Find Japanese spa treatments at the Sonoma-area Osmosis.
Find Japanese spa treatments at the Sonoma-area Osmosis.
Osmosis Enzyme Bath & Massage

Up to Your Ears in Wood Chips

At the Osmosis spa, near Sonoma, guests soak in the Japanese cedar enzyme bath.
At the Osmosis spa, near Sonoma, guests soak in the Japanese cedar enzyme bath. (Osmosis Enzyme Bath & Massage)
By Rob Pegoraro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 15, 2006

I am not a spa kind of guy. I don't have much of an idea of what makes up the usual spa visit. But I'm pretty sure it doesn't involve immersing most of myself in a mound of fermenting cedar shavings.

For that, I can blame my wife. She is not much of a spa girl herself, but a few years ago she and her sister visited the Osmosis spa in Freestone, Calif., not far from her parents' Sonoma County home. After a little lobbying, she convinced me that we should try it over Christmas.

Osmosis advertises itself as "the only day spa in the U.S. that offers the Cedar Enzyme Bath, a rejuvenating heat treatment from Japan." That is, instead of soaking you in hot water or steaming you in hot air (or whatever normal spas do), it covers you in a mix of ground cedar, rice bran and plant enzymes that has been allowed to ferment. Yum!

It's the same basic idea as a compost bin, only it's indoors, it's not collecting kitchen scraps and, of course, you're in it. You feel very warm, almost completely immobilized and thoroughly unwound -- and you really need a shower afterward.

Our relaxation began on the drive to Osmosis, in one of Sonoma's most rural corners -- about 60 miles from San Francisco, and a lot further than that in pace and mood. The spa sits in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it town of Freestone on the wonderfully named Bohemian Highway, tucked away between hills that seem to be populated by more cows than people.

The decompression continued after we arrived. At the request of the sign out front, we left our shoes on the front porch -- then discovered that neither of our cell phones could detect any signal.

After signing in at the front desk and spending a few minutes to browse the gift shop's inventory (a grab bag of vaguely Asian and New Agey stuff -- think soap in goat's milk, cherry blossom and green tea flavors), it was time for us to, uh, get naked. (Hey, do you want to try to scrub decomposing cedar shrapnel out of a bathing suit?)

Katie and I changed into robes in separate dressing rooms, then rejoined in a sparsely decorated room and sat down to sip herbal tea, talk and gaze at the compact garden outside. There were no papers or magazines to read, just a guest book and a bound collection of woodcut prints and poetry. ("Be the bud. Prepare to blossom.")

Our attendant knocked maybe 10 minutes later to say the baths were ready. They consisted of two massive wooden boxes, brimming with mounds of a dark-brown mix. The robes went off, we went in and the attendant quickly covered us up to the neck, using her hands to shovel the soft, fibrous shavings over us.

Their consistency was somewhere between dirt, moss and mulch, and filled the room with a thick, yeasty aroma -- as if we were swimming in a batch of oatmeal-cedar sourdough. The fermentation generated enough heat to risk violating a few laws of physics; shifting a limb magnified this, as the accumulated heat rushed into the opening vacated by my foot or arm.

We settled in and let the heat soak through. I watched the windows fog over, cautiously wriggling my toes as wisps of steam rose above them. The sweat was trickling down my forehead when the attendant returned to place damp towels on our foreheads and offer us much-appreciated sips of cold water. I let my hands creep to my left until they met Katie's fingertips. Somehow I did not find my brain racing to think about my schedule for next week or what bills were waiting at home.

After another visit from the attendant, I decided that this dense, enveloping heat was starting to remind me a little too much of running along the Mall in August, and raised my arms out of the bath. They looked distinctly furry. They had also begun to itch.

Eventually -- it may have been 20 minutes, but my watch was locked away in the dressing room -- it was time to get up and shower off. At the risk of excessive personal disclosure, that took far longer for me than my wife, an unavoidable consequence for any guy with body hair.

Part 2 of the Osmosis experience awaited upstairs: a lengthy massage, 75 minutes of dreamlike relaxation as my feet, legs, neck, arms, shoulders and back were gently worked over. At the end of that, I felt utterly tranquil, as if I'd just woken from 12 hours of sleep, but somehow I was not hungry, thirsty or in the throes of a Nyquil hangover.

(This was the optimum state to be presented with the bill: $350 for both of us, plus tip. In my hazy condition, I didn't mind all that much; it was like getting the tab at the end of a long, wine-soaked dinner.)

In this altered state of consciousness, we took a leisurely walk to the spa's Meditation Garden, at the end of a path that wound past a metaphor-rich antique truck being reclaimed by vines and trees. We gawked at the koi swimming in the pond, meandered past sand raked into circles and spirals, and pondered the surrounding hills.

And then it was time to go. On our way home, we stopped in nearby Sebastopol (which advertises itself as nuclear-free and happens to be nearly Starbucks-free as well) for a cup of coffee and a slow stroll around its compact downtown. Then we climbed back in the car for the drive back to Santa Rosa -- where I nearly undid all the benefits of our expensive relaxation by doing some post-Christmas shopping in a couple of big-box stores.

Osmosis (209 Bohemian Hwy., Freestone, Calif., 707-823-8231, advises visitors from San Francisco that during rainy season (now), they should exit U.S. 101 north at Cotati instead of Petaluma. Rates for the cedar enzyme baths run from $70 each for two people on weekdays to $85 for one person on weekends.

Rob Pegoraro writes the Fast Forward column for The Post's Sunday Business section.

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