First person

Yasuragi

Spas in Sweden have been able to stay open during the pandemic. But do people still want to visit them? Andrew Gibson investigates at spa hotel Yasuragi


While the majority of countries shut down non-essential services over the past year to curb the spread of coronavirus, the Swedish government took a different approach. They issued guidelines and restrictions but continued to keep schools and businesses, including spas and hotels, open to avoid lockdown.

Yasuragi, a Japanese inspired spa hotel on the outskirts of Stockholm, remained operational throughout the pandemic while adhering to regulations. All employees wear face masks, but guests don’t have to, screens are placed at all service counters, sanitisers are everywhere and numbers are restricted to enable social distancing. Swedes have always respected personal space so adherence to physical distance is easily complied with, but signage helps reassure and remind everyone to observe protocols.

And it appears that COVID-19 has not curbed the nation’s appetite for wellness. Just like any ryokan, the bathing facilities are the primary attraction and on my mid-week stay the extensive hydrothermal facilities that are open to both hotel and day guests were busy. I counted at least 80 people in the baths (the capacity was 400 pre-COVID). Almost all were couples, with age groups ranging from people in their early 20s to seniors.

The offer
Yasuragi was originally built as a conference centre for the Trade Union Confederation in the 1970s. The confederation commissioned Yoji Kasajima to design it after admiring his work at the Japanese embassy in Stockholm.

Perched on a majestic cliff top overlooking a sea channel and clad in dark timber, the building pays homage to Japanese style and is now a fitting home to a 191-room hotel and spa which falls under the Nordic Hotels & Resorts banner – a collection of 40 independent hotels and restaurants across Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland. Other properties in the portfolio include the Ice Hotel and Farris Bad.

The prime attraction at Yasuragi is the bathing area which was renovated and extended in 2017 and covers around 2,200sq m. Architects DAP Stockholm AB spearheaded the overhaul with EnviroProcess, a partner of Klafs, installing multiple thermal rooms by Klafs and supporting and supplying the treatment system for a wide range of pools.

Located off the entrance to the baths is one floor for skincare treatments and another for body therapies.

There’s a choice of four eateries, from a teppanyaki dining room to an informal snack bar by the baths. Perhaps restaurants have been the biggest victims of COVID restrictions as all were closed except one and Yasuragi has taken the opportunity to renovate the other two.

Packages and prices
There’s a wide range of spa and accommodation options at Yasuragi with yield management strategies in place according to time of day, day of week, concessions for seniors and children and treatment and food add-ons. Loyalty cards are available too.

There are almost too many choices, making selection over the internet difficult, but it’s nice to have options.

A day spa package starts at SEK990 (US$120, €98, £84) and includes access to the baths, snacks, lunch or dinner and a choice of distinctively Japanese daily activities such as zen meditation, yoga and sound bowl sessions. The price goes up to SEK1,630 (US$197, €161, £139) when a 20-minute treatment is bundled in.

An overnight stay with breakfast, including all of the above except for a treatment, starts at SEK1,750 (US$211, €173, £149).

For those wanting just a treatment, a 50-minute classic massage is SEK1,275 (US$154, €127, £100) or additional activities such as origami, calligraphy and tea ceremonies carry a fee of SEK210 (US$25, €21, £20).

Upon arrival
So... the key question is, would you want to stay in a 20-year-old converted conference centre that has a Japanese theme set in the Swedish countryside? In my opinion, yes. It’s a place to truly relax and to take a moment to reset your mind.

Perhaps your first thoughts are that a Japanese spa would be totally out of place in Sweden. But throughout my stay, I became aware of how many customs the countries share. Both have a deep respect for nature that extends from visual appreciation to full immersion. Both have a classic and strong design identity based on a minimalist feel, high quality finishes and natural materials... and both have a prominent culture of bathing (onsen and sauna).

As we stroll up a stone path lined with wooden pillars and cherry trees in full blossom the arrival is classically Japanese, but totally fitting for Sweden. Yasuragi exudes the lagom approach of Sweden where everything is just right, unassuming and certainly not extravagant and this provides the opportunity to slow down, appreciate your surroundings and have gratitude for the simple things in life.

