Health & Beauty: In pods we trust

Relaxation capsules offer all-in-one healing and freedom from stress. Steve Trautlein opens the lid on a unique way to keep body and soul together.

Japan lacks the space to bury its dead, but the living have taken to entombing themselves in coffin-shaped cylinders that are designed to promote health and well-being. And while this irony does little to dispel the notion of the Japanese as inscrutable folk, relaxation capsules, as they're known, satisfy Tokyoites' seemingly innate demands: the pursuit of exquisite relaxation, the love of gadgetry, and the need to escape crowded environs.

Comprising the benefits of diverse 'esthetique' salon courses in elegant surroundings and at low cost, the capsules—sleek machines reminiscent of a sci-fi cryogenic sleep chamber—attract a devoted following. They're springing up in both larger depato and tiny relaxation spaces, and even in places as unlikely as chiropractic offices. "We get about a hundred customers a week," says Mie Sugiura, manager of the Relaxation Salon in Shinjuku's Keio Department Store, which owns two Alpha 21 capsules. "And many of those are regulars."

Such popularity owes much to the machines' versatility. In one sitting, users benefit from vibrating massage, soothing lights, aromatherapy, heating pads, cooling air, brain wave stimulation, and relaxing music. Adjusting the intensity, form and proportion of these features creates a wide menu of course options, lasting from 20 minutes to an hour and costing about ¥100 a minute, that variously targets stress, weight loss, skin problems and insomnia.

Dialing in comfort at Fuu's elegant salon


The pods stand about 3 feet high, are 7-and-a-half feet long and weigh over 220 pounds. A large hinged door at one end swivels vertically like a giant clam's shell, revealing what looks like a doctor's examining room bed. Comfortable padding offers back, leg and neck support, while the door's underside hosts an array of heating and cooling vents and, on some models, therapeutic lamps. When shut, the top neatly enwraps the entire body, save the head, which faces a control panel whose LEDs display information like temperature and elapsed session time. The Sunspectra 21, a newer model, also has an anterior swiveling cap containing speakers, which, when the cap is closed, rest near the ears. Claustrophobes need not worry: all capsules leave the head exposed, and attendants are always nearby.

The lovely and talented Alpha 21

Customers can select any of ten courses, of which the weight loss option is typical. Here operating on much the same principle as a sauna, the capsule cranks up its interior temperatures to 172F (79C). The heat puts enough stress on the cardiovascular system so that, in trying to keep the body's core temperature stable, metabolic rates increase and calories are burned. Results are comparable to a brisk walk or a light jog, but the real benefit lies in what else is going on as the body sweats. A strong breeze of cool air swirls around the face, the scent of fennel infuses the air, a whole-body vibration soothes the back and butt and legs, while pulsing lights and light classical music work to, in less technical terms, pacify the spirit. Certainly, this beats forcing conversation with a naked, sweating salaryman at the local sauna.


At Fuu salon ("Fuu" is the Japanese equivalent of "Ahh") in Yoyogi Uehara, the Sunspectra 21 occupies pride of place in the small but classy basement shop. The two-year-old mint green capsule is, according to owner Kiyoshi Kimura, often used to complement the salon's more hands-on services. Yuu offers reflexology and Western oil massages, and treatments often end with a session in the capsule. "We believe in an integrated human and machine healing system."
"Healing" is a word that the capsules' proponents banter about a lot. The curative effects of courses designed to reduce stress or to eliminate insomnia, as opposed to more cosmetic ones like weight loss, are effective because of the holistic nature of the machines themselves. No other single treatment offers such numerous and specific therapies simultaneously.

Getting the treatment at Keio

Kimura recalls one customer who, as he describes her, was clinically depressed, borderline psychotic, and not benefiting from traditional therapies. "We prescribed a course for her using the capsule, and in a couple of months she was truly a different person," he says. Ms Sugiura of Keio, meanwhile, tells the story of a patient with a terrible case of eczema who also improved. "Initially, she came twice a day, then once a day, and eventually every other day, now once a week," she recalls. "Her eczema is totally cured."

Beyond the tactile benefits of massage, high heat, and cooling air, the machines get under the skin. Intense pulsing lights, emanating via goggles on the Alpha 21 and from a bulb directly above the head on the Sunspectra, are not merely a pretty effect. Changing color as the course progresses, the light is actually affecting brain activity.

"Psychologists call it entrainment," says Ron Berglund, vice president of Sybaritic Inc, the American company that makes both the Alpha and the Sunspectra. "There are waves produced by the brain on its way to sleep: alpha waves, which indicate a meditative state, theta waves, then sleep itself. The light dials in these different waves." Fuu's sleep course helps insomniacs and others by inducing theta waves, but again, that's only part of the story. There's also lavender and clary sage scents, shoulder and back vibration, blue fluorescent lights washing over the body and face, cool air and a comfortable 27F environment. According to Kimura, the course will have the user asleep for most of the 45-minute session—insomnia or no.


Asian persuasion
As befits a people enamored of both high-tech wizardry and new ways to relax, the Japanese are the world's most eager capsule consumers. Berglund points to the fact that whereas for leisure Americans travel to wide open spaces like resorts, the Japanese tend to seek out the sensory retreat of an onsen or sento. "Japan is our best market," he says. "The Japanese were into the machines long before anywhere else. Even now, with the bad economy, the numbers in America are only just catching up to Japan."

Kimura agrees that the product fits the market. "Most of our customers are young women," he adds, speculating that older people may be daunted by the newness of the technology. He's quick top point out, though, that everyone can benefit, and the shop sees its share of foreigners. Helping the cause is the fact that, in frantic and underspaced Tokyo, relaxation capsules offer a cheap and fulfilling way of tuning out the masses and—if only for a while—enlarging one's personal space. Lessening anxiety, reducing waistlines, and benefiting general health are, as they say, the final nails in the coffin.


Relaxation capsules around town:

Fuu. Sunspectra 21 and other healing and relaxation services in a peaceful, elegant atmosphere. One-minute walk from Yoyogi Uehara station. From ¥2,000 for 25 minutes. English spoken and English menu. Hours: 11am-9pm Mon-Fri, till 7pm Sat. Salitas Bldg B1, 1-32-18 Uehara, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3460-7288.

Keio Department Store Relaxation Salon. Two Alpha 21 capsules, friendly staff. Also offer massages, and health and beauty products. English spoken (ask for Ms Sugiura) and English menu. Hours: 10am-7pm daily. From ¥2,000 for 20 minutes. Keio Department Store 8F, Shinjuku stn, west exit. Tel: 03-5321-5973.

Anubis. Sunspectra 21 and a range of other products and services in a well appointed shop in a Tokyo station depato. From ¥2,500 for 25 minutes. Open Mon-Fri 10am-8pm, Sat until 7:30. Daimaru Department Store 2F, Tokyo stn. Tel: 03-5223-2333.

Asuka Soft. Reflexology, oil massages and the Alpha 21. Also chiropractic. From ¥1,500 for 15 minutes. Hours: 9am-8pm daily. 6-13-17 Komagome, Toshima-ku. Nearest stn: Komagome. Tel: 03-3916-3372.

Courtesy of Fuu; Courtesy of Keio Relaxation Salon; Courtesy of NBC

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