Holistic therapist strives to bring it all together

by Angela Jeffs

Little wonder Sarah Watterson is in great shape. As operations manager of The Spa at Tokyo’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Nihonbashi, she not only has a hand in the best beauty treatments available; she can take a chunk of credit for the hotel spa being recently voted the best day spa in Asia.

Described as “a heavenly place in the sky” — elevators carry customers to a serene world 36 floors high, where expert therapists apply both Asian- and Western-inspired treatments, and five private spas ease away aches and pains from even the most tired-out tourist and beleaguered corporate body.

“Every customer is taken on a personal journey to improved well-being, depending on needs,” Watterson says.

The Spa’s most recent innovation, she says, has been to introduce morning sessions of Ashtanga yoga. “Visiting executives can unwind and energize ready for the day ahead and still make meetings in time.”

Watterson was born on the Isle of Man, off the English mainland. She returned there just after the Kansai earthquake. “I started up a successful private practice in shiatsu, but after a year, because further learning opportunity was so restricted — chose to come back to Japan.”

Because her father was a merchant seaman, Watterson had grown up on the Isle of Man receiving postcards from all around the world. “I think they sowed the seeds of my curiosity in other cultures.”

Steered unwillingly toward studies in engineering, she dropped any idea of going to university and left home for London. “I modeled a bit, then studied to become a makeup artist.”

This involved working toward an International Aestheticians license CIDESCO, and part of those studies included massage certification. “It was this that got me interested in bodywork; I also trained to teach aerobics. When my boyfriend at that time signed a modeling contract in Japan, I tagged along.

It was when she began to study chi gung energy work in Kyoto, that her world “switched from black and white into color. I’d planned to study shiatsu but this was even more powerful.” By this time it was 1990, and while under pressure to get “a real job,” Watterson felt drawn vocationally to go ever deeper into traditional therapies.

Stretching herself to the limit, she ran a holistic beauty practice in Osaka, while studying Japanese language and shiatsu in Kyoto. She then embarked on a two-year shiatsu practitioner’s course, traveling between Japan, Switzerland and America, resulting in internationally recognized accreditation.

“Then came the Hanshin earthquake and my year back home. Although I set up a successful shiatsu practice on the Isle of Man, there was much more I wanted to learn, so I returned to Kyoto for studies in seitai, and opened a small holistic practice in Kobe.”

“I also ran very popular workshops and classes teaching basic shiatsu to practice with friends and family.” Just as she was beginning to realize that business in Kobe was limited, she took a vacation at the health spa and resort Tao Garden, near Chiang Mai in Thailand, to study with Taoist master Mantak Chia.

Here she was introduced to Chi Nei Tsang, an applied form of chi gung energy work that literally means manipulating the energy of the internal organs. CNT practitioners work mainly on the abdomen with deep soft touches to release unprocessed emotional charges and train internal organs to work more efficiently.

“Again, it was a seminal moment,” She studied CNT in Thailand with Mantak Chia, followed by trips to San Francisco where she trained to an even deeper level with Giles Moran. “This was where I first met Masahiro Ouchi, now senior instructor and director of the Healing Tao Center of New York, and founder of the TaoZen Association. Outside my work at The Spa, I’m helping establish tao zen practice in Japan.”

Having been invited to Chiva Som in Thailand, the No. 1 resort health spa in the world, as part of their “visiting masters program,” Watterson felt emboldened enough to quit her practice in Kobe and asked if she could go to work for them. The result? She was invited to join the medical department as their holistic specialist, with CNT as her main focus.

“Even though I was paid peanuts, I woke every day in a state of joy to be doing the work I feel born for.”

In 2002, a Japanese journalist was directed to Watterson for CNT treatment. Connected to the Academy of Longevity, a group of Japanese doctors and supporters interested in complementary health, he was instrumental in getting her invited to give a talk on the subject in Tokyo. One of those who heard her speak was the visionary cosmetics magnate, Shu Uemura.

Having just sold the company he was looking for new wellness-related projects and asked if Watterson might be interested in meeting to discuss setting up holistic spas.

The first project Watterson and Uemura worked together on, which basically sought to bring a wide variety of alternative therapies together under one roof — came to nothing, “but only because we were ahead of our time.” A second is still on hold.

It was after presenting as guest speaker at The International Spa Association’s biannual convention in Yokohama in 2003, that the Mandarin hotel group came knocking on Watterson’s door. Opening in Japan for the first time, she was asked if she would be interested in preparing to make the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, the world leader in holistic hospitality.

“It was a challenge. Corporate business is traditionally managed by rational pragmatic left-brain thinkers. Holistic medicine tends to be practiced and supported by flexible right-brainers. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel group, however, has a very innovative, holistic-minded global spa team responsible for it being voted the best wellness company worldwide.

“Feeling I could contribute something new on both a creative and pragmatic level, I came aboard.”

The challenge is to find the balance of creating a truly holistic spa environment, and as a business still make the numbers. “The bottom line is, this is who I am — a holistic therapist and teacher.”