I am watching the city unfold 37 floors below me, with its trails of toy cars flanked by blocks of Lego-like towers that collectively vanish into a distant, hazy horizon. So far, so Tokyo. Japan’s capital has long been a city best appreciated from above, as proven by a raft of skyscraper bars, offices and restaurants boasting stunning views.
But I am not sipping cocktails, working at a computer, or tucking into a meal. Less predictably, I am floating on an ice-cream-soft massage bed, which has been tilted at precisely the right angle to maximise my appreciation of the endless city panorama, framed by a vast wall of glass before me.
‘It’s a shame it’s overcast – on a clear day, you can see Mount Fuji straight-ahead,’ says Chika Banba, my smiling therapist, pointing to the sea of cloud-brushing skyscrapers.
Relax in the 36˚C vitality pool pre-treatment
Inner-city spas are often home to darkened rooms where scented candles and flickering shadows replace all traces of natural light, in a bid to cocoon visitors from the urban chaos on their doorsteps. But things are done a little differently in the serene confines of The Spa at Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo. Here, all things bright, light and natural are celebrated with a design that – quite literally – revolves around breathtaking views.
Since opening five years ago, Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo has established itself as a landmark hotel that offers a calming retreat in a city more famous for its overpopulation than its capacity for serenity. For a metropolis of more than 12-million residents, this is no mean feat: packed trains, crowded crossings and flashing neon towers have long been the enduring images that hit first-time visitors. But those who scratch beneath Tokyo’s surface are rewarded with the discovery that behind the gleaming and the modern, the city is also home to hidden ancient shrines, atmospheric lantern-lit lanes and old wooden houses.
In a similar vein, Mandarin Oriental taps into what lies beneath Tokyo’s façade of urban chaos: a world of Japanese serenity that celebrates nature and balance, with plenty of natural light, wood and flowing water. Housed in the top nine floors of a sleek, 38-floor César Pelli-designed tower in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo, its interior is a sanctuary of modern design, fused with traditional textures – from the moon-like paper washi lanterns and subtle leaf-motif bedding in the spacious guest rooms to the flickering wall of tiered fires in the top-floor reception.
And The Spa is no exception. The 1,180sq m temple to pampering – created by LTW Design Works – is home to four treatment rooms and five VIP suites, which wrap around the building to make the most of the panoramas.
Walls of smokey-grey fabrics and dark wood create a cocooning tone in the reception located in the heart of the 37th floor, where shoes are swapped for slippers and a range of Japanese teas is served in delicate cups. A network of dimly-lit corridors, with walls of wood and floors of dark grey slate, connect the reception to the treatment rooms – and, upon entering, visitors are dazzled by the burst of natural light pouring in through floor-to-ceiling windows framing a perfect Tokyo cityscape.
An adzuki bean scrub is used as a deep-cleansing ritual
Those able to tear their eyes away from the vistas will appreciate how the rooms are awash with beautifully textured fabrics – diaphanous curtains, rich cushion covers – created by textile designer Reiko Sudo of Nuno, while modern suibokuga ink and wash artworks hang on the walls.
‘The views are an important part of The Spa,’ smiles Karen Aleksich, the friendly New Zealand Spa Manager who heads a team of Japanese therapists, as we sip delicate cups of green tea on a cream window seat in one of the suites.
‘Coming here is all about getting away from the mechanics of everyday life. The idea is that visitors leave everything behind at street level as they literally “ascend” into The Spa.
‘Natural light is also a great healer and very cleansing. We focus on holistic wellness, not just relaxation. We aim to show people how they can change their lives, and encourage them along that path. It’s not good to be tied to BlackBerrys 24/7. Putting them away for an hour or so does not have to be difficult.’
Putting her theory to the test and reluctantly locking my ever-bleeping phone away into a wooden locker, my spa trip starts in a space that is unique to Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo: the ‘Heat and Water’ experience.
Loosely inspired by the Japanese tradition for communal bathing, the blue and grey mosaic-tiled space – divided into men’s and women’s – consists of an infinity-style vitality pool deep enough to swim in, with back and leg-jet massages and submerged loungers. And centre stage? The panorama. Walls of glass enable visitors to float in the body-temperature waters of the vitality pool while examining the intricate city tableau unfolding below.
The pre-treatment relaxation ritual also includes a deliciously warming amethyst-crystal steam room, tropical showers and a light-filled sauna-with-a-view – the perfect spot to ponder where the city might possibly end.
Next stop is the Relaxation Room – one of the few spaces without windows – where I’m cocooned in a bed surrounded by light voile curtains and given a delicious green smoothie (all The Spa’s refreshments are prepared by the hotel’s Asian-inspired K’shiki restaurant), as my body cools in the temperature-controlled climate.
In The Spa, all things bright, light and natural are celebrated
Just as I’m beginning to wonder whether my capacity for pre-treatment relaxation can be pushed any further, my therapist – always smiling – quietly leads me to the Serenity Suite, home to two walls of windows and a button-operated tilting massage bed.
The focus of my treatment is an unusual one: the small, red Japanese adzuki bean. More commonly found in traditional Japanese sweets, it seems that there is more to the little bean than the tastiness of its consumption: it is detoxifying, naturally deep-cleansing and bursting with anti-oxidants.
The sleek spa reception on the 37th floor
My body is first scrubbed top to toe with an adzuki-bean paste, before my therapist – who intuitively seems to know the exact edge to which she can push my body – embarks on a massage using patchouli and ginger oil. Feeling smooth, shiny and, most miraculously, oblivious to thoughts of work or bleeping mobiles, I am then led to the next-door Harmony Suite which, as well as offering the ubiquitous city views, has a Japanese-style futon mattress on the floor.
This is the setting for one of The Spa’s undoubted highlights: its Kiatsu treatment, based on the quintessentially Japanese shiatsu massage tradition, which involves a mix of acupressure along the body’s energy lines and elements of Thai massage. Carried out by my therapist in cream silk pyjamas, it starts with a stomach massage – which feels awkward and tender at first – before she continues to stretch various parts of my body into a sense of blissful alliance.
After more than an hour of heavenly massage, increasingly interwoven with fragments of dreams – and just as I am doubting my ability to ever stand up again – the treatment finishes with another stomach massage: this time feeling soft, gentle and calming. Massage completed and eyes prised open, I see the sky has darkened and the city is just beginning its nightly illumination show, with lights sparkling endlessly.
I drink in the warming cup of hibiscus and cinnamon tea presented to me, as well as the city views, for the final time. And as I later leave The Spa – phone still switched off and standing several inches taller – I feel more prepared than ever to deal with the endless city sprawl of Tokyo at street level.