Our Japan exploration started with Kusatsu (草津), one of Japan’s most famous onsen spots, which is also very close to Tokyo (about 4 hours away). You can choose to make a 2-day-1-night trip but because Kusatsu is also very close to Karuizawa (軽井沢) so we decide to make the trip longer! The following article is about our 3-day-2-night travel plan and experience (including the attractions I like the most) in Kusatsu Onsen and Karuizawa.
Took the express bus at Shinjuku (新宿) → Arrived at Kusatsu for lunch → Walked around onsen street and nearby attractions → Hotel check-in → Onsen time! → Had dinner at the hotel → Night walk at Nishinogawara Park (西の河原公園) and onsen street → Onsen again! → Had a good sleep.
Breakfast in hotel → Hotel check-out → Quick walk at Nishinogawara Park → Watched the Yumomi (熱乃湯 / 湯もみ) Performance → Bus ride to Karuizawa → Lunch at Karuizawa → Kumobaike Pond (雲場池 / くもばいけ) → Karuizawa New Art Museum (軽井沢ニューアートミュージアム) → Hotel check-in → Walked & ate dinner around Kyukaruizawa Ginza (軽井沢銀座) → Back to hotel and sleep
Breakfast in hotel → Hotel check-out → Shiraito Falls (白糸の滝) → Karuizawa New Art Museum again for the Birch Moss Chapel → Lunch & shopping at Prince Shopping Plaza (軽井沢・プリンスショッピングプラザ) → Express bus home
Public Transport Plan: Tokyo→Kusatsu→Karuizawa→Tokyo
There are several ways for you to visit Kusatsu from Tokyo (check the Kusatsu onsen website for more options), and I choose the easiest way – taking the express bus from Tokyo, Shinjuku or Shibuya. The good part about the bus is you don’t have to transfer but it will take about 4 hours if there is no traffic jam. We chose to take JR Bus Kanto (ジェイアールバス関東) in Shinjuku because it is closer to our place. The Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal is just next to the JR Shinjuku Exit so it’s very approachable. It is recommended to book a seat in advance. If you have a Rakuten account in Japan, Rakuten Travel is a good choice cause you can find discount coupons and accumulate points there and save money for your next trip. But if you are not living in Japan, you can buy it at kousokubus. I booked a bus with a toilet, but the bus stopped in a rest area once, so I didn’t use the bus toilet.
From Kusatsu to Karuizawa, you can take the KusakaruKotsu Bus (軽井沢 ⇔ 草津温泉) run by KUSAKARU-KOTSU (草軽交通株式会社). You don’t need to buy a ticket in advance. There is a ticket office at the Kusatsu bus station. Due to the difficulty to secure a seat, it’s better to buy tickets and queue up earlier if there are too many people. Prepare cash cause I was told cash only. Check the latest timetable here, the English version is available. If you can’t find it, check the below screenshot!
Our original plan was to go to Karuizawa after lunch, but since there are fewer things to do in Kusatsu with heavy snow, and we don’t have plans to do Higaeri Onsen (日帰り温泉, the onsens you can just visit without staying overnight.) hopping, we decided to leave earlier and arrive Karuizawa for lunch.
PS: If you are interested in onsen hopping, check Kusatsu Onsen website for more detail.
We took the express bus back from Karuizawa to Tokyo due to the affordability (compared with the Shinkansen, the bus is really cheap!) But because the return trip was on a Sunday afternoon, the traffic jam delayed us by 40-50 minutes. So next time if I have to travel on the last day of the holiday, I will consider taking Shinkansen.
Stay at Kusatsu – Kusatsu Hotel (草津ホテル)
Kusatsu Hotel (Rakuten | Booking.com) is built in 1913. It was a western hotel but was converted to a Japanese one afterwards and it’s a traditional wooden construction! The reason why choosing Kusatsu Hotel is simply because we want to stay in a traditional Japanese-style hotel. Additionally, the location of Kusatsu Hotel is great! It’s just outside Sainokawara Park (西の河原公園)! Finally, how could a hotel named after the place name be bad!? And this hotel doesn’t let me down.
We booked a mountainside Japanese-style room – 8 tatami mats – with a standard private bathroom. Our room was similar to the photos on Booking.com as below with a different direction of the bed. The room is not considered as big, but it is comfortable. The best part of the hotel is its onsen / bathhouse. You can enjoy the onsen both outdoor and indoor. It was an extremely fantastic experience having onsen under -6°C while snowing. The onsen is great so I went to the bathhouse twice a day! The only small con is that the soundproofing of wooden buildings is not very good, which is a bit of a test of the quality of passengers.
We initially booked a package with breakfast. But we had dinner in the hotel at the end since it was really cold outside. Breakfast and dinner are served at the restaurant. I don’t particularly like the fish for dinner, but overall it’s worth the price. The staff is also very kind as well.
Stay at Karuizawa – Hotel Karuizawa Elegance (ホテル軽井沢エレガンス)
The location of Karuizawa Elegant Hotel (Rakuten | Booking.com) is nice. It’s just next to the Karuizawa New Art Museum, and about a 10-minute walk from Karuizawa Station. When I arrived, I found that the owner of the hotel has his own restaurant and dessert shop (the staff said the owner is a pâtissier), and you can also host weddings there. The business is really big!
We booked the standard rooms, the interior design concept is a bit nostalgic but decent and clean. The hot water in the shower is great! And the staff inside are really elegant. The French toast in their breakfast bar is told to be a major selling point of the breakfast buffet and it does delicious.
My Favourite Attractions in Kusatsu
If you want to walk around Kusatus, you can refer to the Kusatsu Onsen website. Besides my favourite event, which is immersing myself in the onsen, I really like Yubatake (湯畑) and the performance of Yumoni (熱乃湯 / 湯もみ).
