“Super sento” (Super bathhouse) and “kenko land” (“health land”; health spas) have been developed to offer more features and amenities than regular “sento”, such as open-air bath, Jacuzzis, a sauna, and some even have a restaurant or a massage room to their customers.
These facilities are now coming up with new business concepts to further improve their business model. Let’s take a look at some of the strategies these popular bathing facilities are utilizing to attract more customers.
■Bathing Facilities Through the Past Few Decades
In the 1980s, kenko land health spas that featured bathing areas began increasing in numbers and lead to an expansion of the market. It was during this time that super sento began springing up everywhere. These super sento were easily accessible as well as affordable, which brought in a lot of business. In the last half of the 1990s, in addition to normal bathing facilities, super sentos began offering more services and amenities for health and beauty, such as saunas and massage services. It is said that this is when the market really began to grow.
In the early 2000s, there was a major boom in popularity of heated rock saunas among women, which lead to many small establishments specializing in these kinds of saunas popping up everywhere.
By the mid-2000s the stone sauna boom had died down, and growth in the market had already become stagnant, but the market was most severely affected by the economic downturn precipitated by the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in 2008.
The decline is especially obvious when looking at the reports on the number of consumers in the industry, with a steady decline from 42.8 million people in 2010 to 27.4 million in 2016 (according to official government reports on leisure activities).
With the industry in a state of peril, businesses in the bathhouse industry are looking to create new types of services and gain more popularity to attract more visitors.
■“Biraku Onsen Spa-Herbs”
“Biraku Onsen Spa-Herbs” Exterior
“Biraku Onsen Spa-Herbs” Spa
This establishment opened in May of 2016 in Saitama City, Saitama Prefecture, and claimed the number one ranking on the list of most searched super sento in East Japan in the summer of 2017 on the site ‘@nifty onsen’, a site specializing in information on bathhouse facilities and operated by the Nifty corporation.
According to Shota Chujo who manages BEST HERBS, their concept is “top quality comfort, a luxury spa solely for adults.” He says that due to the fact that there are many other competitive businesses offering spa services in the area, instead of focusing on the local customer base, they focus on bringing in customers from all over with their target being “women with refined tastes.”
The facility boasts the Kanto area’s largest stone sauna area and has created a magical environment by adorning the area with whimsical lighting and offering a diverse array of amenities including a Finnish-style sauna called a ‘loyly(※1)’,’yu-en(※2)’ . After relaxing in the sauna, visitors move on to the cool-down room, a white, glass-sided room equipped with an apparatus that makes it snow from the ceiling. Chujo also says that since the spa’s parent company specializes in locations for wedding ceremonies, the interior decor and overall design was specially designed by one of the company’s designers to be particularly appealing to women. The spa aims to allow customers not only to “beautify,” but also to provide them with the opportunity to “treat themselves to a special day” as well as “experience visual and auditory pleasure.”
A Finnish-style sauna in which genuine Finnish stones are heated and aroma water poured over them, producing a large amount of steam mixed with negative air ions.
Rock salts, said to be effective in detox, promoting skin health, and various other health benefits, are applied to the surface of the ceiling, and high purity crystal rock salts are applied to the surface of the walls. The bedrock stone beds have a curvature that makes them easy on the body and will give you the unique sensation that you’re floating on thin air.
In December 2016, the spa increased its entrance fees and started focusing on services for a variety of customers of all ages and for men as well. There is also a new system in which customers pay an extra fee to use the spa’s luxury area. Through this new policy change, the spa is able to bring in a wider range of customers while maintaining itself as a spa for “women of refined tastes.” Most bathhouse facilities have a customer base consisting of 70% men, but the spa aims to maintain a 55% female customer base. Thanks to this policy change, despite being ranked number 7 in the previously mentioned ranking for the winter season, the spa was able to claim the number one spot for the summer rankings.
■Showa Retro Onsen ‘Tamagawa Onsen’
Showa Retro Onsen, Tamagawa Onsen, Exterior
‘Tamagawa Onsen’ is a bathhouse facility that is gaining a lot of popularity in Saitama Prefecture’s Hiki District. As the name suggests, this bathhouse is full of retro goods and decor meant to give the nostalgic feeling of being in the Showa Era. With its old-style vending machine, old movie posters, retro advertisements for food and drinks, and even a “Wooden Library” built from trees logged locally, you’ll be sure to get a blast from the past while enjoying all the relaxing amenities this place has to offer.
The company that manages Tamagawa Onsen is ONSEN DOJO, established in March of 2011. Before starting the company, President and CEO Toshiki Yamazaki worked for a consulting company in charge of tourism development. Using the knowledge and experience from that job, he started the company and took over management of Tamagawa Onsen, an establishment that at the time was operating very nearly in the red.
President and CEO of ONSEN DOJO Toshiki Yamazaki
A big onsen lover himself, Yamazaki says, “I had been to over 2000 different bathhouses, but there weren’t any places that I felt that I could really just be comfortable and relax. I remember thinking ‘I really wish there was a place where I could just sit back and enjoy a calm and relaxing environment.’”When Yamazaki first took over management of Tamagawa Onsen, he noticed that the clientele was mainly older, and the operating hours were also late at night. So accordingly, he decided to focus on second-generation baby boomers as well as bringing in family clientele. As a result, he worked backwards from the market research and finally hit on the concept of “Showa Retro.” Since the equipment and facilities were already retro, it was a natural conclusion for him to simply make renovations and make use of the original materials at hand.
In order to truly embody the essence of the Showa Era, Yamazaki knew that simply changing the interior wouldn’t be enough, so he also thoroughly educated his employees to provide visitors with a real Showa-Era experience. It took 3 years to firmly establish the “Showa Retro” concept.
These measures to establish the concept allowed him to continue serving the existing family clientele while also attracting tourists, which lead to a successful increase in business.
‘Tamagawa onsen’ spa
In the second installment, we’ll take a look at the new business models ONSEN DOJO has created for their onsen bathhouse establishments.
>>Continuing onto the Part 2
Biraku Onsen SPA HERBS
Showa Retro Onsen, Tamagawa Onsen,
Fields Research Institute (FRI) conducts research in entertainment.
This article was written by a member of FRI, through the original coverage of his/her interests observed in their daily lives.