Searching for a Cure

Searching for a Cure

For many Japanese cancer patients, a trip to Tamagawa Onsen offers one final hope


Originally published on on March 2011

In summer, this area will be filled with 200-300 guests
Photos by Jiro Murata

This couple from Yokohama has visited every year for the last ten years

Cancer. After heart disease, it’s the leading cause of death in Japan—and most other industrialized countries. By 2030, cancer is expected to surpass infectious diseases as a killer in many developing nations as well. Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests that the very chemicals, electromagnetic radiation and industrially produced foods that form the foundation of economic development also act as catalysts for the disease.

While the medical industry has made significant strides in detecting, treating and curing cancer, the inability of scientists to vanquish the disease is leading growing numbers of patients to seek out alternative treatments. Tamagawa Onsen in Akita Prefecture offers the hope of one such remedy to Japan’s large population of oncology patients.

People spend 60-90 minutes at a time on bedrock

Situated in the snowy mountains of Akita Prefecture in northern Honshu, the hot spring has served as a medical retreat for a variety of maladies since pre-Meiji times. The area’s surreal vistas are now protected as a national park—one in which 9,000 liters of near-boiling water come gushing out of the ground every minute. Tamagawa Onsen’s special hokutolite bedrock, with naturally occurring radium, is thought to be particularly effective against cancer.

The spa attracts hopeful visitors from all over Japan, most of whom are cancer patients undergoing Western medical treatment as well. They stay for two to three weeks in ryokan-style accommodations, or up to two months in dorm-style rooms with access to a communal kitchen. Many spend their time lying on slabs of hokutolite, which are believed to help sweat out heavy metals, toxins and carcinogens while allowing patients to bask in the naturally occurring warmth that melts snow even in the middle of winter.

Dinner includes items unavailable in a hospital setting—including alcohol

Getting there: although most visitors at Tamagawa Onsen are cancer patients, the springs are also said to be effective against other maladies, including nervous system disorders, high blood pressure and circulatory diseases. The ryokan-style accommodations are available year-round (except April 1-10), and dorm-style housing is open from April 20-November 23. Take the Komachi shinkansen from Tokyo station to Tazawako station in Akita (3hrs, ¥8,720), then the bus for Tamagawa Onsen. Book ahead, as waiting lists can be several months long.

[slideshow id=19 w=400]