Thermal Bath Sojourn (Japan, Taiwan)

Hot spring vs. cold spring

Strictly speaking, hot springs aren’t merely water that’s heated by underground steam. Their waters are from volcanically-heated subterranean sources including pools, or even underground rivers. While terminology varies from place to place, waters from 36-37o (human body temperature) up to boiling are considered “hot springs”. “Cold springs”, such as those bottled as drinking water, are from similar sources but have cooled more before emerging above ground. Both have similar minerals, dissolved at high temperatures underground, and carried to the surface.

Why are Hot Springs Therapeutic?

Hot springs simultaneously increase our heart-rates and lower blood pressure, so they increase circulation while relaxing us. Apart from the outright effect of their heat on our bodies, their high source temperature means they dissolve and carry minerals like sodium or sulfur in their liquid. This coats our skin or is even absorbed in small amounts, with concurrent beneficial effects on conditions like eczema, or even(purported) effects on internal disorders (through absorption of trace elements and minerals).

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Few travel experiences are more romanticised than that of the hot spring. From the glamorous belle epoch-era spas of Europe to the countless rugged natural pools found everywhere from the Arctic to Australia and the US, our collective love-affair with a nice, hot-dip goes back to our earliest ancestors. A happy by-product of volcanism, thermal waters are found literally everywhere. While they’re obviously more prevalent in volcanically-active places like Japan or New Zealand, they dot the planet from pole to pole, often in the most unexpected places – like the steaming pools of Uunartoq and Qeqertarsuaq in Greenland, or the aptly named Deception Island in Antarctica. In between, they’re found from the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, to the Alps, the Himalayas, and the high Andes, and even right here in Singapore.

HARNESSING HOT SPRINGS

People have used hot springs throughout human history, across almost every culture where thermal waters are found, for everything from washing clothes to bathing. The use of thermal baths evolved independently among locals in almost every corner of the world throughout history.

In the Mediterranean, it was the ancient Egyptians, followed by Phoenecians, early Greeks, and eventually, the Romans who perfected the concept of public baths. Elsewhere, both the Mayans and Incas evolved their own distinct, completely independent hot spring cultures in the volcanic Yucatan, and the high Andes all the way to Machu Picchu at the famous “Inca Baths”. Even in Central Asia, the fierce Mongols hordes had a distinct soft spot for hot springs. Today, travellers can visit different hot springs in almost any corner of the earth, basking in what they have in common – their soothing hot waters – while also experiencing the distinct hot spring culture of each destination.

TAIWAN

Lying on the fabled Ring of Fire, the island of Taiwan is no stranger to the occasional tremor. Those same tectonic forces that have also given rise to its abundant natural hot springs. Dotted across the island, hot spring spots range from “wild” natural springs in the island’s rugged interior to luxury hot spring resorts, making Taiwan a diverse destination for a soak.

Wulai

Wulai is one of Taiwan’s most popular hot spring resorts thanks to its rugged mountain setting and unique Atayal aboriginal tribe culture. At 90 minutes from Taipei, it’s also the closest aboriginal area to the capital. 

The town lies in the narrow Wulai Gorge, just above the Nanshi River, and is fed by natural thermal waters at various points. There are public hot springs at various re- sorts, including the modern Pause Landis Resort, the secluded Wulai Spring Resort, and the luxurious Volando Urai. 

Volando is Wulai’s most high-end property, merging modern, traditional Taiwanese and local aboriginal themes, focusing heavily on promoting local Taiwanese arts and aboriginal culture, collaborating with master drum makers, traditional metal workers and aboriginal musicians. Much of this is on display during daily “rituals”, ranging from traditional drum performanc- es to zen-like silent chess matches played on floating wooden platforms. 

Besides in-room hot spring tubs, Volando offers public baths, including the “Kurhaus” with both outdoor and indoor hot and cold pools, steam room and sauna from NT$850-1,000 per 4-hour session. Volando’s Grand View Bathhouse has various private baths with seasonal rates from NT$1,120-1,400 per hour. All waters are fed from Wulai’s main thermal source, which is rich in sodium bicarbonate, and reputed to be good for the skin. 

Besides hot springs, Wulai boasts easily-ac- cessible aboriginal culture, with Atayal shops and restaurants dotted along Wulai Old Street. Nearby Wulai Waterfall is also accessible by foot, or via the historic Wulai Scenic Train, a former logging trolley which runs between Wulai Old Street and the base of the 80-metre tall falls. 

