Photo/IllutrationKiera Olsen, right, and her friend try cosmetic products containing components of hot spring water from the Owakudani valley at Owakudani Enchi park in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture. (Eiichi Murano)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories featuring the aesthetic landscapes of Mount Fuji, Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture and Izu in Shizuoka Prefecture, which have been visited by an increasing number of tourists from overseas. Based on conversations with travelers, the series casts light on sceneries and cultural heritages that gave form to these areas.

* * *

Once called the “Great Hell,” the Owakudani valley is one of the must-see tourism hotspots in Hakone in Kanagawa Prefecture known for its active sulphur vents and hot springs.

But little may be known about the volcanic area when it comes to popular souvenir items among foreign visitors: cosmetics.

“I loved it. I’ve never had smoother skin,” said Kiera Olsen, 25, from the U.S. state of Washington, of her experience of taking a hot spring bath for 30 to 40 minutes with her Japanese friend.

The two women stayed overnight at an “onsen” hot spring inn in the Yumoto district of Hakone on Sept. 4.

The following morning, the pair moved to Owakudani and watched white fumarolic gases generated by volcanic activity rising from the valley from an observatory about 1,000 meters above sea level.

When they visited a cosmetics section of a shop that sells the local specialty “kuro tamago” (black eggs), the pair dipped their fingertips into a sample of jelly serum to apply the beauty essence to their cheeks.

“It’s a very light feeling,” Olsen said, adding excitedly, “It’s not too oily. It’s moisturizing and smells good.”

When she saw a flier for the serum, which in English says that it contains components of hot spring water from Owakudani and egg, Olsen said, “How interesting! Very cool.”

Claude Hauser, 50, from Switzerland, applied a skin cream sample containing hot spring components to his hands and smelled it. He bought a beauty product, saying that it would be a good souvenir for his wife.

Many foreign tourists were also seen purchasing a black facial mask containing components of hot spring water.

“The components of hot spring water at Owakudani are rich in metasilicic acid, which is good for the skin,” said Masayuki Yanase, sales manager at Okuhakone Kanko Corp. “We started offering skin-care products to make women who want to be beautiful take more of an interest in Owakudani.”

The number of foreign tourists rapidly increased in or around 2014 when the company started selling cosmetics.

At Owakudani, kuro tamago, which are chicken eggs whose shells turn black after they are boiled in the hot sulfur spring, are a popular specialty. While the kuro tamago is not suitable as a souvenir for foreign tourists because it needs to be consumed within two days, beauty products attracted their attention.

“The products are especially purchased by people from China, Taiwan and Thailand,” Yanase said. “An incredible amount (of cosmetics products) fly off the shelves during the Lunar New Year holidays. It appears that people who have used them are promoting them in their homelands.”

It seems the newly developed souvenirs have created a virtuous cycle.

Hot spring water in Hakone is good for the skin whether one bathes in it or applies it to the skin. German medical scholar Erwin Balz took notice of it in the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

Balz, who taught at Tokyo Igakko (Tokyo Medical School), conducted research on the health benefits of hot spring water from Hakone. According to Hakone Onsen Kyokyu Co.’s company history book, he compiled a set of recommendations in 1887 to encourage the government to promote development in areas surrounding Owakudani.

Balz had predicted the development of a hot spring resort would gain international popularity in later years. He said that he wanted to establish a major hot spring retreat that would serve as a model and that it would be inevitable for the retreat not only to bring benefits to imperial Japan but also to gain great reputation in China, India, the United States and European countries.

Hot spring water used to produce cosmetics is taken from a spot near a statue of the Enmei Jizo guardian deity in Owakudani. According to a legend inscribed on a stone monument, the famed priest Kukai (774-835) saw hellish sights of the valley, observing a violent outpouring of steam and gases, as well as boiling mud, in the desolate place. He sculptured a jizo deity to provide salvation for people suffering in hell. Owakudani had been referred to as “Dai Jigoku” (Great hell) until the early Meiji Era.

The legendary deity is enshrined at a temple, with a new soft-looking jizo statue seated in front of a hot spring water fountain. Chinese tourists were seen pouring hot spring water over the jizo’s head with a ladle, while others place their palms together in prayer.

Volcanic activity is still ongoing in areas around the volcanic vent in Owakudani after a small eruption in 2015.

* * *

Eiichi Murano is chief of The Asahi Shimbun’s Odawara and Atami bureaus.