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Friday, Jan. 18, 2008
ANTIAGING IN ATAMI
The hotel of eternal youth
By DAVID HICKEY
It was reportedly good enough for Elizabeth Taylor. It kept Chairman Mao forever young (until he died). And Charlie Chaplin went straight to the source — a clinic in Bucharest — for it.
Now, thanks to a tieup between Romania's government and the high-class healing resort Hotel New Akao Royal Wing in Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture, the famed antiaging treatment developed by controversial late gerontologist Ana Aslan is at hand — and it's available less than 40 minutes from Tokyo by train.
Skeptical but spent after partying too hard over the festive holidays, I leave the Tokyo office at lunchtime and find myself stretched out on a massage bed by 2 p.m.
"We'll turn your gray hairs black!" Hotel New Akao Royal Wing General Manager Takayoshi Goto boasts in the lobby of his establishment, perched on the Izu Peninsula's craggy eastern coastline on Atami's outskirts. The middle-age Goto sports a shiny charcoal mane, suggesting he's living proof of the success of the hotel's treatments.
The business of trying to stay looking young is likely to have a bright future in Japan. With the nation's population both shrinking and aging — some experts predict that it may fall by as much as a quarter by 2050; when 35 percent of the population will be aged 65 or over — more old people will be put to work. Four years ago the government recognized as much, amending a law to require companies to raise their mandatory retirement age to 65 by 2013.
"More and more people aged 50 or above will have to keep on working," says Goto. "And they can only do that if they're healthy."
Which is where the Hotel New Akao Royal Wing fits in. Everything about this 100-room palace to pampering oozes rejuvenation and relaxation. Even the elevators have chairs in them in case you're too knackered to stand.
"We're hoping to attract company managers," says Goto. "At the moment, the number of senior males having beauty treatment is close to zero. It's an image problem. When Japanese think of beauty treatment, they think it's for women."
Not unreasonably, the resort staff believe that environment, food and customer service are as important as the antiaging treatment itself in making guests feel younger. The hotel's standard plan offers a three-night stay for two (¥127,500 per person; ¥498,000 per person for the Imperial Suite) in a generously proportioned twin room with an ocean view; breakfast and a health-conscious eight-course dinner with some produce sourced locally; and three 75-minute-long beauty-treatment sessions at the resort's four-bed spa, Rejuve.
Guests even get their own concierge to advise them on how to make the most of their four days. This might entail taking a walk through the hotel's vast Akao Herb and Rose Garden (a staffer tells me it's "13 times the size of Tokyo Dome") or a soak in the hotel's rose-petal-scented hot spring (for women only; men get their own onsen, but no petals). Well, if it was good enough for Cleopatra.
Though it's not mentioned on the hotel's Web site, the plan also includes treatment at Atami Onsen Clinic, just in case all of the above hasn't taken 10 years off you. There, after a patch test for skin allergies, guests can receive a series of injections and prescription drugs in line with Aslan's treatments.
The Romanian antiaging specialist attracted thousands of wealthy types from around the world to her Bucharest clinic in search of the drug she developed, Gerovital H3, which she promoted as having rejuvenating qualities. Some of the effects purportedly include the boosting of hormone levels — resulting in enhanced sexual potency — and the neutralization of those nasty free radicals that make your skin age.
Although the World Health Organization acknowledged Aslan's work, much of the medical establishment — including Japan's health ministry — remains skeptical of GH3's promise of prolonged youth. Nonetheless, Goto confirms that GH3 is included in the clinic's treatments.
Hotel New Akao Royal Wing recommends four sets of injections over a year, and I tell myself that it is because my stay is for 24 hours only that I spurn the needles for a bit of kneading — hoping that an hour at Rejuve having my face scoured of a layer of skin (Extaz Basic Facial: ¥15,000) will do the trick.
"Is this your first time?" asks Rejuve beautician Izumi Tanaka.
"Do you have any skin problems?" Tanaka probes.
"Well, given the choice, I'd rather not have those bags under my eyes, and my skin often feels rather rough, but then perhaps that's because of the face wash I'm using."
Tanaka nods, then leads me to one of the four rooms and steps outside to allow me to disrobe.
Five minutes later I'm lying on my back and Tanaka is applying antioxidization cleansing milk with cotton wool and rubbing every corner of my face into submission. The aim is to restore my skin's natural moisture balance and reduce tension. She then scrubs that off and gets to work with another cleansing lotion that should help my skin avoid pimples (it's high in vitamins) as well as remove grime. All the while, she's telling me that facials are beneficial to everybody from 20 to 80. Including men.
With me suitably lathered and already feeling ready to doze off, Tanaka starts to massage the back of my head, shoulders and neck.
"Wow, it's so hard!" she says, as she wrestles gainfully with my scalp. I ask for her expert assessment as to the cause. Tanaka thinks it's stress. She's doing her best to alleviate that, though, as she moves on to a facial massage, smearing me in sea buckthorn oil (sea buckthorn leaves were supposedly the gruel fed to Pegasus to help him take flight) and coaxing every ounce of tension from my pores. She finishes me off by baking my face in hot towels. And if that lot won't relax you, nothing will.
Staring in the mirror, my weary visage certainly looks healthier; my skin feels moist, velvety even. But to stand a chance of actually beating back the aging process, Aslan's disciples recommend medication — and this includes injections — four times a year.
My treatment was just beginning.
Atami is 37 minutes from Tokyo Station on the Hikari Shinkansen (¥1,890). Shuttle buses then take guests to Hotel New Akao Royal Wing; for reservations call (0557) 83-6161 or visit www.newakao.jp