Heat shock kills 3 Koreans during recent visits to Japan’s hot springs

Posted on : 2023-02-06 17:19 KST Modified on : 2023-02-06 17:19 KST
The sudden change from a cold to a warm environment can cause a rapid spike in blood pressure, leading to stroke or heart attack
A tourist zone in Beppu, Japan, known for its hot springs likened to “hells.” (Yonhap)
A tourist zone in Beppu, Japan, known for its hot springs likened to “hells.” (Yonhap)

What should have been a fun package trip to Hokkaido, Japan, for Lee Jeong-hwan, 51, and his family ended in tragedy.

Lee’s father, 76, died after experiencing a sudden rise in blood pressure while enjoying a hot spring bath at their hotel during the Lunar New Year holiday. After finishing his bath, Lee was waiting for his father outside when he heard a commotion coming from inside the hot spring. Dreading the worst, he rushed back into the hot spring only to find his father receiving CPR from another bather.

The aid that followed was not adequate. Most of the aging hotel employees were too flustered to provide assistance, and the automated external defibrillator meant for such emergencies was broken. The family’s local guide arrived 30 minutes after Lee’s father collapsed, and an ambulance came 40 minutes after being called. Heavy snow did not help the drive to the hospital, and Lee’s father arrived at the hospital an hour and 50 minutes after he was found. He was pronounced dead upon arrival.

The local police released the results of their post-mortem examination in which they stated that myocardial infarction was the cause of death. The process of repatriating the body to Korea proved difficult, forcing the Lee family to complete the funeral rites and cremation in Japan.

With many traveling to Japan after it reopened visa-free entry for numerous countries including Korea, it has been confirmed that three Koreans have died of heat shock in hot springs in the last two months. As rapid temperature change can be fatal for the elderly, travel agencies and tourists who plan on using hot springs during the winter are urged to be wary of this fact.

According to the Hankyoreh’s coverage on Sunday, three nationals have died in Japanese hot springs since visa-free travel to Japan was made available to the Korean public in October 2022.

One person died in Beppu, Kyushu, in December 2022, while in January, two Koreans died, one in Beppu and one in Sapporo, Hokkaido. All were elderly and died due to sharp spikes in blood pressure known as the “heat shock reaction” which can occur when moving from a cold environment to a warm environment and can lead to stroke or heart attack.

In Japan, where bathing culture, which includes hot springs, is popular, heat shock deaths typically occur between November and February. In December 2022, Shinya Hayasaka, a professor of human sciences at Tokyo City University, analyzed that the death toll from heat shock will exceed 20,000 in 2022 while appearing on newscaster NHK.

This includes deaths at home, which are thought to be caused due to Japan’s poor housing insulation. With many Korean tourists visiting Japan, travelers are advised to take precautions to avoid heat shock. According to statistics from the Japan National Tourism Organization, 894,459 Koreans visited Japan between October and December in 2022, when Japan reopened visa-free travel. That means that Koreans made up 32% of the total number of inbound travelers (around 2.8 million) to Japan, which makes it the country sending most tourists to Japan.

However, the travel agency that Lee used, not to mention most large travel agencies in Korea, fail to mention the risk of heat shock even in the fine print of their Japanese hot spring trip information.

Most only posted overseas safety information provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about earthquakes and traffic accidents.

“My father didn’t smoke or drink and didn’t have any underlying diseases,” said Lee. “We never thought that something like this would happen at a hot spring. We were not informed of such a danger by our local tour guide.”

By Lee Woo-yun, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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