The burning wood makes an occasional crackling sound.
After being steamed in a room filled with the scent of wood, I walk out of the log house, drenched in sweat.
As I lower my body into cold water to cool off my heated body, I stretch my limbs and listen to the sound of the rustling leaves.
Then I enter the log house again.
The Sauna is located near the shores of Lake Nojiri in Shinanomachi, Nagano Prefecture. It has become a very popular destination to enjoy saunas.
They offer two types of log house style saunas, both based on the sauna houses in Finland. There is a large outdoor open air resting space that is big enough for one to lay down and stretch without worrying about the people around you. The water bath barrels are filled with spring water that is drawn from Kurohime Mountain, and you can look out onto Lake Nojiri as you bathe.
If you feel like it, you can jump into Lake Nojiri itself, which is just a short walk away.
Filled with the very essence of the outdoor sauna experience, it’s no wonder that this place is booked up to months in advance. Even on weekday afternoons, the place is filled and the parking lot is lined with cars from all over Japan.
Another reason behind its popularity may be because, unlike most places in Japan, men and women wear bathing suits and share the saunas together. The friendly hospitality of the staff members are just right and the distance and freedom they give their customers contributes to the comfortable, laid back atmosphere.
We realized just how masterfully calculated this sauna experience was when the founder of The Sauna, Noda Klaxonbebe told us that they “really put a lot of thought into it.”
Noda has traveled all around Japan, did the Shikoku Pilgrimage route, and traveled across the United States. He has had a unique career as a full time employee at LIG, a web production company, and after years of deliberation, he found his path in producing these sauna experiences. We talked to him about his trials and tribulations while starting The Sauna and his future prospects as he aims for a sauna that will be “filled with laughter and remain busy for another 50 years.”
Rapping, a pilgrimage, and launching a sauna project
—— Mr. Noda, you are the manager of The Sauna, but we heard that you started out as an intern for the web production company LIG and later became a full time employee. Is it true that you first became fascinated by hot springs during your Buddhist pilgrimage in Shikoku?
Yes, I was deeply impressed and influenced by my hot springs experience in Shikoku. It was after four days of walking and not being able to take a bath that I stopped by the Tanotano Hot Springs in the town of Tano of Kochi Prefecture. I took a water bath there and it felt soooooo good.
I had been endlessly walking along the shores where there was no shade, so my skin was burnt and dry and my feet were blistered and bleeding. I was mentally exhausted and asking myself why I had decided to do this walk.
Since I dove right into a water bath, it was similar to the sensation of cooling down in a water bath after being in a sauna. Later, I lay in the open air resting space next to a small stream of water and then went into the sauna. It was such a wonderful experience.
I slept really well that night. Even after returning to Tokyo, I seeked out saunas and really became hooked on them.
—— Was this around the area of Ueno, near the LIG office in Tokyo where you worked?
There is a sauna place called Sauna Hokuou near the office and it’s really great. You can have drinks and there is even a room for taking a nap. At the time, I was living in Shimokitazawa, which was a bit far from the office. I began staying the night at the Hokuou and going to the office after taking a morning sauna there.
—— A sauna in the morning before work sounds amazing.
I have a belief that happiness in life is connected to how much good sleep you experience in your lifetime. So in order to get a great night’s sleep, I work hard, go to the sauna, have a nice drink and then sleep. I shifted to that lifestyle about 4 years ago after I finished my trip across Japan and the Shikoku pilgrimage.
—— We heard that you questioned the path of your career after returning to Tokyo.
That’s right. I was working as a rapper because the company wanted me to do it, but I am not a good singer. I was being paid a regular salary as a company employee so it didn’t matter if my records sold or not.
I was uncomfortable with that and thought it was disgraceful towards people who were serious about their music careers. The people around me at the company were cheering me on, but I didn’t like where I was headed.
You know, the sauna feels really good when you are troubled.
I would travel to Aichi and Kobe to go to saunas. The people around me teased how I must really love saunas if I am traveling that far just for saunas. When I decided that I wanted to quit my job to pursue a career in saunas, the company president offered me a chance to do it at the company.
