IBUSUKI CITY, JAPAN - It appeared a gang of headhunters had arrived in this ancient Japanese city before we did. Heads were strewn all over the public beach - not a body in sight. We gasped at first sight of the heads and gingerly approached one wrapped in a towel. Then, as the eyes on the head opened, and a smile crept across the face, we jumped back. The villagers standing out of sight broke into laughter. The heads were the first thing we faced after arriving in this resort town on the southern Japanese island of Kyushu.
“Please hurry and stop looking at those heads,” our guide shouted at us. “We have to get to the Ibusuki Hakusuikan Sand Bath Resort so you can enjoy your own sand bath treatment.”
About an hour later, a man in what’s known as a Happy Coat, was standing over my almost naked body raking hot black sand on me until only my head could be seen.
“Please let me know when it get too hot,” said the man in broken English.
The hot sand at first felt soothing and made my body sweat out all the bad toxins. But a few minutes into the treatment, the sand began to suffocate me – the heat became so intense I began to feel ill.
That’s about the time the attendant reappeared and told me: “Treatment over.”
Visitors who take the sand baths only last a few minutes – the recommended time is no longer than 15 minutes at a stretch. Even the Japanese, who are used to such treatments, can only take it for a few minutes.
Left: The black volcanic sand helps relax the body. Right: Japanese have their heads stuck in sand and for good reason.
However, the short treatment has a long lasting effect and combined with the wonderful hot springs in this region, gives Japan a one-two wellness punch that makes it the heavyweight champion of spa destinations in Asia.
All these natural wonders are the result of the volcanic activity that has been going on in this region for billions of years. In an area between here and Kagoshima City, you will discover hundreds of sand baths and hot springs that are fed by an active volcano known as Sakurajima. Hotels in the area, like the incredible Castle Park in Kagoshima City, harness the underground spring water and pump it into pools where their guests relax while looking out on the fire breathing volcano across the bay.
That same volcano also heats up the sand in Ibusuki City, a pretty little town that wouldn't look out of place in the French Riviera. It lies about an hour outside Kagoshima City.
The sand baths actually have a triple effect on your body. First, because you are lying down, blood can easily flow back to the heart. Secondly, because of the pressure of the wet sand, the volume of blood pumped out of the heart increases. And thirdly, because of the high temperature (over 100 degrees) of the sand, blood vessels expand and cardiac function is improved, thus transporting oxygen and nutrients throughout the body which helps purify the blood. The longest anyway is allowed to lie in the hot sand is 15 minutes at a time. However, few foreigners last much longer than 10 minutes.
The sandy black graves quickly fill up when visitors from Japan’s major cities begin arriving, especially on weekends. The beautiful Ibusuki Hakusuikan Sand Bath Resort offers 15 sand boxes, which can hold up to 12 bodies each. The soothing heat reacts quickly on your body and soon the aches and pains you arrived with are gone within minutes. Even less than a 15 minute treatment can have a long lasting effect on your aches.
But the sand baths are not the only “hot” treatment this resort offers. When an attendant told us we would be having a “hot rock treatment” we suspected it to mirror ones we’ve had in North America where smooth volcanic rocks are heated and then placed gently on your back. The Japanese treatment is much difference and qualifies as “jumping from the fire into the frying pan.”
The hot rock is actually a large floor that has been heated to a high temperature. A towel is placed on the floor for you to lie on and then you’re expected to lie on it for about 10 minutes. Again, the heat works to rid the body of toxins and other bad materials while at the same time soothing away your leftover aches.
That sizzle sound you might hear during your treatment is a part of your body touching the bare floor. Ouch! These hot treatments are also good for those trying to lose weight – here you really do see the pounds melt away. Spa enthusiasts wanting to experience an authentic Shiatsu massage while visiting Japan better be warned that the “real thing” is a real pain.
The session your this correspondent endured so as to give this report some authenticity was, to say the least, a painful experience. Here, massages are given for medicinal, not cosmetic purposes. To get rid of pain, I discovered, therapists inflict pain on you.
Several times during my Shiatsu massage I had to tell the attendant to ease up for fear his needle-like fingers might punch a hole in me.
All these natural treatments, however, make Japan a hot place to visit.
- For information on either the Castle Park Hotel in Kagoshima City or the Ibusuki Hakusuikan hot bath and spa, contact the Japan National Tourist Organization at http://www.jnto.go.jp