Kusatsu; a Japanese sanitarium
Ikao (Japan), September 2nd. 1886
About a thousand years ago, as Japanese tradition runs, the peasants of the highland district which lies between the volcanoes Asamayama and Shirane-san, in the province of Shinshiu, discovered a rare group of hot mineral springs and streams in a small valley at the foot of the latter peak.
Instinct, or possibly chance, led them to try the effects of those waters in cases of sickness, and experiment soon led to the discovery that they possessed wonderful healing properties.
Some three centuries later, the illustrious and valiant Yoritomo - first of the Shogun, and one of the greatest heroes of Japanese history - was hunting in the neighbourhood.
He fell sick, heard of the waters, tried them, and recovered.
From that time, Kusatsu, or "grassy ford," as the place is named - doubtless from the grass-clad expanses of the neighbouring uplands - became celebrated.
Its fame has, moreover, gone on increasing from generation to generation; and the list of diseases for which its waters are said by the Japanese to be sovereign specifics now includes more than 30 of the gravest ills that flesh is heir to.
There is, of course, some exaggeration here.
But the fact remains, and is attested by foreign physicians of high repute, that the extraordinary efficacy of the Kusatsu springs, their number, variety of constitution, high temperatures, and exceptionally ample volume, and the wide range of maladies which yield to their healing influences, entitle them to rank as one of the most remarkable groups of their kind that the world has yet known.
Kusatsu - pronounced Kusatz -, is now a goodly village, hidden away from the outer world in a hollow surrounded by temple crowned and wooded eminences.
Its chief and central feature is an open, steaming square, about a couple of acres in extent, in which are collected the majority of the celebrated warm waters, some rising as springs in the square itself, others led to it from neighbouring ravines.
Scattered round the margin of this square stand a number of open or half-open sheds, containing the public bathing-tanks where hundreds of the sick and suffering poor of Japan undergo, several times a day, the severe ordeal of bathing in caustic, evil-smelling waters at almost intolerable temperatures.
A multitude of conduits and pipes, led from the various sources, supply ever-running streams of steaming water to these tanks and to other less public baths in the close vicinity.
The Stygian vapours, of whitish colour and strong sulphurous odour, which pervade the air, and the thick mineral deposits - green, yellow, or white - that are to be seen in every conduit, tank, and tunnel, vividly recall the sights and smells of the geyser regions of New Zealand or the Yellowstone.
Packed closely round the square, covering the rest of the little hollow, and clustering on the hillsides, are the 200 or so of houses which form the village.
These, with their wide-angled roofs, shingle-covered and loaded with heavy stones, their ample verandahs, dark framing, and white walls, resemble nothing so much as the neatest of Swiss mountain chalets.
As at Ikao, the best of them are hotels, with a large capacity for guests.
But, with this exception, there is hardly a point of similarity between the two spas, situated barely 30 miles apart.
Kusatsu, indeed, is in all essential particulars the very anti-type of Ikao.
At the latter place, as was recently described in The Times, all is brightness and beauty, amid which throngs of Japanese of the better classes, for the most part hale and hearty, devote themselves to the full enjoyment of holiday-life in the country a la Japonaise.
At Kusatsu, in a dull hollow without a prospect, you meet none of these, but, in their place, an ailing, woebegone, and joyless crowd, almost wholly of the lower orders, who seek, by painful processes, to get rid of maladies which in many cases are of the most frightful kind, and who have no more cheerful occupation than that of watching their own symptoms as the days and weeks go wearily by.
At Ikao children and young folks are the light and life of the place.
At Kusatsu they are phenomena very rarely seen.
At Ikao bathing is indulged in at all hours as a luxury and a pastime, and with no more restraint than the fun at a carnival, rather than for the sake of any mild beneficial properties which the water may possess.
At Kusatsu it is a solemn and bitter penance, submitted to at stated hours and under medical advice.
Sulphur, arsenic, copper, alumina, magnesia, and other substances enter in various forms and degrees into the composition of the warm waters of Kusatsu, each of which has its special virtues for different maladies, according to its temperature and constituents.
