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Sunday, July 17, 2005

WEEK 3

'RELAX FOREST'

Taking it easy in the urban jungle


Staff writer

These days, "relaxation" spots are as ubiquitous as Internet cafes and pachinko parlors. As people seek a quick fix for the stress of modern life, businesses offering anything remotely "therapeutic" or "healing" are springing up everywhere. Whether it's reflexology (foot massage) salons in office buildings, drop-in hand/body massage shops at train stations or aromatherapy practices handily located near hairdressers, you're never far away from a relaxing retreat amid the hustle and bustle of urban living.

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Namja Town in Tokyo, where a new "Relax Forest" fuses entertainment and massage for the masses.

But for Mamoru Ikezawa, executive officer of Namco Ltd., that's not enough. Ikezawa, who heads the amusement park operator's Team Namja Division, says his latest mission is to bring "relaxation" even closer to people.

That is why Team Namja, which has opened nearly 20 "food theme parks" all over Japan in the last four years, has now created Riraku-no-Mori -- literally, "Relax Forest" -- which opened on Friday in the sprawling indoor amusement park called Namja Town in the Sunshine City tower block in Ikebukuro, Tokyo.

Occupying just 693 sq. meters of the 12,000-sq.-meter Namja Town that already hosts Gyoza Stadium, Ice Cream City and Tokyo Chou Cream Field, this new "forest" may be more of a small wood -- but it is nonetheless an exciting new outgrowth of the firm's continuing endeavor to test the limits of entertainment. It's also "Japan's first healing park" -- whatever that means.

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Ancient-style Thai massage is just one of seven relaxation therapies available in Namja Town's "Relax Forest."
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"Sure, commercial facilities featuring health and beauty already exist," Ikezawa said during last week's press preview of Riraku-no-Mori. "But they have merely been a strip of shops. We are trying to offer them as a form of entertainment."

Ikezawa cited a recent survey conducted by a private think tank, which showed some 60 percent of the 1,118 respondents said they felt some kind of stress. Yet, in a separate Internet survey conducted by Namco, only 40 percent of the 329 respondents said they have visited a so-called "relaxation" facility.

"Many people haven't quite figured out what kind of services are offered at these salons," Ikezawa said. "They also feel the salons are too pricey. And with some places, it's hard to tell whether they are real massage parlors or sex businesses. Shadiness has always been part of this industry."

Then there are those nationally licensed masseurs, acupuncturists and the like who regard their services solely as medical treatments. While there is definitely a demand for them, most people just want to get a quick recharge, Ikezawa said.

So what can people expect from Riraku? The theme park features what Namco succinctly calls "super therapists" -- ranging from a Nanjing qi-gong specialist to an Indian head masseuse, to a Thai massage therapist. One of the unique features of Riraku is that it offers a really quick fix -- some shops offer a session as short as 10 minutes.

For therapists trained to minister to a customer for at least half an hour, however, exchanging pleasantries and offering a truly relaxing service in such a short time could be a big challenge. But, in fact, therapist Sachiko Nemoto of reflexology salon Precious Foot did just that when this reporter tried a 15-minute course there.

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A visitor to Namja Town treats herself to "lymph therapy."

A massage therapist of four years' standing, Nemoto sported a permanent smile and even shared a health tip with me, to wit: "A glass of grapefruit juice in the morning is good for your stomach." Then, when she found a pressure point on my sole that was particularly tender, she suggested my digestive system might be in trouble.

And she stayed professional throughout, despite the occasional "meows" and buzzings from a haunted-house attraction on the other side of the wall.

Ikezawa acknowledged that Riraku will not be the quietest space in town, with its targets of 500 million yen in revenues and 300,000 visitors in its first year. But Japanese people are used to -- and can even feel more at home with -- a bit of hustle and bustle, he said.

"It depends on what kind of iyashi [healing] you are looking for," he said. "Luxury resorts can surely give you a sense of healing. But Japanese healing started from hot springs, which have always been packed solid. Sparsely populated iyashi spots are only for the affluent class. We are targeting the masses."



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