Probably the only city bus you can describe as a “hot ride.”

One morning, I awoke to some unusual sounds coming from outside. When I peeked out the window I couldn’t believe what I saw.

▼ Sabus!

It was last November when we first reported on this city bus that had been repurposed as a mobile sauna, and now it was sitting right in front of me!

You may recall that Sabus was the brainchild of Shinki Bus, which operates around the Himeji City area in Hyogo Prefecture. As an effort both to diversify their business and not let decommissioned vehicles go to waste, they converted one into a fully operational steam room on wheels.

▼ This “sauna” isn’t the destination, it’s the bus!

The first Sabus was only completed recently, however, and already has become quite popular wherever it’s been making appearances. And now, as luck would have it, it made one right outside my home as part of an event hosted by a local public bath in the neighborhood.

The bus was set up in a parking lot often used by guests of the bathhouse…. which is a less than photogenic way to present a sauna that could just as easily be driven next to a pristine lake at an idyllic campsite and enjoyed just the same.

Still, despite the location and gloomy weather, all the guests I saw there looked like they were genuinely having a great time, possibly in part due to the strangeness of enjoying a sauna in a parking lot.

Also, as a pleasant change of pace, the entire urban area where Sabus was parked smelled like a rustic wood-burning stove.

▼ The entrance tent had some complimentary robes in both plain grey and Hawaiian print available.

Unfortunately due to the small size and large popularity of Sabus, it was already completely booked up by the time I found it, but the organizers were kind enough to let me take a look through the whole experience.

▼ The side panel of Sabus, which on a normal bus shows the main stops, reads: “Sauna → bath → open air bath → everything’s alright”

Before entering, there’s a changing tent to get into your swimming gear.

From there you enter into an open cool-down area with an outdoor bath to take breaks in when things get too steamy on the bus.

In this area there’s also a secondary tent sauna set up. Sabus accommodates 10 people at a time and it seemed that groups of friends would reserve it for two-hour-long sauna parties in which they can roam about between the different sections and mingle.

It was in here that I realized that I wasn’t smelling the wood burning, but the water that was being poured over the hot stones. Birch leaves were soaking in the bucket giving it a very potent aroma that filled the tent. The steam from that water heated the entire tent up amazingly fast too.

From there it was just a quick stroll over to the bus itself. From the outside, there’s very little to distinguish Sabus from an ordinary city bus.

▼ The chimney’s probably a dead give-away though

And even when first stepping on there’s still very much a bus atmosphere, although most of the seating has been removed. This section was also a cool down area and especially useful today because it was raining heavily off and on.

▼ Even sauna-themed ads were still hanging up

The option to hang out inside the bus was certainly nice, but since these places get up to around 70 degrees Celsius (158 Fahrenheit), I felt perfectly happy standing around in the rain for a bit afterward. 

Speaking of which, when I heard about Sabus the first time, my biggest question was how all the equipment to drive thing could withstand all the heat and humidity going on inside. Turns out that all the real sauna action happens in just the closed-off rear section of the bus.

Decked out with nice wooden seating, this section had an even larger stove heating up what seemed to be a smaller area than the tent. 

It looked as if the sauna walls were built inside the bus, creating a double-wall barrier to keep in the steam effectively.

There were a lot of nice little touches too. For example, this sauna also has a bucket of birch scented water to pour on the coals…

…but the buttons normally used on a city bus to signal a stop have been repurposed to activate a trickle of water onto the stones from the comfort of your seat! As the sign warns, it’s so easy you have to be careful not to overdo it.

Also, during your stay in and around Sabus, staff members walk around playing a kalimba finger harp for some additional relaxation.

Before leaving, even though I was pretty sure of the answer, I had to ask: “So, is it possible to drive around while using the sauna?”

”Oh…” replied the staff member. “Noooooo, you can’t do that.”

Oh well, it never hurts to ask.

▼ Dangers of driving with an open fire aside, you’d need a hell of a defogger to pull it off

Overall, I was really surprised at how hot those things get, partly because I was still wearing all my clothes and a winter coat when I went inside. That being said, an added benefit was that the pleasant birch scent stuck to my clothes and followed me around for the rest of the day.

But it was also surprising partly because I’ve rarely ever been inside a sauna. The main reason being that they’re often found in places I don’t go to, so it was a really nice treat to have one come to me for a change. 

Anyone else living in Japan should keep their eyes peeled too, because you never know when Sabus will pull into your neck of the woods, and you’ll need to be quick to get a reservation for this popular service too.

Related: Sabus
Photos: ©SoraNews24
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