By Moeko Tawara
Hot Springs Plunge
Japanese breast cancer survivors gather their courage to take a difficult dip
By Moeko Tawara
The Japanese people are known for their affinity for hot springs. Visiting a hot spring and relaxing there is considered to be the ideal resort activity and the perfect form of recreation.
Hot springs are enjoyed by the Japanese on virtually any occasion, such as while taking summer and winter holidays, or while viewing the cherry blossoms in the spring or the tinged colors of autumn. Even in the workplace, trips to a hot spring are arranged at least once a year in order to foster friendship among workers, and sometimes the end-of-the-year party is combined with these hot spring tours.
In Japan, the hot spring industry holds the premier position in the entire leisure business. There are innumerable hot spring spas all across Japan. Due to Japan’s geological characteristics, natural hot springs are said to gush forth from the earth, no matter where one might dig. I am not sure how credible it is when people say that hot springs have certain efficacious effects or that they are good for one’s health. There is an academic study being conducted to research these issues. Some hot springs are said to be effective for treating cancer. A multitude of cancer patients flock to these hot springs, and such hot spring resorts enjoy a flourishing business throughout the year.
In a society that immediately turns to hot spring bathing as a medium for social communication, breast cancer patients often face difficulties in their social life that are unique to their situation.
Like anybody else, they are often invited by their colleagues and acquaintances to join a hot spring tour. “Let’s take a hot spring bath together. Hadaka-no-tsukiai [naked communication] will establish and help to maintain a deep friendship in which nothing is hidden.” Continuing to decline such offers will result in ill will, in being branded as unsociable or eccentric. There is even a possibility of alienation.
Rather than feeling relaxed, breast cancer patients are always forced to feel tense and nervous when taking a hot spring bath. Japanese hot spring baths have open dressing rooms. Unlike the dressing rooms at swimming pools, there is no privacy. There is no way to avoid the stares of the people nearby when undressing—stares of amazement, stares of surprise, stares of terror. Towels and washcloths are not allowed in the baths, and so they cannot be used to hide the scars.
“Taking a hot spring bath is supposed to be an experience of pleasure and relaxation. If that experience is to be tense and unpleasant, it would be better not to go at all.” Troubled by thoughts such as this one, the majority of breast cancer patients have long given up the idea of going to a hot spring.
However, when I thought about it, I realized that we have done nothing wrong. We have never done anything shameful. We only suffered from breast cancer. It is not right that we should have to give up the idea of taking a hot spring bath because of our scars, giving up one of the most enjoyable pastimes of Japanese people. With this in mind, in June 2001, I contacted former breast cancer patients through my website—people who might be interested in going to a hot spring together.
“Fellow breast cancer patients, shall we gather our courage and take a hot spring bath together? If we are all together, there’s nothing to be afraid of. I encourage you to join me.”
Almost immediately, 400 people from all over Japan signed up. In November 2001, we established a new association, calling ourselves On the Count of Three—the Hot Springs Plunge Association. “On the count of three: One, two and three!” is a phrase that Japanese people often say in their hearts to encourage themselves before starting an endeavor.