Can this Japanese head massage help the city that never sleeps?
I was promised sleep.
All I had to do was ring the bell at one of those nondescript, what-the-hell-goes-on-in-there buildings on 38th street near Fifth Avenue and walk to the second floor into a super dark, futuristic sci-fi-looking room where two people were waiting for me with a cup of tea.
There was nothing illicit: no roofie in the tea, no sniper with a tranquilizer gun. I was inside Goku, a spa that bills itself as a “sleeping time machine” that is apparently really big in Japan.
Between its four locations in Kyoto, Tokyo and Osaka, Goku claims to have a wait list of over 436,000 people — all clamoring for the “Zeccho Sleep,” a 60-minute $225 scalp massage. “Zeccho,” which founder Atsumi Kaneda tells me roughly translates to “the highest feeling of euphoria,” promises to induce slumber faster than a pro-wrestler’s lethal sleeper hold.
“We came here to make people fall asleep in the city that never sleeps,” says Momoka Yamazaki, an aesthetician at America’s first Goku outpost, which opens on Monday in Midtown.
Kaneda, a former sleep-deprived, stressed-out accountant, opened the first Goku in Kyoto in 2008 when she couldn’t find a spa that focused on releasing tension in the head. She consulted with doctors, acupuncturists, massage therapists and psychologists to create Goku’s signature scalp massage, which relaxes muscles, promotes blood flow and releases dopamine.
Initially, she says, the treatment was developed mostly to release tension — but Goku workers found that their clients would nod off during the treatment, and sleep well for days after.
My closest reference to the Japanese and sleep was Kramer tucking Japanese businessmen into drawers on “Seinfeld.” So I — a terrible insomniac who has trouble falling asleep and staying asleep — was curious about the science behind the method.
Essentially, Kaneda explains (with Yamazaki translating), the muscles on and around the scalp don’t really get worked out or manipulated very often, so they can use a good release every now and then.
Even with Yamazaki’s help, there was still a bit of a language barrier, and my curiosity wasn’t quite quenched. But I decided to let the treatment do the talking.
Inside one of the six mostly-bare treatment rooms, which have a reclining chair and a foot rest, I put on a robe and took off my earrings and necklaces. Yamazaki, who says she endured two extra months of training in this method in Japan, covered me with a soft blanket, draped a thin towel over my face and began putting pressure on my head and face. Her slow, deliberate pressing movements started around my eyes and brow bone, then moved up to my forehead and back to my scalp.
She checked in to make sure the pressure was adequate and not painful. No lotions or oils were used; Yamazaki says that allows her hands to get better traction.
The massage was absolutely blissful. But when she told me it was over, I was very confused — albeit refreshed and not at all groggy — and accused her of only working on me for 10 minutes.
“You fell asleep after eight minutes,” Yamazaki told me calmly. “Normally it takes people about 10 minutes to fall asleep.” She continues the treatment as the client snoozes.
I checked the clock on my phone, and I had indeed been in the chair for about an hour. I walked upstairs to a zen-like lounge, where I was served tea and a green-tea-flavored Kit Kat bar. A bigger skeptic might have asked for security footage of the massage to prove it actually happened, but I got all the evidence I needed when I arrived home that night at 9:30 after having dinner with a friend. The next thing I knew, I woke up at 2 a.m. with all of the lights on in my apartment. And unlike most nights, I was able to fall back asleep in a few minutes and woke up without my standard four hits of the snooze button.
While the science might elude me, I have a suggested new name for Goku: Enter Sandman.
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