Embrace tradition at this famous onsen resort
Last updated: December 21, 2020
Traditions are held in high esteem in Kusatsu Onsen, where life revolves around its hot spring—quite literally. The center of the town is dominated by Yubatake, a large hot water field where water cools before being piped to nearby bathhouses and ryokan inns. These hot, acidic, mineral-rich waters are purported by local legend to be able to cure any disease but lovesickness. Embrace Kusatsu’s traditions as you stroll the atmospheric streets, bathe in styles unique to Kusatsu, and take in cultural performances.
Kusatsu’s spring water emerges from the source at over 50 degrees Celsius—too hot to bathe in. Since the Edo period (1603–1868), this water has been cooled by stirring it with wide wooden paddles. This technique, called yumomi, is favored over adding cool water because it does not dilute the mineral content.
By the 1960s, this water-stirring technique had become a performance, accompanied by traditional folk songs. The performance is now held several times a day at Netsunoyu, a two-story wooden bathhouse next to Yubatake. The performance is a symbol of Kusatsu and you’ll find items from souvenirs to manhole covers decorated with imagery of the mascot “Yumomichan.”
Netsunoyu is also the setting for a nightly rakugo performance. Rakugo is a traditional form of storytelling in which a solo performer sits on a stage and tells a long, usually comical story with a paper fan and a cloth as props. The performers often make eye contact, but there is no audience participation.
This intimate performance doesn’t have a translation. In fact, the Japanese language used can be very complex—even for native Japanese speakers—so you may not be the only one missing some details of the story. However, the cultural experience makes it well worth a visit. The rhythm of the stories and the ability to see this unique art while sitting in an iconic Kusatsu landmark make for a riveting evening for non-Japanese speakers, too.
This performance is called “Onsen Rakugo.” The shows are held nightly.
Otakinoyu is an onsen a ten-minute walk from the center of Kusatsu. It is unassuming from the outside, but the beautiful wooden baths and open-air baths are a must-visit when in Kusatsu. The onsen is a great place to try “awaseyu,” in which bathers dip into several sulfur-rich baths of gradually escalating temperatures: from a cool 38 degrees to a very hot 46 degrees Celsius. There are five tubs for men and four for women. This method of bathing is purported to be a secret to clear, healthy skin.
Another bathing style you can try in Kusatsu is jikanyu. This intense bathing method involves bathing in very hot water—48 degrees Celsius—for precisely three minutes. The method is purported to boost blood circulation.
Yumomi stirring precedes jikanyu bathing. This stirring technique causes certain minerals in the water to crystallize when coming into contact with the air, forming clusters of visible minerals floating in the water, called yunohana. These minerals form a thin coating on the body when bathing, lowering the onsen’s heat’s intensity, and making the bathing experience feel gentler. Next, a technique called kaburiyu is used, when water is repeatedly poured over the bather’s head to increase blood circulation to the head and prevent dizziness when bathing. Jikanyu is offered in a few select bathhouses in Kusatsu, including the public Jizonoyu.
This bathing style was researched in the late nineteenth-century by a German doctor, Erwin Von Balz. He believed jikanyu bathing and mountain air was conducive to good health and helped put Kusatsu on the map as a world-class spa resort. He is remembered with a bust, erected in Sainokawara Park.
When staying in Kusatsu, don’t miss visiting the three free bathhouses that are open to the public: Shirahatanoyu, Chiyonoyu, and Jizonoyu. Each bath has a different source and mineral content, so it’s well worth bathing in all of them.
Each facility has only a small bath that fits two to four people. The sparse facilities have just an area to remove your shoes, an area to dress and store your belongings (there are no lockers but you can see your belongings from the tub), and a bath. Carefully tipping a few buckets of water over yourself before entering the bath is good onsen etiquette and helps you adapt to the water temperature—particularly hot at Shirahatanoyu, whose water comes directly from the source nearby.
Ryokan inns are clustered around Yubatake and spread around the town. Water from the springs is directed to the inns’ baths, so you can enjoy Kusatsu’s mineral-rich springs from the comfort of your accommodation.
For those who aren’t ready to bathe naked, choose a room with a private bath or a ryokan with the option to rent one for a set amount of time. This is also a great option for those who want to enjoy mixed bathing with their family.
Each ryokan usually provides dinner and breakfast. Meals tend to be traditional Japanese affairs, served as multi-course meals in the room or the ryokan’s dining room. Many diners opt to wear the yukata provided at the ryokan throughout their stay—on the way to and from the bath, in the dining room, and in bed. Rooms are usually Japanese style, with tatami flooring and futon beds, which are set up while you dine, though some ryokan have Western-style beds.
Look out for wooden boxes of onsen manju at stores around Kusatsu. These small, brown sugar steamed buns are filled with sweet bean paste and are a popular snack in onsen resorts. The flavor varies from shop to shop, so sample a few varieties to find your favorite. These warm snacks are especially welcome on a cold day in Kusatsu. Also keep an eye out for onsen tamago, eggs boiled in hot spring water. You can buy these eggs from shops near Yubatake and Sainokawara Park.
Gozanoyu, a bathhouse close to Yubatake, provides the opportunity for both men and women to choose a traditional yukata robe and be professionally dressed, complete with wooden sandals called geta. Explore the town with suggested walking courses and photo stops, before returning to Gozanoyu to relax in the onsen, a perk included in the package. In colder months, Gozanoyu provides socks and a haori jacket to keep you warm.