By David Applebaum, AKA, that guy who really likes onsens…
Hey. Have you ever read the list of “ingredients” in hand and body creams. Sure you have, everyone has at some point, or at least tried to… Even the so-called natural body creams have ingredients in them that sound very unnatural. Body creams soften your skin. They moisturize your skin. They relax your skin. They make your skin tingle. They make your skin feel fresh…and they are a multi-billion dollar industry. You know where I am going with this, eh? Imagine if you could immerse your whole body in a big vat of body cream, how great would that be… actually, it would be kinda gross, now that I think about it. I was walking around with my onsen-loving travel companion the other day and we decided to stop in to LUSH. We were looking around the store and smelling the soaps, as one does, and I had an epiphany. Not a religious epiphany, I might add. It occurred to me that we are so darn lucky to live in Japan, and especially Aomori. I mean, almost everywhere has an onsen a stone’s throw away, and we can go to an onsen any day of the week. All the minerals and nutrients of body creams, but 100% natural- direct from the core of the Earth. And if that weren’t enough, the onsen waters make all your troubles evaporate as well.
Any town that has the word onsen in the name is worth checking out. If you happen to be driving down a random road and you come across an onsen town, stop in… even for a few minutes. It is worth it. One such town is Kusatsu in Gunma-ken. This town is accessible by bus from Tokyo and it takes about 3-4 hours to get to. If you are thinking that is a long way to travel to get to an onsen, well, this one is worth it (they are all worth it, if you ask me… I am already missing onsens in anticipation of one day leaving Japan. I might have to go to one of the ridiculous overpriced heated water spas in my country that pretend to have a Japanese motif, but aren’t onsens. They provide none of the minerals and nutrients that onsens provide. They are just big hot tubs. People sit around in their bikininis (that is the new pronunciation of bikini) and think that this is as good as it gets, but they have never been to Japan… sigh).
Kusatsu is rated as one of the top three onsens in Japan (日本三名泉Nihon Sanmeisen). The other two are Arima Onsen in Hyogo Prefecture near Kobe and Gero Onsen in Gifu Prefecture. Kusatsu boasts the largest flow of onsen water anywhere in the country. It is said that 32,000 liters of water are released every minute. That is a heck of a lot of water. Some onsens “recycle” their water, and some don’t even use real onsen water. Not Kusatsu. Kusatsu is the real deal. The water is constantly changing, and whisking away all your impurities. The Kusatsu water is very acidic, and has strong antibacterial and medicinal qualities. The waters’ strong qualities are said to to help cure a number of diseases including arthritis, diabetes, fatigue, hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure and muscular ailments. Not only that, but bathing in the waters of Kusatsu will make you 10% better looking. Kusatsu has, in fact, been rated the number 1 onsen in Japan as chosen by the Japan’s top travel agents for 10 consecutive years in the “100 Best Hot Springs in Japan”!
The town itself has a population of 7000 people, but they welcome over 3 million visitors each year. Needless to say, there are plenty of places to stay, from the very luxurious to the budget. There is even a “youth hostel”, but I would strongly recommend that you don’t stay at the youth hostel. For one thing, the cost of staying in a dorm room is actually higher than the cost of staying at the cheaper hotels in town. The other reason is that the place is downright creepy… It has an old beaten up sign outside, and an empty parking lot. It looks more like Bates Hotel than an international youth hostel.
A German doctor who lived in Japan around the late 1800’s, long before Japan had heard of ALTs, wrote papers about how great this onsen was and the therapeutic qualities of the waters there. His name was Dr. Erwin von Baelz. He was the personal physician for the Emperor Meiji and a number of Prime Ministers. This man knew what he was talking about.
When you arrive in the center of town, there is a steaming central area where the onsen waters flow through a special system that cools the waters without the addition of external water. People crowd around that area and take pictures in their yukatas. There are plenty of places to grab a yakitori or a bowl of ramen.
Right in the center of town, there is a beautiful wooden onsen building. It is small, but pretty much worth the entire trip there. When you walk in, there is a small room. There are two baths, about 6 feet by 6 feet each. That’s it. The water is super hot, and super relaxing. In fact, one bath is too hot for most people. You can go in and have a 10 minute bath if you’d like. Oh, did I mention it is completely free too?
Behind the free onsen, there is a brand new onsen building, but they charge 800 yen. I have seen pictures of it, and it looks amazing, but I couldn’t bring myself to go there because the tiny bath house was so amazing.
About a 20 minute walk from the center of town, there is an area called Sai-no-Kawara Park. It is an eerie experience. You are basically walking into a volcanic springs area. There are streams of onsen water running through the area. You can stop at any number of onsen ponds, just to admire them not to bathe, on your way to the grand prize. That would be the giant rotenburo at the top of the hill. It is an enormous, enormous open air bath. Unfortunately, or fortunately as the case may be, it is a sex-divided onsen. The waters there are not as hot as the water in the wooden bath house down below, and you can sit comfortably for as long as you’d like. They charge 500 yen for the entry.
If you happen to be in Tokyo, and you are looking to get away for a weekend, think about going to Kusatsu. The bus is not cheap, it is about 3,600 yen one way and the distance is far, but even one night there makes the whole trip worth it.
If you are interested in Kusatsu, or if you are sitting in the staff-room while the JTEs go off and teach English classes and you wonder why the Japanese government thinks you are worth paying money to, then check out these links…