Monday 23 September 2013

Kusatsu Onsen Naraya

We'd booked our train tickets to Kusatsu without checking for alternative routes, so we ended up taking the long way around (Bus-train-train-bus for a grand total travelling time of a little over three hours) before getting to Kusatsu Onsen's main bus station. I'd loaded up a map to our hotel on my phone, but D insisted on asking a station conductor for directions. It's a good thing he did, because I later found that Google Maps once again attempted to provide a walking route through a vehicle-only tunnel.  (Get your act together Google Maps!)

We wound up dragging our luggage through the heart of Kusatsu, by the Yubatake (Hot Water Field), a spring that produces up to 4000 litres of water a minute. Its distinctive appearance is thanks to a series of bamboo boxes designed to cool the spring water down to an acceptable temperature for bathing in. Our hotel was less than a minute away from the Yubatake, so we were right smack where the action was. The English speaking staff at Naraya got us settled in quickly and showed us to our room. 

The spring water of Kusatsu is highly sulphuric and acidic, with a pH value of 2.1. This generally makes for healthful bathing given its anti-bacterial qualities. Back in the 19th century when travel and bath therapy was a bigger thing than it is now, the waters of Kusatsu Onsen were purported to be a cure-all. Since we were only around for a short period, what we enjoyed the most though were its skin-smoothing properties - after our baths we sat around marvelling at how soft our skin felt. Just... Don't get the stuff in your eyes. It will hurt. Trust me.

It was taking us some time to get used to the lingering smell of sulphur, so dressed in our yukata, we popped outside for a short wander around the Yubatake. Ended up by a WiFi hotspot, which I noticed when a bunch of Facebook notifications came in all at once. The free hotspot was set up to promote social sharing of the evening's event, Yubatake Candle Light of Dream (湯畑キャンドル 「夢の灯り」)

As part of the Yubatake Candle event, over a thousand candles are laid on the stone steps up to the Kosenji, a Buddhist Temple in Kusatsu that was founded during the Nara period in the 8th century.

Kusatsu Onsen is consistently voted one of Japan's top three Onsens for the quality of its water, but beyond that the town itself has enough going on for a fairly lively evening out. 

A stage had been set up for sideshows to the main event, and we witnessed a really intense and quite breathtaking jamming session between a flutist playing with a traditional bamboo instrument and a harmonica player. 

We made a short dash back to the hotel after noticing the time, so as not to be late for dinner.

During our dinner, we were attended to by Shorin-san, who did his utmost best to explain the dishes to us.

He even provided us with an English menu, which I studied carefully while eating my puffed rice. Since the rice wasn't listed anywhere on the menu, I think it might have been intended just as a decorative piece. Still, it was very enjoyable. 

What the menu indicated, in a clockwise spiral from the top: Persimmon dressed with tofu and miso, Sushi of rainbow trout, Jellied yuba and mushrooms, Grilled saury with pickled ginger, Snow crab roll, Baked light meat, Maple starch cake, Grilled chestnut. 

The next dish was scallops, enoki mushrooms and citron pepper.

The menu claimed this was Soup like Chrysanthemum with Mutsutake-Mushroom. The dollop of mustard provided an interesting tang. 

The sashimi course included tuna, tuna belly, sea bream and sweet prawn.

There was more shrimp with the fried item course, and this time I steer clear of the starchy maple cake. The fried prawn was very sweet and juicy, and the eggplant and taro rather tasty too, but the fried strips of burdock were a tad hard. 

Shorin-san came by with a lighter for the beef hot pot. The soup itself was plain apart from being mildly salted, so we could get a taste of the beef on its own. We let the pots sit for a while so the beef would cook. 

Shorin-san came into the room bearing the claypots with his bare hands. By this point the three of us were feeling quite full already, but we didn't want all his effort to go to waste, so we finished everything in the bowl. The menu called it an "Akagi" Cubed Pork Stew. Still not sure what the "Akagi" was referencing - The manga? The aircraft carrier?, but what I can say for certain is eating the soft boiled egg whites with the oils left by the cube of pork belly felt very decadent indeed. 

At this point, the beef was done, so I fished my slice out of the pot. It was good beef, and the accompanying vegetables went some ways in overcoming the richness of the meal.  

There were the usual rice, soup and pickles before dessert, which consisted of jellied papaya in milk and a green tea rice cake with red bean. After we finished everything, we found ourselves in desperate need for a walk to help us digest our dinner. 

When we went back to the Yubatake Candles, we realized that some of them had been extinguished to create the shape of Gunma-chan, the prefecture's mascot. We joined the line of people getting their pictures taken by a volunteer photographer in front of the lights. 

After the excitement of the candles, D decided it was time for more dessert. While he looked around, I wandered over to the man-made waterfall at the end of the Yubatake and elbowed my way to the front for a shot. The entire place was packed, not just because of Kusatsu's general popularity but also thanks to a long weekend leading to an uptick of domestic travelling. 

I went for another bath to ensure a good night's sleep, and only when I went back to the room did I realize my silver bracelet had reacted with the sulphur in the water.

Breakfast the next morning was very light and healthy, for which we were thankful. 

For the rest of our day in Kusatsu, the staff of Naraya provided us with maps and suggestions on where to visit, and arranged for the hotel van to send us back to the bus station later that day. 

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