Monday, November 25, 2013

The Radiant Water God of Harada Onsen Yujin no Yu (Hiroshima Pref.)


(BGM: "Toes" by Norah Jones)

The unforgiving chill winds of autumn had finally tinged the Hiroshima maple leaves scarlet and burgundy, signifying the inescapable onset of winter and the joint pain that comes with it.

Sipping a steaming mug of Korean corn silk tea, my husband scoured the Net for a hot springs within reasonable travel distance from our home that would meet all our pain management needs (winter is particularly hard on us both). As I brewed my morning coffee on that chilly Saturday morning, I heard grunts of approval emanating from the living room. He'd found something!

"You'll like this one," he said. "The water looks good and it's really peaceful. You'll have to bring your own shampoo, though. They don't supply it."

Right away I pricked up my ears. Not your typical spa resort-style hot springs! My interest was piqued! But the website he was looking at showed only the outside of a building, some cars and a boring sign. I tried looking it up on my Japan spa app. Absolutely nothing! I asked my coworkers if they'd ever heard of the place. They all said "no." Knowing that word-of-mouth was everything in Japan, the fact that nobody knew about Harada Onsen didn't exactly fill me with the necessary confidence to go try it out.

"Trust me," my husband said. Seeing how badly he wanted to try this place out was all it took to sway me. He'd always been a willing partner when it came to my hot springs escapades. And after years of traveling with me, he too was getting a sense of what "onsen lovers" like me really look for. This particular spot had no restaurant, no gift shop, no free amenities, not even a blow drier! That could mean only one thing: Harada Onsen Yujin no Yu is all about the waters!

Weaving through endless mountains and coastline with a nearly non-existent WiFi signal, we got lost twice along the way to Yujin no Yu. But after two and a half hours, we finally pulled up to this darling structure of tacked plywood and corrugated tin roofing, snuggled up cozily between a rocky mountain facade lined with splendid, bright red momiji maple trees on one side and an energetic, cascading stream on the other.

An inviting fire in the wood stove connected to the spa's boilers cracked and popped while the bubbly laughter of happily splashing grannies dousing themselves with water tickled our ears. Our eyes bulged in delight at the site of several hundred hoshigaki (dried persimmons) tied to bamboo dowels, hanging in front of the wood stove. The okamisan (manager), a widely-grinning lady in a Kappa coat standing in front of the boiler room, collected our entrance fees and told us the persimmons would be ready by New Year's.

Passing small offerings like locally-grown glutinous mochi rice, mikan oranges and new potatoes, stopping to enjoy lovingly hand-crafted dolls and paintings donated by various patrons, we understood that this wasn't just any ordinary spa. This was a sacred space of healing, inspiration and fellowship. The very name yujin (有神)translates as "god is here." We were eager to find out what would give this particular springs such a "glowing" reputation! We had to be careful while walking up the one-way road, as people from as far away as Kobe and Okayama lined up their minivans and white utility trucks not to park, but to fill up huge plastic bottles with water from the main spring source marked with a curious jizo (stone god). This place must really have a following, I thought.

Yujin no Yu Springs

Blessed Waters
Entrance for Men
Watch your head on the way in!
Ducking reverently through the rather low entrance door, we stepped into what looked like an old-fashioned kominkan (community hall), decorated with an eclectic mix of modern and traditional Japanese art and handicrafts. I wanted to take my time and explore but the cold wind howling through the open door reminded me that I'd better warm up properly first, snapping me out of my hypnotic trance.
Entrance for Women (with Foot Shower to the Right)
We removed our shoes in the entrance way, changed into the plastic bathroom slippers provided and descended a series of broad, smooth stone slabs onto a boardwalk of sorts.

"Stairway to Heaven?" (Sorry. Couldn't Resist).
The baths were separated by gender (men on the left, women on the right), with a welcome drink vending machine standing in the middle. Each entrance was supplied with a cozy chair or sofa just perfect for enjoying a piping hot beverage in the cool outdoor air. To the side of the women's bath was a special foot-washing space supposedly good for athlete's foot and gout. The unpretentious, inviting atmosphere of Yujin no Yu reminded me of some of my favorite spas in Myouban, Beppu. I couldn't have been more thrilled to know that this spa was so close to home!

