Kusatsu is an Onsen town that has a ski field nearby. Last season on my first visit to Kusatsu I asked a number of people why they were there. Why did I ask this, well on my first visit to Kusatsu last season the snow conditions weren't very good, the base level was low, and the snow was so icy I really needed ice skates instead of skis, and yet just up the road in Yuzawa, which as the crow flies isn't that far from Kusatsu, and as the McCraw walks it's only 108kms, they had record snow falls. So why would people go to Kusatsu, a resort that is difficult to get too instead of Kagura or Mt Grandview. The answer I got from all the people I questioned (note this wasn't a scientific survey, the only people I asked where those English speakers who shared a gondola with me) was the onsens.
If you enjoy spending naked quality time with a bunch of strangers in a hot pool then Kusatsu is for you, if however you are heading to the slopes to ski/board and are anything above low intermediate in ability then I would avoid Kusatsu.
You are now probably asking why I go there so often, no I'm not into spending naked time with strangers. The company my wife works for has an apartment in Kusatsu, brought during the boom times of the 80's, it now sits unused most of the year. During winter we are the only ones who use it, and in summer it gets the occasional use from others.
Kusatsu is a good resort if you are:
A beginner skier or boarder, there are some great learner slopes there (however they aren't any better than learner slopes elsewhere, if onsening (is that a real word?) is important chose Kusatsu)
If you are in your late teens or early twenties and looking for love (lust?). On the weekends there are a large number of young boarders who spend most of their time hanging out rather than boarding. They can be found in large groups on the side of the main run, and taking extended breaks at the main restaurant.
Into Onsening, lots of great onsens, many of them free to use.
Kusatsu isn't so good if you are:
More than a low intermediate in ability. There is only one small ungroomed area, and only one really challenging slope. Although the top to bottom run is one of the longest in Japan, it's only 15 minutes top to bottom, and if no queues it takes 45 minutes to get back up.
Looking to go off piste. There are no off piste areas at Kusatsu, there are a couple of places where you could ski between trails, both places are only about 100 metres though. Not really worth it, especially as there is a staff member stationed in the upper gondola building with a powerful pair of binoculars checking for people who might try it.
A park rat. There is no park for boarders at Kusatsu, there are a couple of snow ramps, but given where they are positioned there is no way to get enough speed to do more than leap a couple of feet in the air.
Kusatsu is not an easy resort to get too; it isn't on any train line, so the best way to get there is by car. By car you can use either the Joshinetsu expressway or the Kanetsu expressway. Coming from Tokyo/Yokohama it is best to use the Kanetsu expressway, despite its reputation. From the Joshinetsu exit to Kusatsu the road is narrow and twisty, it also goes over a very high plateau that is usually covered in snow, snow tyres, AWD/4WD and the carrying of chains is recommended if coming from this direction. From the Kanetsu exit you spend some time on route 17, before the narrow and twisty road that takes you to Kusatsu. Also by coming this way you can avoid driving in the snow until you are almost at Kusatsu. Over the last two years there hasn't been any snow until the hill heading up and over into the valley were Kusatsu is. As long as you take it easy on the last hill you can get to Kusatsu on summer tyres this way, although you should still carry chains just in case. Either way you go the road is narrow and twisty, and the going is slow, especially if caught behind some local in their K car. Just before arriving at Kusatsu, by either route, there is a section of musical road. The road surface has been "altered" so that if you drive along at 40km/h your car will play a tune.
The Kusatsu ski resort is a distance from the centre of town, too far to walk, although there are shuttles from the hotels in town. If you are at Kusatsu for the skiing/boarding it would be best to get a hotel close to the resort, there are a number within walking distance.
I tend to think of the resort as two different resorts, joined in the middle and using the same pass. The bottom half is an excellent resort for beginners, while the top half is for intermediates. Experts, well they would probably get bored pretty quick. The dividing point is the lower gondola station. This can be reached by taking two lifts from the base area, or by driving up the mountain. There is a road that goes up the same valley the resort is in, the road continues up the mountain and heads over to the Shiga Kogen areas of Nagano, although in winter the road is closed at the gondola carpark.
The bottom half: The base area consists of four buildings, looking at them from the resort side, the left building has the rental shop, and a small restaurant, along with a locker room in the basement and an area to eat upstairs. Next building has the ski patrol and ski school, then comes the ticket office, main locker rooms, and an upstairs area for kids. This building also has all the admin offices. The building on the right hand side has the main restaurant, shop and another eating area. There are toilets in the three main buildings.