My wife and I received a warm welcome and a quick, efficient check-in. Yasuragi is a pet-friendly hotel so we took our dog and enjoyed many of the woodland trails.

Our standard guestroom (issued to people with pets) was typically Japanese with futon-style beds and simple furnishings, but at 20sq m felt a little small. I would recommend the ryokan (top suite) – complete with two bedrooms, extensive stone bathing area and enormous outdoor terrace with whirlpool – for the full experience.

Communication was one of the weakest parts of my stay. Although spa protocols and facilities were explained, there were no details of my treatment at arrival or in my room. Returning to reception, I was presented with a handwritten note simply saying ‘5pm’ and the only confirmation I got was from speaking to a member of staff. Similarly spa activities were posted around the hotel, but not in the room.

The spa experience
One of the enjoyable features at Yasuragi is that guests are dressed in the same patterned yukata (Japanese robe) and slippers. You’re given these well-designed, comfortable clothes and swimsuits to wear (the latter to keep) throughout your stay, even at dinner, and it’s relaxing to know everyone is the same.

As a side note, the robes are also cleverly designed with a pocket inside the sleeve for key cards and numbered hangers help you to locate them when in the spa.

The baths can be reached via a glazed passage with views over a simple Japanese rockery and you’re provided with a detailed written and verbal explanation of a naked cleansing ritual, as is the onsen tradition, which takes place in the changing rooms. The ritual takes place across 50 ablution areas that are cleverly designed around courtyards and terraces, to withstand the volume of business. During COVID spacing is controlled through signage and continual reminders of the maximum number of people permitted in any space.

After washing, the baths await. You enter a warm, high-ceiling courtyard dotted with small bathhouses that surround pools to give a village feel. Each bathhouse is different but the overall simple design showcases stone, wood and water and accentuates the play on light and sound.

There are many options for quiet relaxation, from lounging on heated ganban yoku slabs to soaking in a tub on a moss-covered outdoor terrace with the undisturbed sounds of water, bird song and wind rustling through the pine and birch trees. Inside, the atmosphere could have been improved with more eastern style music rather than the generic, melancholy spa background tracks.

Similarly, some dining options are more reflective of Japan while others aren’t. The snack bar by the entrance to the baths serves only Japanese food, handmade for us (although service was slow) and we abandoned the classic Swedish menu at dinner to sample a high-quality five-course Japanese meal including sake tasting. Yet a European continental buffet breakfast, with few Japanese dishes, was less authentic.

The daily activities seemed popular. They’ve been moved to large meetings rooms, which are plentiful at this former conference centre, and numbers are restricted to 20 guests. I counted nine people coming out of yoga and there were 18 of us taking the zen meditation class. The session was set at a basic level that felt right given the mix of guests ranging from curious to experienced.

Unfortunately, the treatment for my wife and myself was not a highlight. Both therapists were very good and had excellent draping skills but lacked the subtle touch of hospitality found in a luxury spa. The classic massage was therapeutic with no frills. The haru was personalised but was also quite methodical. In summary, the experiences were detached from the subtle, refined Japanese feel in the rest of the hotel.

Lasting impression
Overall, the hotel shows some signs of ageing compared to the renovated baths. But don’t let this spoil your visit because even though we all get a few wrinkles as we get older, we’re still nice to be with.

If you’re in Stockholm, take time to add this very accessible, value-for-money experience to your itinerary. The attention to Japanese design and customs aids relaxation and charm as you escape into another world.

As we changed out of our yukatas and back into to our normal clothes in preparation for check out, and got ready to face the outside world once more, we realised that our 30 hours at Yasuragi had instilled a sense of happiness and calmness. My experience hit the perfect combination of the cherry blossom in full bloom, great weather and busy, but controlled, guest numbers.

Andrew Gibson is a global wellness and hospitality advisor | [email protected]

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Company profile: The Wellness
Through boundless insights, The Wellness specialises in innovation and sustainability of design, engineering, construction and after-sales services of spa, pools, fitness, leisure and other spaces for the hospitality and wellness industries.
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