 I slid off my slippers and set them on top of the shoe shelf, pushed through the noren curtain and opened the door. The dressing room was clean and comfortable with a low tatami-covered platform for resting. Each locker had a key with a curly plastic wristband that required no coin to lock. There was plenty of space inside to hold all my clothes and things. But the room was unheated, so I had to scramble to the baths as quickly as possible before the chills got the best of me.

Though there were over a dozen lockers, the shower room only had four taps for washing. But there were just two other ladies in there besides me so I was in luck. I grabbed a plastic stool (large enough to accommodate even big foreigners like myself), adjusted the shower water to my favorite temperature and began my pre-bath ritual. Many Japanese women do no more than a symbolic dousing before hitting the tubs. I personally find this repulsive. As a foreigner in this country (and a rather large, pale one at that), I naturally draw a lot of attention when I go to hot springs. Knowing that I'll be watched from behind like some sort of exotic television, I make it a point to scrub down with soap every last inch so they know without a doubt that my foreign cooties have been properly removed. (This thorough cleansing also increases circulation and prepares the skin for more effective mineral absorption, so there's some scientific merit to the madness). All suds down the drain, hair tied up in a granny bun, I'm properly purified to commune with this local "god."

Kneeling beside the tub on cool slabs of granite, I contemplated the pekoe tea-colored pool of steaming, inviting water. I took a pink plastic bath bowl, gently dipped it into the pool, and doused my legs first (as is recommended by doctors to prevent shock). Then I poured more over my head and everything else. It felt incredible. (This process is called "kakeyu" and is an essential part of helping the body adjust to the heat of the bath. I learned about the importance of kakeyu from the sweet elderly ladies at Nagaishi Onsen in Beppu).

Gripping onto the metal rail, I eased myself slowly into the pool, feeling sweet weightlessness gradually return to my limbs with every step. Kneeling down on the stone floor of the tub, I was completely submerged up to my neck in warmth. Indescribable bliss! The atomizer jets spritzed pleasing, tingling streams of water towards my face as my veins pulsated with new life and vitality. Running my hands over my arms, my skin felt a little sticky under the water. The last lady had finally left the rotenburo (open air bath), so without wasting a minute, I carefully ascended from the water, stepped out into the shocking cold, and misjudging the bottom of the tub, fell in with an ungraceful splash, banging my middle left finger in the process.

Pride collected, I situated myself on one of the steps and just soaked my legs for the next ten minutes while taking in the view of the turning leaves on the trees against the mountain, framed by dark brown wood fencing and bamboo sudare screens. The air was filled with layer upon layer of relaxing sounds: the hum of the boilers hissing steam, the rushing of the river on the other side of the wall, the soothing trickle of the bath fountains and cheerfully chirping wagtails running around on the spa rooftop. The moisture had evaporated from my arms leaving a soft, chalky residue from the high concentration of silica in the water. Since hydrated silica baths are some of my favorites, I immediately pledged my undying loyalty to Yujin no Yu. But I was still curious as to why locals would think that a god was here.

Suddenly, a ruddy-skinned woman sprinted from the indoor bath to a small blue tile-lined pool in front of me shaped like a wedding cake (called a "goemonburo" or cauldron bath, named after the legendary thief who was supposedly boiled to death in one). She inadvertently splashed me with icy cold water in the process as she climbed in and quickly doused herself in the gensen (source). After a few seconds, she quickly crawled out again, lowering her cold body down carefully into the tub beside me. I told her she had a lot of courage to plunge herself into that little torture chamber. She told me it felt amazing and suggested I give it a try. I said the Japanese equivalent of "no way in Hell" and she laughed aloud. She then pointed to the pink polka-dot plastic cup hanging over the tub and told me that drinking the water would be a good substitute for the mizuburo (cold water bath). I stood up to follow her advice as she grinned in approval.

I caught some of the cold water in my hand that flowed from the narrow bamboo spigot and held it up to grateful lips. It tasted clean with a chalky finish and slightly acidic aftertaste. Though dry like a hard ginger ale, it was refreshing and helped to ward off the onsen boke (hot springs fever) that had started to rear its ugly head, making me slightly dizzy. I filled up my empty drink bottle with more Yujin no Yu water and poured some of it onto my small white bathing towel, which I then folded into a nice little square and placed atop my steaming head. Back into the water with problem solved!

