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Island of Healing Waters

Kyushu, home to numerous regions where mineral-rich volcanic waters gurgle up from deep inside the earth, is a prime locale to engage in one of Japan's most unique and pleasurable experiences: relaxing in onsen (natural hot spring) baths.

Oita prefecture, hugging Kyushu's northeastern coastline, is one of the country's best-loved regions for bathing. In addition to Yufuin – a picturesque onsen village featuring luxurious inns and an atmospheric shopping promenade – the city of Beppu was voted the nation's number two onsen area in 2017, behind only Atami in Shizuoka prefecture.

The Beppu Project, a nonprofit organization that spearheads arts-related initiatives throughout the year, recently introduced their city's precious onsen resource as follows: “Hot water pours from the earth and collects in hollows. These pools belong to no one. People cherish them and take an active part in their protection and management. Locals, travelers, men and women alike take off their clothes and relax in the warm water, sharing a moment of their lives unarmed, naked, and without regard to nationality or religion."

The project organized an event in 2015 titled Mixed Bathing World, which it described by saying: “The mystical port town of Beppu reveals a different wonder in every district – puffs of hot spring steam, a collage of spiritual and earthbound elements, an immigrant culture. Here is where contemporary art will unfold in its many forms. With passport and map in hand, viewers will explore the town in search of works of art spread throughout. Along the way they will come in contact with the many expressions that Beppu takes on. Eight artists from different national backgrounds will visit Beppu, choose their own locations, and present artwork possible nowhere else. The artwork that emerges in these locations will become ‘art gates', portals into separate worlds where one is beckoned onto a journey of new senses."

You need not attend a special festival, however, in order to fully appreciate all that the onsen have to offer. Here are a few suggestions to get you started on your own personal bathing journey in Kyushu, where you are most certainly spoiled for choice when it comes to this most precious resource.

Traditional bathing

Whether indoors or outdoors, and during any season of the year, a soak in a hot spring pool calms the spirit, and depending upon the particular minerals that are present, is also said to bring medicinal benefits that help heal a variety of physical ailments.

For onsen newbies, the rules are simple: simply scrub yourself clean at the bathing stations provided, rinse yourself off thoroughly, and then ease yourself down into the waiting waters. And if you feel uneasy about going au naturel in a group setting, not to worry: most people here have been doing this their whole lives, and you'll soon be just as relaxed as everyone else!

Bubbly bathing

Located in the village of Nagayu in Taketa, Oita prefecture, here at the Lamune Onsen you can enjoy the unique experience of bathing in a pool of fizzy water. Named after a famous carbonated beverage, the low temperature of the bath enables you to soak for longer than you might be able to withstand in hotter waters.

While the bubbles are not visible right when you enter the bath, you will soon notice them slowly beginning to collect near your body until they are swirling around you completely. The onsen waters here are said to be good for heart and gastrointestinal diseases, as well as arthritis, allergies and chronic dermatitis.

Foot bathing

Maybe you're not in the mood for a full-body bathing experience, or maybe you've got sore feet after a day or two of walking adventures. Either way, ashiyu – foot baths – are an excellent way to revive your tired tootsies.

At the Aso Farm Land Aso Natural Park Healthful Forest in Aso, Kumamoto prefecture, experience the indescribable sensation of teensy fish inside the foot bath getting down to work munching the dead skin off your feet. Sounds somewhat repulsive when you describe it, but you will emerge with smoother feet – and a cool story to tell the folks back home.

Forest bathing

While the practice of shinrinyoku – forest bathing – normally means simply basking in the energy of trees, you truly can have your forest and your bath too by taking a dip in an onsen pool surrounded by a Narnia-like woodsy setting.

The village of Kurokawa Onsen in Kumamoto prefecture, which is set alongside a river valley, offers spectacular opportunities for forested bathing amidst peaceful bamboo groves. Here on this earthly plane, there is hardly anything more ethereally blissful.

Mud bathing

The benefits of mud are well-known for skin-care regimens; now imagine lowering your whole body into a slick pool of water featuring copious deposits of warm, mineral-rich mud. The sensation is difficult to describe, but after your first experience, chances are it will not be your last.

Good places to experience mud bathing are Sakura, Sakura in Kirishima, Kagoshima prefecture, and Hoyoland in Beppu, Oita prefecture – the latter of which features a quote on its website which says: “Mud is created from a mixture of the earth, water, and air. After a long period of being weathered within the current, the earth is released from the water and is then returned to terra firma. Truly, mud is the embodiment of the cosmos."

Jigoku Onsen Seifusou in Minami-Aso, Kumamoto prefecture, which also offers mud bathing, closed down after suffering extensive damage in the 2016 earthquakes, but is presently undergoing reconstruction and expects to reopen in 2019.

Sand bathing

While mud bathing essentially involves a mixture of mud and water, sand bathing is exactly what it sounds like. After changing into a special yukata (light kimono), you will lie down inside a pit that has been dug out alongside the ocean shore. A pile of warm volcanic sand will then be heaped atop you, and your task for the next 10 to 20 minutes is simply relax and bliss out to the sound of the lapping waves as the mineral-rich substance infuses your pores.
The experience is said to help rid the body of toxins, promote good circulation, and help ensure glowing skin. You can experience this phenomenon at the Beppu Beach Sand Bath in Oita prefecture, or the Sunamushi Onsen Natural Sand Bath Saraku in Ibusuki, Kagoshima prefecture – the latter of which features an onsite poster boasting that the health benefits of their sand baths “are 3 to 4 times that of ordinary hot springs! It's true!"

Sea bathing

For another powerful experience in nature, commune directly with the elements at Hirauchi Kaichu Onsen, on the island of Yakushima in Kagoshima prefecture, which is perched right at ocean's edge.

Able to be entered only twice a day, around the time of low tide, the facility operates on the honor system where visitors are asked to drop their ¥100 in the provided box. This is a co-ed onsen; bring a towel if you're squeamish about mixed bathing.

Kimberly Hughes

Kimberly Hughes

Kimberly Hughes is a freelance writer, translator, and community organizer who is originally from the desert of the southwestern U.S. and has been based in Tokyo since 2001. She is somewhat addicted to global travel, and also loves cooking, gardening and reading.

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