Lisa’s Wanderings Around Japan/Kusatsu hot springs: An onsen town that still evokes memories of the good old days

I completely agree with the folk song originating from Kusatsu Onsen, Gunma Prefecture: “Kusatsu Yoitoko Ichido wa Oide” (Kusatsu is a good place, come here at least once).

There are hot springs scattered all over Japan, but few have retained the vibe and spirit of what “onsen-gai” towns should be like, in my book.

Many large hotels sprang up in locations with hot mineral waters during Japan’s economic bubble of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

These ryokan and hotels amassed customers by catering to their every need: tea rooms and cafes for lounging; karaoke, bars and game centers for entertainment; shops to buy souvenirs; several indoor and outdoor baths that switch between men and women depending on the time and day; and door-to-door shuttle services from train stations to the hotel.

The result? They decimated the old onsen-gai towns.

No more couples and families wandering the alleys with steam coming from cracks in the floor or square wooden boxes with hot “manju” candy inside. No more people wearing geta sandals and “yukata” (casual cotton kimono) with the name of the ryokan printed on them, and no more visiting small establishments for shopping and entertainment.

I visited Kusatsu Onsen 30 years ago, so I felt a little apprehensive about coming back because the onsen town was quaint and perfect in my memory. Revisiting places of yesteryear has often caused consternation.

I was relieved to find that he didn’t lose his mind! Kusatsu Onsen is located between Mount Asamayama and Mount Shiranesan, two of Japan’s most active volcanoes.

These mountains provide the mineral-rich thermal waters that flow to the center of Yubatake, the source of all the city’s bath waters. Yubatake means “hot water field”.

As vegetables are harvested from a field, “yunohana” (washed sulfur flowers) are harvested from Yubatake and sold as bath salts. It is said that the name Kusatsu comes from “kusai-mizu”, or sulfuric water that gives off a foul smell. The hot waters are concentrated at the Yubatake and cooled a little before heading to the onsen in the area.

Kusatsu Onsen was made famous by a German physician to Emperor Meiji, Erwin Balz (1849-1913). Balz was an “oyatoi gaikokujin”, a temporary adviser to the foreign government hired to modernize Japan. He has written extensively on the medicinal benefits of the waters.

There are daily “yumomi” (water stirring) performances in some onsen where women sing the song “Kusatsu Yoitoko” and stir hot water with 180 centimeter wooden paddles to cool it instead of dilute it with cold water.

Kusatsu Onsen is a rare pearl, where the yunohana and onsen-gai of the past still flourish.

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This article by Washington-born, Tokyo-based photographer Lisa Vogt originally appeared in the July 17 issue of Asahi Weekly. It is part of “Lisa’s Wanderings Around Japan” series, which depicts various locations across the country through the perspective of the author, a professor at Meiji University.

About Walter J. Leslie

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