Visitors enjoy a hot sand bath on the geothermal beach of Ibusuki in southern Kyushu (AE, NGS)
They buried me alive before breakfast.
My shallow grave had been dug already; the quiet man in the blue coat simply lied me down inside, pressed my legs tightly together, and pushed my arms against my sides. I lay in place silently, a willing corpse, listening to the terrible crunch of the shovel as the gravedigger cut into the piles of warm earth and dropped heavy loads of sand on top of my body.
Soon only my white head remained, a ghost peering up from the black beach. The sun was rising in the East but the man blocked the coming daylight with a red paper parasol. I only saw red and felt the heat of the Earth squeezing me tighter and tighter. Perspiration seeped out of me like blood from a wound. By now my face was glossy but my buried hands could not wipe away the concentrated sweat.
The sand baths of Ibusuki are hot, warmed from the natural hot springs bubbling just below the surface of the beach. Stick your hand in the volcanic sand and you feel the pleasant warmth—dig down any deeper and you’ll get scalded.
Getting buried in the hot wet sand is therapeutic, they say. The translated brochure informed me that it was very good for lumbago and apoplexy, as well as menopause. I believe in preventative medicine, so I gave it a try.
“Fifteen minutes maximum,” the gravedigger had pointed at the only sign in English, and so through the sweat in my eyes, I watched the blurry clock some fifteen feet away from me, ticking so slowly. Hideous, high-pitched Japanese music squealed over a loudspeaker, like The Chipmunks singing kabuki opera. I wanted to plug my ears from the noise. I also wanted to wipe my dripping itchy face, but I was buried and immobile, my hands subdued beneath the boiling sand. Surely, this was more torture then spa treatment.
But Boris Yeltsin adored these sand baths, I was told. The former president of Russia had traveled here with his wife and daughter on vacation, revealed Shimotakehara-san, the CEO of my hotel, Hakusuikan. (I say, when Boris Yeltsin is the name that is getting dropped, then you know you’ve come to the right place.) Sand baths are recommended not more than once every two weeks or so, but apparently Boris Yeltsin was buried daily. What’s more, instead of the normal fifteen minutes, Boris lay buried and boiling for at least 30 minutes at a time. What a man.
But then again, Boris Yeltsin died a few years after. Death was not one of the disorders listed in the brochure as curable by sand bath treatments.
Men wearing yukata (bathing robes) rest after taking a sand bath in Ibusuki (AE, NGS)
Only dead people wear their kimonos left side tucked under right. At a Japanese funeral, the body is dressed in its final robe in this symbolic fashion. If you still have a pulse, you wear it the other way: left over right. I was very careful of this when dressing in my flowery blue and white cotton yukata—right side wrapped around the front, then left pulled over the top, and after, winding the dark blue silk sash two times around my waist and tying it up. I had not been properly instructed on the right way to tie up my yukata. I knew there had to be one right way because this is Japan—there is a right way for everything. I was most anxious about how to tie the bow—I wanted to appear more like a samurai and less like Pollyanna. I was only guessing at masculine protocols in the structured world of Japanese manliness—guessing that a perky silk bow tied in the front of my robe did not help my cause.
But now all of me was buried underground—my shameful silk bow, my funeral robe and my now-cooked body. In the brochure diagram there had been a before and after picture, two test tubes of “venous blood”—the first dark purple, the second cherry red. This was an example of the “wonderful effect of the sand bath”. In addition to treating any neuralgia, hemorrhoids, asthma and infertility, the sand baths would also change the color of my blood to red.
Vivid red. The same vivid red as the light that poured through the red paper parasol over my head, casting the clock with a red glow.
I tried desperately to relax but kept checking that clock, thirteen minutes, fourteen minutes; fourteen minutes and thirty-four seconds, thirty-six seconds. Fifteen minutes passed and yet when it finally did, I failed to erupt from the grave. I waited, remembering Yeltsin, thinking I could hold out just a bit longer. I thought of the cooked octopus served me in some way or form at every dinner and lunch—purple on the outsides, white on the inside. That was me—a cooked octopus.
After sixteen minutes the gravedigger returned, shovel in hand. He would not leave me lying there any longer. He commanded me to get up, and like Lazarus, I complied, breaking the earth with new strength and struggling to my feet. Yeltsin could have this one—for the record, it was at a Japanese resort in Kyushu that I accepted the fact that Boris Yeltsin is much more of a mensch than I shall ever be.
I shook the black pepper sand from my robe, looked back at the rather morbid imprint of my body in the ground and felt very happy to be alive. If that was the only effect of the sand bath therapy, then perhaps it was all worth it.
Afterwards, I lingered under a long, cold shower that proved beneficial in curing me from the effects of the heat. And then I had breakfast, which turned out to be a wonderful treatment for hunger.