Exploring the must-see sites of Tohoku, Japan

In the twentieth century, tourism was a major industry in Tohoku, Japan, due to its array of unique cultural offerings and beautiful landscape. However, on March 11, 2011, the region suffered much damage due to a devastating earthquake and tsunami. Now, a year later, the area is recovering nicely, and travelers will have no problem visiting the museums, parks, mountains, hot springs, and heritage sites of Tohoku.

So what exactly does Tohoku have to offer? For starters, it is an excellent place to learn about an untouched side of Japan. In fact, in the late 1800s, writer and naturalist Isabella Bird was so moved by the region’s natural beauty, she nicknamed it “Japan’s Garden of Eden.” Additionally, there is something for everyone. Adventure travelers will love trekking the Kitayamazaki Cliffs, exploring Rikuchu Kaigan National Park and spelunking in the Ryusendo Caves. If you’re looking for comfort, relax in one of the natural and curative hot springs. History buff? Museums, castles, sacred temples, and excavation sites abound.

To get a better idea of the beauty, culture, and history that Tohoku has to offer, check out the gallery below.


Organic spas: essential for genuine pampering

Sometimes it is difficult to tell where and how organic spas fit into the whole of the organic conversation. Generally speaking, it makes a lot of sense to many of us to seek out organic food, even if we don’t always shop sensibly. Food is, after all, going directly into our bodies and the fewer chemicals that are in the mix, the better, so goes the organic logic. Discussions start to get fuzzier when you’re talking about things like, for instance, organic wood used in a new desk you are considering purchasing. In conversations like these, we usually start talking ethics and air quality, for example, which are marginally less tangible than the quality of food we ingest–at least for some. But somewhere on this scale of What Can I Afford To Purchase Organic falls the topic of organic spas. And this topic is especially relevant for travelers since many people make allowances for spa treatments only for special occasions–like vacations. After a trip to an organic spa in Austin, Texas, I started thinking through the benefits of organic skin care and the importance of seeking out organic spas.Samantha Brooks, the owner of Blossom Spa Boutique in Austin, peeled back a layer of thought for me when I walked into her spa earlier this year for a facial. It should have been obvious to me long ago with all of the oatmeal/honey/yogurt/egg concoctions my mother whipped up and lathered on my face growing up–skin care started organic. Clay, olive oil, coconut oil, Shea butter, sea salt, seaweed… our chemical-infused skin products these days broadcast their natural ingredients, or derivatives of natural ingredients, for a reason: they make sense to us on an embedded level. They are what many of our mothers used at home, and their mothers, and most definitely all of the mothers branching back on family trees from there. And so the first selling point for organic skin care at spas is the most obvious point: they are natural treatments. Anytime I treat my skin (or hair, or nails) with something that comes directly from the earth, I feel better about it than if I don’t–if for no other reason than the fact that I’m using “products” made entirely by Mother Nature.

So how did all of the chemicals get thrown into the mix here? When I pick up most skin, hair, or nail care product bottles I come across, I can barely pronounce most of the ingredients listed, let alone tell you what they are, where they come from, and what benefit they bring to my body. Nor can I usually tell you offhand what damage they may be bringing to my body. After being inspired by Samantha, though, I wanted to at least learn the basics. And after learning some of the basics, I wanted to share them with you. So here are some scummy, ugly facts buried within the beauty industry’s products.

The Dirt

Most skin or hair products will have Methyl, Propyl, Butyl, and/or Ethyl Paraben listed as ingredients. These ingredients are inexpensive and they prohibit microbial growth, so they are appealing to many skin care companies. But these ingredients are actually known toxins that cause undesirable skin reactions in many who use them. I’m no beautician, but my gut tells me that a product probably hasn’t done any fundamental good for my skin if my skin is flaring up after using it. When dealing with chemicals, the “no pain, no gain” motto really shouldn’t apply.

Propylene Glycol, a humectant, is something you will regularly find in beauty products. We (consumers) like it, theoretically, because it keeps things “moist”. Moisturizing conditioners, for example, might include this ingredient. Unfortunately, it is also used as an industrial anti-freeze. They de-ice planes with this stuff. On top of skin allergies and reactions, research has suggested that this ingredient can cause liver abnormalities and kidney damage.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate helps beauty products to foam. This seems great while you are shaving or scrubbing away with your body wash, but this ingredient might also cause urinary tract, bladder, and kidney infections. Additionally, genital disorders, eye irritations, hair loss, skin rashes, scalp scurf similar to dandruff, and allergic reactions have been traced back to the use of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate.

A nice-smelling product doesn’t indicate a nice product. Labels (if you even see them at the spa) oftentimes list the simple ingredient ‘fragrance’. Fragrance, in fact, can be any combination of around 200 toxic and synthetic ingredients. You’ll smell nice after using products with ‘fragrance’, but you also might have headaches, dizziness, vomiting, coughing, skin irritation, and rashes. At least one of those side effects’ smell is going to counteract any amount of ‘Rose’ fragrance.

Triethlanolamine (DEA) adjusts the pH balance in beauty products. But it also has been linked to kidney, liver, and other organ damage. Anemia, nerve damage to the brain and spinal cord, and kidney degeneration have also been linked to this ingredient.

The Solution

If you are surprised at this list as it stands, you will be even more surprised when you start doing some research on your own. These toxic chemical ingredients are just a few of the nasty components making up our supposedly beautifying products. At the very best, we might notice a change in our appearance for the ‘better’, but at what cost? Even the most vain among us should be able to see the weight of general health over the facade of general health (marketed as youthfulness). And at that rare very best, in my experience, these chemical-laden products still don’t compare with the real deal; the stuff our ancestors were using long before the chemical “revolution”.

I bathed in highly mineral mud, laid out in the sun to let it dry, and rinsed it off in the warm waters of the Caribbean two years ago when I visited the island of St. Maarten/St. Martin. The mud found on the small island of Tintamarre, just off the coast of SXM, has been used for centuries for mud-bathing. If you’re interested in obtaining a real glow that will last you a few days, try something like this before turning a blind eye to the chemicals in beauty products. I will never forget how I felt that evening–like my skin was made of silk.

And here’s some good news: you don’t have to tromp around Caribbean islands for natural skincare treatments like this. You can whip up natural treatments from the grocery store or from the land around you (if a good rubdown with grains of sand doesn’t exfoliate you, I don’t know what will). And when the time comes for some pampering, you can choose an organic spa. Spas that use organic and natural products exclusively are becoming increasingly popular and therefore more available for traveling, vacationing, needing-to-relax consumers. Once you know the facts behind these common chemical ingredients, you’ll find it is a little more difficult to relax at the spa if you can’t be sure the ingredients in the products being used aren’t causing you more harm than good, externally or internally.

When you want to be pampered, allow yourself that–particularly for you exhausted travelers who look forward to spa treatments as a part of your prized vacation. But I encourage you to go a step further, like I did, and do your research. For a thoroughly pleasant mind and body experience at, say, your resort’s in-house spa, you’re going to want to be as scrupulous as possible about the products your therapist uses. And you know what? You have a right to be.