Soaking in the urban onsen scene

by Thomasina Larkin

Taking a nice, long, hot bath has for eras been an ideal way to unwind, whether it is a soak crammed in the tub at home after a hard day’s work, a trip to the local sento (public bath) for a leisurely scrub-down or a weekend getaway to the countryside in pursuit of hot springs and the healing powers they’re believed to hold.

But as the quickening pace of city life increases the desire to wash away stress, so to it swallows up the time required to escape the metropolis.

As Tokyo is a city that continually caters to the latest needs of its dwellers, the past few years have seen a handful of inner-city onsen (hot springs) spurt up, conveniently nestling nature’s relaxing powers within the concrete jungle. LaQua in Bunkyo ward has become a hit with everyone from seniors to Gen-X’ers with its outdoor pools and nighttime view of Tokyo Dome, while Ooedo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba has carved out a niche by taking bathers back in time in a somewhat tacky, but definitely fun recreation of the Edo Period.

More attractive prices are partly responsible for the popularity of urban onsen, according to Atsushi Yamamoto, deputy editor in chief of Tokyo Walker magazine, which regularly features spas.

“Prices have become a lot cheaper in recent years,” says Yamamoto. “These days you can visit an onsen or super-sento for as little as 1,500 yen.”

Yamamoto says that a wider variety of services being offered at onsen is also bringing in new customers.

“Many of these places are now offering services like hot-stone treatments and massages, so going to an onsen needn’t mean only immersing oneself in piping hot water.”

To try to guage where the trend will go next, The Japan Times took a tour of the latest onsen to launch in Tokyo, Zaboo, which opened last Thursday.

Named after the Japanese onomatopoeic word for gushing waterfalls and its location in ritzy Azabu, Zaboo is targeted at wealthy housewives during the day and businessmen in the evenings. Zaboo offers saunas, treatments, “badezones” (water beds) and relaxation rooms on five amber lit and aromatic floors.

Underground is the “Ladies Only” area on B2, where rock-tiled floors lead to three levels of cave-like baths with varying temperatures. The bottom level bath is the lowest at a lukewarm 38 C and the top level, containing pure hot spring water, is hottest, at 41 C (the temperature Zaboo says is preferred by most Japanese).

All baths at Zaboo are emptied and refilled each day with 100 tons of water pumped from 1,500 meters below the city. Of those 100 tons, 80 to 90 tons are pure hot springs and the other 10 to 20 tons are regular water. The water is chlorinated — as the government requires of all onsen — to kill any bacteria.

After a dip, there are three saunas to choose from. The Finland-style sumi (charcoal) sauna, one of the biggest wood saunas in Japan, is extraordinarily hot at 80 C to 100 C (anyone up for boiled people?). When entering, my host asked “hot OK?” and my feet started burning before I could even feel any hot air. After jumping around a few times while my host said “atsui, atsui?,” we got out. In retrospect, parking it on the wood seats would have likely alleviated the foot burning issue.

A “badezone” houses water beds in a choice of four rooms: the “Sleeping Room” is regular temperature with a peppermint aroma and water beds emitting subtle herbal scents to coax a natural sleepiness; the “Memory Room,” with a peppermint aroma, the sound of waterfalls and faint smell of water supposedly acting to provoke one’s memory; a hotter “Re-energize Room,” aromatically orange and zapping infrared rays to create a deep heat in the body. (In addition, kotsubendo, a stone connected to a wire — which look like headphones, and are actually now available for iPods — is put behind the ear and transmits electrical sound waves by using bone conduction technology.); and the “Revolution Room,” the hottest room with warmth emanating from the ground, a lemon aroma and negative ions in the air work to strengthen the body’s immune system.

Also on the third floor are 166 private booths or “Relaxation Rooms,” provided with televisions, low reclining chairs and another chance to catch some Zs. As one Zaboo staff member said, “You feel like you’re at home,” and for most, perhaps the tiny rooms do closely resemble the usual Tokyo shoebox apartments; for Zaboo’s monied clientele they’re more likely to resemble their shoe closets. After midnight the rooms are open only to men, providing a more sophisticated version of capsule hotels for business men who missed their last train.

Aiming to conveniently unite all relaxation services one could dream of, the second floor offers reflexology, Thai massage and chiropractic services. And for a drink at the end of the day or breakfast before heading to the office, Zaboo boasts a bar and three dining areas: a soba izakaya (including a separate woman’s only dining area), sushi bar and teppan grill.

The rooftop affords an outdoor onsen with a “sleeping bath,” in which one can lie completely flat on their back without any fear of drowning (always a good thing when trying to relax).

Clearly the time and effort put into a trip to the countryside, with the packing of bags, battling congested traffic, is becoming a concern of the past for those drawn to onsen. As Tokyo lies above a bed of volcanic water, we’re likely to see more people tapping into the urban onsen boom to make relaxing and re-energizing as simple as going to the supermarket.

Awash in other hot deals

For those who can’t spring the cash for a trip to Zaboo, there are plenty of other onsen just a subway ride away.

Jindaiji Onsen Yukari: 2-12-2 Jindaiji Motomachi, Chofu City, Tokyo; tel: (042) 499-7777; www.jindaiji-onsen.com; Hours: 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., last entry at 9:00 p.m. Fee: 1,650 yen

Shiespa: 1-28-1, Shoto, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; tel: (03) 3477-2100; Web: www.shiespa.com/index.html; Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. the next day; Fee: 525 yen membership fee, 2,880 yen admission fee, 1,995 yen additional fee after midnight.

LaQua: 1-3 Koraku, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo (Tokyo City Dome); tel: (03) 5800-9999; www.tokyo-dome.co.jp/laqua; Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.; Fee: 2,565 yen entrance fee, 1,890 yen late-night charge.

Seta: 4-15-30 Seta, Setagaya Ward, Tokyo; tel: (03) 3707-8228; www.setaonsen.co.jp/english/index.html; Hours: 10:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.; Fee: 2,300 yen for adults, 1,200 yen for children under 12 years old.

Ooedo: 2-57, Omi, Koto-ku, Tokyo; tel: (03) 5500-1126; www.ooedoonsen.jp; Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m.; Fee: 2,827 yen, 1,597 yen extra after midnight.

Azabu Juban Onsen: -5-22 Azabu Juban, Minato-ku, Tokyo; tel: (03) 3404-2610 Hours: 11:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. (closed Tuesdays) Fee: 400 yen.