photo from born1945 on Flickr
Nearly all visitors to Japan come with the hopes of bathing in an onsen (natural hot spring bath). With their relaxing atmospheres and beautiful vistas, and it's no wonder Japan is famous for the onsen experience. But if you're looking to try something a little more unique and quirky, why not give sand baths a try?
Located in southern Kyushu, Kagoshima coastline boasts this unique bathing adventure. The nearby volcanoes give the water beneath the surface its warm, mineral-rich content, heating up the sand along the beach naturally with steam from below.
So how does it work?
My sand bath experience was during a business trip through Kagoshima. I spent the night in Ibusuki, an onsen town on the southern end of the Satsuma Peninsula, famous for its sand bath experiences. Here we are (pictured above) getting buried neck-deep in sand!
Several hotels and facilities in the area offer the experience for a small fee (roughly ¥850), and the price includes use of a yukata (a casual kimono), a bottle of water, and a face towel you can keep as a souvenir. The dressing areas are separated by gender, and also feature a regular onsen you can use after your sand bath.
Your yukata will come with a belt, and be sure to tie it left side over right! This is a very important detail in Japanese customs, as the other way (right over left) is reserved for the dead. If you mistakenly tie it wrong, people might stare at you in shock and horror as if they've seen a ghost (this is not an exaggeration). If you're wondering where and how to tie a yukata belt, women generally tie it higher up, to "cinch in" at the waist, while men wear it lower around their hips. Instead of shoes, they will provide you either with Geta (Japanese wooden sandals) or basic rubber flip flops.
Once you're dressed and ready to go, head down with your face towel and bottle of water to the beach. The “burial” staff (that’s a bit creepy sounding in English, isn't it?) will guide you through the process. You’ll be instructed where to sit (make sure your yukata covers your sensitive areas nice and tight), and they will wrap your towel around your neck to avoid burning your skin. Next you lay back, and they literally shovel sand onto you. You'll feel the heat and weight immediately, and you will definitely sweat. It's a bit of a strange feeling, being buried alive, but once you are fully under, it's quite sublime.
The optimal time to spend under the sand is between 10 and 20 minutes so that you can reap the full benefits. The sand bath is said to be three to four times more beneficial than a traditional onsen, helping to improve circulation, increase blood oxygen levels, and rid the body of toxins. Japanese people use sand baths to help alleviate (some even say cure) ailments such as arthritis and rheumatism. For me, it was a much-needed way to relax, refresh, and reset.
Most of our group broke free right at the 10 minute mark, but a few of us pushed our bodies to their limits (some would say to reap the full benefits, others might say we were competing over mental toughness ;) ). At the 20 minute mark, they advise you to get out or you'll overdo it, and start reversing the effects and making yourself sick. I came out feeling incredible: my muscles were soft and limber, I was totally relaxed and ready to take on a new day!
When you are done at the beach, head back to the changing rooms and deposit your very sandy yukata in the laundry bins provided. You can rinse off in the bathing area, and maybe even hop in to the regular onsen for an extra boost of the benefits before getting dressed to leave.
Be sure to drink plenty of water afterwards, as your body is likely quite dehydrated from all the sweat. Most Japanese people finish the onsen experience with green tea (either hot or cold, it's up to you), ice cream, or a cold, refreshing beer. These treats are generally available at the vending machines in the waiting area (yes --ice cream, beer, and hot tea from vending machines) so feel free to indulge in whatever you're craving. Most importantly, be sure to stay hydrated throughout the day!
So there you have it, you're now prepared for your first sand bath. As with all experiences unique to Japan, the most important thing is to relax, have fun, and enjoy the eccentricity of the ride.