Japantown is one of the (numerous) parts of this city that I never seem to get to. Yesterday, I went for a massage at the Kabuki Spa which is at Geary and Fillmore, for a relaxing and invigorating shiatsu massage. This has been on my to-do list for months. Kabuki also has a traditional communal Japanese bathing area in addition to its spa treatments of all types. In my mind’s eye I had a vision of a quiet outdoor pool surrounded by boulders and leafy maples and pine trees, perhaps a few Zen monks tending to the sand patterns off to the side, while bathers poured hot water over their discreetly wrapped bodies using bamboo ladles.
I arrived and was as confused as the group of Japanese tourists looking for Japantown and finding only a largely empty Japanese-themed shopping mall. And an old one at that. The big hint is the AMC theatre is headlined as The Kabuki – but it’s showing big-release American films. I snap a group shot for the tourists using a Teppanyaki restaurant as backdrop. Perhaps young Tokyo-ites feel a real Japanese kinship-thing with our shopping mall?
I found the Kabuki Spa after a few tries walking down long empty corridors of the mall, after heading outside to Geary. The entry is from the outside, and is landscaped with potted bamboos and leafy maples (!). I exhaled a huge ujaya-breath as I found Kabuki Springs and Spa transcended its shopping-mall surroundings.
After checking in, getting changed into my robe (what, no silk kimono?) I plopped myself down in the boldly colored waiting room / chill area to await my massage. Shortly thereafter my masseur came to get me, and led me to my massage room. He introduced himself as Gomo, and he was a 250 pound West African body-builder from Equatorial Guinea.
I should have realized at this point that getting a massage designed by Japanese men to be rendered by young, willowy Japanese girls was going to be a bit rough when delivered by a 250 pound body builder, but what the hey. I endured eighty minutes of rubbing, slapping, karate chops and most of all elbow and forearm jabs. Highlight – Gomo standing on the massage table, one heel at a time planted on each butt cheek as he grabbed the corresponding ankle and pulled my leg and hip out of its socket. Ahhh the relaxation! Gomo in addition to shiatsu seemed to have a close familiarity with various Yoga asanas, as I sometimes found myself being pretzled into prone versions of bird of paradise and pigeon posture.
I, your intrepid massage journalist, survived – barely – to tell the tale.
And then I went to enjoy the steam, sauna and cold and hot pools. It’s all indoors – no
outdoor bathing pool alas. You actually bathe first – in one of the nice showers, or they have an area with stools and basins for (probably) more traditional bathing. But with practical and modern shower heads on flexible hoses for washing and rinsing rather than my imagined bamboo ladles and stone water basins.
After washing up and getting clean, you can then select whether to relax in the dry heat of the apartment-sized sauna, or the wet heat of the apartment-sized steam room. I don’t mean New York City apartment-sized either. These are big rooms. I wouldn’t want their utility bills. They suggest you do a cycle of fifteen minutes in the sauna followed by cold plunge, back to the sauna, cold plunge then steam. Fifteen minutes in either the sauna or steam was way too much for my Gomo-pummeled body yesterday. So I mainly relaxed in the chill area and sipped the lemon ice-water, ate apple slices as if at La Costa, and enjoyed the scenery.
No elderly Japanese men here at Kabuki. Are there any left in Japantown? It was a mix of types from young to old, professionals to tattooed and pierced alterna-punks – with a sort of Steamworks meets Japanese tea ceremony vibe.