Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Colors of Hot Springs

Tea-colored Hot Spring on Seaside Hotel Roof
Bone white, emerald green, muddy gray, tea brown, and rust red are some colors that I have enjoyed in hot springs. The variety of colors is just one of many aspects of hot springs in Japan to appreciate in the same manner that wine experts do with the color of a glass of wine.  Connoisseurs of hot spring water close their eyes and focus their other senses on the consistency, the smell, and the feel of the water on the skin. After drying off, another consideration is the "after-feel" or lingering change to one's skin. What I call the after-feel could be a marked increase in smoothness, a slight stickiness, or softness.

A Lovely Light-green Hot Spring Effusing Calmness

What causes the color differences? The answer my friend is blowing in the wind, and flowing in the concentration of minerals and other solid materials in the water. For a more scientific explanation, dive into the Water Encyclopedia.

A Clear Colored Indoor Public Hot Spring in Beppu for 100 yen!

The Japanese hot spring world was rocked about ten years ago when the Shirohone 白骨 Onsen 温泉 controversy. Shrohone means "white bone" in Japanese. The color of the water is similar to that of milk ice cream. The edges of many of the baths in the village of Shirohone, Nagano Prefecture, have a hard crust of years of accumulated minerals; some say the hardened mineral formations look like bones. 

Hot spring water deep in the earth had absorbed whitish minerals, but the minerals were naturally decreasing in some some of the springs in town, so the water was losing its distinctive color at some onsen hotels.  Some locals decided to obtain the bath salts from another area of Japan and mix them with the local waters, but that is just not proper behavior in Japan. 

White Sulfur Bath in Beppu

Onsen purists were boiling mad, steamed up, in a sweat, and they brought this matter to the media's attention.  Business declined in the area until time passed and most people forgot about it. The hot spring controversy became a lot of hot water that flowed under a bridge. Okay, I promise I will not write any more mixed metaphors, but I will write later about mixed bathing. For the record, though, I highly recommend visiting Shirohone because of its secluded natural feeling, lovely views from outdoor baths near rustic buildings, and excellent cuisine.