One man’s failed search for the perfect International spa massage
CHARLOTTE, NC: For as long as I can remember, whenever I have read a travel story by a female writer who had been to a spa, words would gush forth with so much adulation and euphoria that it seemed impossible that one human being could feel so totally renewed from a little bit of scrubbing, polishing, waxing, exfoliating and rubbing. All elements of a spa massage. Words like “pamper” and “divine” and “luscious” and “exquisite” and “marvelous” are just a few of the buzzwords necessary to write a top-notch article about wellness.
Using that premise as the source of my inspiration, I decided that spa shopping should no longer be the personal domain of a totally feminine pursuit. I was determined that I was going to scour the globe in search of the perfect massage.
After all, why should the gals have all the fun?
So I determined that I was going to find out what all the fuss was about, even at the risk of turning into a girlie-man.
I lost my spa virginity at Champneys
Champneys is located in the small town of Tring in Hertfordshire. Situated about 30 miles northwest of London, over the years Champneys has become one of the most popular spa destinations in Great Britain. As the oldest health farm in the United Kingdom, it is rich in history and tradition.
Since I was new to the game, I chose a basic massage, although there were so many choices it was practically impossible to know what to try; Aromatherapy, Body Radiance, Babor Scen-Tao, Dry Flotation, Citrus Body Glow, Indian Head Massage, Reflexology, Shiatsu and on and on.
And that was only a partial list.
There was even something called a “Chocolate Wrapper” which was some sort of chocolate therapy. For all I knew that was where you slathered yourself in milk chocolate and decided whether to call yourself a Snickers or a Three Musketeers.
What’s a good sea salt scrub among friends?
The first order of business was to take a shower and exfoliate using sea salt. The guys in our group took turns scrubbing each other’s backs. We all agreed that the salt rubbing process would be backs only and above the waist. All other areas were off-limits and would either be self-administered or simply remain “foliated.”
After drying off, each of us was escorted to a separate dimly lit room with pastoral music playing in the background. I was told to remove my towel, get under the sheet, lay face down on the table and my therapist would be with me in a moment.
In the end, my first massage turned out to be a rather pleasant experience. However, I still wasn’t ready to spew forth all those glorious accolades I had read about in the travel magazines just yet.
The English Health Farm vs.the American Style Spa
For one thing, I discovered right away that European-style health farms are not the same as the spas back home. Or at least Champneys wasn’t.
To begin with, most of the clients were walking around in dressing gowns and slippers. It was supposed to be an elegant health and wellness resort, but for me it felt more like a hospital or a sanitarium. That ambiance alone was immediately off-putting.
When afternoon tea rolled around, clients would drink various mineral or herbal concoctions and nibble on melba toast. Meals, though most assuredly healthy, consisted of small portions of broiled this and that, several varieties of lettuce which appeared that they could just have easily been clippings from something the gardener had been doing on the grounds earlier that afternoon, and any number of veggies that were unrecognizable.
As I looked around, I realized that a glass of water was considered dessert.
An extraordinarily beautiful health farm
The grounds were beautiful. The resort was luxurious. The staff and the service were superb. But the manner in which the clientele utilized the facility made me more uncomfortable than relaxed. I was sure that the dress code was designed for comfort and convenience, but “wellness” was not the term I would have used to describe how everyone looked.
The next opportunity for my massage research came in Istanbul,
A bit of travel trivia, Instabul is the only city in the world built on two continents.
As such, it has always been a crossroads of trade and culture. Istanbul is bustling and exotic, but there is something that is also mysterious and decadent about the city.
Obviously, being in Istanbul, the goal was to experience a genuine Turkish bath.
On my way down to the hammam, which simply means “bathroom,” I passed a fellow member of our group who was just leaving.
“How was it?” I asked.
“Go for it,” he said with a big smile on his face.
