KAGOSHIMA – “Is the temperature alright for you ma’am?” my Japanese attendant asks in a polished U.S. accent as he cheerfully heaps another pile of hot sand on my torso.
Pleased, he pats down the sand — from my neck to toes — with his shovel, before inviting me to relax and enjoy my time inside this iconic Kagoshima attraction: the Ibusuki sand baths.
Dressed in a yukata (cotton kimono) from Yamakawa Tsunamushi Onsen Sayuri with my head wrapped in a towel, I let the geothermal heat under the beach seep into my pores. Ahead lies the East China Sea; to the east, Mount Kaimondake, also known as Satsuma Fuji because of its likeness to Japan’s most famous mountain.
Sweating profusely, but feeling refreshed, I ask to be dug out just shy of the recommended 10-minute period. Again, the attendant, “Henry Hama” — a nickname Hideto Hamazaki has given himself for the ease of Japanese-challenged international visitors — is ready, with shovel in hand.
“It’s hard work,” he says as he takes me on a tour of the facilities. “But I enjoy the job because I get to speak English.”
Since joining Yamakawa Tsunamushi Onsen Sayuri three months ago, Hamazaki has welcomed more and more customers from across the globe, keen to experience this natural phenomenon. The beach’s sodium chloride-rich sand is said to relieve stress, rid the body of impurities and address a wide range of health problems, making it popular not only for tourists interested in sightseeing but also the growing number of travelers seeking unique experiences and well-being.
Yamakawa Tsunamushi Onsen Sayuri is busy with domestic and international guests year-round. It employs 15 staff who carefully manage beach temperatures, rotate the sand-bathing areas and wash guests’ sweat from the sand. This kind of onsen (hot spring) management work is common throughout Kagoshima, where natural springs are plentiful.
The geothermal secret behind Ibusuki’s sand baths is the Kirishima volcanic belt, which runs through Kyushu — the most southern of Japan’s four main islands — from Oita in the north to Kagoshima in the south, via Kumamoto. Highly active, it has created thousands of hot springs that, like the Ibusuki sand baths, have become critical tourism assets. Even the Kyushu Tourism Promotion Organization’s tagline for the island is “Onsen Island Kyushu.”
However, the belt is a double-edged sword, having also created two of the world’s most active volcanoes: Mount Aso in Kumamoto and Mount Sakurajima in Kagoshima. Eruptions from these volcanoes have kept tourists away in recent years.
In April 2016, volcanic activity — and earthquakes — threatened to bring the industry to its knees, when a series of powerful tremblors hit Kumamoto, killing at least 50 people, damaging property and infrastructure and prompting the Japanese government to subsidize discounted prices for travel packages to Kyushu.
Perhaps no one understands the issue of volcanic instability better than the 4,000 people living around Sakurajima. To visit an active volcano is a rare opportunity but to get a taste of living in its shadow is an even rarer one. Such is the notoriety of residents’ stoic existence alongside their disruptive neighbor that their way of life has become a tourist attraction in itself. Visitors, therefore, have high expectations of experiencing some volcanic activity — in safety.
On the day of my visit, the peak of Mount Sakurajima, some 1,117 meters above sea level, is ringed with fluffy white clouds but there is no ash or smoke to be seen. Rather, the volcano sits calmly and majestically overlooking Kinko Bay — just 4 kilometers by ferry from Kagoshima City — changing color subtlety as the sunlight shifts on its surface.
While taking in the beautiful variety of vegetation on the mountain, I enjoy a relaxing dip in a 100-meter-long natural foot bath. I then travel to the other side of Sakurajima to visit an old shrine gate buried 2 meters deep in ash — the result of a massive eruption in 1914 that caused the former island to be connected to the Osumi Peninsula. During my trip, not a spec of ash falls on my head.
According to locals, the volcano has been silent in recent months, which has both surprised and disappointed tourists.
“Visitors want to see Sakurajima erupt,” explains my guide at the Sakurajima Visitors Center. “But, if the alert level of the volcano is heightened or there is a big eruption, our visitor numbers fall. This happened in summer 2015 and we had few tourists the rest of the year. Then, in spring 2016, the Kumamoto earthquake happened. Since the summer, little by little, tourists are coming back.”
As I am shown the souvenir shop, the volcano’s important role in the local economy becomes clear. I pass giant white radishes, camellia oil and mini mandarin oranges, all the result of the area’s fertile soil. There are also volcanic items: fake “ash” ice-cream (the center’s best-selling product), ejected rocks, as well as jewelry and beauty items made from the ash, which is considered a natural skin purifier.
In the Kirishima area, Sakura Sakura Onsen is also making the most of its local volcanoes. The 25-year-old inn is famous for its natural mud bath, which came about by chance, according to vice-director Takuji Hamahata.
“Our onsen has water with naturally occurring mud in it and someone rubbed it on their body to find their skin became smooth,” he says as he guides me around. “We then researched the properties of the mud and made a mud bath.”
Two or three times a week, staff travel some 2 km to the source of the nearby onsen lake to collect the mud, which is renowned for encouraging perspiration and being gentle on the skin. It is then placed in a large stone pot adjacent to the onsen, where bathers are advised to heat themselves in the bath before applying the mud directly on their bodies.
As I slather myself in the cool, gray material, I am struck by the unmistakable scent of sulfur. I then wait for it to dry amid the beautiful surrounds of the outdoor bath. The area is nestled in the mountains and enclosed by trees, and birdsong can be heard over the gentle trickle of the water. After washing off the mud, I soak in a milky bath filled with tiny floating particles. By the time I leave, my skin is baby-soft.
The majority of customers are women seeking pampering or hikers wishing to ease weary muscles after treks nearby. However, a once-popular route traversing the mountains has been closed since the 2011 eruption of Shimoedake, the volcano at the center of the Kirishima chain.
That eruption also affected Sakura Sakura Onsen and neighboring hot springs in the Kirishima area.
“We had fewer customers for one year afterward,” explains Hamahata. Even Sakurajima’s activity has an impact on business. “Sakurajima is far but when its eruptions are reported on the news we get lots of inquiries from people asking if it is safe to come,” he says.
Allaying people’s fears is also a challenge for travel companies selling trips to the area around Mount Aso, which has been increasingly active following the 2014 eruption, the first major volcanic activity in 21 years. Access to certain areas of the volcano were restricted after further eruptions in October 2016 — the popular ropeway and the volcano’s crater are now out of bounds.
Akiyuki Nishikawa of Kumamoto Prefecture’s tourism department says that, while stays have been canceled, the eruptions have not had a big impact on tourism to the area because Aso offers more than simply a volcano.
“We’ve made experiences for people, such as horse riding, visitors can eat delicious food and learn about the volcano at our museums and we have many hot springs,” he says.
Indeed, in parts of the Aso Kuju National Park, where Mount Aso is located, it is easy to forget the existence of the volcano, as horses gambol on verdant grassy plains against a backdrop of mountain scenery.
Back in Kagoshima, I visit Shiroyama Kanko Hotel’s onsen,with an unparalleled view of Sakurajima from over 100 meters above sea level. As I ease into the outdoor bath amid throngs of hotel guests and day visitors all eager to see the volcano, I realize why Sakurajima is the jewel in the prefecture’s tourism crown: It may be dangerous but it’s also breathtakingly beautiful.
Ibusuki Station, which is a one-hour train ride from Kagoshima. There are daily flights and shinkansen for Kagoshima from Tokyo and Osaka.