Kusatsu is a famous spa resort in the mountains of Japan’s Gunma Prefecture. In the 19th century the town’s hot springs drew people with leprosy in the belief that the acidic, sulphurous waters could provide relief from their disease. An informal settlement grew up at one end of the town and authorities granted the area the status of a “free recuperation zone.” Residents of Yunosawa district operated their own businesses, owned their own homes and lived as free citizens.
In 1932, a national leprosy sanatorium was opened on the other side of town. In line with government policy, the residents of Yunosawa were required to move into the new sanatorium, called Kuryu Rakusen-en. But from the very beginning there had been resistance from those who didn’t want to give up their homes, livelihoods and liberty and be isolated in an institution. And there was another sticking point: the planned sanatorium had no hot spring baths.
To resolve the latter issue, the authorities constructed an underground conduit to convey spring water from the town’s “yubatake” (hot water field) to Kuryu Rakusen-en over a distance of around 3.5 kilometers.
Seen in the photo are sections of wooden piping on display at the sanatorium’s museum. Made from Japanese red pine, they are approximately 40 centimeters in diameter and 180 centimeters long. Patients were involved in the work of hollowing out the logs, which were laid end to end and buried in the earth.
To complete the job in time for the opening of the sanatorium was said to have been a challenging undertaking. Furthermore, carrying out maintenance and repairs during Kusatsu’s harsh winters also imposed a heavy burden on patients. Of the many types of forced labor that they had to endure, this was noted for being especially hard.
On the plus side, however, inmates regarded the baths at Kuryu Rakusen-en as the best in town. Kusatsu’s hot spring waters are noted for being extremely hot, but their journey through the red pine pipes was said to cool them to just the right temperature for bathing.