For many people, being buried up to the neck in hot, black volcanic sand doesn’t seem like a pleasant way to relax. But in parts of southern Japan, sunamushi (sand bathing) on a volcanic beach is a popular form of bathing that helps rest the mind and refresh the body. For those who have not yet tried sand bathing, there are many questions that spring to mind. How hot is the sand? How do I get out? Won’t I have sand in every nook and cranny afterwards? Luckily, dedicated sand bathing centres along the beachfront a have all the answers.
Public Bathing Culture in Japan
Japanese onsens are one of Japan’s most relaxing activities. An onsen is a hot geothermal springs used for bathing, and its associated facilities. It is the perfect way to relax the body and mind, whether it be in a natural pool, a private Ryokan bath, or in a large public bath house. Onsens are typically separated by gender, and bathing is completely nude. The hot water has wonderful skin rejuvenation qualities, as well as being relaxing and refreshing.
So, why not replace the water with another medium?
Sand Bathing in Beppu
The city of Beppu, in Japan’s southern island of Kyushu, is one place where one can go sand bathing. It’s a geothermally active area, and the city is lodged between the sea and the mountains. To look at the city skyline, you will see great clouds of sulfurous steam rise all around the city in amazing white plumes. It’s an incredible view, and reminds you how much heat lies beneath the earth.
The beach is equally geothermally active. If you were to walk along the beachfront and dig a hole in the black volcanic sand, you’d find extremely hot water deeper under the ground. To take full advantage of this, special sand bathing centres are set up to help people enjoy the sand bathing experience.
The Sand Bathing Rules and Rituals
It’s not as simple as just laying on the ground and scooping sand over yourself, like at your local beach – there’s a particular ritual involved to properly experience the sand bathing. First, bathers change into a yukata, a traditional light garment similar to a kimono. Next, bathers lay in designated rows in the hot sand, and are covered over by the staff until only their supported heads are left peeking out. To protect bathers from the sun, colourful parasols are placed overhead. Meanwhile, the sound of the waves lapping nearby are wonderfully relaxing.
The hot sand can reach about 50-55°C (120-130°F), so bathing time is limited to about 10-15 minutes before the heat becomes overwhelming. When the time is up, you emerge feeling rejuvenated (and hot)! To clean off, the bathers then move into a standard water onsen (yukatas and all), followed by a shower with soap and water.
It’s always a good idea to enjoy an ice cold drink or snack when the bathing is done, to help cool off and rehydrate. A vending machine nearby usually sells water, cold milk, or ice cream to top off the sand bathing experience.
Where Can I Go Sand Bathing?
One of Beppu’s most regarded sand bathing centres is Beppu Kaihin Sunaba. But Beppu isn’t the only sand bathing city in Kyushu – there are lots of other great locations to try it.
In the Kagoshima area, sand bathing can be found in Ibusuki and Yamakawa. Sand bathing has taken place in Ibusuki City for over 300 years. One of the largest sand bathing halls in Ibusuki is Sa-Raku, which can hold up to 200 bathers at the same time! Yamakawa is just 30 minutes drive from Ibusuki, with one of the most well-known sand bathing centres being Sayuri. If you fancy a regular onsen, just five minutes walk away is Tamatebako Onsen, which has an open-air bathing pool.
If you’re in Kyushu, make sure you step outside your comfort zone and try sand bathing. While it may be a pretty unusual activity, it may be one of the most relaxing experiences you have in Japan. But if sand bathing isn’t your cup of tea, there’s always the trusty onsen to jump into!