The Food of Kusatsu Onsen
One the best ways to experience a town is through its food. When I travel, I love finding the diners, pubs, restaurants and cafés the locals choose to frequent, because that’s where I know I’ll get to experience the most authentic cuisine. But there is an interesting factor to be considered when looking at the cuisine of Kusatsu Onsen: the hot springs. Yes, the very water that makes the town a haven for is also responsible for a lack of truly local food.
The land surrounding Kusatsu is unable to be farmed due to the acidity of the water running through it, so produce like fruits, vegetables, herbs and must be brought in.
That being said, Kusatsu isn’t lacking in delicious treats and dishes worth trying when you visit and they, like any town have their own delicacies they’re known for.
When strolling through the winding streets that spider out from the Yubatake, I passed several soba shops, many with lines of patrons around lunch time. Soba is a popular dish in Kusatsu and it isn’t hard to see why. After soaking in the hot waters, sweating, a warm bowl of soba can help replenish you. It also isn’t hard to imagine how great it would be to get a bowl of soba after exploring the town during the winter. Tempura is also commonly found in Kusatsu, with maitake tempura being a local specialty, as it’s one of the few food items that can be grown and harvested locally.
One of the best ways to try all of the foods particular to a region is by enjoying kaiseki, a traditional multi-course Japanese meal. This is a very formal way of dining, sometimes with more than a dozen dishes, each more beautiful than the last. The kaiseki experience can be enjoyed in places around town like Ryokan Kane-Midori (whose dish is pictured above) and Hotel Sakurai, providing guests with a flawlessly orchestrated dining experience that showcases a range of ingredients and cooking techniques.
After your meal, if you’re looking for something sweet, soft ice cream cones make for a refreshing finish when it’s warm out. Local flavors include vanilla, honey and black sesame. Enjoy your cone in the center of town as you watch the ever-changing crowds.
And don't forget about those onsen manju, which make a wonderful omiyage, or souvenir, for friends and coworkers to enjoy when you return from your trip.
As for beverages, there’s no shortage of tea houses and coffee shops in Kusatsu Onsen where you can stop in for a green tea, caffè latte or even a smoothie. Many offer snacks or sweets like cakes to go with their signature beverages. A warm drink is recommended after dipping in the onsen to keep the body from being shocked by the change in temperature, making these spots a popular choice. But if you prefer an icy cold beer, you can also stop into a bar or izakaya, many of which offer takeout beer for strolling around the town with.
No matter what you’re craving, you’ll be able to find a cozy place to dine in Kusatsu, run by a friendly staff ready to share their signature dishes with you.