And it's surprisingly approachable.

By Siobhan Reid
June 28, 2019
Credit: Fredrika Stjärne

I consider myself a pretty healthy person. I eat well, am a good sleeper, and can make it to the top of my fourth-floor walkup (multiple grocery bags in tow!) without panting too heavily. Still, l live in New York City, where I go days, sometimes, without seeing a tree, and ride on subways teeming with germs linked to anthrax and the bubonic plague. All that to say, when it comes to health and wellness, there’s always room for improvement.

With that spirit in mind, I set off on a weekend to Shou Sugi Ban House, a Japanese-inspired wellness retreat in Water Mill, in Southampton, just under two hours from midtown Manhattan.

Credit: Fredrika Stjärne

I didn’t know what to expect. From the property's website, I knew that there would be yoga, nutritious meals, and daily walks on the beach. I also learned that there were some pretty big names involved in the project: in-demand New York City landscape designer Lily Kwong, for example, and the co-founder of Noma in Copenhagen, chef Mads Refslund, who designed the culinary program.

But it was the Hamptons, land of Range Rovers, sprawling beach mansions, and networking in the guise of seaside socializing — so not exactly the setting most befitting a property whose tag line was “Return to the simplicity of self.” Or was it?

After being picked up at the Hampton Jitney station in one of the property's Tesla’s and whisked around town, we pulled up to the retreat, a large gated compound adjacent to the Parrish Art Museum. Outside the reception stood a towering Buddha statue, one of the many works left behind from the property’s days as a sculpture park. After checking in, I strolled the winding pebbled pathway en route to my guest studio, pausing to admire the reflective pools, trickling fountains, and serene Japanese gardens that dotted the property’s three acres of woodland.

Credit: Fredrika Stjärne

Occupying a stand-alone cedar cottage, my room was the picture of Scandinavian-meets-Japanese minimalism: a gas fireplace and tokonoma alcove; a white oak Kobe-style bed; and a sanctuary-like bathroom, the centerpiece of which was an authentic Hinoki wood tub. I could have spent all weekend in the bath, contemplating my private outdoor meditation garden, but a broader itinerary that included tea ceremonies, brunch, and sculpt and tone exercise classes piqued my interest.

First line of business, though, was lunch, which, like all meals at Shou Sugi Ban House, are served at a large communal table in the main barn facing an open kitchen. Executive chef Jacob Clark popped over to say hello and give me a rundown of the hotel’s fresh, seasonally driven menu before serving me an artfully plated dish of pan roasted duck eggs in a bed of forest herbs and wild asparagus. I ate it in one gulp, washing it down with lemon verbena-infused water.

Credit: Fredrika Stjärne

The interiors of the main barn echo the clean-lined yet comfortable aesthetic of the guestrooms, with glass and wood surfaces, sparsely-stunning floral arrangements, and couches so deep and cushy that, at times — especially after that night’s dinner of pumpkin and sunflower seed risotto and grilled Japanese eggplant — looked just as enticing as my Kobe-style bed.

After lunch, I retreated to the spa, where I had a detoxifying facial that incorporated Biologique Recherche's notoriously foul-smelling but insanely skin-polishing products. Then I went to the meditation hall for a yin yoga class led by one of the hotel’s deeply intuitive female healers. As I moved through a sequence of restorative postures and flows, the late-afternoon sun bathing the room in a golden light, I got my first taste of what makes Shou Sugi Ban House so special.

Most wellness retreats hit you over the head with extreme workouts and calorie-controlled menus. The staff prescribe you herbs and supplements of dubious origin, pontificate about the new fitness trend that will “totally transform your body,” and offer unsolicited advice on all manner of subjects from health to relationships. The underlying message: Perfect health comes in the form of some external thing, whether it’s mushroom powder or a stranger’s well-meaning advice.

Credit: Fredrika Stjärne

Conversely, at Shou Sugi Ban House, the staff underscore your body’s innate ability to heal. Food, exercise, and intense pampering factor into this healing process, but only to the extent that they heighten your self-awareness and clue you into your body's needs.

That day in the meditation studio, I achieved a total state of calm just by being in a quiet, inviting space where I was far away from my iPhone and focusing on the sensation of the sunlight on my skin and the trickling sounds of a nearby water fountain. The instructor's soothing voice and non-judgmental energy made me feel strong and healthy and in possession of all the skills I needed to reproduce this feeling back home.

The same went for next morning’s workout in the property’s open-air fitness studio. The space was state-of-the-art — basically what I imagined some CEO’s personal gym in the Hamptons to look like — but the instructor, a young, strapping Romanian dude who opened class by literally stretching a stiff guest on his back, cultivated a very empowering and come-at-your-own-pace vibe.

That Sunday afternoon, I boarded the Hampton Jitney back to the city. Finance bros traded stories about their weekend at Surf Lodge while a Joan Crawford look-a-like stroked the tail of her costumed lap dog. And it dawned on me that, in my five years of going to the Hamptons, this was the first time I was going back to New York City feeling like I had actually spent a weekend by the sea.