By Vicki L. Beyer
Have you ever noticed how it’s the people you meet while travelling who leave the most lasting impression? Often, I remember a place as much for its people as for what I see or do there. Interestingly, sometimes those memorable people aren’t even alive!
That was certainly true when, on a recent visit to Kusatsu Onsen in northwestern Gumma Prefecture, I met Dr. Erwin von Baelz (1849-1913). Baelz, a German physician, came to Japan to teach medicine at the Imperial University (now known as the University of Tokyo) on the invitation of the Japanese government in 1876. Apparently he had come to the attention of the Japanese government after treating a Japanese student in Germany.
Baelz made his home in Japan for 27 years, longer than any other of the Western “advisors” of the Meiji Period. This may be one reason for his wide-ranging impact. He was influential in Japan as a professor of medicine and physician. But he was also an art collector and judo afficionado (Baelz is credited with introducing the sport to Germany).
Most importantly for Kusatsu, Baelz, who was familiar with the Bohemian spa resort town of Karlsbad, recognized the healing powers of Kusatsu’s hot spring waters and promoted the town as a hot spring resort in the European style. Baelz first travelled to Kusatsu in 1878 and made frequent return trips, particularly during his summer holidays, as he found the mountain air as well as the mineral waters, beneficial to the health.
Kusatsu has returned the favor by opening a Baelz Museum as well as by establishing sister city relationships with Bietigheim-Bissingen, his birthplace, as well as Karlovy Vary (formerly Karlsbad) in the Czech Republic. The Baelz Museum is filled with photographs and memorabilia from Baelz’s life, including his visits to Kusatsu, as well as particularly interesting photos of Kusatsu in Baelz’s lifetime. Located near the Michi no Eki at the “top” of the town, admission is free.
Often referred to as the “father of modern Japanese medicine”, Baelz taught Meiji Japan’s first generation of western-style physicians and treated some of the most influential people in Japan. Among his patients were early prime ministers Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909) and Yamagata Aritomo (1838-1922). In 1902 he was appointed to the position of personal physician to Emperor Meiji. He also treated the crown prince (later the Emperor Taisho).
Baelz made a number of other contributions to medicine, including realizing the existence of the “Mongolian spot”, a form of birthmark commonly observed in ethnicities with Mongol roots (including Japanese, American Indians, and Turkish). He also developed a glycerin-based skin tonic still known in Japan as “Baelz Water”.
Baelz married a Japanese, Hatsu Arai (called Hana), in 1881. They had two children, Toku (1889-1945) and Uta (1893-1896). Baelz returned to Germany with Hana and Toku in 1905.
After his death, Baelz’s son Toku edited his diaries to produce “Awakening Japan: The Diary of a German Doctor” (available in German, English and Japanese). The book is widely regarded as one of the best for views of Japan in those early days of Westernization.
After learning about Dr. Baelz, I found myself wondering, as I wandered through Kusatsu, what Baelz thought of this place or that? Other than the yubatake in the center of the town, is there anything left from his time? Where did he bathe? Where did he eat? Am I walking in his footsteps? These questions gave an added dimension to my visit. It truly is the people you meet!