The Spa Spy blog

Naked in San Francisco

Kabuki Japanese SpaKabuki Springs and Spa is a steamy gem of a reviving spa in the Japan Center near Pacific Heights in San Francisco. The spa offers an authentic Japanese bathing experience. This is not a spa for the shy. When you go in, the receptionist gives you a sarong. This is the only clothing you will need. Once divested of all your day garments, you leave them in your locker. You then leave the sarong on a hook as you enter the communal bathing facilities. There are no private changing areas at Kabuki. All spa-goers are in together. This is a sacred space, a notice in the locker room proclaims. No cellphones, please. So why don’t more people respect this?!

You must wash properly before getting into any of the pools or heat rooms, as you are expected to do. There is a row of showers with curtains at the far end of the room; you don’t have to sit on the long wooden bench and pour water into a bowl if you don’t want to.

Take a towel in with you. You will need it to sit on during the various heat experiences and will be glad of it to dab yourself dry in between heat times.

Kabuki offers what is very much a communal Japanese bathing experience. The spa is quite compact, so be prepared for that, but the individual heat experiences are generously sized. Inside the spa, you will find a hot pool, a very cold plunge pool, a fantastically large steam room (with a much used cold shower within to restore at least some parts of your body to normal temperature), a wooden dry heat room, with chairs where the hardy sit and read a book, and benches where you can just lie down on your towel and relax. If we had a criticism, it was that there weren’t enough wooden benches to lie down on when visited (on a busy Friday evening). Sometimes all we wanted to do was curl up, prostrated by the heat.

On a table by the steam room are lots of cold iced flannels, flasks of cucumber, lemon and plain water, and a gong to bang if you think people are becoming generally too noisy. Take a cupful of the provided salt into the steam room or sauna and rub yourself down with it. My skin felt so soft. After we had warmed up and cooled down several times over, we were ready for a massage.

If you have booked a treatment, your therapist will come to collect you from the small cushioned area near Reception (put your sarong back on) and take you through to the treatment rooms for your treat (going past tast the Buddha with trickling water). Salubrious Spy and I had booked the Kabuki massage, which turned out to be a mixture of Shiatsu and Swedish. You can also book pregnancy massage and other treatments. The treatment spaces are curtained, not separate rooms. You can hear people murmuring within.

My therapist, Lisa, gave great Shiatsu, all done - as this massage should be - through the cotton spa sheet. Lisa pulled my shoulders, pushed my hips and wrangled my neck. She climbed on the table and pushed my shoulders into submission. She sat on my back, wrapped her legs around mine and rocked my spine straight. Some of the pressure points were uncomfortable. The best bit was the head massage and the foot massage: I thought I had elevated to another plane.

I love the American approach to the end of a treatment. Lisa disappeared. None of that hanging around for a tip you see so often in the UK. The therapist can disappear because she knows that the receptionist will ask whether you want to add a gratuity to your credit-card bill. Easy.

After my treatment, I was ready for a return to the world. The showers in the main communal area have gel, shampoo and conditioner, and there is a separate area where you can beautify yourself afterwards.

If you’re staying in San Francisco near Union Square, Kabuki is a quick 10-minute cab ride away. You need to take photo ID with you to get in, so grab your passport, driving licence or phone so they can take a quick pic of you! There are women’s facilities on certain nights of the week, men’s on others, and a “coed” day on Tuesdays (when clothing must be worn).

Kabuki doesn’t offer luxury, but the spa is great for recovering from a hard flight, a tough day at work, or because you need it. Lots of women go there on their own. You will feel comfortable going alone, too, once you have got your bearings.

Small place, easy to do. Enjoy.