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Make a splash on a family outing

by Jason Jenkins

Spring has arrived, and with it a taste of the sunny, sweltering climate to come. Longer days and warmer rays make my kids thirst for a swimming pool. However, Japan’s outdoor swimming season doesn’t officially begin for months, and indoor locations such as Tokyo Summerland water park can trigger claustrophobia in the bravest of souls. Places like Oedo Onsen Monogatari in Odaiba can also be a nice getaway for families, but with its focus on the hot-spring experience, this is more a place for adults to relax than for kids to go wild.

That’s why I’m grateful for Spa World in Osaka. It is no match for Japan’s luxurious onsen retreats, and nor will it replace the loud, jam-packed amusement-park experience my kids prefer come summer. Instead, Spa World serves as a happy medium between the two while we wait for July. Splashing around in its warm waters has always been a pleasure during the bitter cold of January, but it still feels great now, even after winter’s sting has retired for the season.

Spa World’s attractions are spread over four main floors. The fourth of these is called the European Zone and contains a variety of rooms designed to resemble spas and saunas of the Western world. Two stories up, the sixth floor has an identical floor plan, but with an Asian theme. For example, the first room in the European Zone has a massive hot tub mimicking Rome’s Trevi Fountain, complete with statues. In the same room two floors above, you’ll find the ornate tile design of a Turkish bath.

From here you begin to traverse a small labyrinth of spa rooms: The fourth floor’s Finnish sauna is matched by the sixth floor’s Balinese-themed hot tub, and so on. Both floors are restricted to one gender at a time, and alternate each month between male-only and female-only. If you’ve been in Japan long enough, then you know that swimwear will not worn here — everyone will be in their birthday suit, not their bathing suit.

Between these two floors is a food court. After a dip, my son and I slip on the pajama-like clothes provided and stroll down to the fifth floor to meet up with my wife and daughter for a bite. I don’t carry money to pay for it — wet bills would be a bummer anyway. Instead, the numbered bracelet I wear records all my expenses within Spa World electronically, and I pay for them all on the way out.

Hot tubs and restaurants are nice, but your kids probably only care about what’s on the eighth floor. It’s time to put on your swimsuit and head to the building’s top floor. Here you’ll find a cavernous, glassed-in space with a river-like pool, three small water slides and a mini water park for small children to splash around in.

My kids head straight for the slides, which cost extra: ¥300 for one ride, or ¥1,000 for all-you-can-ride of the UzuUzu Bam and the ZokuZoku Bam slides. This keeps them busy for about an hour. The third slide, called Death Loop, is priced separately, and not worth your time unless you enjoy dropping 10 meters down a narrow pipe (must be at least 40 kg to ride).

For elementary school-aged children and younger, the unfortunately named Spapoo area has kid-sized slides and many other implements of splashy fun. If you have children of varying ages, it would be possible to play with the younger ones here while still keeping an eye on the older ones while they play on their own elsewhere, as long as you don’t mind them occasionally stepping out of your field of vision. Lifeguards are strategically located throughout the area.

The tubs at Spa World stay open 24 hours, and there are Western and Japanese accommodation options in its hotel. There is also a separate floor with eight saunas representing countries such as Austria, Egypt and Iceland. I can’t vouch for these as I’ve never used them, but I can recommend dinner just behind Spa World.

Known as Shinsekai (ironically, New World), this area has a bad reputation as a neglected, run-down and allegedly sketchy part of Osaka. While this may or may not be true elsewhere, the streets directly behind the Spa World building are clean, bright, friendly and packed with restaurants serving the local specialty: kushikatsu, otherwise known as deep-fried meat and veggies on sticks. (I’ve found good okonomiyaki [cabbage-based savory pancakes] there, too.) Most establishments here lean toward the tourist-trap variety, but each one I’ve set foot in has served decent food and welcomed families. You also have Tennoji Zoo and the Osaka City Museum of Fine Arts right around the corner, but after a day in Spa World you may only have time for dinner afterward. Splashing around can really work up an appetite.

3-4-24 Ebisu-Higashi, Naniwa-ku, Osaka; 06-6631-0001; www.spaworld.co.jp/english; open 24 hours; adults and over-12s ¥2,400-2,700 (3 hours), ¥2,700-3,000 (day pass); children under 12 ¥1,300-1,500 (3 hours), ¥1,500-1,700 (day pass).