Japan has so many onsen ski towns, but Kusatsu is different. Where else does a huge flow of thermal water power through the main plaza right in the centre of town? Measured at 32,300 litres per minute it’s rated Japan’s “most bountiful spring”, and looks amazing by day and lit up at night.
The rain or snowmelt from Mt Shirane above the town takes 30 years to seep through the ground, gathering minerals and being heated by the magma layers of the active volcano (very active – more on that later!) to emerge as high ph value therapeutic natural hot spring water.
Locals and visitors have been taking advantage for centuries, with a funky method of cooling the waters down to batheable temperature.
With big paddle like sticks (they look like giant icecream holder sticks) a team of beaters smash and lift the water into the air in unison will singing a song to keep the rhythm – you can go and watch and learn how free next to the tourist info booth right on the main square.
The plaza area around the springs is a hive of activity, as of course Kusatsu is a very popular tourist attraction for locals and international visitors alike. There are foot spas next to the flow, and 19 free public onsen in and around the central area.
Because it’s popular year round everything looks bright and busy, with some excellent affordable restaurants and nice shops. Unlike other areas which have become quite run down in parts and can be a bit depressing to visit as a result, at Kusatsu it’s full steam ahead.
Despite how great the onsen and town are, most western skiers knew nothing about the ski area above the town. Then suddenly it shot to worldwide fame hitting TV news and social media around the globe on January 23rd when the Kusatsu-Shirane volcano erupted without warning, showering a hail or rocks and ash onto the gondola and upper runs at the ski area. Several people riding the gondola were injured as a result, and tragically one member of a Japanese Self Defense Force team training nearby was killed.
We were locked in to visit just a couple of weeks later, our worst timing since taking a group of travel agents to Mt Ruapehu a few days after it erupted back in 1996. Yet in just over two weeks it was as though nothing had happened. The volcano wasn’t even smoking anymore, the slopes were dazzlingly white.
Obviously the gondola and upper mountain area remained closed, but we caught up and skied with a young patroller, Harunobu Takahashi, who was part of the rescue effort. Still traumatised by the experience, he explained how they organised the rescue and got everyone down safely, apart from the unfortunate JSDF guy.
On a beautiful sunny spring day with fresh snow covering the ash and rocks from the eruption you would never know the Kusatsu eruption had happened. Skiing around with the patrollers, who were training with Japan’s top Ski Patroller, we had a lot of fun. I spotted a figure climbing high up on the slope above the lift and asked if you could hike/ski out there. The guys looked and laughed, it was a Japanese serow – or goat-antelope! Apparently sightings are rare, especially in winter, so we got lucky.
When it was open to the top Kusatsu boasted a 926m vertical off the lifts, and 8km run back to the bottom. Plus you could ski or snowshoe 2km to the crater lake at Shirane. The base is 1200m, a relatively high altitude for Japan, so snow quality and consistency is good.
The patrollers we talked to didn’t seem to think the upper area would reopen anytime soon – there will surely be an investigation into how th eruption surprised everybody and whether it is safe to reopen in the future.
So the skiing now is mostly easy beginner and cruisy intermediate level, with wide open slopes at the base just above town that are perfect for families with young kids and other beginners.
With fresh snow you can still find some powder lines too, but until the upper slopes re-open, including the 3km tour out to a crater lake, then there’s not much here for better skiers and boarders.
Yet if if you said hey, we’ll zap you back to J-land to ski where do you want to go, choose one place only, a big part of me would be yelling “Kusasatsu!”. The town is amazing, and even if you don’t ski at all it’s a must visit sometime soon when you get back to Japan.
After all, there are plenty of other ski areas not far away, from Manza Onsen to the Minakami areas, where you can find some of the best tree and backcountry including serious alpine line terrain in the country, so adding a couple of nights here too is no big deal.
Getting to Kusatsu
It’s really easier to self drive to Kusatsu, and around Gunma generally a car is handy. From Tokyo by road to Kusatsu is 163km. Take the Kan-Etsu Expressway to Shibukawa-Ikako interchange 103km, then Route 353 to Nagonohara (Otsu) 50km, then Route 292 to Kusatsu 10km.
By rail from Tokyo take the Joetsu or Nagano shinkansen to Takasaki, 50 minutes, then JR Agatsuma line to Naganoharakusatsuguchi, 1 hour 20 minutes, then 25 minutes bus from the station to Kusatsu.
Or its actually simpler to go to Karuizawa, 70 minutes on the Hokuriku shinkansen and get the Kusakuru-Kotsu-Seibu Kanou Bus to Kusatsu, 1 hour 16 minutes. This is great for combining with Nagano areas like Hakuba, Shiga and Madarao, or Niigata ones like Nozawa, Myoko and Arai.
There are quite a few buses including express services, fare Y2,200 adults Y1,100 child to primary school, check details/book at www.kkkg.co.jp/
Both routes are available with a JR Tokyo Wide area rail pass – this 3 day consecutive pass costs Y10,000 and you could use it to come in from the airport, then a day trip to Mt Fuji, then head to Kusatsu for example.
Buses from Tokyo Station take just over 4 hours, one way fare Y3,450 can pre book here jr.buskanto.co.jp/
Kusatsu location map
Where to stay Kusatsu
There’s a huge variety of accommodation here, from cheap pensions and ryokans to superb resort hotels.
For guest house Kindai Pension is very comfortable with French cuisine from Y9,750 – 15,500 including tax.
We stayed at and highly recommend the Kusatsu Now Resort, which boasts excellent rooms, a magnificent buffet for breakfasts and dinners, onsen – including several private ones guests can book, and fast access to the skiing – the mountain base is just 200m above the hotel with shuttles there and to the centre of town.Rooms from Y13,000 – Y35,000.