Places to Go
A sand onsen in Iwate

A sand onsen in Iwate

Added In: Places to Go › Onsen (hot springs)

Wang Hui Ling

 A week ago some friends and I visited a sand onsen on the west of Iwate, in a town called Yuda (湯田町). I checked up the location for the route to drive there, and found that in Yuda, there are easily more than ten onsens dotted on the map. The sand onsen Sunayukko is not on the map as it is too small. It was a delight to know that such a town full of onsens exists in the west of Iwate.


The route to Sunayukko is pretty easy to find. I drove on route 107 from the south of Iwate, past one of the bigger cities in Iwate called Kitakami, and at some point as stated on the map I turn onto route 1. There are also many signs listing the names of all the onsens you can find if you turn left or right. Signs to Sunayukko are small but clearly written in kanji along the way so I had no problems finding my way even though it was my first time to Yuda.


The onsen is one of the many little houses dotted along the small roads amongst the rice fields. There is a parking lot good enough for about 15 cars. Customers bring along their own towels but can rent one for 100 at the counter. The entrance fee of 1000 includes the rental of a thin blue yukata and a plastic cap for the hair.


The guide explained that we first get into a changing room with a red overhanging curtain that says female. Males and females are separated from then on. There are lockers and a bathroom where we change out of our clothes and wear only the yukata and the cap. Then we enter into the shower room with two small-sized onsen pools next to the showers, but are told to walk past the shower room into another similar shower room. We walked past this shower room into a long corridor that eventually leads to the ‘sand’ room. There are thirty pits with two attendants. The attendants then instructed us to lie down in one pit each with a towel-covered stone for a pillow. We are advised to place our arms at the sides and cautioned not to move. Then one attendant began to shovel sand onto each of us. I was worried that the shovel would hit me by accident but nothing like that happened. Before long we were completely buried in the sand from the neck down.


At first it felt hot but after one minute the body gets used to the heat and the sand becomes comfortably warm. The sand is neither too coarse nor very fine, but it felt smooth all over the body. The attendants also made us lift our bodies up at the sides and pushed the sand underneath us. The sand felt very heavy on top of me and after getting used to the stationary position, I wanted to take a nap for a long time and not get up.


While ‘stuck’ under the sand, I chatted with the attendant and asked where the sand was from. ‘From the mountains,’ she replied cheerily.


‘Oh, so you had to literally carry the sand from the mountains to the pits?’ I asked.


‘Yes,’ she said, ‘and after the sand is used up we have to go replenish it.’


Right. I hadn't realized that the sand needs to be replenished. But of course. Every time someone gets up after being buried, sand will stick all over the yukata and the body.


The attendant explained that we would be buried for 15 minutes and would have to get up after the time is up. Only 15 minutes? I was thinking that it was too short.


‘Can we stay longer?’ I wanted to know.


‘Oh, you can only stay for a maximum of 15 minutes.’ She said.


‘Is it harmful to the body if we stay longer?’ I asked again in my broken Japanese. Turns out that was the case.


‘But can we rest and come back and be buried again?’ I tried my luck.


‘Yes, but only after another three or four hours, because it is harmful to the body if otherwise.’


I guess not many people will stay in the onsen long enough to have a second go at the sand onsen, so it seems that one can only enjoy the sand onsen once a visit.


After that, we dusted the sand off and walk back down the corridor to the second shower room we passed earlier. This is the place where we leave our yukata and plastic caps, and wash the sand off the body under one of two showerheads provided. We may also dip into the onsen pool next to it.


When we are clean from the sand, we can then cross into the first shower room where we have a proper shower with the soap and shampoo provided, and dip into the two onsen pools for as long as we like. I am impressed by how the indoor design as well as the Japanese culture of being very clean allows for most of the indoor space to be almost free from sand grains except for the second shower room and the corridor leading to the ‘sand’ room.


After the onsen, customers can also rest in a huge tatami room designed like a restaurant, with TV and a souvenir stall outside selling drinks. Some customers even lie down next to the tables and take a nap in the tatami room.

A sand onsen in Iwate
Sand onsen