Hothouse

Photo by Natasha Irvine

On Capitol Hill in Seattle, Washington there is a steep staircase going down behind the shops of an old building on Pike Street. If you ring the bell by the door at the bottom of the stairs you will be pleasantly surprised by what you find when the door is opened for you.

A tightly knit knot of small compartments make up a women’s only, clothing uncommon, public bathing facility called Hothouse Spa and Sauna. In the dimly lit rooms there is a serene atmosphere where the people are friendly, whispers are mandatory, and the simple pleasures of being hot and clean are enjoyed.

Lavender by the Hothouse Entrance: Photo by Natasha Irvine

After taking off your shoes and signing in, the rather cluttered reception area gives way to sleek bathing facilities. The locker room is open onto a quiet area for resting where you can fill a glass with filtered water and lime slices between soaking and sweating. A quick shower is mandatory before moving on to the sauna, the hot tub or the luxurious lavender steam room. Massages are a good thing to book in advance, but I just happened to be lucky and got one only minutes after signing in. The rate for entry is only $12 and massages are more than reasonable as well. Though affordable, the massage was excellent and the facilities were modern and spotlessly clean. The experience I had at Hothouse rivals many which charged triple the price.

The only complaint I have about Hothouse Spa and Sauna is the bathroom. It is in a rather awkward location between the change rooms and the shower with two doors, neither of which lock, and only one very exposed seat. Unfortunately, this is also the only area where a blow drier is available. However, it seems that a simple folding screen or “L” shaped privacy curtain would be a simple way to remedy this problem. I hope they consider it, because despite this inconvenience I will go back to Hothouse Spa and Sauna whenever I am in the area. The lavender steam room alone is worth the trip.

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JJ Family Spa

JJ Family Spa: Photo by Natasha Irvine

In the back parking lot of an athletics store surrounded by bigger big box stores, JJ Family Spa is an authentic jjimjilbang in greater Vancouver. A jjimjilbang is a Korean spa and is quite similar to a Japanese onsen or sento. It is a family atmosphere where people can relax in spacious heated rooms, bathe, socialize and get a variety of spa treatments.

Salt Room: Photo by Natasha Irvine

JJ Family Spa is a great place to relax, refresh, and enjoy a bit of Korea on this side of the Pacific. There are communal rooms for eating, chatting, and relaxing as well as a host of massage options. The male and female spa areas each have showers, a hot tub, a cold plunge, a steam room, and a sauna. However, the most unique feature is the Salt Room. A dimly lit room with a floor that looks like a giant sand box filled with salt and covered with white cotton sheets. Lying down I felt as if I was lying on a hot beach. The warm salt is said to reduce the risk of osteoporosis, treat acne, help allergies, purify the blood, and relax the muscles. Whatever the benefits it feels great and you can stay as long as you like.

JJ Family Spa Sign: Photo by Natasha IrvineThe website has been down for sometime now, so here are the details:

JJ Family Spa

(Sometimes called JG Spaplus Family Spa)

3000 Christmas Way

Coquitlam, BC V3C 2M2

(604) 552-1048

www.jjspa.ca

Extra Info:

  • Hours of operation: 9am until midnight daily. From May-August it is closed on Wednesdays.
  • $15 adult entry with discounted prices for children and seniors.
  • No bathing suits, sandals, food, dye, oils or lotions are allowed in the spa areas.
  • Pajamas for the Salt Room and two small towels (decency towels) are provided.
  • Your own shampoo, soap etc. is probably nicer than what they have on hand.
  • It is only a 5 minute walk from Coquitlam Central Station.

Scandinave

For centuries saunas were the cornerstone of Finnish health and healing. Today, it is said that there are two saunas in Finland for every five people and they are not considered a luxury, but necessary for health and well-being. The traditional procedure for taking a sauna is to use extreme temperatures to rid your body of toxins and refine your pores. This means: profuse sweating in a scorching, aromatic sauna while hitting yourself with bundles of birch switches to open your pores, followed buy jumping into a hole in the frozen lake or rolling in the snow to cool your body temperature and close your pores.

The Scandinave Spas are a Canadian spa group that brings the Finnish sauna traditions to Canadians and the hot/cold therapy to an accessible spa environment. There are three Scandinave spas in alpine locations: Mont-Tremblant, Blue Mountain, and Whistler, as well as one urban spa in Montreal.

Scandinave Spa Whistler: Photo by Natasha Irvine

This winter I experienced two of the spas, Scandinave Blue Mountain in Collingwood, Ontario and the newly opened Scandinave Whistler in Whistler, British Columbia. Both prize their natural settings by creating views from the facilities to groves of trees and the surrounding mountains. The architecture is modern, but inspired by rustic Scandinavian tradition; the décor is warm, uncomplicated, and takes its cues from nature.

