Big in Japan: Flesh-eating fish keep your fingers & toes clean

Spend any amount of time in Japan, and you’ll quickly learn that the Japanese are obsessed with health and personal hygiene.

From taking dips in hot springs and frequenting local bath houses to pursuing aesthetic treatments and practicing aromatherapy, the Japanese have a very astute sense of cleanliness and physical well-being. Indeed, I make a point of visiting the masseuse once a week, spending my free nights at a nearby sauna and taking weekend trips out to rural springs whenever the chance arises.

With that said, there are still few beauty treatments here that I’m a bit hesitant to partake in, especially ones that involve live fish feasting on my extremities.

Although it’s been around for several years now, one of the strangest treatments in Japan involves placing your hands and feet into a pool containing tiny flesh eating fish known as a doctor fish (???????????????????????????). Affectionately nicknamed ‘nibble fish,’ these flesh-eating critters have a taste for dead human skin, and are fond of feasting on any problem areas that you might have.

Are you with me so far? If not, let’s take a moment and put things in perspective.

The doctor fish actually refer to a species of fish known to scientists as Garra rufa, though laymen like me prefer the term reddish log sucker. Then again, if you were named something as ridiculous as reddish log sucker, you’d probably prefer if it people called you by your Latin name.

Nomenclature aside, doctor fish are native to the rivers of the Middle East, particularly Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Although the latter three aren’t exactly up and coming tourist destinations, doctor fish have been bred at Turkish spas for decades.

Here, spa goers suffering from a variety of skin ailments, most notably psoriasis, come to have their problem areas picked clean by the hungry doctor fish. In case you’re wondering how the whole process works, doctor fish will pick at dead and affected areas of the skin, which allows the healthy skin to grow in its place.

Typically, patients visit the spa every few weeks, and there are numerous documented cases of skin conditions being cured by doctor fish. Of course, anecdotes can’t be substituted for scientific proof, but there is definitely some evidence to suggest that there is a therapeutic effect resulting from a doctor fish ‘feeding session.’

Since the Japanese are always keen to discover the next great thing, there has been explosion of doctor fish spas popping around Japan in recent years. On average, a 15-minute all you can eat feast (for the fish, not for you) costs about US$25 or 3000 yen.

By the way, before you chime in and ask me if you can buy doctor fish at your local pet shop, Turkish law prevents the commercial exploitation of the fish due to concerns of overharvesting for export. Apparently, aquarium conditions are also unsuitable for doctor fish as they’ll only feast on human flesh when they’re in a natural enclosure.

So, what do YOU think?

As I said previously, I’m mortified by the end of having my skin consumed in front of me, but perhaps I’m not as adventurous as all of you out there in cyberspace!