A high-tech bath buoys hygiene craze

If you think you know a thing or two about clean living, put down that glass of milk and listen up, because a small Japanese company has news for you.

They aren't interested in your morals. They're after the mold that might be growing between your toes. Or those grungy pores. With such earthy adversaries in mind, Avant Company of Kyoto has unveiled a world first: the human washing machine.

A sleek cylinder that offers two cycles - normal and with seaweed - the machine has been a hit in Tokyo since its June launch.

The press has chronicled its success, largely straight-faced, and with good reason: the human washing machine is part of a much larger business bonanza.

Hygienic and antibacterial products have become a multimillion dollar industry in the 1990s, a time when the tarnished economy could use a little spit and polish itself.

Underlying the consumer rush for antigerm steering wheels and bacteria-resistant telephones is a deep concern about the safety of Japan's environment today.

"Recently we've had many problems with our environment, our bodies, the air," says Avant spokeswoman Taeko Ikeda. "More people are concerned about preservatives and chemicals. They're more aware of their surroundings and what they're actually using."

Japan's hygiene business took off in 1996, after a massive outbreak of food poisoning that health officials say sickened 9,000, more than half of them children, and killed at least seven.

The outbreak was linked to E. coli bacteria, and reaction was swift. The government announced sweeping food inspections, beef imports slowed, and the public suddenly couldn't get enough germ-killing cleaners.

And subsequent cases of bacteria-related infections at schools and hospitals have been widely reported in the media, sustaining public fears and deepening the ardor for products like antiviral oven mitts.

The Ministry of International Trade and Industry says the market for bacteria-resistant goods is worth some $76 million a year and will keep growing.

Arsenal of antibacterial goods

The clean-conscious shopper can find antibacterial toothbrushes, toilet seats, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, pencils, floppy discs, and socks and underwear, which come with built-in deodorizers.

The same customer can pay for all this with a germ-resistant credit card, sign the receipt with an antiviral ballpoint pen, then trudge home to a bed made with antibacterial sheets and pillows. Those worried about their spouse's reaction to the credit-card bill can plan for contingencies by picking up a bacteria-resistant coffin.

And, of course, there's the human washing machine.

Normal cycle, please

Tokyoite Yasue Aoi has paid $9.50 to go through the normal cycle for the first time. She enters the washing-machine room dubiously eyeing the three machines, which are set up for maximum effect.

Rounded and smooth, they sit like giant, elevated pods in a room lit with black lights that make white objects glow but leave everything else shrouded in darkness. "They are supposed to look like time capsules, in which people sleep but never age," explains Avant's Ms. Ikeda.

The ceiling and upper walls are painted with small stars and swirling galaxies that shine in the dusky room. Lilting New Age music fills the air.

It doesn't seem to comfort Ms. Aoi.

"I'm a little nervous," she says, as she approaches a machine. She is wrapped in a large white towel, and under the black lights, all you can see is a glowing white square floating through the darkness.

An attendant helps her climb into the machine and lie down on a hammock-like net that suspends her inside it.

The attendant lowers the lid, leaving Aoi's face exposed, and presses a button. Aoi hands out her towel and just as the attendant tells me Aoi is smiling, I hear her say, "I feel like a fish on a cutting board." Then, with a whoosh, the machine starts up.

In an 18-minute normal cycle, the washee is showered, enveloped in an aromatic mist, steamed sauna-style, showered again, then sprayed with body lotion. Ultrasonic waves and a breeze complete the drying process.

Two minutes after feeling like a soon-to-be-filleted fish, Aoi pipes up again. "This is actually quite comfortable."

A minute later: "Very relaxing."

Not long after that: "I feel like sleeping." Which is the last I hear from Aoi until she emerges, pink and happy looking, 15 minutes later.

Going overboard?

Despite Aoi's rosy-cheeked glow, some scientists here warn that people are taking the hygiene craze a little too far.

"Healthy people don't need to be nervous about the threat of bacteria and viruses," Koichi Fujita, a parasitology expert at Tokyo Dental College, recently told the Yomiuri newspaper. "It's only natural for certain bacteria and viruses to exist in the air we breathe."

Even so, Avant is taking the human washing machine global, starting with Europe. Salesman Tadao Morimoto is confident of success. "People come here in twos or threes," he says. "I think for them it's like riding a roller coaster." Avant hopes the machines will one day be a standard home appliance, but since they currently cost just over $17,000, the company is marketing them to hospitals, spas, and hotels for now.

Aoi isn't sure whether foreigners will embrace the human washing machine.

"It's very relaxing," she says, "but, it's also very strange - the machine and everything." And her final verdict on the experience? She smiles. "Well, when I come back, I'll bring my friends."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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