A large number of scrofulous and rheumatic disorders, gout, ophthalmia (very common in Japan), and other eye diseases, Kakke, a grave madaly said to correspond with the "beri beri" of Netherlands India, and many diseases of the joints, are treated with marked success at these admirable springs.
Even lepers seem to derive some temporary benefit at Kusatsu - something that has the effect of hindering the progress of that incurable disease and assuaging its terrors.
For there is a special bath devoted to the use of these poor creatures - a sight fit only for men with strong nerves and a taste for the horrible.
But it is to the extraordinary efficacy of certain of its waters in one of the most fearful and inextinguishable of all human maladies - a scourage from which the Japanese are no more exempt than the rest of the erring sons of men - that Kusatsu mainly owes its great reputation in the Far East.
When that reputation shall have extended, as it certainly will do sooner or later, to Western countries, it is fair to anticipate that patients from all parts of the globe will flock to the little sanitarium in the hills of Japan, which, by the common consent of skilled judges acquainted with the facts, hold out a promise of cure for cases of a sufficiently desperate nature to defy successful remedy elsewhere.
That the treatment at Kusatsu, in such cases, is in a high degree drastic, may be conjectured from indications already given.
Some of the baths, indeded, are nothing but highly diluted sulphuric acid.
In these, at a temperature up to about 150 deg. Fahr., the unfortunate patients, when at the height of their course, have to soak, in torture, five or six times a day, for weeks in succession.
Virus which, from neglect or inadequate treatment, has run riot for years in the system - even virus that has been inherited at birth - is gradually extracted by this severe course of bathing.
Not, however, without vast suffering and inconvenience, over which it is necessary to draw a veil.
Suffice it to say that, at the end of his six or seven weeks' purgatory, the convalescent, yet still half-disabled, invalid is glad enough to get away to the soft, healing warm waters which Nature, ever kind, has provided for his more complete restoration at the little village of Sawatari, a few miles distant on the road to the capital.
One course of the Kusatsu baths is usually sufficient for ordinary patients, but in grave cases thorough cure is only to be attained by a second or even a third course, in successive seasons.
The wonderful success which attends the treatment seems to be due not only to the chemical composition of the springs, but to their abnormally high temperatures, which exceed those of all other similarly constituted waters, and, it must be added, to the rare courage with which the Japanese patients undergo during long periods the ordeal of oft-repeated bathing.
As a matter of course, the baths are only taken under medical advice.
No one would resort to them unless obliged, and to many they would be dangerous.
To persons, for example, disposed to congestion of the brain, or having anything wrong with the heart or arteries, the high temperatures are prohibitive.
Of the severer baths at Kusatsu, the two most famous are the "Fever-bath," so called from its high normal temperature of about 150 deg., and the "Eagle," scarcely cooler, deriving its name from a fanciful legend of an eagle's cure.
There are also, the Gozano-yu, highly efficacious for ophthalmia, and said to have been used by Yoritomo; the "Waterfall-bath", from the douches with which it is provided; and several others - all of them at temperatures ranging from about 110 deg.to 150 deg.
Some of the springs and streams occasionally exhibit curious phenomena, varying their temperatures, flowing intermittently, disappearing altogether and being often replaced by others, receiving fresh affluents, losing them again, and behaving generally in the erratic and unprincipled manner that is to be expected in a seething volcanic soil.
A study of these and other peculiarities of the waters, as well as of their composition and properties and the best modes of turning them to account, offers an inviting field to specialists, and has, indeed, already engaged the attention of one distinguished German expert, Dr. E. Baelz, of the Imperial University in Tokio.
The ordinary visitor, however, will certainly find his chief interest in the strange spectacle of the public bathing, which is the sight of sights at Kusatsu.
That unparallled but most dismal ceremony, carried out with military precision and regularity at three-hourly intervals, from about 5 o'clock in the morning until after dark, made a very strong impression on me, and I think cannot fail to do so on any spectator.
If you draw near - as you may do without impropriety - to, let us say, the Netsu-no-yu, or fever-bath, at any of the hours fixed for bathing, you witness a sight that is certain to remain graven indelibly on the memory until your life's end.
At the appointed time, a loud and long blast from a horn, audible everywhere in the village, summons the patients to their trying penance.
