One of the main reasons why I love Japan so much is the Onsen (hot springs in Japan). The natural mineral elements inside Onsen does not only give you great health and relaxation, but also creates many incredible landscapes, to the delight of us passionate photographers and travelers. The time when the cold north wind just started to blow, is the right time to start your autumn onsen trip. And this weekend, we are off to Kusatsu, one of the most famous Onsen spots in Japan, not only for the hot baths and cozy cottages, but also for this one extraordinary park below, the Chatsubomigoke Moss Park (also known as Anajigoku).
I understand the name of the park is very long and confusing for you, so let me start by explaining the name a bit. The word Koke (苔) means moss in Japanese. And Chatsubomi-goke, is the name of one type of moss. It is also called Marigoke (毬蘚), meaning ball-shaped moss. This Chatsubomi-goke lives in strong acid water, which is the nature of Onsen around Gunma, Kusatsu area. The acid is so strong (PH2.17) that they say any living animals dropped into the water is going to be killed straight away. From this fact, another name is given to this spot called Anajigoku (穴地獄), the hearths of hell that is. Be careful, this is not the natural Onsen you want to bath in!
The sun was just waking up and the the park is not officially opened yet. The drive up to here is to Meow’s favorite; the crazy winding road! I lost my count half way but there are surely more than 40 hairpin curves, would give you quite a headache if you are car sick. But not to worry, the refreshing walk in the nature following will cure any ailment shall you have any.
This area of Gunma was rich of iron, thus was deployed as iron mine after the World War II. It was an open-pit iron mine used till 1966, there is nothing left for us to imagine the scale of the mine before, but the amazing moss was the miraculous side-product of it. In Japan, only Mt. Aso (Kyushu) and here in Kusatsu are blessed with this smooth carpet looking moss. But as for moss itself, Japan has more than 1700 different types of them. Mossy temples and gardens are the very unique attractions you can find in Japan.
Before the operation of the mine, this area used to have quite some other types of rare plants. But since the change of environment after the deployment, only Chatsubomi-goke is left. And as the volume of spring water is decreasing through time, the amount of moss seems to be decreasing accordingly as well. Being at the height of 1289m, Chatsubomi-goke is completely covered by snow in the winter. But the heat of the spring kept the moss from dying even in the winter.
This iron mine was owned by Japanese steel maker, NKK (日本鋼管株式会社 – Nihon Kokan Kabushiki-gaisha, JFE Holdings nowadays) since 1943, after mining there for 22 years, NKK decided to return the land back to the nature, and started tree planting 1967. Thanks to the environmentally conscious Japanese company, that we can now enjoy the greenery around. This place is also a Power Spot for Japanese people, meaning sacred places that carries special power to cure, purify people thus to bring better luck. Believes it or not, you will sure be cured by the beautiful nature.
It is fairly chilly in such early morning, especially deep in the mountain. But with the rising sun right in your face, and the steaming air from the acid water besides, we are blessed with a pleasant and peaceful shooting time. But shooting with strong sunlight is not always easy. If you are not careful enough, the sunlight can penetrate easily through your view finder, and the result will be something purple like the one below.
Guess why there is a purple spot in the picture above, and let’s talk about it in the comments
The brownish rocks around this area are full of iron. If you get some on your clothes it will be quite hard to clean it off, so do not be too naughty here. As you walk around the ‘hellish’ pond, you would normally see people examining the plants or water around. Rare as this area is, it attracts a lot of researchers and students. The Chatsubomi-goke has another interesting feature, it absorbs mercury from the water and accumulate in the body. Pollution monitoring scientists were thus thinking about using it to monitor water pollution in the cases where the amount of mercury is too small to be detected by normal physical or chemical method.
This magic land was given back to the local government for free by the mine, so it can be developed into a proper park and attraction for tourists and students. Different season brings different type of visitors. If you are found of flowers, early summer is a good choice to see the pink Rengetsutsuji (レンゲツツジ), a very cute flower with mild colour, but extremely poisonous for horses and cows. Red leaves lovers as we are, we came in the autumn time, but there were no crazy amount of red-leaves found, maybe our timing was not perfect. In the winter, it will be interesting to see the moss getting covered by snow, but the park is normally closed from November on throughout the whole winter, so this will probably be a unseen scenery only to the lucky researchers and maybe urban explorers too.
The Suribachi (すり鉢) shapes of holes (Anajigoko, the “Hearths of Hell”) are the actually the result of the Shirane volcano eruption, from the bottom of which the hot spring water came out to form the pond and the waterfalls. Mt. Shirane, being the creator of Kusatsu Onsen as well as Chatsubomigoke park, is known for its own beauty as well. So keep your appetite, as we will cover Shirane in the very next article!
Afraid of cold weather as I am, I spent most of my time standing by this stream (picture above) under the direct sunrise. It was a magical light, the steaming spring water jumped happily in the morning glory, everything was of this heart warming golden colour, the magic of autumn is all in the air.
One tip for the future foreign visitors, the park actually charges 210 yens for adult visitors, kids are free of charge. The place where you pay is actually a slight detour before you reach the entrance of park (which is no more than a string hanging in the middle of the drive way). But for the aim of helping the local government preserving this lovely place, let us take the detour and pay the 210 yens
Now the sun is up and more people are coming in. It is time for the Meows to retreat with their annoying tripods and let the nice grannies enjoy the place. Be sure to come back for our next article on the no less stunningly beautiful pictures of Mt. Shirane! As for us, we are going to enjoy driving down the 40 something curves, fast and furious style! ;)