National

Hot spring inns invite onsen lovers to go virtual as coronavirus halts tourism

KYODO

Delivering its own “stay-at-home” message aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19, one of the oldest hot springs in Japan is asking onsen lovers to go virtual as they take a breather and relax — in their own bathtubs.

Young hot spring inn owner Kazushige Kanai and like-minded colleagues in Arima Onsen in Hyogo Prefecture are offering a series of virtual reality videos, giving viewers the sense that they are at the famous tourist destination as they immerse themselves in hot water.

The first batch of videos, already released on YouTube, takes viewers wearing VR headsets to five inns, allowing them to enjoy various kinds of hot springs including the sound of the water and the breeze in surrounding nature.

“We’ve seen the number of visitors dwindling, but we can’t ask people to come under the current circumstances,” said the 39-year-old Kanai. “So we decided to change our message, to ‘stay home and relax,’” he added.

“We want people all over the world to enjoy Arima Onsen and ease their fatigue from the battle against the coronavirus,” Kanai said.

With about 30 inns in total, Arima is famous for brownish Kinsen hot spring water rich in iron and salt, and Ginsen, or colorless carbonated water. It became known around the time of Emperor Jomei, who stayed there in 631, according to the local tourism association.

In normal times, Arima Onsen bustles with tourists from around the country and abroad, especially from China, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

But as the new coronavirus spread, the number of visitors slumped due to imposed travel restrictions. The Hyogo Prefectural Government requested that hotels and hot spring inns shut during the Golden Week holidays until May 6.

Kanai’s group is hoping to expand its lineup of featured inns in coming weeks, with three more videos planned for release. “We want to invite people working in other hot springs in Japan to join as well,” Kanai said.

Under the nationwide state of emergency, people in the nation have been asked to refrain from going out, except for urgent and essential trips.

As the tourism industry has taken a severe hit from slumping travel demand, the government also has some ideas. It is planning to encourage more people to spend time — and work — in hot springs and campsites in national parks once the pandemic subsides.

The concept is called “workation,” or working remotely while on vacation, and the government has already allocated funds in the current fiscal year to improve wireless connectivity.

The website for the VR videos is http://onsenvr.com/

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