Kusatsu Onsen, nestled in the mountains of northwestern Gunma prefecture, is one of the most famous hot spring resorts in Japan. Go there on a typical weekend and the quaint city center is transformed into a swarming marketplace, teeming with smiling Japanese tourists Ð some clad in yukata Ð ready to go onsen-hopping in one of Japan’s oldest hot spring towns.

For foreigners, however, Kusatsu’s pristine onsen is a hidden treasure. Although introduced to the rest of the world in the late 19th century by Dr Erwin Von Baelz, a German physician teaching at a Japanese university, word of Kusatsu’s lush supply of natural onsen, vegetation and serene wilderness has traveled little outside of Japan.

With sacred waters said to cure every illness except lovesickness, there’s even a folk song penned after the town: “Kusatsu is such a lovely place/Come and visit once/You’ll find flowers blooming in the onsen spring.”

For some, once is all it takes to feel at home. “I found something special in Kusatsu,” says Emi Saito, a Kusatsu Onsen Tourist Supporter.

Saito fell in love with Kusatsu’s plethora of onsen and natural beauty. After a year of commuting weekly from her home in Urawa, Saitama prefecture, she finally convinced her husband to buy an apartment in Kusatsu.

“First, I came to Kusatsu for the onsen,” Saito says. “The quality of water is special. Next, I went to Mount Shirane. Wow! I felt like Heidi.”

Saito is referring to Kusatsu’s famed mountain range, in which hiking trails covering the scenic beauty of Mount Shirane are open from early June to mid-October.

Kusatsu is most famous for its water, which has been known for centuries to cure everything from muscle pain to chronic skin disease. The water, rich in sulfuric acid, is a treatment in itself. Visitors from afar travel to Kusatsu to benefit from the water that can destroy bacteria and harmful microbes in a matter of seconds.

One of the more unique treatments is the Jikan-Yu, a group therapy program conducted in a high-temperature onsen Ð with temperatures reaching up to 48 degrees Celsius. To get the body accustomed to the hot water, bathers must pour water over their body and head more than 60 times before entering the onsen.

Patients range from six months to 94 years old with a diagnosis as serious as cancer to atopic dermatitis.

Traditionally, patrons of Jikan-Yu frequent the facility after years of Western treatment. As a last resort, says Takefumi Ida, Jikan-Yu’s chief instructor, the sufferers seek relief at his onsen.

A walk from the town’s main hot spring source, the massive yubatake, which gushes out 5,000 liters of water a minute, to Kusatsu’s Sai No Kawara onsen, is a goldmine of manju, the traditional Japanese sweet filled with anko. Locals call it the “manju attack,” as each bakery offers dozens of samples to passersby.

And yet the walk is definitely worth undertaking, for the rotenburo that sits on the banks of a tiny stream in Sai No Kawara Park ranks alongside some of the best public bathing spots you’ll find in Japan.

Time your trip right and you will find yourself soaking in an enormous outdoor bath and staring mindlessly at the trees surrounding you as they turn into a mish-mash of orange, red and yellow. If you are extremely lucky, the slopes may have even received a light dusting of snow the previous evening. Surrounded by mountains covered in lush vegetation, visitors can go hiking on Mount Shirane or take a relaxing walk through the town’s surrounding forests. With water that’s meant to work magic, it’s the perfect weekend getaway.

Story by Marea Pariser
From J SELECT Magazine, October 2007