By Lee Reeve
Jay Ponazeki a long-term resident of Tokyo, lawyer and well-known local business leader. She’s a former partner of law firm Morrison & Foerster’s Tokyo office, and has been the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan’s president since 2013.
This year, as one of Jarman International’s “JI Core 50” members, she travelled to one of Japan’s most popular hot springs, Kusatsu Onsen, which has consecutively been listed in Japan’s Top 100 onsen at number one for the last 12 years. Jay’s trip saw her returning there after 20 years, her first time being an office excursion in which she never actually visited the town itself.
What was your first impression of Kusatsu Onsen?
It was so much easier getting to Kusatsu than I had imagined. I have traveled further to visit hot Spring towns for the weekend. I took the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Takasaki and then switched to a local train to Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi and then rode a bus to Kusatsu. Everything was very well-coordinated and well-marked (including in English) and I did not have to wait long for the next connection. The scenery between Takasaki and Kusatsu was very pretty and riding local trains and buses are an excellent way to see the real Japan outside the big cities.
What kinds of things did you do? What did you enjoy the most?
I did so much over two days and felt like I could have done even more!
As soon as I arrived, I enjoyed maitake (mushroom) ramen at the noodle shop directly across from the tourist information counter on the ground floor of the bus terminal. I also enjoyed visiting several cafes which served delicious matcha (green tea) parfaits and homemade cakes, having freshly made soba with maitake tempura and sampling the steamed cakes sold at many local shops.
To visit Kusatsu Onsen means visiting their hot springs and “Yubatake” – the hot spring field in the center of town engineered centuries ago to cool the hot spring water and a cooling system unique to Kusatsu – they play a key role in one’s Kusatsu experience, so I spent a lot of time enjoying the ever-changing steam rising over the Yubatake and relaxing in different indoor and outdoor hot spring baths.
I went three times to the rotenburo (outdoor hot spring bath) at Sainokawara Park. There are separate large outdoor hot spring baths for men and women surrounded by trees and nature. The air was very fresh and the bath never felt overcrowded given its large size. I particularly enjoyed going at night with the trees illuminated. Sainokawara Park is also interesting with a hot spring stream running through it and with a nice walking trail beyond the open air hot spring bath.
Nearby Otaki no Yu has several kinds of hot spring baths. It is a place where one could spend several hours relaxing and having a meal or a soft cream in between soaks in the hot spring baths. It is a very modern facility with rooms where one can rest while deciding what to do next. I quite liked that.
I always enjoy visiting Japanese temples and shrines and spent a good amount time at Kosenji Temple on a hill overlooking the Yubatake and at Shirane Shrine located in Kakoiyama Park. Both are beautifully situated and have beautiful stone lanterns and statues. I recommend going to Kosenji Temple at night too.
In addition, I watched the Yumomi Performance which occurs several times a day and is enjoyed by many Japanese visitors. One can see and try the traditional method of using wooden boards to cool the hot spring water without diluting it. The performers wore colorful costumes and sang local folk songs. It was very endearing. I enjoyed the performances and how everyone was enjoying the experience.
There is so much abundant nature surrounding Kusatsu. It is a great place for walking. In addition to Sainokawara and Kakoiyama Parks, there are walking and cycling paths in a nature preserve within walking distance from the Yubatake area. The paths take one through a beautiful forest. It is a great area for enjoying “nature therapy” and getting in the daily recommended amount of walking for a healthy life.
What makes Kusatsu so special?
Three things. First, its abundant beautiful natural surroundings. It was wonderful being able to enjoy the beautiful autumn colors and fresh air while walking in Sainokawara and Kakoiyama Parks and the nature preserve within walking distance from the city center. The views of the mountains and the countryside fromthe local bus and train were also beautiful. Second, its hot springs and connections to the Edo Period (1603-1867). How often do you get to enjoy hot spring water that two shoguns had transported in wooden barrels to the castle in Edo (Tokyo) for bathing? It was also remarkable looking at Edo-Period woodblock prints of Kusatsu and recognizing Yubatake and Kosenji Temple. Finally, the local hospitality. Everyone was so welcoming, kind and helpful. The local hot spring water and the many smiles will forever warm my heart.
If you return again, what are you most looking forward to doing and seeing?
I definitely want to go back. It was wonderful visiting Kusatsu in the autumn when the leaves were changing and to relax in the open air hot spring bath at Sainokawara Park while snow was falling. Next time I want to enjoy the open air hot spring bath and the beautiful shrines and nature when the cherry blossoms are blooming and new leaves are growing on the trees. In this part of Japan, I understand spring typically starts in early May.
How does Kusatsu Onsen compare to other hot spring towns?
I have visited many other hot spring towns in Japan. Sometimes there isn’t so much to do in the hot spring town itself and the hot spring inn is the destination. In Kusatsu, there is so much to do in addition to enjoying your accommodation. After dinner there were many people out and about enjoying the atmospheric steam rising and swirling above Yubatake, visiting Kosenji Temple and warming their feet in the many outdoor hot spring foot baths. Kusatsu felt very vibrant.
Any final comments?
It was great being able to share the experience with family and friends on social media. I think many will enjoy visiting Kusatsu given how much there is to do while enjoying its beautiful hot spring water.