8 (Slightly Odd) Spa Treatments for Stress Relief from Around the World

by  Tommy Burson | Jun 23, 2014
Couple relaxing at spa
Couple relaxing at spa / kzenon/iStock

Relaxation takes form in all shapes and sizes. To some, an afternoon coffee with a pastry eases away the tension better than a full-body massage. To others, being pricked in the back with dozens of needles does the trick. From skin-eating fish to dives into icy lakes, here are some of the varied  techniques you can seek out on your next travels.

Japan: Sake Bath
First practiced by Japanese geishas to decrease the appearance of age and skin spots, thousands of Japanese men and women continue to experience the healing effects of the rice wine’s kojic acids, which smooth and hydrate the skin. Sake also contains a healthy mix of ginger and pine extracts that’s proven to relax muscles (or is that just the alcohol talking?) and help breathing. Japan’s Yunessun Spa Resort, 50 miles southwest of Tokyo, invites guests to soak in their giant pool of sake -- or try their red wine, coffee, or green tea baths -- for an all-inclusive entry fee of ¥2,800 ($28).

Finland: Ice Swimming
Hypothermic temperatures and relaxation typically don’t go hand-in-hand -- unless you’re in Finland. Avantouinti, as its called, involves dipping into an icy lake followed by refuge in the sauna. Most Finns repeat this process three or four times, claiming it enhances circulation, steers away illness, and relieves stress. Oh, we forgot to mention that you’ll probably be naked; bathing suits generally are not worn in the sauna. Rastila Camping center, about thirty minutes outside of Helsinki, lets you take the plunge for a mere €6 ($8). Operating from October to April, remember that the air is colder than the water.

Turkey: Doctor Fish
Would you submerge your feet into a pool of flesh-eating fish? No worries, they’re not Amazonian piranhas. They’re toothless garra fish, native to Turkey, that for centuries have been used as a skin cleanser. Spa-goers concerned with the state of their skin can dip their feet, or body, into the infested water and relax as the tiny mouths feed off your dead skin. Oftentimes, the Turkish spa accompanies the procedure with a massage and pedicure, leaving you blissfully anew. For an authentic doctor fish experience, head to Sivas, Turkey, where a foot-dip with the fishes costs just €15 ($20).

Israel: Snake Massage
Insane? Yes. Relaxing? Supposedly. Terrifying? Well, the snakes aren’t venomous. At Ada Barak’s Spa in northern Israel, spa-goers unwind under the slithery kneads of snakes — king snakes, corn snakes, and milk snakes. The procedure begins with guests holding the snakes to calm the nerves. From there, rest as Ada gently coats your body in a variety of snakes. Bigger snakes relieve tension with a deep knead, while smaller snakes offer a lighter massage. The entire process costs about $70.

Russia: Leech Therapy
The use of leeches in medicine began nearly 4,000 years ago with physicians in Greece and Rome, who used the worm to treat wounds, circulate blood, and cure excessive flatulence. While modern medicine eviscerated the need for these bloodsuckers, old traditions in the East still rely on the leech rather than pills to treat everything from headaches to infections to and depression. Hirudotherapy is even becoming a viable treatment option here in the U.S. because of rising healthcare costs. Leeches run about $1.50 each. Place the leech on your area of fatigue and feel the increased circulation.

Uzbekistan: Joint Manipulation
“Joint manipulation” is a nice way to say “cracking every bit of your bones.” At traditional Uzbek bath houses, visitors are first invited to strip down and relax in the sauna. Once your body’s heated for about 20 minutes, the masseuse arrives to contort your entire body into pretzel-like positions, all the while sitting atop your back. The contortions crack and release the pressure stored in your joints, leaving you loose and relaxed. It costs about $15 -- and we hear it worked for Bourdain.

China: Moxibustion
Many Chinese practitioners liken moxibustion to acupuncture -- and often, in fact, performing it with needle therapy. But in practical? The procedure essentially involves burning mugwort "cigars" on your back, which ancient healing medicine shows to relieve stress and stimulate blood flow. Today, although few practitioners use the craft, you can find traditional Chinese medicine centers offering the 3,000-year-old service for about 400 HKD ($51) and more upscale spas closer to 1,200 HKD ($155).

Thailand: Thai Massage
You’ve probably heard horror stories about the back-breaking maneuvers of this type of massage and the week-long soreness that results. Unlike other massages that focus on relaxation, the Thai massage focuses on banishing on the kinks and knots in the body. Which is why the masseuse digs their elbows into your body, stomps along your back, and literally pops bones in and out of their sockets. Although you’re almost guaranteed to come out feeling a bit bruised, the practice does ameliorate physical and emotional tension more effectively than, say, a gentle Swedish massage. In Thailand, an hour-long massage will run you up to 500 baht ($15).

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