It translates to ‘finger pressure’ in Japanese, but shiatsu massage came to Japan via traditional Chinese medicine that arrived with Buddhist monks in the 6th century. In its several iterations today—Zen Shiatsu, Five Element Shiatsu, Shintai Shiatsu, Movement Shiatsu, among others—it focuses variously on pressure points or longer strokes or more general body work.
The goal: Whichever the type, the job is to get the Ki—vital force—moving again (blocked energy is associated with clinical illness in many Asian healing traditions).
The bells and whistles: Not the point here. Four fingers, two very strong thumbs, and probably some soreness (‘good pain’, associated with releasing blockages) are what you get.
Perfect for: Almost anyone who wants to heal what ails them: Shiatsu is often used as an ancillary treatment for everything from PMS to sciatica to insomnia. (And if you doubt its cred as a supplementary therapy, google “shiatsu and cancer treatment”.)
Another tradition that arrived with Buddhism, peppered subtly with elements of Ayurveda too (credit Thailand’s proximity to both China and the Indian Subcontinent). It’s the most interactive of the massage traditions; part hardcore stretching, part assisted floor-based yoga—and not a fancy scented oil in sight. The treatment takes place on the floor, rather than a bed. You’re fully clothed the whole time (if you’re lucky, or staying at a fabulous Thai resort, you’ll get chic kimono-style loose-cotton pyjamas to wear). And you’re definitely not going to drift off; within minutes of starting, your therapist may be sitting on the backs of your thighs, levering your arms backward until you can actually hear your shoulders scream. But people who love Thai massage really love Thai massage.
The goal: deep manipulation and release of muscle and fascia tissue; invigoration.
The bells and whistles: again, no lovely scented oils; but Thai massages often last longer than more conventional massages, by as much as an hour.
Perfect for: runners and athletes who crave that seeing-your-ancestors level of intense stretch; the nudity-averse.
Amusingly, this almost certainly did not originate in Sweden (there’s some contention as to whether a Swede was even involved in its creation; many believe a Dutch practitioner invented it). Which is why it’s commonly known as a ‘classic’ massage almost everywhere but in the US. It mixes up long full-muscle and -limb strokes with kneading, circular ‘friction’ strokes, lighter ‘tapping’ ones, and gentle shaking of muscles.
The goal: relaxing muscles and mind, increasing sluggish circulation.
The bells and whistles: only the ones you ask for—aromatherapy oil, music. It’s called ‘classic’ for a reason.
Perfect for: the massage newbie; those who don’t like strong pressure; post-flight pick-me-ups.
From the Sanskrit ‘ayur’ (life) and ‘veda’ (knowledge), Ayurveda is a holistic system of medicine in India that’s thought to be at least 5,000 years old. That said, one word: oil. In Abhyanga massage, herb-infused oils are heated to a precise temperature and applied liberally—really liberally—to the skin, where it’s believed they bind with ama (toxins) and help flush them out. You start out sitting, as the oil is poured over the head and shoulders, before moving to a bed for the full body massage. Pizichilli involves two therapists ‘bathing’ you in sheets of warm oil. And in Shirodhara, a steady stream of oil is poured onto the Third Eye chakra, between the brows—deeply hypnotic and calming, or totally panic-inducing, depending in the state of mind you arrived in.
The goal: total health, basically; but in the short-term, detoxification and energy re-balance.
The bells and whistles: Very subject to where the massage is administered—from flowers and music to setting and post-treatment tea and snacks.
Perfect for: Those who prefer gentle hands. Ayurveda can be intense if you ask for it that way, but generally it’s less depth- (and thus discomfort-) centric.
First thing to know: unless you’re with an actual kahuna, best think of it as Lomilomi Lite. This massage modality has centuries-old, very real roots in spiritual practice across many Polynesian islands, from Samoa to Hawaii (which is where it achieved mainstream popularity). In its pure form it often involves chanting and prayer (in fact, massage doesn’t even factor in to some of what comes under the heading of Lomilomi). But the average wahini probably knows it as that cool massage technique with the long, full-body strokes where the therapists uses her/his forearms.
The goal: Move energy; loosen fascia and get circulation going to shift toxins.
The bells and whistles: Chances are the oils will smell divinely of frangipani, ylang ylang, plumeria or some other ultra-fragrant tropical bloom.
Perfect for: Feeling a half-inch taller when you leave—those full-body strokes are heaven.
It’s like the Opera House in Sydney, or Florence’s David : if you’re going there, you may as well, you know, go there. The steam/scrub/rub recipe of the Moroccan hammam experience comes in many levels of luxe, from low-fi, DIY public baths—where you apply the black oil- and ash-based soap to your own skin, and loofah it off as well—to no-holds-barred coddling at the finest riads and hotels in Marrakech. Not everyone loves the soap’s pungent smell, but combined with a nice hot steam session, its purification and softening qualities are potent. After the scrub (which your therapist will administer with a loofah mitten or, sometimes, an oat-based mix; don’t be alarmed at how much dead skin sloughs off your body), buckets of warm water are poured over you. Then to the massage bed—where what’s delivered is usually some variation of Classic (see ‘Swedish’, above), and the gentleness or brusqueness of the experience will probably ride on any number of things. So even at the most gilded spa, be clear about what you want in terms of pressure. And be ready to do it in French. Or mime.
The goal: Purification, mostly—the soap and ghassoul mud mask sometimes used draw a lot of bad stuff out of the skin.
Bells and whistles: As often as not, directly proportionate to what you shell out. For the full delicious experience, worth springing on a fancy hotel.
Perfect for: An instant and very authentic cultural immersion (hammams are a real part of Moroccan life); anyone who wants to trade in their Komodo dragon-texture skin for genuine baby’s-bum smoothness.
Maria Shollenbarger is the longtime travel editor at the Financial Times’ How To Spend It magazine. She also writes for Travel + Leisure, The Australian’s WISH magazine, and the FTWeekend. She lives in London and Italy.