New-style sauna facilities gaining traction in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A private sauna room at the Mente sauna facility in Osaka City

The sauna industry is heating up in Japan. An increasing number of people are sweating it out in new and novel, high-heat settings, including private saunas for individuals, mobile saunas installed in converted buses and camping-tent saunas that can be enjoyed outdoors. Some local governments are even attempting to turn saunas into attractions, with an eye on rebuilding the tourism industry following abatement of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mente, a men-only facility in the Umeda district of Osaka City, opened Feb. 14. The establishment boasts four private rooms, each with a sauna, shower and rest area, so customers can avoid encountering others while there. Though an 80-minute session costs ¥5,000 — double the price of a typical sauna facility — the firm receives 20 to 40 bookings each day, according to Mente, which is operated by an Osaka City beauty salon.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A mobile sauna converted from a bus in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture

“Despite the recent boom, there were no private sauna rooms in Umeda,” said Haruka Masuda, who is a manager of the operating company. “We think it’s a good business opportunity, as many people are keen to avoid crowded places amid the pandemic.”

ReBus, a start-up company based in Takatsuki, Osaka Prefecture, plans to operate a mobile sauna called Sabus, which started life as a bus. The company plans to start dispatching the rest-room equipped vehicle to customers’ requested locations as early as next month.

Company founder Arisa Matsubara, 29, came up with the idea while working for Shinki Bus Co. in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture. “Our mobile sauna can hopefully help attract visitors to event venues or commercial facilities,” Matsubara said.

Takuya Shibataki built a sauna in a rented housing complex room in Yao, Osaka Prefecture, last summer simply because he loves saunas so much. The 27-year-old operates the facility for private use on weekends when taking a break from his role as an office worker. “Saunas are attractive because they tire you out, but it’s a good kind of tired, and it clears your head,” Shibataki said. “I want to convey such charms to as many people as possible.”

In November, the Tottori prefectural government launched the Totonou Tottori website, which it uses to provide information on saunas in the prefecture in hopes of leveraging such enterprises to attract tourists. Recently, numerous local events have featured camping-tent sauna baths and the number of sauna-equipped campsites in the prefecture has increased, fueling the Tottori government’s recent public relations drive. The prefectural government plans to spend up to ¥1 million subsidizing sauna-related events from the next fiscal year, which starts in April.

The Yamanashi prefectural government has launched a project to subsidize a portion of the maintenance costs for companies that begin operating outdoor saunas. The city of Bungo-Ono in Oita Prefecture, meanwhile, has declared itself a “sauna town,” in a bid to attract tourists.

The domestic popularity of saunas in recent years is partly attributable to their appearance in manga and TV dramas. Many celebrities have declared themselves to be sauna lovers, and there is a growing trend in which people exchange steam bath-related information on social media, further powering the sauna boom. The sense of relaxation derived from alternating between a hot sauna and a cold-water bath is known as “totonou” among sauna buffs. Last year, the word was nominated for a prize awarded to new and popular expressions.