Only at Kusatsu Onsen can the smell of rotten eggs be so divine!
Kusatsu Travel Blog› entry 2 of 15 › view all entries
Less than 3 hours after getting to my hotel room in Ikebukuro, I was out the door - again. This time, I was meeting up with 3 of my friends in Shinjuku for our onsen weekend trip to Gunma!
I checked out of my room and left my luggage for storage (free). Hopped on the Yamanote Line and exited on Shinjuku Station. We were to meet at the West exit but I ended up waiting on the West Bus exit - while the others met up on the different West exit! Yes, Shinjuku Station is one of the largest station in Japan/Tokyo but thankfully we easily found each other.
We tooka direct bus from Shinjuku Station to Kusatsu for 2,500yen, booked by our friend, Mami, so I don't know much about it aside from it departs from Shinjuku Station.
Kusatsu Onsen is one of Japan's most famous hot spring resorts at an altitude of 1200 meters above sea level in the mountains located in Gunma Prefecture. Our ascent to the mountain was greeted with cold weather and an increasing amount of snow. I was excited. I always imagined being in a rotemburo (outdoor hot spring) while the snow covered the ground and even better yet, while it was falling! As we reached the Kusatsu bus station, we quickly found the town map and walked to the center of the town and from there locate our hotel/ryokan for the night.
The ground was covered in snow. The smell of sulfur permeated the air. The entire town smell of rotten eggs! But despite the smell, it was hard to contain my excitement with my 3 other friends looking very excited as well, as none of them have been to Kusatsu either. After a hilly walk, we reached the center of the town and found the yubatake. The yubatake, lit. "hot water field", releases an output of 5000 liters per minute of sulfur-riched hot spring water to be cooled down from its initial underground temperature in the yubatake's wooden conduits by a few degrees before it gets distributed to the various ryokan and public baths. It is a symbol of Kusatsu and the resort's main source of hot spring water.
Steam was billowing in the air, heavy with the smell of sulfur.
Although modern building, our hotel, Hotel Takamatsu, offers a traditional room with tatami mats, of which Mami booked for 8,000yen (~$85) per person (including dinner and breakfast!) The hotel has their own onsen baths (segregated by gender) and two dining areas. Our room is a traditional room with tatami mats and futons. It has a small balcony that has a gorgeous view of the Gunma Prefeture mountains and snow covered Kusatsu! The hotel offer hot green tea and 'manju' (steamed cake often with 'anko', red bean paste filling) for snacks so we helped ourselves before venturing out and starting our sightseeing.
We first stopped at the yubatake, located at the center of the town and with its strong steam, everyone eventually finds their way to the yubatake. Then we checked out Netsunoyu, where a performance of the yumomi is held. Since we had plenty of time before the last performance of the day, we decided to have a late lunch instead.
We found the udon shop Mami read about, a well-known udon shop that specializes in maitake mushroom. The small shop was empty since it was past the normal meal time. Taking off our shoes, we sat and ordered the udon of the day. It was delicious and very filling with tasty broth and maitake mushrooms matched the udon and its broth very well!
We took a leisurely walk back to the yubatake and Netsunoyu after such a delicious meal.
After the performance, we followed the street that will lead us to Sainokawara Park. It was a wonderful, leasurely 15 minute walk that eventually became 30 minutes, as we stopped at several shops, checking out their goods. There were tea shops, desserts shops, and Kusatsu delicacy shops. They offered samples to tastes and taste we did - thus the delayed estimated time of reaching our destination! One shop offered a whole piece of manju with hot green tea.
The temperature started to drop as the sky startied to darken. We reached the entrance to the Sainokawara Park but it was another 5-minute walk to reach the open air bath (rotemburo). It was still a lovely hike! A stream with hot spring water steams outs along the walkway. A larger area has pockets of hot spring steaming out. The area was covered in snow that created a lovely atmosphere. As we walk towards the open air bath, we walk past people who obviously just came from there, some with wet hair, other wearing their hotel/ryokan yukatas, oblivious to the cold after a long soak from the hot springs.
