Kusatsu Onsen, Mt. Shirane, Jigokudani Monkey Onsen Day Trip

The second time I visited Karuizawa was in May 2011. 2 whole years after my first visit.

It was an impromptu trip that came up pretty last minute. I remember I was filming A Tale of Two Esthers, a Christian film, and we had just wrapped my parts. I had a hosting engagement a day before I had to fly out so the timing seemed perfect 🙂 I am happiest when timings match up.

I got into Tokyo briefly and when done Ike invited me to Karuizawa again.
So I met up with a couple of friends in Tokyo, did a token party hard in Tokyo night till the wee hours then… *blank memory, file missing*

Ta-Dah I was in Karuizawa!

It was the middle of May, Tokyo was warming up and going into the summer so the cool Karuizawa air came as a bit of a surprise to me. The clean, fresh scents and sights made me leave everything behind and feel once again like I had entered a sanctuary town. I took an onsen bath and noticed immediately how it made my skin flush.

The next morning, Ikes dad offered to take us on a quick 1 day sightseeing tour. Little did I know then that I was going to cover some of the best spots in Nagano and Gunma Prefecture. Ikes dad said it would get cold, so Ike threw lots of thick clothes over my head, muffling my bragging about my high tolerance for the cold.

Our first stop was Kusatsu Onsen, one of the most famous onsen towns in Japan. Im not able to provide directions by train for this one because Ikes dad drove us, I think he took the Romantic Road  (link to info), a scenic road with lots of amazing sights and I greatly enjoyed the drive. We drove from Karuizawa, past Asama to Kusatsu. I was almost disappointed when we had to alight cos I was enjoying the ride so much.

*edited to add, I read that you can access it by taking the Nagano Shinkansen from Tokyo to Takasaki then take a bus to Kusatsu Onsen.

We drove onto a narrower road and I started seeing more tourists and buses as we turned into a small town. I could smell the familiar smell of sulfuric water the minute I got out of the car. Kusatsu Onsen 草津温泉 (in Gunma Prefecture)  is known for having the largest amount of naturally hot water in Japan and the healing properties of the water is said to cure every illness except lovesickness. Tall order indeed.

A few steps later, as the smell got stronger, the sight of the Yubatake “Hot Water Field” (湯畑) greeted us as more of the charming town was unveiled. The pipping hot water gushes at 65 degrees onto the Yubatake’s wooden conduits and is cooled there before it is distributed. The yellow sulfuric residue below is quite a sight as well. We walked around the town a bit and soaked our feet in the many public footbaths for a rest before Ikes dad bought us some ‘manju’ sweet steamed buns to snack on, and decided to take us deeper into the natural world.

We drove further north to see the crater lakes of the volcano Mt. Shirane (白根山), the 2160m active volcano also known as Kusatsu Shirane (草津白根山). As we drove up I caught sight of the snowy peaks, right here in the middle of May!

Snow at Mt Shirane in the middle of May

Coming down from the viewing course and back towards the car park area.

Yugama Crater lake of Kusatsu Shirane

From the top of the viewing course, a 20 minute hike up, one can find one of the main highlights of Mt. Shirane.The ‘Yugama’ (hot water caldron) Crater lake , the most active vent. I did not get as close to it as I did the crater at Zao, but it was still a beautiful sight. The turquoise-milky looking water is mysterious, I couldn’t quite stare at it in amazement and wonder. Nature holds so much mystery. I feel a surge of curiosity and a string of questions about the crater… I wonder how it feels and what the bottom of the lake looks like? The lake is 300m in diameters and the deepest point is said to be 27m. I read that the water is 18 degrees up there, but that it reached 100 degrees in 1910 – 1918. The last known eruption at the Yugama crater was in 1989.

I was feeling very cold by then, and happy to hop back into the car after we made our way back to the car park. We left the house at around 8 or 9am, and it was by then, close to lunch time.  Ike’s dad drove us out of Gunma Prefecture and back towards Nagano Prefecture, but he had one more little surprise in store.

We went on to a ski resort for our lunch stop and it was full on snowing! Right in the middle of May, a pleasant and unexpected surprise. We had hot udon and sake to warm up while Ike and I ran outside quickly to check out the snowy ski lifts. “I told you the winter olympics was held here,” I said matter of factly when I commented on the surprising amount of snow.

Our last and final stop was Jigokudani Monkey Onsen Park. *I didn’t  quite believe it at first when they told me there was a hot spring just for monkeys. It was this last stop that left the deepest impression on me after our sightseeing 101 crash course.

We alighted at a carpark area again.
“Where are the monkeys?” I asked as I saw Ike and Ikes dad already hiking up a hill. The Jigokudani Yaenkoen (park) is hidden in the forest on a hill.

As I ran after them, I saw a few signboards with images in various languages instructing people not to provoke or try to interact with the monkeys. No feeding, no touching and avoid eye contact. Soon enough, I saw them as we walked along a planked, wooden path leading to their bath area. The monkeys were Japanese Macaques, and there was a whole tribe/community of them, lounging and hanging out, glancing at us with disinterest like we were tourists visiting their pretty little town. (Which.. we were.) There is a 500 yen / adult 250 yen/child admission fee before one can go to the onsen area.

Mother Japanese Macaques with her baby at Jigokudani Yaenkoen

For more information and access help, check out the Japan guide post here
or Zeno’s website.

You can also watch the monkeys from their live cam here. Wikipedia has great photographs like the one below

Monkey onsen from Wikipedia

Many nat geo worthy photographs of the monkeys in the snow like this one from Wiki

I thought the monkeys look very human, especially when they close their eyes and soak up the warmth of the onsen. We passed a pair of young teenage looking monkeys getting into a fight with each other and towards the tourist information center with amazing photographs of the monkeys as well as a ‘boss hall of fame’. These monkeys live in a hierarchy and there is always a chief/bossman/leader, the alpha male of the group. The information center explains the hierarchy in English and has a row of portraits of the past Alphas, and they actually do exhibit chief-like aura from their photographs, and time frame of their reign. Most of the other information is in Japanese though.

I left the monkey park with reluctance and we rushed back to the house for dinner. Ike’s mother had prepared a full on feast of roast pork, roasted vegetables, natto spaghetti and salad and when she cooks, nobody wants to be the last one at the table.

We did Kusatsu Onsen, Mt Shirane and Jigokudani Yaenkoen in about half a day, a bit of a touch and go, but that was easy because we drove from Karuizawa. This is a possible day trip from Tokyo though since the Nagano shinkansen takes only an hour from Tokyo.
A trip I recommend for sure, especially if you have time to stay the night!

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