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Sauna Talk: Marishi Mochida 持田 摩利支 Japan Sauna Institute 日本サウナ総研

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Today on the virtual Sauna Talk bench, we join Marishi Morchida 持田 摩利支, from the Japan Sauna Institute 日本サウナ総研. Marishi joins us from his apartment in Washington, DC. During this episode, we learn about the active Japan sauna culture. How thermal bathing is intertwined into Japanese culture. You’ll learn some key differences between Japanese sauna culture vs. North American in particular. Like many of us, Marishi is a serious sauna enthusiast. Not so much frown serious, but super into it passionate serious. Marishi shared with me that he was a bit nervous to be on Sauna Talk, but I think you’ll agree, he comes off just fine.. as if we were right there on the sauna bench… with you!

Link to the 2021 Japan Sauna Institute survey is here.

Hi Marishi, welcome to Sauna Talk.  Please share with us where you are from, where you are now, and what you are doing where you are now. 

I am originally from Japan. I was born and raised in a city called Hiroshima, then I moved to Tokyo for my undergraduate studies. After college, I worked in Tokyo for several years, and that’s where I fell in love with the public bathing culture of Japan. People say that Tokyo’s population density is one of the highest in the world, but what they don’t realize is that Tokyo’s public bathing density is also one of the highest. I don’t have any data to back this up, but I’ve visited many major cities in the world, including Beijing, NY, Singapore, and Tokyo is definitely a bathing paradise. Anyway, that’s where I fell in love with public baths, and that’s where I fell in love with saunas.

After working in Tokyo for 5 years, I wanted to continue my education in the US, so I moved to Chicago to get my MBA. I graduated last year and am now based in Northern Virginia.

Tell us more about your “day job.”

I work for a company called Capital One, which is a large financial institution that focuses on the credit card business. What’s interesting and scary about the credit card business is that everything you do with your card is captured and stored as data.  I analyze that transaction data and come up with a plan to improve our products or improve our strategy. “Customers don’t like the rebate percentage on this product”, let’s change it. “Customers in the construction industry turn out to be the best fit for our product”, let’s talk to them more. That’s my day job.

Sauna. I sense it is an important part of your life, as well. When did you first become exposed to sauna and describe the type of sauna to which you’ve been exposed ?

I also feel that sauna is an important part of life! I can’t even remember my first encounter with a sauna. It was when I was a small child, and my father and mother were both big fans of hot springs. We visit the local public bath like every month, and when our family plans a family trip, they almost always make sure that the place we’re staying at has a high-quality bath for customers. Most public baths and hotels in Japan have saunas, and I just followed my father.

It was not until I started working that I really saw the value and power that sauna has. This is just my personal opinion, but suffering and anguish improve your sauna experience.  When I joined a company, I was just a stupid kid who didn’t know how to talk to my boss properly. This is really a big problem because I was working in a big Japanese company with a long history and hierarchical structure, and my boss often picked up my words and scolded me.  I woke up every morning around 5:30 a.m. and worked until 10 to 11 p.m., and when I went home, it was usually midnight. During this period of my life, the sauna helped me a lot. Every day after work, I would go to a gym and just go into the sauna without exercising. I just did nothing there. I would just relax without thinking about my work, enjoy the sauna and cold shower, and then go home. I’m very sure that without the sauna, my life would have been much more miserable. 

As for the type of sauna, I do everything. I like electronic sauna. Traditionally, many saunas in Japan are extremely dry, but lately more and more places have more humid, Finnish style sauna too, I like it. I used to go to Russian banya in Chicago and I loved it too.

Now that you are in the US, you have a special perspective of sauna in two different countries. Two different continents. Please share with us your observations about similarities and differences of sauna in US vs sauna in Japan. 

It’s so different, the only similarity I’ve found is that a sauna is a sauna. Both countries have many electrically heated saunas. That’s where the similarities end. 

One big difference I have noticed is where people enjoy saunas. For many people in the US, correct me if I’m wrong, but sauna is something you enjoy at home. Or at least a gym or membership club, a place that only a limited number of people have access to. So when I go to a sauna subreddit, people are almost always discussing what saunas to buy instead of what sauna to go to. 

In Japan, saunas are a major form of entertainment, regardless of gender or age. Public saunas are everywhere, and you just invite your friends, co-workers, or family members to go together. Let’s be naked, enjoy the sauna and drink good sake or beer, that’s how we deepen the connection with people. 

Another thing is silence. In Japan, you’re expected to be quiet in the sauna, and in many spas you can actually see posters that say you have to refrain from talking. But in the U.S., not just in the sauna, it’s very common to make small talk with someone you don’t know, right? At first I wanted to concentrate on the sauna experience itself, but now I really enjoy talking to people I meet in the sauna.

The Japan Sauna Institute. How did you personally become involved. Give us a history of the organization and your involvement. 

Japan Sauna Institute was established in 2015. It was started as the first research institute focusing on sauna. We’re also different from other similar organizations in Japan in that our members are just ordinary sauna users while other organizations are mostly operated by companies. We aim to provide insights from user’s perspective, and conduct various studies regarding the sauna industry in Japan. 

I joined the Japan Sauna Institute in 2021, and it was just a coincidence. When I was doing my MBA, I wanted to study data science. I talked to one of my friends, and he said that if you want to study data science, the best way to learn it is to actually write a script to find out something you’re interested in.  I was into saunas, so I thought it would be a good idea to analyze sauna data with Python. 