The brave woman who conquered the goemonburo earlier asked me what had inspired us to seek out Yujin no Yu. I told her about our car accident and she listened sympathetically, holding both of my hands in her own and smiling as l recounted what I'd learned from the whole experience. A stage-four cancer survivor, she too was a walking miracle. She said she started coming to Yujin no Yu immediately after her biopsy, when her doctor said that even with the surgery, she might still have only a few more months to live. That was over 2 years ago. Now she's completely cancer-free, but keeps coming to the spa "for maintenance" and to chat with her friends. (Endless gabbing is therapy for we womenfolk, no matter where we're from). She said that by hearing other survivor stories from people like me, she could forget about her own troubles and realize that she still had much to be thankful for. After hearing her amazing story of how she overcame struggle with such tremendous grace, I knew I was treading on hallowed ground.

A few more women joined us, some with skin slightly scarred from past episodes of psoriasis and dermatitis, others with flawless bodies that defied their age. Without apprehension, one by one they began sharing with me their own stories about their various illnesses, and how the waters had helped them. About ten of them had been coming here as a group for years. Despite my foreignness and my size, everywhere I've soaked in Japan, I have always felt quite welcome in bath time conversation with the locals. But this place was particularly special. As a fellow survivor, they had initiated me as one of the group. I felt incredibly honored to be a part of it. 

With a few melodious claps of the hyoushigi (wooden signal sticks) situated near the rotenburo door, the okamisan came shuffling out from the boiler room and poked her head through the door. "Nurui!" (tepid), one of the ladies shouted over the loud hum of the boiler. The okamisan nodded with a smile and scurried back down to the boiler room. Within minutes, piping-hot water flowed in from the fountain beside my knees, surrounding me in a cloud of soothing heat. I swished it with my hand towards the rest of the bathers. As the air temperature began to swiftly drop, we watched the steam swirling above the water's surface, tongue-like wisps made up of millions of dancing microscopic particles, caught up by the wind making tiny tornadoes. Joined in a moment of spontaneous silence, we all just lounged there meditating upon the steam, a congregation of souls in sacred communion.

Determined to solve the mystery still floating around in my mind, I steered the conversation back to the onsen's namesake. Hydrated silica baths are famous world-wide (especially in Iceland) for their ability to soothe irritated skin. But neoplasm diseases, nervous conditions and joint pain? Was I missing something, here?

A woman with a grandmother's face and a plump, teenager's body (she was lovingly nicknamed "madam" by the other bathers) informed me that while the heated water was good for skin ailments, the real magic came from bathing in the dreaded goemonburo. The water flowing into the goemonburo bath is kakenagashi, which in Japanese means water in its purest state flowing continuously from its underground source (the only kind of water we onsen otakus will accept). This precious water flows in at a chilly 14 to 16 degrees Celsius (perhaps colder if the ground freezes). As with many facilities across Japan, the water is artificially heated before being added to the baths. Although technically it comes up cold, it still qualifies as an onsen because it's sometimes warmer than the ground from which it springs. Nonetheless, Yujin no Yusui is pure, unadulterated water straight from the depths of Mother Earth. (According to the manager, Yujin no Yu water is used throughout the entire facility, from the toilets, sinks and showers to the baths). Most modern hot springs facilities found throughout Japan were created by a type of drilling process called "boring." But Yujin no Yu is a 100% natural thermal spring, something onsen guidebooks have been mistakenly claiming for years to be non-existent in Hiroshima Prefecture.

But temperature and water purity don't a healing hot spring make. Analyzing the water carefully with my senses, it slightly reeked of sulfur and had a gentle nippy zing that only liquified iron could give. These minerals were supposedly good for blood and skin issues, but their amounts were minimal and their concentrations changed from week to week (which is common in groundwater, at least where I'm from). This simple combination of common minerals wasn't enough to convince me that this water was anything special. Could it possibly be that these people had all succumbed to the placebo effect? I found the mystery of Yujin no Yu ever more perplexing.

