Sunday, June 19, 2011

Greatest. Thing. Ever.

Closing in on the end of our 3 week tour of (bits of) Japan, and inspired by this newspaper article that basically described an experience of watching an active volcano while lying in hot volcanic sand, we just HAD to make sure to have a suna-yu in Ibusuki. The Toronto Star article indicated that this tradition began some 350 years ago and originated in Ibusuki, but Beppu seems to have quite a history with this type of "sand bath" as well, possibly even back to the Nara period (~700). Anyway, I can't find anything verifiable on the interwebs at present, so I just need to get to the good stuff.

The. Greatest. Thing. Ever.

By the time we got to Kagoshima, nearly a week ago, it was clear that the rainy season had begun. Forecasts ranged from "light rain" to "rain" to "moderate rain" to "heavy rain" to "thunderstorms", and mostly seemed to settle on "heavy rain". Figuring that rain wouldn't greatly interrupt our sand bath experience, we got on the train to Ibusuki to seek THIS. Since we were practically there already, we also decided to "hike" out to the small island of Chiringashima, which is accessible at low tide via a tombolo! Yay! Tomobolo! (This is one of my favourite geology jargon words). We sought shelter for about 5 minutes from the torrential downpour, once it lessened to "moderate rain" we set off down the tombolo. Then the weather dramatically changed to "thunderstorm"... we figured we were half way there, so we just got soaked and made it to the island. Eventually, sopping, we made it to Yunohama beach and picked up our rental yukata for the sand bath. While getting changed I learned that my rain jacket is no longer waterproof (which I suspected during the walk earlier, but really couldn't tell while outside in a thunderstorm), AND my "waterproof" backpack wasn't even remotely close to waterproof.

At this point, nothing could possibly feel better than ridding myself of all my soggy possessions and getting buried in wet "sand" (really it's lapilli, but I can't imagine the Japanese translation for that) that is heated naturally from below by steam from a hot spring. It was amazing! I was snug and warm and the lapilli are coarse enough that it's a rough texture, but not scratchy or itchy somehow, and I could literally feel my own pulse everywhere in my body, like it was giving me a massage via the weight of the wet and steamy lapilli. Greatest. Thing. Ever.

We had been lead to believe that Ibusuki was THE place, the ONLY place, one could experience a sand bath. Then, yesterday, we arrived in Beppu. It's been raining pretty steadily (mostly of the "heavy rain" variety), which has seriously limited our sightseeing (especially after having learned of the ineffectiveness of my "rain gear"). Our ryokan, miraculously, has wifi and I have spent far too long trying to dredge up the history of sand baths, which may, in fact, have originated here.

Thirteen women dressed in yukata are enjoying a hot sand bath in Beppu, one of Japan’s most famous onsen (hot spring) resorts.

Barely a few blocks walk from our ryokan is Takegawara Onsen, a Meiji period bath house that also boasts sand baths. Given the torrential downpours, going to Beppu Beach (like the Geisha Girls above) was not an option, but escaping the monsoon inside while getting buried in hot and steamy lapilli again? I had to make it happen.

Takegawara Onsen, Meiji period bath house, home to indoor sand bath.

"Sand ladies" burying some sand bathers and prepping new "graves" for us to settle into. Let me tell you, these ladies are PROS! As much as I left Ibusuki feeling like that sand bath was amazing, this one at Takegawara was out(ofthisworld)standing. Not only do they dig you a little grave to lie in and bury you with shovels like the Ibusuki people do, but they also tuck your feet in properly and wedge lapilli up under your shoulders and back and neck to make a cozy little pillow too.

I'm settled. It sure was steamy in there! This suna-yu was significantly hotter than the one at Ibusuki, which I reluctantly left after about 25 minutes (they recommend 15), at Takegawara I was disappointed that they make you extract yourself after a mere 10 minutes! But, considering that I nearly fainted in the bath house while rinsing the rogue lapilli off, I can see that the 10 minute limit is important. I'm sure that fainting in an onsen is even more taboo than bathing with a tattoo.

After each set of "bathers" has gone through the burial-extraction ritual, the "sand ladies" sluice more hot spring water through the sand to "cleanse" it before allowing a new set of "bathers" to enter. I find this a little weird, granted you sweat A LOT in there, but a) it's lapilli - which is essentially gravel-sized particles of volcanic DIRT; b) one must shower thoroughly upon exiting, otherwise one would be exiting wearing a layer of lapilli glued by sweat to one's skin; and c) the hot spring water is loaded with all kinds of dissolved mineral solids, often including lovely things like arsenic that one tends to want to wash off.

Oh well, weird = yes, but it is still the. GREATEST. THING. EVER!


Lulu said...

That sounds so fun!!!

gnat said...

It was fantastic. I wish I could figure out a way to make that my bed...