Posts tagged #onsen


I had the privilege of visiting Japan in May so that I could gain an insight into the culture and therefore conceptualise Japan's first wellness retreat. A luxury destination where guests can experience the Japanese approach to longevity and wellbeing, for which they are renowned. Beyond nutrition and movement, which is where we in the West often limit wellness, is the central concept of mindfulness that is inherent in the Japanese arts, and indeed in their very way of being. 

The simple, but compelling, act of mindful living offers an invaluable tool to cope with the pace of modern day living. Mindfulness reduces stress, improves sleep, cognitive function and balances the emotions. Here below I share a number of mindfulness practices that stem from Japan to offer a perspective on how meditation can be something other than 'the lotus position'. 

ZAZEN - In Zen Buddhism, zazen is a meditative discipline that is typically the primary practice. The precise meaning and method of zazen varies from school to school, but in general it can be regarded as a means of insight into the nature of existence. Zazen is practiced in different ways depending on its tradition. It may involve facing a wall or facing into the centre of the room with eyelids half lowered. It can also include a walking meditation in the room. 

JAPANESE TEA CEREMONY - The heart of the Japanese tea ceremony lies in simplicity of spirit which brings peace to the mind. The objective of the ceremony is not just to make a cup of tea; it is a deliberate exercise in being present in the moment, focusing on one task and appreciating the simple things in life. The ritual of the tea ceremony is based on the 4 fundamental Zen principles of harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.

IKEBANA FLOWER ARRANGING - Ikebana or kado is the beautiful, often strikingly minimalist, Japanese flower arrangement art. Ikebana means “giving life to flowers” and kado translates as “the way of flowers”. When Buddhism was introduced to Japan, monks started to arrange flowers to decorate the altars of temples.

KOTO LESSON - The koto is the national instrument of Japan. It is a stringed musical instrument that is plucked with ivory picks called tsume.

ORIGAMI - Japanese origami began sometime after Buddhist monks carried paper to Japan during the 6th century. The word "origami" comes from the Japanese language. "Ori" which means folded and "kami" which means paper. This traditional paper folding art is very relaxing and meditative. 

JAPANESE INCENSE CEREMONY - Kōdō ( 道?, "Way of Fragrance") is the art of appreciating Japanese incense, and involves using incense within a structure of codified conduct. Kōdō includes all aspects of the incense process, from the tools ( 道具 kōdōgu), to activities such the incense-comparing games kumikō (組 ) and genjikō (源 ).[1] Kōdō is counted as one of the three classical Japanese arts of refinement.

JAPANESE CALLIGRAPHY - Zen calligraphy is practiced by Buddhist monks and most shodō practitioners. To write Zen calligraphy with mastery, one must clear one's mind and let the letters flow out of themselves, not practice and make a tremendous effort. This state of mind is called the mushin (無 ? "no mind state”). For any particular piece of paper, the calligrapher must be fully present and has but one chance to create with the brush.

JAPANESE POTTERY - Learning to use the potter’s wheel takes patience, practice, and focus. It is also very relaxing and rewarding. Initially the class will make small bowls, plates or cups before progressing onto other forms. Hand building or sculpture, is another way to work with clay. The basic techniques are easier to learn than wheel throwing and there is a larger range of forms you can make. 



Last month I had the delight of making my first ever visit to Japan to meet with a new client wanting to create a health retreat in the heart of snow country. My tour included a few days in Tokyo, Kyoto, Niseko and Shima-Shi so that I could understand the country, its culture, the Aman hotel group and of course the onsen tradition. 

I landed in Tokyo and absolutely loved this city. Fashion, food and beautiful hotels. Finding a yoga or fitness class was not so easy, and it seems that the wellness scene as we know it, has a long way to grow in Japan. However, the Japanese have long been revered and studied for their long life expectancy. They have a diet that is largely fresh and unprocessed, with very little refined foods or sugar. And the Japanese tend to have a healthy attitude to food and eating. They have a traditional saying, “hara hachi bu”, a Confucian teaching, which means to eat until you are 80% full, and Japanese parents start teaching this to their children from a young age. Its this mindful approach and the way they serve their food that is the key to their longevity. Rather than having one large plate, they often eat from a small bowl and several different dishes. The Japanese are also strong believers of ‘flexible restraint’ when it comes to treats and snacks, enjoying them from time to time but in smaller portions. 

