Japan is by and large not a place where nature tends to slink around unobtrusively. Every year, the country is hammered by typhoons, some of which wreak huge amounts of damage. As the world was reminded only too starkly a couple of years ago with the great earthquake and tsunami that struck northeastern Japan, the country has long been plagued by tremors. Japan is the fiery home to a full one-tenth of the world’s active volcanoes. However, one happy bonus of having to suffer the ills of the above two geological phenomena is that Japan is also blessed with an abundance of hot springs.
Those geothermal springs have provided the country with a wealth of recreational and therapeutic facilities. Spas are of course not unique to Japan. The baths at Baden-Baden in Germany have been doling thermal succor since Roman times. But in Europe, the spa tends to be something that people take just for the health benefits. In Japan, the purely pleasurable side has long been a vital factor in the popularity of hot springs.
The Japanese have been getting into hot water for quite some time. Dogo Hot Spring in Shikoku claims to be the country’s oldest hot-spring spa. By the sixth century, Dogo’s therapeutic benefits won the patronage of members of the imperial family. In the eighth century, this spa was so famous it was cited in the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest book, and in the Man’yoshu, its oldest collection of poetry. Perhaps the long Japanese fondness for hot water has somehow crept into their genes: the people of this country can sit benignly and luxuriate in waters whose temperature most Westerners would imagine to be more appropriate for cooking eggs.
Until the late sixteenth century, hot-spring spas were an indulgence largely only for the upper classes. For the samurai in the violent Warring States period (1467–1568), hot springs were important places of recuperation: records indicate how warriors bathed in hot springs to heal wounds inflicted during battle.
By the Edo period (1603–1867), the lower classes finally got to get a good steeping in the spas. Traveling around the country became more commonplace in those times, especially among city dwellers. A bath tax was introduced by the government, which added to the spas’ prosperity. As greater numbers of visitors descended on hot springs, they began to take on the aspects of small resorts, with growing facilities for eating, drinking and entertainment.
Hot springs are certainly looked upon with glad eyes by local tourist organizations, but there is more to their utility than just offering a decent soaking. The annual amount of energy released by Japan’s hot springs is about that of a small volcanic eruption, and various ways have been devised for tapping into this huge energy source. Applications include providing heat for rooms, cooking food, heating hothouse plants and furnishing heated brooders for raising animals. Hot-spring energy has been used in the production of salt, miso and sake. Underground pipes carrying hot-spring water have been employed to keep roads free of winter ice. The geothermal generation of electricity in Japan dates back a century.
Though the crowd-pleasing qualities of Japan’s geothermal forces are most evident in the form of bathing opportunities, they do find expression in other ways. The spot best known for spectacular hot-spring attractions is the city of Beppu on the southern main island of Kyushu. This city is renowned for its eight jigoku, or “hells”—hot springs of boiling water and mud in often-dramatic colors, the demonic name deriving from the burning hells that luridly figure in Buddhist sutras. Notable among the hells is the geyser Tatsumaki Jigoku (Waterspout Hell): unlike many of its slowcoach peers around the world, this one obligingly erupts at a brisk, tourist-friendly rate of around every 30 minutes—so you don’t have to hang around long to see it steam its stuff. Most dramatic, though, has to be Oniyama Jigoku (Mountain Demon Hell), where the underground water furiously enters the pool at 99.1°C. And it’s hard not to feel simply overawed by the almighty hand of nature as the roiling water throws up gigantic plumes of steam in spurts and sputters, rages and roars.
David Capel is a journalist living in Tokyo.