A lit stone lantern at night. Purple steam rises up behind it.

When it comes to vacation, I’m very much the kind of person who likes to run everywhere, see everything, and taste every dish that comes my way. That breakneck speed can get exhausting, though, and there’s something to be said about some hardcore relaxation.

When it comes to taking a nice long break during your vacation, hardly anything can beat a trip to a Japanese onsen. Onsen are ubiquitous all over Japan, and a quintessential Japanese experience. On its most basic level, an onsen is a place where you take a nice, long bath. In fancy natural mineral water. With a bunch of strangers. While naked.

If you’re from a country where communal bathing isn’t common, then that last point may take this from a relaxing outing to absolute nightmare material. I was nervous myself the first time I went to an onsen. That said, it’s amazing how quickly you get used to doing something when everyone around you treats it like it’s nothing. You might get a second look or two if you’re very clearly western, but no one’s going to be staring at your body while you’re trying to bathe. (That said, you might have to field some questions from extremely friendly grandmas.)

There are several specific rules for onsen, but they’re pretty easy to remember. Clean your body with soap at the provided showers before you get in the communal bath, don’t let long hair get in the water, take your tiny towel with you (but don’t put it in the water!) and leave your big towel in the dressing room, don’t splash or shout while in the water, make sure you go to the bathing room assigned to your gender… basically, just follow those around you. There are usually signs that explain what to do, and people are usually pretty patient with confused tourists.

Onsen are common all over Japan, and the onsen town takes that a step further. Onsen towns are entire towns that are devoted to the art of bathing. It could be a place where there’s a huge amount of natural hot springs, or it could be a place where those springs are reputed to have particular healing properties. Or, like Kusatsu Onsen, it could be both.

Densely wooded hills filled with fog.
It looked so spooky when I first got off the train.

Kusatsu Onsen is one of the most famous onsen towns in Japan. A mind-boggling 32,000 liters of hot water bubbles up out of the earth every single minute and its high mineral content is supposed to be incredible for your health — though, admittedly, it does leave the entire town smelling a little like rotten eggs. There are several public baths that are open to tourists (as well as some that are reserved for residents) and a bustling little town has cropped up around them.

The main feature of Kusatsu Onsen is the yubatake, or hot water fields. Kusatsu’s hot spring water is so incredibly hot that it would severely burn anyone who tried to hop right in. The yubatake is an elegant solution to this problem. The water is channeled along a series of above-ground fields to expose it to the air and cool it down before it heads to the baths. The effect is very striking, especially at night when the fields are lit up by lanterns and colorful lights, and you’ll probably have to wait your turn for the requisite selfie. One of my favorite memories from Kusatsu Onsen was just strolling down the street at night, taking in the ambiance.

A downward view of the fields. Really all you can see from this angle is some woodwork, a hot spring pool, stone stained with years of mineral deposits, and an old stone lantern.
A view from the lower viewing platform of the yubatake. Even on such a gray day, it was still kind of spectacular.
A hot spring shrouded in immense amounts of steam. Through the steam, you can see a pool of water that is a milky green. The pool is surrounded with black rocks. The town shops can be seen in the background.
A view from the upper platform. This is what the hot springs look like before they’re cooled down. Definitely don’t want to touch this.
The yubatake at night. All the buildings are lit up, and the yubatake itself is lit with purple and yellow lights that rise up through the fog.
Even if you bathe during the day, it’s worth coming back to see the hot water fields at night.
A night view of the lower end of the hot water fields. You can see a wooden chute bringing water down, and the whole thing is wreathed in hot steam.
The whole town just looks magical at night.

Another way that Kusatsu cools off its water is via yumomi, a special dance performed in a little theater next to the yubatake. Women wielding enormous paddles perform an elaborate dance and sing songs while agitating the spring water to cool it, and audience members are often encouraged to pick up a paddle and help them out. It’s a really cool experience, but also a very popular one; you’ll probably want to show up early if you want a good spot. Don’t make the same mistake I did, of accidentally standing in front of an elderly woman. People are super here for this show, and like I did, you might get forcefully moved aside.

(Please learn from my mistake: don’t mess with elderly women in Japan.)

Four women in traditional garb with long wooden paddles that are dipped into the hot water.
Four of the yumomi dancers. The dance started out sedate, but it didn’t stay that way!
(Note: the paddles say “Kusatsu”.)
A photo of the women walking around the pool in a circle clapping their hands.
Some of it was typical dancing…

The lights are out in this photo and the women are bent over so they can use the paddles to splash the water out of the pool.
And other parts were much more athletic.

