At This Tokyo Spa, the Fish Food Is You

In Tokyo, sushi is finally getting its revenge.

In May 2006, the Ooedo-Onsen-Monogatari, a four-year-old hot springs spa in the city’s Odaiba area, added a new treatment to its menu: Doctor Fish’s “pedicure” and “manicure.” In a reversal of the food chain, the fish dine on you – or at least parts of you.

In a culture where food and fashion seem straight out of science fiction, Doctor Fish is hardly extraordinary. Strangely enough, the spa’s finned employees, which are imported from Turkey and are known scientifically as Garra rufa, have a taste for dry, flaking human skin. The fish act like living pumice stones, nibbling off the dead epidermis and leaving behind baby-smooth skin. (Thankfully, they don’t have a piranha streak.)

Those squeamish about skin-eating fish, however, don’t have to stay out of the water. The onsen, one of the largest in Tokyo, is a bather’s Eden, with outdoor and indoor pools of varying temperatures and landscape designs. (The ion-rich water comes from a spring more than 4,600 feet underground.) There are tubs shaped like pickle barrels and baths resembling lap pools for the lazy-armed. Some hot tubs could fit in at a Colorado ski resort, while others are decidedly Japanese, with artfully pruned trees and mindfully placed stones that look handpicked by Zen monks.

An open-air footbath flows like a creek, laid with stones sharp and smooth, large and pebbly. And since this is a public bathhouse, you can make 99 new friends in the Hyakunin, or “One Hundred People,” bath. The 20-minute Doctor Fish foot treatment is done in an indoor pool about the size of a small koi pond, whereas the 15-minute hand option takes place in an aquarium-size tank. (Dip your hand in and wait in mild horror.)

Sections of the onsen are open 22 hours a day, so visitors can bathe in the springs after lunch or before their morning coffee, or during bouts of insomnia. (The facility closes from 9 to 11am for a scrubbing.) Those who become sleepy while bathing can nap in a daytime tearoom that morphs at night into a large slumber space with tatami mats and thin blankets. Upstairs are rows of leather recliners with entertainment systems. Japanese- and Western-style rooms also are available at an adjoining hotel. (Try the room with warming foot toasters at the end of the beds.)

Besides the baths, the facility also provides spa treatments that make basalt stone massages seem so pedestrian. For example, with the sand bath, staff members bury you, except for the face, more than three feet below indoor sand dunes that are hot enough to burn a camel’s pads. Elsewhere in the building, an expert is on hand to tell you how dirty your blood is – as if high blood pressure isn’t enough to stress over.

Despite its eccentricities and liberal business hours, the onsen has firm rules. Ergo, no clothes are allowed in the same-sex baths: “Everyone is supported to be naked from here,” reads a sign in the women’s locker room. Even the wrong towel size can stir up trouble. “Too small, too small,” barked an employee, gesturing at the medium-size towel I wore into the tub area. I mistakenly thought she was telling me to cover up with a larger towel. Instead, I was being chided for using one that was too big and was forced to downsize. (The dressing room is stocked with towels, hair dryers, shampoo, combs, toothbrushes and other toiletries.)

One of the odder requirements relates to the onsen’s attempt to recreate Old Japan, with an emphasis on the Edo period, which was defined by shoguns and an artistic renaissance. For example, upon entry, visitors are handed a kimono-like yukata and belt they must wear at all times. (In addition, shoes are banned, so pick your socks wisely.) The backs of the robes are adorned with colorful images of geishas, Mount Fuji and other Japanese icons.

Fortunately, Doctor Fish has no required attire, except for a dusting of dead skin.

“Some people say it’s a very nice and very natural way to remove your dead cells,” said Yuki Yamagishi, the owner of a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, whom I met in Kyoto. “I want to do my feet and back, because I can’t reach with a back scrubber.”

When I arrived for my pedicure, two Japanese women were sitting on the edge of the pool giggling as they viewed the fish vacuuming their legs. I hesitantly submerged my feet into the warm water, then watched as a dark, wiggling nimbus darted over to my legs. Fresh dead cells, yum. Their little pouts attached to my ankles, toes and feet, but they were intimidated by my runner’s callus. I could feel the light flutter of their fins against my skin and the slight pinch of their mouths. It would have been calming had it not been so disturbing.

When my time was up, I gently shook off the clingier critters and wandered over to the footbath. Amid radiant flowers and streaming water, I admired my smooth legs glinting under the sun. Doctor Fish had cleaned his plate. (AS/WP)

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