Taiwan’s Ubiquitous Foot Massage Parlors

Massages usually begin with a relaxing foot bath in hot water to which medicinal herbs have been added. Photo: Rich Matheson

Although the practice is steeped in Chinese tradition, the most famous practitioner is a Swiss Priest, “Father Wu.”

It seems impossible to walk very far in Taipei or other major Taiwan cities before coming across a storefront offering foot massage. The popularity of the practice in recent years is hardly surprising. All forms of massage appeal to those who want better health without taking medicine or who wish to relieve stress without the use of alcohol or electronic devices.

The principles of foot massage, also known as foot reflexology or zone therapy, mesh perfectly with the LOHAS (“lifestyles of health and sustainability”) philosophy adopted by many young, well-educated consumers. In addition, many tourists find that enjoying a foot massage is an excellent way to conclude a long day of sightseeing and shopping.

According to reflexology theory, particular spots on each foot related to individual body parts. Photo: Wikipedia

As a form of therapy, reflexology has been around for over 2,000 years. It is described in Huangdi Neijing, an ancient medical text known in English as The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon or The Medical Classic of the Yellow Emperor. However, the discipline’s recent history–both here and on the Chinese mainland, where it originated–has been checkered. During the Cultural Revolution, many practitioners in the People’s Republic of China dared not give massages to strangers lest they be attacked by Red Guards for perpetuating old customs and habits.

In Taiwan, there was no government-recognized national organization for foot masseurs and masseuses until 1991, and that association was technically a sports club registered with the Ministry of the Interior. Two years later, the Department of Health (now the Ministry of Health and Welfare) gave approval of sorts to traditional foot massage, categorizing it as a folk remedy. By removing the possibility that practitioners could be prosecuted for being “underground doctors,” the reform allowed foot masseurs and masseuses to talk more openly about the theory behind what they do, and how reflexology may help some people.

Unlike Chinese herbal medicine treatments, foot massage is not covered by Taiwan’s National Health Insurance system. Nor is there a national system regulating the training of reflexology practitioners. Courses are offered by several different organizations, the cheapest and shortest being those offered by the Ministry of Labor’s Workforce Development Agency (WDA). These involve 54 hours of instruction spread over a month, and cost as little as NT$1,284. But experienced masseurs say that between four and 12 months’ training is required to attain real proficiency.

Although there is no clear scientific evidence to support the traditional Chinese notion that ailments of internal organs are treatable via particular nerve endings on the soles of the feet, medical opinion is fairly positive about the overall benefits of foot reflexology. According to the website of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality & Healing, “Research studies in the U.S. and around the world indicate positive benefits of reflexology for various conditions. In particular, there are several well-designed studies, funded by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health that indicate reflexology’s promise as an intervention to reduce pain and enhance relaxation, sleep, and the reduction of psychological symptoms, such as anxiety and depression.”

The website also notes that reflexology seems to cause “an increase in blood flow to kidneys and to the intestines,” improved kidney function in kidney dialysis patients, lower blood pressure and reduced anxiety, plus pain reduction for those suffering from AIDS, osteoarthritis, diabetes, and other conditions.

Some benefits are even seen for cancer patients. The website states: “Studies showed reduction of pain, nausea, diarrhea or constipation, and improved quality of life with reflexology.”

Like other forms of massage, reflexology works via the body’s response to comfortable, non-threatening touch. Massage prompts rapid and significant falls in cortisol and arginine vasopressin levels. The former hormone is associated with stress; the latter, also a hormone, restricts blood vessels, so any reduction lowers blood pressure.

There are also direct physical effects. Blood and lymph circulation improve as a result of the physical manipulation of soft tissue, and this means oxygen and nutrients are delivered more efficiently to muscle cells. By relaxing tissue, massage lessens muscle contractions and spasms. It also helps straighten out nerves that have been compressed by contracting muscles. Consequently, those nerves can function better.

Each foot contains approximately 7,800 nerves, and at many of Taiwan’s foot-massage parlors, “maps” of the right and left soles are prominently displayed. There are slight differences between the two sides, just as the human body is not quite symmetrical. The heart and spleen are located slightly to the left of the body’s midline, while the liver is on the right.

The pressure zones for the heart and spleen are on the right foot, while those for the liver and appendix are on the left. Zones relating to the stomach, pancreas, lungs, bladder, and kidneys are in the same locations on the soles of both feet. The area relating to the nose is on the outside of both big toes. A tiny spot on the bottom of the left foot’s big toe connects with the pituitary gland. Pressure zones for the anus and rectum are near the right heel.

Some charts have a point for the gall bladder on both feet; others mark it on the left foot only. All charts agree that the toes relate to the head, with pressure points for the ears, eyes, and sinuses. However, only a minority of charts link the very tips of the toes with the brain. A good introduction to foot charts can be found at www.wikihow.com/Read-a-Foot-Reflexology-Chart.

Theory and practice

Acceptance of the concepts underlying foot reflexology is not necessary to recognize its effectiveness, says Lawrence Lin, an office worker in Taipei. A 32-year-old who says he has a strong dislike of quackery, Lin was won over after just four sessions.

“Foot messages seem to work for me, which is odd as I hardly use my legs in the office,” he says. “My co-worker said my internal organs were getting compressed because I spend too long at my desk each day, and that’s why I was suffering from poor circulation and digestion, even though I eat fairly well and exercise every Sunday. When he said I should try foot massage, I was very skeptical. But now I’d suggest it to anyone who’s feeling rundown.”

