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Complaints about brazen sexual acts at a quaint little onsen (hot spring) north of Tokyo have forced the open-air, mixed-bathing facility to indefinitely suspend operations, highlighting a new risk to a declining tradition.

The Fukuwata neighborhood association in Nasushiobara, Tochigi Prefecture, on June 1 drained water from Fudonoyu, an unattended onsen tucked away in the prefecture’s mountains, indefinitely closing off the scenic spot that had served as a symbol of the Shiobara onsen resort area.

The temporary closure came one year after the association began receiving visitor complaints about a group or groups of males and females engaging in public sex acts. Without the budget to hire an attendant to keep watch, the association was forced to close the onsen for the time being for fear of further tarnishing the traditional spa resort area’s image.

“I feel more sad than angered, that’s my honest feeling. I couldn’t believe those people engaging in perverted acts. I felt powerless having been forced to do this,” said Shigeki Tashiro, the head of the Fukuwata neighborhood association and who operates Shofuro Matsuya, a nearby hotel.

“Changing times, I guess,” he added.

On Friday, representatives of the local tourism association and the neighborhood group met to discuss ways to prevent the type of indecent acts that forced the closure of the onsen — whose history goes back to at least the Meiji Era — can reopen.

Those who attended set another meeting for July that would expand the scope of participants to local governments, other relevant associations and the police.

Prospects for a quick re-opening, however, remain up in the air.

As the police are not involved — indecency offenders must be caught in the act to be arrested, Tashiro said — what actually occurred at the facility remains hearsay.

Still, he said, he is aware of rumors, including those of group sex and of participants intentionally displaying their genitals or performing other indecent acts in front of visitors.

In recent weeks, a dozen individuals visited the hot spring almost every weekend. There, they lorded over the facility and shot video of the alleged indecent acts, according to media reports. Although Tashiro said he has never seen the recordings, he said he had heard they were posted on the Internet.

The onsen, which attracts 30 to 50 people on weekends and whose photo was once prominently featured on the website of the Shiobara Municipal Government, was operated on a shoestring budget compiled from the ¥200 admission fee and from contributions from nearby hotels. The amount collected, Tashiro said, is barely adequate to pay for cleaners.

Problems for Fudonoyu started several years ago when visitors began filing claims about peeping Toms waiting in cars and entering the facilities as female customers arrived, Tashiro said.

Recently, the local resort tourism association received a mailed complaint from an Osaka resident who had enclosed a porn DVD that featured sex in Fudonoyu — the name of which was printed right on the cover, according to Koji Aida, a spokesman for the Shiobara tourism association.

According to Aida, the complainant noted that the DVD was sold at an ordinary video shop and urged the association not to tolerate such a brazen act.

There are currently three neighborhood association-operated mixed-bathing onsen in the resort area, including Fudonoyu.

Several years ago, the neighborhood association operating another mixed bath, Aobanoyu, also received complaints about peeping Toms, as well as stolen underwear and money, according to Aida. This ultimately forced the association to hand management of the facility over to a nearby hotel.

“The onsen is now inside the hotel facility. You can’t freely enter,” Aida said.

He said Fudonoyu may have been abused because of its secluded location.

According to Tashiro, mixed bathing is a tradition in the Shiobara district, where there are even facilities serving locals only. Most such facilities do not separate genders, according to Tashiro.

“Mixed bathing used to be the norm rather than the exception in this area,” Tashiro said. “The culture is still very much alive here.”

For Tashiro, the local government response has been lackluster.

“The tourism association responded quickly by meeting with us, but the local government seems unexpectedly reluctant to respond,” he said. “They used photos of Fudonoyu in their promotional posters, but tourism offices from the municipal and prefectural government have not taken any action.

“I’m sure there are many other tourist sites (like Fudonoyu) that are operated on tiny budgets by unobtrusive efforts by local people,” he said. “If our local governments are focusing on tourism, then I hope they set aside effective budgets for operations like Fudonoyu.”

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