Journeys in Japan – Karuizawa, Kusatsu onsen
Karuizawa is the place I have always wanted to visit ever since I learned about it from a cheesy Japanese TV drama that I used to watch to study the language. It is the famous retreat area for Tokyoites with lush greens and mild climate although when we got there, there was nothing mild about the scorching sun and humidity in the air. However, once you hide in the shadows of the forest, you can at last taste the delicious coolness Karuizawa is so famous for in summer.
The main street of the city was lined with various cafes, boutiques, bakeries and souvenir shops mostly selling tasty produce like jam and honey and the art works of local craftsmen. None of the stuff was cheap. The average lunch price at a restaurant or cafe was around 1500 yen.. More, if a restaurant was visited by someone famous like John Lennon. ^-^ Although if you don’t need to sit at a terrace or inside an air-conditioned room, there are plenty of choices of street food like German sausages, Russian piroshki, ice cream and amazing french bread.
There was a huge Ghibli animation souvenir shop on the main street. I spent half an hour browsing through different toys and character goods and ended up buying absolutely nothing… Always happens to me when I am given too much choice – I get lost!
On the way from Karuizawa to Kusatsu onsen, we visited beautiful Shiraito waterfalls (White thread waterfalls). The water was so cold I couldn’t bear to keep my feet in it for more than a minute. Such contrast in temperatures is really astonishing!
The smell of wet forest is really something special. I love it so much because it brings back so many memories from my childhood. It was just so peaceful to sit on a fallen tree, watch the dance of water falling down, enjoy the coolness of the air and smell the incredible aroma of wet soil and leaves…. I want to go back to that place so badly..
When we arrived to Kusatsu onsen it was already getting dark so we took a quick tour around the area visiting a small Kusatsu shrine at the top of the hill and trying delicious rice cakes with hot green tea at various “omiyage” shops along the way.
The main street of Kusatsu village had a huge reservoir of volcanic onsen water. The smell was excruciating – something in between a rotten egg and cat’s pee. But knowing that this horrible smell was just minerals that are so good for the body, it was kind of OK to bear it at least for a while.
People around were walking in their yukata which really gave a whimsical feel to the whole scene. I could easily imagine myself in the last century watching a small town scene unravel in front of my eyes. If you are fluent in Japanese, you can also enjoy a “rakugo” performance – traditional Japanese stand-up comedy that takes place in onsen.
At the main village square, there was a big pool of scorching hot onsen water for feet. Kusatsu is really famous for the hotness of its onsen water. It was so funny to watch Japanese tourists sitting by the pool, trying to ease their feet into the water and screaming “Atsui! Atsui!” – Hot! Hot! every second or so. My husband tried some Zen techniques he learned earlier which helped him keep his feet in the water for several minutes. ^-^ I could only do several seconds. ^-^
This was our ryokan – a very nice place with amazing personnel and rooms overlooking the hills.
We rented a private rustic rotemburo but the water was too hot. I guess I would really appreciate it in winter. In summer, it was unbearable. So instead I just sprinkled the onsen water on me and enjoyed a good massage. ^-^
The dinner was of course amazing. I just love onsen food – all vegetables and fish and everything is so fresh and delicious.
I visited the public rotemburo after hours so there was noone inside – yay! I liked it more than the private rotemburo because it had different baths with different temperatures and minerals. Also it was bigger and in the night the air was cooler so I could finally enjoy a little soaking in the water.
The next day, we decided to drive towards Nagano and see the famous Yugana volcanic lake high in the Shirano mountains. The road to that place was tough – not only it was a mountain serpentine road, it also was poisonous at times. Here and there, there were danger signs that advised drivers to drive fast and close all windows because the smell from natural onsen reservoirs in the mountains had too much chemicals in it to make you dizzy and lose control of the steering wheel. Plus, the smell itself was just pure evil. I have no idea how people on mountain bikes were passing through that area..
The volcanic lake was beautiful, same color as the mountain lakes in Patagonia. I saw a couple of deers on the peaks of the mountains near the lake. It was amazing being there and watching all that grandeur beauty in its untouched form.
After volcanic lake, we drove to a little town called Obuse to check the works of famous Ukiyo-e artist Hokusai.
In the Edo era, Obuse was a center of local commerce with trade routes to the Kanto area and West part of Japan. In response to the growth of economic activities some influential literary men and artists came all the way from Kyoto and Edo bringing high culture to the little town. Katsushika Hokusai – famous master of Ukiyo-e was one of them.
The area is also famous for its kuri – chestnuts. We tried everything – chestnut cakes, chestnut ice cream, chestnut wine.. We also bought lots of chestnut souvenirs for our families. ^-^ The town itself was pretty. It reminded me a little of Kanazawa – old commercial buildings preserved in pristine condition and still operating. I really admire Japanese for cherishing their traditions and finding the perfect balance between old and new.
Amazing Italian restaurant on the main street where we enjoyed lunch before heading back to Tokyo. ^-^ I love the places that are touristy but not crowded. I can’t really imagine a nice restaurant in Tokyo with 20 empty seats on terrace. That would be pure miracle. ^-^