Otonamaki is a Japanese physical therapy trend that's half-hammock, half-horror movie.
Photos by Yuichi Ozawa
Japan has no shortage of traditional and novel wellness treatments that might seem bizarre to uninitiated Westerners, but few conjure up visceral reactions quite like Otonamaki, a relatively new form of physical therapy that translates to "adult swaddling."
Conceived in 2015 by Japanese midwife Nobuko Watanabe, Otonamaki involves getting in the fetal position, then being bound tightly in sheets. Though the resulting human cocoon resembles a ghoul from the Silent Hill universe, the treatment is marketed as a relaxing, therapeutic massage alternative. Watanabe initially created the treatment to alleviate concerns of parents who worried that the swaddling of their infants—a practice known as Ohinamaki—might be leaving the babies feeling claustrophobic.
Purported physical benefits have since overtaken infant empathy as the treatment's main selling point. Though no scientific research has been conducted on the efficacy of the new procedure, testimonials I read online claimed it could help with everything from posture to anxiety to postpartum depression. Most were delivered in an infomercial-esque, "not paid actors" kind of way that made me more than a little dubious.
Though not exactly a claustrophobe, I've definitely come close to panic attacks over the years during moments of smothering restraint, so this whole ordeal seemed wildly unpleasant, despite its claims to the contrary. And as someone who grew up reading about serial killers and consuming all manner of horror films, I tend to hypothesize worst-case scenarios about how I could be murdered, even when I don't really believe those scenarios will come to fruition. My imagination was certainly running wild at the prospect of trusting a stranger I couldn't communicate with to tie me up 5,000 miles from home.
My friends did little to assuage my fears when I showed them videos of what I'd been looking into—their reactions ranged from "fuuuuck that" to "you will be murdered." Nonetheless, I decided to give Otonamaki a try.
I signed up for an introductory Otonamaki experience with instructor Yayoi Katayama, in the suburban prefecture of Saitama. Her bright, sunlit studio and the children playing in it helped alleviate any concerns that I was stumbling into some knockoff BTK Killer's lair.
Ms. Katayama corroborated what I'd read online about those who seek Otonamaki to fix stiffness and pain in the back and neck or to relax without intensive massages. She surprised me, however, by adding that I might also get to "experience zero-gravity" and "become a different person" during my session. Which was a level of existentialism I'd not come prepared for.
I was instructed to remove my socks and sit on a sheet, hugging my knees to my chest so that Ms. Katayama could get to work.
Though the vast majority of her clients were young, recent mothers or middle-aged women, Ms. Katayama had tied up a few men before, so we weren't in completely uncharted territory. Ms. Katayama informed me that I was, however, her largest client to date, which resulted in her struggling with the geometric limitations of the sheet and me empathizing with all the clothing I'd packed into suitcases by brute force over the years.
Once I was fully knotted up, she tipped me onto my back and asked how it felt.
"When does it get relaxing?" I wondered aloud.
"Just let go of your legs and let the sheet hold you," she coached. So I did.
In that moment, my entire perspective on Otonamaki shifted. The benefits I'd read so much about revealed themselves all at once. By relaxing, I had transferred all the hard work to the sheet and had begun decompressing in the coziest mini-hammock ever.
Ms. Katayama leaned further into her maternal role and began gently rocking me back and forth, transporting me back to those tranquil months, 30ish years ago, that I'd spent in the womb, before being greeted by a harsh world filled with violence, strife, and unfunny memes.
For her grand finale, Ms. Katayama began draping a series of colored sheets over my body, each intended to change the vibe inside my comfy bubble. Once I'd sampled the the full spectrum, she asked me to pick my favorite hue so that I could luxuriate in it for a while. I chose red, as it really helped carry the whole "giant womb" experience to the next level. Turns out I'm an unoriginal hack and almost everyone else who'd done Otonamaki with Ms. Katayama has chosen red, too, for the same reason.
After a few more minutes curled up motionless under the fabrics, I figured I'd absorbed all the therapeutic benefits Otonamki had to offer and was ready to be released. "You can untie me now," I told Ms. Katayama, but this proved to be our biggest language barrier of the session. Try as she might, she could not comprehend my request. We went back and forth for a couple minutes, with me spitting out every synonym for "release" I could think of before it finally clicked.
Before, this unexpected extension of my bondage might've elicited a minor freak out. I'd have panicked, assuming I'd be forever trapped in this cotton tomb, cursing myself for not taking my pre-Japan Duolingo lessons more seriously. Instead, thanks to the soothing half hour of Otonamaki I'd just enjoyed, I leaned back and relished my remaining moments of womb-dwelling while Ms. Katayama set to work releasing me back into adulthood.
I don't think a double-blind study will be necessary for me to claim that my Otonamaki session likely had no significant impact on my posture, muscles, or psyche. But that doesn't mean I regret it in the slightest. It felt nice, made for a great story, and was easily the most spacious womb I've ever been inside.
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