Massage away the blues with sensory therapy

Handmade cosmetics company Lush brings a little English whimsy to the spa experience

by Danielle Demetriou

A pot of tea brews next to a bowl of fruit on the kitchen table. Three flying porcelain ducks hang on the wall. A pile of books sits on the shelf. And somewhere in the distance, the sound of bird song mingles with the chime of church bells.

Warm, rustic and welcoming, there are few scenes more evocative of a quintessentially English country kitchen. The only thing missing? A rosy-cheeked granny in an apron pulling a baked apple pie out of the oven.

But the tableau of bucolic bliss is not quite what it seems. First, it is not located in England but thousands of miles away in Tokyo’s fashionable Daikanyama district. And second? Despite appearances, it is not a cozy home, a vintage store or a rustic tearoom — it’s a new spa.

Welcome to Japan’s first Lush spa.

There are few people unfamiliar with the distinct graphics of the Lush logo, not to mention the omnipresent aroma that pervades the surroundings of each of their stores.

It was 16 years ago that Mark Constantine and his wife Mo set up the English handmade-cosmetics company, which offered rainbow-bright products and the bath bomb, its most famous invention.

Since then, the sweet-scented company has become a major high-street hit around the world, with more than 600 stores today in 43 countries.

But no other country outside Britain has been as welcoming as Japan: The first Japanese store opened in 1999 and today, there are 146 stores across the country.

This month, following the opening of four Lush spas in England over the past two years, Japan will become home to the first international Lush spa in its new Daikanyama “home.”

Speaking over pots of tea and tubs of ice cream at the kitchen table, during what happily feels more impromptu Mad Hatter’s Tea Party than interview, Mark — dressed in a fetching combo of floral prints — is as English a figure as his slightly eccentric surroundings.

Describing the spa concept, he explains: “I was at an English folk concert with lots of great English artists. And as I sat there thinking, I suddenly realized there are Moroccan spas, there are every possible type of Asian spas — but there aren’t any English spas.

“So we started thinking about a spa and asking ourselves what is traditionally English?” Bursting into laughter, he adds: “Lots of cups of tea and not taking too many clothes off for a start. We actually have a new treatment coming out where you just have to take your shoes and socks off and that’s it. Very English.”

There is no denying that the decor is unashamedly English: from pretty ceramic tea cups, quirky vintage wooden chairs and the countryside watercolors on the wall, right down to the floral toilet paper in a brass holder in the loo.

In terms of its treatments, the spa draws inspiration from the unexpected concept of synesthesia — a neurological condition in which one sense can be experienced as another.

Smells, for example, may appear as a color or a sound can be experienced as physical shapes. Constantine and one of his sons both have the condition, and so it became the experimental springboard for treatments.

“Synesthesia is basically the crossing of the senses,” explains Constantine. “When I smell something, it has a shape. Coffee is round. Chocolate is more abstract. Fragrances are often spirals.”

Picking up an orange from the nearby fruit bowl and smelling it, he adds: “This is a crescent moon shape. So we decided to do something based on this theme — we are trying to cross-over all the senses with our spa experience.”

Perhaps unusually for a spa, this manifests itself most obviously in the music. Individual scores were specially composed for each of the three treatments by the English musician Simon Emmerson (who also experiences synesthesia), during whose concert Constantine had originally conceived the idea of the spa.

A far cry from the sedate background elevator-style music favored by many spas, the soundtrack is as colorful and eclectic as the decor: a mix of whimsical folk music against sounds of English bird song and the chiming of bells. The end result? Instant images of sunny English summer days.

“I’m a little fanatical about recording bird song, it’s one of my hobbies,” reveals Constantine. “So when you choose one treatment, it opens with a song thrush singing up the hill above Corfe Castle in Dorset on a Sunday morning, with the church bells in the background. There is nothing more peaceful.”

It is against such a soundtrack that the spa’s signature treatment, Synesthesia, takes place — consisting of a 90-minute massage tailored to the customer based on his or her choice from 11 words (ranging from “relax” to “enlightenment”) and the selection of a “secret” oil blend from 23 different colored bottles.

The other treatments include the Good Hour deep tissue massage set against a pirate-themed soundtrack of sea shanties complete with a version of “I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside,” crowned with a splash of rum in the post-massage cup of tea and a snack from a jar of “Ship’s Biscuits.”

And the Validation Facial — described by Constantine as an “antidote to Botox” — which focuses on lifting the spirits and confidence of the customer on a mental level as well as beautifying the face.

“It’s all about making yourself more beautiful,” says Constantine, “but everything is very carefully designed to put a smile on your face and help you feel better about yourself.”

With its cozy interiors, eclectic music and sweet-smelling treatments — not to mention those quintessentially English cups of tea — it is hard to imagine the new Lush spa failing to put that smile any of its visitors’ faces.

A relaxing journey into the deep, Lush forests of England

Laugh. Hug. Beautiful. Curious.

I am having an Alice in Wonderland moment as I stand before a collection of 23 colored bottles of different shapes and sizes, each with a word scribbled onto a label.

The Synesthesia treatment had begun moments earlier with a cup of tea at the kitchen table followed by choosing a key word or phrase from 11 scribbled on the blackboard before me.

After choosing “Mind Cleanser” (my head is filled with the chaos of work), I then select a small bottle labeled “Free.”

My smiling therapist Tomtom leads me to the massage room where I spot second hand books on a shelf alongside bubbling pots exuding dry ice infused with the aroma of the oils I’ve chosen.

And the music begins: Designed to take me through a day in a “deep English forest,” the journey starts with afternoon bird song picking up into a dreamily pretty soundtrack that brings to mind a heady cocktail of English summers, BBC dramas and childhood memories.

The massage is gentle and calming, using alternately hot and cold massage stones, focusing at first mainly on my head and face — a delicious antidote to spending hours staring at a computer — before slowly working its way down my arms, legs and eventually my back.

Around half way through my arms, I hear a night owl hooting and find myself teetering on the brink of a deep sleep before both massage and music build up, reawaken me, and come to an end.

Later, having left the spa following my final cup of tea, I realize that in my super relaxed state, I’d forgotten to turn my phone back on — definitely one of the most compelling signs of a good treatment. (D.D.)

Lush Spa opens on Jan. 3 at 20-11 Daikanyama YM Building, Daikanyama-cho, Shibuya-ku; (0120) 513 904. Treatments cost from ¥9,450 for a 45 minute massage to ¥18.900 for the signature 90-minute Synesthesia. For more information, visit www.lushjapan.com/spa.