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Sai no Kawara Park

A ten-minute walk from the center of the resort, down one of the town’s twisting lanes, Sai no Kawara Park is centered on a rocky riverbed that cuts through the forested highlands like an old scar. The same steaming mineral-rich water that feeds the baths below the park has parched and burned the soil along the banks of Sai no Kawara.

  • The park runs about a quarter mile, tracing the riverbed. While Sai no Kawara is a great place to take in autumn foliage in early October and the park is positively bucolic in midsummer, the park’s poetic desolation is most intense in winter. This is one the most dramatic sites at Kusatsu.

    Sai no Kawara Park

    Sai no Kawara Park

    The dramatic red tori tunnel entrance of the Ana Mori Inari Shrine is the first landmark that will appear as one makes their way from Yubatake toward the center of the park. Built by a Tokyo dyeworks owners that came up to the onsen to take the cure, the shrine fell into disrepair for nearly a century before volunteers restored it with the help of officials from the Ana Mori Inari Shrine’s sister shrine near Tokyo’s Haneda Airport.

    Sai no Kawara Park

    Sai no Kawara Park

    The Sai no Kawara has another association, too: with Jizo, the near-Buddha Bodhisattva that remain connected to the human world out of a sense of duty. The Jizo statues are depicted as Buddhist monks and are associated with infants and children. Some of the Jizo are seated in meditation; some of them carry a rod, meant to force open the gates of hell, and a nyoi-hoju, a wish-fulfilling jewel. All over Japan, they are tucked in shrines by the roadside and set up in temple courtyards, and there is one significant Jizo in the park.

    Sai no Kawara Park

    Sai no Kawara Park

    The association with Jizo comes from the fact that the name of the garden, Sai no Kawara, “riverbed of the west” is homophonous with another term: “riverbed of the netherworld”. When children die, their souls gather on a riverbank called Sai no Kawara, and the Jizo consoles them. Looking out on the riverbed, fed by a steaming trickle from the bowels of the Earth, the eerie association makes even more sense.

    Sai no Kawara Park

    Sai no Kawara Park

    In the middle of the park, the Sai no Kawara outdoor hot spring pool is open 7am to 8pm most of the year, and with restricted hours of 9am to 8pm from December to the end of March. Entry to the pool is 600 yen. Like other onsen in the area, and across Japan, there are two pools: one for men and one for women. Relaxing in the spacious outdoor pool, looking up into the mountain landscape has its charms in any season, but it’s particularly exhilarating - and the best way to warm up - in the winter, especially with snow falling.

    Sai no Kawara Park

    Sai no Kawara Park

    For all the health cures promised by a dip in the waters of hot springs, the psychic benefits are just as important and perhaps harder to deny. The walk down Sai no Kawara is a pilgrimage writ small. For visitors that are not blessed to live in the Japanese countryside, the quarter mile stretch of steaming riverbed is an otherworldly environment. Disrobing and walking into the naturally heated water of the outdoor pool, repeating a ritual practiced in many cultures and across centuries, it’s impossible not to feel cleansed.

    Sainokawara Park
    Address
    Gunma Pref. Agatsumagunkusatsumachi Kusatsu
    Phone
    0279880800
    Kusatsu Anamorinari Shrine
    Address
    Gunma Prefecture Agatsuma-gun Kusatsu-machi Nishino river beach park
    Phone
    Sainokawara Open-Air Bath
    Address
    Gunma Pref. Agatsumagunkusatsumachi Kusatsu 521-3
    Phone
    0279886167
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