If Kusatsu Onsen could be summed up in one word, it would be “transformative.” A visit there, no matter how short, is an experience that can truly shape how you see yourself and the world around you. To visit Kusatsu Onsen is to step into a world where wellness is king — an enclave of welcoming faces creating a respite for the weary soul in search of rejuvenation and inspiration.
There are two theories about the origin of this town’s name. The first is that “Kusatsu” was taken from a Prajnaparamita Buddhist sutra which says, “In the south, there is a famous hot spring called Kusatsu.” The second theory is that the town’s very distinct smell is what led to its name. The high amount of sulfur found in the hot springs means its scent is ever-present in the air. Some say the town was first named “Kusauzu,” with “kusai” translating to “smelly.” However it got its name, Kusatsu Onsen’s rich history and deeply rooted traditions are what make it a destination in Japan not to be missed.
As one of Japan’s top three hot springs, Kusatsu Onsen has the largest natural flow of any of the hot springs found in the country, with more than 32,300 liters rushing out from the earth every single minute. These waters are suggested to have been discovered as far back as 1,800 years ago and have bathed the likes of shogun, geishas, salary men and tourists alike in the years since. Kusatsu gained prominence during the Edo period as the top onsen to visit and remains a national treasure.
Another famous visitor who played a vital role in opening up Kusatsu to the world was Dr. Erwin Von Baelz. A professor at Tokyo University, Dr. Baelz first visited Kusatsu Onsen in 1878 and dedicated much of his career to studying the therapeutic effects of the hot springs found there. He went on to become Court Physician for Emperor Mutsuhito and his research encouraged people from all walks of life to come to Kusatsu and experience the onsen for themselves. His memory is preserved and honored throughout the area.
Today, Kusatsu Onsen is a vibrant town that takes great pride in its role in Japanese society as a place for retreat and renewal. The welcoming atmosphere allows all who enter to feel at ease and a part of a rich tradition. While certain advancements have moved the town forward, in other aspects, time has stood still, allowing the past and present to perfectly collide.
No matter what time of the year you visit Kusatsu, you’re sure to find a wealth of ways to reconnect with loved ones, with nature and with yourself. I hope this book inspires you to make the journey to Kusatsu Onsen and allow it to transform you as well.
By Petra Canan Trudell, from our ebook Through the Year at Kusatsu Onsen.