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Japan's super hot springs offer much more than baths

TOKYO—Tired? Bored? In Japan, a popular solution, especially on a weekend night, is the super hot springs—a one-stop shop for a hot soak in a deep tub, a Jacuzzi bath for the feet, a sauna, a massage, a facial, a great meal—maybe a movie, too. You can stay all night.

In recent years, super hot springs have sprung up throughout Japanese cities and the countryside. When a new one opens, word gets around and soon the parking lot is full with hundreds of cars, especially on weekends. It's a place to meet friends, take the kids for entertainment or go alone for personal pampering.

The super hot springs phenomenon is a modern comeback for an ancient ritual, the Japanese bath. The basic procedure is the same: Wash completely first and then get in the tub—no bathing suit. There are hot springs ("onsen") in the mountains or on the beaches, and public baths with boiled tap water ("sento"), which were built back when ordinary people did not have bathtubs in their homes.

Traditional sento are much more humble than the modern super hot springs. After decades of prosperity, people no longer need public baths, and the number of small sento has declined from 17,642 in 1968 to 5,267 this year, according to the All Japan Sento Association.

Meantime, the super hot springs has been taking off.

In central Tokyo, one of the big new modern bath complexes is called LaQua, a coined word from "aqua" that sounds in Japanese like "raku" (relax and enjoy). It opened two years ago with natural hot spring water from nearly 6,000 feet beneath the city.

The entrance fee for LaQua is $25, plus other charges for extras. There are separate tubs and saunas for men and women.

"This is the oasis of the concrete jungle," said Yoko Aragaki, a teacher who said she spends about $150 every time she visits. "If you think going on the trip overnight, $150 would be reasonable," she said. "I can spend (the) entire day easily here watching movies, reading books, getting a massage and soaking."

LaQua is open from 11 a.m. to 9 a.m. the next morning, the only super hot springs open all night. A customer can stay on a reclining chair with a blanket and a liquid-screen private TV in a room for men and women with 120 seats, or in a smaller room for women only, until breakfast is delivered the next morning.

Yusaku Mitani, 41, general manager for two super hot springs called Hometown of Hot Spring (Yukemuri no Sato), explained the popularity of such facilities. "People are stressed and tired," he said. "In Japan, we have had hot-spring culture for centuries."

On weekends, Mitani welcomes more than 2,500 customers per day, 1,500 on weekdays.

"Super hot springs is a new type of leisure anybody can enjoy," said Mitani. "If you bring four family members to Disneyland, you may end up spending $300, but here, you may only spend $50 per day."

The bath is such a deep part of Japanese life because hot water is so abundant. A country of volcanic islands, Japan has 27,000 sources of hot springs, according to the Japan Spa Association.

That's more hot springs for its size than any other country in the world, said Robert Neff, who wrote a guidebook, "Japan's Hidden Hot Springs."

Hot springs in Japan generally are nothing like in the United States, Neff said. The outdoor ones in America are more like a swimming pool, he said. "They're not beautifully landscaped as in Japan. People in the U.S. are wearing bathing suits. In Japan that's almost unheard of."

And one of the best parts of going to a hot springs with a small hotel attached in Japan is the great food, he said.

"Most Japanese think of a hot spring as a place to have fun, not a place to get healthy," he said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): JAPAN-BATH

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