Some hot springs look like palaces, others look like holes in the ground. Some feel like parties, others like prayers. There are hot baths within cities, on remote islands, in the desert, within thick forests. Thermal water can be green, orange, blue, yellow or turquoise. It can be milky and opaque, silty with sediment or as clear as a municipal swimming pool. Sometimes it's barely warm; other times it's so hot it hurts.
Several years ago, with the dream of writing a book, I set out to learn and document how people around the world make use of hot springs. At 23 locations in 12 countries, I spoke with workers, hostesses and experts, who taught me about the local history and personality of each place. Many spoke to me about the ways in which they collectively manage land and water. They explained how the presence of bathing places can affect bodies, communities and cultures.
I met visitors who delighted in the way the hot water softened their minds and muscles. Some, like me (and maybe like you), were enthusiasts with a certain devotion to hot water, captivated by the way it reminded them to be citizens of nature.
Below are eight highlights adapted from my book “Hot Springs”—from an onsen in Aomori Prefecture, Japan, to a set of high-altitude pools near Mount Sajama in Bolivia.
When I was 14, my parents, both schoolteachers, worked as teachers at a United States Air Force base in Misawa, Japan. I went to high school on the base and we lived in a small house between a potato field and a rice field. The few local onsen, or public hot spring baths, were very different from the hot springs I had been to in Idaho, places that were open-air and sometimes a little noisy.
In Japan, hot springs are ritualized and structured. In an onsen, there is a palpable sense of reverence for one's own body, for others, and for the water.
I learned how to use the onsen correctly: to bring a small stool and bowl to the shared shower area, to scrub every inch of my body, to shampoo and condition my hair, to clean between my toes and under my feet. nails, to rinse my body and the area I occupied.
Once clean, you soak it. You soak until your body turns red with heat. And inside you also feel purified.
Ponta da Ferraria, the Azores
Ponta da Ferraria is located at the westernmost point of the island of São Miguel in the Azores, where volcanic hills slope steeply towards the ocean. Thermal cove that can only be reached during low tide, when the waves are not too strong and the hot water is not diluted by the rise in sea level.
The heat ebbs and flows with each set of waves. Swimmers hold on tightly to ropes that float on the surface of the water, providing stability as the waves move their bodies like strands of seaweed. People gasp and applaud as each wave approaches. It feels daunting and electrifying to be on the edge of nature like this.
When the tide comes in, people climb a small ladder onto the black rock ledge, the sea still rough beneath them, shaking in the wind, wrapping themselves in towels and squeezing the water out of their hair. They are energized by adrenaline, wide-eyed and bewildered with amazement.
Himachal Pradesh, India
Every day, at 7 am and 7 pm, a priest named Mahant Shiv Giri performs puja, a set of religious rites, at a small temple in the hot springs near the Gaj River in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. India.
First he bathes in the hot springs, washing his body and face with hot spring water. “The importance of bathing is to purify oneself,” he said. “It is a way to mark your attendance at the house of God.”
Many of the other hot springs of Himachal Pradesh are also located in and around the temple structures. In the largest city of Manikaran, Sikh and Hindu temples stand against each other on the banks of the Parvati River, sharing the same powerful hot spring.
Uunartoq Hot Springs, Greenland
The stone dammed pool at the Uunartoq hot springs is a ruin, probably built by Norse settlers a thousand years ago. It may have been the only place to soak in warm water for generations of Greenlanders. For a millennium, people have rested their bodies in the same place, finding warmth in the cold just as they do today.
Uunartoq is registered under preservation of historical, natural and cultural heritage. But all of Greenland has a single management: no one can own land there. All land can only be borrowed, with the terms of its use cooperatively agreed upon.
Land use in Greenland, explained Arctic social scientist Naja Carina Steenholdt, is “rooted in very traditional and very indigenous views of our nature.”
And Dr. Steenholdt emphasized that the Greenland approach can be part of modern life. Greenlandic society, he said, operates on the principles of sharing everything: land, food, time, care.
Mount Sajama, an extinct volcano and Bolivia's tallest mountain at more than 21,000 feet, rises from a windswept high-altitude valley dotted with simple houses, herds of llamas, a central village, and a few geothermal hot spots. .
Micaela Billcap owns a parcel of land with a hot spring, but it is managed and operated collectively by the community, who share in the profits.
“Sajama is a doctor,” said Marcelo Nina Osnayo, who grew up in the area. The hot springs are also considered medicinal: a balm for the working people of the area.
The climate at such high altitudes is harsh and the daily work is relentless. Marcelo told me that his wife developed arthritis after working in a kitchen with only cold water. “When we went to the springs, she was moved to the bones,” she said. “They contain many minerals, such as sulfur, arsenic, potassium and salt. “It is a mixture of medications.”
Nevada is home to more than 300 natural geothermal springs. But only about 40 of them are safe and accessible for soaking. There's a heart-shaped hot spring, a hot spring in a repurposed cattle trough, a languid hot spring river, and a deep soaking tub overlooking Joshua trees and rabbits. Each requires a spirit of adventure, some research and a little opportunity.
(The hot springs I visited in Nevada are the only purely wild springs in the book: the only places to bathe without someone authorizing entry or controlling the flow of visitors. So, to avoid overuse, I decided not to share specific names of the pools there.)
Springs may be well maintained or destroyed by careless visitors or wandering livestock; the roads may be too rough for passage; the weather is too hot in summer or too cold in winter. But when you time it right, the air smells like sagebrush and the silence is so pure you can hear the drumming in your ears.
Riemvasmaak, South Africa
In 1973 and 1974, during South African apartheid, black residents of Riemvasmaak, a settlement in northwestern South Africa, were uprooted from their homes so the government could build a military site. Among those residents were Henry Basson and his family, who were forcibly relocated to northern Namibia.
For decades the community's lands were occupied by the armed forces, to train infantry and practice bombings. In the 1990s, when Namibia gained independence and Nelson Mandela was elected in South Africa, Riemvasmaak became one of South Africa's first repatriated lands.
“Coming back was a very emotional experience,” Basson said, “because of that sense of belonging.”
Now the manager of the area's hot springs, Mr. Basson always takes a dip when it's time to clean up, soaking in the small pools that sit beneath towering cliffs. “We give ourselves the opportunity to be in the water and feel it,” he said.
This is your true home, where the story of your ancestors continues. But he tells me that this type of connection to the land is available to anyone. “When you visit a hot spring or any place, don't just come for something fun,” he said. “Try to make that connection.”
“In a hot spring, you disconnect from the things that rush you and reconnect with nature itself,” he added.
7132 Thermal Baths, Switzerland
The bathrooms at Hotel 7132 in Vals, Switzerland, are an austere, brutalist shrine to hot water. Designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, the complex was built from 60,000 locally sourced quartzite slabs. The stone is warm to the touch and absorbs sounds so that everything is muffled, reverent, church-like.
Bathing in hot springs can involve complex practices. But Waltz's baths remind us that it is really the bath that constitutes the ritual. Perhaps there is no need for ceremony when soaking is sufficient.
Cell phones and cameras are not allowed in the bathrooms, but I got permission from the staff to photograph the area while they were cleaning it. The cleaners are specialists, they use specific cloths and sprays for each surface. They explained their careful techniques and how it took trial and error over time to discover them.
I thought about how our sacred and special places require work and maintenance, the ongoing negotiation of personhood, politics, and place. That is also part of the ritual.
Greta Rybus is a photojournalist living near Portland, Maine. The book of him”Hot Springs: Photos and Stories of How the World Gets Soaked, Swims and Slows Down”, from which this photo essay is adapted, will be published by Ten Speed Press on March 19.
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