“Yubatake” is located in the centre of Kusatsu Onsen Street. The hot spring water flows from the source through seven long wooden rafts (木樋) in Yubatake. In addition to adjusting the water temperature, the rare “Yunohana” is also collected from here (you can find it selling shop but I didn’t notice). The night view is great, but when I went there, it was too cold (the once-in-a-decade cold snap had just passed), so it was so foggy for me to enjoy the full view. Below is the only picture I took that is less foggy. LOL
Yumomi (熱乃湯 / 湯もみ)
Due to the high temperature (more than 51°C) of the source of Kusatsu Onsen, there has been a practice of using wooden paddles to stir the hot spring water to cool it down to avoid diluting the mineral content in the water since the Edo period. It is called “Yumomi”. People stir the hot spring rhythmically while singing traditional folk songs. There are 6 rounds of performances every day, and each performance lasts about 30 minutes. There are also experience activities during holidays that you can do it yourself. For the latest information, please refer to the official website. Show the discount code here with your mobile phone to make your trip even worthy!
Below is part of the performance. The second part of the performance is great! Please take a look yourself in person!
Nishinogawara Park (西の河原公園)
There are hot springs gushing out from Nishi Kawara Park, and there is also the largest open-air bath in Kusatsu Onsen, as well as foot baths. The locals call it the Home of Monsters and the Monster Spring, and it is said that you cannot speak loudly here, otherwise monsters will come.
It was only about -10°C to -7°C when I came to Kusatsu, so I just walked around here. It was too cold and there was almost no one at night. It was comfortable to have a walk and enjoy the view there but I was a little scared of the dark and lonlynese.
My Favourite Attractions in Karuizawa
Before sharing my favourite attractions, I would like to remind everyone that the Mikasa Hotel, an important cultural heritage in Karuizawa, is currently under renovation and is expected to be closed for 4-5 years. In addition, when I went to Karuizawa Ginza (January 2023), there were very few shops open after 5 pm, so if you want to go there, do it earlier. I arrive around 4 pm something so I didn’t see anything).
Shiraito Falls (白糸の滝)
When I research online, I saw a blogger didn’t recommend it because of its non-magnificent view and accessibility so Shiraito Falls was not on my initial itinerary. We visited this place just because my hubby saw it online in Kusatus and wanted to go. And I am glad we still decided to go in the end.
Different from what I know, the water source of Shiraito Falls is not from the river but from groundwater. In Shiraito Falls, hundreds of groundwater fall on the curved rock wall like white lines. The water quality is so transparent and clear too. It is a very refreshing experience for me. It seems that there are some natural trails here, and I plan to find a time when there is no snow to go hiking.
It’s not that troublesome to visit Shiraito Falls vis public transportation if you know how to do it. The most convenient way is to take the KusakaruKotsu Bus between Kusatsu and Karuizawa. And Yes! That’s the same bus mentioned earlier! So if you don’t have much luggage with you, you can actually get off the bus first on your want from Kusatsy to Karuizawa (or the other way round)! The waterfall is about a 5-minute walk from the Shiraito Falls bus stop.
Or you can follow the timetable as we did (check here for the latest price and timetable) to take a bus. About 1 hour of stay is enough if you are not hiking. There is no need to buy a ticket for the bus in advance. Just remember to take the numbered ticket (整理券 / seiriken) when you get on the bus. Give the driver the numbered ticket with the bus fare when you get off the bus. You can get change, but it is more convenient to prepare just the right change.
KARUIZAWA NEW ART MUSEUM & Birch Moss Chapel (軽井沢ニューアートミュージアム)
The Karuizawa Art Nouveau Museum (website here) was designed by architect Rikuo Nishimori. Originally constructed as a commercial facility in 2007, and it opened as an art museum in 2012 after renovation.
The Karuizawa New Art Museum houses a collection of contemporary Japanese art from the post-war period to the present day. The ground floor is free and includes works by Yayoi Kusama that are well-known to the Taiwanese (and available for purchase!). The second level is special exhibition halls for paid exhibitions. When I was there, I saw the exhibition of a British artist, Philip Colbert, who uses lobsters to build and share his view. There were also exhibits that echoed Van Gogh or ancient sculptures, which I found quite refreshing and interesting.
If you have a ticket for the special exhibition hall on the day, you can also register for a free tour to Birch Moss Chapel (you can also pay for the visit, it was 300 yen when I went there). There are only 2 sessions a day (11:30 am and 3:00 pm as far as I can remember) and only 10 people per tour, so if you really want to visit, you should arrive early.
Birch Moss Chapel was created in 2015 by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, and the adjacent heart-shaped arch installation ‘Kokoro no Mon (Gate of Heart)’ (2014) is the work of contemporary French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel.
Birch Moss Chapel is intended to be ‘an open and spacious place’, with three glass walls fitted with tracks to move the glass out of the way and extend the “space”. The Gate of Heart uses two standing, interlocking hearts to symbolise love as two individuals embracing, supporting and harmonising each other. This is a beautiful place where weddings can actually be held.
When I went there, it was low season, so only I and hubby registered for the tour, and we were led by the curator who shared with us the origins and story of the museum. It was really a great experience. She said that the site of the Birch Moss Chapel was originally a car park with nothing in it, and all the trees and moss were transplanted from elsewhere.
Kumoba Pond (雲場池 / くもばいけ)
Also known as ‘Swan Lake’, the clear water of the lake and the blue sky and white clouds make it a really beautiful place to visit and it doesn’t take long to walk around. There are many larch and maple trees around the lake, so I’m sure it’s something special in autumn.
Hi! I am Wang wang, a Taiwanese girl living in Tokyo. I stayed in Singapore prior to Tokyo. This is the place for me to share my working and life experiences!
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