The main attraction of the spas is the thermal hydrotherapy treatment. Which uses the traditional Finnish hot and cold procedure to stimulate healing in your body, smooth your skin and relieve stress. The facilities for these include a Finish sauna, a eucalyptus steam room, hot baths and cold pools.  Spa staff will suggest partaking in one of the heat sources for ten to fifteen minutes then plunging into the cold water for a few seconds followed by a rest for ten or fifteen minutes. Ideally, you want to repeat this process three or four times for maximum health, healing and relaxation benefits. I recommend trying the three heat sources and then going back to your favorite. As a grand finale, or perhaps as an intermission, there is a massage pavilion on site offering various types of massage from registered massage therapists. The combination of thermal hydrotherapy and massage is not only relaxing, but also restorative.

Though I found the spas to be very similar, there were a few notable differences.

Blue Mountain: bigger “resting rooms” and more patio space with hammocks outside in the summertime. Outdoor fireplaces with chairs clustered around them to rest and warm yourself and a lovely campfire smell. The baths are on a comparatively flat surface, with far fewer stairs to climb and a very open view of the other baths. The shape of the spa complex is circular, so it focuses in on itself. There is easier access from the parking lot to the spa.

Whistler: deeper cold plunges—gravity pulls you down into the water instead of you persuading yourself to crouch down into the water. The cold pools seem to be more conveniently located with quicker access from the heat source to the cold. The baths have more private nooks. The shape of the spa facility is a rectangle so the focus is away from itself towards the mountains. The drive there is along the Sea to Sky Highway and with its mountains, ocean, and shifting light, it is spectacular.

My experiences at Scandinave Spas left my skin feeling soft, my body cared for, and my mind refreshed. The staff encourages a quiet environment and a leisurely pace. Bathing suits are mandatory and nothing else is necessary, though you may want to bring a pair of flip-flops, your own robe, and a friend to share the experience.

The Hamam and A Hammam

Cagaloglu Hamam, Istanbul: Built 1741

A hamam (can be spelled hammam)  is also known as a Turkish bath, or a steam bath.  The hamam is the place where people in Middle Eastern communities bathed for centuries. They reached their height of popularity in Istanbul in the 15th century, and are still frequented today. Hamams are famous for their grand architecture, marble steam rooms, and bath attendants that will scour, soap and massage you clean. More recently, there has been a growing interest in hamams in the west. There are hamams in such cities as Paris, London, New York, and Vancouver.

My mom and I went to Miraj Hammam Spa in Vancouver when she came to visit. We were looking and for a different kind of spa; and found that Miraj Hammam offered an authentic hamam experience, and an enchanted trip to the Middle East.

We arrived, checked in, and were assigned lockers in the small well-appointed change room. After a shower we wrapped ourselves in the provided sarongs and were guided to a candlelit, marble steam room, with a vaulted ceiling. Here we were able to relax on warm marble slabs and absorb the gentle steam as little dancing flames illuminated it.

Before long, our estheticians came to give us a gommage, meaning a soft body scrub using black Moroccan exfoliating soap. Then, we rinsed, robed and went to private rooms for a massage.

Detoxified, buffed, and kneaded; we were as light as the steam that had cleaned our pours and feeling just as evanescent. We moved to the Sultana Lounge where we had tea and sweet buns while reclining on palatial day beds and drifting into a catnap. Eventually we roused ourselves and wandered back to reality.

Miraj Hammam Spa described itself as; “An exotic oasis where you can indulge yourself in traditional Middle Eastern treatments while your imagination takes you on a mystical journey into the past.” What the website doesn’t say is that every need you have has been anticipated, all efforts are made to ensure peace and privacy, and you come away rejuvenated and with a great story.

I am looking forward to going to Istanbul someday to visit a historical hamam. However, Reading Cathedrals of the Flesh, Lonely Planet excerpts, and various other travel writing, I understand that in many countries the bath attendants are not licensed massage therapy professionals. There also seem to be various types of hamans that have different operating principles regarding mixing gender, services provided, and tolerance towards tourists. So, it is a good idea to do some research, make some local friends, and ask questions before you go.

Spirited Away to Dogo Onsen

Hayao Miyazaki is a cornerstone of Japanese anime. His work is often compared to Walt Disney’s, but as much as I love The Little Mermaid, this comparison hardly does him  justice. Many of his stories are original, and every scene looks as though it could be framed for an exhibit. What I love about Miyazaki is that he incorporates the ideas, myths, histories, and landscapes  of Japan into his work.

