Onsen Away

Around the end of April “slash” beginning of May, it was Golden Week in Japan. Golden Week is one of the best holidays in Japan because people get a consecutive three day holiday during the middle of the week. Now this doesn’t sound like much, but trust me when I say it sure does mean a lot to the Japanese working society. Fortunately for me I didn’t have any commitments at school during that week, so I was able to fully enjoy the time off work. I do know some people, however, depending on where they work who did have to work even over the holidays… which is a totally different topic, and a can of worms which we won’t touch on in this post. Coming back to what we were saying – yes, Golden Week is a holiday and one of the best things about this type of holiday is that the major cities (such as Tokyo) don’t shut down during this time. If it were my hometown, the city would be dead. But in Japan, the public can still go shopping or visit touristy areas without the worry of businesses being closed. So this year, a couple of friends and I decided to go on a mini-trip and take advantage not just of the Golden Week, but also the long weekend that just so happen to fall a day before Golden Week started. As a treat, we made this trip a full indulgence of Japan’s finest onsens – Mount Fuji and Kusatsu.

Mount Fuji

Our adventure began with Mount Fuji, on the long weekend prior to Golden Week. I’d visited Mount Fuji about seven years ago during my mid-semester vacation as a university student, but this was the first time for my friends. Given my previous experience, I knew that areas of Mount Fuji are quite spread out. Hence, I suggested to my friends that we hire a car instead of using the train and local buses to navigate ourselves around the area. This was a two-day one night trip.

Having no time to waste, we kick started our trip around 8:30am with our two-hour drive towards Mount Fuji. The drive on the highway was a nice and steady one, with some unavoidable traffic jams every now and then. But the mountainous scenery we saw during the drive was breathtaking. It was spectacular to see countless hills made up of luscious green bushes. Bushes don’t generally sound very attractive, but what made it spectacular was the different shades of green. The hills were covered with a mixture of a spring fresh vibrant kind of green, to a more mature kelly green, to an even darker olive green. Contrasted with the clear blue sky and the occasional white cloud, it truly was breathtaking. So even though the drive was semi-long, it wasn’t a dull one. The closer we got to our location, the better the view we got.

 

After a bit of traffic, we eventually reached Kawaguchiko Station and gazed upon the 3776m tall giant. It had been over 7 years since my last visit to this world heritage site. It was during September and it was also my first time visiting Japan. I was just a university student at the time, who naively chose to travel with an aunt. We stayed for a total of 3 nights and 4 days in Japan. This time, 7 years later, I’m now living and working in Japan.  Things for me during these seven years have changed dramatically, but for Mount Fuji, it remains as beautiful as it has always has been, standing majestically before us as we parked the car at the station. Just looking at the mountain was really soothing and relaxing, and yet they air was a tiny bit chilly too. Our first stop was the station itself, as we wanted to pick up some maps at the tourist information centre to find some clues on what was good to do in the area. It turned out that we were in luck. A huge flower park festival event called the Fuji Shibazakura festival was currently running from April 16 to May 29. This was a flower park festival where hundreds and thousands of flowers were planted across a huge field of a few hectares. To get there was a tiny bit of a trip, and we needed to pay a small fee for our entry. But when we arrived, all the flowers were in full bloom, and while walking through the park you could also get a beautiful view of Mount Fuji in the background as well. If you should be a photography addict, this would be your heaven.

Apart from the festival, we also visited a number of locations well known for their views of Mount Fuji. One of these was at the Chureito Pagoda, and another was at Mount Kachikachi – which offered us an excellent view of Mount Fuji which can only be accessed via a rope car. One of the famous five lakes of Fuji called Lake Kawaguchi was also a great spot to visit. We also ended up driving further to Lake Saiko and Lake Yamanakako as well.

At each lake, we would park our car and take photos of Mount Fuji. During our drive we also stumbled upon an old temple which turned out to be a world heritage site. There we found ancient trees that were hundreds of years old. To be able to see and touch them in real life was truly a mystical experience.

That night we stayed at a hotel called Mizuno Hotel. It was located along Lake Kawaguchi. Our room had a spectacular view of Mount Fuji. And although it was a tad pricy, it was worth it. The hotel offered a nice proper onsen, and also a complimentary breakfast.  The onsen itself was up-to standard and very clean.  At night, the view of Mount Fuji is pretty much nonexistent because it is too dark outside to see, but while soaking in the onsen we were able to look out over the lake for a bit. I would imagine if it were winter or snowing, the experience would’ve been amazing.

Kusatsu

Our next stop was Kusatsu. Kusatsu is located in Gunma prefecture. I’d suggested this place to my friends because some of my colleagues had visited the area before and it sounded very relaxing. There we stayed for two nights and three days – making good use of the Golden Week holiday. According to my colleagues, Kusatsu is famous for its hot temperature onsens. In winter, many people go there for skiing as well. What was supposed to be a 3 hour drive from my home turned into a 4 hour one due to heavy traffic and narrow roads. The drive to Kusatsu was very different to Mount Fuji. Not only was it longer, but it also wasn’t as scenic. The drive to Kusatsu comprised mostly of rice fields and such. Kusatsu is located in the mountains, so the drive involved a lot of steep road driving and heavy use of the brakes. Eventually we reached our destination, and immediately we noticed a difference in the atmosphere.

