spa REVIEWS: Japanese-style Spas

Ichiban Bath, Ten Thousand Waves spa
At Ten Thousand Waves, onsen are available indoors or outdoors, and private or communal.

The Onsen

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.