Pipes Connecting the Water Source to the Boiler Rooms
The sun had set and it was time for me to get to the bottom of this "god" thing. It was also time for me to give my pores a well-earned rest. What I'd intended to be an hour-long bath had easily morphed into three! (I guess that meant the conversation was really good). Despite the heat and steam, I no longer felt fatigued nor dehydrated. The Yujin no Yu water had graciously sustained me all the while. Bidding health and farewell to my new soaking buddies, I stumbled back to the showers to clean up and toss one last dose of the chalky water over my skin for a final powdery finish. I felt younger, already! But the mineral chart I was frantically searching for  (required by law to be posted in legitimate hot springs facilities) was nowhere to be found.

Dressed and coiffed, I shuffled in my funny slippers to the inviting chair beside the door with a hot can of Royal Milk Tea and just vegetated there in the cold air, steam rising from my wet hair up towards the slowly darkening sky. A few stars began to flicker and wink overhead. My skin hummed and vibrated with new sensations. I noticed that part of my injured leg had a little more feeling than before. Even my beat-up finger felt better!

I walked back to the main lodge to find my husband seated comfortably under a kotatsu (heated table), practicing English expressions on his smart phone. With no WiFi in these mountains, he was showing slight signs of media withdrawal. But he still had a relaxed, contented smile for me. This was always a good sign. He seemed quite satisfied with his hot springs experience.

Before heading out, we chatted a little more with the manager. She said the waters had cured her of her ills long ago and she was so grateful that she decided to move to Harada Onsen to maintain it. With a tireless, inspiring smile, she sold me a bag of locally-picked yomogi (mugwort) sachets for my home bath and asked me to come visit the spa again as soon as possible. She was simply radiating joy and compassion. One could say she'd been touched by the Hand of God, no doubt. But the fountain wasn't named after her (though it should have been).

As we proceeded down the hill with arms loaded down with fresh water and yomogi, a white poster propped up along the wall suddenly caught my attention. A mineral chart! Just what I was looking for! My starving husband allowed me five seconds to snap a quick photo and we were soon on our merry way. While in the car, I translated the data and to my delight, realized that I had been guzzling and bathing in radioactive water! We'd found a highly-coveted radium spring! And not just any radium spring! Yujin no Yu is second in the nation for picocuries per-liter! (The number one spot belongs to Ikeda Onsen in Shimane Prefecture at 187.70 maches /mah-hehs/ per centiliter. Maches is the old measure of radioactive content for radium and radon gas, recently replaced by pCi/L, or picocuries per liter).

Once affectionately called "liquid sunshine," the element radium and the radon gas it produces are naturally occurring bi-products of decaying uranium, found all around us in the soil we tread and the food we eat and responsible for most of the world's background radiation. They were used heavily as a cure-all by doctors and health specialists around the world, including the USA, until the 1960's, when scientists discovered a link between miners and a slightly elevated risk of lung cancer due to overexposure. Europe and Japan eventually took the lead in radon/radium therapy and research after the US government officially dismissed radon's healing potential, labeling it a toxic carcinogen. In Gastein, Austria, home to the world's most famous radon spas, radon gas therapy (usually administered in special cave facilities built underground) is so legitimate a form of health care that it's even covered by national insurance! In Europe, radon is used specifically for pain management and the treatment of conditions like fibromyalgia, gout, arthritis and other chronic conditions under strict medical supervision.

In Japan, throughout the granite-laden mountains of the Chugoku region, radium therapy can most commonly be had in the form of hot springs to treat skin diseases such as neuro-dermatitis, atopic dermatitis and psoriasis. Regarding the cancer risk, in 1992, studies done by one of Japan's top health organizations showed that people living in Misasa (a hot springs town in Tottori Prefecture, number three on Japan's radium ranking) had about half the incidences of some types of cancer than the national average! The sole running theory for this is a phenomenon called "hormesis," in which a small amount of concentrated toxin triggers the body's immune system to eventually make itself stronger and healthier. In the US and Canada, scientists reject any possibility of hormesis and strictly adhere to the "linear no-threshold model" (LNT), which basically states that no amount of radiation exposure is considered "safe."

The Japanese, however, tend to go along with the flow of public opinion regarding the dangers of certain radioactive substances. For example, the iodine 131 and cesium gushing out of Fukushima are generally considered more dangerous than radium and radon simply because they've been drilled into the Japanese public mind as strong carcinogens that cause thyroid cancer in children, whereas radium and radon have yet to be subject to the same kind of demonization they've received in the States (and thus are, magically, above reproach for the time being). This explains why my Japanese doctor heartily encouraged frequent visits to radium hot springs while my American friends literally called me "cray-cray" (crazy) for exposing myself intentionally to radiation. Differences in culture, education and thought, I suppose. 

