Is this the fountain of youth?

The onsen water at Wakayama’s Kamigoten Ryokan is said to have high quantities of sodium bicarbonate, which leaves a silky, soft film on the skin.


Like many small inns in Japan, the riverside Kamigoten Ryokan has been run by the same family for multiple generations.

But few can lay claim to a stretch like this.

The Ryujin family has been operating this historic Wakayama inn in the Ryujin village in mountainous Kii Peninsula since 1658, when it was constructed for an ancient samurai ruler as a holiday retreat.

Twenty nine generations later, the Ryujin family remains in charge.

There’s a key reason this beautiful property is still going strong after more than 350 years beautifying baths.

High quality H2O

In hot spring-mad Japan, this ryokan has earned a reputation for its indoor and outdoor bathing pools, the water for which, pumped in from nearby onsens, is high in sodium bicarbonate.

Devotees refer to this type of onsen water as bijin no yu or beauty bath and say it also helps with cuts, burns and chronic skin disease.

Cue the skepticism.

But as I can attest, there’s no denying the waters leave a silky, soft film on the skin post dip, so perhaps there’s something to those claims.

Do they reverse the ravages laid upon us by the cruel hands of time? Inconclusive.

However, when most anti aging promises come out of a jar or a needle, Kamigoten (or Royal Palace”) has the closest thing you’ll find to a fountain of youth.

Guests have two options  a gorgeous private outdoor landscaped open-air rock bath overlooking the Hikigawa River or the enclosed shared wooden baths  one for men, one for women.

A remarkable history

Kamigoten is a two story property that was registered as a tangible Japanese cultural asset in 1999.

Chieko Ryujin, the current owner, says this means they’re allowed to modernize the property to ensure it remains pleasing for visitors (i.e. improve the sound proofing on the walls) but the overall structure of the building must not be touched.

With its dark brown wood floors and staircases, Shoji rice paper screens and Japanese antiques throughout, it’s exactly the type of ryokan travelers looking for that quintessential Edo-era experience will love.

Meals another excellent feature of the ryokan — are included in the room rates.

Guests are served traditional multi-course kaiseki dinners and breakfast in their rooms.

Every dish is made from locally grown produce sourced from the neighboring mountains, some cooked in the onsen mineral waters. Fish is caught from the nearby river.

All the rooms, which start from ¥16,200 ($159) per person, are traditional Japanese-style suites with futons that the staff lay out in the evening.

The elevated Onarino-ma (room built for the ruler) is where the feudal lord, Yorinobu Tokugawa, used to stay and is the top suite in the building.

MORE: Koyasan, Japan: Overnight on one of the world’s most sacred mountains

A town of samurai descendants

There’s an interesting back-story to the Ryujin hot spring village.

Ryujin was founded by Kobo Daishi (774-835), the man credited with introducing the Shingon school of Buddhism to Japan.

Legend has it he had a dream about a water god, who told him the location of the Ryujin hot spring. When Kobo visited the site that appeared in his dream, he enshrined a statue of Yakushi Nyorai, the medicine Buddha.

Later, a monk named Myozan came to the village and claimed his skin disease was miraculously cured after bathing in the onsen waters. To show his thanks, he rebuilt the hut where the Buddha was enshrined and named it Onsen-ji Temple.

A few hundred years on, during the first battle of the Genpei War outside Kyoto in 1180, famed Japanese poet-cum-warrior Minamoto no Yorimasa was defeated and his troops fled into the Kii mountains.

They settled in the Ryujin area and renamed themselves in honor of the village.

The owners of Kamigoten are descendants of these fighters.

As Japan moved into the Edo period (1600-1868), Ryujin became a popular retreat for top samurai warriors, who were drawn to its thermal waters. It was during this time that Kamigoten Ryokan was built.

MORE: World’s best unknown hike: Japan’s Kumano Kodo

Getting there

Many travelers visit Ryujin village as an overnight stop on their journey between Wakayama’s sacred Koyasan and Kumano areas, which are linked by the beautiful Ryujin-Koya Skyline highway.

There’s a daily bus that runs all year round from Kii-Tanabe station to Ryujin. The travel time is 90 minutes, tickets ¥1,700 ($16.70).

Seasonal buses run from Koyasan, with visitors needing to transfer at Gomadanzan to the Ryujin Bus.

Central Koyasan (Senjuin bashi bus stop) to Gomadanzan is ¥1,690 the Gomadanzan to Ryujin Onsen is ¥1,140.

There’s more info on bus timetable number 7.

Travelers can also book a taxi from Koyasan to Ryujin for ¥16,500 (taxi holds 1-4 people) or ¥19,800 (jumbo taxi for 5-9 people). Travel time is one hour.

MORE: 10 things that make Wakayama Japan’s best kept secret

CAR Fighting spreads like infection

A boy being treated at the University Hospital in Bambari, CAR


Francoise Gerizapa scrunched her face into a fierce pout and then screamed once more a chilling, sing song whoop that filled the dark, crowded ward at Bambari’s hospital in the Central African Republic (CAR).

Andrew Harding reports on the latest violence

Bambari is CAR’s second city, but it is as underwhelming as the narrow dirt track that leads to it.