I worked really hard on a business plan and presented it to the company president (Go Yoshihara). His reaction was, “I have never been in a sauna, so I have no idea.”
So I borrowed 300 thousand yen from him and we traveled to Finland together. We stayed in Finland for 10 days and went to about 3 saunas each day.
—— Before The Sauna opened, you also had a crowdfunding campaign to raise money.
I looked back at my own life and had a feeling I could collect around 1.5 million yen through crowdfunding. The log house style saunas in Finland were really great, so I showed my photos and books that I bought to a professional log house builder and we built the saunas here together.
What the sauna masters taught me about hospitality
—— When I think of saunas in Finland, I imagine them being located near a lake. The Sauna is next to Lake Nojiri, so it is similar in that sense.
The infrastructure of The Sauna is based on Finland’s style. However, for the style of service and hospitality, we aim to do it in a Japanese fashion. The biggest attraction of the saunas that I went to in the past came down to the quality of hospitality by the staff.
—— What are your favorite saunas in Japan and which ones influenced how you operate?
The Kobe Sauna & Spa is amazing. Most places have reduced the number of staff members because of the coronavirus pandemic, but this place maintains a high volume of staff members even at night. When I asked the owner why that was, he said, “Simply having the staff there maintains a high level of professional tension.”
—— Why is professional tension necessary at a sauna?
Saunas are often located in downtown districts so oftentimes they have customers who have been drinking. When people are drunk, their judgment weakens or they may become physically impaired in some way. In these situations, he said it is important that there is a staff member nearby to talk to the customers and check up on them. He keeps a high number of staff just for this purpose. This really inspired me.
I also learned a lot about hospitality from the owner of Ogaki Sauna in Gifu Prefecture. A lot of the customers were regulars and the reason they chose Ogaki Sauna is because of her. She is not overly friendly, but keeps just the right amount of distance. We are always incorporating new ideas so we can be just as good as these great teachers.
—— We felt the details in your hospitality after experiencing the sauna today.
We try to be careful about where we place the towels and sandals. Hospitality is not easy and, in fact, we put a lot of thought into it.
—— I noticed that there were clips placed near cups at the drinking water area and thought that was a nice idea. It’s an easy way to identify which cups have been used. You even had warm drinks, which was very thoughtful.
We came up with those ideas based on feedback we got from our customers. In order to keep improving The Sauna, we try to improve one thing everyday. That mindset helps us notice the minor details in our services.
The big sauna places like The Kobe Sauna & Spa, Yurakusu, Ogaki Sauna and Wellbe all have great hospitality. If we want to be around 50 years from now, we also have to do the same.
We have about 10 staff working at The Sauna and we share with each other what happened each day to find areas of improvement or incorporate new ideas. Anything we can fix right away, we do so.
—— Do you occasionally make any big changes?
Although it won’t be right away, we are planning on gradually moving our business hours to start earlier in the morning. Right now, we start at 9 a.m., but we want to move it to 7 a.m.. The mornings in Shinanomachi are really spectacular. You can hear the sounds of the animals and singing of the birds, and the soft morning wind in the trees. Listening to these sounds and absorbing the morning sun is a great way to bring rhythm into your life.
—— You mentioned that you experienced first-hand how great morning saunas are. Right now, you limit the time each customer has to use the sauna to 2 hours. Do you plan on changing this as well?
We believe that 2 hours is just the right amount of time to “balance” the mind and body, but for our new sauna, we plan to make it 3 hours. There will be BBQ and meal plans so our customers can take their time and relax here.
I want to offer both sauna experiences, one where the customer can really take time to reflect inwardly in the sauna, and the other where customers can enjoy food and conversation with friends in the sauna. The Sauna is a place for both men and women, young and old to gather and have a good time, so we hope to increase the choices in the services we offer.
Continuing the sauna business beyond the boom
—— The Sauna opened in February 2019, just around the same time the sauna boom began in Japan.
