Soaking in benefits of a chocolate spa


The Service: chocolate spa
The Hype: slimmer figure: smooth skin: stress relief
The Lab Rat: a thirty-something female chocolate lover with irregular eating habits
The Results: thighs slimmed by 1.1 cm; feeling of relaxation: and – though connection can’t be proven – a sudden desire to go shopping.

When I recently saw an advertisement for a particular beauty spa in Aoyama, it was not really a desire to be beautiful that made me pause.

It was the photo of a young, smiling model, her body covered with a light-brown paste. That alone was arresting enough, but next to her was a bowl of chocolate bars — and this is what stopped me in my tracks: those bars of lovely, brown, milk chocolate.

Yes, I confess, I am a chocolate lover. Not exactly a chocoholic, but I do have my occasional binges when things get too stressful. You know, those days when it’s all . . . just . . . too . . . much.

While I’m a veteran of eating chocolate, I’ve had only marginal exposure to anything called a “spa.”

The chocolate therapy ad, though, made some interesting claims. It said by absorbing caffeine and polyphenols through your skin, you could shed those extra pounds. How? Well, they put it down to endorphins, the special biochemical compounds that the body produces under certain circumstances. Likened to natural opiates, their release in the body has been linked to sex, drugs and sports, even to eating spicy foods. And while it’s been proven that they can give feelings of well-being and relaxation, according to Spa Claudia Aoyama’s ad, they also induce “fat melting.”

It was with a fair bit of skepticism that I visited the spa run by the Tokyo-based company Claudia, which operates several salons in prime Tokyo locations and offers everything from liposuction and hair removal to “wine spas.” But company spokeswoman Fumie Kozuka assured me that the treatment does make a visible difference, and that I would see the physical proof afterward.

Kozuka did mention, however, that the launch of the chocolate therapy was timed to coincide with Valentine’s Day this past February, which made me think that it was more a clever marketing scheme than a scientific breakthrough.

The 90-minute course started with a cacao-bean scrubbing. As Aoyama salon manager Noriko Nakagawa carefully applied a mix of cacao bean husks and oil, a sharp chocolate aroma started to fill the small room. The bittersweet fragrance began to intensify as she applied a chocolate pack, wrapped me up in a plastic sheet, a heating pad and another futonlike pad. She left me for 10 minutes to marinate in the chocolate, enjoy the experience and listen to mellow music-box Muzak.

You would think that at this point I, slathered in my favorite sweet and wrapped in warmth, would be approaching a blissful state in mind. There were, however, a few problems. One was my stomach. I didn’t have time for lunch before the 2 p.m. appointment, and the chocolate aroma was giving me severe hunger pangs. I was almost dizzy. I also wondered — as many Japan residents probably do in situations like this — “What should I do if an earthquake hits me right this minute?” Here I was, naked, and covered in chocolate.

Well, actually it wasn’t really proper chocolate. According to the salon staffer, the body pack contained a mix of cacao extract, citric acid and magnesium oxide, among other ingredients. These, coupled with a massage, help relieve various PMS symptoms, including a sudden increase in your appetite and feelings of stress, Nakagawa said. I sample-tasted the paste when Nakagawa wasn’t looking; it was awful.

Ten minutes later, I was instructed to take a shower to wash the creamy paste off, and was then given a rigorous body massage. I was wrapped up in a heating pad again for 10 minutes, I showered again, and the session was over.

Nakagawa said that my feet and fingers were colder than those of most clients, which she said meant that I had a low metabolism. Usually, after being wrapped and heated for 10 minutes, the “chocolate” cream would get mixed with perspiration and look even creamier, she said. In my case, it just dried up and stuck to my skin. Nevertheless, when Nakagawa measured my left thigh after the session, I had apparently managed to shed 1.1 centimeters!

The loss wasn’t that remarkable compared to her other clients, according to Nakagawa, who said some people lose more than 2 cm. Still, I was curious to find out how it all works. I found one expert on the Internet who wrote that the low levels of caffeine contained in chocolate can improve metabolism, increase alertness and reduce the perception of fatigue. Another expert claimed that the cacao polyphenol contained in chocolate also protects you against hardening of the arteries, stress, tooth decay and skin aging.

And how did I feel after the therapy? My skin did feel slightly smoother, and I did feel relaxed but exhausted. I was looking forward to a good night’s sleep and collapsed into bed earlier than usual that evening. In the middle of the night, though, I suddenly woke up and felt restless. Unable to go back to sleep, I finally gave up, at around 4 a.m., and took a long bath.

Then something strange happened.

For some reason, I had a sudden desire to go shopping. I started making a list of the things I wanted to buy (despite the fact that I really didn’t have money for them). The list grew quickly. There I was, in the dead silence of the night, scribbling down the items, things I had sort of wanted for a while, but suddenly I just had to have. I wanted an iPod, a home speaker system and headphones. And not just any headphones, but the superdeluxe, noise-cancelling ones I had seen for 40,000 yen in an in-flight magazine.

I don’t know if there is any connection between these sudden cravings and the chocolate therapy. Was it a caffeine buzz? A craving for more endorphins through shopping? All I knew was that the desire was incredibly intense.

I called the salon back later, told Nakagawa what happened, and asked her whether any of her clients have talked about having an urgent desire to go on a shopping spree after the treatment. “No, ” she said, giggling. “But responses to the treatment vary from person to person. Many people say they can go to bed earlier or have a good sleep.”

In conclusion, I’ll say this much: The treatment had a yummy smell that could help stave off a chocolate binge; just don’t go in with an empty stomach like I did.

Then again, not eating before might be a good way to intensify the sensory experience — and your consumerist urges. If it happens to you, and you’ve got the funds for a luxury spending spree, then go ahead and do what you can to help by putting your cash back in the nation’s economy.