The Miracle of Hot Water

There has been a “Miracle on Route 246” — at least so goes the ad copy. Zaboo: the new onsen spa located smack in the middle of Tokyo, conveniently located across the street from once-trendy mega-complex Roppongi Hills. Thanks to some 50%-off tickets procured from work, Team Néomarxisme went down to check it out.

For suckers without discounts (i.e., the target customers), entrance to the urban hot spring will cost you 4000 yen PLUS a 550 “membership fee,” and yes, you must become a member. “Reflexology” and other treatments will set you back another 5000 yen or so a pop. A cold draft beer at the bar, thankfully, is only 600 yen.

The clientele is primarily women and mostly young OLs at that. This means the Men’s Bath is relatively empty, but its small scale belies low expectations of male participation. There is one large, very tepid pool (50% hot spring water). There is a “cave bath” which seems to have been carved out of real rock, but again, only barely warm enough. Hiding myself in the corner of the cave in 39.8 C water, I felt a bit like a bathing ape in lukewater. There is a single hot bath, the size of a small jacuzzi.

The bilingual sign above this bath reads something like, “Hot bathing is a favorite of the Japanese.” I glanced at the English, and thought, “Yes, that is true. Thank you for the cultural explanation to help guide my experience as a foreign visitor.” Then I noticed the Japanese text was exactly the same: something like 「日本人の好みの熱の湯」, providing the Japanese clientele with some much-needed anthropological self-analysis. No surprise to see such messages, of course, but it is another reminder of how much Japanese companies find it necessary (or at least in their best interest) to explicitly “sell Japaneseness.” Once companies and the media helpfully provide the correct images of nationality, consumers would be verging on traitorous behavior not to partake. I like hot baths too, of course, but a dip unfortunately does not reinforce my sense of national belonging. I just get clean and feel refreshed afterwards. Also, according to the sign, bathing stimulates my “sympathetic nerve.” (An observation courtesy of the Nihonjinron University Dep’t of Science, no doubt).

There is a “finish sauna” [sic] (フィンランドサウナ) which is good for wrapping up the experience.

All in all, the facilties were nice, I guess, but nothing spectacular. Compared to a super-duper “real” onsen out in the countryside that will set you back around 750 yen for entry, even ¥2000 at Zaboo was a bit excessive for the value. Nothing about the no-frills package screamed luxury. Clearly the price is more of a way to quality control customers than either a free-market price or a reflection of costs — and I get the sense that we will see a lot more of this in the “income disparate” future Japan. With no jolly middle class, you have to aggregate only rich people (or the well-behaved pretend rich) to guarantee a “clean crowd.” For 2000 yen, you may get the occasional 50 year-old woman who would normally go to a local sentō public bath. As it stands now, the spa probably gets well-to-do business people and their wives/mistresses as well as young women who live at home and have too much excess income anyway. No gangsters allowed entry — which is rather disrespectful seeing that the mob owns all the real estate in Roppongi.

The quality of the hot water is passable (gooey enough), but nothing spectacular. The most disappointing thing, however, is not the quality of the services/facilities, as much as getting out of the baths feeling refreshed and then having to step back into the reinforced-concrete tundra of Tokyo, catch a double-capacity Murakami-illustrated bus back to Shibuya, and wade through 500 people in Tokyu Food Show to get your supper. The charm of the countryside baths is that you take a peaceful dip then can proceed straight to your tatami mat room dressed in yukata, eat your dinner, have some sake, and fall asleep on a comfy futon. In this sense, Tokyo onsen is a bit doomed from the start.

W. David MARX (Marxy)
September 24, 2006

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

18 Responses

  1. Carl Says:

    There’s a joke in “Game Over,” a book about the history of Nintendo, where the head folk from NOA go out to Russia to negotiate a deal for Tetris on the yet-unrealized Game Boy.

    After the long, hard negotiations reach a successful conclusion, everyone goes out for a well deserved beer. The hours go by and everyone’s having a good time. They ask for another round.

    “Finnish beer?” says the server.

    “Finnish, Russian, whatever, just more beer, OK?” say the video game gods.

    Half an hour later, noticing the lack of fresh beer at their table, they go confront the server.

    “Hey, what happened to the beer we ordered?”

    “No beer! Finish beer!”

    “Curses! If only English had a distinct way of make adjectives out of nationalities that didn’t create ambiguities of interpretation under unfortuitous circumstances!”

    Yes, if only!
    終わり人のサウナと言わずように。

  2. marxy Says:

    You say that but I had a list of “things to do on my computer” once that said:

    1. Polish shoes

    and my girlfriend at the time wrote under it,

    2. Czech shoes

  3. matt Says:

    With no jolly middle class, you have to aggregate only rich people (or the well-behaved pretend rich) to guarantee a “clean crowd.”

    Makes me wonder though, with a growing disparity between the two classes (and likely more in the lower) does this mean there’ll be good opportunities for businesses following the paradigm of the long-tail? So much of the brand successes in Japanese culture have been block-buster based … will we be seeing any serious shifts in from this style of marketing in the near future? I suppose not, given the pace of change in this country.

