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Friday, Oct. 26, 2012

Shiatsu rip-off parlors mushroom in Nepal

Despite proliferation, only three centers offer authentic services in Katmandu


KATMANDU — The traditional Japanese healing technique of shiatsu and "anma" massage is gradually but steadily growing in popularity in Nepal, resulting in dozens of "Japanese massage" centers fraudulently claiming to provide the therapy springing up in Katmandu.

News photo
Popular import: Ishwor Raj Balami gives a shiatsu massage to a customer at his center in Katmandu recently. KYODO

The success of genuine Japanese massage facilities such as the You, I Health Center, located in the upscale Durbarmarg district in central Katmandu has prompted many struggling parlors to make such claims to attract more customers.

"In reality, there are just three centers in Katmandu that provide real acupressure, moxibustion and acupuncture services true to Japanese tradition," said Ishwor Raj Balami, who owns the You, I Health Center.

"Since all three are doing very good business, many other centers associate their names with Japanese massage, though their masseurs do not know even the basics of the art."

Massage parlors are ubiquitous in Durbarmarg and the neighboring tourist district of Thamel, and are frequented by people from various walks of life in search of relaxation and stress and pain relief.

But frequent police raids at many of these establishments — where female masseurs have been routinely found to be doubling as prostitutes — are scaring away an increasing number of prospective massage customers who fear being tainted with social disrepute.

The You, I Health Center is one of a handful of massage parlors in Katmandu that people can visit without harboring such fears.

"One reason for this is that we offer massage in an open hall so there is no room for suspicion, let alone the possibility, of any socially unacceptable practice," Balami explained.

Japanese massage is also popular in Nepal for cultural reasons.

"Nepalese are generally shy. To have a Japanese massage, there is no need to get undressed as oil is not applied," Balami said, noting that 50 percent of his customers are Nepalese, some of them couples.

Balami learned the art of Japanese massage from 1993 to 1996 at the Oriental Treatment Training Center in Katmandu in its first batch of students.

Established by septuagenarian Yoshiko Hata through her Yomogi No Kai nongovernmental organization, the oriental center has so far trained around 100 Nepalese skilled in the art of Japanese massage.

Some of them are now working in Japan, the United States, Britain, Singapore and India, according to Balami.

Hata, who has lived in Katmandu for around two decades now, introduced Japanese massages in Nepal through the oriental center. With the help of her NGO, she has also set up a moxa factory in Katmandu whose products are sold in both the domestic market and exported to Japan.

"When I graduated from the Oriental center, there was no place for me to work. So I started my own massage center in 1996, heeding Hata's advice," said Balami, who has also undertaken acupuncture, acupressure and moxibustion training during his eight visits to Japan to date.

Balami's center, first established in Katmandu's Lazimpat area, turned out to be a loss-making venture for the first two months, after which he moved to a roughly 30-sq.-meter hall in Durbarmarg, where the center has been located for the past 16 years.

"After moving to this area, there has been no looking back," he said with pride.

Balami employs eight masseurs, while the center is open from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week.

It only closes during the country's two biggest festivals — Dashain and Deepawali. The fee for an hour of full-body massage is 600 rupees (¥600), extremely affordable even by Nepalese standards.

"I have kept the pricing low because I want my massage to be affordable to Nepal's middle class," said Balami, whose past customers include former Japanese Ambassador to Nepal Tatsuo Mizuno and mountaineer Junko Tabei.

After the center started to draw at least 12 customers each day, Balami was encouraged to establish a hospital in the Chaunni district in the capital's western outskirts three years ago. The hospital employs the same methods for treatment.

"The hospital is already seeing many patients, especially those suffering from arthritis and obesity," he said. "The fortunate part is that there is no need for me to spend on any advertising.

"Word of mouth from past clients has done for me what would need hundreds of thousands of rupees in advertisement expense."

Balami, who also works at Hata's moxa factory, is thankful to Hata for imparting the art of Japanese massage to him.

"Life has been smooth financially, thanks to the skills I learned.

"Dozens of families are surviving in Nepal because a family member knows Japanese massage, and thousands of patients have also benefitted from the service," Balami said.

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