South Bay Accent

February/March 2005


Buddha in the Bathhouse

Zen and the Art of Spa

By Julie Vallone

"To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders."

- Chinese philosopher and Taoism founder Lao Tzu, 6th century BC

It could have been a rough couple of months. Under normal circumstances, the stress of multiple deadlines to meet, visiting relatives, a toddler with the flu, computer problems, and a bathroom remodel gone awry, would have likened my brain to a hot pan of popcorn ready to flip its lid.

But, thanks to a heavy dose of Asian spa therapy, I'm feeling more like a lovingly cooked ramen noodle. Pile on anything. I can take it.

Luckily, amidst the mayhem, I managed to sneak out to several wonderful Asian spas, located right here in the Bay Area. The visionary owners and operators of these establishments realized early on that, when it comes to rest, relaxation, and a general sense of well-being, the Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and other Asian cultures just seem to have it down. Their message: Tune out the noise, and embrace the peace.

Unlike many Western spas, which sometimes employ a more clinical approach to health and beauty, the Asian-inspired spas I visited emphasize the principles of serenity, hospitality, and harmony to draw out the best in their clients. From soothing massages that tap your energy using principles of Chinese medicine, to toxin-battling body treatments that leave you awash in everything from garbanzo beans to sawdust, Eastern cultures certainly have some intriguing approaches to making a person feel good. In my case, mission accomplished.

A Spring in Your Step
Tea Garden Springs, Mill Valley

Nestled amidst towering redwoods of Mill Valley lies a little Asian oasis that has been calming, soothing, and healing clients for over a decade. The idea to create a unique Asian spa experience took root one weekend after Tea Garden Springs owner Roy Nee and his friend (and now business partner) Jacqueline Sa visited another spa, which they found crowded and disorganized. On the trip home, both had plenty to say about how the place should have run, and from there, it took very little time for Nee and Sa to start brainstorming plans for their own spa.

Neither person had any experience running a spa, although both were quite accomplished. Nee had a background in architecture and building. Sa, a former top executive with AT&T, had eased out of the fast lane to open an herbal shop. But with Nee's keen eye for design and Sa's marketing prowess, Tea Garden Springs was born just months after the notion had bubbled to the surface.

With its hospitable staff, lush, serene tea garden, and innovative treatments, the place was a hit from the get-go. Nee partly attributes the popularity of Tea Garden Springs to its sense of "flow," the ease with which clients move through the spa, transitioning from one place or treatment to another. "I was really concerned with that. I did not want to see points of stagnation, which would force clients into awkward interactions."

As suggested by its name, the Tea Garden Springs experience begins with a soothing cup of tea served in the spa's garden lounge area. Here, you can sink into the comfortable rattan furniture and begin to disengage as you gaze upon the striking Chinese artwork and murals, meet with other guests, or just sit back and listen to the soothing sounds of the flowing water.

I was perfectly willing to hang out in the comfortable tea garden for quite while, but I was scheduled for two spa sessions. To get to the treatment rooms, I had to step over a stone pathway set amidst a working spring. Nee built the spring himself, as a tribute to his father, who designed springs and Chinese Tea Gardens for a living. (He had to raise the floor a whole floor a foot to accommodate it.) Nee says the spring enhances the "flow" of the place, gently guiding clients from the tea garden to what he calls the "inner sanctum."

My first session was a Tui Na massage, which employed techniques developed in China over 2000 years ago to release tension and restore the body's energy, or Qi. Following that, an Ubvartan Body Treatment, in which I was slathered from neck to toe with a cornucopia of natural oils, floral lotions, and other toxin-extracting herbs and foodstuffs (including something with garbanzo beans). After a steam and shower, I crossed back over the stream, now invigorated, radiant, and with a strange hankering for a bowl of hummus.

Nee has branded the Tea Garden Spring a "Zen" spa, one that combines Eastern herbology with Western aromatherapy techniques. In addition its more exotic services, such as Tui Na massage and Ayurvedic Treatments, the spa also offers Swedish, Aromatherapy, and Deep Muscle Massages, as well as Western facials, body re-sculpting, and even a head-to-toe Champagne treatment called "Wrapped-in-Stars." I plan to put that one on next year's Christmas list.

