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Business trends

Asians dip into Japanese-style hot spring baths

Bathing facilities are popping up in China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia

Bathers relax at a bath operated by Japan's Gokurakuyu Holdings in Changchun, in northeastern China.

DALIAN, China -- Japanese-style hot springs or onsen are bubbling up across East and Southeast Asia as Japanese companies and others tout the wonders of a good soak.

The growing popularity of communal bathing is due in part to the growing number of people who have become familiar with Japan's furo (bath) culture after visiting the country.

According to the Global Wellness Institute, which conducts health-related research, the global hot spring market was worth $56 billion in 2017, up about 10% from 2013. That includes spending on accommodation, food and drink, and the like.

Asia, especially China, is driving growth in the market, which the institute expects to expand by nearly 40% to $77 billion by 2022. The Asia-Pacific region accounts for just over half that total. Competition is heating up among bathhouse operators in the region as local governments look to attract bathers.

Gokurakuyu Holdings, which runs about 40 bathhouses across Japan, opened a "super sento" in Changchun, northeastern China, at the end of January. Sento is the Japanese word for public bath.

Including the super sento in Changchun, Gokurakuyu operates eight baths in China, directly or by franchise, in Shanghai, Wuhan, Qingdao and elsewhere. The Japanese company plans to raise that number to 14 by year's end, opening baths in Shanghai, Suzhou and other locations.

The 14,500-sq.-meter facility in Changchun has many ways to keep warm, in addition to the standard bath. There is also a sauna and a "bedrock bath" -- not really a bath at all, but a heated slab of rock. It also has a restaurant and lounge. Admission is 108 yuan ($16) per person.

"Getting a massage from a whirlpool bath feels good," said one satisfied customer in an online post.

To re-create the soft water common in Japan, the Changchun bath has Japanese-made equipment to remove the minerals. "Shampoo does not lather well" in China's hard water, said Masamori Suzuki, a director at Gokurakuyu.

A Chinese company has also broken into the budding market. Chongqing Hakone Hot Spring & Thermalism Industry Development Group was founded by an executive who became fascinated by Japanese hot springs.

The Chongqing-based company has so far opened facilities equipped with various baths -- open air, bubbling spring, medicated -- in Beijing, Tianjin and other cities. According to the company, it undertook a record 70 projects in 2018. It has hired Japanese designers and advisers to create an authentic Japanese-style bathing experience.

In Taiwan, hotels are going up that feature hot springs as their main draw. Hoshino Resorts will open a hot spring resort this summer called Hoshinoya Guguan in Taichung, in central Taiwan. It is the Japanese company's first foray on the island. It has yet to enter Hong Kong or mainland China.

Hoshinoya Guguan's 50 guest rooms will all have semi-open-air baths with water coming directly from the source. Surrounded by mountains, the resort will also have a walking path and a swimming pool. "The large communal bath is designed to allow people to relax, including by creating a space for resting after bathing," said a Hoshino Resorts official.

Taipei-based Forte Hotel Group opened Yamagata Kaku, a hot spring hotel with a Japanese-inspired design, in Yilan County, northeastern Taiwan, in May 2018, together with Yamagata Prefecture in Japan.

U.S. hotel chain Marriott International also opened a hotel with a hot spring under the Westin brand in Yilan in September 2017.

Taiwan is increasing its financial support for hot springs as part of its tourism drive. According to Taiwan's Ministry of Transportation and Communications, subsidies were granted to 125 hot spring business operators between 2010 and 2015.

Hotels featuring hot springs or large communal baths are said to have more guests in winter as temperatures drop. But operators have also emerged in Southeast Asia despite the warm climate.

Siam Wellness Group, a listed Thai company that runs spas in Thailand, Cambodia and elsewhere, opened a hot spring facility with a bedrock bath and a tatami-mat lounge in Bangkok in 2016. In Singapore, a Japanese company opened Yunomori Onsen & Spa in 2016.

"Even in hot countries, people can sweat in a bath and feel better. It is popular, especially among the wealthy," said Tomonori Maruyama, a Japanese spa researcher.

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