The pace of tourism in Tokyo is heating up ahead of the sporting tournaments, but sports fans are unlikely to have heard of this rejuvenating day trip

Splash out in Tokyo

Tokyo attracts visitors in their tens of millions

The sushi, the temples, the markets, the gardens. There are many reasons that Tokyo, the capital of Japan, attracts so many visitors - 30 million tourists in 2018, according to the tourism minister.

Kusatsu bath: Dr Erwin von Baelz recommended the waters' health benefits. Photo / Getty Images
Kusatsu bath: Dr Erwin von Baelz recommended the waters' health benefits. Photo / Getty Images

Tokyo is a crazy mix of pop culture and ancient traditions. You can spend from dusk to dawn in the karaoke bars, or while away an afternoon in the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. And while the beloved Tsukiji fish market - the spot where bleary-eyed tourists and serious fishmongers alike would arrive before dawn to ogle gigantic slabs of tuna - has closed, you can still check out the Toyosu Fish Market, which opened in October in east Tokyo and is twice the size.

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Famous for its healing properties, Kusatsu is just two hours by train. Photo / Getty Images
Famous for its healing properties, Kusatsu is just two hours by train. Photo / Getty Images

The city is experiencing an overwhelming number of tourists. The figures almost tripled from 2013 (10.4 million) to 2017 (28.7 million). It's crowded. And with the 2020 Olympics coming to Tokyo, it's only going to get more so. Summertime draws the largest crowds, so the best time of the year to visit is between September and November or between March and April. (Winter isn't busy but it's cooler and less comfortable.)

Go with the flow to Kusatsu

Lesser-known Kusatsu Onsen lures mostly Japanese tourists

If you want the beauty and culture without the crowds, consider Kusatsu Onsen. The Japanese resort town, famous for its healing properties, is just two hours by train, then 25 minutes by bus from Tokyo.

This popular vacation spot for those who live in Japan, set 1,200 meters above sea level amid stunning mountain landscapes in Gunma Prefecture, doesn't appear to have been discovered by many outside of the country - yet. But it has drawn tired, aching and stressed-out Japanese visitors since the late 1800s, when German doctor Erwin von Baelz recommended the waters' health benefits (though these were never scientifically proved).

Kusatsu is home to Japan's largest natural hot springs. Photo / Getty Images
Kusatsu is home to Japan's largest natural hot springs. Photo / Getty Images

The Yubatake, the bubbling hot spring in the center of town, supplies the water for the bathhouses; its name translates as Hot Water Field. Locals claim that the spring emits antibacterial water that helps with ailment including skin irritations and bruises and diabetes and high blood pressure. The town has 19 public bathhouses to facilitate soaking in the healing waters; three, all within walking distance from the Yubatake, are open to visitors.

In many local onsens, bathing suits aren't allowed. Photo / Getty Images
In many local onsens, bathing suits aren't allowed. Photo / Getty Images

Also popular are the free foot baths throughout the center of town. There's also one bath spot, Therme Therme, where visitors wear their bathing suits. (In many of the local onsens, bathing suits aren't allowed.)

Besides soaking, you can hike, cycle and check out the wild animals, such as monkeys and rare Japanese antelopes. (If you arrive in the winter, you could go skiing at the Kusatsu Onsen Ski Resort in addition to dipping into the hot springs, which are open year-round.)

Cultural activities include a somewhat touristy 30-minute show called Netsu no Yu, where you can watch local women sing as they stir the hot springs to cool the water to bathing temperature. You can also check out the straw and bamboo studios scattered throughout the nearby artist village of Takumi no Sato. And rather than staying in a hotel, consider booking a traditional Japanese inn, called a ryokan, with a private in-room onsen.

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Kusatsu is home to Japan's largest natural hot springs. Photo / Getty Images
Kusatsu is home to Japan's largest natural hot springs. Photo / Getty Images

Pro tip:

Don't shower after your soak. You'll be washing away all those possibly healing substances.

The Kusatsu water massage: The area's scalding waters are cooled by stirring the hot water. Photo / John S Lander, Getty Images
The Kusatsu water massage: The area's scalding waters are cooled by stirring the hot water. Photo / John S Lander, Getty Images