Finally! We reached the open bath areas and paid 350yen for the entrance fee. The baths are separated by gender. The changing room for the female side was large with over 100+ lockers, evident to its popularity. We undressed and headed out in the freezing night! The open air bath was large! It can easily accomodate 150 people in it! There were areas that had a shade while most were unshaded. Most of all, the water was very hot! And when we dipped out feet in the bath, I found myself doing the hop. It was just too hot! I had to slowly get acclimated to the water temperature, which was no joke! Between the cold air and the hot spring water, the temperature difference must have been more the 30 degree Celcius! Slowly but surely, we walked around the open bath, getting used to the heat and the highly sulfuric smell.
I needed the break myself. The sulfuric smell with the heat was a little overwhelming. We went back for a second soaking a few minutes later. We stayed longer the second time around, finally getting acclimated to the water temperature and the sulfuric smell. After the soak, we dressed and started our walk back to our hotel.
On our way back via the same route, we stopped by the same manju shop. They recognized us from earlier and offered us hot tea and manju. The manju were freshly made so we gratefully (and greedily) accepted. The soak from the hot spring really got us famished! Feeling guilty and really loved the manju, I bought a pack of 6 (2 of each color). Then one ladies that work in the shop told my friends that I looked like one of the Japanese actresses she love! I didn't know who she was and neither did my friends but I was flattered and said my thanks. My friends was joking around that we could have bankrupted that shop with our appetite since not only were they giving our a whole piece of manju for everyone to try, we (all 4 of us) took one each, twice (once on our way to the onsen and again on the way back)! Altogether, we ate 8 anju! Meanwhile, I only bought a 6-pieces box set!
We left smiling.
We wandered around the yubatake, checking the shops around it. There was the Netsunoyu, a public bath house (that was free), a yakitori shop (we were tempted but still full from the manju we ate), and ashiyu (foot baths) where we dipped out feet before continuing on. By then it was time to return to our hotel.
We still had an hour before our scheduled dinner so we hung out at our room, planned our checkout time and departure for Ikaho Onsen, before changing into our yukata, literally "bathing clothes", are a traditional garment, similar in style to kimono, but lighter, much more casual, and made of cotton, to wear for dinner.
It's dinner time! That means a "kaiseki ryori", multi-course Japanese style haute cuisine, dinner is in store for us! This dinner is included in the price we paid for the night (8,000yen/~$85). What a steal!
I had already experienced a 'kaiseki ryori' from my ryokan stay in Hakone (read Japan Oct 2008 blog) so I was looking forward to it. We went to the dining room area which was packed, and was seated to our table. The table was full of small dishes that consists of our dinner: shokuzen-shu (small glass of sweet or local alcohol), small pieces of appetizer, and the main dishes usually served in different ways of cooking like: soup (suimono), tempura (agemono), small nabe, sashimi (otsokuri), boiled veggies (nimono), grilled fish (yakimono), seaweed (sunomono), and the last part, the shokuji set, which consists of rice, miso soup and pickles (tsukemono), before dessert: a simple dish of fruit - orange.
After a wonderful meal, we decided to walk around the yubatake, and saw the area lit up at night with lights. We also brought with us towels as we planned to head straight to one of the three free onsen public bath houses in Kusatsu. Just up the hill, behind the hotel, one of the onsen public bath houses is located next to a temple. This onsen public bath house has one small tubs that can accomodate no more than 6 people. There were already 4 people in the tub so while we took our time getting undress, when they started to leave. The water felt more hotter than other hot spring water we had (maybe because it was in a small tub, thus insulating the heat more?). After half an hour, we went back to the hotel, up to the hotel's onsen bath, and had another thorough bath and soak before calling it a night!
My skin felt so smooth after an afternoon filled with onsen baths!