Sunamushi Onsen – Volcanic Sand Bathing in Southern Japan

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.

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.

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.

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.