Once you’ve walked through the picturesque old town and seen the water cool down, it’s time to try it out for yourself. There are several bathhouses to choose from throughout the town, and you can find guides there to help you choose which one you’d like to try first. You could try Otaki-no-yu, a large, fancy bathhouse that’s known for its pools that get increasingly hotter. I had more than one person ask me if I’d made it to the last one! There’s also Goza-no-yu, which has an elegant wooden interior and a community feeling inside. (This one was my favorite.) Or you could try something totally different and attempt the timed baths at Jizo-no-yu. The water here is extremely hot and you’re meant to stay in the healing water for exactly three minutes. Maybe it’s just me, but the timed baths feel sort of like you’re being microwaved…

You could look down through here at the water. Behind it, there’s Goza-no-yu. There is no picture of Goza-no-yu because there was an enormous delivery truck parked in front of it. Alas.

After you’ve had a nice bath (or two, or three) it’s time for a snack. There are certain foods that are famous in onsen towns, and I was happy to try them out for myself. As you walk down the main street to the yubatake, you’ll run the gamut through vendors selling onsen manjuu, or steamed buns. These bready dumplings are generally filled with red bean paste, though you’ll find them in several flavors. Free samples are often pushed on tourists, generally paired with green tea.

A close-up of the counter at a manjuu stand. There is a tray full of small brown manjuu and a tray full of empty teacups.
You’ll see these onsen manjuu stands all over the town. These little buns are filled with red bean paste — my favorite!

I fell prey to these friendly hawkers my first time down the street, but I could hardly complain about the experience. A little brown manjuu was shoved into my hands and I was shepherded into their shop, where I was presented with a small cup of green tea.

I had no intention of buying a commemorative box of manjuu to take home as a present for my friends and family, but they didn’t seem to mind. Instead, as soon as they realized that I was an American tourist who had a reasonably good handle on Japanese, they immediately wanted to talk American baseball. Unfortunately, I understand foreign languages a lot better than I do sports. I just kind of nodded my head and drank my tea, and though I didn’t end up buying anything, I still got a friendly wave every time I walked by.

The other food onsen towns all seem to be known for is onsen tamago, or onsen eggs. These are soft-boiled eggs that are cooked directly in the hot spring water that the towns are known for. Eggs are often just put in baskets and left in a small hot spring to cook. Once you buy them, you’re given a little bowl and a packet of broth you can pour over your egg once you get it out of its shell. It’s a little awkward to get the hang of, but it’s truly delicious.

A long bamboo rod is suspended over a rock pool full of hot spring water. Three baskets full of eggs are hanging from the rod.
I may have accidentally dropped my sweater in here. F-, not recommended. It took so long to get the smell of sulfur out.
A runny egg in a small styrofoam bowl with brown broth poured over it. It looks a little lumpy in this picture.
It tastes better than it looks.

At the end of my first day in Kusatsu, I went back to my hotel, which was actually a ryokan. Ryokan are kind of like extremely fancy bed & breakfasts that are found across Japan. They are especially common around traditional areas and onsen towns. Many of these ryokan are family-owned and have been in the same hands for hundreds of years. Your typical ryokan will have you sleep in a small, traditional Japanese room (i.e. sleeping on a futon on tatami rather than a western bed), where you will also be served meals. These meals are generally included in the cost of your stay and will often be absolutely extravagant.

It was...food?
Honestly not sure what all this was.
A green teapot on a brazier.
This was soup!

Kaiseki meals are very traditional in Japan and can be found in ryokan and fancy restaurants all over the country. (Especially Kyoto, a deeply historical town.) The meals include dozens of small dishes brought out to you in courses over the course of your evening. If you indulge in a kaiseki meal, expect to be eating it for at least a couple hours. (Note: this is one reason why you might be expected to check in at your ryokan relatively early in the evening.) If you’re foreign — or frankly, even if you’re Japanese — there’s a strong likelihood that a lot of what you will be served will be a complete mystery to you. We are not talking typical Japanese cuisine here, but instead haute cuisine fueled by seasonal foods, tradition, and the chef’s own ingenuity. Still, sometimes it’s a little fun to have no idea what you’re eating.

Another bowl of mystery.
I could post a thousand photos of this meal.
The brazier reappears, this time with nabe.
But I promise this is the last one.

Most ryokan will have dinner and breakfast included, and will ask you about your dietary needs when you make your reservation. At the ryokan I stayed at in Kusatsu Onsen, breakfast was served in a separate dining room, but was no less extravagant.

After you’ve eaten so much food that you feel like you’re going to pass out, take a little rest in your traditional room, then head out to take, what else, yet another bath. Most ryokan in onsen towns also have their own private baths that you can use while staying there. This might be a little less overwhelming if you’re not used to communal bathing, as I’ve found them to be a little less crowded than public baths most of the time. You still go through all the same motions but get a somewhat quieter experience.

