December 12, 2004: Healing Waters of Japan—Watered Down

Outdoor Baths at Hot SpringsDecember 12, 2004: New York Times headline—Watering Down the Healing Waters of Japan. “For foreigners, it is a time-honored image of Japan: a meditative soak in the mineral waters of a hot spring, preferably pondering jagged black volcanic rocks, a bough of cherry blossoms, or even, for the most luxurious, the snow-streaked slopes of Mount Fuji. Few knew that offstage, hotel employees might be surreptitiously piping in heated tap water, recycling old water between natural rock pools or even dumping coloring powders into water to make it look rich in minerals.

For Japanese, who cherish the cleansing, calming and healing mystique of a hot spring, or onsen, vacation, the scandal has almost been as traumatic as Japan’s dispatch of soldiers to Iraq. After a steady drumbeat of confessions and apologies from hot spring owners, this fall the Environment Ministry conducted a survey of water use practices at 19,445 onsens. The results confirmed some of the worst fears of customers, often women who are office workers in their 30’s and who cling to hygienic standards bordering on perfection.

Though anonymity was guaranteed, 40 percent of the nation’s hot spring owners declined to respond to the survey. Of the respondents, about a third said they diluted their hot spring baths with tap water, half said they recycled their water through filters, and half said they heated their water.

Some said they diluted the water to cool it as it boiled out of the earth. Others, more geothermically challenged, resorted to heating the water with industrial gas heaters. About 80 percent of the resorts that admitted to following these practices said they did not inform patrons. While the mineral content of spa water can change, 30 percent of those responding said they had not had their water analyzed in more than 10 years. National laws governing hot springs are vague, and most of these practices are not considered violations.

Weekly newspapers like The Shukan Post have dug deeper, discovering, in one case, a resort town where several spas used as their spa water the condensate from a geothermal power plant. In another town, a spa owner heated tap water, ran it over mineral ores and billed it as mineral water.

These and other reports have shocked the Japanese, who treat their mineral baths with respect bordering on reverence. Japanese universally shower, scrub and rinse themselves before stepping into a hot spring pool or bath. Police raids, the resignation of one resort town’s mayor and the temporary closing of several hotels did not stem the national backlash. Cancellations of thousands of reservations have rippled through the hot springs resort industry. Some customers demanded refunds for past onsen vacations.”

Commentary: In October 1987, 100 international experts in the field of taste and odor in water supplies met in Kagoshima, Japan. The meeting was sponsored by the Off-Flavour Committee of the International Association on Water and Pollution Research and Control (forerunner of the International Water Association). Wednesday of the week-long conference was reserved for field trips to aquaculture farms and water treatment plants. I had seen plenty of both in my many trips in the U.S. and abroad and I was looking for something that was a lot more fun. A friend of mine who is a world-class photographer had published a book about Japanese baths. When he heard that I was going to Kagoshima, he urged me to visit the Jungle Baths. I was not exactly sure what they were, but I was game for an adventure.

I enlisted the aid of our interpreter and I surreptitiously canvassed about 12 of my convention attendees. They were all for it. We rented a van and made the three-hour drive to visit the amazing Jungle Baths which were located south of the city of Kagoshima. It is a resort complex capable of handling several thousand people on the weekends, but during the week it was practically empty. The baths were located in a covered area about the size of three football fields—men on one side and women on the other and bathing suits not allowed. We had a great time sampling all of the pools of different temperatures and levels of salinity. At one point, we were buried up to our necks in hot, black volcanic sand. It was an experience not unlike that of a baked potato. At the end, I took a group picture of the men draped over a fountain with appropriate pieces of personal geography covered. I still have that picture. These experts on taste and odor know who they are. My price for continued discretion is a very large number per person. I will accept only small denomination bills with non-sequential serial numbers.

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