Sunday, September 16, 2012

Unhealthy Hot Springs

After observing the dilapidated front entrance of a hot spring building that I wanted to enter, my doctor friend resolutely refused to enter.  He does enjoy hot springs, but only those hot springs whose management he trusts will maintain a healthy environment. If the front lobby does not appear clean, he walks away. I asked him about some of the health risks associated with hot springs and discovered that he has very strong views on this subject.

A Filthy Wash Area at a Hot Spring: Not a Comfortable Sight
Fungal infections, especially athlete's foot, are the most common health problems associated with hot springs. Large numbers of people walk barefoot on hot spring floors that are moist for long periods, so this should not come as a surprise. It is imperative that the hot spring managers make sure the floors are cleaned and scrubbed. Saunas at hot springs can also be worrisome. In most saunas, towels are placed on wooden benches for the comfort of guests, but who knows how many wet posteriors have dripped their sweat and possibly fungal spores onto the soggy towels before your innocent one rests upon them.  What can you do to protect yourself? Ask the management to change the towels. You can also sit upon your own towel and later wash it thoroughly. The sharing of dirty towels has been implicated in the spreading of a skin virus called molluscum contagiosum.  Although rare, hot springs have also been discovered with the Legionella bacteria which causes the infamous Legionnaire's disease.

Let's face it, people being people, the bath water might contain more than just hot water: skin flakes, traces of urine, broken nails, and, yes, fecal matter and urine. In fact, shortly after arriving in Japan, I saw a young boy who while sitting on the edge of an outdoor bath nonchalantly emitted a jet of urine into the water. I was too shocked to protest until he had finished and the evidence had disappeared like ripples in a pond. The other bathers, looking in different directions, were blissfully ignorant. My Japanese skills were too low to explain what had just happened, so I just walked away. I have since learned that the parents of such misbehaving children are responsible for paying for the entire bath to be cleaned and for the inconvenience to other guests. 

Hot Spring Waters May Naturally Contain Sediment, But if it Looks Strange, Leave
When I first came to Japan, I used to bathe several times a day in a public bath, called a sento (銭湯) in Japanese, and I repeatedly suffered from ear infections. One of the reasons was that I was foolishly submerging my head under water. I never do this anymore unless I am confident that the water is fresh and the bathing area is clean. A Japanese ear specialist recommended that I use a hair dryer on my ears if water has entered them.

A conscientious hot spring bather will not bathe with the following health conditions:
  1. open sores or cuts
  2. recently experiencing diarrehea
  3. fever
  4. fungal infections that might spread to other
  5. any disease that might be transmitted in the hot spring environment
  6. intoxication (To see a related post, click here.)
Besides annoying other people, bathing while drunk leads to serious problems, including death. Drunk driving in a hot spring is the only thing stupider than bathing while drunk or driving while drunk.  A future post will discuss in detail the topic of drinking and bathing.

Before bathing, always wash yourself thoroughly. Remember that you are sharing the water with other people.

Important: Be Healthy, Be Happy, Be a Responsible Bather
The photographs above are from the hotel below. After I left the premises, I knew that I could not recommend Kobayashi. Hopefully, the managment will clean up its act. My use of these photographs for this post does not in any manner mean that the water is unhealthy or that you will get a disease from that hotel.


  1. Thanks for your comments and guidelines about Onsen safety. Although I never encountered a bad Onsen, yet, it is good to know! The onsen in your pictures looks horrible, I bet its the worst you have ever encountered. Right?

  2. Hello Gaijin San,

    In reply to your question, it was the worst that I have encountered. After reading your comment, I clicked and went to your site. Your waterfall photographs look great. In addition, to hot springs, I am also a fan of waterfalls. I also noticed that you have been to Suwa. Suwa has several good hot springs. I will write some posts about Nagano hot springs later.