  4. nate Says:

    the lack of good hot water is one of the most lamentable things about the change from aomori to tokyo. “Back home” there were lots of onsen inside city limits much nicer than what you describe (much nicer than what’s generally available else where in the capitalsphere) for 350 entrance.
    Thank god there’s lots of pretty women in the city, or I wouldn’t even feel like double the rent for a 1/4 the space is a good deal.

  5. shane Says:

    I just want to know where you got the half price ticket.

  6. Adamu Says:

    Do those “Japanese love their onsen” signs remind you of, say, the ubiquitous traffic safety signs, or is it just me? Would it be overstating things to say that in Japan it’s as much an act of good citizenship to eat crab in the winter as it is to buckle your safety belt? Maybe I’m just paranoid because I’m in the middle of a memoir of a refugee from North Korea, where as we all know billboards emphasizing nationalist themes are everywhere.

  7. Chris_B Says:

    if the water is cooler than 44 I aint payin.

    Anyways I think you miss the point, this aint for the “middle class” its just another way to milk the OL.

  8. ben Says:

    talking about all these signs that the japanese don’t need – at least one japanese, 村上春樹, realizes their worthlessness. check out his essay 「狭い日本・明るい家庭」. “let’s throw ’em all into the sea,” he says.

  9. marxy Says:

    will we be seeing any serious shifts in from this style of marketing in the near future?

    Atsushi Miura has a chapter on this in 『下流社会』. Basically, it used to be more profitable to sell 100 suits, for example, at 50000 yen. Now it will be more profitable to sell 25 suits at 150000 yen, or whatever. So, “long-tail” for the wealthy – everyone else can go to Uniqlo.

    I just want to know where you got the half price ticket.

    No idea, really. Friend of a friend of an employee I think.

    Maybe I’m just paranoid because I’m in the middle of a memoir of a refugee from North Korea, where as we all know billboards emphasizing nationalist themes are everywhere.

    Chalmers Johnson calls Japan “soft authoritarianism,” and yes, these signs are part of that. The Top needs to constantly remind the Bottom about proper behavior, values, and tastes.

    its just another way to milk the OL.

    Milking the OLs is not so different than host clubs milking the sex service girls. Society gives and then takes back.

    “let’s throw ’em all into the sea,” he says.

    They are unfortunately a symptom of a larger issue. You can pop one zit, but can’t clear up the whole acne.

    Also, that Murakami guy has been poisoned by Western ideas.

  10. Rory P. Wavekrest Says:

    gooey?

  11. me_vs_gutenberg Says:

    Czech shoes are actually one of the country’s most successful export products, along with cars and beer. Polish shoes, on the other hand, aren’t doing quite this well outside the domestic market.

  12. Chris_B Says:

    Rory: yeah, some onsen water is indeed goooey. I’m not a big fan of gooey water myself, nor radon onsen, nor sulfur onsen.

  13. nate Says:

    cooler than 44=no good? yeeee-ouch.

    then again, I’ve been places where the meter read 43 and it was unpleasantly lukewarm, and places marked 40.4, and it felt like they were makin soup stock from us.
    Others have experience with misleading (misplaced) thermometers? Is it a common thing, or just at the places I frequented up north?

  14. alin Says:

    billboards – a symptom of a larger issue.

    i don’t not get what you’re saying and can see how one arrives at that conclusion, however hitler talking about ‘the jewish problem’ does come to mind.

    i like azabu juuban onsen. a lot.

  15. marxy Says:

    i don’t not get what you’re saying and can see how one arrives at that conclusion, however hitler talking about ‘the jewish problem’ does come to mind.

    Nice play.

    This is what I meant (what I wrote! how crazy!):

    Chalmers Johnson calls Japan “soft authoritarianism,” and yes, these signs are part of that. The Top needs to constantly remind the Bottom about proper behavior, values, and tastes.

    But yeah, I am basically a Nazi.

  16. alin Says:

    well, fascism is a subtle beast indeed.

    it’s been said before but now you kind of phrased it that way. with the logic you’re applying (given the power to do so) you’d start peeling off, ‘reforming’ layer after layer of the thing called japan until you’re left with nothing. i guess that’s your job to (talk about) deconstruct(ing) japan, but then you could call the same thing ‘extermination’.

    the Asada interview in the next entry is really interesting. i’m glad it also shows the degree of understanding and absorbtion of post-structuralist (european) thinking in this country (which was the topic of an arguement here earlier). you’re gonna say that was the 80s or 90s, right?

  17. nate Says:

    uh-oh. alin reiterating a nazi smear right on the heels of a natsukashii remark about shinto from momus, and me blabbing about my old kentucky home… are we in a timewarp?
    only chris_b seems not to have quite a bee in his bonnet lately.

  18. nate Says:

    oops… chris_b not content to play his part, has quite the bee in his bonnet.
    (If I’m gonna be a trivial wonkette, I should at least not mess up.)