Wulai is easily accessible by car or the Taipei MRT and connecting bus. 

Miaoli

While mountainous Miaoli county is most often associated with Lion’s Head Mountain, or as the heartland of the Saisiyat aboriginal people, it’s also home to some of Taiwan’s best hot springs. Concentrated around scenic Xueba National Park (home to some of Taiwan’s highest peaks), hot spring resorts include Hushan, Tenglong, and Tai’an’s luxury Papawaqa Onsen. 

Blending with its dramatic forest setting, Papawaqa’s architecture is largely made completely from reclaimed cedar from trees that died in a 2004 flood, which together with its plant-covered exterior make it fit well into the surrounding forest. The onsen has multiple indoor public and private baths, ranging from NT$2,000- 3,500 per 2-hour session, depending on the day. It also has extensive outdoor tubs, including earmarked swimsuit pools, as well as segregated male/female-only nude bathing pools. Open from 8 am to 11 pm, Papawaqa’s odourless waters are mildly alkaline (20o to 40oC), with a public entrance fee at NT$500. 

Tai’an is 2.5 hours (140km) by car from Taoyuan Airport, and 3 hours from Taipei. 

JAPAN

Perhaps no other place on earth is more closely associated with hot springs and bathhouses than Japan. The country’s love affair with thermal pools dates back thousands of years, and today Japan has over 3,000 hot spring resorts (onsen) and over 25,000 individual hot springs, many of which are rugged outdoor baths (rotenburo).

Dogo Onsen

Located in Matsuyama City on the west coast of Shikoku Island, Dogo Onsen is probably both Japan’s most famous and oldest onsen, dating back over 1,200 years. Part of Japan’s popular culture, it was the inspiration for the Ghibli movie, Spirited Away. It’s often grouped with Arima Onsen (Hyogo) and Nanki Shi- rahama Onsen (Wakayama), as the Nihon San Kotou (Japan’s 3 ancient baths). 

Its main 3-storey, wooden honkon (public bath) resembles a Japanese castle, complete with watchtower where a bell tolls the hour several times per day. It also has a designated yushinden, a bath reserved exclusively for the Emperor. 

Modern Dogo dates from the 1890s when it was expanded to accommodate the local residents who lacked indoor plumbing. Despite the changing times, today it remains a fixture for local residents. 

Entrance fees for 60-minute sessions are divided by level: the ground floor Kami no Yu public bath (¥410), the exclusive second floor Tama no Yu bath (¥840), and the third-floor tour of the Emperor’s private yushinden (¥1,250). Dogo is open daily from 6 am to 11 pm and is easily accessible via the Dogo Onsen (tram) station. 

Kurokawa Onsen

Located on the volca- nic island of Kyushu, in Kumamoto Prefecture, the historic town of Kurokawa is one of Japan’s most picturesque onsen spots. Tucked within a gorge along the Tanohara River, the town has been a popular onsen resort since the Edo period, and many of its 29 hot spring inns date back centuries. While the name “kurokawa” means “black river”, there is a vast range of water types, from mildly acidic to alkaline, and sulphurous. 

Many of Kurokawa’s inns have extensive facilities, such as Ikoi Ryokan with its 13 different baths, while others feature more secluded, private rotenburo, such as Iyashi-no-Sato located slightly out of the main town area. Each inn provides guests with traditional yukata robes and sandals to wear around town. 

The town’s public onsens are open daily (8:30 am to 9 pm); access any 3 with the nyuto tegata, a souvenir wooden bath token (¥1,300). Kurokawa is accessible via direct bus from Fukuoka Airport, Hakata Station and Kumamoto Station. 

Nozawa Onsen

Combining some of Japan’s best ski slopes with traditional soto-yu public baths, the small mountain resort of Nozawa Onsen in Nagano is one of Japan’s most adventure-oriented onsen destinations.  Situated just below the ski area, the historic town of Nozawa Onsen is extremely compact and quaint with its 13 free-entry baths all located within walking distance of each other. The town attracts avid onsen tourists, and many of its baths are open 24 hours per day. 

At under 3 hours from Tokyo by bullet train and shuttle bus, Nozawa ski area is one of Honshu’s most popular, with 36 slopes ranging from beginner to advanced (its longest run is over 10km). In summer and fall, the slopes are open to hikers and mountain bikers. 

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