Truly exceptional and authentic onsen towns are few and far between, but if you’re looking for one that’s completely off the beaten path in Japan (so, so off the path that the best way to get there is with a car), then this is the one.
Here is where you can get to know the nitty-gritty of how extraordinarily hot sulfuric water gushing down from a still-active volcanic mountain is cooled before entering the nearby ryokans and onsens, and where you can spend hours upon hours visiting various different baths to get a full-circle experience. The water is said to be extremely beneficial for the skin as well as ailments except for a broken heart.
It’s highly likely that you’ve never heard of this onsen town before, but given its location and the minimal structural efforts to produce more frequent direct transportation methods to this place from around Japan, it’s understandable. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s not worth a closer look. It’s possible that the sheer magic of this place has been preserved because of the relatively small number of crowds here.
If we’re really going to talk about just how impressive this place is, it’s actually located 1,200m above sea level in the mountains, and it receives literally thousands of liters of hot water from Mount Shirane per minute into the town. Imagine that! Of course, there’s an area for you to have a look at how the town cools and distributes the water (it’s different, that’s for sure), and plenty of different activities for you to do around town as well, so let’s get into it!
How to get to Kusatsu Onsen
As we mentioned earlier, it’s slightly more difficult to get to Kusatsu Onsen if you’re relying on public transport, as they aren’t as frequent running as most transportation in Japan.
However, if you’re coming from Tokyo, a direct bus ride from Shinjuku should do it if you book your tickets early and plan around the travel! Kousoku Bus is a company that provides a few direct buses to Kusatsu on the daily. You’re been looking at spending from 3,000 yen per person for a 4-hour ride. The first bus starts at 8:05am, and the last bus leaves at 8:05am. Please note that they don’t run every hour so we highly recommend you book your tickets beforehand so that you know exactly which bus you’ve booked.
If you’re keen to rent a car and drive (and if you’ve got an international driver’s license), then the drive will only take around 2.5 hours from Tokyo. If you’re coming from another area to Kusatsu, then driving might be your best option.
Might we add that Kusatsu Onsen is one of the attractions on the famous ‘Romantic Road’ in Japan?
Where to Stay in Kusatsu Onsen
As it is an onsen town, you’d expect there to be an endless supply of ryokans to choose from, and you’re right, but looking at all the options might be a bit overwhelming, so we’ve chosen some of the best ones for you to select from and save time.
Kusatsu Onsen Eidaya is the ultimate ryokan experience for everyone – couples, solo travelers, and large family groups alike. It’s got all the features of a wonderful traditional Japanese inn stay, including soft futon bedding, private onsens in select rooms, delectable Japanese cuisine, and yukatas for all guests.
However, beyond that you will find that the service here is impeccable, and one of the most appreciated aspects of most people’s stay. The shared lounge area even includes activities such as game consoles and board games for those looking to wind down or for the kids to entertain themselves. During winter, you can pretty much ski straight to its doorstep.
Why Guests Love It: Sometimes, it’s the little things in life that brings the most joy, and it appears that the little touches around this ryokan, such as the free massage chair, the 24-hour onsen, the spacious and comfortable lounging room, and the allowance of parking your car even after you’ve checked out is what people remember the most. It’s also in a location where you can walk straight into the thick of things if you’d like.
Book It Now: Kusatsu Onsen Eidaya
Ryokan Kane Midori
This ryokan is located right next to the center of town, so if you’re looking at convenience, then make sure you check Kane Midori out. It’s quite a luxurious choice, as it provides sublime massage services as well as its own indoor and outdoor hot spring baths.
Whilst it’s still considered a traditional Japanese Inn with Japanese-style bedding, it offers the comfort of modern Western bathrooms. You can even book a private hot spring session if you’d like! Lastly, the Japanese breakfast is authentic and incredibly warming – the perfect start to the day.
Why Guests Love It: The kindness and hospitality of the owners really shone through with guests here – they’re accommodation, eager, and friendly, just what you need for a comfortable stay! The place is super clean and well maintained, and you even get to choose your own yukata style, which most guests loved.
Book It Now: Kane Midori
For more Ryokan options, feel free to read this blog post: Best Ryokan in Kusatsu Onsen.
Let’s now discover the best things to do in Kusatsu Onsen!
Take It All In At Yubatake
Yubutake, literally translating to “hot water field” is unofficially the symbol of Kusatsu Onsen. It’s considered to be the center of town (and many places will reference it being the centre in terms of finding bearings, etc), and is the area’s main source of hot water distribution. From Mount Shirane, the extremely hot spring water flows down through to Yubatake, where it is then cooled down before it moves along to the various ryokans and public bath houses in the region. Note that because of the high sulfuric content in the water, it gives off an eggy smell that might take some getting use to.
The structure itself is quite grand and unique, and draws quite a crowd to view the water streaming through its system. The real prize, however, is at night when the Yubutake comes to life with lights, and in combination with the frequent steam rising, paints a beautiful picture.
- Address: Kusatsu, Agatsuma District, Gunma 377-1711, Japan
- Access: 5-minutes from the Kusatsu Bus Terminal.
Enjoy the Onsen Hot Springs!
Being home to the largest natural flow of hot water into town, Kusatsu has an abundance of onsens for guests to choose from. The quality and quantity of water means that almost everywhere you choose will be somewhat a great experience, however, there are some public bath houses that stand out from the rest, and they include:
This public bath is located at Sainokawara Park not far from Kusatsu town centre. It’s extremely inviting due to its size – it has a capacity of 100 bathers for each of its gender-segregated outdoor hot spring pools! Couple that with the fact that it’s surrounded by tall trees and mountains, and you’ve got yourself a good time.
