TOKYO -- As the COVID-19 state of emergency drags on in Tokyo, Osaka and other prefectures, luxury saunas are attracting devoted lovers of the soothing baths seeking a brief respite from pandemic-related stress.
"I want to go to a sauna, but I'm also worried about getting infected with COVID-19," said a Tokyo resident in his 40s.
According to surveys conducted by the Japan Sauna Institute, there were an estimated 25.84 million sauna lovers in Japan as of last December. Thanks in part to a number of TV dramas featuring saunas and business guides explaining their health benefits, the popularity of saunas had been growing, especially among young people.
But the recent poll shows a decline in the number of aficionados, hitting its lowest since the survey began in 2017, undoubtedly a reflection of partial lockdowns and other coronavirus curbs that make it difficult for people to visit saunas.
That said, the number of "frequent sauna-goers" -- people who visit saunas more than four times a month -- rose 1% from a year earlier to 3.39 million. The figure was slightly higher than in 2019 before the pandemic began.
Among sauna devotees -- people who visit saunas more than 15 times a month -- many said they are now going more often than before, even as the pandemic rages on. The man in Tokyo said he has even seen people entering saunas in special masks.
Solo Sauna Tune, a Finnish-style private sauna that opened in Tokyo's Kagurazaka district last December, attracts people worried about becoming infected but who simply cannot stay away from the baths. A private sauna room costs 3,800 yen ($34) per hour and a group room for up to three people costs 11,400 yen per 80 minutes.
In Tokyo, admission to a bare-bones public bath costs between 470 yen and 1,000 yen, depending on available facilities, while a more upscale public sauna could cost around 2,000 yen.
Admission to Solo Sauna is two to four times higher than these public baths, but reservations fill up immediately, said a Solo Sauna Tune employee.
Visiting public saunas during the pandemic is either for the foolhardy or brave, especially during peak hours. Private saunas, however, offer a semblance of security, as they claim to have low a lower risk of infection and better hygiene than their public counterparts.
Private saunas disinfect facilities and change towels after every user or group, attracting customers who do not mind paying more for a little extra peace of mind.
For the more aesthetically inclined, an international art collective called teamLab is running an exhibition that combines sauna with art. Admission to "teamLab Reconnect: Art with Rinkan Sauna" is pricey -- 4,800 yen on weekdays and 5,800 on weekdays for 100 minutes -- but visitors do not seem to mind. "I could enjoy the art casually and have a refreshing experience," said one.
For sauna lovers in Japan, "totonou," or "sauna trance," has emerged as a new buzzword, expressing a state of mind thought to be generated by alternating hot saunas and cold baths several times. A teamLab representative said the trance allows one to "become immersed in the art."
Many saunas in Japan have had to suspend operations or shorten business hours amid the various states of emergency to slow the spread of COVID-19, prompting some people to install saunas in their homes.
"We've seen more people installing home saunas and have received more inquiries than before the pandemic began," said a representative of Sumitomo Realty and Development.
A home sauna starts at around 1 million yen and goes up from there, with the more lavish versions selling for over 3 million yen. Simple mist saunas in bathrooms cost between 500,000 yen and 1 million yen, including installation. But users say the comfort and soothing effects are well worth the cost, especially in these uncertain times.
According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare last September, 45% of respondents said they had suffered from anxiety due to the pandemic since last August.
Demand for luxury saunas and home installations will likely grow, as more people seek escape from COVID-related stress and are forced to change their lifestyle.