Thermal waters that well up across Japan’s volcanic island arc discharge healing power. These luxurious baths reflect tradition and local pride and attract tourism in droves. From Ibusuki in Kyushu to Noboribetsu in Hokkaido, we all have our favourites, each one boasting health benefits and beautiful settings. Here are three hot spring areas we’ve written about in DINE that offer unique experiences.
Meditation Bath, Hoshinoya, Karuizawa
Talk about at a hot spa with chutzpa! It seems that every star in the universe is out tonight as I follow a lit path through the woods toward the Meditation Bath. Here, I am told, I must unite with the darkness and face myself. Stepping into the bath beneath a waterfall gushing from the wall in front of me, I glide into a large, bright white, sterile-looking, high-ceiling room. I sit alone in silence and acclimate to the heat, all the while fixating on the entrance to a black corridor in the corner. One deep breath, and I wade toward it and slowly through it. Immersed in water I follow into the darkness as the passage leads me into a pitch-black room. I don’t know if I’m alone. I cannot even see my hand in front of my face. I’m petrified. My “meditation” is on how freaked-out I am, and on thoughts of every horror movie I’ve ever seen. Perhaps this spa concept has been lost on me? I court every one of my irrational fears, until, gradually, I focus on the simple and sweet aesthetic of Japanese shamisen guitar and ambient spa music. As my eyes slowly adjust, I gradually begin to breathe easy, and relax into the warmth and stillness of the water. I begin to realize my focus has shifted from depending on the light to trusting the darkness. Stretching out, I float into a wonderfully liberating calmness.
Kumano Kodo, Wakayama
Legend has it that the Kumano region in the Kii Mountain Range is a place where deities descended and now reside within shinboku, “divine trees,” mountains, rocks and rivers. According to the Wakayama Health Centre and the Japanese Ministry of Health, there are quantifiable human effects from Forest Bathing in this region of highly concentrated phytoncides—active antimicrobial compounds that prevent rotting in plants and are used in aromatherapy and holistic medicine. Breathing in this negatively charged air results in positive health benefits, from a relaxed heart rate and increased mental acuity to decreased levels of the stress-produced hormone cortisol, and increased immunoglobulin-A antibodies that enhance human immune functions. After just one day of hiking in these mystical woods and yamanami, “mountain waves”, I feel magically re-energized. Along the way, we pass a creek in which there is a small wooden cabin around a piping hot natural mineral bath. This is Yunomine Onsen. It is big enough for only one person at at time. I am allotted 30 minutes, but it takes me about 20 minutes of pouring and raking cold water to bring the scorching temperature down to acceptable heat. Soaking in this cloudy, sulphuric spring feels disconcerting, because it is so murky, and yet for 1,800 years it has been a medicinal source for health, well-being and purification rituals. Further along the trail, while resting by the river at Kawayu Onsen, we are handed shovels. As we dig a pit, hot water bubbles to the surface. The confluence of flowing cold water and rising hot thermal water is the height of organic luxury. The hot sulphuric spring water also extracts impurities from food, and brings out colours, sweeter flavours and a softer texture when used for cooking. Nabe pots of roots and vegetables are nourished by these waters as are local cattle. We drink sweet shochu from a bamboo shoot, made from this hot spring water and medicinal herbs.
Beppu is like a furnace of 2,900 steaming spouts venting 130,000 tons of water every day. Their mineral compositions are therapeutic. Lying in warm dark sand by the seashore, I’m approached by two elderly women in uniform carrying shovels they’ll use to bury me. Packed in thermal heat, the sand bath at Kaihin Suna-Yu is purported to relieve muscle aches, cuts and burns, and tiredness. I feel a vibrancy throughout my body. A small yellow umbrella is planted to cover my head from the sun as I bake. Hoyo Land is a multi-level mud bath in which I wade into thick warm mud while donning only a teensy cloth to cover myself. It’s a little disconcerting at first, but the result? My skin is so soft! Patrons come here for healthy skin, and to ease rheumatism, hernias and diabetes. Before I completely turn to mush I visit the Kannnawa Mushi-Yu aroma bath. Crawling through a one-square-metre wooden door, I enter a small hot stone room, lie on a bed of herbs heated by thermal steam, and inhale. More powerful than a sauna, this is an unforgettable, ultimate relaxation for my nerves, muscles and stiffness.