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Japan’s Deep Sea Spa

Jun Takagi Shu Uemura

Photo: Jun Takagi

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.


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