Still glowing from the shower and wearing nothing but a thin, green dressing gown, Nobuhito Motoyasu exited the changing room to be politely greeted by a female member of staff. She directed him to the area where the special service he had requested was provided. There, he was met by another woman who assured him there was no need to disrobe _ just stretch out and relax in that spot over there that's been specially prepared for you, she told him.
Less than a quarter of an hour later, his bathrobe was completely soaked through with perspiration.
''That was great. I think 15 minutes was just enough!'' he exclaimed, groaning a bit at the effort required to struggle back up into a sitting position. As he did so, a mass of fine black particles fell away from his body. The relief was instantaneous. Wriggling free of the volcanic sand, Nobuhito was finally able to clamber to his feet. After retracing his steps, he had a second shower and left the municipal onsen in Beppu feeling refreshed and energised. (The Japanese term for ''hot springs'', onsen is also used to describe the associated communal bathing facilities and resort accommodation.) A two-hour train journey from Fukuoka's Hakata station, Beppu is one of Japan's most famous health resorts, boasting thousands of natural hot springs as well as mud baths, steam baths and sand baths like the one that Nobuhito visits on a regular basis. Thousands of visitors, both Japanese and foreigners, descend on the hot-spring retreats here every day, especially during the autumn and winter months (September to February).
Blessed with a scenic, open-air setting overlooking the sea, Beppu Kaihin Suna-yu is a municipal onsen complete with sand baths. A brief immersion in the hot black sand is said to have several therapeutic benefits. To begin with, visitors are asked to take a shower and then don a bath robe. For the therapy, the entire body with the exception of the head is buried under a thick layer of naturally hot sand whose temperature is usually in the region of 40C. For hygienic purposes, the sand baths are briefly closed to clients every half-hour while the sand is sterilised by being drenched in scalding water from an adjacent hot spring. Clients typically stay under the sand for no more than 10 to 15 minutes. The process relaxes muscles and tendons and is believed to enhance blood circulation and metabolism. The fee per session is ¥1,000 (around 320 baht) and it takes about 15 minutes to get here by bus from Beppu’s JR train station.
I'm not long off the plane, but it's already apparent that there's far more to the Land of the Rising Sun than shopping for wasabi-coated peanuts and banana-shaped cakes and looking for decent sashimi joints. Travelling through Japan, anyone who's a little adventurous can try out some interesting therapies that promise to rejuvenate both body and mind.
Yes, Japan is also the land of health tourism. And this is particularly true of Fukuoka and the neighbouring prefectures of Kumamoto and Oita. In these parts there's a fair number of locations where globetrotters can not only enjoy shopping and dining experiences, but also engage in health-boosting activities that will allow them to return home in much better shape than they left it. Fortunately, most of these places are accessible by train, so if you're thinking of visiting Japan without assistance from a travel agency, you're good to go! And by health tourism, I don't just mean onsen _ an activity many Thais are too shy to try. Beppu and Yufuin _ two towns in Oita prefecture that boast the highest and second-highest number of hot springs in Japan, respectively _ have a particularly good reputation for the quality of their hot-spring retreats, not just among the Japanese themselves but worldwide. In Beppu, alone, there are over 2,900 onsen, hence its nickname as a ''hot-spring paradise''.
Located at the centre of a national park which lies roughly in the middle of Kyushu, Mt Aso is the largest active volcano in Japan, visible evidence of the vast amount of geothermal heat that lies beneath this region. The Japanese have made wise use of this natural resource, tapping it for underground heating systems in the town of Aso and adjacent areas and for such health-giving amenities as hot-spring baths and sand baths.
While the autumn and winter months are said to be the ideal time to luxuriate in a hot spring, elderly Japanese people enjoy long soaks all year round, believing regular immersion in the scalding water has major benefits for the body's circulatory system as well as bones and muscles.
Formed by a volcanic eruption some 1,200 years ago, Umi Jigoku is a natural hot spring in Oita prefecture which boasts water of a startlingly bright cobalt-blue. It is one of the stops on the Jigoku Meguri (‘‘Hell Tour’’), an organised outing, popular with groups of friends or family members, that takes in eight hot springs in the area, all located within easy walking distance of each other. Other highlights on the itinerary include visits to a hot-mud pond, a hot spring where the water is blood-coloured and a pond with crystal-clear water. Tickets for the Hell Tour cost ¥2,000 (around 640 baht) each for adults. Umi Jigoku is the starting point of the tour and to get here by bus from Beppu’s JR train station takes around 20 minutes.
Located on Kuju plateau, Kuju Hana Koen is a ‘‘flower park’’ covering almost 20 hectares of land. Wide paths leads through various extensive flower fields, featuring species such as lavender, salvia, pink moss, tulips, sunflowers and poppies. Some 5 million flowering plants from 500 different varieties have been planted here and they are arranged into seven zones under three concepts: Country; the Hill of Colours; and the Hill of Wind. Springtime, which on Kyushu runs from April to early June, sees the highest number of visitors flocking here to see expanses of violets, tulips, poppies and the delicate, baby-blue blooms of Nemophilia . Lavender is in full bloom in the park from June until mid-July, sunflowers from early- to mid-August and the brightly hued members of the Cosmos genus from mid-September to the end of October. The normal entrance fee is ¥1,000 (around 320 baht) for adults and ¥400 (130 baht approx) for children.
Mt Aso has one of the largest calderas in the world. It is 150m deep and the distance from the northernmost point of the caldera to the southernmost is 25km. Its width, measured from its easternmost to its westernmost point, is 18km. The temperature of the lava can vary between 1,000 and 1,200C.
Free foot-baths are a feature of Beppu’s ever-popular Hell Tour. Participants are given a chance to rest after all the walking to and fro by soaking their feet in the hot, mineralrich water that bubbles up from underground sources. Adjacent to the foot-bathing area we came across a food stall selling wholesome snacks like boiled eggs, hot corn on the cob and boiled sweet potatoes.
At the hot springs of Beppu, visitors, especially those who enjoy cooking, are welcome to use the facilities of the in-house jigoku-mushi kobo (steamed-dish kitchens) and prepare a variety of simple treats for themselves. First, you select the type of food you like and then the person in charge of the place will show you how to use the steam oven which, of course, uses steam conducted from some of the nearby hot springs. Steaming time varies depending on the ingredients. Eggs, for example, take only about 10 minutes to cook while seafood needs up to 20 minutes. Sweet potatoes are ready in half-anhour; it takes 40 minutes to steam chestnuts from scratch and rice takes a whole hour to cook.
Beppu is famous for its jigoku-mushi-purin, a ‘‘hellsteamed’’ pudding which is cooked in the vapours given off by the hot springs which proliferate in this area. It is a very rich concoction with a wonderfully smooth texture and even those who don’t have a sweet tooth should enjoy it because it isn’t overly sugary. The going rate for a single portion is ¥250 (around 80 baht).
Apart from fish, shellfish, rice and various types of fruit, Kumamoto prefecture, southwest of Oita, is also known for its meat-free delicacies. Local pickles, of which there are many varieties, are one of items sought out by visitors from other parts of Japan.
Japanese pears are prized all over world and a visit to an orchard which grows them is well worth your time. Four main types of this popular fruit are cultivated and they are ready for picking between mid-August and early November. Cherished for their refreshing taste, Japanese pears are rich in beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin K, calcium, phosphorus and iron. Eating them is believed to cure mouth ulcers and constipation (they contain lots of fibre) and to ease the symptoms of diabetes.