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US Photographer Explores Japanese Hot Springs

One of Mark Edward Harris' photographs from 'The Way of the Japanese Bath'

One of Mark Edward Harris' photographs from 'The Way of the Japanese Bath'

American photographer Mark Edward Harris has traveled to 80 countries to document their sights and their people. The photographer's latest book, called The Way of the Japanese Bath, explores Japan's rural hot springs and urban bathhouses, which the author says cleanse both the body and the soul.

In his earlier books, Harris offered glimpses into Iran, North Korea, and other countries. This book on Japanese baths, which is an update and expansion of an earlier edition, takes readers to quiet mountain hot springs and public bathhouses. In Japan, as in some other parts of Asia, the bath is a communal place where people socialize, and at rural resorts, they get in touch with nature.

Harris knows Japan through his wife, who is Japanese, and with her he has visited some of the country's best baths and hot springs. To document the visits, he took his camera.

He says he felt awkward at first, but he speaks Japanese and, in the steamy setting, could easily break the ice with the other bathers.

"Everyone was a little bit quiet, but then in Japanese, I would say I'm doing a book on hot springs," said Mark Edward Harris. "Is it OK if I take some pictures?"

He says many people, partly submerged in the water or discreetly posed, were willing to being photographed.

Some traditional baths still offer mixed bathing, with men and women soaking in the mineral springs together. Their behavior, Harris points out, is always respectful. Today, most hot springs and baths have separate sections for each gender, where they relax and socialize and sometimes drink rice wine, or sake, while they bathe.

In mountain resorts, the bathers have stunning views. Some spas have huge picture windows and others are outdoors, where people enjoy the natural setting among the towering pine trees.

"I think when you do it in winter up in the mountains, where it's just ice cold outside and then you experience this very warm water, which is about 38 degrees Celsius, it really is for spiritual cleansing and also relaxation," he said.

Public baths in big cities like Tokyo are busy social centers. Harris says that each bath, whether in city or countryside, is distinctive.

"Sometimes the water is pumped up into and flows into old sake [rice wine] barrels," said Harris. "Sometimes it's overlooking the ocean so you can be in the water for sunset."

The waters of some geothermal springs are believed to have healing powers, and those with high concentrations of sodium, sulfur or other elements are thought to be good for certain ailments. Harris says the waters of one resort, Kusatsu, northwest of Tokyo, are said to cure nearly any ailment.

"Kusatsu, they say the water can cure anything but love," he said.

In Jigokudani in central Japan, Harris says that even the local snow monkeys enjoy the open-air bathing.

"Oh, they love bathing," said Mark Edward Harris. "Well, it's so cold, I don't blame them, you know, in the middle of the winter."

Bathing in most places is a solitary affair, but the photographer says the baths of Japan are place to relax, enjoy congenial company and get in touch with nature, often in a gorgeous natural setting.