Kusatsu had a very different feel about it to Mount Fuji and where we lived in Japan. There were a lot of visitors in town, but we could tell that most of them were actually just local folk visiting the area. There were some foreigners, but the majority of the people there were Japanese. It was actually more crowded than we expected, and there were lots of cars driving around. Yet it was still a relaxing and comfortable area to visit. We found Kusatsu more of a town for local folks to enjoy a relaxing time, rather than a touristy area for those who expected lots of scenery and touristy stuff to do.

Before heading to our pre-booked ryokan, we parked our car in the town car park and walked around the main town area of Kusatsu called the Yubatake. It is also known as the Hot Water Field. It was a small town, but it provided a very cozy and soothing atmosphere. Walking towards the center of town, we saw groups of people soaking their feet in what seemed to be hot spring baths, which was quite cool to observe but we didn’t get a chance to try them ourselves as it was just too crowded. The hot spring had a strong odor that smelt like boiling eggs, which really didn’t encourage us to soak our feet in them anyway. Yet to see a hot spring in the center of town was actually really special.

 

We noticed it was also quite chilly there. We had to wear our thickest jumpers or cardigans to stay warm. I was pre-warned it was going to be cool by my work mates, but I didn’t realise it was going to be that chilly because it was so hot in my prefecture and already technically Spring! But despite the cold we were able to enjoy eating soba and ice cream before heading to our ryokan called the Kiyoshigekan.

The ryokan we stayed at was a little bit run down and some of the facilities were a tiny bit old, but nonetheless cozy. Our room was a nice huge tatami room where we were able to fit exactly three futons on the floor. The ryokan had one private onsen for families to use at their own pleasure for a reasonable time period. They also had a public onsen for men and women which included an open air bath outside. These public onsens were also available for private use for a reasonable time after 9:00pm. For the two nights we stayed there we made sure we enjoyed the most of the onsen there. The onsen at Kusatsu was indeed warmer than any other onsen I had tried. I personally liked it and found it very refreshing.

Bathhouse Performance

The second day in Kusatsu was still very busy with cars and local visitors. We managed to drive a few miles out of town and go walking in a park area with open air foot onsens.  We also watched a performance by the Netsu no Yu Bathhouse which costed 500 yen per person. The Bathhouse is located right in the center of town.  At this bathhouse, people get to see a demonstration of Yumomi as well as a traditional dance done with a Japanese folk song. Yumomi means stirring the bath water. It is a traditional method that the people of Kusatsu invented to help lower the temperature of the onsen water. Apparently the temperature of the onsen spring water in Kusatsu is around 65 degrees Celsius. This makes it too hot to bathe in and so they use this method to decrease the temperature before dipping into the onsen. The show was interesting. But, was it worth it to watch? To me, not so much. I had to wait in line for about an hour for a show that went for only 30 minutes. The ticket box office only sold tickets half an hour before the show started. Heaps of people would queue up – hence there was always a major long line outside the doors.  If you didn’t know what was going on, you would of thought some major event was happening!

After the show, we walked back up to our car and went for a drive. Not knowing what to expect, we drove deep into the mountains for about half an hour. The unexpected car drive turned into a great discovery of great hiking trails and scenic views. We saw a very nice waterfall called Daisen no Taki (大仙の滝).

Waterfall Daisen

We also came across an interesting view of over 30 streaming carps (koinobori) hanging in the sky above a local village. Whenever the wind picked up, there carps would move as though they were really fish. It was a wonderful sight to see.

Finishing up the trip, the drive back home wasn’t as tough but the temperature had sure turned dry and warm the moment we reached Saitama prefecture.

Onsens are definitely doable should you be someone who is visiting for a few days and just want to have a brief dive in.  If you have someone who is working in Japan and have at least two or three random days off, onsens are a great way to unwind. For people who visit Japan as a holiday, you should definitely try to allocate a few days to try onsens. Mount Fuji and Kusatsu are only two of over a hundred or more available options in Japan. Apparently there are onsens at Hakone where people can soak in wine and chocolate. If I go, I will definitely share my experience. Regardless of what onsens you plan to go to, be aware that there are rules people need to follow.  As a precaution, before booking any place, confirming details with the staff first is highly recommended. I personally haven’t experienced any issues myself going to an onsen. But I have heard stories of people having their business declined because of their tattoos, particularly folk who have huge tattoos on their back or very visual parts of their body.  My understanding is the reasoning behind this is that the local people associate tattoos with the Yakuza (Japanese mafia).  So be prepared and do your research to avoid any misunderstandings or disappointment at not being given entrance.

It was sad to let this holiday go, but unfortunately it all had to end. For anyone who wants to visit Mount Fuji at a leisurely pace, it is totally doable over a normal weekend. Of course, if you have the time, staying there for at least 2 or 3 nights is well worth it. I highly recommend getting a car to save you time too. There are shuttle buses available, but you might fall in the trap of waiting for the bus most of the time. Kusatsu is a bit in the sticks, but nonetheless relaxing. At least two nights there for the onsens and skiing during the winter seasons is what I would recommend.

This experience over Golden Week has made me want to go out and explore more. You never know what you can discover.  Don’t be afraid of going off on random drives. Road trips such as these can take you into areas that show you gorgeous things when you least expect it!

This blog entry has been published on my friend’s travel website – http://www.myinnerwayfarer.com/.  Go there and check out more interesting travel stories and tips.

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