« The train came out of the long border tunnel ...
— and there was the snow country. The night had turned white. »1
A short trip at Kusatsu Onsen.
You may be on a business trip in Tokyo, with jet lag and many meetings weighting heavily on your shoulders and mind. You do have one day and a half though to discover something about Japan. Something you don’t know. This is not your first trip to Tokyo, you’ve been to Roppongi, Asakusa or Aoyama. You enjoy the urban atmosphere and your travel partners but what you really need this time, is time for yourself, to restore your mind and your jetlag.
There is one place you can visit to do just that and discover a Japan that you did not know still existed. So, close your eyes, and listen :
« When I fear losing honesty with myself I climb to Snow Country. From a long tunnel, I emerge to behold the night sky overspreading a strange world of mountains, hot springs, and mysterious geishas. »1
Well, maybe not the mysterious geishas, but you’ll get the mountains, the snow and the hot springs. Kusatsu Onsen is a small and rural town located three hours from Tokyo. You board a shinkansen in Tokyo and when you get off in Takasaki, you are in another world, slightly different from the now you have known. The air is crisp and fresh, no high-rise building at the horizon, ladies showing off their hobbies in the train and, incredible but true, noone killing time with a smartphone. Did the train take you to another dimension ? Well, maybe.
When you know Tokyo and Japanese big cities, your mind is hoaxed into believing that the whole country looks like Shinjuku.
When you step outside the urban life, even a throw of a stone away, somewhere just like Kusatsu hot spring, you enter a dimension you did not know existed : the rural Japan where time flows normally, where the night is dark and stellar, and where people are genuinely interested in you, saying hello when you cross them in the street, and providing information if you need it.
Kusatsu is on an isolated mountain hot spring and it smells like it. The sulfate water is green and hot. It infuses the city with fumes that remind you your college chemistry lab.
Kusatsu is a small town and you can easily wander in the forest and walk a certain time without meeting anyone, which is quite a success on its own in crowded Japan. You can also enjoy freely the public bath anytime you want. You will be surprised to see that Kusatsu people also come to the bath. Lucky people. The hot water works wonder to take that heavy weight from your shoulders.
There is a lovely museum of a television celebrity who happens to be a very fine artist and autodidact: Kataoka. His work is mainly calligraphy and Japanese aquarelles. He has re-invented traditional art into contemporary impressions. He draws fishes and flowers, and writes poetry. Somehow, his shrimps, not something that we would usually draw, I admit, look funny and alive.
You can leave your luggage in Tokyo and just take the train. In Kusatsu, all you will need is a towel and a good book about vain love and mysterious geishas.
1 KAWABATA, Yasunari, Snow Country, 1948. First lines as translated by Edward Seidensticker.
How to access Kusatsu:
There are several ways to go there but the simplest one is to take the Shinkansen to Takasaki (1 hour), to take the local Agatsuma line to Naganohara Kusatsu (1 hour and a half) and then a local bus waiting for you at the station. It is all smooth and straightforward, well synchronised. Strange enough, everything is in Japanese, but you will manage your day because everyone is so kind and ready to help.