There are four lifts heading up the mountain from the base area, looking at the resort with the base buildings behind you, to the right is lift 3, this pair lift is the main beginners lift. Right beside the lift entrance is the kids play area. Lift 3 takes you 430 metres up the main course. Once off the lift, a sharp right turn puts you on the main run down the mountain. From here down the course opens out and can be very busy. Those coming down the mountain from further up really need to check there speed here as the whole width of the run is taken up by learners who have just gotten off the lift.
In the middle of the base area is lifts 1 & 2, two pair lifts. Often only one of the two lifts are working. From the top of these lifts there are three ways to go, an immediate and sharp right turn will take you down a steep slope towards the base area. A gentler right turn will take you down a gentle slope to met up with the main run from the top of the mountain. Turning left takes you down towards the entrance to lift 6, or back down towards the base. This run to the base takes you under lifts 1 & 2 and ends at the bottom of the main steep slope mentioned above.
To the left hand side of the base looking up the mountain is lift 4. Lift 4 is a high speed quad, and it takes you up to the top of a large bowl area. From here you can ski down to lift 6, head over past the top of lifts 1 & 2, having the same options as exiting those lifts, or head straight down to the base area.
At the bottom of the bowl area mentioned above is the entrance to lifts 5 and 6. Lift 5 is a small pair that takes you a little higher than lift 4. Last season was the first time I've seen it going. This lift wasn't going the previous three seasons I was at Kusatsu. Lift 5 doesn't seem to serve any real purpose, all it gets you is an extra 100 metres or so above lift 4. However, for beginners it's a great lift, lapping this lift, while keeping as far left as possible around the bowl gives a nice and gentle run that is devoid of all the beginners clogging lift 3. To get there take lift 4 up and keep left as much as possible.
Lift 6 is a high speed quad that takes you up tio the halfway area of the resort. From here you can access the Gondola, the main run down to base and lifts 7 & 8. The area from the top of lift 6 to any of the areas mentioned in the last sentence is flat, so flat most boarders walk.
The Top half: The lower gondola building has the gondola, along with a ticket office and toilets, there is also a carpark for those driving up, and a restaurant in its own building.
Lift 7 & 8, both pairs, are related, in that you have to use lift 7 to access lift 8. Lift 7 gives you access to a reasonably steep slope, the area under the lift is often used for slalom training. Lift 8 provides access to a nice gentle slope, and is often very busy with ski school classes. If you are planning on heading back down the mountain form here it is a good idea to use lift 7 and its slope to get up enough speed to overcome the very gentle gradient of the main run.
The gondola, lift 11 on the piste map takes you up to the top of the mountain, well almost the top, there are two peaks just above the top gondola station, and both have lifts going up, although the one to the right looking up has been closed for the last two seasons.
There are toilets, a locker room and a restaurant in the top gondola building. From the top of the gondola you can, head straight down a steep slope, to either lift 9 or down the mountain, head past the top of lift 9 to the only ungroomed area at Kusatsu, a small half bowl area, or over towards the base of lift 10. There are two ways to get to lift 10, however this last season one way, the shorter way was shut, there wasn't enough snow to cover the pond along the way.
Lift 9 is a short pair that enables you to get back up to the gondola station, and access the ungroomed bowl.
Lift 10 takes you up a small peak and gives access to two more ways of getting back down the mountain. In previous seasons there has been an ungroomed area under lift 10. However for the past two seasons there hasn't been enough snow for this run to be open.
From the top of the mountain to the bottom is a long run, yet if you travel at speed all the way it only takes 15 minutes. From the top of lift 10 there are three ways down to the lower gondola station, the top two join fairly quickly while the bottom one joins just before the gondola station.
From the lower gondola station down the mountain is a fairly gentle run, two small steepest bits, and one uphill. There is a short uphill area where the run goes up over a bridge over the road.
If you want to spend the whole day on the mountain you will need to pay attention to the lift opening and closing times. Lift 1,2 & 3 open first, and close last. So you can start at the bottom and work your way up as the lifts open, and conversely work your way down as they close. Note however that on a Saturday, when night skiing is on the lifts at the bottom are packed once the upper lifts are shut.
To conclude Kusatsu just doesn't have any great feature that raises it over other resorts, so the downside of hard to get to, no off piste, often crappy snow means I can't say go there. One of the issues is that over the last four seasons the snow conditions have gotten worse each year. Given how close in distance to both Yuzawa and Shiga Kogen it is, it's pretty amazing how bad the snow has been. If you manage to get there after a big dump fine, but the snow is usually groomed to within an inch of its life, not really a powder area.