- Address: 521-3 Kusatsu, Agatsuma-gun, Gunma 377-1711, Japan
- Price: Adults: 600 yen, Children: 300 yen
- Hours: 7:00am – 7:30pm
- Access: 12-minute walk from Yubatake
This onsen provides the most variety and unique experience. It has both indoor and open air baths, a sauna and a massage room. Its main attraction though, has got to be its Awaseyu bath, in which visitors gradually make there way up from the coolest temperature water bath (which isn’t very cool, mind you), to the hottest temperature water bath, as a way to acclimatize.
- Address: 596-13 Kusatsu, Agatsuma-gun, Gunma 377-1711, Japan
- Price: Adults: 900 yen, Children: 400 yen (towels additional 250 yen)
- Hours: 9:00am – 9:00pm (entry closes at 8:00pm)
- Access: 15-minute walk from Yubatake
This onsen is new to the scene, having been introduced only in 2013, but it’s already cemented itself as one of the greats. Whilst its actual baths are simple and functional, they’re not the most impressive. However, it’s the second floor relaxation room lookout area at the balcony that draws the crowds – ironically to crowd-watch from!
- Address: 421 Kusatsu, Agatsuma-gun, Gunma 377-1711, Japan
- Price: Adults: 600 yen, Private Tatami Room Rental: 2,000 yen/hour
- Hours: April to Nov: 7:00am – 9:00pm, Dec to March: 8:00am – 9:00pm
- Access: Next to Yubatake
Explore Mount Shirane (aka Kusatsu-Shirane)
This is a wonderful mountain that offers a respite for those who love nature during all seasons of the year, and being so close to Kusatsu Onsen, it’s always a popular activity of choice for those visiting the area. During spring and summer, it’s a great hiking option, in autumn, it’s great for foliage photography, and in winter, it’s a skier’s Winter Wonderland.
From April until November, there are multiple trails that hikers can take from the town center or from the more popular Shirane Resthouse to the summit. There a bus service runs from the city center to the Resthouse. The easiest and most popular one is the Shirane Resthouse to Yugama Crater Lake trail. It takes less than 10 minutes, and you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the azure blue Yugama Crater Lake surrounded by mountains. You cannot go hiking there during winter as the roads are closed.
Access: From Kusatsu Onsen, take the bus from the Kusatsu Bus Terminal to Shirane Resthouse (30-minute bus ride, 1,130 yen per person one-way, one bus every 1-2 hours).
Watch a Yumomi Performance
Yumomi is the ancient traditional method of cooling down Kusatsu’s hot spring water to bathing temperature without affecting the actual quality of the water. This is usually done by the Japanese women of the town. Basically, they use large wooden paddles to stir the water, and the entertainment comes from the traditional folk song and dance that they incorporate into the activity.
This activity is held daily, six times a day (first one’s at 9:30am and last one’s at 4:30pm), in the Netsunoyu building, it lasts around half an hour, and costs around 600 yen per person. However, there are usually long lines to view this, so please consider the waiting time.
- Address: Right next to Yubatake.
- Hours: 6 performances a day, from 9:30am, with the last performance at 4:30pm
- Price: 600 yen per person.
Enjoy the Snow at Kusatsu Ski Resort
As one of the smaller resorts around Japan, Kusatsu Ski Resort falls completely under the radar for foreigners visiting Japan during the winter season.
Its size means that it’s not generally worth the one-day trip if you take into consideration the travel time to and from, however, if you’re looking to visit Kusatsu Onsen during winter, consider staying an extra day so that you can explore the ski resort as well – you’ll likely encounter only domestic Japanese tourists there and see part of Japan that generally only residents get to see.
There had been an unexpected volcanic eruption in January 2018, therefore the main ropeway had to be closed, however, the resort still operates multiple lifts in the lower section.
- Address: Japan, 〒377-1711 Gunma, Agatsuma District, Kusatsu, 白根国有林158林班
- Price: Full Day: 4,000 yen, Night Boarding: 1,800 yen
- Duration: Mid December – Early April
- Hours: 8:30am – 5:00pm
- Access: Free shuttle from Kusatsu Onsen Bus Terminal. It’s a 5-minute bus ride, but there’s only one bus per hour. Otherwise, it’s a 15 to 20-minute walk from central Kusatsu.
This park is actually home to the Sainokawara Rotemburo mentioned above. It’s a popular area for visitors to get outdoors amongst nature and just breath in the fresh air and expire the green surroundings.
During spring and autumn in particular, visitors will really be able to enjoy the scenery due to the flowers that bloom and the foliage that fall, creating a wonderful scene. It’s a leisurely activity, one that can be done with the entire family, as it’s only a short 10-minute stroll away from the main town. If you’re looking for some down time, this park is a great way to unwind (and that rotemburo is an absolute masterpiece, so don’t miss out on it!).
- Address: 521-3 Kusatsu, Kusatsu, Agatsuma-gun, Gunma 377-1700, Japan
- Price: Adults: 600 yen, Children: 300 yen
- Hours: April to November: 7:00am – 8:00pm, December to March: 9:00am – 8:00pm
- Access: 20-minute walk from Kusatsu Bus Terminal.
We absolutely adore popular tourist attractions, the timeless ones that draw the crowds and never seem to stop to catch their own breaths, but we do have a soft spot for incredible destinations that never seem to break into the mainstream crowds, and Kusatsu Onsen is definitely one of them. Japan is one of the best countries in Asia to travel around and explore, and hidden gems such as Kusatsu Onsen will be the ones you’ll be talking about when you arrive home.
If you want to visit another onsen town in Gunma, make sure you also check out Minakami Onsen.