Trying to eke out an existence in one of the most expensive cities in the world (or even just lugging your luggage through it) is a sure-fire way to get stiff shoulders. Luckily there are lots of places a knotted-up cheapo can go for an affordable Tokyo massage.
There are probably as many massage options as there are vending machines in Tokyo, but it can be tough to tell which are legit – especially if your knowledge of kanji is limited. To avoid any unexpected “happy endings”, a rule of thumb is to avoid anything with a garish sign, especially if it features lascivious ladies on it, includes wine, and/or seems to be open till sunrise (unless, of course, that’s the kind of treatment you’re after).
Hotels, spas and the like usually offer a variety of safe massages – everything from vigorous Korean body scrubbing to Ayurvedic oil treatments, and that one where they walk all over your back. But with prices ranging from 8 000 – 30 000 yen, these are luxury pampering options the average cheapo can’t afford. For some, their entire budget for three days in Tokyo might only be 10 000 yen!
Our advice is to skip all of that stuff and instead look out for this kind of sign, which you’re almost guaranteed to find several of around your station.
Sometimes referred to as “bone setters” or “pain clinics” (not in a kinky way), seikotsuin clinics offer sports massage and basic physio type treatments. Some accept Japanese national health insurance cards, but it’s a bit of a grey area, and they might only do so if your neck muscles are so tense you can no longer turn your head. If they do take your health insurance, you’re looking at roughly 1 500 – 2 000 yen for your first session, with the fees getting lower the more often you go. Clinics without prices listed outside are usually a good bet – anything with a “course menu” tends to have non-negotiable rates.
A typical treatment at a seikotsuin involves 10-20 minutes of electrode pads on your back/other aching muscles, which zap your knots with varying intensity (it’s a lot more tolerable than it sounds), followed by a decent, basic massage (no oil or nudity involved – the staff will even put a towel between your fully-clothed body and their hands). Some places also throw in what I like to call “leg bags” (awesome things that use air pressure to squeeze your legs gently), or 10 minutes on a water jet massage bed. You can usually just drop into a seikotsuin without making an appointment.
If you have an injury, a seikotsuin is a great place to go for rehab too. A few years ago I tore the ligaments in my wrist (snowboarding misadventure, ow), and my local guys helped treat it with an ultrasound micro massage device that got right down to, well, the ligaments.
Clinics that don’t accept health insurance tend to focus on massage, with 30 minutes priced at 2500 – 3 000 yen. Some offer cheaper (1 500 yen) 10-20 minute neck and shoulder massages, which allows you to test things out before committing to a more expensive, longer course.
If you’re keen on having shiatsu (traditional Japanese massage that is based on acupuncture points) done, are after a bit of Japanese acupuncture (said to use shorter, finer needles and be left in for shorter times, compared to the Chinese version) or want to add some moxibustion (when they burn those bundles/balls of herbs on you – again, more pleasant that it sounds) to the mix, you’ll need to look for this sign.
Shinkyuuin clinics generally don’t accept health insurance, so they tend to be a bit more expensive, with a 30-minute session averaging 3 000 yen, and 50 min or longer costing 5 000 yen and up. You usually need to make an appointment in advance.
Suggestions for shinkyuuin and dedicated shiatsu spots to take your wearied bones include Mantani Acupuncture Clinic near Hanzomon Station, Genpoudou Clinic in Shibuya, Namikoshi Shiatsu Treatment Centre in Bunkyo ward (said to be a rather famous joint), the central Oketaku Shiatsu Clinic (a home visit service rather than an actual clinic – they sometimes offer one-coin shiatsu sessions), and Kimura Shiatsu Institute in Shibuya.
There are also heaps of chiropractic clinics (カイロプラクティック), as well as seitai (聖体) clinics (although also a treatment where they manipulate your body, it’s seen as somewhat less clicky than chiropractics), and, to a lesser extent, osteopathy clinics, but these all tend to be pricier.
Another option is to pop into one of the many quick massage/reflexology chain stores that are scattered around major train stations and malls. Queensway, Raffine and Temomin are all popular and offer a variety of options, often starting at 10 minutes, but, in our opinion, the treatments are over-priced for the quality of what you get, and also feel a bit impersonal.
Our first-line advice – give your local seikotsuin a go, save some yen, and take it from there. If you don’t speak much Japanese, get someone to jot down on paper for you what hurts and what the reason might be (e.g. bad posture, pulled a muscle, heavy bags, old injury), before you go.
Alternatively, if you’re an extreme cheapo, you could just test out the massage chairs at Donki or a furniture store for free. If they throw you and the chair out (after making you buy it) … we said nothing.
This article was originally published in April 2014 and was updated by Frances Maeda on July 15th, 2016.
Photograph the famous Shibuya scramble crossing, wander around the curious and quirky love hotel hill, visit Yoyogi park and Meiji shrine...