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Getting 'buried alive' in Japan is hot stuff

  • Story Highlights
  • Japanese resort buries people in hot dirt up to their necks to aid relaxation
  • Geothermally heated sand used for treatments meant to relax muscles
  • Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin one of many to take treatment
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By Dan Hayes
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CNN Traveller

(CNN Traveller) -- Boris Yeltsin lasted 30 minutes; he did well. Most people struggle to get past 20 -- and the recommended dose is a trifling 15.

Japanese tourists take the hot sand treatment at the Hakusuikan resort on the island Kyushu.

Frankly, I am nervous. The sauna at the Hakusuikan resort on Ibusuki on the tip of the southern Japanese island of Kyushu may be recommended as a cure for any number of ailments, but it also involves being buried up to your neck in geothermally heated sand.

And, I cannot help thinking, it did not do Yeltsin that much good in the end.

This being Japan, there is a whole heap of ceremony involved in the burial process. First, I change into a blue and white cotton yukata. This must be worn left over right. Wear it the other way and you are dead. Really. Only the star of the show at a funeral gets to wear the garment that way. Then I tie it up with a blue belt, or obi, which has to wrap twice around the body. I finish off the ensemble with a pair of brown plastic slippers.

Actually, that is not strictly speaking the entire ensemble. Beneath my Japanese-style rig lurks a pair of 100 percent polyester, navy blue football shorts. I shuffle across the main reception, passing guests dressed in identical yukata and concentrating hard on not throwing a slipper. From here I am directed into a changing room where I change into a seemingly identical yukata and ibo. The shorts and slippers have to go, too.

Five minutes later I am sitting on the back bench of a row of four. As people are summoned we all move forward a place. Soon I am at the front, waiting on the edge like someone about to embark on a parachute jump.

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The metaphorical green light appears in the shape of a jovial man in a blue coat who is carrying what looks like a cross between a shovel and a rake. He signals me to follow him along a wooden walkway across a spacious room carpeted with black sand. With its heat and humidity it reminds me of a mushroom shed -- an image that is made all the more vivid by the disembodied heads poking up at regular intervals.

We come to a vacant plot and my guide motions me to lie down with my head on a wooden block. Straightening my yukata so it covers as much skin as possible, I comply. Then he shovels on the hot sand. It is heavy; heavier than I expected. The weight and heat combine to relax muscles and, once you get the idea out of your head that you are being buried alive, it is really rather pleasant.

'Fifteen minutes,' says the sexton in the blue coat, indicating a clock high up on the wooden wall of the sand sauna.

Gradually the heat begins to build, to the accompaniment of jolly Japanese music piped through a speaker system on high. Sweat is soon running down my forehead, nose and ears. After 10 minutes, my respect for Yeltsin is increasing -- I am beginning to feel as though I have been inserted into a trouser press and switched up to high.

To keep things comfortable I wiggle around ever so slightly beneath the sand -- as per the instructions I have received -- but you have to take care or toes and knees can start to break free.

After 20 minutes I feel cooked to perfection. There is no real ritual to ending your session. You simply brush off the bulk of the sand and stand up. I feel pretty good -- warmed, relaxed, slightly gritty, but definitely more supple than I went in.

At the door there is a water cooler where I stop for a drink. It is less about rehydration and more about taking a moment to prepare for the second part of the ritual -- a traditional Japanese onsen or hot bath. Steeled for what is to come and with nowhere to hide, anyway, I step through the door and into a shower room. Here any vestiges of sand are washed away. Then, clutching a towel the size of a place mat I walk down to the bath itself. You do not just get in, however. First you have to wash again -- sitting on a low, three-legged wooden stool with liberal applications of soap.

Thankfully, the bath at Hakusuikan is an expansive affair, but it is hot -- and after the geothermal sand and the hot wash proves harder work than I expected. After all the preamble, a few minutes in the water are enough. As I head for the door -- hopefully not the one to the ladies' changing room -- I cannot help thinking that Yeltsin probably wallowed happily in here for hours.

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