The Naked Truth
Kabuki Springs & Spa, San Francisco

There's something incredibly cathartic about an afternoon of hanging out (so to speak) in a peaceful, beautifully designed communal bath, sipping on lemon water, hopping from hot tub to cold tub, and from steam room to sauna, buck naked. Now, I'm not exactly the buck-naked -in-public type. I've never entered a nudist colony or stepped onto a nude beach. Sometimes, I don't even feel all that comfortable in the women's locker room at the gym.

But the communal baths at Kabuki Springs and Spa are somehow different. Perhaps it's the serenity of the place, the soft lighting, or the elegant design with its spacious tubs, high ceilings, wooden lounge chairs, and vessel sinks. Maybe it's the easy-going attitude of the other clients, (and the reassurance that, everyone doesn't look like Twiggy, and no one here cares). Or maybe it's because I was still on a high my Javanese Lulur body treatment, experienced just prior to my foray into the baths.

This truly royal treatment was traditionally practiced in the palaces of central Java, given as a rite of passage to a bride-to-be each day fro 40 days before her wedding. After that period, the subject would truly become a "Golden Bride," mainly due to the turmeric in the Lulur powder (which acts as a dye). I was bathed in a full palette of floral and food substances - massaged in jasmine-scented oil, exfoliated with a rice, turmeric, and ginger scrub, and, finally, moisturized with yogurt. Afterwards, I was invited to soak in a warm Japanese tub covered with floating roses. Although I only had one session (as opposed to 40), I left the room glowing.

The roots of Kabuki Springs date back to 1968, when it was opened as a traditional Japanese men's bathhouse (with massage). AMC theaters bought the building in the late 1970s, and took over the communal baths, offering massage, and eventually opening the baths to women. But the baths were run as an afterthought to the theater operation, and eventually fell into disrepair.

Kathy Nelson came on as spa director when it was purchased in 1998 by Joie de Vivre Hospitality, which owns several boutique hotels, restaurants, cocktail lounges and adventure destinations in the city. Nelson, who had run several other high profile spas, including her own women's communal bath in San Francisco, was prepared to give the place a complete facelift.

The spa reopened in 1999 offering a full range of services, from exotic body treatments like Lulur, to acupuncture, and Swedish, Japanese Shiatsu , and Indian Abhyanga massage. The baths are now open seven days a week, with three men's days, three women's days, and one co-ed day. Swimsuits are required on co-ed days, but optional for the rest of the week. (Note: There wasn't a swimsuit to be seen on the day I visited, so those unwilling to experience the baths in the buff may feel a tad overdressed).

"We're really unique because of the communal baths," says Nelson. "In the last five years, we've managed to create a product with a lot of soul, a lot of earth, and a healing presence in the city."

But unlike many traditional communal baths in other countries, which tend to be a social experience, Nelson and staff have tried to keep the atmosphere at Kabuki as quite as possible.

"We're so used to over-stimulation all the time; we want to offer a break from that," she says. "When I go to bathe, I like to go alone, and I really don't want to tune into other people's conversations. It's all about giving people individual time for themselves, because we all need that regeneration."

Bathing Beauty
Watercouse Way, Palo Alto

Take it from someone in the middle of a bathroom remodel: in the Bay Area, there are probably few better places to find bath design ideas than Watercourse Way. Nine exquisitely designed tub rooms highlight the spa experience here, each with elegant, often hand-painted tiles, large, multi-jetted tubs, unique lighting fixtures, and other eye-catching design features such as glass waterfall sculptures, poetic floral arrangements, and intriguing Asian artworks.

Co-owners John Roberts and Susan Nightingale opened Watercourse Way almost 25 years ago. drawing much of their inspiration from Tassahara Zen Mountain Center, a Buddhist monastery in the Ventana Wilderness (east of Big Sur). "We liked it so much, we thought it would be great to have something like that in Palo Alto," Roberts recalls.

This spa's Asian orientation is realized more in its current design scheme, and the careful attention to service and hospitality, than in its menu of treatments. However, Watercourse Way does offer an array of Ayurvedic services, such as one called The Bindi, which features an herbal steam and dry brush massage, and another, dubbed Shirodhara, in which dosha oil is poured on the forehead for 20 minutes.

While these sounded intriguing, I decided to go for a hot stone massage, and didn't regret it. Although I've read conflicting facts on the origin or this treatment (e.g. the stones are sometimes called "Japanese Hot Rocks"), Roberts set me straight, informing that the procedure originated in the American Southwest. He has actually met the woman who originated it, and says the whole idea came to her through "channeling."

