The town of Kusatsu is bathed in snow and steam. Nestled in the mountains that surround greater Tokyo, the quaint community unfolds in a maze of roads that climb the rugged Japanese terrain. It’s a slow, meandering journey through the wintery countryside, but one rewarded with the promise of onsen: the hot springs that dot the volcanic landscape. At the heart of Kusatsu, rejuvenating steam even rises through the town square, where a new inn and restaurant by multi-national designers Kengo Kuma and Associates greets travellers.
Situated alongside the Yubatake hot spring reservoir and public plaza, the modestly sized structure, dubbed Kusatsu Kimuraya, makes an immediate impression. Rows of stones decorate the storey building’s dark facade, with the irregularly curved patterns creating a visual dialogue with the arched glass entryway on the corner. It makes for a dramatic, three-dimensional presence, though one that feels at home as part of Yubatake’s steamy vista.
The constellation of Asama stone that frames the façade underlines a connection to onsen culture. These volcanic rocks are found in hot springs across the region — including the adjacent Yubatake reservoir. At Kusatsu Kimuraya, their presence stretches from the hot spring to the urban fabric, with the interplay of steam and stone extending above the street and into the city.
Inside, the modestly scaled complex is a contemporary interpretation of Japan’s traditional ryokan inns. On the ground floor, a small restaurant is the building’s public face. A contrast to the boldly dramatic façade, the dining area is a warm, comfortable space accented by blonde wood furnishings and subtly textured finishes.
Upstairs, the boutique one-room guesthouse is a tranquil haven. Accessible via a discrete staircase at the side of the building, the inn’s single bedroom is a private spa retreat. Below the pitched ceiling’s exposed wood beams, dark walls of Asama stone terrazzo add a note of texture to the elegantly pared down room.
“By incorporating material and geometrical elements of Yubatake hot springs throughout the building, we condensed the materiality of the historic town of Kusatsu in this small building,” says the design team, reflecting an ethos of locality central to Kengo Kuma’s vision.
Local materials remain a focal point throughout, with stone-infused washi wall framing the bedroom’s generous bath — a staple of ryokan design — in artful curvatures. And outside, a small balcony offers a vantage point of the square and hot spring, connecting a private bathing ritual to a public culture.
In the volcanic foothills of Gunma, the Kusatsu Kimuraya inn and restaurant celebrates the local landscape and its bathing culture.