Roadtesting Shibui Spa

On those rare occasions when I believe I deserve a massage, I’m too busy to stop and get one—and I never know in advance when I’m going to be a wreck. During a vacation, meanwhile, is precisely when I don’t need it, because I haven’t been typing for hours with a clingy pug sitting in my lap and using my left arm as a chinrest. Far better to be an Italian industrialist who can press pause on his day and repair to his relaxation room, which to my mind looks exactly like the penthouse pool at the Hotel Fasano in São Paulo. Since that’s not in the cards, I made do with a mid-day freebie offered by the Shibui Spa at the Greenwich Hotel. (Spa treatments are one of the few exceptions to Tribeca Citizen’s no-freebie rule.) Fortunately, I scheduled it during a week of repetitive, tedious freelance work, and I was looking forward to it like a Friday night.

My experience with the Greenwich Hotel is limited to Locanda Verde and the lobby, although I did once get kicked out of the guests-only lounge. So it was kind of a treat to walk to the elevator without fear of being escorted off the premises. After descending one floor, you exit into an exceedingly dark landing, where an attendant greets you while you wait for your eyes to adjust. Our relationship got off to a rocky start, because after she asked how I was, and I asked how she was, she asked me once again how I was—and I joked that my general situation hadn’t changed much in the past five seconds. Perhaps I was lucky not to see the expression on her face.

She led me past the beautifully lit fitness room to the men’s locker room, and beyond that, to the pool room, where my massage therapist would meet me once I was robed and ready.

“Criminy!” I said to the blasé lifeguard. “It’s hotter than Hades in here!” (I’ve been working on not swearing, at least in front of strangers.) The pool room is very pretty, especially when you factor in the basement location. (According to the brochure, “The spa houses a lantern-lit swimming pool and lounge under the roof of a 250-year old wood and bamboo farmhouse that has been reconstructed in the hotel by Japanese craftsmen.”) To the left of the pool is a large area with chairs and sofas; it’s pictured at the top of this post. The arrangement and all that space made me feel like I was on vacation somewhere, and I could see how others—especially celebrities and parents, for whom a quiet retreat is almost as good as a Vicodin—might not mind the warmth and/or love the seclusion. If the weather had been horrible, I could have seen myself hanging out there, but this was last Wednesday, the first truly beautiful day of the spring, so being in a dark-but-lovely room wasn’t my number-one priority.

“The Japanese word ‘shibui’ has no exact translation into English, but it refers to a beauty that is low-key and grounded, not too fancy, yet rich,” says the brochure. “The same may
be said of the Shibui experience. It is luxurious and uncomplicated. There is a stillness to it. This, to us, is essential.” The emphasis on stillness felt quite apt. Shibui is one of the calmest places I can remember visiting, particularly in the city, and utterly quiet.

After a few minutes, Dennis came in to retrieve me. Whenever I’m asked if I have a gender preference for a massage therapist, I say no, because it strikes me as a lose-lose question. If I say female, and no one knows I’m gay, will they think I’m hoping for more? If I say male, will they think I’m like Rick Santorum, afraid to be touched by a woman who is not my wife? Forget it.

Dennis led me back through the locker room and down the hall, and then down wooden stairs to a sub-basement, where the four treatment rooms are. I was instructed to remove my slippers outside the treatment room.

My massage, not chosen by me, was to be the Healing Birch, but despite the name, no flogging is involved: “Everything you’ll need to recover from chronic stress and sore muscles. Our healing massage targets areas of repetitive contraction, stimulating circulation and movement from within the body. Herbal packs penetrate heat deep into muscle tissue, as our homemade balm of shea butter, jojoba, helichrysum and birch oils reduce inflammation and support tissue growth. Perfect post-workout, a long flight or a stressful day.” A 60-minute Healing Birch massage costs $180, or $200 if you choose to Go Deep. I’m not sure whether Dennis Went Deep or not. When asked, I told Dennis I was fine with whatever he thought would be prudent. He left me to get undressed, which I did—and then I realized I needed to take a photo of the treatment room. It’s blurry because the light was low, and also because I didn’t want to be standing there butt-naked holding a camera when Dennis walked back in.

I was enjoying being worked on when I sensed something had changed. I’ve come to expect anything when having a massage, from the therapist in Hawaii who wore tiny fingertip condoms to the one in Rio who spent about 20 minutes gently palpating my stomach. “Are you still doing OK?” Dennis asked. “Yes,” I said through the face-pillow thing. “But are you standing on me?” I was generally aware of this as an Asian massage technique, but I didn’t know anyone actually did it, especially not adult men. In hindsight, that explained the wooden poles attached to the ceiling. His standing on my back didn’t feel that interesting, but the walking on my thighs was amazing, as was the standing on pointe on my rear end. Massage is such a personal thing that I find it impossible to say, “You’ll love it if you have one at Shibui Spa!” But I did love mine. It was the perfect mix of relaxing and therapeutic; my muscles ached the next day in the way that I like. Moreover, Dennis a) took the massage seriously without being overly spiritual or formal, and b) barely spoke.

The locker room is the bathroom of my dreams—complete with Japanese toilet—although in my dreams I understand how to work the shower. Trying to get hot water to come out, I spent an embarrassing amount of time turning knobs and nearly prying off the on/off lever, and I only discovered that there was a rain shower when I inadvertently turned it on (cold) while standing underneath it. Nonetheless, having the locker room to myself was a treat. I may have had the whole spa to myself. The only non-staff I saw were two guys who came through the locker room to quickly check out the pool, which seems as if it might get admired more than swam in. I didn’t bother because by the time I figured out the shower, I was ready to get back outside.

All in all, it was a delightful way to spend an hour and a half, and if you can spare more time—to relax by the pool, to swim in the pool, to savor the steam shower, and/or to use the fitness room—it becomes a better value. Relaxation, as with so many things, is all about the effort you put into it.

Shibui Spa is inside the Greenwich Hotel, 377 Greenwich (at N. Moore); 212-941-8900. Here’s the Shibui Spa menu if you’d like to peruse it. Note: A 20% gratuity is automatically added to the bill.


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