What it's like to sit through a fish pedicure
I had the pleasure — no really, the pleasure — of trying out a fish pedicure during my recent reporting trip around Japan (dispatch No. 1 here, with reported stories to follow).
I figured the price tag of 500 yen, or about $4, for five minutes would lend itself to a good story even if the experience of tiny fish swarming my feet and peeling dead skin left me hollow and shaken.
You can't get a fish pedicure in Florida. Like several other states, Florida's Board of Cosmetology banned the service in 2009, citing widespread concerns for sanitation.
I hadn't done any research about health or ethical issues before diving in, so I didn't realize the fish can spread infections in spa environments and that they are starved. All I knew before my feet hit the water was that Lena Dunham did this when she was in Japan, and Deal Diva Stephanie and I talked about how I should totally do it when I got there. I wasn't looking for Doctor Fish, but when I saw its earnest sign after another long day of walking, I couldn't resist.
Good news: It didn't kill me! It actually left my feet smoother than I expected after a couple of weeks of moving in boots and some rain. (I could have probably achieved this result with a simple scrub, but that's not a great story, is it?)
Here's what I learned.
The first rule for getting a fish pedicure is to scrub your feet before placing them in the warm bath.
That may not be how the pedi process works in the States, but this makes sense in Japan. I ended up at Doctor Fish after climbing a mountain to see a shrine, and I didn't need to share that walking experience with future clients. When you leave, the water and fish stay behind.
The next rule is to lower your feet into and out of the water slowly. The can't be emphasized enough. You really, really don't want to make the fish even more frenzied when they catch sight of your flesh (and you probably don't want to, you know, smush any of them either).
The last rule: Once you're in, don't move.
You'll want to move or flail or readjust. The little zaps from dozens of tiny fish rushing to your toes and heels and biting dead skin cells are enough to make even the most tickle-resistant person flinch.
I winced and squirmed and cupped my mouth when I first saw the fish going after my feet. I wanted to kick and wiggle my toes instead of coaching my legs to be still like a seated monument.
As much as I wanted to jerk my feet out of the pool, I didn't want to be that foreigner who couldn't handle it more.
I distracted myself by trying to pose for pictures (see the slideshow) and reading a laminated sign that asked "What is the Doctor Fish?" in my favorite font from middle school, Porky's. I learned some hot facts, such as the "doctor fish" is a freshwater member of the carp family that calls hot springs in Turkey its home, and Cleopatra also thought it was cool back in the day.
Halfway into the 5-minute treatment, the shock wore off and it started to feel normal. Less bathwater attack, more pulsing massage chair. When the timer went off, Junko, a translator, and I carefully pulled out our feet and put our socks and shoes back on. We said we wished it was longer. Our feet felt better, but there was more work to be done, fish!
Looking back, the cracker of octopus is still the stranger thing I tried that day.