My obsession with Japanese spas and beauty was fostered almost a decade ago, when I discovered the authority on “gourmet bathing”, Leonard Koren, and his 1996 book Undesigning the Bath. This Japanophile US artist and writer’s paean to the understated, understudied, unassuming objects that constitute a great bath ignited my passion for heat and steam – the holy grail being the laidback cousin of the hammam, Japan’s simple onsen.
However, on this trip to the country I wanted to dive beyond the well-known Japanese ritual of ofuro: a warm, soothing bath that can take place in an onsen (a mineral-rich natural hot spring) or a sento (public indoor baths). I wanted to experience the lesser-known Japanese beauty rituals and unlock some of the alternative beauty and wellness scene secrets.
As I realised during my painstaking research, Tokyo and its subcultures and insider geekery often mean this world is very much out of reach to foreigners. But after months of soft-stalking Japanese beauty bloggers on Instagram, a couple of them responded and I finally found something more than the wabi-sabi aesthetic to write home about.
Day 11pmTokyo is a city of contradictions, as the classic Zen principles of kanso and shibui constantly clash with colourful chaos at every street corner. And in no other district of this vast warren of a city is this more apparent than in Otemach, with its skyscraper skyline located east of the ancient Imperial Palace. It is a really tough choice deciding where to stay, as my inner Spa Junkie is desperate to be immersed in gentler waters. I want to spend my days in a kimono, enveloped in wafts of sandalwood, while lounging on tatami mats and eating sushi. This is not a dream but a reality at the recently opened Hoshinoya, a modern-day ryokan in the heart of the business district. Or do I stay at the super-cool Aman Tokyo – only a couple of blocks away? Given that I have to work on this trip, I check into the latter. Aman Tokyo comes furnished with all the Japanese design I crave and every mod con I need.
Jet-lagged and exhausted, I take a lift to the hotel lobby on the 33rd floor of the 38-storey Otemachi Tower. Aman Tokyo’s urban retreat chic occupies the top six floors, and upon entering its 30m-tall lobby, serene sounds from a koto player synchronise with the dancing rays of sunlight pouring into the soaring 420sq m space. The room has a giant washi-rice-paper lantern and the music gently serenades the guests as they take tea in minimalist splendour.
4.30pm I retreat directly to the hotel’s stunning and tranquil temple-like 30m pool, where basalt sets the scene. The giant floor-to-ceiling windows mean each time I finish a lap and draw a breath I look out at the city panorama before me – and a snow-covered Mount Fuji.
5.30pm Next I gravitate towards one of the spa rooms to experience an Aman treatment called the Signature Spa Journey. Before it begins, a bento-style box is curated in front of me with each of the ingredients that will be used. And in typical Japanese fashion, presentation is an important part of the experience. The assortment includes a body scrub – containing camphor, known for its deeply calming scent, kuromoji powder and a Japanese clay – that stimulates circulation, boosts the lymphatic system and removes toxins; and a flowering spicewood rice oil that is used in traditional Japanese medicine. The 150-minute treatment starts with a foot bath with seasonal kampo herbs and mineral sea salt, and is followed by a deep-breathing exercise using kuromoji powder and rice oil, renowned for its relaxing and calming properties. I am given the full-body camphor scrub, then bathed and finally pummelled with a 90-minute combination of shiatsu and western-style elbow-in-the‑tight-spot massage. By the time the treatment is over, I am relaxed, rebalanced and truly ready for bed. I switch the kampo-inspired herbal refreshment for a sake nightcap and a deep-cleansing 3D sheet face mask of my own in my room, while I watch the incredible light show that is Tokyo by night.
9.30am For me, nothing beats the notorious Tokyo jet lag faster than a quick yoga session. I join Yuco, an amazing instructor, back in the spa for an hour of powerful ashtanga.
2pm After lunch I head off to the neighbourhood of Akasaka to meet my otonamaki teacher Mr Ishii at Suitengu Chiryoin clinic. Otonamaki, which directly translates as “adult wrapping”, is a new underground meditation practice of “rebirthing” that claims to alleviate problems related to posture, stiffness and insomnia.
I’m asked to strip down to the bare minimum – which is my stockings – and then Ishii asks me to curl up into a ball, to be the smallest I possibly can. He tucks my shoulders in as my chin presses tightly on my chest and ties the first of many tight knots as he begins to wrap me in a blanket – thankfully made from breathable cloth.
It gets kind of kinky as the knots become tighter and tighter and I find myself swaddled from head to toe. Totally cocooned, I can’t move at all. Although breathing is hard, I’m not in pain as Ishii starts to rock me back and forth. He explains that in a couple of minutes he will invert me, and this is meant to take me back to the moment of birth when I was head down in the womb. The blood rushes to my head as he holds me up by my feet for two minutes, though it feels like 15.
Down again and rocking on my back, we start the light therapy part of the session. Ishii places small squares of bright satin cloth over my eyes. The squares are individually coloured – red, blue and green – which makes for a very surreal experience. The red cloth evokes the feeling I imagine a baby would have in the womb when sunlight shines on the mother’s tummy, and now everything about this experience seems to fall into place. I’m feeling very relaxed, my breathing slows down and I have the sensation that I’m floating. At the end of the half-hour session, I feel de-stressed, but relieved to be freed.