Or, you could go the exact opposite route, like I did, and take a visit to Sai no Kawara on the far side of Kusatsu Onsen. This is how I spent my second day there, and I believe that just this park is worth the trip up there. Sai no Kawara is a beautiful little park that’s full of hot springs releasing steam up into the air. The scenery is nothing short of gorgeous.

A rectangular stone pool surrounded with wooden benches and greenery.
A small foot bath near the front of the park.
A maple leaf floating in a hot spring.
Fall really is one of the most beautiful times to visit Japan. The maple leaves were falling in the hot springs so gracefully.

You’ll also find plenty to explore while you’re there. You can see the devil’s kettle, a hot spring that bubbles up like a kettle and mysteriously goes quiet as you approach, or maybe take a little trip up to the tiny Shinto shrine up on the hill. You can sit along the rocks and put your feet in a large communal foot bath under the watchful eye of Jizo. Or, you could climb all the way to the top and visit Kusatsu Onsen’s largest and most beautiful rotenburo.

A small pool ringed with stone. You can see steam rising from the pool. In the background, there is a carving of an oni/devil with a poem carved above it.
The devil’s kettle. I wasn’t sure which of these hot springs were safe to touch and which ones were “jigoku” (“hells”), aka the hot springs so hot that you could get seriously injured. I just played it safe and only put my feet in the pools with benches.
Steps leading up to a small Shinto shrine on a wooded hill. Red wooden torii gates line the stairs, and lanterns hang from them.
I wanted to make it to the rotenburo, so I did not climb the steps to this little shrine.
Another view of the torii-lined walkway through the trees.
It looked so spooky through the trees!

Most onsen are indoors in a lovely bathhouse that pipes hot spring water into a wooden or rock-lined bath for you to soak in. However, rotenburo are something a little different and are not to be missed. These are outdoor baths that allow you to enjoy the famous mineral water of Kusatsu Onsen while surrounded with the beauty of nature. In my opinion, these are best enjoyed while it’s pretty chilly outside. The combination of cold air and hot water is one of the most relaxing things on earth, and a little bite in the air will keep you from getting too dizzy in the hot water.

Like indoor onsen, the rotenburo is split into two sides, one for men and one for women, and like most onsen, the sides are switched on a set schedule so you can try out both sides. You can hear the people on both sides, and paired with the sounds of nature and that of the rest of the park’s inhabitants, it can make for a louder experience. Still, there’s something really soothing about relaxing against the rotenburo’s rocks and maybe chatting with a friend. The water’s high mineral content feels almost fizzy against your skin, and you can see why doctors have praised its effects for decades.

This is the large foot bath back near the rotenburo. I didn’t take a photo of the rotenburo itself because, well, it was full of naked people. I doubt flash photography would’ve been appreciated.
A very, very old statue. Most of its features have been worn away, but the tattered remains of a bib can still be seen around its neck, identifying it as Jizo. Small stacks of rocks have been left around it by adherents.
There are quite a few statues throughout the park, most of them depicting the popular Buddhist bodhisattva Jizo. I felt oddly drawn to this one. Small stacks of rocks like these can be found all over the park.
Hello again, Jizo-sama! Look at the way people have left manjuu for him. That’s how you know you’re in an onsen town!

Now, I have several chronic illnesses. I’ve heard about all number of quack therapies over the course of my life. People like to say that the water at Kusatsu can heal any ailment except heartbreak. Can bathing in an onsen’s mineral waters actually cure all of life’s ills? I’m leaning towards probably not — I’ve even seen people saying it can cure cancer, and that’s gonna be a big no from me. That said, I felt really good after bathing at Kusatsu Onsen. It gives you all of the benefits of taking a nice, long soak at home, but with hotter water and clear air. The entire town is devoted to relaxation and self-care, and that atmosphere really gets to you. And hey? What do I know? Maybe some of those minerals really helped out my skin.

If you want to try out the healing waters of Kusatsu Onsen, it is a bit of a hike. You’ll need to take a train out of Tokyo and then a connecting bus to Kusatsu Onsen station. If you’re staying at a ryokan, they will often be willing to pick you up here. If you’re only staying for the day (not recommended if you’re coming all the way from Tokyo) or you’re staying at a normal hotel/airbnb, you’re probably better off walking or taking the local bus. It’s not a very large town, and getting around it is pretty easy, but getting out there? Yeah, I’d set aside at least three hours for the trek from Tokyo.

There’s not a lot to do, exactly, in Kusatsu Onsen, but there’s something to be said for going out to a spa town to give yourself a break. If you’re going to be in Japan for quite a while, I wholeheartedly recommend taking some time to visit an onsen, whether in a fancy onsen town or just in the city. It’ll let you decompress after all of your frantic travels, and the hot water will soothe away your stress.