Kusatsu Onsen is a hot spring resort town in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture. Its spring is famous for both its prodigious daily output and its high sulfur content, which makes the entire town smell of rotten eggs but is said to cure a host of bodily ills. In fact, the locals say the hot springs in Kusatsu cure any sickness but love sickness.
Whatever its healing properties, you wouldn’t want to jump into the spring at the source, as it comes bubbling out of the ground at up to a scalding 95°C (203°F). You could add cold water, but that would dilute the beneficial mineral content, so the locals use a traditional method called yumomi, which involves splashing the water around with big tongue depressors while singing and dancing.
I love Japan.
This is downtown Kusatsu. From the source, the hot, sulfuric water first flows through a series of troughs in the village square. It helps with the cooling as well as filling the town with warm, billowing clouds of atmospheric steam. If you like that kind of thing, anyway.
At the end of the square, the water cascades into a pool, from which it is pumped to the surrounding hotels, ryokans and bathhouses, including Netsu no Yu (literally “hot water”), where there are daily yumomi performances held in a beautiful wood building with stained glass windows depicting bathing scenes. Glass works are Kusatsu’s other local specialty.
As an added bonus for classic manga fans, one wall is taken up by a mural drawn by famous artists who visited Kusatsu for a conference in 1980. You may recognize some of your favorite characters taking a soak.
▼ “Kusatsu has good water, doesn’t it!”
▼ Fujio Akatsuka’s Bakabon in the tub
The performance takes place around a large bath at the foot of a stage.
First, female dancers come out, singing the yumomi folk song, stirring the water with wooden paddles and keeping time by tapping them against the edge of the bath.
Then they invite audience members to take a stab at paddling while everyone cheers them on.
At this point in the proceedings, it doesn’t seem like the water would be cooled all that much. After all, they’re just stirring it around really, but we are assured there will be more splashing after a dance performance.
Two kimono-clad ladies perform a dance that looks very much like locker-room towel shenanigans in slow motion. They splash water on their towel, they twist and flick, they even bite the towel for reasons that aren’t quite clear. It looks both graceful and silly at once and is tremendous fun to watch.
▼ Mmm, towel.
▼ Getting their kung-fu towels ready.
▼And twist and snap!
One the dancing portion of the show is finished, the true yumomi begins and you can see how it cools the water down, as there is some spectacular splashing. The dancers push their paddles deep into the spring and then press down on the far end with all their body weight, flinging a geyser of water into the air. With all that scalding water flying around, it’s hard to believe the dancers escape unscathed, but, then again, with all the steam in the room, it’s hard to know for sure if they did or not…
▼ Definitely try this at the hotel later. They can’t complain because it’s culture!
Check out the videos to see all the towel-flicking, water-sloshing action!
▼ Teasing the audience with dance and towel skills
▼ And now for the main event!
All images and videos: RocketNews24