Monday 23 September 2013

Walking Around Kusatsu

Because Naraya is located along Sai no Kawara Street (西の河原通り), the main shopping street that runs from the Yubatake to Sai no Kawara Park where more hot springs bubble up and form steaming streams, it proved to be very convenient when we needed to walk back to the hotel to dump our shopping. This happened several times. 

After a long stretch of beautifully sunny days, it finally rained in the morning, so we armed ourselves with umbrella from the hotel before venturing out. In the end, the umbrellas were hardly used since we kept ducking in and out of the many stores anyway. Within a one-minute walk from Naraya for instance, there was the Kusatsu Chopstick Store 'Yuzen' (草津のお箸やさん「遊膳」) where I stood transfixed at the chopstick holders shaped like food, and the local outlet of Cotton Bear Teddy Bear Workshop. 

Further up the road outside the Kusatsu Glass Warehouse No. 1 Store (草津ガラス蔵 一号店), baskets of eggs were being cooked in the hot spring water. The spring waters of Kusatsu give off a faintly greenish glow when illuminated at night, so the signature glass works made and sold here reflect that, giving off a faint emerald hue. 

While D shopped around for cups and teapots, M & I wandered off into the adjoining building, where glass beading workshops were being held. Was terribly tempted to take pictures, but there were big signs all over saying "NO FOOD. NO PICTURES." so I didn't dare. 

It took some time and much dodging of pushy manju sellers, but we made it out of the main shopping street eventually, finding ourselves in the rather gloomy looking Sai no Kawara Park. 

It's interesting how disparate cultures associate the smell of sulphur with hell - roughly translated, the area is known as the Riverbed of the West, but a homonym for Sai is sometimes substituted, changing the meaning to Riverbed of the Underworld. 

The imagery is helped along by the heat and acidity of the water that leaves the surrounding area as good as barren. The thick plumes of steam also contribute greatly to the creepy factor. 

For a crowded tourist spot, the park is a fairly quiet place, although how much of it has to do with the local legend that the demon who inhabits the area will be summoned if you speak too loudly is probably debatable.   

I dipped my toes into the shallowest parts of the stream, and found it to be quite pleasantly warm, but as we walked deeper into the park, we saw signs telling people to keep out of areas where the water was dangerously hot. The water that flows into Kusatsu is warmed by Mt Shirane, an active volcano that doubles as a ski location in winter. (Just don't breathe in the toxic fumes) 

We made a circuit around the entire park area, walking past the Sai no Kawara Outdoor Bath (西の河原露天風呂), the largest outdoor bath in Kusatsu. It's apparently so large that over a hundred people can comfortably enjoy the hot spring at the same time. The ladies' bath is situated to ensure privacy, but no one warned us that the men's bath.... isn't. We were looking at the building when suddenly the pool came into view, and along with it the need for brain bleach. If you're walking back to the main park area from the top of the hill, remember to avert your eyes!

Kusatsu Onsen's mascot is Yumomi-chan, named after the local practice of using wooden paddles cool the water down from their natural temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius. Yumomi (湯もみ) performances are put on for tourists at the Netsu no Yu Bathhouse (熱の湯) just by the Yubatake. 

The waters of Kusatsu Onsen aren't just good for bathing in, they're also great for glamour shots, as seen from the example below. 

The water colour really is very nice. 

While Kusatsu Onsen's springs may not be the most acidic nor sulphuric, they are the most productive in Japan, providing over 30,000 litres of hot water a minute. There's so much water that the town has a cypress pavilion, the Yukemuri Tei (湯けむり亭) where everyone can soak their hands and feet for free.

Since our bus was not leaving until late afternoon, we had enough time to visit the Tsurutaro Kataoka Art Museum, which we'd passed by chance on the way to the park. I later found that the artist is more famous for his acting career and his past stint as a pro boxer.  

When we first passed the museum earlier in the morning, we popped in to see the gift shop. We liked what we saw (I ended up buying the 2014 calendar as well as a couple of postcards for my wall), so that was all the incentive we needed to go back and get our tickets. If you don't have the time, we found that most of the pictures in the exhibition can actually be seen in the souvenir shop

Still, we really enjoyed admiring the original works. Of all the museums we visited on the trip, this was hands down our favourite. Oddly, while the gift shop was pretty packed, we were the only ones going through the museum proper, which was brilliant. I'm awfully talkative in museums, so it was nice not having to hiss out a conversation for once. 

The ticket stub you get to keep serves a dual function as a postcard, so you get to choose which picture you'd like to take with you. I chose the rather fluffy bird. 

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