Japan is a land of volcanoes. Around 200 in fact. They hubble and bubble and scrubble* beneath the surface but rarely do they cause trouble. Instead, they provide photogenic landscapes, embarrass foreigners, scald skin and soothe away the aches and pains of those who climb inside them.
Allow me to explain.
Plenty of volcanoes leads to plenty of hot springs. And hot springs lead to spas and spas to medicinal bathing rituals. Enough so that over the centuries, Japan has crafted an entire way of living centred around the idea of cleanliness and bathing in a a thermal spring or onsen.
1) Bathing in a thermal spring or onsen
First you have to be naked. There are no exceptions allowed.
Men and women are segregated (which is one small mercy) and it pays to know that blue stands for male and red for female when you hover with uncertainty outside the changing room of your choice. If you’re staying in a hotel, you change in your room before wandering with careless abandon through the corridors wearing only a small cotton dressing gown called a yukata and a pair of “indoor shoes.”
Once undressed, you enter a communal washroom that surrounds the onsen. Hop onto an upturned plastic bucket and wash yourself thoroughly with the soap, shower hose and bowls supplied. (You are permitted to take one small flannel into the washing are. Your towel must stay behind, with the rest of your clothes.)
Thus cleansed, you can enter the hot springs…and soak…
A (nother) word of caution. Temperatures here make the hottest of baths in Britain look like a Norwegian Christmas morning ice dip. They are hot, hot, HOT. Part of me wonders whether this in fact another way of making paler skinned visitors look a little more ridiculous since the water will leave you with a striking scarlet tide mark should you sport skin as white as mine.
By that point, however, you will no longer care. Your brain will be focussing on keeping you upright after all that vasodilation, your muscles will have handed in their notice and kicked back with a pina colada, and even the staunchest of British reserves will have admitted defeat: isn’t it normal to be chatting with colleagues while naked and surrounded by steam?
In all seriousness,
You may (ahem) shift your perception entirely and realise what a damn fine idea this is once you’ve noticed how much better you sleep at night and what a blessed relief it is to have muscles that don’t always hurt.
Long live volcanoes, I say.
But while the idea of bathing in an onsen takes place the length and breadth of Japan, in the Ibusuki area of Kyushu they’ve another tick up their volcanic sleeve.
2) Bathing in black volcanic sand in Ibusuki, Kyushu
Yep, you repeat all the above (except you wear your yukata for the buried in sand part.) Then you wander down to the beach where a couple of guys will dig a coffin shaped space for you in the sand. You hop in, they cover you up and leave you to sweat, head poking out the ground like a translucent turnip at twilight. (The things I get up to in the name of research.)
It may interest you to know, dear readers, that I went to the wrong part of the beach the first time I tried to do this. I saw a coffin shaped dent in the sand, lay in it and waited for some guys with shovels to come along. It was cold, wet and dreadfully unpleasant.
And no one came. Not bearing shovels, at least.
The shame was not eased by the staff who bowed at me as I lay in this bleak, cement-like puddle instead of directing me to the real black sand bathing area and relieving me of my predicament.
I can only assume that they shrugged my deranged behaviour off as the kind of craziness they’ve come to expect from ghost-like foreigners with their yellow hair and big-footed ways.
As rigor mortis set in, I creaked my bones out of the damp sand and shuffled off, muttering darkly. Then I spotted the real “get buried alive” relaxation area beneath the shadows of an outdoor tent.
I lay down and the men with shovels arrived.
After fifteen or so minutes, the prickly heat and sense of heaviness across the chest had worked its magic and the men returned, scraping back the earth to set me free.
Hot, dizzy, but no doubt looking light years younger, I showered, changed my slippers again and headed to the naked plunge pool for one last superthermic soak.
As I left, silhouetted against the sea stood another lost soul who hesitated before derobing and lying down on a patch of cold, medicinally-useless, wet sand.
A breeze stood gleeful on the horizon. Menacing. Brooding. Its warmth stripped by the shadow of the volcano.
That’s the thing with volcanoes, you see. Danger waits where you least expect it.
So, too, does a sense of shame.
What else can you do with a volcano?
3) Climb one
– Mt Fuji can be done in a day, although most pilgrims climb by night
4) Hike one
– Mount Aso, Japan’s largest active volcano, allows you to walk right up to its smoking crater
5) Remember history
– the Daikyoukan hot springs commemorate the Christians who were executed in these pools during Japan’s “closed” years.
6) Snap one
– bubbling pools take their colours from local minerals, leaving you with the choice of a brilliant rust-red (see below) or…
7) …a cool,
ever bubbling mint green in Yufuin, Oita Prefecture (see the top photo!)
I travelled to Kyushu thanks to the Nagasaki Tourism Board, JTB Kyushu and KLM, whose recent flight route connecting Amsterdam to Fukuoka has opened access between Europe and Kyushu.
To find out more details about visiting Kyushu yourself through a tour group, head here.
As usual, as always, I have complete control about what I write about here. Oh, and the foolhardy thing about climbing Mt Fuji myself? That was me, all me…