October 11, 2006

Kusatsu hot spring

As with any vibrant, modern capital city, life in Tokyo can be quite hectic at times, so when a national holiday comes, one thing you often think about is getting out of the city in order to relax or refresh yourself. The problem, though, is that at least a million other people have had the same idea, and you can guarantee that wherever you go, it will be packed, which is exactly what I found this weekend.

Got up early on a bright, beautiful, Sunday autumn morning to get the bus bound for Kusatsu, the hot spring resort. As soon as we hit the highway, it was obvious that we wouldn’t make the scheduled arrival time of 12:45. Good job I had my iPod to keep me entertained. And, as we made our way deeper into Gunma prefecture the skies gradually darkened ~ by the time we eventually drifted into Kusatsu at 4:30 (yes, 4:30!!), it was blowing a gale, raining hard and a chilly 10ÂșC outside.

We were staying in a nice little pension just up the hill a bit from the centre of the town. The weather was so bad on the Sunday evening, that we didn’t really venture out much, but enjoyed the scalding hot baths in the pension and the huge dinner.

Monday the weather was much better and we were able to enjoy the town much more. At the heart of the town is the yubatake (‘hot water field’), a huge spring pumping up thousands of litres of sulphurous hot water. A sign informs us that in 2001 the Ministry of the Environment officially recognised yubatake as one of “100 scenic places known for their peculiar smell” (I’d be curious to find out about the other 99!), and everywhere in the vicinity has the unmistakable odour of boiled eggs.

I wondered, at first, why the hot water ran through the man-made wooden channels before cascading down over some rocks, but later found out that they use the channels to collect a chalky yellowish-white powder which is used and sold as bath salts, called yu no hana.

A short walk took us to the Tsurutaro Kataoka Museum. Not a name I was familiar with, but apparently, Kataoka is well-known comedian and actor who also happens to be a dab hand with the paintbrush. A lot of his works ~ mainly still lifes and landscapes in a distinctly Japanese style (lots of fish, fruit and veg) ~ are on show, and it makes for an enjoyable, if a little over-priced, visit.

Going on from the Museum, there is the Sainokawara Park, with its huge rotemburo (open air bath). As you soak in the water you can take in the relaxing view of the mountain forests around you, though you have to be careful where you sit in the bath, as the area closest to the source is piping hot, and I, for one, couldn’t stay there for more than a minute or so.

The rest of the day was generally relaxing, and at 5 it was time to get on the bus to head back into Tokyo. Again we hit holiday traffic, and arrived two hours later than scheduled. I wouldn’t mind visiting Kusatsu again , but next time I’ll steer clear of the national holidays and perhaps take the train instead!

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