Go figure. In any case, where it came from, or how, didn't matter much to me as I luxuriated on a bed of toasty black stones in a softly lit room, with a captivating candlelit Buddha looking on. Each muscle bid farewell to its tension as my capable therapist gently massaged the stones, soaked in warm oil, into and across my body from the top of my spine to the soles of my feet. Before I could doze off, I was awakened by cooler stones tracing the same path, leaving me both relaxed and revitalized, and looking forward to my next visit.

The quality of service is everything," says Roberts, explaining that the mantra is consistently drummed into each of his 100 employees (including 80 therapists). "We don't push products here, and we provide the best experience possible. That's how we create an atmosphere in which people can really relax."

Wood Work
Osmosis, Freestone
When I started out on my Asian spa tour, I knew I'd experience some unusual treatments. I expected to be covered with or dunked in some weird stuff. I didn't expect to find myself buried neck-deep in a tub of sawdust. Moreover, I certainly didn't expect to like it.

But that proved the case, as well as the highlight, of my visit to Osmosis spa in Freestone (up in Western Sonoma County, just east of Bodega Bay).

My day began with a wonderful facial and footbath using all-natural, plant- and fruit-based products from Jurlique Skin Care company of Australia. (Note: The guys from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy go gaga over this stuff.) With my face de-aged and polished to a healthy glow, I was guided to a lovely room with a view of a Monet-esque Japanese Garden, and handed a cup of enzyme tea, to await the Osmosis signature treatment, the Cedar Enzyme Bath.

Osmosis owner Michael Stusser discovered the Cedar Enzyme Bath two decades ago on a visit to Japan, where he had been studying landscape gardening and Zen. At the time, he was suffering from sciatica, and found the bath's healing properties so effective, he brought the idea back to the States with him. "I was really wowed by the effect of it," he says. "I knew, without a doubt, it had potential to help people here in many ways."

Stusser opened the country's first Cedar Enzyme bath in a Sebastopol backyard, using wood salvaged from a chicken coop. Initially, it was slow going - a soak in a tub of wood can be kind of a hard sell - but once adventurous clients experienced the cedar bath, they loved it and started to tell friends. In 1987, the San Francisco Chronicle did a review on Stusser's enzyme bath, creating a huge rush to Sebastopol. By 1989, the bath had become so popular that Stusser was able to move Osmosis to its present location in Freestone.

The Cedar Enzyme Bath actually consists of light cedar fibers, rice bran, and more than 600 active plant, fruit and vegetable enzymes, all mixed together to ferment and heat naturally in a large redwood tub. The bath is said to speed up the metabolism, induce a profound state of relaxation, and even promote healing in the body and soul. Guests have reported such benefits as stress reduction, improved circulation and mobility, relief from joint and muscle pain and swelling, and a general sense of well-being.

"People in pain have experienced incredible transformations," says Stusser, adding that many chemotherapy patients in particular have lauded the detoxifying effects of the treatment. "It doesn't happen every time, but it has been a vehicle for people who are stuck to be shifted out of that."

I was feeling pretty good even before the bath, as my congenial bath attendant served me tea in the beautiful room, and gave me the rundown on what to expect. Osmosis places a great deal of emphasis on the tea ceremony, particularly the Japanese custom of anticipating a guest's every need.

My attendant then guided me to an aromatic cedar tub room, where she had already dug out a spot for me in the warm, finely ground wood shavings. I disrobed, jumped in, and sat comfortably planted like a turnip in the cedar.

I continued to stew, with the attendant checking in every few minutes to wipe my head with a cool cloth, offer me a drink, and rebury me after the heat compelled me to pop out an arm or a leg. By about 20 minutes, I felt fully cooked, and after a shower, left the enzyme bath feeling relaxed, happy, and maybe even a little loopy.

At this point, I could afford to enjoy this state, as my only other commitment for the day was a relaxing massage in a peaceful, outdoor Japanese-style pavilion, listening only to the birds of the garden and the wind blowing through the trees.

On the 5½ -acre Osmosis property, Stusser has created a unique garden sanctuary that reflects both the Asian Zen spirit of the spa and the rustic charm of its Sonoma country setting. For Stusser and crew, it's all about providing an environment where people have an opportunity to experience inner quietude. "We want to give people an opportunity to come in contact with emptiness, and the ability to stop that inner dialogue that seems like a hopelessly endless theme," he says. "We want to create a sacred space. It's what the world needs now."

# # #