determined that three minutes in the Kusatsu Onsen hot springs is the safest and most effective time for soaking. While the waters may feel soothing to your body, the high temperature of the springs can become detrimental to your health if you soak for too long. For this reason, the on-site bath leader will give out orders to the bathers which should be respected and adhered to for precautionary measures.
Steamed Towel (Optional Post-Bath Treatment)
If you are looking for the full effects from the hot springs, consider the optional steamed towel treatment immediately after you bathe. A preferred method of the Kusatsu Onsen locals, the steamed towel causes your body to profusely sweat, thus ridding all impurities and elevating the healing effects of the hot springs. Although this treatment does have an additional small fee, the experience is one not to be forgotten during your stay.
Note: As most of us know, being in such heat can deplete our body of water, which is essential for cooling off and functioning properly. Make sure that you drink plenty of water and fluids before and after you bathe. While you may want to cool off with a cold drink, it is advised to drink a warm beverage, such as tea, so that your body can adjust.
Kusatsu Onsen Etiquette
When traveling, it is important to respect the culture, traditions, and customs of the locals, being that you are a guest in their country. It is asked that you follow proper hot springs etiquette and respect the residents:
- Hours: You may only use the bathhouses during designated public use hours. Other times are for locals only.
- Cleaning: You must not bathe when the hot springs are being cleaned.
- Share: Since you are a guest, and bathhouses are used daily by locals, make sure you share the space and let everyone have their turn.
- Respect Jikan-yu: Follow the orders of the bathhouse leaders. Three-minutes in the waters is the safest and most beneficial for healing. Listen and comply when your time is up.
- Don’t Eat Before Soaking: Trust me, your stomach will thank you.
- Pre-Soak Etiquette: Remove all clothes, and wash vigorously with soap. Make sure to rinse several times before entering the springs. Although the water is antibacterial, this step is required for sanitary purposes.
- How to Enter the Springs: When you enter the hot spring, go feet first, and be as quiet as possible.
- When Your Done: Return your wash bucket and stool when finished and dry off completely.
Notable Hot Springs at Kusatsu Onsen
While you are visiting Kusatsu, you are invited to visit the public bathhouses during the designated times. While there are 19 different bathhouses for locals, three of them are open for visitors to use:
As far as private hot springs go, here is a list of amazing springs that allow visitors for a fee:
- Therme Therme (spa facility with various baths and an indoor pool)
Yubatake, meaning “hot water field”, is regarded as the symbol of Kusatsu. Rushing out 4000 liters per minute, the steaming pool with cascading waterfalls is the center point for the town. Surrounded by shops and restaurants, Yubatake is the source of water for hot springs at resorts and inns nearby. Take a stroll on the walkways at night for an exceptional view filled with steam and lights.
Netsu-no-yu Bathhouse is a popular site to see locals perform yumomi. It is an excellent cultural experience where “performers” wear traditional outfits, sing songs, and even give visitors a chance to try stirring the waters themselves.
Once thought to be home to Japanese ogre, Sainokaware Park attracts visitors from all over the world. There is an outdoor hot spring with separated baths for each gender to enjoy privately. On Fridays, mixed gendered bathing is allowed for families or couples to enjoy together, and bathing suits are allowed at that time.
Other Things to Do in Kusatsu Onsen
Although Kusatsu Onsen is known for its springs, the surrounding area has a plethora of shopping, activities, and sites to visit during your stay.
Like any vacation, it’s almost impossible to visit somewhere magical and leave empty-handed! Take advantage of the Kusatsu’s natural resources by purchasing Yunohana Bath Salts. Created in limited quantities yearly, it can be found at souvenir shows as well as at local inns.
For those looking for a sugary treat, travel to Sai-no-Kawara Street to find your fill of candies and desserts. If you have a sweet tooth, try the onsen manju sweet cakes. Each recipe is unique to the chef and consists of different flavors, such as sweet bean filling made from the uguisu pea. Feel free to walk into several of the local sweet shops and try a sample.
Kusatsu Ski Resort
If you love skiing or snowboarding, Kusatsu Ski Resort is perfect for you. Spend a day in the snow, working those muscles, and then soak your wearing bones in the evening at one of the healing hot springs.
Whether you are in Kusatsu for skiing or for a quick spa escape, the central focus of your experience should be the hot springs. The rich and unique tradition of the onsen deserves to be enjoyed! So, relax, respect, and enjoy all that Kusatsu has to offer.
- Car – The easiest way to get to Kusatsu is a scenic three-hour drive from Tokyo along the Romantic Road which connects Nagano, Gunma, and Tochigi.
- Bus – Take the JR Joshu Yumeguri-go bus (from the Shinjuku Bus Terminal) to Kusatsu, passing through Ikaho Onsen.
- Train – The closest train station is Naganohara Kusatsuguchi Station. From there, it is a 25 minutes bus ride to Kusatsu.
View the town’s official website.