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Sunday, May 25, 2003

Soaked in the city

Staff writer

Though you may not have seen Hayao Miyazaki's Oscar-winning animated film "Spirited Away," which is set in an opulent bathhouse for the gods, even the most fleeting acquaintance with Japan will have made it clear that soaking in a hot tub is an almost celestial experience for the inhabitants of these isles.

News photo
Open-air bathing at LaQua, an onsen facility at Tokyo Dome City Attractions

Although the popularity of local sento bathhouses has been declining due to the steady increase in the number of homes with luxurious private baths, enjoying nature's gift of onsen (hot-spring baths) remains one of the country's most popular leisure activities.

So, in line with other popular entertainments, it's hardly surprising that we're now seeing a marriage of onsen and amusement parks. And in response to the perpetual limits on time and money, it's also hardly surprising that rather than having to take a trip into the countryside, we're now seeing an upsurge of onsen in the city.

The current onsen boom in Tokyo began in March, when Oedo Onsen Monogatari -- meaning "Great Edo Hot-spring Stories" -- opened in the newly developed waterfront district of Odaiba.

The 5 billion yen "onsen theme park," as its developers dub it, offers visitors -- who are given colorful yukata-like bathrobes to wear -- not only water pumped up from 1,400 meters, but also other indulgent bathing experiences, such as a suna-buro (sand bath), an open-air ashi-yu (leg bath) and saunas.

In addition, the 10,000-sq.-meter facility features replicas of the townscape of old Edo, and has numerous restaurants, huge tatami rooms to rest in, massage salons, an aesthetic salon, a fortunetelling booth and souvenir shops.

Open 22 hours a day -- from 11 a.m. to 9 a.m. -- Oedo Onsen Monogatari caters to couples and families, as well as to night owls and tired office workers. Clearly, the strategy is proving to be successful, as it typically draws 3,000 to 4,500 visitors on weekdays and upward of 4,500 on weekends -- with 9,000 a day during Golden Week.

More in the pipeline

"In planning a new amusement attraction in Odaiba, we racked our brains on how to attract middle-aged and older patrons," said Kazuhide Kimoto, president of Oedo Onsen Monogatari Co. "We decided that an onsen resort was the answer."

The Edo theme came about, he said, because the popular custom of going to bathhouses is believed to have started around the Edo Period (1603-1867), along with other cultural staples such as sumo, kabuki and sushi.

"To our surprise, however, more young people are turning up than we had expected -- maybe because this idea is new and unusual. Now we have to think about adding further appealing attractions to keep them coming in."

Indeed, although it's only been open for about three months, Oedo Onsen Monogatari is no longer a novelty, as another big amusement park, Korakuen, opened a huge onsen facility in the center of Tokyo in early May, while the Toshimaen amusement park in Nerima Ward is preparing to open an onsen facility at the end of June.

In both these cases -- Korakuen and Toshimaen -- urban onsen are seen as key strategies to reverse the steady decline in visitors.

"We had to think about how we could revamp the park to increase its popularity," said Yuichi Sato, a spokesman for LaQua, the new spa, restaurants and shops attraction right by Tokyo Dome. "We concluded that 'spa' and 'baths' were the key words in this project."

In arriving at that decision, Sato said his company reasoned that instead of gambling on a new, death-defying roller coaster that would likely be a short-lived craze among young people, they would sink their money into a luxurious bathing facility that, they hope, will have long-lasting appeal to a wide age range.

Indeed, as young people now spend a lot of their money on computers, cellular phones and computer games, and consequently less at amusement parks, it makes sense to aim at a wider target clientele -- especially as the numbers of young people are falling with the nation's declining birth rate.

Further supporting this viewpoint was the 2002 Leisure White Paper compiled by the Institute for Free Time Design. This showed that Japan's amusement-park industry amounted to 473 billion yen in 2000 -- 23 percent down from its peak year of 1992. That clearly indicates the "difficult business conditions" facing many amusement parks (except the notably successful Tokyo Disney Resort and Universal Studios Japan), the white paper noted.

