In a nation which boasts more than 2,000 natural hot springs, where even the resident monkey population is known to enjoy a good soak, it’s no surprise that Japan is light years ahead of the West when it comes to all things spa. From the techno-techno towers of Tokyo to the back-to-basics waters of a mountain resort, if it’s big in Japan, it has to be worth a try. After my plane landed, my rugged self was certainly in need of some magical spa enchantment after spending months in the pastoral fields of Turkey. So I headed straight to the sky-high to sample its renowned treatments. Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
The activity-filled city of Tokyo truly does rival the nature of eternal nocturnal cities of New York City and Las Vegas, as does the large neon lighting effectively paints a luminous timely picture of that notion, as well as the ever-flowing population sweeping by. As I should have expected, the traditional Japanese cuisine of Yakitori and Kaiseki laid waiting on the hotel lobby tables waiting to be eaten. The Yakitori looked like a familiar grilled chicken that would quench my starvation after the long flight. But I would rather not make my system uneasy, so instead, prepare it for the relaxation that was to come.
Soon I was in the hotel’s 36th floor spa, flashing ‘hello’ to Tokyo from the sauna, which has vivid floor-to-ceiling windows revealing the amazing city panorama. Luckily, the mirrored glass ensured the views were one-way only. I was hardly the traveller who takes the comforts of high-rise hotels to heart, but it would be rather silly to never sample the spoils of what this boutique place has to offer. The Japanese consider it unhygienic to wear swimsuits to spa, so nudity is de rigueur and all well and good if you’re as petite and bijou as most of the locals, but typical European physiques do tend to shine a bright light from the crowd. I’d booked in for The Skin Oxygen Miracle Lift facial, said to give face-lifting type effects without the surgery. I always thought it was no pain, no gain, but surely a simple facial would be bliss.
Oxygen beauty treatments are all the rage in Japan, said to help with everything from headaches to fatigue, and the superstars are said to be fans of oxygen facials. If it’s good enough for their Majesty... it’s certainly royalty for me. For half an hour, my face was exfoliated, masked, moisturised and massaged, sending me into a zombie-like state. Then suddenly I was jolted out of my blissful stupor as my therapist started clasping hard on a vein on the side of my neck before doing the same to my face. Ouch! What a contrast! But apparently, by stimulating the veins to get the blood pumping, the oxygen runs through them, plumping your skin and adding a youthful glow. Once the pinch-marks and redness had gone down, my skin did look fantastic, but I wasn’t so convinced about the face-lifting effects. Luckily, I’m not quite at the jowly stage of life yet, so maybe it would be more noticeable on someone slightly older. Or maybe it’s all just hot air.
After a few days in the high-tech, high-rise, high-speed metropolis, I was ready to seek out the traditional side of Japan. I followed the well-trodden path in the footsteps of millions of holidaying Tokyoites and took the two-hour train to Hakone, a mountainous and volcanic region filled with natural hot springs. Walking through the doors of the Park Hyatt Hakone, I was greeted with the welcoming sight of a huge open fire surrounded by relaxing sofas and reclining Japanese guests, all wearing their hotel-issued yukatas (cotton kimonos), sipping and admiring the wonderful views of a small garden and the mountains beyond. I was served a cup of sencha tea on my room’s balcony, and then I did a quick-change into the yukata to walk to the hotelís Izumi spa, where I immediately took it off again to try out the indoor onsen (hot spring). Like many, the Izumi’s onsen looked similar to a small swimming pool and a Japanese garden was planted just outside the windows. The first rule of any bath in Japan, at home or an onsen, is to shower and rinse outside it before you get in.
Feeling thoroughly cleansed, I took the plunge. I’d been warned that onsen could vary between quite hot to nearly boiling, so I was relieved this was definitely at the bearable end. The waters of the onsen were crystal clear, and I must admit that I felt a little exposed, although nobody gave me a second glance. Nearby, a group of Japanese natives were talking and giggling away, while another was sitting in a Buddha-esque repose. The mineral-rich spring waters are said to be good for a range of ailments, from joint and muscle pain to skin conditions, something which I didn’t have, but why not add it to my spice? After 20 minutes in the onsen, the backache I had seemingly picked up on the flight, did start to disappear. Nonetheless, after reflecting on life and contemplating in the serenity of the Japanese garden for a while, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself, and I was quite relieved when it was time for my fruit therapy massage.
The Japanese can spend days going from onsen to spa treatment to relaxation room to onsen. At hot springs resorts, the strict rules of society are relaxed, everyone is equal and the usual hectic pace of life slows down. To get into the spirit of it, I should have taken another dip after my massage, but I couldn’t bear to wash off the sweet scent and dewy effect of the anti-aging blueberry oil. Instead, I pulled on my boots and spent the afternoon walking through the woods where I was, at least, allowed to keep on my clothes.