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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

All twisted up in Thai massage


Special to The Japan Times

"It's like doing yoga without the hard work," enthused my trendy friend, whose paradoxical nature — she's both lazy and obsessed with health — had led her to the latest popular massage to take Tokyo by storm: the traditional Thai massage.

Thai massage
Traditional Thai massage, also called "two-people yoga," uses stretches and movements that have been adopted by Western sports medicine to relieve muscle and joint tension.

It sounded ideal — it refreshes and soothes, it is calming but invigorating, it improves flexibility and burns energy without the pain of yanking limbs in impossible positions by yourself, a feat I had failed miserably at the few times I'd tried yoga. And anyway, it's a massage, so it can't be that painful, can it?

When I arrived at the Evergreen salon, a few minutes' walk from JR Shinjuku Station, I was greeted with healing music, mood lighting from lamps with paper shades and a cup of hot herbal tea. On the other side of linen curtains was a small room lit up in the same calming fashion, with a firm mattress on the floor.

"Please put these on," smiled the fresh-looking young Japanese masseuse who handed me a pile of black lightweight material which turned out to be traditional Thai massage clothing. I had no problems with the T-shirt, which was loose and comfortable, but it was difficult to figure out how to wrap the massive sack around my lower half.

"You put your feet through like you would with normal trousers," described the masseuse kindly, "and tie the loose material around your waist with the piece of string coming out from both sides," she added, as she gave me the privacy to tie my trousers off in a circus of knots.

Bare feet and loose trousers are essential for traditional Thai massage as it concentrates on the lower half of the body. It works on pressure points along what are considered energy lines (sen in Thai) that all start from the feet. Sen lines correspond to the meridians of Chinese medicine and the nadi of Indian yogic tradition. Thai massage believes there are as many as 72,000, about 10 of which are considered principal.

Appropriately dressed, refreshed from the raspberry tea and with my feet in a soothing foot bath, I was handed a questionnaire that would have made a modest lady blush. To ensure a massage that is perfect for you, you are required to write down height, weight, age, blood pressure, recent constipation, regularity of menstrual periods, eating habits, smoking habits, drinking habits, and how strong you would like the massage pressure, from "very light" to "very strong." I opted for "fairly strong," remembering that I like to clutch my shoulders with a good firm grip when I give myself a quick massage at my desk.

My masseuse was in her mid-20s and small and friendly. She was also freakishly powerful with a tendency to interpret the words "fairly strong" on the resistance scale of a sumo wrestler, not of a girl smaller and weaker than she was, who would like to keep what little, delicate muscle she has.

Starting with the toes, she rhythmically began to knead, tap and bend; at my lower leg, I felt my muscles crunch and cry a muffled wail of pain.

"Sorry, I think I may have been a little adventurous when I wrote fairly strong," I laughed, and the masseuse smiled back, and reduced her clutch by half. Immediately, I felt a warm energy rushing up my legs, making them suppler and lighter.

"This must be very good for people wearing heels all day — and Japanese women walk around a lot," I muttered as I relaxed. But when I only got a "maybe" for an answer, I opened my eyes to see my masseuse making a slightly bemused face. "I assume it is mostly women who come for massages," I asked.

"Certainly massages are very popular among women," she replied as she started to knead my inner leg with her elbow, "but traditional Thai massage is a different story altogether. I'd say 90 percent, no, 95 percent who come to our salon are men. The age varies, from early 20s to late 50s. It's because the Thai massage is more stimulating than relaxing. Women tend to prefer to be relaxed after a hard day at work, while men want to feel sukkiri (refreshed)."

The traditional Thai massage is certainly not for those who want to fall asleep as their muscles ripple in gentle waves. Also called "two-people yoga," the massage uses stretches and movements that have been adopted by Western sports medicine to find and relieve muscle and joint tension. It's believed to have been developed by a physician to Buddha more than 2,500 years ago in India, was popularized in ancient Siam, now Thailand, where it was performed by monks as one component of Thai medicine.

As my masseuse moved to my fingers, hands and arms, working on them all with the same patient attention and a combination of pressures, she told me her own thoughts about the massage.

"I want to dispel the confusion about traditional Thai massage that connects it with the sex industry." she said. "It's a rare massage that is both energizing and relaxing, and the men who come frequently can, after a while, lift their legs higher or stretch them further."

"It must be quite an exercise for you too," I said, as she turned me onto my front and climbed onto my buttocks, kneading them with her knees.

"Yes it is," she laughed, "but the hardest part is still to come."

The last 20 minutes of my hour session involved me sitting or lying in various positions as the masseuse helped me to stretch or pull my limbs into traditional yoga-like positions, such as the Cobra Pose, the Wind Relieving Pose and the Half Spinal Twist. Sitting cross-legged, she reached my left arm over my right shoulder and stretched it; pulled my arms back behind me, while pushing my arched back with both her feet. She wove her legs into mine and stretched my thighs, then stood behind me and pressed down on my legs as I bent forward.

All the time, she applied firm rhythmic pressure and held the position for a good few seconds. I certainly didn't realize quite how flexible I could get, at times with ease, at times with great patience and guidance on the masseuse's part. To my mock cries of exhaustion, my masseuse smiled as she connected me to a 10-minute "oxygen therapy" machine that shot cool oxygen from a small pipe nestled near my nostrils.

"If you went to Thailand, the treatment starts at two hours and can be as long as three or four, all for around 600-700 yen." she said. "You could have it every day if you wanted. In fact, many of our customers became hooked while they were there, and have been visiting us regularly on their return."

I walked out of the salon with a strange sensation of being as wobbly as an octopus, but with a strong skeletal structure inside. As I walked in longer, more energetic strides than usual, I was yet oblivious to the muscle pain that would make me wake up with a wry smile for several mornings after — the kind when you have exerted yourself too much and realize just how unfit you are.

The kind, obviously, that demands immediate rectification by another visit to a traditional Thai massage salon.

Places to get bent in Japan

Salons are offering traditional Thai message for anywhere from 7,000 yen for 70 minutes up to 12,600 yen for 120 minutes. Here are a few in the Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto areas:

Shinjuku Evergreen 5F NOA Building, 1-5-9 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; tel. (03) 3208-2825; www.eg-group.net

Thaicoon 1F Yu-tsuki Building, 4-13-6, Etobashi, Sunida-ku, Tokyo ([03] 3635-3031); 3F Susimasa Building, 2-39-1, Miyamachi, Omiya-ku, Saitama-shi, ([048] 649-8333); 2F Futaba Building, 6-3-4, Ueno, Taito-ku, Tokyo ([03] 3837-1118); 6F Suzuki Building, 4-1, Suehirocho, Kashiwa-shi, Chiba ([04] 7145-4212); 4F Toshiyuki Building, 1-20-4, Yanagihashi, Taito-ku, Tokyo ([03] 3861-8111); 2-15-18, Otemachi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo ([03] 3231-9041); www.thaicoon.com

Chai 2F Fortuna Roppongi, 7-12-23, Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; tel. (03) 5770-6060; www.chai.jp

Huahin Luang 4F Nihon Building, 3-5-1, Minamikyuhoujimachi, Chuo-ku, Osaka-shi, Osaka ([06] 6245-1018); 502, Hirai Building, 222-2, Takoyakushi-dori, Hashibenkeiyama-cho, Chukyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto ([075] 212-8246); 5F Miwaboshi Building, 3-12-16, Kitanagasa-dori, Chuo-ku, Kobe, Hyogo ([078] 331-5618); www.huahin-luang.com

Taptim 1F Daiichi-sanshu Building, 3-18-2, Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3583-1116; www.taptim.com



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