18 Lake Tazawa: A cathedral of hot tubs

Dramatic bus ride through steep, winding road to Tamagawa Onsen, famous as the most acidic hot spring in Japan.  The hot spring used to home to a sulphur mine; the sulphur was used to make bombs. Now cancer patients are the main visitors, drawn by rumours that Tamagawa`s radioactive waters reduce the size of cancers.  Many patients stay on site for weeks, even months, bringing along their own bedding and food.

The wooden bathhouse had a high roof like a cathedral.  There were several baths to choose from.  I went straight into the big sting bath, the 100% hot spring, at ph 1.2 as close to an acid bath as I hope I will ever get. I was unprepared for the piripiri piercing pain as needles charged with static electricity shot through all my pores.  Holding back a howl.  I very casually leapt out. Not recommended for people with sensitive skin.

I sat in the sauna then had a few seconds standing under a utaseyu (lit. hit on the head with hot water).  On the way out, I spotted a trophy head hanging on the wooden wall that runs through the centre of the building, dividing the men from the women.  The trophy head was an old man`s; he had a neatly trimmed grey moustache and wore round-framed glasses.  Then the trophy head blinked; it was alive and attached to a body, all hidden inside a wooden box – a hakomushiburo (J), a steam box bath. 

I got into the steam box next to Trophy Head`s and introduced myself, telling him I was from Devon.  Trophy Head denied all knowledge of Devon, but told me a confusing story about a bloke called Bernard Leach from St Ives.  Then he got out and showed me how to drink radioactive water.  It tasted like flat lemonade.

Trophy Head swears by the power of Tamagawa Onsen, he has been coming up here for over 20 years, staying for at least a week each time.  Strange to think the same waters killed the kunimasu and help keep Japan`s 3 million+ vending machines alight. 

I caught a glimpse of Trophy Head again later, his head tucked into a blue and white striped yukata, gracefully gliding up the stairs to his spartan living quarters.  Living proof of the power of onsen.

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