Foot massage is as local as beef noodles, yet Taiwan’s most famous practitioner is a Westerner, Father Josef Eugster. Born in Switzerland in 1940, Father Josef has been working as a Catholic missionary in Taitung County since the late 1960s, and the story of how he came to embrace reflexology has been reported numerous times by local media. Father Josef was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis in his knees, so a fellow missionary gave him a book, Good Health for the Future, adding that when he had applied the reflexology tips in the volume to his mother, the results were impressive. (The book was written in German by Hedi Masafret; English-language editions are hard to come by).

In no time at all, Father Josef was a proficient self-taught reflexologist. Convinced of the discipline’s efficacy after his own health improved, he began to offer foot massages to members of his church. As his reputation grew, people from other parts of Taiwan began seeking him out for treatment of chronic ailments. Among the soles he rubbed were those of the late President Chiang Ching-kuo. In 2003, he visited the Vatican and massaged the feet of the then Pope, John Paul II.

In 1982, Father Josef – better known within Taiwan by his Chinese name Wu Ro-shih – received an official warning from the Department of Health telling him that, by providing treatment without having any medical qualifications, he was breaking the law. That led to a relationship with Yumin Hospital in Nantou County, where he was permitted to give reflexology massages under doctors’ supervision.

Since the early 1980s, Father Josef has been promoting a variant of reflexology developed in association with Eugene Cheng, a former piano teacher. They have visited several countries, including the United States, to introduce their system. Father Josef’s Method of Reflexology, a not-for-profit organization registered in Connecticut and affiliated with the Reflexology Association of America, trains and issues certificates to practitioners.

Many of those trained by the missionary have opened massage establishments in Taiwan, although they are no longer allowed to incorporate the Chinese words Wu Shenfu (吴慎服; “Father Wu”) in the names of their parlors. Ten Foot Health (12F-1, 68 Renai Road, Section 4, Taipei, near the intersection of Renai and Dunhua South Roads; Tel: 02-2703-3199; open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily), is one that receives many foreign clients. It also claims to be the oldest parlor in the capital adhering to Father Josef’s and Cheng’s principles. The price of a foot massage at Ten Foot is currently NT$500 for 30 minutes.

Though it lacks an English-language sign, Zuzu Massage Center (No. 5, Lane 38, Tonghua Street, Taipei; Tel: 02-2784-6567; open 11 a..m-3 a.m. daily) is easy enough to find. It comes recommended by a number of hotel concierges and is often visited by foreigners winding up a day’s touring by having snacks at the Tonghua Street Night Market. The foot massages given here extend from the tips of your toes all the way to your kneecaps; at the time of writing, 40 minutes of work on your feet, calves and knees followed by 30 minutes of upper body massage cost NT$699. Like many massage businesses, Zuzu usually offers special deals during off-peak hours.

A standard routine

Whether you go to Ten Foot, Zuzu, the much larger and more expensive Massage Center (76 Nanjing East Road, Section 5, Taipei; Tel: 02-2762-2166; open 24 hours daily; valet parking available), or another massage parlor, the first part of your reflexology experience will be very  similar. After removing your shoes and socks, you will be shown to a barcalounger. Before any massaging begins, you soak your feet in a small tub filled with hot water to which herbs have been added. At some point in the proceedings, you will be offered a cup of Chinese tea and perhaps a snack such as salted peanuts, dried plums, or cherry tomatoes.

The masseur dries off your feet with a towel, and then works on one foot at a time, rubbing lotion on every part of your foot and calf, and even between your toes. The kneading and pushing is relatively gentle at first, and if the masseur knows you are a first-timer, he will likely ask permission before increasing the pressure.

Some foot-massage aficionados insist that greater pain equals greater efficacy. Others, including Father Josef, argue there is no need to suffer heroic amounts of agony. If one spot on your soles proves especially sensitive, the masseur may ask if you have had health problems linked to the relevant internal organ.

Giving a foot massage is hard on the hands and arms, and masseurs employed by parlors are expected to put in very long hours. However, those doing the job see certain advantages. “I do believe Taipei has several excellent foot-masseurs who go to customers’ homes and earn NT$100,000 per month, tax free. I’ve been doing this less than two years, and I earn more now than I did as an office worker, says one of Zuzu’s masseurs. “When there are no customers, I can do what I want, so long as I don’t go too far from the parlor. There’s no unpaid overtime. And more customers always means more money in my pocket.”

Like many other reflexologists, he goes swimming in his free time. “My mentor told me that because masseurs constantly touch other people’s bodies, we are in danger of absorbing too much qi [ “natural energy” or “life force”]. Swimming is a good way to get rid of it.” Rather than long-term damage to his hands or excess qi,he says he is more worried about his diet. “We’re right next to the night market, and when it’s quiet I often pop out for some fried chicken.”

Like others who work into the night, masseurs have learned how to handle individuals who have had too much to drink. “Usually we massage them very gently so they go to sleep,” explains the Zuzu masseur.

Whether you hope reflexology can relieve chronic health problems, or you are patronizing the foot massage parlor purely out of curiosity, you may want to commit to memory this Mandarin phrase: Qing ni xiao li yi dian 请你小力一點 – “not quite so hard, please!”

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Taiwan Business TOPICS.