Somehow his devilish smirk didn’t strike me as being the endorsement I was seeking. Nevertheless, this was part of my discovery process, and I was determined to find out what a real Turkish bath was like.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, a Turkish bath is sort of a combination sauna and massage. I walked into the bath-house and looked around. It was an impressive facility filled with marble columns and floors and the soothing sounds of flowing water from a fountain in the center of the room.
An attendant saw me, his thick regional accent adding to the mystery, asking,
“Ahh you Missa Tayla?”
“Yes,” I said and nodded.
“Very good. You like get reddy, now?”
“Sure. What do I do?”
“Ahh, yes. Firs’, you mus go ‘the room an’ undress. Yes. Then, you go firs’ room an’ unlax. You know unlax. Take easy. Jus’ res’ little bit, maybe. Yes.”
After the man said it twice I realized he was trying to say “relax” so I smiled in agreement and listened to the rest of his instructions.
“Firs’ room warm room. Make you sweat maybe, huh. Yes. After that, you move nex’ room. Hot room. Much warmer, I think. Yes. Stay in a hot room a little while, then come out. OK? Yes.”
“OK. Yes.” Now I felt like I was even talking like him. “Where do I change?”
“Ova’ there. In tha’ room. Thank you, sah.”
I walked to the changing room and got undressed. I found a huge Turkish towel, wrapped it around me and strolled into the first room.
There was a steady flow of hot, dry air permeating the room. Having always been susceptible to heat, it didn’t take long for me to work up a sweat. My rule of thumb in a sauna has always been to remain until it is no longer comfortable.
After ten minutes or so, I was becoming moist and juicy, so I followed instructions and headed to the hot room.
Hot was right!
The room was practically unbearable.
I was trying to figure out why the second step was even necessary, but I wasn’t coming up with anything logical. Especially for me since I was already dripping from my time in the warm room. I stayed in the hot room for as long as I could stand it, which wasn’t very long.
Five minutes max, and probably not even that.
The three-room system was similar to that of the Romans. The difference came after the second area when a bather entered the cold chamber. For the Romans, it was a matter of splashing cool water on their faces and perhaps doing a full body wash. A Turkish bath features the full body wash followed by a massage.
When I entered the cold room, an attendant was waiting for me.
He rinsed me off with a shower of cool water. The water temperature was probably warmer than it felt because of the time I had spent in the other two heated rooms. After a thorough cleansing, I was instructed to go to one of the arched cubicles lining the perimeter of the bath and to sit down and wait.
There were approximately twelve cubicles and each had barely enough space for one person to sit. The main room was completely done in marble with a fountain in the middle that splashed continuously with relaxing water sounds. Though small, the cubicle was comfortable.
I sat there in the altogether, quietly waiting to see what was going to happen next. I didn’t have to wait long. A small man entered the room wearing nothing but a large diaper that was tied at both sides. It probably wasn’t a real diaper, but it looked like one. At this point, I was so intimidated that I had no intention of asking what it was called
The therapist was muscular and solidly built with a slender frame that didn’t have an ounce of body fat. I looked down myself and wondered if he might like to borrow some of mine.
He was hairy, too, with a full head of jet black, curly hair, as well as chest hair, leg hair, arm hair, facial hair, and back hair.
Honestly, the man looked sinister to me
As the tiny Turkish hairball in a diaper moved toward me, I realized there was no place for me to go.
After all, I was sitting there naked in a marble cubicle with barely enough room for my arms and legs.
I cowered as he approached. Images that he might be getting ready to slit my throat raced through my mind until I realized he had no place to hide a knife. This was certainly not the “relaxation” I had been hoping for.
I thought about jumping up and making a break for it, but the Turk was too close. I was about to receive a true Turkish bath.
The attendant didn’t say a word. He was all business.
As his diapered frame stood before me, he reached up and pulled down a bucket of water filled with several sponges. He placed the bucket on the floor and then strategically put one of his hairy little legs between mine and began washing me. It was truly a “full” body wash.