In Korakuen's case, about 1.4 million people visited in 2001 compared with about 2.5 million in 1992, according to Sato. Toshimaen, likewise, is now drawing about 1.5 million visitors a year -- fewer than half the number in the late '80s, according to park officials.

Though they shared a common plight, spokesmen for both these amusement parks say it was simply a coincidence that they each turned their eyes to onsen -- and that each has different strategic thinking behind its move.

For its part, LaQua in Bunkyo Ward mainly targets working women. "Korakuen had a masculine image because of the Tokyo Dome baseball park and the professional wrestling matches held there. By creating a spa, we are trying to attract young women," Sato said.

The company hopes its central Tokyo spa, close to stations on the Marunouchi and Oedo subway lines as well as JR lines, will entice working women to stop by on their way home and spend time relieving themselves of the stresses of their jobs. Like the Oedo onsen in Odaiba, it stays open 22 hours a day and also offers massage and aesthetic services, as well as meals in its restaurant.

Toshimaen, meanwhile, expects between 300,000 and 400,000 visitors a year to its new, 1.5 billion yen project -- with most coming from within a 5-km radius of the park in western Tokyo.

"We are aiming to provide a real health resort for the local people," said Kazuhiro Nagahashi, a spokesman for Toshimaen. "And we are especially looking to attract adults. Children can enjoy the amusement facilities or swim in the pool here while adults and older generations can enjoy bathing in the park."

What is perhaps just as surprising as this new move into the urban onsen business is that all three of the operators succeeded in tapping their own hot-spring sources right here in Tokyo's concrete jungle. At Odaiba, they had to drill down 1,400 meters to get soaked, while Toshimaen found its mineral-rich 33-degree source about 1,500 meters down, and Korakuen got lucky at 1,700 meters to supply LaQua.

According to experts, though, this is not so surprising, as even though volcanoes are relatively distant, Tokyo is in fact sitting atop a massive reservoir of hot water.

"Anywhere within the area of the 23 wards and the Tama district, the probability of drilling and hitting onsen water is pretty high," said Masato Mokuzawa of Drico, a company specializing in investigating and drilling for underground water. "Of course, the temperature of onsen water rises when you drill deeper, but even at 200 meters, you can find strata containing onsen."

In fact, although the amount of onsen water an operator can pump up a day is regulated, anyone can try to tap into a subterranean source if their application to do so is successful.

This fact was clearly not lost on previous generations, as the capital also saw an urban onsen boom back in the late 1950s and early '60s, when several new facilities were opened.

Juniso Tennen Onsen in Shinjuku Ward, near City Hall, is one survivor from that earlier boom, having opened in 1958. In all, though, Tokyo has a total of 165 onsen, including 62 sites in the 23 wards, Tokyo government records show.

To satisfy the law and be included on this list, the facility must either be using groundwater that's naturally at 25 degrees or more, or water containing more than one of the designated chemical constituents in sufficient concentration -- or both. As a result, some of the city's "onsen" are simply old bathhouses that have long used groundwater they heat for their baths -- but which renamed themselves when they found they met the conditions to be called onsen.

This time around, though, under what Mokuzawa of Drico calls the "rush into urban onsen," more and more new onsen facilities have been planned or developed in Tokyo and surrounding areas.

"About 15 years ago when the economy was riding high, developers drilled more onsen in resort areas as part of ski resorts, golf courses or hotels," he said. "But in the past few years, developers have started to drill onsen in cities like Tokyo and Osaka."

This trend indicates a strategy of targeting people who want more affordable onsen experiences. The average price of the new onsen facilities in Tokyo is now about 2,500 yen -- a price that may encourage customers to make more frequent visits.

Shinya Hashizume, an associate professor at Osaka City University who specializes in urban studies, says this urban onsen trend has come about "because of the current bad economy," adding that the new operators are developing a market to provide people with pseudo onsen experiences that are far cheaper than the typical one- or two-day onsen trips to the countryside.

"In this sense," Hashizume said, "these urban onsen may be posing a threat to the business of the traditional onsen sites in nearby areas."

The urban onsen trend is not just another simple story about "people's love of onsen," Hashizume said, adding that it indicates a business move that may result in the urban area becoming riddled with bore holes -- until people get fed up with all that hot water.

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