Japan’s Deep Sea Spa
Published: April 2009
By Shane Mitchell
Pristine and mineral-rich, water from the ocean’s depths cures and rejuvenates, claims beauty maestro Shu Uemura, who has opened the first deep-sea water spa on Japan’s remote Shikoku Island. <em>Shane Mitchell</em> tests the waters.
So, it’s true that still waters run deep. At Japan’s isolated Cape Muroto, I watch the surface of the Pacific slosh against brown volcanic rocks, but I’m really thinking about the static bottom 11,480 feet below. Still, I didn’t fly around the world to contemplate the abyss; I intend to take the plunge.
Last July, Shu Uemura—the makeup artist who favors rainbow palettes and fanciful false eyelashes—opened the 17-room Utoco Deep Sea Therapy Center & Hotel on the easternmost tip of subtropical Shikoku Island. He’s harnessing uncontaminated water from the ocean depths for its therapeutic value: it’s rich in potassium, calcium, and magnesium and has other trace elements missing from surface water. It can have positive effects on digestion and skin tone, according to Uemura. "We come from the sea originally," he says. "Deep-sea water contains all the elements our bodies need." At Utoco, pools are filled with water pumped up from the ocean depths; many of the beauty products, treatments, and even meals are infused with it. If this all sounds a bit far-out, that’s because this is the first spa of its kind, although similar experiments are taking place on coastlines from Norway to Tahiti.
The use of seawater for restorative purposes, or thalassotherapy, has been around since Hippocrates took his oath. But it wasn’t until the early 19th century that the Duchesse de Berry popularized seawater bathing by dipping her fashionable toes into the English Channel. Since then, the French have been the most ardent advocates of saltwater cures at resorts from Quiberon to Monte Carlo. These centers, however, utilize relatively shallow waters: at the Thermes Marins de Monte Carlo, the spa’s key resource is pumped from about 100 feet below, which still qualifies as surface water. By contrast, the true deep begins at 3,280 feet and plunges more than six miles. This water (which accounts for roughly 95 percent of the planet’s H2O) has a different composition and takes millennia to circulate in a worldwide "conveyor belt." The lowest zones are intensely cold, densely pressurized, and devoid of sunlight.
Like many residents of the Pacific Rim, Uemura is fascinated with the potential healing properties of deep-sea water. A Japanese pharmacological study focused on its capacity to lower cholesterol; bottled water from Kona, Hawaii’s deep-sea water source, is a popular dietary supplement in Tokyo. Uemura claims special sensitivity to water—he can tell its purity by touch—and is earnest when he posits that "where there is good water, there are many beautiful women."
About 15 years ago, Uemura paid a visit to the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, or nelha, on Hawaii’s Big Island. There, he became fascinated by the water that was being pumped, using specialized technology, from the ocean off the Kona Coast. nelha houses numerous aqua-tech start-ups that ship desalinated drinking water, sun-evaporated salt, and nigari—a magnesium chloride powder used in tofu-making—to Japan. Recognizing further potential applications for deep-sea water, he began using it at a cosmetic production facility and, more recently, at the therapy center. Both are on Shikoku, where deep-sea water is drawn from an "upwelling zone." (Japan has six places where this phenomenon occurs—a slow current pushes a lower layer of water closer to the surface—and one of them is here in Kochi.)
By Tokyo standards, Cape Muroto is a real backwater. "I like untouched places," Uemura says. "Not many people come here." During the Heian Period (794-1185), Kochi Prefecture was informally called Onru (meaning "to banish"). Still far from metropolitan areas, it’s an hour’s flight from Tokyo’s Haneda airport, plus a two-hour drive on winding coastal roads to reach the rugged headland. Before Uemura opened his spa, this sparsely populated peninsula was best known for its Shingon Buddhist pilgrimage circuit. Just up the road from Utoco is an enormous statue of Kobo Daishi, the ninth-century monk who first trekked the entire island in search of enlightenment.
