Lifestyle

The hot topic of Western saunas in Japan

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

Around 10 minutes by car from Shizuoka Station is a nondescript, three-story building, that you may be surprised to hear is considered a sauna mecca by fans of the Fennoscandian heat rooms.

Once primarily catering to a middle-aged, male clientele — many of the tattooed yakuza variety — Sauna Shikiji has seen the number of younger customers soar over the past several years as hitting the hot box became a fad, stoked by celebrities and trend-conscious women calling themselves “saunners” fervently embracing the activity for its purported health benefits.

“Things began changing over the past five years or so,” says Mikie Sasano, the daughter of Sauna Shikiji’s current owner and a public relations consultant, spa and restaurant producer. Together, the Sasano family transformed what was once an unremarkable facility in the suburbs of Shizuoka Prefecture into one of the nation’s most popular sauna spas. The key to its success was Sauna Shikiji’s unrestricted access to mineral-rich natural groundwater it uses in everything from cooking and laundry to its famed cold bath.

“To cut down on electricity costs, the previous owner of the sauna decided against using groundwater. We thought that was a shame,” Sasano says on the history of the sauna. Struggling to draw customers, Takamatsu Sauna — as it was known before — eventually went bankrupt and was put up for auction in 2004.

Having been a regular at the sauna and living close by, Sasano’s father decided to take over the business. With the help of his late wife and children, he began revamping its operations while retaining the facility’s retro charm.

“Until then, the cafeteria only served food delivered from neighborhood sushi and soba noodle shops, and customers were mostly men,” says Sasano. “The facility itself wasn’t very clean as well.”

Sasano’s mother, who ran a yakiniku (barbecue) restaurant in Tokyo’s Koto Ward, assumed kitchen duties to serve a variety of dishes ranging from Korean-style reimen noodles to Japanese household staples such as shogayaki ginger pork.

The quality of shampoos and conditioners provided in baths was improved, toothbrushes upgraded and the noisy aluminum lockers replaced with wooden ones.

Sasano, who spent high school and college in Boston, where she studied marketing and merchandising, also mounted a PR push that coincided with a rising national interest in sauna culture backed by numerous television shows, magazine articles and other literature espousing its virtues.

Then, in 2016, Katsuki Tanaka released the first volume of his manga series, “Sado” (a neologism meaning “the way of the sauna”), which has since been spun off into a television series currently airing on TV Tokyo. Sauna Shikiji and Sasano were featured in episode six of the series, in which protagonist and self-confessed “sauna junkie” Atsuro Nakata, played by comedian and actor Taizo Harada, visits the facility to unwind in Shikiji’s smooth, cold bath in between sauna sessions. Thanks to the publicity, Sasano says Shikiji now welcomes on average around 440 customers a day, of which roughly 60 are women.

Though their popularity is recent, saunas in Japan are not new. Japan’s first sauna facility was created over half a century ago by Ujitoshi Konomi, a Japanese businessman, right winger and sports shooter. According to the Japan Sauna Spa Association, Konomi was introduced to saunas by Finnish athletes while competing in the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Upon his return, Konomi built a sauna in a public bathing facility he operated. Saunas soon began supplementing sento public baths in Tokyo, later spreading to other large cities such as Osaka and Nagoya.

According to the Japan Sauna Institute, an organization formed in 2015 and which Sasano is a member of, there were an estimated 11.59 million people in Japan who visited saunas more than once a month in 2018, an 11.2 percent increase from the previous year.

While traditionally associated with older men, the sauna’s image has been undergoing a makeover in recent years, cultivating new users thanks to modern facilities and the introduction of Nordic and German sauna rituals such as aufguss, in which a “sauna meister” pours water mixed with essential oils over the hot stones of the sauna stove and then uses a towel to fan hot steam toward bathers.

Such authentic sauna experiences have become something of a trend. In February, Lamp, a guest house in Nagano Prefecture, opened a Finnish log sauna, complete with a wood burning stove. Yuichi Noda, a sauna aficionado who produces and manages Lamp’s sauna even visited Finland to learn the ropes of sauna-building. Visitors to the sauna, which sits adjacent to the guest house beside Lake Nojiri, can pour small doses of water onto the sauna stones to create löyly (water vapor), and then cool off in the lake.

Other, less conventional experiences, are also being explored in the form of combining saunas with recreational events.

In May, Yutaka Azami, a freelance web director and content creator, launched a project that he and other organizers call “Sauna to the River.” Guests can sweat it out in a sauna tent pitched by a river in Yokoze, a town in Saitama Prefecture, and feast on barbecue and locally produced doburoku, a type of unfiltered sake, after plunging in the river.

“We’ve been bombarded by inquiries about possible collaborations involving food, recreational activities and other businesses,” he says.

To deepen his knowledge of saunas, Azami and fellow organizers also recently visited Sauna Shikiji.

“In one word, Shikiji is in a class of its own,” he says. “From the fine balance of temperature and humidity in the sauna rooms to its signature cold bath, everything was perfect,” he says. “We’re bringing back what we learned to improve our project.”

For more information about Sauna Shikiji and Guest House Lamp, visit saunashikiji.jp and lamp-guesthouse.com/en.