Imagine walking through an autumn forest of bright red maple trees, matsu pine and bamboo, past young deer and a rushing stream. You enter a small wooden house, taking care to slip off your shoes and place them gently by the door. Outside awaits a large, stone-lined pool filled with steaming, mineral-rich water piped in from a nearby natural spring. Guests sink in, relax, inhale the pure, cold air, and gaze out onto a sculptural mountainside as robins, crows and hawks flit from tree to tree. Such is the experience of the traditional spa, or onsen, which line the countryside and mountain towns throughout the island nation of Japan.
The Japanese-style spa is on the rise in America, which is hardly a surprise considering the simple appeal of this Eastern country’s spa ethic. Like other spas, a Japanese facility is a place to beautify and pamper oneself, of course, but it’s also a setting in which to discover a zen way of being—a state of blissful focus in which body and mind unite.
Japanese spas and their practitioners’ holistic approaches carry a distinct—and some would say, immediate—appeal. Traditionally practiced in clean, spare and visually balanced environments, which usually include landscaped garden spaces, the Japanese approach to healing centers on a integrated approach: natural detoxification, mind-body relaxation and reconnection with earthly forces, such as forests, lakes and oceans, as well as with loved ones.
The classic Japanese spa includes an onsen (a hot springs soaking pool or mineral-infused tub); natural tactile elements such as smooth rocks and cotton loungewear; tableaux created from bamboo, stones and leaves; and music captured from the sounds of the great outdoors. It is an experience that can be partly communal and partly private, often involving a group tub soak and respite in a hot-stone room, followed by a uniquely Japanese spa treatment performed in a sequestered-off chamber. For a clearer idea of how this cultural zeitgeist is affecting the spa-scape stateside, DAYSPA consulted with experts, who walked us through the traditional elements of the Japanese spa ritual. —Alison Singh Gee
Clients entering a traditional Japanese spa, such as Spa Relaken at the Miyako Hybrid Hotel in Torrance, California, are immediately struck by the nurturing manner with which spa staff treats each guest. Movements are gentle, voices are soft and requests are accommodated without hesitation. “At our spa, the client is god,” says Relaken founder Akemi Yamamoto. This royal treatment is called omorenashi—a Japanese term encompassing hospitality and graciousness.
Other ways to foster a sense of omorenashi include serving clients tea (green or ginger are classic choices) in a quiet, beautiful space before and after treatments, and offering such gracious, low-cost extras as foot soaks. Los Angeles’ Asian-themed Willow Spa treats clients to a complimentary and sense-stimulating foot soak of rose petals (to soften skin), grapefruit juice (to cleanse) and epson salts (to detoxify and reduce inflammation). “The ritual helps our guests transition from the outside world to the one inside the spa,” says co-owner Wendi Clifford Reeves. “It’s our way of bringing something extra to the treatment.”
Japan is dotted with hundreds of active volcanoes, and the heat they generate has created thousands of natural onsen. For centuries, Japanese families have made a ritual of bathing in these natural pools. Onsen water is said to deliver healing elements derived from its mineral content, so consistent soaking is reputedly helpful in alleviating aches, pains, skin diseases and even diabetes symptoms. Traditionally, Japanese families bathed en masse. To this day, people journey to onsen with their love interests, friends and colleagues. Bathers are not expected to wear swimsuits.
Ten Thousand Waves spa in Santa Fe, New Mexico, features communal, women’s and private onsen, which consist of separate hot and cold tubs tiled with a pattern of small rocks. The tubs are built into wooden decks, which face out onto acres of wild oak and mountain ranges and, of course, delightful Japanese gardens. Bamboo and rice paper screens, walls covered with natural textures such as rock and bamboo, roughly woven tapestry, and artwork inspired by such Japanese flora as gingko leaves, lotuses and poppies, add a transporting visual element.
Spas with more limited space can recreate the onsen experience by creating a natural spring soaking tub in a quiet bathing room. As a final touch, consider incorporating a soundtrack straight from nature. Relaken’s Yamamoto toted a recording device along with her during a recent trek up a mountain summit in Japan. There, she captured the sounds of the wind, birds, water and trees, which she now pipes throughout the spa via a speaker system.
Ganban-yoku (bedrock baths) enable spa-goers to “bathe” by reclining on a stone bed in a heated room—no water involved. The stones contain natural ore and, when heated, their far-infrared reach purportedly promotes detoxifying perspiration, deep relaxation, enhanced circulation and energy flow, a stronger immune system and even weight loss.
Spa Relaken has created a hot stone room made of a rare natural mineral ore harvested from the mountainous Kyushu region. Inside, guests don loose wrap tops and pajama pants and lounge on large towels spread out over the stones. The Japanese see ganban-yoku as an opportunity for a social gathering, where friends and family members can repose together and chat.
The Japanese developed the enzyme bath in 1940, but the treatment became popularized in the 1970s when Japanese athletes used it in preparation for the Winter Olympic games. This dry bath is created from finely shaved cedar, rice bran, and fruit and vegetable enzymes which, when combined, ferment, creating a natural heat of 120 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. Bathers relax in a wooden tub as a therapist covers them up to the neck with the mixture.
Reeves, whose Willow Spa houses one of two enzyme baths in America, says that the dry heat brings about myriad health benefits, including natural detoxification, an increased metabolic heart rate and a circulation boost to help improve skin tone, elasticity and texture. An added benefit: A 20-minute “dip” can stimulate the body’s ability to burn calories—”as much as rowing or jogging for 30 minutes,” Reeves reports.
To create the Willow’s enzyme bath, the spa partners had to invest in extensive research, find a Japanese expert who understood this esoteric treatment, and import the enzymes used in the mix—no cheap undertaking. But the bath is often booked to capacity on weekends, and has helped position the facility as a therapeutic spa. “It is our signature treatment and has gotten us a lot of attention,” says Reeves. “It has become central to our mission as a spa.”
To lend this traditional treatment a modern spin, Willow incorporates other pan-Asian touches, including a pre-treatment enzyme drink and ginger tea, and a post-bath Thai leg stretch.
This Japanese modality is based on Chinese principles of acupressure, in which a therapist firmly manipulates points in the head and body, allowing internal energy (or qi) to flow in a more optimally balanced way. Prior to a shiatsu session, clients should complete a questionnaire to uncover health concerns, which the therapist should review before treatment. During a shiatsu session, clients typically wear loose, comfortable clothing—often provided by the spa. The treatment takes place either on a futon or a massage chair, depending on the type of body work each client requires.
Relaken recommends Shiatsu sessions (30-90 min./$90-$150), in conjunction with ganban-yoku, for the utmost in pain and fatigue relief. Willow Spa provides its shiatsu services (60-100 min./$95-$190) on either a table, or a Thai mat on the foor. “It’s usually booked by clients specifically seeking an acupressure-oriented treatment,” Reeves says.
Many Asian-style spas provide loose, casual tops and bottoms for their clients to wear during treatments and in relaxation areas. Japanese spa loungewear is usually marked by Asian design flourishes and silhouettes (think: Mandarin collars, simple frog closures and short flared pants in breathable fabrics such as pima cotton). Reeves and her partners designed their own Asian loungewear. “We wanted to create a space where men and women could lounge comfortably,” she explains. “We felt clients would feel more at ease in loungewear, rather than robes that easily fall open.” The outfits have become so popular among clients that the spa now sells them, both in-house and online.
Alison Singh Gee is a Los Angeles-based author and journalist.
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