By Shuli Sudderuddin
So there I was at an outdoor hot spring in the dead of winter in my birthday suit. It felt like all of Japan was there with me that evening, even though Kusatsu town has a population of only 7,500 people and about 40 people were present.
Not exactly the way I had imagined my first trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Kusatsu is a tiny town in the Gunma Prefecture, about 200km north-west of Tokyo. All 49ha of it sits in the mountains, accessible only by bus up a winding road.
The entire town runs on two things: ski slopes and onsen, or hot spring. The people, polite to a fault, lead simple and quiet lives, though I quickly learnt that in the Japanese hot spring everyone gets comfortably nude and even socialises.
With a high density of fountainheads under the ground that spout steaming sulphuric water, Kusatsu is one of three famous onsen spots in Japan, along with Gero and Noboribetsu.
The water, which suffuses the whole town with an eggy smell, is acidic enough to corrode coins. It comes from the ground at temperatures of up to 90 deg C but is cooled to between 38 and 50 deg C.
Most importantly, it supposedly has healing properties which cure everything from muscle aches to skin problems.
The Kusatsu folk are immensely proud of the springs and the town centre is built around a large group of fountainheads, called the Yubatake, that move over 33,000 litres of water every minute.
Public onsen bathhouses - mostly tiny, wooden shacks separated by sex - are located throughout the town.
While the biggest public baths usually charge an admission fee, 18 of these communal baths are free for public use.
The biggest one is arguably Sainokawara, where guests can soak in the middle of a pretty hot spring park. Here, it is not uncommon to see nude men unabashedly sunning themselves and walking around because the male outdoor hot spring is not fully shielded from the public path.
Most hotels also have their own onsen, which guests can use for free. Some are open round the clock.
At Kusatsu Now Resort Hotel, where I stayed, I entered its indoor women's hot spring and was immediately greeted by the sight of naked elderly Japanese women towelling themselves with vigour.
In contrast, I and two other girls from Singapore tittered nervously before eventually dropping our robes. Thankfully, no one stared and we quickly grew comfortable walking around in a crowd of women.
After a while, we even ventured outdoors to try the outdoor hot spring or rotemburo. Here, water gurgled down a tiny waterfall and into smoking pools under the sky and trees. Lying lazily in the hot water with the cold night air buffeting my upturned face and the sounds of rustling leaves and soft laughter, I could not remember why I had ever felt awkward.
We emerged rosy, glowing and wonderfully relaxed.
If nudity is not your thing, experience the onsen in another way. In the centre of the town, the yumomi ceremony to cool the onsen water by hand is performed daily.
Frail-looking Japanese women clad in kimonos beat the water with heavy wooden paddles while singing in unison. Later, they perform ceremonial dances with a slow and refined grace.
Tourists can try their hand at cooling the water, which is not as easy as it looks.
For those who prefer sports to soaking languidly in the springs, Mount Shirane has a range of ski slopes that operate during winter and spring and hiking trails for the rest of the year.
Ski or snowboard equipment and attire can usually be rented from shops around the larger hotels (about 3,500 yen). The slopes range from gentle ones where children slide around on tea trays or tubes to inclines that even experienced skiers must negotiate with care.
One of the best things about the ski slopes is the view from the top, which you reach via gondola and chair-lift rides. On the way up, you may even see mountain-dwelling animals such as the fox, rabbit and deer, or so I was told, since I saw only trees, more trees and snow.
The gondola costs about 900 yen for one ride while the chair lifts cost about 4,500 yen for one day.
In Kusatsu, there are a few small temples you could visit, though these are more for local use than tourist attractions.
At one temple just next to the Yubatake, people donate 100 yen to get their fortunes told. Those who receive a prediction that is not felicitous must tie the piece of paper to a wooden grid beside the temple, where the prayers of devotees are said to drive away the bad luck.
My fortune was glowing; I pocketed it to take home.
Although Kusatsu is located in the mountains, the seafood is generally excellent. I enjoyed many varieties of sashimi, including sea urchin, that were fresh.
Street snacks are also common and quite easy to find. Wandering through the narrow streets of the town, I was surrounded by street vendors grilling skewered fish, giant prawns, meat and vegetables.
The scents danced in the cold air and I was surprised by vendors thrusting free samples of a piping hot red bean bun in my direction, complete with a cup of green tea.
Moreover, little shops selling speciality rice crackers and homemade cookies (ranging from 500 to 1,000 yen) dot the town centre, as do retailers of beer, sake and shochu (another kind of alcohol made from rice).
Without flashy tourist attractions and monuments, Kusatsu town offers a relaxing holiday, not one filled with frenzied sightseeing. The wild, snowy tangle of the mountains and the peaceful, scenic springs touched and stilled my heart
In addition to the liberating experience of public nudity, I took away a feeling of peace. The refreshingly simple, quiet getaway made me feel, just as the fortune in my pocket predicted, that all was well with the world.
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