Massage in Indonesia: Java

Borobodur, Java, Indonesia
Borobodur, Java, Indonesia

The scent of floating roses is the first thing I notice. The smell comes from the pots of flowers set in front of a deep tub. Eventually I smell a burning stick of incense. The bamboo walls don’t reach the ceiling, and smoke simply wafts up and out to the palm trees outdoors. Only later when the sun goes down do I detect a burning mosquito coil.

My therapist here on Java is named Bu Tami Juguk. Bu Tami asks me to remove all of my clothes and lie on the low bamboo bed covered with batik sheets. Since the temperature is about 30 degrees Centigrade (86 degrees Fahrenheit) I don’t mind lying naked without a drape. She goes to the tub and turns on the taps. The sound of running water is in the background during the entire massage.

Bu Tami is 41 years old, and the Bu title is the shortened version of Ibu,  a term of respect used to address an older woman. Bu Tami doesn’t speak much English, but has wise hands. Indonesian massage knowledge passes down through the family, and Bu Tami learned massage from her mother.

She starts at my feet and massages me with a press – push – squeeze routine. She doesn’t forget to massage my abdomen. Her strokes go deep and radiate, always leading inwards to my navel. She finishes by massaging my head with sweeping strokes. She grasps at the roots of my hair and her hands draw out to the ends with an unusually firm grip.

She uses sandalwood oil, flowers cooked into it for their essence. This oil is only for the initial part of the massage, though. As I lie there, Bu Tami takes a clay jar down from a shelf. She scoops out a greeny-yellow substance and slathers it onto my body.

I am being covered with lulur, an exfoliating scrub derived from a Javanese plant combined with rice meal. Lulur may include ginger extract, tumeric, sandalwood, jasmine oil and water. This lulur treatment is utilized as a beauty peeling for everyone except babies. Jogjakarta city still has the special status of a sultanate, and lulur was first used by the women at the Kraton, the sultan’s palace.

Javanese men and women use lulur before marrying. Lulur is traditionally applied at home on each of the 3 days preceding a wedding ceremony. The lulur sloughs off old skin and makes both bride and groom more radiant and beautiful. I learn that a Javanese plant called kunir is also used, and on the island of Sumatra people use a plant called param.

The lulur is slightly gravelly, and cool on my skin. I turn over and Bu Tami lulur-s my back, buttocks, legs and feet. Then we head towards the tub. She has me sit at the small recessed foot bath. Bu Tami fills a bowl with water dipped from the tub and rinses me off. Another bowl is dumped on my head and water runs off me in streams.

Bu Tami reaches for another pot. She lathers my head with the shampoo and washes my hair. Her strong, sure hands massage my scalp at the same time – heaven! She squeezes my skull with more strength than I am used to for head massages, but it does not feel too hard.

She rinses away the shampoo with more bowls of water. Bu Tami has me stand up. She takes a bar of soap and lathers my entire body front and back.

“I feel like a baby being washed by her mother!,” I say.

“Yes, baby and mama,” smiles Bu Tami. She doesn’t speak much English, but she definitely understands.

The soap is washed away; another bowl from the shelf is selected; and now the first real surprise comes. Bu Tami smears me with yogurt. The yogurt calms and softens the skin after the purifying effects of lulur. She slathers me completely from head to foot in the yogurt, then rinses me off one final time.

She turns off the taps of the full tub and points for me to climb in. I happily comply. Bu Tami gathers handfuls of the roses from the big bowls. She crumbles them and strews the petals over the warm bath waters and me.

Bu Tami returns with a glass of fresh-pressed orange, banana, and papaya juice. She leaves me to soak. I lay in the tub swishing flower petals around my body.

A male voice begins to wail. His voice rises and falls. It must be time for sundown prayers. This, in turn, must mean that I have been in this sumptuous massage treatment for 90 minutes. Sunset is abrupt in the equatorial tropics, and occurs punctually at 6:00 every evening we’ve been in Indonesia. My massage session began at 4:30, so I can time the treatment with certainty by the calls to the faithful sounding outdoors.

As most buildings have roofs of bamboo and rattan – or walls that don’t reach the ceiling, like the walls in this massage room – it is impossible not to hear the muezzin’s voice. I lie floating in my heavenly bath and listen to rhythmic wailing calls in Arabic. I am certainly in another country, and I would call it Paradise.

Some time later (5 minutes? 10 minutes?) Bu Tami returns. I climb out of the tub and she towels me dry. The session is not over, though. I lie back down on the low bed, and Bu Tami rubs a rose and hibiscus lotion into my skin. This ends my two-hour session, and I slowly get dressed and leave.

Lotus Garden Restaurant
Lotus Garden Restaurant

At the attached restaurant a young man stands with a menu in his hand. He is asking the receptionist about the massage advertisement on the second page. “Could I get a massage tonight?” he asks.

“I just got one of these massages!” I tell him. “Go for the 2-hour session. You’ll literally come out smelling like a rose. I’m a massage therapist myself and the only thing I regret is that we’re leaving Jogja tomorrow, or I’d come back for another!”

“Really?!,” the young man answers. “A bath would be perfect! I don’t have a hotel room here and I’m taking the all-night train to Jakarta tonight. I won’t be able to clean up before I leave.”

“You’ve come to the right place. The massage will set you back 100,000 rupiahs, about $13. It’s worth every penny.” As Uwe and I leave he’s booking his appointment with Bu Tami. I just know he was in for a special treat.

