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Sunday, Dec. 19, 2004



Hot and bothered -- but just about Jeb

Staff writer

There is a scene in the screwball British movie "Carry On . . . Follow that Camel" in which Jim Dale and Pete Butterworth are buried up to their necks in the desert after they upset the local sheikh. As they are slowly being cooked by the sun, a turbaned extra suggests that their eyeballs might make a nice snack for some passing scorpions.

News photo
Ibusuki bathers

In truth the latter detail may be more my hyperbolic imagination than fact, but that grisly image haunted me ahead of a recent visit to the New Steam Sand Bath Center (Sunamushi Kaikan Saraku) in Ibusuki, Kagoshima Prefecture.

To summarize, my main concerns as I strolled onto the beach were:

That I would be seized by claustrophobia and start screaming to be dug out after just 15 seconds.

That strange, microscopic sand-dwellers would burrow into my most intimate regions while I was busy "relaxing."

That a shovel-wielding obasan would leave me in there so long that I would emerge with permanently rosy cheeks, like Peko-chan.

That Jeb Bush will run for president in 2008.

OK, so the last one doesn't have much to do with coastal sand baths in Kyushu -- but it's a lingering fear no matter what I'm doing.

The Bush dynasty aside, as the afternoon unfolded my other anxieties evaporated swiftly -- along with most of my bodily fluids.

For a start, the sand isn't heaped on top of you to the point of paralysis; it's more like lying under a pile of prickly electric blankets than being in a subterranean straight jacket.

When you've had enough, one robust yoisho and you're free.

Moreover, although the shovel-bearers may look like extras from "Tenko," they are actually very sweet. One even scratched my nose for me when sweat started to pour down my face.

Speaking of sweat, one aspect of this experience that shouldn't be underestimated is the level of heat involved. It's one thing to read about a boiling sea in the Old Testament; it's quite another to feel one lapping around your ankles. For one brief moment I looked skyward, expecting an enormous white beard to admonish me for my behavior in Kabukicho over the last four years. Evidently, there are too many of us for Him to lecture individually.

You take your steam sand bath wrapped in a yukata -- and it's a good thing too. After 15 minutes -- the recommended time limit -- my back felt like it had been licked by 1,000 fire-eating Haitians.

Yet the heat, if you can stand it, is clearly the key to the whole gambit. From the moment I lay down gingerly in the pit to the moment I fled for the shower, I felt the blood rushing through my veins toward the tips of my fingers and toes as though propelled by some manic internal combustion engine.

The center's pamphlet asserts that steam sand baths have been used since the Edo Period to treat rheumatism, arthritis and neuralgia, among other ailments. And in light of the soothing but energizing effects on my corporally creaky self, I wasn't about to disagree.

To whit, aside from a gaggle of chortling students from Osaka, most of the other patrons were older couples presumably looking to turbo-charge their circulation before dragging themselves back to the center for a jet shower and an onsen.

But aside from all that, what struck me most was the lack of mess. If a similar center were to open in Brighton, say, it would smell like a wrestler's jock strap and be spattered with spitballs of coagulated sand. In Ibusuki, however, the showers smell of fresh lilies and you could confidently dine off the floors.

In other words, everything is in apple-pie order -- though that, unfortunately, brings us back to Jeb.

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