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Gunma Prefecture's Kusatsu keeps top spot in national hot spring ranking

A ceremony is held in May this year to open the remodeled "Netsu no yu" building, showcase for the "Yumomi" ritual stirring of the hot spring water, in Kusatsu, Gunma Prefecture. (Mainichi)

Kusatsu, nestled in the mountains of Gunma Prefecture, has been declared Japan's top hot spring resort once again in the Kanko Keizai Shimbun newspaper's annual "Nippon no onsen 100-sen" (Japan's top 100 hot springs) survey.

    Kusatsu Onsen hot spring resort has maintained a tight grip on the top spot for 13 straight years. Yufuin Onsen in Oita Prefecture, and Gero Onsen in Gifu Prefecture, came in second and third this year, respectively.

    The ranking is determined by votes from Japan's travel agencies, as opposed to a public opinion survey. As such, it can also be seen as a measure of how much travel agencies want to attract customers to particular hot springs. There are many in the hot spring business who follow the results closely -- sometimes happily, sometimes not. According to the Kanko Keizai Shimbun, the voter roster is made up of staff at major travel agencies such as JTB Corp. and Kinki Nippon Tourist Co., as well as at online reservation site operators including Rakuten Inc. and Recruit Holdings Co.'s Jalan, plus agencies owned by railway companies.

    Kusatsu Onsen Tourist Association Chairman Takashi Nakazawa commented on the resort's continued dominance of the top spot.

    "We are never self-satisfied. We are always striving to do the best we can," he said. Others among Gunma Prefecture's numerous hot spring areas, however, could not conceal their envy.

    "Kusatsu's town-wide efforts are truly amazing," said Koji Harasawa, head of the Nakanojo Tourism Association in the town of Nakanojo, home to the Shima Onsen hot spring resort, which fell four places in this year's ranking. "It comes up with new ideas one after another."

    For instance, in April 2013, a new bathing spot called "Gozanoyu" opened near Kusatsu's most famous feature, the "Yubatake" (literally "hot water field") in the center of town. Then in July 2014, a new square for public events was completed, and May this year marked the opening of a remodeled "Netsu no yu" -- a building to showcase the "Yumomi" ritual, the traditional stirring of the hot spring water. Another public outside bath called "Sai no kawara" also recently reopened after extensive renovations.

    "The first thing to think about is how to attract first-time visitors. We have to learn from Kusatsu," said Harasawa, echoing the sentiments of just about every other hot spring resort across Japan.

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