In Japan, saunas suddenly seem everywhere. On Instagram, influencers and actors appeared to visit them daily, and the app was bombarding me with ads for mountain retreats with cold-plunge pools. Several friends who are dedicated “saunners(1)” insisted I give it a try. Local media speak of a “sauna boom” as they once had of the “tapioca boom,” with facilities popping up in central Tokyo just as boba tea stores had before the pandemic, during a brief and intense social-media-inspired infatuation with the Taiwanese drink. (Also read: Toilet or Aquarium? This unique bathroom in Japan will make your jaw drop)
Public bathhouses have been in decline for decades, with the number of sento baths in Tokyo dropping by nearly half in the last 15 years. By comparison, saunas are surging, with more than 12,000 facilities listed on leading portal site Sauna Ikitai. For old bathhouses that can afford the capital investment, steam-room facilities are helping some to stay afloat. Finnish equipment makers are eagerly eyeing Japan as a growth market. It’s been suggested that steam rooms have perhaps taken golf’s place for clearing the minds of executives before they conduct multibillion-dollar deals.
This sauna boom is the country’s third, according to experts, after the country first discovered the joys of getting sweaty when the facilities were first built in the athletes’ village for Finnish competitors at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. The practice enjoyed a revival in the 1990s, when large bathhouses known as “super sento” became popular, usually featuring a steam room or two.
A key difference in this growth period is the proliferation of rituals that newcomers can follow, based on Finnish customs of cycling between intense heat, cold-bath immersion, a break in fresh air, then repeat. This is aimed at achieving the state of totonou — a buzzy word for contentment and clarity achieved, caused by the release of norepinephrine and endorphins. The Japanese tend to like this kind of practice, this “correct” way of doing things — think of the traditional ceremony of drinking matcha green tea, the right way to wear kimonos or indeed the frequently unspoken rules of public bathing etiquette.
Online guides dictate how much time one needs to spend in a sauna of what temperature (between 80 and 100 degrees Celsius, or 176 to 212 Fahrenheit), how long to endure the heat before subjecting oneself to a cold plunge, as well as the correct number of times to repeat the cycle to achieve totonou. A bewildering array of terms transmogrified into Japanese from various European languages, from aufguss to löyly, create the impression of a sophisticated hobby, like wine collecting, that rewards dedication and study.
In the English-speaking West, sauna culture seems the province of meatheaded podcast bros and overbearing tech entrepreneurs. Not so in Japan, where polls indicate it’s equally as popular with women as men. Friends recommended it not for its physical health benefits, but for the mental, with one acquaintance going so far as to liken totonou to getting high.
In search of psychological clarity, if nothing else, I visited one of the trendy new facilities in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. I followed the rituals as written: 10 minutes or so in the sauna; a minute in the cold plunge pool; another quarter of an hour taking in fresh air and awaiting inspiration.
Nothing happened. I felt as likely to catch a cold as find inner peace. Was the sauna not hot enough? Had I chickened out of the frigid bath too early? I needed to go further.
I reached out to the man most directly responsible for the recent craze, manga artist Katsuki Tanaka. He began writing about saunas in 2009, having become hooked on the experience after joining his local gym, and copying what he saw others do. His columns eventually became a collection of essays entitled Sado, a play on the word for tea ceremony, but using a different character to mean “The Way of the Sauna.” That became a hit comic book and in 2019 was turned into a TV show, all of which helped inspire the current trend. In the process, he popularized the sauna rituals and coined the word totonou. Then came Covid-19, which turbo-charged the need for facilities where people could get away from life’s cares.
“Spending so much time at home, surrounded by information on computers and smartphones, unable to go abroad, makes people want an experience that will satisfy your five senses,” Tanaka says. “Our lifestyles have hugely changed in the last few years.”
That, he says, is the reason for a similar boom in camping. The need for relaxation might also be behind a recent surge in shisha bars serving waterpipe tobacco. I posited that one reason for the particular popularity in Japan might be the lack of other highs, legal or otherwise, that the nation’s drug laws ensure. The country’s ban on cannabis remains steadfast, though times are changing. Next year, the government plans to permit its medical use. Curiously, many CBD products are legal in Japan, hailed for their relaxing effects. (Products made from the high-inducing THC are illegal.)
Inspired by Tanaka’s explanation — and on deadline for this column, which remained frustratingly incomplete — I sought mental clarity again. Back into the sauna, the cold pool, the fresh air, repeat. Nothing. My mind raced. Deprived of external stimulus, my hands yearned for my smartphone, for Twitter, Reddit, that fleeting dopamine hit.
And then, after my third cycle — something! My fidgeting stopped. A strange sense of calm swept over me, a feeling that while I could move, I didn’t need to move. The muscles in my arms and legs twitched involuntarily. My mind went blank; I stopped worrying about my deadline, and with senses heightened, took in the ambient sounds of dripping water and instrumental music.
Was this totonou? I’ve no idea. It faded quickly. So too might the sauna boom, just as the boba tea sensation did — streets in Shibuya and nearby Harajuku are now filled with boarded-up tea joints. Saunas are exposed to the risk of rising energy costs, and Japan’s falling real wages are bad news for pricey hobbies, with an average sauna visit costing around 2,000 yen ($13) — that’s twice the minimum wage, around four times the government-controlled price for sento bathhouses. Some newer facilities can cost 3,000 yen and above. But hopefully they aren’t just a fad. We could all use a little inner peace.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text. Only the headline has been changed.