If Bangkok had a ‘Japan Town’ it would be the area around the Phrom Phong sky train station. This busy part of Thailand’s capital is home to a large number of Japanese expats and Oriental establishments catering to their tastes. It made sense to Thai entrepreneur Smith Mekaroonkamol that an onsen – a traditional Japanese bathing facility with sequences of hot springs/pools – would work well there. But it could also be risky: while stripping naked for communal bathing (albeit only with people of the same gender) might not be unusual to the Japanese, it would be alien Thai people who are naturally conservative. Despite potential challenges, Mekaroonkamol invested a reported THB70m (US$2.1m, €1.5m, £1.3m) to create Yunomori Onsen & Spa which opened in September 2012.
Location and access
The two-storey building sits off Rama IV road in A-Square, a complex of boutique shops and restaurants which is easily accessed by train, the underground or by driving.
The ground floor of Yunomori features the separate male and female onsen comprising an impressive array of seven different bathing and thermal experiences. The circuit starts with a soda bath which uses a specific Mitsubishi carbonator to infuse the water with carbon dioxide which, Yunomori claims, helps with micro-circulation and general wellbeing. All water has been imported from Ranong hot springs in southern Thailand and is filtered on-site.
The first floor is dedicated to a more local offering – it has 15 simple Thai massage rooms, with tatami floor mattresses, and oil massage rooms with treatment tables. There’s also the separately operated Binomori Beauty Clinic where semi-invasive anti-ageing procedures are performed alongside more simple hands-on facials.
Other facilities on-site include Gastronom – a bistro/bakery café which serves light snacks, deserts (think macaroons) and coffee; and Dontaku – a Japanese restaurant offering a gamut of hearty, casual Japanese cuisine from sushi and saké to bento boxes.
Yunomori is a mid-range, affordable facility. The entrance fee to the onsen is THB450 (US$14, €10, £8.30), while a 60-minute Thai massage starts at THB350 (US$10.60, €7.70, £6.50) – a lower price indicative of a saturated market where massage is available on every street corner in one guise or another for as little as THB250 (US$7.60, €5.60, £4.60).
The offering and price point appeals to two types of consumers. It’s a necessity to the Japanese residing in Bangkok who see the onsen as an essential part of daily life: a place to hangout and socialise. On the other hand, it attracts Thai nationals who want to try something different. When I was there, there was an even split between the sets, with a smattering of other Caucasians.
What I liked most about Yunomori is that it’s not a showcase facility where you might be afraid to make a mess. It’s busy, functional and clearly very popular.
As soon as you enter Yunomori, the distinct Japanese design – simple, minimalist clean lines – suggests guests are in for a treat. The look is not uncommon in contemporary Bangkok, but it’s taken to the extreme on the second floor which felt somewhat institutionalised rather than Zen-like.
Unfortunately after 14 busy months, there were some signs of wear and tear around the facility. There were parts of the ceiling in the onsen where the paint was peeling off. The shower heads were clogging up and some shower hoses should be replaced.
Also, I couldn’t see where the onsen was equipped to accommodate guests who may have physical disabilities.
There were hordes of attendants and staff who made sure the dirty linen hampers were kept empty and the wet floors were quickly dried. There was dust in a few places, but mostly the spa was spotless and I wasn’t left doubting any hygiene issues even in the communal bathing area.
I arrived at Yunomori with no appointment, but was dealt with promptly and politely. With only six options, the treatment menu is limited. I went for one of the packages which comprised an hour in the onsen followed by a 45 minute body scrub and an hour’s oil massage for THB 1,850(US$56, €41, £34)
Within 10 minutes, I was soaking away the stress of Bangkok in the onsen which is recommended prior to any treatment. There was certainly a community feel with groups of two or three people quietly chatting among themselves and this is something which modern spas with all-inclusive private suites don’t have. However, this did compound the language barrier – my lack of Japanese (and Thai) left me feeling somewhat isolated. Even before that, I was shown through to the onsen by a series of pointing people with little explanation of what the facility included. Thankfully, animated signs on the wall (in Thai, Japanese and English) explained what I should (and should not) do during my onset.
It was amusing to watch the shy Thai patrons mixing with the unabashed Japanese bathers. They eventually stopped trying to cover up with the small 25x25cm modesty towels and succumbed to the heat from the baths which ranged from 37C to 42C. After a vigorous shower, I enjoyed the invigorating soda bath followed by other hot tubs, ice baths, whirlpools and a steamroom and sauna. I particularly loved the traditional teak tubs that were infused with fragrant herbs. The overall effect was a sensation of never feeling so clean.
Next onto the treatment. Although the receptionist who I first met spoke very good English this was not the case with my therapist. This is not uncommon in Thailand, but unfortunately it did mean that I missed out on choosing my preferred type of body scrub (there were four options by product house Thann) as my therapist didn’t know how to ask me – so he simply decided himself. He did let me chose my favourite massage oil, but without any explanation of the benefits of each, and I chose a traditional scented oil that resembles Sandalwood.
Thai therapists have an innate skill for massage which can leave you on cloud nine but it can also sometimes feel slap-dash and unsequenced which was the case at Yunomori. My massage and scrub were merely mediocre and even though it was mid-December, I found the Christmas massage music disturbed the Zen atmosphere.
Having said that, the entire experience instilled a feeling wellbeing and before leaving I treated myself to some tuna sashimi and a cold shake in the Japanese restaurant. What was meant to be only a two-hour visit, turned into a five-hour journey and that night I slept like a baby.
Yunomori’s business model certainly makes sense – this a luxury offering which also serves as a functional requirement. While tourist visitors will ebb and flow, there will always be a demand from the Japanese residents. The fusion of cultural therapies wasn’t jarring but neither did it gel particularly well. Overall, it left me with a longing for more of a Japanese experience.