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‘Yucho’ instructors no longer part of hot springs bath

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Students enjoy the hot spring bath at a new dormitory at Fukuoka University of Economicsin Fukuoka, Japan, on May 24, 2007. Japan has one of the oldest and most established systems of higher education in Asia, but today its universities are scrambling to find new ways to attract students.

KUSATSU, Gunma >> The Kusatsu onsen hot spring area in Gunma Prefecture has abolished the role of “yucho,” a person who instructs people in a traditional bathing method, out of concerns that their actions could violate the Medical Practitioners’ Law.

In the “jikan-yu” method, bathers immerse themselves in water from a highly acidic spring that has been adjusted to about 100 to 118 degrees. They remain in the water for three minutes at a time, and bathe a few times per day. Established in the Meiji era (1868-1912), this method is aimed at improving health and is practiced by more than 7,000 people each year.

Long-time aficionados have expressed unhappiness over the departure of the yucho, although people will still be able to engage in the practice.

Jikan-yu was available at two public bathhouses run by the town — Jizo-no-yu and Chiyo-no-yu. There had been two yucho, a man and a woman, who used knowledge passed down to them to individualize bath temperature for customers, provide bathing instructions and supervise safety. They used wooden boards called yumomi, which were developed to stir up the water to lower its temperature during jikan-yu sessions.

Jikan-yu had become a well-known symbol of Kusatsu onsen’s therapeutic hot spring culture.

However, the role of the yucho was reexamined by the Kusatsu town government during renovations to facilities in May, when officials realized they were conducting what could be considered medical interviews, such as asking bathers about their chronic illnesses and health conditions.

The town government decided to end its contract with the Kusatsu tourism corporation, which supervises and operates the baths and employs the yucho, at the end of the fiscal year.

The town also decided to keep the water temperature of the baths constant, at 107.6 degrees. Medical and other experts said bathing in high-temperature hot springs carried the risk of causing thrombosis. In line with this safety measure, the town also decided to end yucho services last month.

Now, bathing at these facilities is free. Jizo-no-yu, which has many long-term users, is introducing a registration system, while Chiyo-no-yu is intended for tourists.

Kusatsu Mayor Nobutada Kuroiwa appealed for understanding, saying, “We plan to carry on our therapeutic bathing culture.”

Not everyone is happy with the changes.

“My physical condition improved from high-temperature baths. I want them to keep the system in which yucho use a yumomi to adjust the temperature to suit a person’s symptoms,” said a 53-year-old woman who said she had been coming to Kusatsu for more than a decade.

Some yucho aren’t happy with the changes, either.

“To tell the truth, I’m disappointed. I want to keep working,” said one of them, who wished to remain anonymous.

The current job of the yucho has shifted to managing the baths for the remainder of their contracts.

Some long-term users have started a petition calling for maintaining the traditional jikan-yu system.

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