Breathe deep, don’t worry, it’s only O2


As soon as I accepted the assignment I realized I had a problem. My task was to test Tokyo’s latest fad, the oxygen capsule. The trouble is I’m claustrophobic. Elevators make me tense. When watching reruns of “Star Trek,” I have to avert my eyes when anyone gets sealed into a stasis chamber. There was no way I’d be able to get into a capsule barely bigger than myself.

In the last year or so health and beauty salons around Tokyo have introduced a treatment called “hyperbaric oxygenation.” The brochures make big promises: “Lose 10 kilos! Relax! Have more beautiful skin!” The whole idea of supplemental oxygen struck me as just another modern excess like bottled water. But I was curious if there was anything behind the hype.

In case you slept through high school physics like I did, “hyperbaric” means a gas pressure of greater than one atmosphere, the standard pressure of the Earth’s atmosphere at sea level. In hyperbaric oxygenation, a person is put into a chamber and oxygen-rich air is pumped in under pressure to force more oxygen into the blood stream. It’s actually nothing new but has only just made it out of hospitals and elite sports-training facilities and into the beauty business.

The same technology is used to treat scuba divers suffering from decompression sickness. It has also become accepted medical treatment for conditions like burns and crush injuries because healing improves when you deliver extra oxygen to parts of the body where circulation is poor or compromised. And it’s particularly popular in sports medicine where the expense is insignificant when compared to the cost of having a highly paid athlete benched with an injury.

But does hyperbaric oxygenation make any sense at all for the average person? I headed to a salon in Roppongi called Angel O2 to find out.

Owner Zheng Yuping gave me a tour, leading me past photos of famous customers including world boxing champion Masanori Tokuyama. She demonstrated the oxygen capsules, which deliver air with extra oxygen at a pressure of 1.3 atmospheres. I was only somewhat relieved to see that the capsule wasn’t a rigid steel container (like an iron lung) but rather a soft-sided structure (like a body bag).

Zheng recommended the one-hour “special course” (6,800 yen) — 15 minutes of electrotherapy, 40 minutes of oxygen therapy and a five-minute water massage. After I put my valuables in a locker and changed into slippers, Zheng led me to what looked like a comfy chair until she mentioned it was wired with 9,000 volts of electricity. The charge improves blood circulation and relieves constipation, she said, promising me it wouldn’t hurt. It didn’t; all I felt was a mild tingling.

After the electric chair, it was time to face the dreaded capsule. I grilled Zheng about escape options so she demonstrated the intercom and panic button. When I finally agreed to get in, I was surprised to find myself able to remain calm even after the zippers were closed. I had plenty of legroom — the capsule accommodates people up to 210 cm — but the sides and top were a little close for comfort. When the computer-controlled system started up, I heard blowing and a motor pumping but the noises weren’t unpleasant.

Almost everyone falls asleep, Zheng had said, encouraging me to do so too. But I felt I’d better remain on guard to make sure I didn’t wake up on some distant planet. Just as I was settling in, the window over my face was suddenly covered with a digital screen providing, in Japanese only, data on time elapsed and current pressure. I missed the transparent window, but I found it comforting to be kept informed. While yawning to relieve the slight pressure on my ears, I watched the readings and breathed deeply. Aromatherapy is part of the package; my air was scented with rosemary.

I was definitely relaxed when I emerged. The headache I had felt coming on when I went in had subsided. I shuffled happily over to the water-massage bed, a medical device used in hospitals that turned out to be my favorite part. You lay face up while water jets under the surface work up and down your backside without getting you wet. It was the best mechanical massage I’ve ever had.

How did I feel when it was all over? Relaxed, and I enjoyed a sense of well-being for several hours afterward. Was I more beautiful? My kids didn’t seem to think so; they just wanted to know when dinner would be ready. Can I recommend it? Well, I feel obligated to point out that there is no hard cold data on the health benefits of hyperbaric oxygenation delivered in a salon setting. But if you have an hour to kill in Roppongi, a rest in an oxygen capsule is almost certainly healthier and quite possibly cheaper than knocking back a few drinks in a bar. And I promise: getting in the chamber isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds.

The Angel O2 salon in Roppongi is a one-minute walk from Roppongi Crossing across Gaien Higashi-dori from the Hotel Ibis: France Bldg 3F, 4-11-8 Roppongi, Tokyo, tel. (03) 3475-6058. The closest subway exit is 4A of Roppongi Station on the Hibiya and Oedo lines. Open 365 days a year, 1 p.m.-5 a.m. The Angel 02 salon in Hiroo is located on the Hiroo shopping street, Kitamura 60 Bldg. 2F, 5-16-1 Hiroo, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. tel. (03) 3447-8814. Use Exit 2 of Hiroo station on the Hibiya Line. Open daily, noon to 10 p.m.

The Service: oxygen capsule

The Hype: weight loss; rejuvenation of skin cells; accelerated healing of wounds and injuries; hangover relief and disease prevention.

The Lab Rat: a fortysomething female claustrophobe

The Experiment: a course of electrotherapy, pressurized oxygen therapy and a waterbed massage.

The Results: hard to say beyond a feeling of wellbeing and relaxation.