3pm Next up, I head into the backstreets of Tokyo’s Azabu district, to a clinic called Harieq Azabu, run by Mari Okamoto. She’s one of Tokyo’s top facial acupuncturists and has agreed to let me experience her facial lifting and sculpting treatment called electric facial acupuncture. The session starts with body-detoxing acupuncture, and things get heated when Okamoto begins the okyu, or moxibustion, in which a mugwort extract is lit and burnt close to the needles, heating them and filling the room with a thick, cannabis-like smoke. Moxibustion is a regular feature of Japanese acupuncture and is intended to elevate blood cell levels (especially those of white blood cells) by stimulating the immune system with a small amount of heat directly applied to the body’s acupuncture points. Okamoto also places eight cupping glasses from my shoulders all down my spine – a localised detoxing therapy that uses special cups that suction the skin for a few minutes. It really hurts – and leaves me with huge circular blue bruises for a week.
I’m feeling woozy when she turns me over for my facelift treatment. About 40 needles are inserted carefully into my face – along my jawline, hairline, deep nasolabial lines and brows, with one slap bang in the middle of my third eye, which is riddled with tiny fine lines. Next, Okamoto attaches a microcurrent to each of the needles: my face feels like it is being electrocuted. My muscles start twitching wildly as she keeps turning up the current to get even deeper into my tissue. It’s no fun at all. I grit my teeth and think of all the sake I’ll have later.
Okamoto explains, “Facial acupuncture targets ageing from within. The needles stimulate the derma, encouraging collagen production and skin cell regeneration. It also helps with wrinkles, fine lines and saggy jowls.”
After 20 minutes, I can feel the muscle fatigue in my face, and the results are undeniable. My brows are a good half an inch higher and I look like the millennial me from my past.
Day 310am Because Japanese beauty is the new Korean beauty, a trip to Tokyo is not complete without a morning buying its prized products. I’ve been sent a list of places to visit from Alisa, one of my Instagram contacts (@tokyobeautybook), and pop into First Avenue Tokyo Station; Ainz & Tulpe, a two‑floor beauty megastore; Matsumoto Kiyoshi, one of the biggest drugstore chains; and Cosme Kitchen for natural skincare. On my shopping spree I stock up on LuLuLun masks (these masks are available in day and night formulas and are so nourishing. I always see an instant lift and plump whenever I use them), Kanebo Suisai Beauty Clear Powder (which leaves my skin incredibly soft and smooth) and the obligatory jumbo-sized SK-II Facial Treatment Essence (most SK-II products contain Pitera – a natural byproduct of yeast fermentation believed to keep wrinkles at bay. It’s a classic beauty staple and catapulted Japanese beauty into my life. It leaves my skin hydrated and the tone really bright). I also buy a stack of Rohto’s eye-whitening drops. They’re truly redemption in a bottle. I have to buy an extra suitcase to bring my beauty products back home with me.
2pm Thanks to another Instagram recommendation, I find myself back in the alleys of Akasaka at beauty parlour Spa Hinoki, this time for a 160-minute anti-ageing facial that comes with a carbon dioxide head and scalp treatment. I am led up a steep flight of stairs and into another world of dim lighting, dark cherrywood floors and rice-paper doors. I am miffed I’m not offered a kimono to round off this authentic experience.
My therapist reads a few words of broken English from a piece of paper. I’m told to lie down and relax. However, with most Japanese facials you will not simply find a bed but a bed with a basin, as scalp and face are intrinsically linked in Japanese beauty regimes. I have no desire to get my hair washed, but eventually I give in and go with the flow. It feels like extremely fizzy club soda is being poured and worked vigorously all over my hair. The Japanese include scalp care in their weekly routine to deter any “scalp odour”, and it’s believed the bubbles help to clean deeply, promote blood flow and alleviate hair loss.
After the hairwashing, a microcurrent machine is up next, which feels like a family of centipedes gathering for Sunday lunch on my head. Then my feet are massaged and eight small pebble-like hot stones are placed between my toes to stimulate key pressure points. But now it’s time for my face massage. I am in heaven for the next hour, as my therapist’s slow and rhythmic hand movements excite and delight my forgotten face muscles. Finally, a mask is applied – a mask finishes off every Japanese beauty ritual – and I leave positively lifted and glowing. I wish I could take my beauty therapist back to London in my luggage.
The Bottom Line
My three days delving into Tokyo’s alternative beauty scene barely scratched the surface of a culture that seamlessly marries authenticity, perfectionism, innovation and ritual. Nevertheless, my overwhelming impression was that beauty treatments in Japan are performed like a perfectly choreographed dance. I arrived with high expectations and was not disappointed by the originality and effectiveness of the treatments. As I boarded the plane home, relaxed and rebalanced, my taster of this esoteric beauty scene had supercharged my passion for all things Japanese spa and beauty related.