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I Tried Sand Bathing in Japan, and It Was Not What I Was Expecting

Let’s just say I’m glad I’m not claustrophobic.

I Tried Sand Bathing in Japan, and It Was Not What I Was Expecting
Anna Haines

As a self-confessed bath queen, I planned to do lots of bathing in Kyushu, the southern Japanese island known for its volcanic activity and associated abundance of hot spring pools. But there was one kind of bathing I’d never heard of until I arrived: sand bathing. I pictured myself soaking in a hot spring surrounded by sand, but a quick Google search later, I discovered sand bathing is quite literally… bathing in sand. Photos online depict orderly rows of bodies buried in dark sand, with nothing but the head exposed, like a tombstone marking each corpse. This was a far cry from the luxurious wellness experience I envisioned. But there are plenty of treatments—like cupping and acupuncture—that people love despite being kind of off-putting at first glance, right? So I took a one-hour train from Kagoshima to Ibusuki, the only place in Japan that offers this rare wellness treatment, to experience sand bathing firsthand.

First, I wanted to find out whether sand bathing has real historical backing or whether it was just another wellness fad (albeit a hyperlocal one). Hirotsugu Matsusaki, a curator at the Ibusuki City Board of Education, told me sand bathing dates back to 1546, when Portuguese merchant Jorge Álvares reportedly witnessed Japanese men sand bathing at Yamagawa Port. Later, during the Edo Period, sand bathing was used as a treatment for injuries and illnesses, according to Matsusaki. Since then, the benefits of being buried in volcanic sand heated by the hot spring water that flows beneath it have become well-known in Japan.

Anna Haines

At Ibusuki Hakusuikan—the hotel where I would spend one night trying sand bathing for myself—I was told the weight of the mineral-rich sand increases the volume of blood pumped out of the heart, improving circulation and stimulating waste secretion. The results are not just cosmetic (though they told me I could expect a post-bath glow); sand bathing is considered helpful for a whole range of conditions, such as neuralgia, rheumatism, asthma, gastric disorders, and menopause. Sand bathing is so therapeutic that research has found some of the benefits are three to four times more effective than those of bathing in a hot spring.

So, could being buried in sand really do much for my body besides leave me with granules of sand in unwanted crevices? I was eager to find out. After changing into the provided slippers and robe with nothing underneath, I shuffled out to the sand bathing area at Ibusuki Hakusuikan, a spacious room with four separate sand plots. One of two attendants escorted me to one of the sand plots and pointed to a small wooden block for me to rest my head on. I placed a face towel over the block and lay down in the sand, careful to get as little sand in my robe as possible. The attendant then shoveled sand over my body until my entire body was buried except for my head.

My first thought was, “Thank god I’m not claustrophobic.” I’ve always felt most safe in enclosed spaces—it’s probably why I love taking baths so much. Being buried in sand was a similar sensation, like lying under a warm weighted blanket. But I imagine the weight could feel stifling for someone who is averse to being confined.

Anna Haines

My biggest concern was being too hot. Heated by the steam from the hot spring water beneath it, the volcanic sand can reach a temperature as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit, so the body naturally begins sweating even when lying completely still. Surprisingly, the heat didn’t bother me. I began sweating, but it was nothing like the uncomfortable sweats I’ve had in other heated wellness experiences, like a Mexican Temazcal (sweat lodge) or even a hot yoga class, where the hot air can make it difficult to breathe. Here, having my head exposed to room temperature made the heat of the sand less stifling. The only mild discomfort was the weight of the sand, as each inhale required extra effort to lift the heavy sand piled atop my lungs. This made the experience almost meditative, as I was forced to focus on each inhale and exhale and became soothed by the vision of watching the mound of sand resting atop my ribs gently rise and fall with each breath.

My attention was soon diverted outward with the arrival of four other guests who joined my plot of sand. The much older Asian group seemed to, like me, be experiencing sand bathing for the first time as they giggled and fidgeted as they were buried. After about five minutes of stillness, they became agitated and started groaning. One person busted their arms out of the sand for some air, and the others followed suit. After ten minutes, they pushed their limbs upward and climbed out of the sand. They pointed at me as they left, speaking to each other in another language. I couldn’t tell if they were laughing at me or applauding me.

Anna Haines

Their reaction made me realize something: I had no idea how long I was supposed to remain buried. Since my attendant didn’t speak English, he wasn’t able to brief me on any kind of exit protocol. I assumed he would return to retrieve me from the sand, but when I looked at the wall clock, I realized I’d been buried for 20 minutes, so I decided it was time and got myself out of the sand like the other guests. The first thing I noticed was how light I felt without the weight of the sand. Surprisingly there was less sand in unwanted crevices than I’d expected and it was easy to rinse off in the shower immediately after. I spent the next half-hour soaking my jelly-like limbs in the hotel’s hot spring pools. Afterward, more than my newfound glowing skin, I noticed the deep sense of calm I felt, and that night, I slept like a baby.

Compared to my usual massages at sterile, sparkling clean spas, I expected sand bathing to be a much rougher wellness experience than I’d normally prefer. I’m someone who can’t stand getting even a few granules of sand in my shoes on an average beach day, and yet, I surprisingly loved being buried in the sand. With there being so few opportunities to get this intimate with the natural elements in my everyday urban life, being buried in the ground left me feeling incredibly grounded. I’m not sure sand bathing changed my life, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.

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