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From lad to lass: a Japanese massage in London

It’s Friday, 9.30am and England’s capital is easing itself awake – just. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be up for another half an hour or so, but I’m booked in for a massage at ten.

As the train rattles through the Jubilee tunnel of London’s underground, sleepy-heads sway to the rhythm of the carriage. Long hours of a long week show signs of taking their toll on the city’s overloaded young professionals. The twenty-something guy opposite me tries to batter his eyes open, but they are unrelenting and snap shut. The blonde girl next to him applies last minute makeup.

This is my first visit to a spa and I’m not sure what to expect. Hailing from Yorkshire in the north of England, beauty salons are uncommon ground for me. It’s not the done thing for a man to be pampered. But this is millennium London where businessmen with high stress levels and fashionable alpha males are in touch with their feminine side. Still, I feel a little uncertain about the escapade.

This career-driven city is manic and I have to side-step an onrush of suits with umbrellas darting for their trains. It’s a relief to reach Scin Central without any hassle. Inside, it’s airy and calming. The décor is slick. Slate white walls match the soft leather lean-back chairs women have their toenails painted in. Products are laid out in neat lines atop reflective glass display cabinets. I’m taken downstairs to the waiting room. It’s not what I was expecting. My anticipation was preconceived from photographs I’ve seen accompanying travel articles, luxurious spas set in romantic other-worldly settings. I was expecting to be transported into an unfamiliar world; at the very least I was expecting sleek furniture and stylish designs. This was like sitting in my girlfriend’s living room. The beige L-shaped settee gathered round a thick oak coffee table was comfy enough, but the striped wallpaper and sound of middle-of-the-road radio classics seeping through the corridors was uninspiring. I take a magazine (for ladies) and look for a travel section. I have barely turned a page when I am interrupted by a cute and compact oriental girl. She introduces herself as Mika; my masseuse for the next hour.

Front down and naked but for my boxer shorts, I lay on the massage table with my face wedged between the padded head rest. Small feet appear below. Mika’s toes poke from her flip-flops, black “thong” style with a fish-scale sequin pattern. I hear the pop of a bottle lid opening and there is a faint smell of camomile mixed with the sweet mystique of jojoba seed. Dreamy music seeps into the treatment room. Taken by the soothing meandering of piano notes and seductive violin arcs it is easy to feel relaxed.

Mika rubs lukewarm oil into my shoulder and over my back. Her touch is delicate, the way Japanese women are brought up to be, yet when she kneads my knots her fingers are surprisingly strong – firm yet fair.

“Your muscles feel tense,” she says.

This I already know. She explains I’m likely to feel sore later in the day; maybe tomorrow as well. Massage improves the blood circulation and the rush of blood can cause soreness – particularly if you’ve not exercised for some time. My body was giving away my inactive lifestyle.

Mika tells me she has been a masseuse for four years, but has been giving massages since she was a teenager. When she lived with her family in Japan she used to massage her parents for extra pocket money. I felt in safe hands. Pressing with her fingers and gliding with the palm of her hand, she works my back and shoulders skilfully targeting the trigger points that open up pores and release chemicals. I feel tension drain from my body, weaving down my legs like a hunting snake before spilling out the soles of my feet.

“Do many men come to the salon?” I ask curiously.

“Of course,” Mika says.

Men mostly attend for massages. Some come in for laser treatment to permanently remove back hair. I felt better about being there. Mika tells me some men come for waxing – and facials. I raise my voice in surprise. Apparently men are becoming more conscious about taking care of their skin. Imagine my reaction when she told me some come in for manicures and pedicures: “Bloody hell, I don’t know what’s happening to the world.”

I ask whether Japanese men look after themselves.

“These days, boys who are teenagers and in their early twenties are plucking their eyebrows,” Mika tells me, “and using cosmetic products like girls.”

“Oh dear,” I say wryly.

Mika says, “I was quite shocked when my brother started eye-brush shaping.”

“Did you not slap him?”

Suddenly I feel better about European men.

Mika makes a poignant remark. “These days men also want to look beautiful.” We agree the influence of TV, film stars and glossy magazines is polluting the minds of the next generation even more than our own. Yet the fact more men are seeking spa treatments suggest the balance of equality is having an endearing effect on western society. Women go to work; men are cooking and having their nails done.

As Mika puts pressure on my calf, she tells me how in Japanese culture men are dominant and expect their women to be submissive. She says how free she feels in London, independent and at liberty to explore her own interests. This is a gift she would never have discovered in her motherland. I wonder whether that tradition will continue now Japanese males are wearing make-up. How can their masculinity be taken seriously by their women? But cultures don’t change so easily, even if generations do.

Mika finishes with my arms and asks how I feel. Tired, but my first spa experience is over with my dignity intact. From the tranquillity of the salon I step back into the familiar rush of London traffic zipping through Great Portland Street. It dawns on me that I had escaped the real world after all. Drizzle falls from a stone-grey sky, but inside I am glowing.

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