To recover from my own journey, I sit for hours on a low couch, watching fishing boats navigate the bubbling brine. The Tokyo- and Paris-based design firm Ciel Rouge devised the Modernist concrete-and-steel resort on an intertidal zone between the surf and a steep hillside. Built on pylons behind a breakwater, the single-level structure arcs horizontally along the shore so that wherever guests perch (on deck chaises, at dining tables, or in bed) their views of the Pacific are unobstructed. "It’s as though you are living in the sea," says Uemura. "You can listen, watch, and breathe it." He has certainly eliminated terrestrial distractions: the plain white rooms reflect the aesthetic of someone who knows that immersion doesn’t require turndown chocolates or pillow menus.
When I wander along Utoco’s sheltered deck, every curve reveals another intentionally framed scene. The building even acts as a sounding board for the offshore breeze and ocean spray; at key points near reception and the spa, large embrasures allow both to whisper, shell-like, in my ear. In keeping with the marine theme, the hotel’s seafood is brought in on boats that cruise past its breakwater. In the open-plan restaurant, big portholes look out at a shoreline that I seem to be leaving behind, as the staff serves miso soup with aosa seaweed, grilled fish marinated in rice vinegar, crispy tempura shrimp, and smoked tofu dipped in Muroto sea salt.
The next morning, walking into the ovoid spa at the far end of the complex, I’m immediately transported to the Riviera. Except no one speaks French. For that matter, the staff barely speaks English. It’s not difficult, though, to decipher the familiar ritual—jet baths, soaking pools, and a sage-scented hammam. But Uemura’s taken thalassotherapy to a new extreme. The hotel boutique stocks Uemura’s latest "Depsea Moisture" skin-care products. Brushing with mineralized toothpaste (also made with the water) is odd for someone accustomed to saccharine American brands. Ditto the slightly saline boutique water (packaged in a ripple-effect bottle designed by French artist Jean-Pierre Vitrac), which counters the dehydration I suffer after a transpacific crossing. Still, I suspect "Château du Tap" would likely have the same effect.
The spa menu is equally pared down to healthy essentials: algae and fango mud applied in the two body wraps are imported from France but blended with Cape Muroto waters. A moisturizing facial uses featherlight cleansers and creams from Uemura’s son Hiroshi’s Utowa skin-care line. It’s refreshing to experience a session without the fervent product up-selling that typically accompanies Western treatments. In fact, there is a distinct absence of hackneyed spa frills. No silly stone massages or flax-filled eye pillows here. But I can’t help laughing as one of the therapists leads me into an aerosol chamber to inhale misted seawater. A black light imbues my white cotton robe with a phosphorescent glow. Supposedly simulating the profound darkness at full fathom five, it’s a little too Disco Fever for me.
The similarities to thalassotherapy centers I’ve visited in France cease as soon as I dip into the indoor pool. The deep-sea water, heated to body temperature, has an effervescent quality that can’t be credited to the underwater jets bubbling at resting stations around the edge. Eventually, I wind up monopolizing the outdoor whirlpool, on a sunny deck above the rocks where seabirds rest. The longer I steep, the less I am inclined to quit, especially after realizing that my fingers and toes don’t shrivel. This novel water certainly seems to improve the softness and tone of my travel-worn skin.
Thanks to robotic submarines and pumping systems, the abyssal zone is no longer a mysterious realm of giant squid and predators with glowing eyeballs. And Shu Uemura isn’t the only fish in the sea who is convinced that this resource has curative potential. Admittedly, his spa had initially seemed too minimal for me: just water, water everywhere. But during the next two days, after more long soaks in Utoco’s fizzy pools, I begin to notice a sea change of my own. Perhaps, at last, I’ve found my inner Nemo.
Utoco Deep Sea Therapy Center & Hotel
6969-1 Murotomisaki-cho, Muroto City, Kochi; 81-8/8722-1811; www.utocods.co.jp; doubles from $260; treatments from $100.
JAL has four daily nonstop flights to Kochi from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. Utoco can arrange car service for the approximately two-hour drive to Cape Muroto.
At the InterContinental Bora Bora in Tahiti, the environmentally sensitive hotel has discovered another health-conscious application at the newly opened Deep Ocean Spa by Algotherm. In overwater bungalows, thalassotherapy treatments pair pure water from the South Pacific seabed with Algotherm’s marine-based ingredients (algae extracts, salt, fango mud) from Brittany. 689/604-900; www.boraboraspa.intercontinental.com; doubles from $873; treatments from $102.