Greta Rybus Hot Springs

Interview: Greta Rybus on Hot Springs

Posted by Charlotte Boates on

Based in Maine, Greta Rybus is a photojournalist whose work speaks to the connections between humans and the natural world. From editorial portraits to travel to documentary photography, Greta’s images instill a sense of immersiveness and inspire a curiosity about the world around us. 

Greta’s recently published book, Hot Springs: Photos and Stories of How the World Soaks, Swims, and Slows Down explores a selection of hot springs around the world through beautiful visuals and words. The book isn’t simply transportive to the experience of soaking at each, but also digs into the cultural and historical legacy of hot springs. 

A true ode to soaking in natural places, we were excited to speak with Greta about her work, her new book, and all things hot springs. 


Greta Rybus Hot Springs book


First off, why hot springs? Have you always loved soaking in hot springs?

I grew up going to hot springs in Idaho, Montana, and the surrounding area. Being raised in the American West—especially by two former hippies—we went to hot springs throughout my whole childhood. 

When I was fourteen, we moved overseas to Japan, and hot springs continued being a part of my life, but in a totally different way. In Idaho, going to the hot springs is a recreational experience—you’re going for fun, maybe after you go skiing or hiking, and usually with a lot of people. Then in Japan, the hot springs experience is so different. A lot of the old traditional homes were not built with tubs or showers. Japan’s public baths serve a utility, but they also serve a social function of neighbours spending time with neighbours. 

When I encountered the Japanese hot springs culture as a teenager, I was really struck by it. And when I returned home to Idaho  and later went to college in Montana, hot springs stayed a big part of my life. I’d visit them with friends, or before and after shifts working at a mountain lodge.

While working on your book, was there a hot springs experience that stuck out for you?

When I visited the hot springs in Switzerland at Therme Vals, they had very strict rules. I was only able to take photographs there during the cleaning time at night—you usually can’t take your phone or anything digital into the hot springs. It’s all very intentional.

So, I went in to be in the water and I was struck by this experience of being there. It was a very reflective experience of looking at the water, and thinking about how much thermal water there is in the world. I thought about how incredible it is that there’s so much thermal water and warmth coming up from the earth, and how special it is that it’s found in just a few places. And how miraculous it is that we live on this planet. Like how incredible it is to have a beautiful river, and a mountain right next to it, and then also hot springs—we’re so often just cruising around in life and we forget to take a second to remember this. Hot springs are a capital letter MIRACLE.


Great Rybus Japanese bath


Most of the hot springs in your book are wild hot springs, with an exception—including a few sentō which use heated water. Can you share more about your sentō experience?

In the Sentō chapter, I  broke a bit of a rule because it’s the only chapter that isn’t geothermal water. But one of the reasons that I wanted to include it was to share that these bathing experiences can be available to places that don’t have natural hot springs. 

In Japan while working on that chapter, I can’t believe that I got to have this experience, but I was able to get permission to go into a sentō bath that was about to close, and bathe with the people taking their last bath at the sentō together. People who had been bathing together for most of their lives were having a final experience together, and shared their gratitude for their time at the sentō.

Something like a few dozen sentō close in Japan each year, and often for the same reason—that the real estate is worth more than what the folks running it are making to keep it. But, there are many young people in Japan getting interested in the importance of keeping sentō going, and sometimes taking over the management. There’s an element of passion involved with people who care about keeping their sentō going. It’s really fascinating to see how people are caretaking and how they envision their bathing community. 

Greta Rybus geothermal bath

Can you speak to the power of travel and experiencing other cultures? What was the experience of visiting so many hot springs like?

I’ve had a very fortunate life where I’ve been able to travel a lot, especially for work. And seeing and experiencing so many hot springs has been incredibly special. In each hot spring I visited, it felt so immersive and distinct. There was a really particular colour and light palette in each one, the water has a different feel everywhere you go, it really felt like such a unique experience each time.

When I travel, instead of going to look at things that are deemed important to see, I like to have more of a passive experience. This might be from my perspective of making this book or being a photographer, but I love to just experience each place slowly. What are the sounds like here? What are the flavours of the food? What are the colour palettes that I keep on seeing? What materials are used? It’s like being a little solar panel that’s receiving, rather than seeking.

I also love interacting with people and asking them specific questions. Like I love to ask people what music they’re listening to, or to get their recommendations on what to see. These conversations can be so inspiring, and so much more meaningful to me than going to see a site or checking something off of a list.

Do you have a ritualized approach to bathing and hot springs?

I feel like there is this interest in ritual right now, and that is really a special and beautiful thing. But what I love the most about hot springs and soaking is that it’s so simple—there’s hot water and you go in it. I don’t have any rules for myself in terms of bathing, and I’ll have a bath any time of the day—maybe it’s to try to figure out a problem, or to not try to figure out anything and just be in hot water.

Greta Rybus outdoor bath
women in hot springs by Greta Rybus


Do you have any tips for someone looking to visit a hot spring, or tips for respecting these spaces?

I think that having the ability to read the room will always set you on the right track. For example, maybe you arrive at a hot spring where there’s only room for a few people, and you need to gauge the rhythm for how long people stay in the water. This looks like noticing what people are doing—whether they’re clothed or if they’re nude, whether it’s loud or if it’s quiet. It can always really depend. I went to a hot spring in the ocean, right in the waves, where you should be hooting and hollering, and letting it out! But, a lot of hot springs are about being quiet and respectful, and having more of an internally-focused experience. Allow your presence to be shaped by the space that you’re in. 

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