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A feast for fish in search for beauty

by Thomasina Larkin

Growing up in the countryside, a lot of my youth was spent swimming in lakes and rivers for as many summer days as the weather would provide. I had no fear of cannon-balling off high cliffs, I was never bothered by the scrapes of underwater rocks and boulders, and no matter how how fast the current, I was always up for a dip.

The one thing that freaked me out, though, was the feeling of sunfish that would creep up to take a taste of my toes. And when a few primary school friends and I watched Joe Dante’s 1978 flick “Piranha” in an all-night horrorathon, my fish phobia was assured.

So when I first heard about the latest beauty fad in Japan in which fish eat away dead skin cells from your hands and feet, I shuddered in fear and disgust.

Garra rufa obtuse, aka “doctor fish,” occur naturally in the waters of a hot spring near Kangal in Turkey’s Sivas Province, and it was there that the fish’s unique dietary habits were first discovered. Locals found that the fish would peck away at the dead and diseased skin of bathers, easing the symptoms of those suffering from skin conditions such as psoriasis (a chronic disorder that causes red, scaly patches on the skin) and abscesses.

Also known as lickers, nibble fish, Kangal fish and reddish log suckers, doctor fish grow to 19 cm. Their bodies are covered in gold scales and they use their toothless, crescent-shaped mouths to nibble away dead skin softened by the Kangal spring’s 37-38 degree water. If a bather suffers from an extreme skin ailment, the fish may eat so much that minor bleeding occurs, exposing the lesion to water and sunlight. The hot spring’s water contains high levels of selenium, which helps heal wounds by protecting cells against free radicals.

Why would these little fish want to eat scabby, diseased skin in the first place? The high temperature of the water makes it difficult for any nutrients to survive, turning the fish into voracious diners that will attack just about any foreign object that enters their domain — and if the going gets really tough, they’ll eat each other.

Species of fish similar to Garra rufa obtuse, called strikers, or cyprinion macrostomus, live in river basins in northern and central Middle Eastern countries such as Syria, Iran and Iraq. And macropodus cupanus occur in Trivandrum’s “holy pond” in India’s southern state of Kerala, where they’re used to treat diseases like scabies.

For decades, people seeking alternative methods of healing have made pilgrimages to Kangal. While those in Japan will still have to cross oceans if they wish to receive the fish doctors’ medical treatment for skin diseases, several spas and onsen in this country have begun to import the fish for use in the exfoliation of hands and feet, which has quickly become one of the newest crazes in health and beauty.

The doctor fish fad started in March at Odaiba’s Ooedo Onsen Monogatari and has spread to spas in Osaka, Fukushima and Hakone. Super spa and onsen resort Yunessun in Hakone currently boasts as many as 2,000 customers a day.

I’m always up for the latest and greatest way to revive my health and beauty, and I’m a staunch believer of overcoming one’s fears in life. So I called up Ooedo Onsen and booked one of the first appointments of the day to ensure the fish would be nice and hungry (patients are admitted between noon and 9 p.m.). After that it was just a matter of keeping images of my soon-to-be youthful hands and feet swimming in my mind.

A Japanese friend who’d seen the fish therapy on TV told me the fish are more likely to go for older skin. If a child bathed next to his grandmother, the old woman would attract most of the fish. As I’m not over the hill yet, to add an extra lure, I refrained from my usual morning and nightly routine of scrubbing my hands and feet during my shower.

Arriving at Ooedo, I breezed past a stream of people making appointments with the popular little doctors at a cost of 1,050 yen for 15 minutes. Peering into the roughly 3-sq.-meter, 50-cm-deep pool at the little miracle workers, I thought “That doesn’t look so bad.” About 500 or so fish, which were kind of cute and much smaller than the sunfish that went after my toes as a child, were scattered about the waters, with only a few nipping the other visitors’ feet.

But from the instant I dipped my feet into the lukewarm bath made of rock, dozens of the miniature carplike creatures came rushing toward me, covered my feet and began their feast. Their little suction-cup mouths were all over my feet and ankles, begging for more. Holy mackerel! I easily had triple the number of fish feeding on me compared to the half dozen other “patients” in the wading room.

Maybe the fish like international cuisine? I had to pull my feet out a few times for fear they’d team up and drag my whole body under. I could only stand the tickling, tingly sensation (which others have described as a “massage”) for a few minutes at a time before I’d just about go off the deep end.

After 10 minutes, I tore myself away from the gilled gobblers — fearful that my feet would come out with fish still hanging off them — and escaped while I still had something left to walk on. From there it was on to more of the same in a hand bath (a 50-gallon tank into which you lower your hands). Watching and feeling the fish devour the dead cells on my hands brought a whole new meaning to the term “finger food.” I skipped the fish dish later at lunch.

The final result? My feet and hands were definitely smoother, but I have to admit there wasn’t much difference between the outcome of the doctor fish treatment and my usual exfoliation routine in the shower. However, if sampling trendy — and unconventional — beauty treatments is your thing, go ahead and get your feet wet: You might find it’s just what the doctor ordered.

Fish for hire

For silky-smooth hands and feet courtesy of doctor fish, try any of the following spas:

* Ooedo Onsen Monogatari
2-57 Aomi, Koto-ku, Tokyo, 135-0064; tel: (03) 5500-1126; www.ooedoonsen.jp (Japanese only)

* Hakone Kowakien Yunessun
1297 Ninotaira Hakone-machi, Ashigarashimogun, Kanagawa, 250-0407; tel: (0460) 2-4126; www.yunessun.com

* Spa Resort Hawaiians
50 Warabi Daira, Joban Fujiwara-machi, Iwaki, Fukushima, 972-8555; tel: (0246) 43-3191; www.hawaiians.co.jp

* Osaka Spa World
3-4-24 Ebisuhigashi, Naniwa-ku, Osaka, 556-0002; tel: (06) 6631-0001; www.spaworld.co.jp (Japanese only)