In radon's defense, it does seem to dissipate into the air rather quickly and is much less of a risk in water than in, say, the average basement or mine (as this article from the American Cancer Society elaborates). The bathwater at Yujin no Yu naturally loses much of its toxicity along the journey up from the rocky underground depths, around through the pipes, down into the boilers and back out again into the tubs, where it dissipates even more upon evaporation. Since the average person gets an automatic radon dose between 2 to 200 pCi/L a day just for being alive (depending on where in the world they live), it's pretty hard to avoid all exposure to the stuff.

As I consider the impressively long and successful history of radium/radon therapy in Japan, I'm inclined to think that in my particular case, the benefits of visiting Yujin no Yu far outweigh the risks. I, for one, haven't been scared away from going back. There are 11 major types of mineral springs in the Japanese archipelago, and radium springs were the last on my list -not out of fear (as many people have a natural aversion to the word "radioactive"), but of practicality. I never had the chance to live in a region where radium springs occurred until now. But it seems that this year, I am tremendously blessed. It has been three weeks since I first visited Harada Onsen Yujin no Yu and the pain in my joints has yet to return. The waters have made a believer out of me. Though I'm not one to put god in a box, I could easily see how the locals would believe there's a special, ethereal presence in the waters, here. I too will be singing the praises of Yujin no Yu for years to come, I'm sure. :-)

(Update: I have since successfully submerged myself up to the neck in the goemonburo. I have to admit, I understand why it took me a month to gather the courage to do it. That sucker's cold! Though I saw stars and got dizzy afterwards, upon returning to the rotenburo, my skin felt alive and my entire being alert and refreshed. It was an experience I will gladly repeat.

I also learned why this place is so unheard of. According to the okamisan (manager), Yujin no Yu was originally established as a private bathing facility for sufferers of acute skin diseases (such as leprosy and burns from the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), who would otherwise be turned away because of the stigma attached to the diseases. (Similar semi-private onsens occur all around the Chugoku and Kyushu regions. A few of them, such as Kodei Spa in Beppu, Kyushu, close their doors to the public at 10:30 so their main clientele can enjoy their privacy). Throughout the years, the owners of Yujin no Yu have been repeatedly turning down offers for promotion packages and advertising campaigns, in order to protect the pride and comfort of their clientele.

For this reason, I'm only providing bus access information, out of deep respect for the place and the strong, beautiful people who come here to heal and enjoy. Besides, the overflow of business would overwhelm the manager who takes care of the place practically all by herself. But she made it a point to tell me that foreigners are definitely welcome at Yujin no Yu, even healthy ones! :-)

Harada Onsen Yujin-no-Yu Spa Information:

Operating Hours: 9:00am to 9:00 pm (Closed on Tuesdays)
Bath Fee: Adult 600 yen, Child 300 yen (a booklet of 11 passes available for 6,000 yen)
Facilities: rotenburo (open air bath), Goemonburo/mizuburo (cauldron bath, but with cold water), interior bath, showers, dressing room, family bath (by reservation), foot washing area, dining tables, kotatsu room, Western-style toilets, massage room (massages booked in advance)
Drink Machines: soda, colas, tea, coffee, sports drinks, energy drinks, water, milk, beer, etc.
Amenities: small bath towels and bar soap available for purchase at the front kiosk. Larger towels available for rent.
Gifts: local produce available according to season
Potable Water: available free on-tap for drinking (imbibing) in the baths. Larger bottles can be filled for 100 yen (BYO containers).

Access: Take the one of 7 buses from Onomichi Station to Harada Onsen (30 min one-way).

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this blog is for entertainment purposes only. The author cannot and will not be held responsible for any information contained in this blog used by a third party. Readers who intentionally expose themselves to radioactivity do so at their own risk. The author makes no claim of the effectiveness of onsen therapy nor suggests the use of radioactive elements for the treatment of any disease to any third party. Please do what the author did and check with a licensed health care practitioner before attempting any form of self-treatment for any medical condition.

Copyright 2013 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.