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THINK `ASIAN BATHHOUSE' FOR SOME HEAVENLY COMFORT

February 20, 2005

NORTHAMPTON It was about 25 minutes into the experience when I found myself splayed, not quite molten but heading toward puddlelicious, on the hardwood slats. I was humming along to the Beatles, singing "Let It Be."

A few minutes later the lights dimmed briefly, signaling time to shampoo and rinse off under the showerhead in an azure-tiled alcove next to the 104-degree hot tub where my daughter and I had been indulging ourselves for the last half-hour. The saffron-colored towels hung on wooden pegs. Beyond the opaque sliding door made of rice paper that allows light through as an amber glow, was a cooler with spring water and beyond that a leather couch in front of a gas fireplace where we could reclaim our shoes and steel ourselves for the rest of February.

The groundhog had spoken the day before and the prognosis was not pretty.

East Heaven Hot Tubs, a Northampton institution going on a quarter of a century, occupies a nondescript storefront around the corner from Smith College. From the moment you walk in and circle the shoji rice paper screens to the front desk you are enveloped in a studied low-keyness. It seems hard to imagine that anyone has raised a voice here. Ever.

Relaxation is the entire reason for this particular piece of real estate, which has eight private hot tubs distributed over three levels. Some are indoor, some rooftop, some are wooden caldrons with seats and jet sprays, others are molded fiberglass, and the biggest holds up to eight people.

The annual gas and electric bill is oh, who cares. Just concentrate on exhaling.

Drop-ins are welcome, but on a Friday or Saturday evening you had better have a reservation. Part of the check-in process is choosing the music you want to have piped into your own little compartment of liquid bliss. Bring your favorite CD or pick from their selection. On this particular Thursday afternoon I turned that decision over to Maisha, my 9-year-old whom I had just picked up from school. They didn't have anything by 50 Cent (blame that choice on her brother), so she picked the Beatles (with no prompting from me).

The occasion was my 48th birthday and East Heaven has a nifty little rule that birthday people with an ID to prove it go free. A few weeks earlier my wife and I had gone on her birthday and Maisha felt left out, so this was our treat for each other.

The utter relaxation thing only lasted so long for her, until she started playing with the shower, doing pratfalls off the deck, and dousing me from paper cups full of cold water. But I could just sit, smile, soak, exhale, and impress her with knowing the words to "Octopus's Garden." The magic of the experience is that I could relax and she could be her energetic self in the same space. We were both wet and happy.

I eased myself up and out when my body had been heated to the point of appreciating the sensuality of a cooling-down period. It was on the second round of this that I found myself contentedly lost in the strains of "Let It Be." The real world awaited, but it was that much more manageable for having spent a half-hour here.

The rates are slightly cheaper indoors. Students and children get special discounts and the place is open 365 days a year. You can bring refreshments, but no glass containers.

This enterprise was the brainchild of Ken Shapiro, 51, a native of Fall River who first came to the Pioneer Valley to study accounting at the University of Massachusetts. After a stint as a welfare bureaucrat in Seattle, he discovered the wonder of hot tubs after he hurt his back lifting a computer.

"That was when computers were still heavy," he said.

Shapiro always had an affinity for things Japanese and decided to convert the 1931 building, which at various times had been the site of an Italian restaurant, a laundromat, and an African drum studio, into what amounts to an Asian bathhouse. That was in 1981.

The clientele ranges from lovebirds on a date, to groups of friends just in from skiing or a hike, to families, to couples in need of relationship rejuvenation. He once rented the entire facility to the Smith freshman class for six hours. And he has a number of Japanese customers, some with jobs in New York and Boston.

A few weeks ago a Japanese television crew shot a segment for a morning news magazine show in one of his tubs. Shapiro gave a steamy interview that, he was told, 20 million people in Japan saw as they were readying themselves for the day. "They basically asked me why I like hot tubs," he said, "and I responded `because they feel good'," which was not news to that particular audience. Sitting in a hot tub is a daily ritual for many people in Japan.

Though not as ingrained in US culture, hot tubs as a form of wholesome recreation are catching on. East Heaven has had 700,000 customers since its opening. And if Jessica Harvey, 21, is any indication, there will be more. Emerging from a soak she said she was "euphoric. It's like a mini vacation."

Darlene and Rick Barree of Westfield were just arriving after a 5-mile hike. The couple come about five times a year.

"I'm fat and out of shape," he said, "and this is like medicine."

As for Maisha and me, we agreed that the experience was, in her words, "cool, I mean hot, I mean, you know what I mean."

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

(413) 835-1248 - eric.goldscheider@gmail.com