Saturday, June 30, 2012

Spa World

Spa World Atlantis bath in Osaka, Japan
Photo courtesy of the Spa World website

The phrase "my co-workers/students used to tease me because..." is becoming old hat now, since I've written about a number of just those things! After my second or third trip to Spa World, I knew I was going to have to be more discrete when I was asked how I spent my weekend. But how could I resist? During the special campaigns, I could spend the entire day at Spa World for just 1,000 yen!

And oh, I did. When it was raining or snowing, nothing beat sitting in the Spanish bath with the cool water on my face. When it was 35 degrees outside, a quick hop into Finland was the perfect cool-down. And when people came to visit me and wanted to try the hot spring experience, where better?

(Don't answer that - I took plenty of people to traditional onsen, too!)

The basic gist of Spa World, for those who aren't familiar, is that of a super sento, or super public bath. For the price of admission (3,000 yen for an all-day pass during a weekend in the high-season, and as low as 1,000 in the off-season), you have unlimited run of their fantastically kitschy themed bathing facilities until 10 AM the following morning. You have a bracelet that tracks your spending in the bathing areas, so you can buy food, snacks, drinks, spa services like massage or akazuri, etc. You also have access to the giant pool and waterslides on the top floor, where there are rooftop and indoor mixed baths - bathing suits required.

Spa World Bali bath in Osaka, Japan
Photo courtesy of the Spa World website

I should point out now that while Spa World is a great introduction for nervous foreigners into the world of Japanese-style public bathing, the main baths are no-swimsuits-allowed. One of the stupider things I did during my first few months in the country was try this at Spa World with a friend who was visiting. Neither of us had ever been to a hot spring, but we knew that the pool floor of Spa World required bathing suits, so we figured nobody would mind if we wore them into the main baths, too, especially since it was something like 2 AM! 

Spa World Entrance from Shinsekai, Osaka
Spa World Entrance
Located in sometimes-questionable Shinsekai
We were not inside for even thirty seconds before an elderly customer came up to us and explained in broken English that we needed to take them off. I think she was trying to save us the embarrassment of being seen and asked by an employee to go change. (I assure you, I am equally embarrassed, looking back on this incident.) We came back with towels held over ourselves, trying to look only at the ceiling. It was only later that I realized that what we had done was akin to showing up at a public pool back in Canada to swim wearing jeans and turtleneck sweaters. Effectively harmless, yes, but why would you want to?

By the end of the night, we pretty much got it. In Japan, nudity is just not a thing. There is nothing sexual about the bathing culture, and once you get over the initial fear, for me at least it turned into no big deal. For the dozen or so friends and family I hosted during my stay overseas, only one of them was so uncomfortable with the public baths that I had to apologize afterwards. Others chose to join me on mini hot spring vacations! I had a chance to try akazuri, Doctor Fish, Thai and Swedish massage and cafeteria-style tatami dining.

After that first visit, Spa World became my go-to place for a pick-me-up. There was just nothing like it - on certain months, ladies would have access to the baths in the European Zone (4th floor), where there were baths done up in the images of Greece, Rome, Spain, Italy, Atlantis and Finland. You would rinse on your way in,  and soak in whichever one you pleased. Once you'd warmed up and relaxed a little, you could go to the washing facilities to soap down or shampoo and condition, or head for the saunas. The European Zone features steam and salt saunas in addition to regular ones. A mudbath is tucked away in the Grecian area. Spain has a cafe with footbaths under the tables, as well as an open-air bath with a waterfall. Atlantis features live fish and baby sharks under its glass floor! To open up the pores, try Finland's cold-water baths and then relax on the submerged deck chairs of the Mediterranean Sea.

Spa World Finland bath in Osaka, Japan
Photo courtesy of the Spa World website

The Asia Zone, on the 6th floor, offers an experience much closer to what you might find in a typical onsen, though on a much larger scale. Giant hinoki tubs are in the indoor Japanese bath, while the outdoor area has stone baths of different temperatures and the iconic hinoki barrel baths. In the springtime, cherry blossoms bloom in the outdoor area. The cafe is part of the Japanese experience, offering a few traditional summer treats like shaved ice and ice cream.

The Asia Zone also has a mudbath and salt sauna, courtesy of Bali and India, respectively. India usually offers the hottest experience, as well as a steam sauna. Persia's milky waters are a great place to start out for the new-to-onsen, and you can rest on the lounge chairs in Persia as well. Japanese-style lounge with cafe. Dr. Spa is the newest feature on this floor, with three pools pumped oxygen, hydrogen and carbonic acid to give them a bubbly, healing quality.

Spa World rooftop bath in Osaka, Japan
Rooftop bath at Spa World - Festival Gate and Tsutenkaku in the background
Photo courtesy of the Spa World website

My favourite spot by far, though, has to be the top floor rooftop bath. This is in the mixed bathing area (suits required - you can rent one at the locker room desk if you can manage Japanese sizes) and it has two small access rivers that start indoors and pass under the wall. Once you're out there in the rooftop whirlpools, it doesn't matter what time of year it is, it's always comfortable! Festival Gate, the long-closed amusement part, always looked so creepy in the night time. The next time I go, it probably won't be there, sadly, but the night view of Tsutenkaku can't be beat from here, either. One of my favourite memories is laying on the side of the bath in December, looking up at the sky and the tower, with the whole top floor all to ourselves. I decided that I wanted to live at Spa World forever. Ah, how I miss it--!