One of my favorite movies by Miyazaki is called Spirited Away. The movie’s original Japanese name is Sento Chihiro. A sento is a Japanese public bath house that does not necessarily use hot spring water, but heats the water. Until the second half of the 20th century many Japanese people did not have baths in their homes, so they went to a sento to wash and refresh themselves. Though some sentos are utilitarian others are quite opulent. The more luxurious onsens and sentos often add minerals and infusions to the bath water for additional health benefits. Spirited Away is a magical story of an enchanted sento that hosts the spirits of everything from frogs to radishes; and the young, shy girl who gets trapped in service there. The narrative and the visuals are spectacular and the sento itself is the stuff of dreams.

Fortunately, the sento in Spirited Away is actually based on a real place on the island of Shikoku in Japan. It is called Dogo Onsen. I was lucky enough to visit Dogo Onsen in August of 2006 and I was surprised at how much inspiration the movie actually got from this historical landmark.

Photo: Daniel Irvine 2006

Dogo Onsen is the oldest in Japan. It has a history of about 3,000 years, and is the onsen that healed the gods and emperors of Japan. According to legend, the onsen was discovered by a white heron who put its injured leg in the water and was healed, so the heron prevails as the symbol of Dogo Onsen.

Photo: Daniel Irvine 2006

During my stay at Dogo I was able to imbibe the waters, tour of the Royal Baths reserved only for the royal family, and do this all wearing the traditional Japanese leisure wear: a yukata. Though the baths themselves are not in my top ten because they are small and crowded, the experience ranks quite high on my list. It was definitely one of my most memorable experiences in Japan, and a must for anyone who loves to watch or be Spirited Away.

Five Essentials

Every culture has their own bathing practices and rituals and it can be hard to know what to bring with you when you try a new practice or a new place for the first time. There are five things that I will never be caught without on my first trip and though they are not always appropriate or necessary I have peace of mind knowing that I will never be stuck in an uncomfortable situation as long as I have them in my bag.

My Essentials

1. Flip-Flops

Does anyone else have a phobia of wet feet? I sure do. Feet absorb a lot when they are wet and I only want mine to absorb the good stuff. In most Hot Springs the water will be hot enough to kill off anything that might be passed around, but on the bathing decks and in saunas its anyone’s guess as to who and what has been there before you. There are some situations where flip-flops are not acceptable such at in Hot Yoga classes or at the Japanese onsen, however in most other cases they are certainly a good idea.

2. A Bathing Suit

In some cultures where bathing is segregated by gender you do not need one at all and often they are simply not allowed. For example, you may not wear a bathing suit to a Japanese onsen or a Turkish haman. In many cases most of us would prefer not to wear one when we visit hot springs that we think are in the middle of nowhere, but you never know when you will have to share the heat. So it is best to keep one handy and avoid any surprises. Most developed, mixed gender hot springs do require bathing suits, so: when in doubt bring one.

3. A Water Bottle

The heat will dehydrate you. Your body will sweat out the bad stuff, but you need to replace the good stuff. I will often drink up to 2 liters of water in just a few hours when I am at a spring or sauna. My body loves it and I feel so refreshed when I am finished. I have yet to find a place where I am not allowed a water bottle. Just be sure to fill it with fresh water before you go. There may not be potable water in more remote areas.

4. A Towel

Some places provide towels; some places rent them, and some places you are on your own. I always thought I knew how to use a towel, but when I was in Japan I discovered that I was wrong. Most onsens that charge a fee will also give you a small towel about the size of a hand towel. They call it a “decency towel.” This towel is used to cover whatever part of yourself you would most like to cover as you walk around the bathing area, but must never touch the hot spring water directly. They are also used as washcloths to clean yourself before you get in the tub, cold cloths for your head as you are sitting in the hot water, and when you are finished you wring them out and use them to dry yourself off with too. Genius! It is all you need. A hand towel does not take up much space in my bag so, if there are no other towels to be found I will, at least, have a bit of “decency.”

5. Soap

Almost every time you enter a public bathing place you are expected to wash first. Sometimes there is soap, sometimes there is none. I always pack a travel bottle of my favorite soap. It is multipurpose soap that I have used on my face, hands and body for years. I have even used it in a pinch for laundry, dishes, and washing off seats in public baths. But remember, it never acceptable to allow soap to get into hot spring water.

Put these five things in a mesh bag, so it doesn’t get smelly afterwards and you are set. Remember, you may not need all of these things all the time, so if you are unsure take your cues from the locals.