SPA REVIEWS: Japanese-style Spas

Two women enjoying Ten Thousand Waves spa's outdoor footbath.
Two women enjoying Ten Thousand Waves spa's outdoor footbath.

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