A German Advisor and Japan’s Hot Spring Connection to Europe

During the late nineteenth century, when Japan was modernizing/Westernizing, many European and American were invited to Japan to advise the government and business. One such individual was Dr. Erwin von Baelz (1849-1913), a German physician who came to Japan in 1876 to teach medicine at the Imperial University (now known as the University of Tokyo). Apparently, he had come to the attention of the Japanese government after treating a Japanese student in Germany. 

Dr. von Baelz was influential in Japan as a professor of medicine and physician. He specialized in treating skin disorders and introduced “Baelz water”, a glycerin-based skin tonic that is still in use today. He also served for a number of years as the personal physician of the Emperor Meiji (1868-1912) and other government leaders of the day. He lived in Japan for 27 years, longer than any other of the Western “advisors” of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), one possible reason for his wide-ranging impact.

Another of von Baelz’s contributions in Japan was the way in which he popularized hot springs as health resorts. Of course, the Japanese have long known that onsen hot springs had soothing and curative powers, but von Baelz, who was familiar with the Bohemian health spa at Carlsbad (known today as Karlovy Vary in Czech Republic) fostered the idea of onsen health resorts in the European style, which further popularized onsen towns, both among European tourists and the Japanese themselves.

The doctor’s favorite Japanese health spa was Kusatsu in northwestern Gunma Prefecture. Kusatsu claims to be one of the top onsens in Japan, with 32,000 liters per minute of piping hot water emitting from the source, heated by the active volcano Mt. Kusatsu-Shirane nearby. Apparently von Baelz was a regular summer visitor, enjoying the onsen waters as well as hikes in the clear mountain air, just as visitors to Karlovy Vary, now a sister city to Kusatsu, do today.

Karlovy Vary had its heyday around the same time as von Baelz was working to popularize Japanese onsen health resorts. Still a popular resort town, Karlovy Vary is, even today, known for its late nineteenth century Art Nouveau architecture.

Karlovy Vary’s location on a faultline known as the Eger Graben accounts for its hot springs water, about 2,000 liters per minute appearing from the primary source in the town (there are various springs around the town, all with the same mineral content, indicating that they all emit from the same underground source).

In Japan, most hot springs visitors concentrate on soaking in the hot mineral water, with different mineral contents of different onsens offering different health benefits. Kusatsu’s acidic, sulfur-filled water is said to be particularly good for skin complains. Apparently at Karlovy Vary drinking the mineral-infused hot spring water is the more popular health treatment. Perhaps this is what Europeans mean when they refer to “taking the waters”. The water at Karlovy Vary is especially regarded as a curative for stomach and intestinal disorders and fountains of hot spring water can be seen at various points in the town, with people filling special cups in order to drink from them.

The sister city relationship between these two hot springs resort towns was established in 1992. In June 1998, in honor of the 150th anniversary of von Baelz’s birth, Karlovy Vary unveiled its Japanese garden, a tiny monument to the connection between the two towns.

The little garden is located near the Richmond Hotel, just above the town, and alongside the gently babbling Tepla River. It is designed in the karesansui style, meaning that it is composed entirely of rock, without any water of its own. This seems almost ironic for a garden that pays homage to someone who advocated the curative properties of mineral spring water. But a karesansui garden is intended to express water through the arrangement of the garden’s rock and that is exactly what this little garden does.

The garden is a circle of stones in three different shapes and sizes, arranged to represent Yin and Yang, the two halves of a whole, divided by a sea(although the small stones representing the sea hadn’t been raked into wave patterns recently when I visited).

Yin and Yang can also represent male and female (in the case, most specifically von Baelz’s wife, Hana), positive and negative energy (together a kind of magnetism) and, in this case, Europe and Asia.

Large stones are arranged to represent a ship on the sea, the turtle of longevity, and, again, the continents themselves.

A stone lantern adds to the “Japanese-ness” of the garden and, of course, symbolizes light and enlightenment. The designer, Kanji Nomura, packed a lot into this tiny space.

Apparently the Japanese gardeners who traveled to Karlovy Vary to construct this little garden had to think hard about how to evoke the usual karesansui images using local European stone, yet they rose to the challenge, creating a space that is simultaneously Japanese and European and is dry yet evokes water, the common element that binds the two towns: Karlovy Vary and Kusatsu.

© 2022 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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