So I scraped data about saunas from all the public baths from some websites, created a big data set, and just played with it. I analyzed the data to find out things like the best temperature of the sauna room, the best temperature of the cold plunge, which district in Tokyo offers the best access to the best saunas. At first, I just wrote an article on my personal blog, but at some point I thought it would be great if I could work with like-minded people, so I googled to see if there were any organizations doing research on saunas. I found the Japan Sauna Research Institute, I e-mailed them, sharing a link to my blog and that I would like to collaborate with them, then Tachibana, the head of the institute, told me that I should just join the institute.

japan sauna institute logo

The sauna study. This isn’t your first one. Tell us about it’s history and how you organize the study, how many participants etc. who they are. How you find them. 

We started the Japan Sauna Survey in 2016, with the aim to provide quantitative data and analysis on the sauna market in Japan. I suppose this is the same in other countries, but the sauna and spa market is very fragmented, and the vast majority of them are not small companies. What this means is that there is not much public data provided by companies and as a result people only talk about sauna based on their perceptions. That’s why we thought it was important to provide companies in the industry and sauna enthusiasts with a broad overview of the market. Since then, the Japan Sauna Survey has become our annual work, and especially after Covid, it has become an important health checkup for the industry. The good news of the latest survey is that we have seen a solid rebound in the sauna population after the decline due to Covid in 2021.

The study, and I will publish it in the show notes, reveals some very interesting data. What couple few things stand out to you in the study results ?

One thing I would like to point out is that the sauna population is on the rise again. As everyone knows, the Covid 19 pandemic was terrible, but it really took a toll on the sauna industry in Japan. Japan is one of the fastest aging countries in the world, and people are generally very conservative, and many people stopped going to the sauna. Some cities, including Tokyo and Osaka, enforced a lockdown, so literally public baths in those places were forced to close, which was a huge blow to that business because you still have to pay utilities, you still have to pay rent, all those kinds of costs. The population of casual sauna-goers, which we call “light sauna-goers,” is still much smaller than it was before Coverid. It’s about 8.5 million now and it was about 15 million before covid, but the medium and heavy sauners, people who go more than once a month, have actually recovered almost to pre-covid levels.

Let’s talk about sauna bathing in Japan. One of the aspects that I respect and appreciate is no jankification in the cold plunge. What do sauna bathers do after exiting the hot room and before entering the cold plunge ?

For many sauna enthusiasts in Japan, the cold plunge water is sacred. You have to make sure you either take a shower or do kakemizu, which means scooping water with a small basin and washing away the sweat before using the cold plunge. 

I think this custom has its roots in the hot spring culture of Japan. People are expected to wash their body or do kakemizu before using the hot spring bath, and we have to do the same for the cold plunge.

Electric vs wood fired?

Personally, I like wood-fired saunas a lot, but unfortunately, there aren’t many public saunas that have wood-fired saunas.

Sauna tents?

I have no experience with sauna tents. What a shame!

Back to you and sauna. How would you describe good heat ?

Back in Japan, when I was still new to sauna, one of my friends told me that good sauna or good heat makes you sweat, and that’s the definition of good heat for me as well. Personally, I like hot sauna with higher than 200 degrees Fahrenheit, relatively humid, and the heat should be dispersed and evenly distributed in the room. In short, I like hot, humid, sweaty heat. 

Are Americans f***ed up (I’m kidding! Am I?)

I don’t think so, America is a great country.  It is a land of opportunity and I really enjoy the amount of personal freedom I can never have in Japan. The only thing I would like to say to the USA is that there should be more public bathhouses in the USA.  I really wonder why there are not many public bathhouses in the US. I’ve been to Russian and Korean spas in Chicago, NY, DC and every time I go I have such a wonderful time. I think part of the sauna experience is meditation. Just focusing on the heat and your body, away from all the outside stimuli from friends or smartphones. In the last decade, meditation has become a big part of many professionals in the US and I think sauna has a great appeal to this segment of the population.

If you could have a mobile sauna and bring it anywhere in the world, where would you like to go and enjoy a sauna session?

I’m a big baseball fan, so I would like to take it to a baseball stadium and watch baseball while taking a sauna.  I’m not necessarily a big fan of this, and you probably won’t like this idea either, but a lot of saunas in Japan have televisions in them. Normally, people don’t care too much about it, but whenever there is a big sports game, the sauna room has a strange sense of unity. I would like to have a similar but more real experience by bringing my mobile sauna to a baseball stadium.

If you could sauna with anyone in the world, dead or alive, past or present, who would you choose?

I honestly don’t have a person’s name, but if I had to answer, I would say people who have ever said no to my invitation to go to the sauna. When I was doing my MBA in Chicago, I invited many people to go to the sauna together, and some people said, “No, I’m not interested. I don’t understand”. I really feel for them, they should at least try it once and then they can judge if it is for them or not. So when I have a change, I want to take those people to the sauna and see their reactions. 

When you know it is going to be a sauna day for you, from the morning of anticipating sauna, to going to sauna, maybe the preparing and lighting of the stove, the first heat up, the first splash of löyly, the first cool down, second, and on, all the way through to going to sleep at night, what is your most favorite moment if you had to pick, one of your favorite moments of sauna? 

This is an interesting and difficult one. I love every part of my sauna experience, from the anticipation to going to bed that day and having the best sleep. If I have to choose one, I like drinking beer with my close friends after 5 sauna sessions. Sauna is the best spice for food and the best spice for creating a bond with people. That’s my favorite part.

What do you think is most misunderstood about sauna, that you would like others less familiar with sauna to know and better understand?

Some people in Japan treat sauna as a kind of mental and physical training. It’s so hot and uncomfortable, but if you can endure this difficulty for 5 minutes, you’ll be fine and healthier. I think they’re missing the essence of sauna. Sauna is comfortable. You don’t have to stay there for a certain amount of time, you can get out whenever you want and take a cold shower or jump into the cold water to cool down.

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