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.