Chozu Bath and Tea Gardens, situated in a quiet corner of Ashland's old railroad district, is an ode to the healing and purifying properties of water.
The word Chozu is derived from the Japanese roots cho, meaning "to become clear, serene or pure," and zu, which means "with water."
At Chozu, people seeking peace and relaxation repose in saltwater pools surrounded by billows of steam and lulled by quiet Japanese tones. Gentle light from hidden lanterns bathes the stamped cement and pebbled ground as the music of trickling water soothes the senses.
Chozu is tucked into a renovated 1903 house with original fir floors, heavy Mexican mesquite doors, a roaring gas stove and Zen-inspired furnishings. You enter the house to find a simply appointed lobby and a tea room which offers macrobiotic goodies. It is here that you trade your shoes for slippers and receive instructions on the centerpiece of your visit, the healthful saltwater baths in the outdoor garden. You are given a koshimaki, a towel wrap to protect your modesty, and a cup of bath salts to cleanse your skin before bathing.
As you enter the garden, you pass a chozubachi, a ritual water basin that offers a purifying sip and hand wash. To the left, past two enclosed hydrotherapy rooms, is a koi pond fed by water gurgling down a rock wall. In the garden's opposite corner is a waterfall constructed of rocks hand-picked by owner and visionary Ilene Rubinstein.
"That concept of purifying yourself through water is what inspired me," says Ilene, who also owns a chiropractic practice and a dance and Pilates studio next door. "As soon as you walk in, I wanted to create the flow of water."
Nothing else like Chozu exists in the Pacific Northwest, says Ilene, adding that the closest comparison would be Kabuki Springs & Spa in San Francisco, where guests use gender-specified, communal baths and can add services like massage or facials.
Born from Ilene's dreams, Chozu focuses on holistic wellness through hydrotherapy, augmented by an optional series of cleansing and massage treatments.
"This was birthed out of my frustration as a chiropractor - always helping people who had already hurt themselves," Ilene explains. "I'd rather help people find their own path to self-care from the beginning."
Public baths are where people have traditionally gone to take care of themselves, for good hygiene and good health, says Ilene.
"Here in the U.S., though, they became associated with a sexually promiscuous scene in the 1970s," she says. "Now what we have left are mom-and-pop hot springs or really expensive spas.
On one crisp, late winter evening, after showering first, four guests soak in the large public bath, occasionally sharing a word or two, but mostly contemplating their own thoughts. A gentleman draped in his koshimaki leaves the cedar sauna and lowers himself into the cold plunge bath.
On another evening, four women shared a private pool, alternating between the pool and sauna, while four others enjoyed the larger communal pool.
Ilene wanted to introduce hydrotherapy to a larger audience, so she set a price most guests can afford. The basic cost is $23 for 90 minutes, which includes access to a communal outdoor soaking pool, a dry sauna, a cold plunge, and sleekly designed, gender-specific bathhouses with showers, lockers and steam baths. For $34 you can rent a private soaking pool. Towel rentals are available, or you can bring your own.
Before entering the hot pools, bathers are asked to shower and exfoliate using the cup of lemongrass-infused bath salts provided in the lobby. Outside of the bath houses, guests wear their koshimaki and slippers. When guests are submerged in the jetted tubs they are invited to remove their wraps; otherwise, people are covered.
"In other cultures - like Turkish, Finnish, German or Japanese baths - you're naked," says Ilene. "We wanted to respect whatever level of modesty people have so nobody feels uncomfortable coming here."
After soaking in the saltwater pools, a dip in the cold plunge is recommended, followed by a period in the dry sauna for several minutes before starting the cycle over. Pitchers of water, one with lemon slices and another with cucumber, are provided to keep bathers hydrated during the ritual.
If more intense hydrotherapy is desired, Chozu offers seven different modes, each available in private sessions at extra cost. Thalossotherapy - soaking in a special jetted tub filled with green tea, seaweed or lavender - promises to purify the body.
Chozu also offers Hydrotherapy Wraps, a detoxifying session in which you are swaddled in hot towels after being immersed in green tea, ginger or mud.
Two treatments are based on Ayurvedic practices: Abhyanga is a deep body massage using herbal-infused oils applied by either one or two therapists, depending on your preference; Shirodhara is a relaxing treatment in which a continuous stream of warm, herbal-infused oil is poured over the forehead and scalp.
Other therapies include Swedish massage, acupressure-based Shiatsu and energy-based Reiki.
"I hope Chozu's ambiance of acceptance and indulgence will build a bridge between people's fears of communal bathing and its benefits," says Ilene. "This is such an important aspect of self-care."
"Growing up, tea was so special - emotional, a blessing," says Etsuko Jensen, who came from Japan to the United States in 1979. Since moving to Ashland in 1987, this lithe and smiling character has brought her own brand of macrobiotic cooking and love for tea to Rogue Valley residents.
At Chozu, Etsuko serves specially-imported green and flower teas, each presented in pots and cups appropriate to their specific tradition and preparation. Edibles can be chosen from gohanmono (grains), shirumono (broths), hashiyasume (condiment), kounomono (pickle), and amamono (sweets). Portions are small, visually appealing and based on proper nutrition balanced with tea-matching flavors.
An invigorating pot of Sencha tea - an emerald green beverage that packs an antioxidant punch - complements Etsuko's signature Youkan, a traditional jellied sweet painstakingly made from azuki beans. Seasonal vegetables are turned into delicate mounds of savories and seasonal fruits find their way into Kanten, a chilled, juice-based custard providing perfect refreshment after a soak in Chozu's baths.
"This has been my dream - to introduce new people to the food I learned to prepare as a child," says Etsuko. "This food is pure and I like to work with it as an art that is health-conscious."
Influenced by Zen Buddhism, the Japanese tea ceremony traditionally features powdered green tea (matcha) that is ceremonially prepared by a skilled practitioner and served to a small group of guests in a tranquil setting. In Japan, two main schools (Omotesenke and Urasenke) of the ceremony have evolved, each with its own rituals.
Although Chozu's tea garden is less formal, traditions of "the way of tea" include the host wearing a kimono, with guests in kimono or subdued formal wear. Tea may be served either inside or outside, with conversation being kept to a minimum. During the ceremony, guests enjoy the sounds of water and fire, the smell of incense and tea and the beauty and simplicity of the tea house, accented with seasonal decorations.