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Japan’s Deep Sea Spa

Jun Takagi Shu Uemura

Photo: Jun Takagi

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.

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