That's me, in the far right corner
I’m  in the far right corner. We got up at the crack of dawn to reach Borobodur and had this sacred site virtually to ourselves.

Like most tourists, we stayed in Jogjakarta in order to visit Borobodur. Jogjakarta bustles with a marvelous mix of becaks (rickshaws), taxis, bicycles, cars, pony carts, and motorcycles. We either ride in becaks like the natives do or walk in the quieter side streets with their surprising gardens and yards.

Occasionally I spot women walking along with buckets or plastic bowls balanced on their heads. In the buckets are bottles and jars containing different colored herbs or fluids. These are jamu women, the native herbalists who go from door to door carrying their apothecaries with them. A jamu woman will mix up an elixir for her patient on the spot. Jamu products are produced commercially as well, and over 100 million Indonesians take jamu daily.[1]

We discovered the massage center on a side street lined with restaurants and smaller hotels. The boss at the Lotus Garden Restaurant and Hotel had noticed how many visitors carried in their luggage with one hand, while the other hand held onto sore backs or legs. He decided to offer massage. We visited Indonesia in 1999, but a look on the Internet indicates the restaurant still exists. I whole heartedly recommend the massage services.


NOTES: [1] “Jamu is the Javanese word for any of a great number of traditional Indonesian herbal medicines and health concoctions…There are about 100 jamu recipes in use, but only a dozen or so are really popular.”  Fred B. Eiseman, Jr., Bali: Sekala and Niskala. Volume II: Essays on Society, Tradition, and Craft (Periplus Editions Ltd. CV Java Books, Indonesia, 1990), p. 299.

Go to my post Baum, Bats, and Monkeys for more on our trip to Indonesia.

(All photographs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at

33 thoughts on “Massage in Indonesia: Java”

    1. You’re welcome – go! Take a look at my post “Baum, Bats and Monkeys” for a glimpse into Bali, too. I haven’t blogged yet about Lombok but will soon. The Blogosphere is such a great place to get tips on places to visit…

      1. I will definitely take a look when I get a chance (need to get ready for a meeting – work…). My wife and I are thinking Central America next, either Costa Rica or Belize. Any thoughts?

    1. What a great comment: that’s it exactly! And, if it’s a great massage, I catch myself thinking “Ooh! How is s/he doing that move?” But the massage in the Jogjakarta room was such a sensory experience (touch smell taste sound sight) that my brain simply shut off and blissed out. Sigh.

  1. What a great description of your massage! I have only had a few massages in my life, but certainly nothing like your experience.
    I have tried again to follow your blog, so we’ll see if I receive the notices this time.
    Thanks for liking my post about the hike. They are one of our favorite activities here in Oaxaca. The chocolate/mushroom balls were good – definitely more chocolate than mushroom. I’m trying to read the ingredients on the bag, but the print is SO small. 100% from Oaxaca
    60% cacao blanco and cacao rojo
    25% avena and Amarante from the central valley and Sierra Sur
    10% piloncillo y miel de abeja y agave
    extract of the hongos of the Sierra Juárez. It tells the type of mushroom, but I just can’t read it.
    We also got some dried apples that have extract of hongo ganoderma lucidum
    Apparently in August they have a big mushroom festival, which sounds fun and interesting. Too bad we can’t be here at that time of year.

    1. Marilyn, as a massage therapist myself I know the benefits they give: for decades I’ve done a weekly trade with other therapists. They keep me toned and tuned and healed.

      The massages in Indonesia were something very special. Now if I only had some lulur, and a deep tub to reproduce that experience with the flower petals….

    1. Bali was wonderful. In fact, while every travel opportunity is always great, we consider that month in Indonesia to be one of our “Top 5 Trips Of All Time”. I’d love to return someday.

  2. Nice reading about you

    Thanks for visiting my blog. Be in touch. Browse through the category sections, I feel you may find something of your interest.

  3. As an Indonesian, I grew up with massage facility just around the corner. Now that I live outside Indonesia, I really miss this luxury.
    Anyway, thank you for visiting my blog.

    1. Hi Nina, How fortunate you were to grow up with such wonderful massages everywhere. Good luck finishing your bucket list. I’m sure you’ll find new adventures to add to it!

  4. I miss these massages, too… It’s hard to find a good massage even in Mumbai with the same amount of money. I miss paying 100,000 Rp. in Jakarta!

  5. Jadi– love what all you weave through this story – the sensations, smells, culture, language–telling how the massage therapist is addressed as an older wise woman, when she can’t be any older than you or me. And how much the massage costs… cheap for here, but not there? Indonesia beckons– especially after reading this. Have you read A Singular Woman about Stanley Dunham? President Obama’s mother? The Indonesian details are so lyrical and yummy -much like your writing. Best, Renee

  6. I remember you telling how nice the experience was. After reading this I almost feel like I was there (and definitely wish I was!).

    1. Thanks! I wrote this down during our trip to Indonesia – over a decade ago. Rereading my notes brought it all back. I’m so glad I keep a travel journal, in long hand at that. I’m delighted you enjoyed this post.

  7. What an enviable experience… I think if I lived there I’d want one everyday… it must be an emotionally purifying experience as well as bodily !!!

    1. Indeed! It was like being in a dream vision of a healing massage experience. When I climbed in the soaking tub Bu Tami offered me a choice of fresh pressed juices… I was so blissed out that I couldn’t choose. That’s how I ended up with a mixed juice instead.

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