Kusatsu discover Japan’s most potent onsen

Japan has so many onsen towns, but Kusatsu is different. Where else does a huge flow of thermal water power through the main plaza right in the centre of town? Measured at 32,300 litres per minute it’s rated Japan’s “most bountiful spring”. Called ‘Yubotake’, the ‘Hot spring field’ in the centre of town looks equally amazing by day or lit up at night.

Kusatsu's 'yubotake' onsen field in the centre of town
Kusatsu’s ‘yubotake’ onsen field in the centre of town © Carmen Price

The rain or snowmelt from Mt Shirane above the town takes 30 years to seep through the ground, gathering minerals and being heated by the magma layers of the active volcano (very active – more on that later!) to emerge as high ph value therapeutic natural hot spring water.

Why is Kusatsu Onsen water so good? Now you know!

Locals and visitors have been taking advantage for centuries, with a funky method of cooling the waters down to a bearable temperature.

Demonstrating Yumomi- the art of cooling the onsne water - at Kusatsu
Don’t miss a Yumomi show © Carmen Price

Called “Yumomi” this involves a team of beaters who smash and lift the water into the air in unison with big flat paddle sticks while singing a song to keep the rhythm – you can go and watch and learn how free next to the tourist info booth right on the main square.

The plaza area around the Yubotake is a hive of activity, as of course Kusatsu is a very popular tourist attraction for locals and international visitors alike.

View of centre of Kusatsu and yubotake onsen field
There are lots of nice restaurants and shops around the Yubotake in town © Carmen Price

There are foot spas next to the main flow in the plaza, and 19 free public onsen in and around the central area.

Because it’s popular year round everything looks bright and busy, with some excellent affordable restaurants and nice shops. Unlike some other onsen areas, which have become quite run down in parts and can be a bit depressing to visit as a result, at Kusatsu it’s full steam ahead.

Sainokawara Park is beautiful in all seasons – stroll down beside the stream as steam rises behind you © IS

The town is hilly, but pretty compact and pedestrian friendly to wander round. Don’t miss the beautiful Sainokawara Park forest walk down from just below the base of the ski area to the back of town.

The big Sainokawara Rotenburo outdoor onsen are a must stop at on the way down, only Y600 and well worth it. There are plenty of zen spots along the walk to stop and listen to the rushing water as you follow the steaming stream.

Sainokawara outdoor onsen at Kusatsu in autumn
Sainokawara onsen is a “must soak” just behind town © Kusatsu

There are so many onsen to try – most of the hotels an ryokans have their own too – and a total of 18 community baths in the area, apart from the commercial ones.

Of these apart from Sainokawara we recommend Awase Yu at Otaki no Yu, which features 5 different temperature baths and one giant one that can take 100 people at a time.

You can get around locally on the ¥100 a ride Kusatsu Round Bus and visit them all. Take a towel and modesty cloth from your accommodation for the community ones.

Kusatsu buzzes with energy all day and into the night with the yubatake field lit up. Lots of good restaurants and shops are around the square and up the side streets. Spend at least a couple of nights here to enjoy it.

Kusatsu shopping
Plenty of shopping girls .. © Carmen Price

Getting to Kusatsu

It’s easy to self drive to Kusatsu, and around Gunma generally a car is handy. From Tokyo by road to Kusatsu is 163km. Take the Kan-Etsu Expressway to Shibukawa-Ikako interchange 103km, then Route 353 to Nagonohara (Otsu) 50km, then Route 292 to Kusatsu 10km.

By rail from Tokyo take the Joetsu or Nagano shinkansen to Takasaki, 50 minutes, then JR Agatsuma line to Naganoharakusatsuguchi, 1 hour 20 minutes, then 25 minutes bus from the station to Kusatsu.
Or its actually simpler to go to Karuizawa, 70 minutes on the Hokuriku shinkansen and get the Kusakuru-Kotsu-Seibu Kanou Bus to Kusatsu, 1 hour 16 minutes.

There are quite a few buses including frequent express services from Tokyo Shinjuku and Shibuya, fare Y2,200 adults Y1,100 child to primary school, check details/book at www.kkkg.co.jp/
Both routes are available with a JR Tokyo Wide area rail pass – this 3 day consecutive pass costs Y10,000 and you could use it to come in from the airport, then a day trip to Mt Fuji, then head to Kusatsu for example.
Buses from Tokyo Station take just over 4 hours, one way fare Y3,450 can pre book here jr.buskanto.co.jp/

Kusatsu location map

Where to stay Kusatsu

There’s a huge variety of accommodation here, from cheap pensions and ryokans to superb resort hotels.
For guest house Kindai Pension is very comfortable with French cuisine from Y9,750 – 15,500 including tax.
We stayed at and highly recommend the Kusatsu Now Resort, which boasts excellent rooms, a magnificent buffet for breakfasts and dinners, quality onsen – including several private session ones for guests – and fast access to the skiing as the mountain base is just 200m above the hotel with regular shuttles there and to the centre of town. Rooms from Y13,000 – Y35,000.

Now Resort Kusatsu has the most amazing dinner buffet and a decent wine list © Owain Price

More info on Kusatsu and Gunma

When you are there the tourist info office has plenty of useful info in the bus terminal building.

For Kusatsu Onsen info check the official English language Tourism site here

Gunma Prefecture’s English language Facebook has plenty of info too.

Gunma Prefecture Gunma Tourism site

Accommodation bookings and packages

Japan Holidays Japanholidays.com.au

Kusatsu town map © Kusatsu Tourism