Another big labeling scam is unraveling, and this time it’s not over beef or milk but the nation’s biggest tourist draw: “onsen” hot springs.
The scandal started at Shirahone Onsen, nestled in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture and popular for its “secret water,” which has a milky white hue.
It was revealed in mid-July that officials running a municipal open-air spa and two other inns in the area had added water extracts from Kusatsu, another onsen enclave in Gunma Prefecture, to create that hue.
Earlier this week, news broke that at least six of the 56 inns at Ikaho Onsen, another big-name spa town in Gunma, had used tap water in their hot spring baths.
Minakami Onsen and Yabuzuka Onsen, both in Gunma, have since followed suit, admitting some of their hot spring facilities used tap water.
The revelations shocked many Japanese, who at times fork out 20,000 yen or more for a night’s stay at a countryside inn, whose biggest attraction is often its onsen.
For centuries, people have made pilgrimages to onsen towns, believing the mixture of minerals contained in the water, which differs from place to place, would cure or ease ailments, including rheumatism and skin troubles.
But experts say the recent revelations are only part of the problem afflicting the onsen industry.
Legal loopholes and slow government action have long allowed a handful of corrupt onsen inn managers to deceive consumers, they say.
Onsen inns are also increasingly chlorinating their bath water to kill germs, a move some experts say may be harmful to health.
Tadanori Matsuda, professor of onsen studies at Sapporo International University and author of a provocatively titled book, “Kore Wa Onsen Dewa Nai” (“This Is Not Onsen”), said therapeutic effects can no longer be expected at many hot spring resorts. The Hot Spring Law, enacted in 1948, is the major culprit, he said.
The law stipulates that a water fountainhead can be accredited as an onsen if it contains at least one of 19 designated chemical elements, including radon and metabolic acid, or — the controversial clause — if the water is simply 25 degrees or warmer.
That means that anyone who digs underground and finds warm water can declare it an onsen, even when it doesn’t contain any of the 19 minerals said to have a medicinal effect.
Onsen certificates posted at bathhouses, usually in changing rooms, also refer only to the condition of the wellspring, not the actual water in the baths. In other words, even if a certificate is genuine, the water might not be what is claimed.
The reasoning behind the 25 degree-rule is weak.
The Environmental Ministry, which has jurisdictions over the hot spring law, said there are “two vague theories” on how this clause was introduced, and neither make much sense.
According to ministry official Yasushi Nakajima, one of the theories is that the government studied similar laws in Germany when working on the hot spring bill. The German hot spring law then defined a hot spring as one containing water at 20 degrees or warmer, which is 5 degrees higher than the average annual temperature there.
The other theory is that when Japan tried to create the law, there had already been lots of inns and drop-in bathhouses operating around the country, and the government had to come up with a definition loose enough to include all the existing facilities, Nakajima said.
Nakajima said the ministry has no immediate plan to revise the 25-degree rule, partly because “the social ramifications of such a move would be enormous.”
He said the recent spate of frauds, however unethical, do not violate the hot spring law because there are no provisions dealing with deceptive signs at bathhouses.
People hoping for a genuine onsen experience have little way of knowing a true onsen from an impostor.
Onsen facilities, both inns with hot spring baths and “tachiyori-yu” types that have no accommodations but are open to all visitors, have almost doubled in the last 40 years, from 11,907 in fiscal 1963 to 22,127 in fiscal 2002.
Matsuda attributes the rise to the 100 million yen “hometown revitalization” subsidies the government handed out to each municipality in the late 1980s.
With the money, many towns set up public onsen baths to lure tourists.
Matsuda said these newly explored hot springs often recycle their water, because, unlike traditional hot spring resorts where water spews from the ground naturally, these facilities artificially pump water from underground. The volume of water is often not enough to fill the bath tubs constantly, in which case the same water is used over and over.
Matsuda estimates that 70 percent of the nation’s hot springs now use recycled water, and some keep the same water in the baths for as long as a month.
In summer 2002, seven people died after contracting Legionnaires’ disease in an onsen bathhouse in Hyuga, Miyazaki Prefecture.
Public health centers nationwide have since advocated use of chlorine at all onsen facilities, a move that Matsuda says is unnecessary at water-rich — and therefore not recycled — well-cleaned bathhouses.
While research on the harms posed by chlorine is scarce, it is believed to be a potential cause of atopic dermatitis and other allergies, Matsuda said. Chlorine also contains cancer-causing trihalomethane, he said.
Consumers have been kept in the dark about these problems.
Hiroyuki Sasaki, a 35-year-old Saitama resident whose love of hot springs has led him to create a Web site on “kakenagashi” (not-recycled) onsen, said he couldn’t find information about the quality of bath water in any travel brochures.
Sasaki sent e-mails to more than 300 onsen inns, asking for the amount of water per minute that flows out of the fountains, whether the hot springs are natural or artificially pumped and if the inns use recycled water.
He said he stopped listing some of the inns on his site in July after suspecting that some had lied in their responses.
“I’m not saying don’t use recycled water,” Sasaki said. “There are many attractions at inns other than baths (including meals and ambience), so if their quality of onsen is not great, they should just promote other features.
“All I’m saying is tell me the truth.”
How can people avoid being ripped off? Matsuda offers the following tips:
Be sure to call up the inn before making a reservation and ask whether the baths there use “kakenagashi” water.
Ask whether the inn cleans the baths every day. If the manager gives you a vague response, saying “Yes, we clean the place,” ask whether the inn cleans the baths by pulling the plug and replacing the water each day.
Try different people. Matsuda recommends calling three times — once in the morning, another time in the afternoon and again the next day — to confirm the information.
Sounds too persistent? In the absence of authorities taking any action, you are the only judge of whether you are getting value for your money.