My next stop was Amanemu in Shima-Shi and overlooking Ago Bay. Built around natural hot springs, called onsen in Japanese, the hotel has 30 private villas inspired by the classic style of a traditional ryokan. Designed by Kerry Hill Architects and using natural materials that harmonise with the surroundings, each villa offers a luxurious approach to zen minimalism. Soaking tubs offer taps for cold, hot and hot-springs water, so that a guest can enjoy a private onsen experience in their room. Surrounded by gardens, the water-inspired Aman Spa offers 2,000 square metres of relaxation, including two private pavilions, a watsu pool and four treatment suites. Designed around a large hot spring, the onsen experience here is of a more contemporary nature and I could barely wait to have a soak in the warm water. My afternoon of spa treatments began with a deeply relaxing watsu, followed by a energy healing with a visiting specialist. I was then escorted back to the spacious changing area that connects to the outdoor onsen. The water was heaven! Each mineral spring in Japan has its own unique properties and the Japanese will travel to various onsen based on the healing effects of the water and their wellness goals. In the case of Amanemu, the thermal water left my my skin feeling silky and soft. To finish the day I joined my travel companion for dinner in the restaurant, where a menu of local delicacies, including spiny lobster, marbled Wagyu beef and foraged herbs offer the best of Japan. A good nights sleep gave way to a beautiful sunny day so I hopped on a push bike and explored the property and then went to the fitness centre for some exercise before a final soak in the onsen, followed by a delicious degustation breakfast. 

Our next stop was the beautiful city of Kyoto. Due to its exceptional historic value, it escaped destruction in World War II, therefore countless shrines, temples, gardens and other priceless structures remain intact. As this visit was more of a cultural than a wellness visit I simply planned to wander, but I did stop for a shiatsu massage, which is a form of Japanese bodywork based on Traditional Chinese Medicine using finger pressure, along with assisted stretching, joint mobilisation and manipulation. After 4 hours of walking the renewed energy and lightness I felt from the shiatsu treatment was quite unbelievable and allowed me to continue sightseeing for another 3 or 4 hours. 

Onwards to Niseko for a discovery tour of the region and its hotels, traditional ryokans and hot springs. A ryokan is a Japanese style inn found throughout the country, but especially in hot spring areas. More than just a place to sleep, a ryokan is an opportunity to experience the traditional Japanese lifestyle and hospitality, incorporating elements such as tatami floors, futon beds, Japanese style baths and local cuisine. I loved experiencing this side of Japan along with the traditional onsens. I finished both evenings soaking in an outdoor onsen that was under the stars and surrounded by forest. The perfect pathway to a good nights sleep. 

On return to Tokyo for my final 2 night stay, I checked into Aman Tokyo and soon thereafter went to the spa for an afternoon of treatments. I began, as you do in Japan, with a warm soak overlooking the city skyline. Then I succumbed to a 3 hour ritual. The entire journey was faultless with every last detail considered and the pace of the therapist unhurried and attentive. If visiting Tokyo please visit the Aman. Designed by none other than the iconic Australian architect Kerry Hill, this city hotel is absolutely exquisite in its approach to zen luxury. The aesthetic is both refined and a little 'wabi sabi', which is a concept derived from Buddhism with the characteristics including asymetry, roughness, simplicity, economy, austerity, modesty, intimacy and appreciation of the ingenuous integrity of natural objects and processes. Its this approach that makes the Aman Tokyo feel right in every way. In addition service excellence delivered with Japanese perfection ensures the stay is second to none. Upon checking out, I was driven to the train station with two hotel porters purchasing my train ticket and carrying my luggage to the correct platform and train carriage. What more could a travelling spa consultant ask for? 

In any case I look forward to returning to Japan as the Aman Moiwa Health Retreat continues to be developed. Its an exciting project on so many levels and I look forward to bringing the concept of Japanese wellness to wellness travellers and ski enthusiasts visiting Niseko.