Monday, October 8, 2012

Strange Japanese Hot Spring With Sculpture Garden

Strange Hot Spring in Japan
"What could this strange place possibly be?" is what passersby think when seeing this bizarre forty-meter-high statue on a small country road that parallels the coastline between Shibata and Murakami, Niigata Pref.  The gigantic, rough concrete sculpture of Shinran Shonin, the founder of Shin Buddhism, is visible from miles away in all directions: the statue, as tall as many ten-story buildings, also looks down on bathers in the outdoor bath in the back.

The name of this unusual place is Saihounoyu (西方の湯).

I had driven passed it several times before noticing the kanji for Japanese hot spring, onsen, (温泉) on a small sign. Despite my wife's reluctance, I decided to turn in and investigate (Being a hotspring addict, I couldn't control myself). My first impression was of dilapidation. Scattered around the front are aged-building materials, pieces of old machinery, and a weedy garden. Perhaps, money had run out before a grandiose building plan could come to fruition.

I paid my five hundred yen at the front counter and looked
Bathing in an Art Gallery, Watched by a Huge Monk

around. A wide lobby with a high roof was full of items for sale: hand carved wooden chairs and tables, ceramic sculptures, tea and sake cups, old lunch boxes, used games, and hundreds of other eclectic items. The building interior looked as if it had been designed for a hotel or restaurant, but it now resembled a used-goods store. The clerk told me, though, that the building was originally designed for hot spring purposes. However, the room with baths was about fifty meters in the back. Walking down the long hallway, I enjoyed looking at hundreds of dusty but beautifully painted and probably very expensive Buddhist images in frames on the left wall. On the right were small rooms. The walls of one room were lined with sports trophies. Another room was stocked with paintings of all genres on the walls and floors. I spotted a copy of the Mona Lisa and a framed cartoon under a display case of Buddhist sculptures.  

After my wide-eyed stroll through the hallway, I finally came to the indoor bathroom and was amazed to see ceramic artworks in and around the indoor bath. Sculptures were also scattered around the outdoor bath and the greenery in the outside garden.  

Artistic Indoor Japanese Hot Spring

The mineral-rich spring water was brownish-grey with a surprising herbal odor. It was also, at first, painfully hot. The temperature was around 42 or 43 degrees. In contrast to the disorder of the rest of the building, the bathing areas were clean and I felt comfortable. In fact, I loved it! The greenery was refreshing. Peering over the back fence, I could look at a sandy beach and the sea. While soaking in the outdoor bath, under the gaze of a giant concrete monk, a dragonfly circled repeatedly around me and then settled on my hand, a rare and magnificent moment.  
Modern Japanese Sculpture Near Outdoor Hot Spring Bath

Because of the disorganized and disheveled appearance of the building, many people are reluctant to enter, so you are likely to be undisturbed by others. Some of my friends who have lived in the area for years have never entered the hot spring because the exterior appearance is so unusual and shabby that they feel uncomfortable. A friend whom I had thought would enjoy the bath refused to enter. He is very concerned about health issues connected to hot springs.

The picture to the right shows a long wooden paddle that had been lain on the rim of the indoor bath. Managers of hot springs with very hot water  sometimes leave long wooden paddles near the baths. Bathers agitate the bath water, diffusing the cooler water into the scalding water, providing a more pleasurable experience

For those people looking for a great bath and a rare peek into a quirky aspect of Japanese culture, this is a special place to go. People who expect cleanliness and order in all aspects of their hot springs facilities should give this one a pass. Although, this is not a very popular hot spring, those who like it are dedicated fans. The address and phone number are 新潟県胎内市中村浜2-29 and 0254-45-2550. It is open from ten in the morning until nine in the evening.


  1. Sounds wonderful Greg.
    Have you ever thought of creating a guide to hot springs in Japan.
    Be great pocket guide.
    I travel a lot in Japan and knowing where the best hot springs are would be wonderful. Maybe even a glossary of terms in the back and some helpful sayings like "Excuse me there is a monkey in pool"
    Bernie (Hot spring and Sushi addict

  2. Funny that you should write that. I am actually negotiating now with a company to write a guide to hot springs, and I have been thinking about writing a glossary for the blog, too.