Famous hot springs have storied histories
When was Kusatsu Onsen discovered?
Kusatsu Onsen—nestled between the active volcanoes of Mt. Shirane and Mt. Motoshirane.
There are various legends about the discovery of the hot springs, some of which say the legendary prince Yamato Takeru found them more than 1800 years ago, while others say that the high priest Gyoki of the Nara period found them. It is also well known that Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first shogun of the Kamakura shogunate, bathed in the springs. The fact that there are many stories of how they were discovered by historical figures is likely proof of just how famous the quality of Kusatsu Onsen's spring water was even in ancient times.
Even the bathing style has history
Kusatsu's unique and famous yumomi bathing style has been practiced since long ago. In those days, the bath-goers themselves would churn the water in order to lower the temperature without comprising its spring qualities, but it also served as pre-bathing exercise. Kusatsu's very own brand of balneotherapy is continued today as a treasured part of Japan's hot spring culture.
A turning point in Kusatsu's history
A German physician by the name of Dr. Erwin von Bälz, who had been invited to Japan by the Japanese government, first visited Kusatsu in August 1878. He praised Kusatsu as being an unrivaled highland hot spring resort, saying that if it was in Europe it would probably be more popular than Karlsbad (one of Europe's best hot springs located in the Czech Republic). Bälz introduced Kusatsu to the world after presenting his findings on the spring qualities and therapeutic benefits of Kusatsu Onsen in German academic journals. And from the perspective of modern medicine, he focused on the unique acidic properties of Kusatsu's hot springs and at the same time informed the outside world about its wonderful location and environment. Even today the town's residents revere Dr. Bälz for his endeavors to transform Kusatsu into the ideal hot spring resort up until his return home in 1905.
The new face of an international resort
Kusatsu is a highland resort blessed with high-quality hot springs, clean air, and everything the natural environment has to offer. This is precisely why Dr. Bälz loved Kusatsu so much as a home away from home. After concluding its first twin town relationship in 1962 with Dr. Bälz's German hometown of Bietigheim-Bissingen, Kusatsu has since set about opening up a new chapter in its history as an international spa resort by twinning with other towns: Snowy River (Australia), a mountain resort area on the same latitude as Kusatsu, but in the southern hemisphere; Neustift (Austria), a winter sports resort town possessing similar snow quality and natural beauty; and Karlovy Vary (Czech Republic), the renowned spa resort town that was compared with Kusatsu by Dr. Bälz.
Notable people with connections to Kusatsu Onsen
Minamoto no Yoritomo Milky white hot springs fit for a venerable shogun
In 1193, one year after the Kamakura shogunate had been established, Minamoto no Yoritomo was said to have visited Kusatsu Onsen during a hunting trip to the foothills of Mt. Asama. The Shirahata-no-yu public bathhouse on the western side of the Yubatake is named after the symbolic white flag of the Minamoto clan. Yoritomo would often go hunting in the eastern provinces of Japan to demonstrate the might of his military government. In the hot spring rankings of the Edo period, which were based on the therapeutic effects of spring water, Kusatsu topped the list as the best hot spring in the east of Japan. There is no denying that Kusatsu Onsen has strong connections with those who reign supreme.
Dr. Bälz The benefactor of Kusatsu
The German physician Dr. Erwin von Bälz praised Kusatsu as being "a highland hot spring unrivaled anywhere in the world." Dr. Bälz was invited by the Meiji government to teach at the medical college of Tokyo Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo's Faculty of Medicine) and also served as the personal physician to the Emperor Meiji. From a modern medicine point of view, he focused on the unique acidic properties of Kusatsu's hot springs and at the same time informed the world about its wonderful location and environment. Bälz made significant contributions to the development of the region. Today, his remarkable achievements are on display in the Dr. Erwin von Bälz Memorial Hall.
Naoya Shiga A writer's retreat?
The second half of the novel A Dark Night's Passing—a masterpiece of modern Japanese literature—was written in Kusatsu. Why did Shiga choose to pen his novel here? Perhaps it was because he needed a fresh location from which he could finish off the story he had visualized. At any rate, a hot spring resort surely would have honed his senses and enabled him to focus on his thoughts. Shiga also wrote that one time he was mistaken for a farmer when he was seeking out subject matter in Kusatsu Onsen. Considered a master of the Japanese short story, his creative urge may have been driven by Kusatsu's hot spring qualities and emotional factors at each juncture of his career.
Taro Okamoto Yubatake and art—an unexpected relationship
When looking down on the Yubatake from above, you can notice that its design is quite elaborate. The overall design of its bottle gourd shape and promenade were supervised by the renowned artist Taro Okamoto, who once famously said "art is an explosion!" A frequent visitor to Kusatsu to enjoy hot springs and skiing, Okamoto readily agreed to cooperate on this unique urban planning request, especially since he was already a fan of the town. In this way, the famous hot springs of Kusatsu helped create a work of art. It seems the hot springs also have the power to bring people together.
Inscribed into the posts of the stone fence that surround the Yubatake in the middle of the town are the names of 100 notable personalities who have visited Kusatsu Onsen. The names were selected and erected in the year 2000 to commemorate the town's 100th anniversary of its official founding.