As a man nearing my 50s, I’ve been looking at improving my health regime, which currently includes basic and simple things like no longer driving the car to work, but walking between home, MRT and office twice a day. And cutting down on carbohydrates. And trying to remember to get up from my computer desk every hour or so for a stretch and a walkaround. For years I have been fond of trying out the various types of massage one can get in Taiwan and throughout Asia as a special treat. But more and more I’ve come to view a regular way to de-stress from my weeks of meetings, activities, conference calls and deadlines not as an occasional luxury treat, but as an essential part of looking after my health.
Massage is probably as old as the days when man sat in a cave around the campfire and had his sore muscles rubbed with fat after the hunt and the feast. It should come as no surprise to learn that the oldest known book about massage was written in Chinese, as far back as 3000 BC. In Taiwan, family members will often help each other ease aches and pains, and even young kids will learn techniques like hand-massage which they are then required to administer to grandma’s arthritic hands. Giving a massage is a generous and therapeutic act, and no doubt giving massages is one if the ways that family bonds in Taiwan are kept strong.
If you don’t have someone willing or able to give you a proper massage, a wide variety of services is on offer throughout Taiwan. They are not always easy to find, and many people shy away because they don’t know what to expect.
Unfortunately many westerners still seem to automatically equate “full-body massage” with some seedy goings-on with a happy ending, so let me demystify the various kinds of massage on offer in Taiwan. Whether you like cheap-and cheerful or luxurious and opulent, or something in-between, there is a massage service that’s right for you.
I would like to say straight off that I have not had very good experiences at above-the-store mom-and-pop massage places, mostly because quite frankly the aunties who do the massage there are usually too talkative and I like to have absolute silence when I have a massage. I specifically do not wish to have to concentrate on a conversation in Chinese, about where I am from (no, not America, and yes, Mandela was the president of South Africa and no, diamonds are not cheap and plentiful in South Africa, they are in fact very strictly controlled in order to keep the price artificially high.)
Luxury SPA treatment
Most hotels will have a SPA area with various levels of service, and I like to try them out when I’m moving around the country and staying in hotels as my work often require. My favorite so far was at the Howard Resort in Kenting, where you started your 2-hour session with a shower in an area with natural wood decorations and soft music, using natural powdered Indian ingredients for washing your body, face and hair, all with helpful instructions. Then followed a soak in a wooden hot tub with frangipani leaves floating on top, as well as a rain shower over a bed of black pebbles. When you’ve had enough of that, you call in the masseuse and it’s on to the massage table and a pair of headphones playing soft water sounds, combined with dim lights and aromatherapy candles. Although the masseuse was young and I had my doubts about how experienced she was, she clearly had “the touch” - an indefinable quality which you will immediately notice in its absence! That massage was just out of this world for full relaxation and releasing tension, and I’ve been back a few times.
Cost - NT$2000 for about 90 minutes.
Go through the doors, take your locker key and enter the rather luridly-decorated world entirely devoted to male relaxation. In these male sanctuaries you will find a fascinating subculture of regulars from all walks of life. Anything from bespectacled salary types to tattooed toughs with slicked-back hair who have clearly seen every Chinese gangster movie out there. Start with a sit-down shower and shave, then laze about in the 43-degree hot water till you turn to jelly. Dip into the freezing splash pool if you are brave enough, (I’m not) or try the steam room for a bit. Now that your pores are well and truly open, you could get a rubdown from a man wielding a rough cloth, rubbing the dead skin cells off your body. Put on a pair of supplied shorts and a robe and you can have a Chinese style massage from a male masseur, which is big on pressure points and is sure to leave you bruised but with all the kinks out (although I always fear they may put a few new ones in). Otherwise wander off to the lounge area, where you will be served Chinese tea or you can order food and other drinks. Soft music and big-screen TVs and attendants padding around make for a relaxing atmosphere.
Off to another side will be the area where the female masseuses have their tables, towel warmers and other paraphernalia, and here you can choose a manly facial treatment that includes a neck-and shoulders massage as well as a cleansing mask, finished off by a refreshing skin-toning treatment. The masseuse is friendly and chatty if you want it, but will shut up if you prefer silence.
The full-body hot oil massage service here is usually top-notch, with the masseuse using warm oil, even using her knees or feet on your back and legs – all very satisfying and yes, entirely non-sexual. This is usually what I choose for full de-stress after a few busy weeks, and I’m always well-satisfied.
- About NT2000 for entrance to the facilities and a 1-hour massage.
(Of course, it should be mentioned that at many of these SPAs a mama-san will at some point sidle up to you and in a low voice enquire whether you would like the "special massage”, but there’s no pressure if you politely decline and that part of the business is kept well apart from the legit side.)
Women have a very wide variety to choose from, from mom-and-pop massage places that do scraping and cupping above the hair salon, to ultra-luxurious SPAs with hotspring water. At the latter you can also get your manicure and facial on, but be prepared to pay a premium. These also provide waxing and electrolysis services, but don’t expect to find tanning beds – Chinese women generally prize a pearly-white skin.
