The many different ways to get to Kusatsu
Kusatsu is less frequented by foreign visitors given that it doesn’t have a train station, never mind a bullet train stop. That isolation is one of the reasons Kusatsu has managed to maintain its special atmosphere, but for those that want to go there it’s actually not difficult to get to.
On my recent trip I decided to use the bus. While being the most cost effective method (3,130 yen), I also found it relaxing as you don’t have transfers, and it's great way to enjoy the views of Japan’s countryside. For the first half of the journey you speed along the highway, before turning off onto winding mountain roads. The bus also passes through Ikaho Onsen, another old and famous hot spring resort with different waters and a different atmosphere than Kusatsu. You could combine both destinations into a longer trip. The JR buses leave Tokyo from both Shinjuku and Nerima and if it’s easy for you to get to Nerima by train you can take 30 minutes off the bus trip.
You could also catch the train from Ueno as far as Naganohara-Kusatsugchi and then transfer to bus for the last 25 minutes of the journey and the journey saves about 30 minutes compared to taking the bus directly but is almost twice the price. Or alternatively catch the bullet train to Karuizawa and take bus from there although this doesn’t save any time. There are no discounts for return trips so you can mix and match these routes as you like. Including a detour to Karuizawa adds another dynamic to the trip, but I would only do this if you are staying in Kusatsu for 2+ nights to ensure you leave enough time for the hot spring resort town itself.
If using the train as part of a 3 day trip, the JR Tokyo Wide Pass* for holders of foreign passports (including residents) is 10,000 yen and the area includes Kusatsu and Karuizawa, but Kusatsu has enough to explore and enjoy for a few days so this ticket may end up underused, but is a great option to save money if you plan to travel on the bullet train via Karuizawa.
A final option is either driving all or part of the way. You really don't need a car in Kusatsu, but if you want to stop off in Kusatsu as part of a longer trip (maybe as part of a trip to the Japan Alps) and to explore the mountains and countryside in the area then a car is a great option. JR offers combined train and car rental packages and renting small, fuel efficient cars independently can be very reasonable. If you are feeling like something special there is a place in Karuizawa where you can rent a Maserati**.
In summary, there is no shortage of affordable ways to get to this great resort, so why not take the chance to detour from the regular tourist trail. I can be sure you won’t regret it.
JR Tokyo Wide Pass
Rent a Maserti here
Check out my other articles on Kusatsu starting here