Nibble Nibble

"Don’t have your flesh eaten by others" is an axiom I struggle to uphold day in and day out. In this best of all possible zombie-free worlds, I have beaten aside cannibals one-by-one, and fought off a member a fraternity, who, in his tequila-induced drunken state, must have thought my arm resembled corn chips.

Even then, there have been some close calls: a date who believed she was a vampire; a 4-year-old who wanted to practice biting; and my own brother, who took out his frustration with his teeth.

All well and good. But this past Sunday, I was weak. I allowed it to happen. More to the point, I paid someone to have parts of me bitten off.

Now that I have your full attention, I can still report: I am not speaking metaphorically…

I’m sitting on a leather cushion at a foot onsen booth inside a bathhouse in Hiroshima with the taste of milk still lingering in my mouth. Foot onsen, or ashi-no-yu (足の湯), are strategically placed in front of restaurants, at the end of hiking trails, and even in airports

The bath attendant is a young woman in her 20’s, and from her expression, she’s simply delighted that a foreigner such as myself would choose this particular place to soak. As we’re casually chatting about the availability of hot springs in America, I lift my left foot slightly and try to restrain a laugh. A fish just nibbled the sole of my foot in that split second.

But he’s not alone; all around my toes, tiny grey fish are swimming in and out, from side to side, thinking nothing more of it than if I were a piece of oddly-shaped coral.

Unlike coral, however, I seem to offer more nutritious value to these speedy sakana (魚). They’re attacking my flesh with the ferocity of piranha, but I can only sense a hundred tiny brushes passing slowly over the skin on my feet; it’s as though my nerves are firing incorrectly, struggling to pin down whatever is causing such precise yet random sensations.

They’re so close I can trap them between two toes without fear of retribution. I can control what areas they concentrate on eating by flexing just the right muscle. If I move, they follow instantly. If I lift my foot from the surface of the water, they strive to gorge themselves until the last possible second.

Eerie, yet pleasant and unique. Looking down at my feet a mere fifteen minutes later, I do notice a difference. Smooth, like they’ve been trimmed with a fine blade or even a lazer. There’s even a lingering ticklish feeling as I’m walking back towards the shiden (市電) stop.

In the distance, I swear I heard the theme from Jaws slowly building…

Picture courtesy of

The fish starring in this little adventure are the Garra rufa (ガラルファ), aptly named "Doctor Fish" (ドクターフィッシュ) when used for medicinal purposes. Predisposed to consume algae in the wild, they are starved when used at these baths and used to consume dead and diseased skin. Imported from Turkey, they are mainly used as a treatment for psoriasis; in Japan’s case, I think it’s more like a novelty onsen.

About doctor fish (日本語)

Doctor Fish – Wikipedia

Onsen with Doctor Fish

Hakone Kowakien Yunessun – the first onsen to bring the fish to Japan and one with a great variety of baths (soak in sake, coffee, green tea, wine…)

Honoyu (ほの湯) – a nice luxury onsen in Hiroshima