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West Japan resort springs into action to bring VR 'onsen' experience to your home

A woman demonstrates how to take a virtual "onsen" bath using VR goggles at home in this image provided by organizers of a project led by Arima hot spring inn owners.

KOBE -- A project using virtual reality (VR) to provide an "onsen" experience that enables people to feel as if they are bathing in hot springs at home has been launched by "ryokan" inn owners at a local hot spring resort in this western Japan city.

Ninety percent of the inns at the Arima resort town in Kobe's Kita Ward have been temporarily closed since Hyogo Prefecture was placed under a state of emergency amid the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Before the current crisis, Arima hot spring resort had seen an increase in overseas visitors and had been bustling with tourists in recent years, but 27 out of 31 inns have been subject to temporary closure since the state of emergency declaration. The city-run bathhouses, "Kin no Yu" (golden spring) and "Gin no Yu" (silver spring) have been closed since April 10, and the district remains eerily silent.

Kazushige Kanai, 39, owner of Arima Sanso Gosho Bessho, and three other young volunteers agreed to "take quick action that could be done now" and proposed the idea of sending out VR footage -- in hopes for viewers to relieve stress of having to stay at their homes by taking a virtual bath. Hot springs at five inns will be featured in footage lasting 15 to 20 minutes each, which was taken by a professional photographer.

Through the videos, viewers will be immersed in a visual and auditory experience where they can feel the breeze surrounding an open-air bath, cherry blossom petals floating in the air, the sound of running water, among other virtual elements. VR goggles are needed to view the videos, including the first clip which will be uploaded to YouTube on April 17.

The need for special goggles can be seen as a drawback, but Kanai says, "I hear that there are many people who spend their time playing games at home, so we feel that more people will start using these goggles as well." He added, "We would like to increase the number of facilities participating in the project and deliver the healing power of Arima hot springs to the world."

(Japanese original by Chikako Kida, Kobe Bureau)

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