- Starting at NT$2000
These are all over in some streets, and can usually be identified by a few girls in some sort of uniform lined up in the lobby. Chitchat with the pretty masseuse as part of the deal, and while sex is supposedly not offered on the premises, it is said that some of the girls are available for “dates” with customers. The massage here is a different affair with the customer reclining in a sort of lazyboy, complete with TV screen, while the girl applies hot towels and massage and brings tea and will even share a smoke with the customer. It’s just a little on the exploitative side; I have known one or two girls who worked at such places and none of them enjoyed the experience or stayed with it long.
- Around NT$1400
Thai Massage places
These have cropped up everywhere, and while I’m not a big fan of Thai-style massage (a lot of being bent backwards over knees etc. is involved) there are others who swear by it. Usually staffed by strong Thai aunties, you can expect to be stretched and manhandled quite a bit, all in the name of limbering up and loosening stiff joints and muscles. This is one of the few places that I’ve seen two-berth rooms where you can go together with a partner and enjoy a massage together.
Chinese doctors with acupuncture and herbal remedies
A year or so ago I developed a numbness above my knees that just wouldn’t go away. Eventually I found my way to a Chinese doctor who performed acupuncture, cupping and massage on my legs. For the acupuncture, she inserted long needles into strategic spots on my legs and back, and attached electrical wires to them. Turning up the current stimulated the nerve endings, making the muscles vibrate. This is actually a far less creepy sensation than it sounds, and it definitely works to release muscle tension. Cupping involves placing a suction cup over affected areas of the leg or back, sucking out the air until it leaves a circular bruise on the skin. According to the Chinese tradition this draws toxins out, and again the sensation is beneficial. The masseur was a genial guy who was very good indeed. He would pin your legs in one position while bending your shoulders in an opposite direction, which definitely helps to loosen things up. The massage was brisk, sometimes painful and without niceties, but in combination with the acupuncture it did bring relief.
The only compliant I have about this kind of establishment, and I’ve since found out that it’s one shared by many, is the complete lack of privacy at the clinic. The place is none too clean, there’s a TV blaring against the wall, and makeshift curtains have many chinks through which patients of varying age and stage of undress, with needles sticking out of them, can be glimpsed. You basically line up in chairs against the wall, go forward to the doctor when your name is called, and in full view and earshot of everyone else in the room she will inquire as to your problem and discuss your treatment with you. Then you are assigned a curtained-off cubicle where you may need to partially undress, and wait. The good doctor comes sweeping in, expertly pops a few needles in here and there, and sweeps out again. A lesser assistant then comes in and attaches the wires and turns up the current to the desired level, and you are left to contemplate the ceiling (or the vinyl-covered bed) for 15 minutes or so, when the process is reversed and the needles withdrawn. Then you take your paper and shuffle over to the massage guy, who asks a few questions and then proceeds to work you over according to the instructions from the doctor. It’s all rather quaint, actually.
- NT$100 on the evil socialist national single-payer health plan
Probably the cheapest way to get a massage fix is at the hairdressing salons. I’m talking about the normal unisex hairdressing salon, not the kind with a spinning barber pole outside which is supposedly a cover for something else. I go for a neck-and-shoulder massage there once a week, and find it a quick and convenient stress-relief. Most places offer a basic head-and-shoulders massage and shampoo for NT$170, and an extended "hair spa” for around NT$400. This usually starts with a neck-and shoulders massage, followed by a cream massaged into the scalp, followed by shampoo. Then it’s off to the washtub and some more massage of the pressure points on the forehead and jaw, all the while running warm water over the forehead. The effect is quite soporific and I often come out of there half nodding off. It’s wonderful and affordable. When you find a salon that you like, like finding a good mechanic that can figure out your car’s quirks and knows it by sight, stick with it because if you become a regular you always know what to expect.
- Between NT$170 and NT$400
Butcher Knife massage
A new fad that’s doing the rounds is getting a massage with someone wielding two butcher knives. This may not sound like something that is very conducive to relaxation, and obviously there is a certain level of trust involved, but I can attest to its effectiveness. Often operating in little sidewalk stalls or in temple courtyards, you basically straddle a chair and with a towel over your shoulders, the masseur or masseuse beats a gentle tattoo on your back with the butcher knives. Their weight, and the fact that they focus the pressure onto a very concentrated area, makes for a very effective massage.
- Around NT$100
I would recommend that you go with someone who has done it before at the particular establishment, so that you can be spared any anxiety as to what is expected of you and what you can expect and how much you will be expected to pay. If your Chinese is not up to snuff you may also want to take someone who can give some initial directions on whether you like it hard or not, etc. Chinese masseuses seem to think most Westerners are wusses and will go very soft until you ask her to put on the pressure. Whichever kind of massage you would like to try, you can be sure that you can find a place in Taiwan to relax, and let your troubles and tensions float away under the healing touch.
Written by Tobie Openshaw.