Rise of the spas

Japan is onsen country, but spas are taking over

by Danielle Demetriou

The world economy appears to be in free fall. Temperatures are plummeting toward zero, too. Work is stacking up perilously on the desk. Christmas celebrations and bonenkai (forget-the-year party) hangovers are setting in. Does this sound familiar?

Few modern urbanites are immune to the pain of yearend fatigue. But for residents of Japan there is at least one consolation: The country is home to one of the world’s fastest-growing spa industries, offering a cornucopia of warming treats to ease the festive blues.

From four-handed massages with sprinklings of organic rose petals to minimalist onsen (hot-spring baths) perched on top of skyscrapers, Japan is emerging as a leading global player in the spa industry, as was confirmed this month with the publication of the “SpaFinder 2009 Directory Book.”

“The number one country in Asia in terms of spa revenue is Japan,” Pete Ellis, chief executive of international spa resource company SpaFinder, told The Japan Times at the directory launch. “The spa industry in Japan is relatively young, but has grown fast.”

Though the nation may have indulged in the art of onsen bathing for hundreds of years, the rise of the modern-day spa in Japan is significant. It was kick-started six years ago with the launch of a luxury spa at Toya Windsor Hotel, opening the floodgates for a tsunami of new locations across the country. The Mandara Spa quickly made its debut alongside the Nagomi spa at the Grand Hyatt and the St. Gregory Day spa in Harajuku, paving the way for others such as Banyan Tree Spa in 2004 and Mandarin Oriental in 2005. Today, Japan has the second-largest market outside the United States, with more than 6,400 spas across the country — the highest number for anywhere in Asia — collectively generating an annual revenue of around ¥550 billion.

Hayley Dack, the spa director for Yu spa at the Four Seasons Chinzan-So, one of the nation’s top 10 spas, believes — as does SpaFinder’s Ellis — that the industry has taken off in Japan because of the long hours people work and the confined spaces they live in, often alone and away from social networks and family. “People need to de-stress and relax and fulfill the human need for connection,” says Dack.

Japanese are well known, too, for being willing to try out new health fads in an ongoing quest for beauty.

“The beginning of the growth of the spa industry in Japan has its roots in aesthetic services such as skin-whitening and lifting, shiatsu, chiropractics and dieting,” says a senior manager at ARMANI/SPA, the Italian designer’s first foray into the world of spas, which opened in Armani’s flagship Ginza store last year. “People are always keen to find ways of improving their body shape and skin condition. They rush to try anything new, such as cafes or shops, and spas are no exception.”

And it’s not just the conventional gaggles of girlfriends, stressed businesswomen or mother-and-daughter visits that are booking out Japanese spas.

“Armani has a higher ratio of men than any other spa I’ve worked at before,” says the ARMANI/SPA manager. “Executives often drop by to receive a massage during their lunch break or before a big presentation to calm their nerves.”

The numerous men-only treatments available at almost every spa — from “power” facials to “executive” massages — are testimony to the rise of the male spa-lover. “The Japanese male is a well- groomed individual, and you don’t have to educate them in the benefits of spas, skin care and looking good as much as other countries, as they are already taking time each day to prepare themselves,” says the Four Seasons’ Dack.

Another area of booming spa services in Japan lies in a less conventional clientele — four-legged animals whose owners have a penchant for them being pampered in “pet spas.” From reflexology for dogs to aromatherapy for cats, the rise of the pet spa has been embraced wholeheartedly, little surprise given the rapidly aging nation’s dubious distinction of currently being home to a pet population that eclipses the number of children under the age of 12.

If pet spas aren’t enough to set your mind spinning, other global spa trends for the coming year include “brain workouts” designed to keep the mental faculties sharp; holistic “energy” treatments such as reiki; casino spas and spas on boats, trains and planes.

Taking into account the global recession sinking its teeth into the luxury market, the spa industry — fortunately, for them and you — is also predicting the rise of the modestly-priced spa. That the nation would let a global recession dent its passion for all things spa-related, after all, seems unlikely, particularly among those determined to remedy the onset of yearend fatigue.

“SpaFinder 2009 Directory Book” is available in major bookshops for ¥1,200. For more information, visit www.spafinder.co.jp

The people speak: Japan’s best spas

* ARMANI/SPA in Ginza Tower
* Bloom Spa Toya at the Windsor Hotel
* Hoshinoya ryokan (traditional inn) in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture
* Le Spa Parisien at the Westin Tokyo
* Mandara Spa at Royal Park Shiodome Tower
* Spa and Wellness Joule at the Hyatt Regency Tokyo
* Spa IZUMI at the Hyatt Regency Hakone
* The Peninsula Spa by ESPA
* Ritz-Carlton Spa and Fitness by ESPA
* The Spa at Mandarin Oriental Tokyo
* YU the Spa at Four Seasons Tokyo Chinzan-so

Chosen by readers of SpaFinder from a shortlist of 50 spas across Japan