The Turk scrubbed, scoured, exfoliated and rinsed, and then he did it some more. I was panic-stricken but damned if I wasn’t clean. For fifteen solid minutes, the human fur ball worked me over.
I don’t spend that much time detailing my car.
When he finished, I was exhausted, but I wasn’t quite sure whether it was fear or a massive dose of wellness that had done me in.
“Rest now,” he said and walked out of the room.
I knew there was supposed to be a massage that followed, but I didn’t wait around to complete the project. I raced to the dressing room as quickly as I could, put my clothes on and left.
As I sprinted out the door, another attendant saw me and yelled,
“Wait! No finish. Is more. Yooo come back. Yes?”
“No,” I yelled back. “Put it on my bill.”
Japanese are masters of the massage, no?
When I went to Japan, I knew that I would have to refine my search to have better success. I had read about the magnificent Japanese thermal baths that are fed by natural springs deep within the earth, but what I really wanted to try was something called Ashiatsu Massage which is popular in China, Thailand as well as Japan.
Ashiatsu is a method of massage where you lie on the floor and the practitioner walks across your back and neck using her feet to target specific pressure points.
As luck would have it, there was a placard on the front desk advertising the availability of Ashiatsu right in the hotel. All that was necessary was to call the concierge and request an appointment.
As it turned out, there were no spa facilities in the hotel. The therapist would personally come to my room to perform the massage.
Go ahead walk all over me
Just before 8:30, I turned off the TV to wait for the therapist to arrive.
At the precise appointment time, there was a knock at the door. I walked across the room and opened the door to greet the Japanese woman who would soon be alleviating all my aches and pains with her unique barefoot technique.
I had barely opened the door when a small Asian blur streaked past me and ran to the television. She quickly turned it on and then rushed back toward me. When she reached where I was standing, she propped open the door and motioned me toward the center of the room. I had no clue what was happening, and I certainly didn’t know why there was such urgency.
The TV was now blaring away with the sounds of the Japanese World Series. The tiny Japanese woman lowered the sound just enough to be able to hear the play-by-play. Then she started to undo my belt. She whipped it open and just as rapidly unzipped my pants. Within seconds she pushed me toward the bed and in a single two-handed movement ripped my pants off and flung them into the corner.
Next she took a pillow from the bed and plopped it on the floor. She looked at me and motioned that I lay down face first.
“You lay. Put face down,” was all she said.
Within seconds I was on the floor with my head facing the television set watching a baseball game from beneath the screen.
I had no chance to voice my opinion, however. I was on the mat quicker than Sonny Liston after a punch from Muhammad Ali.
Within seconds, there was a small Japanese woman stomping on my back with her bare feet.
Her haste had been so that she could watch the game as she pounded me into oblivion like a vat of Chianti grapes.
Still, I had to ask myself, why did I have to be the lucky soul to get the only therapist in Tokyo who was an avid Seibu Lions fan during the middle of the Japanese World Series?
After a few minutes, I realized I didn’t need to watch the game.
I could tell exactly what was happening by the way she moved her feet. If Seibu struck out, she stomped. If they got a base hit, she wiggled her toes into the small of my back. A double resulted in her running in place on my spine.
Thank God, nobody hit a home run.
Intermingled among the regime of perpetual hopscotch movements, there would be periodic squeals of glee or grunts of anger depending upon the status of her beloved Lions.
All I could hear was the reactionary vocalisms of my Asian tormentor and the rhythmic noise of the thunder sticks that are so typical at Japanese baseball games.
Mercifully the treatment came to an end 50 minutes and an inning and a half later.
I could only thank the Almighty that Seibu didn’t score during my session, thereby leaving me only partially dead.
My aches and pains were now transferred to my chest. Tiny as she was, I was convinced that my sadistic little therapist became a yeti once she mounted my back.
This was merely the first half of my global search for the ultimate in therapeutic relaxation. There was a long way to go before I would reach that Fourth of July “ooohhh, aaahhh” moment. But that’s for next week’s installment.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News
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