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Sand Bathing – A Uniquely Japanese Spa Experience

Kyushu, the third largest island of Japan, is home to numerous hot springs, the most famous of which are in the cities of Beppu and Ibusuki. These cities, with their balmy subtropical climate and bubbling volcanic waters, are major tourist destinations. One of their most popular attractions is hot-spring bathing, known as onsen, offered by various spas. But there exist a few spas in these cities that offer a lesser known, highly relaxing experience – sand bathing!

Sand bathing basically involves getting buried in a large pit of volcanic sand for up to 30 minutes. The experience is not only soothing and satisfying, but believed to be highly therapeutic as well. It is apparently great for treating infertility, diabetes, anaemia and asthma, and is also said to aid in weight loss.

The bathing areas consist of a huge boxes of sand, heated up with natural hot spring water. When the sand is thoroughly soaked in the water and steaming hot, the water is drained. Visitors are then let into the box and asked to lie down, as workers shovel copious amounts of sand on top of them. The bathers remain buried until the sand cools down, and are then directed to bathing facilities to wash the dirt off.

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Once the box is empty, the heating process is started again, which takes about 30 minutes. So tickets to the bath are sold at 30-minute intervals, and there are only a limited number of spots per session. The ticket comes with a traditional Japanese cotton robe called ‘yukata’, and a towel. The garment helps keep the sand from sticking to the body, and also acts as a sort of insulation against the heat. A wooden pillow is also provided, which serves as a head rest.

Travel blogs and websites are filled with first hand accounts from tourists who’ve sand-bathed in Kyushu island, and most of them seem to agree that while the bathing itself was weird and uncomfortable, the after-effect was nothing short of blissful. “The weight (of the sand) coming off is far more of a relief than escaping from the heat,” writer and journalist Bee Rowlatt wrote in the Telegraph.

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“I push the sand aside and sit, in sudden and complete joy. I feel alert and light,” she added. “I feel recharged rather than relaxed, and the effect can last for several hours, without that collapse into sleepiness that can follow heat treatment and spa sessions. I can’t rightly say that it made me healthy, but it certainly made me happy.”

National Geographic reporter Andrew Evans, on the other hand, did not seem too pleased with his sand bathing experience. “I tried desperately to relax but kept checking that clock, thirteen minutes, fourteen minutes; fourteen minutes and thirty-four seconds, thirty-six seconds,” he wrote. “Afterwards, I lingered under a long, cold shower that proved beneficial in curing me from the effects of the heat.” In fact, he insisted that the only effect the therapy had on him was to make him ‘happy to be alive’.

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Interestingly, the concept of sand bathing is actually a practice prevalent among animals. They roll around in dust or sand in order to clean or dry their fur, feathers or skin. The behavior is common among a wide range of mammalian and avian species – and sometimes even a necessary to get rid of parasites. We use it as a spa treatment.

Photos: Années de Pèlerinnage

Sources: Années de Pèlerinnage, Digital Nomad, The Telegraph

Thanks for the tip, Norman!

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