Then out of every hotel, tea-house, and alley, the sufferers, clad only in cotton bathing-robes and sandals, find their way slowly to the various baths around and near the square.
While they are thus collecting, a number of attendants, armed with short boards, agitate the water in the tanks, with a great noise and shouting, and with a vigour which has the effect of thoroughly mixing and at the same time slightly aerating and cooling it.
To the Netsu-no-yu come, perhaps, 30 or 40 sick men, and, alas, nearly as many women.
All unrobe, quietly and decorously, and seat themselves on the wooden platforms which run round the tanks.
Then, at a word of command from the chief attendant, they set to work simultaneously to souse their heads, and afterwards their bodies, with the scalding water, using dippers brought for the purpose.
This process is very necessary, as a precaution against vertigo, and to raise the temperature of the body before attempting immersion.
Other brief preparations, into which it is needless to enter, are then gone through by the more afflicted martyrs.
"Are you ready?" cries the attendant-watch in hand, for this bathing in free sulphuric acid at 150 deg. is a ticklish business, in which seconds count.
At the response "Ready" the signal is given, and the whole assembly proceed, slowly and painfully-many of them with agonized faces - to lower themselves into half-boiling fluid, until it is up to their chins.
"Can you bear it?" is the next inquiry, answered by a melancholy and half-stifled "Yes" from every throat.
"You have only to endure it for three minutes!" says the master of the ceremomies, in a voice that is meant to be cheerful.
Then as each minute elapses he calls the time, adding now and then words of encouragement to his flock, who are tortured by pain and smarting, yet have pluck enough still left in them to respond dismally to his exhortations.
Faces brighten a bit, however, when at the end of two-and-a-half minutes, he announces that but 30 seconds remain.
Fifteen seconds later he gives the warning to prepare.
At last the third minute expires, the final word is uttered, and with a gasp of relief the parboiled fraternity emerge from the tanks a good deal more briskly than they entered, red as lobsters and sweating profusely at every pore.
They mop the wet from their steaming bodies, slip into their bathing robes, and disperse slowly and sadly homewards.
Then a great peace and silence comes over the scene, to dwell there until the next bugle-call.
Besides the virtues of its waters, Kusatsu has other features to reconcile it to the invalid who is constrained to stay there.
Though the site of the village itslef commands no view, and is pervaded by malodorous vapours of sulphur, its neighbourhood is one of great natural beauty.
Walks or rides lead in all directions through Japanese hill-scenery of a most attractive type, commanding at every elevated point a fine prospect of the mighty Asamayama, chief among the active volcanoes of Japan.
Immediately above the village, another interesting live volcano, Shirane-san, rises some 3,000ft., by an ascent so gradual that you may ride on horseback to the very crater's edge.
As to the climate, it is - for the period from May to October, which is the ordinary season at Kusatsu - all that the testiest invalid could desire.
It is the climate of the mountains, healthful, breezy, and invigorating, neither too damp nor too dry, never distressingly warm, by day even in the hottest August weather, and always cool at night.
Chorela, occasionally the scourge of the torrid plains, finds no habitat in this salubrious spot, 3,500 ft. above the sea, with its pure air, rapid drainage, and, strange to say, ample supply of delicious water.
Mosquitoes are unknown, and other insect pests - down even to the fleas - are comparatively rare.
It should be added that the ordeal of the public baths is only undergone by the poorer classes, separate baths, sufficiently private, being procurable by those who can afford a trifling payment.
Yet, in spite of all that can be said in its favour, Kusatsu is hardly a place that anyone would care to linger in unless obliged.
It is a place to be seen once - a place that ought to be seen by all who have the opportunity, because it is so perfectly unique that there is none other like it in the known world.
Types of things beautiful, things strange, and things sad and dreadful are here grouped in the rarest juxtaposition.
But, unfortunately, the last largely predominate.
They form nearly the whole inner life of the place.
They are with you always; and there is no getting away from them except by flight, to which all visitors but those of the most ghoulish disposition gladly betake themselves after a day or two's experience at Kusatsu, well convinced that to have seen it is enough.
The Times - Nov.16th
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