mahabis downtime // relaxing around the world, part one
Why not take a step out of the ordinary and think outside the box when it comes to downtime? Forget curling up with a book and a cup of tea, try japanese coffee baths and swedish flotation tanks.
We’ve looked all around the world at how different cultures unwind to help you to revitalise how you relax, so check out our favourites below.
Traditionally public bathing places, and now a tourist highlight, onsen (natural hot springs) are abundant throughout Japan. Mineral-rich volcanic waters are pumped up through the ground into specialist bath houses, where people flock from the city to relax. Typically located in the countryside, onsen are a popular retreat from hectic urban life. There are a number springing up in city locations too, drawing families and tourists alike.
photo: ryokan stories, taenoyu
As the country lies above a chain of volcanic islands, there are thousands of onsen spread across Japan. There are numerous categories of onsen, varying by chemical composition and temperature, but all link back to the traditional law of 'onsenhou' (hot spring law). This states that a natural spring containing over a defined amount of natural components, and above 25 degrees, can be considered an official onsen.
The custom of 'Toji', which involves people bathing in naturally situated, outdoor onsen, is traditionally related to medical treatment. Onsen were, and still are, considered beneficial for health and wellbeing. More commonly though, they are a go-to for relaxation. Lonely planet has put together a list of the holy grail of the onsen world. Favourites including baths in riverbanks, on the seashore, within the semitropical jungle and within natural mountain sanctuaries high in the Japanese Alps. Check it out here.
photo: ryokan stories, kuroyu
If onsen sound a little traditional and you fancy experimenting with some more unusual relaxation, then take a look at Japan's famous 'Amusement Baths'. The mineral-rich water is instead swapped for bizarre alternatives such as green tea, coffee and even red wine.
Over the past year, these amusement parks offering up a new range of onsen have become increasingly popular, and are still considered a healthy retreat to release toxins and unwind.
The Yunessun resort is famed for its unusual baths, the attractions are only open for a limited period in the year and the traditional 'no diving' signs are replaced with 'no drinking' ones instead.
A form of Japanese alternative medicine, Reiki is intended for healing yet can be an extremely effective relaxation technique. During a typical session, you will simply lie on the floor as the therapist lays their hands on specific places of your body to release unseen negative energy. It is used for a range of effects, including aiding sleep, overcoming stress, and easing pain.
Whilst it's roots lie in Japan, the practice has been widely adopted and adapted across the world.
Sessions typically last one hour and whilst it's cultural roots lie in Japan, you don't need to go that far afield in order to enjoy the treatment. The practice has been widely adopted and adapted around the world, and there are centres in many cities globally.
Shinrin-yoku, or 'forest bathing' was developed in Japan during the 1980s, and has become an important part of alternative Japanese medicine and healing. Put simply, it involves breathing deeply in the fresh air.
photo: lou levit
When practiced under the canopy of a living forest, it is believed the essential oils from trees and plants can assist the immune system, and have rejuvenating and restorative benefits for the body. It’s so popular in Japan that the Forest Agency recommend practicing shinrin-yoku as part of a balanced lifestyle.
One of our favourite destinations for relaxation. The Swedes know how to do it right. With coffee breaks protected by law, and the tradition of 'fika' to regularly break up their day, there aren't many more relaxing countries in the world.
An integral part of Swedish culture, fika, causes entire towns to grind to a halt as locals break from their daily activities to sit down and socialise with friends over a cup of coffee and pastries. With fika, it's important to step away from your work and enjoy the company of friends.
photo: andre freitas
First popularised in the 1970s, 'sensory deprivation chambers' (or less ominously named 'float tanks), are now experiencing a frenzied renaissance in Sweden and beyond. The practice involves climbing into an isolation tank, which is essentially a large tub filled with salt water and shut off from all light and sound.
Earplugs are provided to complete the sensory deprivation, and users have proclaimed the technique as a great way to de-stress, meditate, improve focus and peace of mind. Centres are now cropping up in the UK and are becoming a fashionable trend in the States. Not one for the claustrophobic, but an interesting way to unwind nonetheless.
Not resigned to Sweden, but a popular activity in the Nordic-Scandi regions, is ice swimming. During the winter season in outdoor locations, freezing pools are opened up as a swimming location. This is enjoyed at a competitive level as well as a casual activity, and is often practiced after a sauna as a way to cool off rapidly and relieve stress.
photo: swedish lapland
Not an activity for the faint hearted, ice swimming comes with its dangers. Side effects of hyperventilation and fibrillation (blood cooling in the limbs and returning to the heart), sound less than relaxing... but many people in Sweden are proponents of the health benefits that ice swimming can bring. Some studies have reported it can contribute to better well being, improved memory function, mood, and a reduction in fatigue.
If you're looking for a brisk way to wake up in the morning, and don't mind adjusting to below freezing temperatures, then learn more here. Otherwise, we suggest a double espresso.
With almost enough lakes and islands in the country for every Finnish family to own one, the coastline of Finland is a popular spot for saunas, spas, and wellness retreats. If you're looking for a relaxing location to spend a weekend or more, then there are a number of locations to enjoy across the country.
photo: a smoke sauna 'savusauna'
Saunas operate year-round. In the freezing winters they offer refuge from chilly outdoor temperatures, and in the summer season they are a relaxing retreat from the incessant daylight.
Some spas offer peat saunas, making the most of the natural peatland that is so prevalent in Finland (almost one third of the land area in the country is made up of bogs). The peat can be used to fuel the sauna, or alternatively as a direct skin treatment.
A range of other saunas exist, including infrared emitting treatments, electric saunas and the savusauna - a special type of sauna without a chimney where wood is burned, smoke fills the room and is then ventilated out.
Silver Birch Branch Massages
Part of the tradition of the sauna which may seem strange to outsiders is the silver birch branch massages. This involves taking birch branches into the sauna, moistening them, and having them lightly beaten across the body. Unconventional... but supposedly a means to enhance the sauna experience, open your pores and relax your muscles.
photo: kaleb nimz
"Mökki elämä", or cottage life is an important trait of Finnish culture. According to national statistics, there are close to half a million official summer cottages in Finland (as of December 2012). Though if larger leisure homes were to qualify, the actual number would likely be much higher.
In Eastern Finland, the town of Mikkeli houses the highest number of summer cottages (over 10,000). The practice of retreating to countryside cottages is a means to actively leave stress behind in the city, escape from work and enjoy solitude.
If you fancy sampling a traditional Finnish cottage, then check out this range of AirBnB cabins.
Massage has a long history in Indian culture. Texts dating back 4000 years contain references about keeping muscles supple and the healing properties of aromatic oils.
It is not uncommon for massage to be an important part of family life, practiced weekly or even daily in the home. Champissage, more frequently known as the Indian Head Massage, has been carried out for over a thousand years. Originally developed by women, as a means to keep hair lustrous, champissage was then introduced in barbers and then expanded as a service for individual home visits.
They say that laughter is the best medicine, and Hasyayoga is a practice of yoga involving prolonged voluntary laughter to help relieve stress. Pioneered in the 1990s by Dr Madan Kataria, groups of people come together in private homes or public spaces and encourage one another to laugh.
What starts as forced laughter is soon turned into real and contagious laughter as groups participate in this unusual form of exercise. The release of endorphins can have a meditative and opiate effect, that assists in relaxation.
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