Crumbling old colonial buildings peer out from the shade of tall trees; a few scraps of tarmac cling together in the dust.

Dr Bama a tall, dignified man born and raised in Bambari, where his father was a doctor before him said the security situation had deteriorated abruptly last month when 34 people were killed in a single, frenzied day.

Within hours, the entire Christian population had fled to three makeshift camps on the outskirts, while the Muslims retreated into a single neighbourhood in the city centre.

And then the fighting started to spread, like an infection, along the muddy tracks leading deeper into the surrounding forest.

It seems to be a mixture of banditry, reprisals, intimidation and more organised military raids.

They brought three soldiers in last night  ex Seleka ambushed on the road, said Dr Bama, referring to the mainly Muslim fighters who briefly seized power across CAR, but have since withdrawn to await the outcome of peace negotiations.

They are a more organised force than the loose coalition of mostly Christian anti balaka militias active in the countryside around Bambari.

Their colleagues stood around us as we cleaned their wounds.

It is not safe here at the hospital. Sometimes we are threatened when we work, said Dr Bama, who described working late into the night during a ferocious rainstorm.

Hours earlier, two brothers had been attacked on the nearby road and their throats slit in broad daylight.

One was brought, still alive, to the hospital.

We fought to save him, but he needed blood, and we have no supplies here, said Dr Bama.

When possible, the most serious casualties are sent by air or road to the capital, Bangui.

Aid agencies like Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), Save the Children and the United Nations are working here to support Dr Bama and his colleagues and to provide for a population struggling without the most basic state services.

Dr Bama took off his white coat and sat down in his small office to catch his breath between rounds.

There’s no political authority here in Bambari. But this country still exists.

We have a president to bring peace back. And we have hope, said Dr Bama.

The problem is isolated people who understand nothing and who sow terror.

If only they could appreciate the state we are in.

We hear reports that they plan to attack our hospital. I don’t understand why. This is where we treat everyone,” the doctor said.

Read Andrew’s previous report from CAR: Road to anarchy

Wildlife loss link to child slavery

Children enslaved as fishing labour in the Brong Ahafo region of Ghana


New research suggests the global decline in wildlife is connected to an increase in human trafficking and child slavery.

Ecologists say the shortage of wild animals means that in many countries more labour is now needed to find food.

Children are often used to fill this need for cheap workers, especially in the fishing industry.

The decline in species is also helping the proliferation of terrorism and the destabilisation of regions.

According to a study in the journal, Science, the harvesting of wild animals from the sea and the land is worth $400bn annually and supports the livelihoods of 15% of the world’s population.

There’s a direct link between the scarcity of wildlife, the labour demands of harvests and this dramatic increase in child slavery”

But the authors argue that the rapid depletion of species has increased the need for slave labour. Declining fisheries around the world mean boats often have to travel further in harsher conditions to find their catch.

In Asia, men from Burma, Cambodia and Thailand are increasingly sold to fishing boats where they remain at sea for many years, without pay and forced to work 18-20 hour days.

There’s a direct link between the scarcity of wildlife, the labour demands of harvests and this dramatic increase in child slavery,” said Prof Justin Brashares from the University of California, Berkeley, who led the study.

Many communities that rely on these wildlife resources don’t have the economic capacity to hire more labourers, so instead they look for cheap labour, and in many areas this has led to the outright purchasing of children as slaves.

This exploitation also happens in Africa, where people who once found their food in the neighbouring forests now travel for days to find prey.

Children are often used by hunters to extract wildlife from areas that would be too costly to harvest.

The researchers contrast the outcomes of the collapse of fisheries of the north east coast of the US and in the waters off Somalia.

While in the US the decline was cushioned by federal subsidies to retrain fishermen, in Somalia the increased competition for fish stocks led to the rise of piracy.

That’s how the whole Somali conflict started, said Prof Brashares.

Fishermen started going out with guns, trying to fine boats that were fishing illegally in their waters.

Unfortunately some segment of that community said we can do much better by ransoming these boats that we can do by fishing.

The rise in value of items like tiger parts and elephant ivory have led to an explosion of trafficking, by powerful groups to further their aims.

The authors point to the Janjaweed, the Lord’s Resistance Army, Al-Shabab and Boko Haram, which they say have all been involved in poaching ivory and rhino horn to fund terrorist attacks.

Other researchers say there is not enough data to support this claim.

Regardless of the strength of the evidence, the western response to these events has been to declare a “war on poachers”.

The authors believe that this is misguided, and is missing the bigger picture.

We can continue to try and cover it up with little bits of enforcement,” said Prof Brashares.

But until we start to address the bigger issue which is poor governance and the global free for all, we are not going to address the tide of conflict.

The study says there are some approaches that can work. They argue that when local governments give fishers and hunters exclusive rights to harvest some areas, social tensions can be reduced.

They point to Fiji’s fishery structured around territorial use rights and in Namibia pro-active policies have helped to reduce poaching.

The most important bit from this article, I think, is that we need to better understand the factors that underlie fish and wildlife declines from a local perspective, and that interdisciplinary approaches are likely the best option for facilitating this understanding, said Dr Meredith Gore, from Michigan State University who wasn’t part of the study.

The research has been published in the journal, Science.

Follow Matt on Twitter @mattmcgrathbbc.