The tiny fish swimming around in the tub of water at the spa were hungry, and their human main course were pleased to cooperate.

A school of the toothless fish swarmed around the legs dangling in water and immediately started pecking on them. The humans reacted with giggling and the occasional cry of “ouch”’ while their curious eyes were fixed on the minnows in the tub at the Terme Villa ChuLa-u hot springs at Beach Tower Hotel in Mihama American Village, near Camp Lester.

The fish, called Garra rufa, were busy nibbling their food — human dead skin. Also called doctor fish, Garra rufa are used for various skin treatments in many parts of the world. In Japan, their popularity is growing for beautifying and therapeutic purposes.

“I’ve wanted to try this after I saw it on TV,” laughed Mikako Yamada, who was visiting the island from Tokyo with her husband.

“It was ticklish at first, but then it soon became a very pleasant stimulus,” she said as she stretched her legs out in the tub of shallow water, where about a half dozen of people sat together, feeding the fish.

“I wish we could keep the fish at home, so I could come home from work and get my legs cleaned by them every day. That would be nice,” Mikako’s husband Yuichi said.

Unfortunately, there’s not enough dead skin to go around. Despite more than 200 customers daily at ChuLa-u, it is not enough to fill their stomachs, said Meiko Hirata, a caretaker of the fish. Every night, she feeds them additional, regular fish food.

She said the fish favored older bipeds.

“It looks like they all come to adult legs,” said Yoshihiro Miki, who was visiting from Kanagawa with his family. While his legs were mobbed by the fish, his 6-year-old son Keita’s smooth, plump legs hardly attracted any of the fish. “Grown-ups have lots of worn-out skin, don’t we?” Miki said.

There is, however, no need to be overly sensitive about dead skin, said a skin doctor in Naha.

“Your skin regenerates every month and a half, and dead skin will not remain on your body,” said Dr. Keisuke Hagiwara of Chuo Skin Clinic.

He said that using doctor fish is considered an effective treatment for patients who suffer from psoriasis or other skin ailments. But he does not believe the doctor fish are being used in Japan for those medical conditions.

Hagiwara also believes there have not been sufficient studies done on the fishes’ therapeutic benefits. And the dermatologist cautions anyone tempted to put their feet in the water to try it out.

“What you should keep in mind is the possibility of bacterial or viral infections,” he said.

Persons with cuts or broken skin risk serious health problems if a person with an infectious disease inattentively uses the same tub, he said. Although the chance is very small, there is still a possibility, he said.

“I recommend you to avoid using it when you have broken skin.”

Watching the fish can be as healthy as being eaten by them, he said. “Just enjoy the fish and the relaxing moment the facility provides,” he said. “Then it will be good for your skin because skin is very susceptible to mental stress.”

Some frequent visitors to the spa swear by the tiny Doctor Fish.

Kiyomi Nakamura of Okinawa City said she visits the hot spa and gets the fish treatment at least three times a week. She said that her heel skin is now smooth and soft.

“I just can’t keep from coming back,” she said.

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