I wish that when I had the opportunity to live in the small Japanese city of Kusatsu that one day I would become a straight up Travel blogger, because unfortunately I don’t have enough photos to convey how amazing life in a small Japanese city is.
Kusatsu is a fairly new city (est. 1954) in the Shiga Prefecture with a population of around 120k. For me this was the full Japanese experience, completely untainted by tourism, and surrounded by families going about their day to day lives.
The houses in the area were a mix of beautiful traditional style, like the one in the photo above, and more modern apartment block neighborhoods. The mix of old and new blended throughout the city, and you can see it all within a half an hour walk from the train station, where the main shopping area is. Really, this is just a small square where you’ll find little malls, small market streets and arcades – not much to interest a tourist.
The main attraction for Kusatsu is the way of life. It’s completely unlike any major city. I never saw a single tourist other than me and my friends, and all of the local people were incredibly friendly and welcoming.
To see the heart of traditional Kusatsu, ask a local to point you in the direction of the main shrine.
I know what you’re thinking, it doesn’t compare to those that you can see in Kyoto (which is only 30 minutes away by train), but this is the real deal. It was completely empty when we visited, but the evidence was everywhere that this was an active place of worship. In pockets of the complex was hundred of small scraps of paper with peoples prays on, which they tied to trees and huts.
On the street away from the shrine is a small collection of old style stores, which will make you feel really at home despite the language barrier.
The first shop was definitely a green tea store, but the second one, well we never did work that one out – but the owner made us all a fantastic cup of green tea each and seemed very pleased to have us there.
There was also an incredibly interesting confectionery store, that completely distracted me from taking photos. It seemed to be an independent sweet store, as nothing in there I had seen in the supermarket, but it was all incredible!
And now moving to the more modern neighborhoods…
This was the area that I lived in, the more suburb are of the city. Here the streets were narrow, the detached houses squeezed together, but you would find it impossible to find two houses identical. No matter how far you walked, every single house would be unique, with different features and gardens.
The second photo above was a Pizza restaurant, in case you were wondering, although I would never have guessed if it wasn’t for the English sign.
On the main motorway you find a handful of fast food restaurants, which were an experience in themselves. They were all noodle restaurants, so it was really take your pick of which one you ate at, but the one we chose had an interesting divide to the restaurant.
One half was Western style booths, with chairs and tables that we would be used to, and Japanese style tables, like those above, that were on a raised floor.
Every Japanese family who came in while we ate chose the Japanese side, where they had to take their shoes off and leave them beside the platform.
Another quirk was that the only drink that you could get at the restaurant was water, and I was told by my Japanese friend that this was because any other drink was seen as an insult to the chef, as it would distract from the flavours of the food. If you wanted a soda, you would have to get one from the vending machine outside the restaurant when you left.
One thing that I noticed about Kusatsu over Tokyo and Kyoto was little shrines at the end of most streets. The one above was on the larger side of those that I saw, with most being around the size of post boxes, but it was a beautiful reminder of the spiritualism of every day Japanese life. Most were modest, but had plenty of upkeep with flowers, and gifts like little dolls.
I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to live in a city that felt so organic. If you’re looking for this kind of experience but still want to do some typical sightseeing, Kusatsu is only 30 minutes by train from Kyoto, and is considered as a commuter city. It is entirely possible to use Kusatsu as a base to explore Kyoto, but still having a residential experience.
With a car, you’re well within a drive for Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, which has comes with amazing history as seen in a vast museum, and even beaches which make you feel right by the sea.
You can read more about my even more traditional village life, in an old house beside Lake Biwa here.
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