When they aired a drama series that was based on saunas, I really thought the boom had finally come. Thanks to that TV show, the number of reservations went up.
The plans to build our second sauna hut, called Kakushi, was made around that time. When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, things were pretty slow for about two months, so we all worked together to build the second hut. It was a lot of hard work, but we became very attached to the building because of it.
—— Your passion for saunas is very obvious, considering your achievements in writing the business plan, traveling to Finland, succeeding in a crowdfunding campaign, opening The Sauna, and getting it running through trial and error. You even built another hut by hand during the pandemic. That’s quite amazing.
I think it would have been hard if my passion was coming just from a love of saunas. You also have to have some drive.
At first, The Sauna had no customers at all. We made about 100 posters and flyers and asked the local stores to put them up because we had nothing else to do.
—— So you went door to door?
I did door to door sales when I was traveling around Japan, so that experience helped me. Our company had bought about 2,000 speakers and they weren’t selling well at all. So I traveled all around Japan and single handedly sold about 1,200 of them.
—— That’s really impressive! How did you do it?
Bigger shops turn you away at the door, so I targeted independently owned shops. I would buy a surfboard and act like a surfer and walk into a surfing shop, or do the same at a skateboarding shop to get in and start conversations.
I even did sales during nights of drinking out. I would talk about my struggles of selling the speakers and mention that I actually had them on hand. Most people sympathize a little, and even though most people say they don’t have cash on them, I brought out the credit card reader so they could buy it on the spot.
While I was traveling around Japan, I think I learned how to communicate and get close to strangers right away.
—— All your past experiences are proving useful in your sauna operations.
I am done doing that kind of pushy sales work now (laughs). Still, going door to door to advertise the sauna did help bring in customers, and with the TV show and sauna boom that followed, we were able to get to where we are now.
However, from now on we don’t want to depend on the current boom so we are focusing on working diligently on what needs to be done. I believe that the core things that are important for the service industry do not change, even 50 years after a boom has passed. If we continue to improve ourselves, I believe we can provide an unwavering experience.
—— It sounds like you are very busy, but what do you do to relax during your time off?
I enjoy baths and saunas. I think there are few people who enjoy these as much as I do. I think for most people, concentration for work only lasts one to two hours. I take baths or saunas in between work or on business trips in order to recharge.
Wood-burning, earth-friendly sauna
—— We heard that there are now a number of saunas and bathing facilities around Japan that you have produced?
Yes. I have been involved in six facilities, including the TATEYAMA SAUNA, which opened in December 2021.
—— We heard that you sometimes turn down requests to produce a facility. How do you choose which ones to be involved in?
The creators must be passionate. It is also important to have a sales strategy and that is something I think about every day. Before that, however,t you have to think about who, where, and what kind of sauna you want to build and the experience you want to offer.
—— What kind of sauna do you want to build next?
We are using too much firewood so we are talking to local forestry cooperatives to find a more sustainable way of getting wood, such as using lumber from forest thinning. I insist on promoting the appeal of wood burning saunas, so this is important. It would be great if there was a system in which the more saunas there are, the more it contributes to forest conservation.
—— I see how environmental protection efforts are connected to wood burning saunas.
In fact, in Finland there are eco-friendly saunas that use the heat from the saunas to warm the entire facility, or use solar power to make their own energy. We did not have the means to implement these ideas when we first started The Sauna, but we are now able to think about these possibilities.
—— Do you already have some of these plans in place now?
We are building it right next to The Sauna. This area is designated as a national park, and there is too much snow to do construction in the winter, so there are big hurdles to overcome, but I believe it is a project that is worth the time and effort.
Once it is complete, I hope to promote it as an example of how saunas can contribute to environmental conservation and build similar projects around Japan.
—— That is a very exciting future.
There are a lot of things I want to do. In the end, I plan on selling my house and car and buying a campervan to continue my travels around Japan and pilgrimage in Shikoku. When I think of all the things I want to do, there is not enough time, so I’m sure the next 20 or even 50 years will be busy for me (laughs).