I am holding in my hands the most unexpected Christmas present – a Japanese magazine for young women Hanako. I opened it and found my felt works. This was a pleasant surprise, a present for cooperation with the members of Japan Sauna Spa Association.
It all began quite unexpectedly. I was invited to the 16th International Sauna Congress, held in Lithuania, to present my felt products. Among participants was a delegation from Japan. The Japanese purchased several sauna hats and we did not have any contact afterwards. But after less than a year, I found an unfinished purchase order from Japan for the purchase of hats. This motivated me to make the purchase order process more convenient for the customer. While I was thinking on it, I got a call from Mr Kim. The conversation was as follows: “I‘m going to Europe and I would like to call at your office”. It certainly bewildered me quite a bit, since my office was in my home and the storage rack with my hats was hanging above my bed…a totally non-business environment and, on top of that, I could barely speak a word in English. But from the moment we met at the airport all the tension and awkwardness instantly disappeared. Helped by a friend, I was able to receive the guest at my home and treat him with a beetroot soup. During the meal, we talked about sauna hats and decided to visit Pirčiukas pirtis ( http://www.pirciukas.lt/ ) the next day. That‘s how gradually our friendship started to develop. Twice a year I would host the delegation of guests from the faraway country and each time we would visit different baths and events. Until once I received an invitation to Japan Sauna Day! What great news! I will present the bath culture of my country, Lithuania, and will get familiar with Japan’s legendary baths. I had an opportunity to visit several spa resorts. To stay there not only as a guest, but to have a closer look at the plain daily routine of the staff working there. This is the first article of a series of my travel impressions from the country of the Rising Sun.
Yokohama – heavenly baths
The moment I arrived at Narita airport, I was met by Mr Kim, owner of SkySpa Yokohama . Located near the main Yokohama Station, SkySpa Yokohama is very easily accessible from the airport (also from Haneda airport) by an YCAT (Yokohama City Air Terminal) bus (YCAT Sky Building ). As soon as the elevator brings us up to 14th floor of the Sky Building, our noses start smelling some mild and comforting smells.
I take off my shoes, put them into a locker and, as if with the turn of a key, leave the external world behind the invisible door. Over a cup of matcha, I learn more about this spa that is situated so high and celebrates two days as its birthday. It started in 1968 as a closed bath club and later, in 1996, following 6 years of renovation, the current concept of the spa was born. This is a family business, which was handed down to Mr Kim by his father. It appears that the majority of baths in Japan are small family businesses, handed down from generation to generation. These baths have stricter rules for visitors compared with public baths or onsens.
I can see many visitors coming. From the foggy bath windows they happily gaze at the panoramic views of sunrise or sunset over the city. The spa stays open through the night until 9:00 and re-opens at 10:30. It has adapted according to the customers’ needs. Everything is strongly determined by cultural norms. The employees will never leave their workplace before their supervisor. If the boss stays late, his subordinates will also stay late. That’s why people are often late for trains or buses and taxi fares at night are quite expensive. So the only remaining choice for overnight stay is either hotels or baths that are open through the night. The customers can relax and pamper themselves with various treatments, such as massage and sauna infusions, and enjoy a variety of dishes in the spa’s restaurant. Among the most popular dishes are the spicy Korean stew, pasta, ramen (Japanese noodles) and beer that is cooled down to -2°C.
Some spas can offer not only comfortable beds for staying overnight, but also capsules. It is a quite popular way to spend a night. A tiny private space intended to provide basic overnight accommodation. SkySpa Yokohama also has a capsule hotel that is only for men. The rates for services in Japan are very affordable indeed and lower than in Europe.
After I check in at the front desk, I receive a bag with garments and towels. I cannot resist the offer to go to the sauna. After all it’s my first experience of the Eastern culture and traditions. Of course, before visiting Japan, I read a lot about this country and was keen to learn more about it, but it was merely written knowledge, and when arriving in Japan I actually found myself smitten with a culture shock. No matter how much you know you get bewildered for a moment.
I find my locker, the key to which I was given at the front desk. The locker is very narrow, just enough room for my clothes. I take off my clothes and go looking around the women’s area: vanity room, Lava sauna, tiny steam bath, water pools and Jacuzzi. On the second floor of the spa there is a relaxation area, massage room, power ports for cell phones and TV monitors.
And here’s the first subtle thing – the toilet. It is perhaps the greatest challenge to a foreigner and the place that receives the most comments. As soon as you open the toilet door, you will see slippers on the floor. You must wear them when inside the toilet and put them back in the same direction as you found them so that another visitor can put them on conveniently. This rule applies everywhere and is to be remembered. The Japanese are very shy and very often a flush water sound is played in the toilets to disguise the bodily sounds. And when it comes to toilet technology, it should be the subject of a separate article.
As I walk through the door to the bathing area, I am immediately immersed into the world of splashing water sounds. Here are the open seated shower stalls – something I have never seen before. Enclosed within dark marble walls is a tiny space with a mirror, shower, bench, water bowl and all the necessary washing toiletries. What catches my eyes most is that the shampoo, shower gel and lotions are all made by Shiseido. An unheard luxury, I would say. I don’t think I have ever seen it anywhere in Europe that a spa provides to the customer all amenities and that they are included in the same entry fee. You either bring your own or have to buy them separately. It appears that the majority of Japanese spas cooperate with cosmetics companies in order to be able to offer their customers greater comfort.
After washing myself I go to the sauna. I place my small towel on the soft woollen blanket. As I look onto the city of Yokohama through a huge panoramic window, the daily worries seem to drift away. The window-ledge made of Himalayan salt slabs disperses the light falling upon it. The heat relaxes my muscles tired after a long travel. Then a Löyly master comes in and throws a scented water on the stove for aromatic steam, bringing it near to me with slow movements of a fan. The heat rises and one thought keeps spinning in my head – to plunge into cool water as soon as possible. When the programme ends and the door opens, I and other women rush together to the pool. We splash some cold water onto our feet getting ready to immerse our bodies into the refreshing water. All the travel fatigue instantly melts aways and I feel as if I was reborn. Now I am ready for new experiences! Although I haven’t tried everything yet. The Turkish steam bath and massages is something to leave for the next visit. I am already being waited for…
I take advantage of non-working hours and visit the men’s area. It is much larger than the women’s area, because there are more male customers than the female ones. The men’s area also occupies two floors. Men are offered not only comfortable armchairs for overnight stay, but also compartments, each with its own TV, and a capsule hotel. The Japanese minimalism is seen everywhere. Ant the capsule hotel is very economical, both in terms of space and maintenance costs.
It is such a huge sauna and, surprisingly, there is no TV. It was a conscious decision of the owner so that the customers can completely pull away from the external world. Mr. Kim travels a lot, visiting a number of baths and spas. Having so much experience, he offers to his customers only what is worth trying and what is good for health. Mr. Kim is a keen marathon runner. Eventually he passed his passion onto his customers. Every Wednesday, a group of people meet up for a joint run around the Yokohama Bay route.
The cosy heavenly Sky Spa Centre willingly receives foreign visitors, but please note that people with tattoos will not be allowed. Quite recently a young girl made her home in the Sky Spa Yokohama – a good luck doll, the Heaven Goddess called Saulė (a Lithuanian word for ‘sun’, German ‘Sonne’).
I sincerely thank the honourable Mr. Kim for naming this pretty blond girl wearing a sauna hat with the name in my native tongue. I am also grateful to the Finland Sauna Club (FSC) and Japan Sauna Spa Association for the opportunity to visit the spa resorts and get a feeling of the Japanese culture.
And that is not all. Soon there will be more about this impressive journey!