Influenced by Finnish traditions and a popular manga series, Japan’s youth are enthusiastically adopting saunas as an escape from the digitally dominated modern lifestyle.
The prevalence of saunas in Japan has surged, with influencers and actors showcasing daily visits on Instagram, and advertisements flooding apps for mountain retreats featuring cold-plunge pools. Termed a “sauna boom,” this trend mirrors past phenomena like the tapioca craze, with facilities cropping up in central Tokyo, reminiscent of the boba tea stores’ social media-driven popularity before the pandemic.
While public bathhouses have declined, saunas are experiencing a revival, with over 12,000 facilities listed on Sauna Ikitai. Finnish sauna equipment manufacturers see Japan as a promising market, and steam rooms are considered a modern alternative for executives seeking mental clarity before crucial business deals.
This sauna resurgence marks Japan’s third wave, initially discovered during the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games and later revived in the 1990s with the popularity of large bathhouses known as “super sento.” Notably, the current growth period emphasizes the adoption of Finnish rituals, involving cycles of intense heat, cold-bath immersion, and fresh air breaks, aiming to achieve the state of Cotonou—a term symbolizing contentment and clarity.
Online guides provide detailed instructions on sauna temperatures, durations, and cycling rituals to achieve Cotonou, creating an impression of a sophisticated hobby with a dedicated following.
Unlike the sauna culture associated with stereotypes in the English-speaking West, Japan’s polls indicate equal popularity among women and men. Individuals recommend saunas not only for physical health benefits but also for mental well-being, with some likening the experience to achieving a state of euphoria.
Manga artist Katsuki Tanaka is credited with popularizing sauna rituals through his hit comic book, “The Way of the Sauna.” The COVID-19 pandemic further fueled the demand for facilities offering an escape from digital saturation.
Tanaka attributes the surge in saunas to changing lifestyles, with people desiring experiences that engage their senses due to spending more time at home, surrounded by digital information. He compares this trend to the boom in camping and the recent popularity of shisha bars serving waterpipe tobacco.
As Japan maintains strict drug laws, the sauna trend gains prominence as a legal and sensory-engaging alternative. The rising popularity of CBD products, which are legal in Japan, also contributes to the desire for relaxation.
While the sauna boom faces challenges such as escalating energy costs and Japan’s declining real wages, the hope is that it transcends a mere trend, offering individuals a pathway to inner peace amid the demands of modern life.