Whatever ails you, it’s safe to say Java has the cure. Nausea? There’s a ginger tea for that. Fever? A poultice with resurrection lily should do the trick. And skin issues? Well, you’ve come to the right place. This island is the homeland of jamu, a traditional system of health and beauty treatments based on botanical ingredients. Ole Henriksen, founder of his eponymous skincare line, didn’t know about jamu when he moved to Java in the late 1970s; he was just a young Danish guy with a bad case of acne. But he got help from a local healer, the experience stayed with him through the years, and he went on to become an aesthetician. Now he’s back in Java—with a curious writer (me) in tow.
The day after we arrive in Borobudur, a town famed for its 1,100-year-old Buddhist temple, Henriksen and I meet up to talk about his ties to Indonesia. “I was working in Jakarta as a dancer when I met this woman Lagita, a healer who had trained as an aesthetician,” Henriksen remembers. “We became friendly, and at one point she basically said, ‘Ole, your skin looks like shit.’” He laughs at the memory and goes on to explain how she invited him to her home for weekly treatments. “She got rid of the acne, but, more important, she taught me that skincare could be indulgent and luxurious.” Like many Indonesian healers, Lagita relied on massage and compresses made with essential oils such as sandalwood. Henriksen is a fan of the oil, too, and uses it in his anti-aging line, Transform Plus, which also includes bakuchiol, a botanical retinol alternative, and lemon extract.
Jamu uses hundreds of other fruits, herbs, and spices, almost all of which are grown natively, and later that day, I get my first taste. (The word is also the name for the freshly prepared beverages at the heart of the healing system.) Before a massage, my therapist hands me a sugary dark-gold juice laced with lemon, ginger, and turmeric. Indonesian healers use these ingredients and others in elixirs designed to heal from the inside out, and many of them work topically too: Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties, and sugar is often used as a manual exfoliant, especially in the famed body scrubs of Bali, Java’s neighboring island.
The next day, Henriksen and I head off for a tour of Borobudur Temple, one of the world’s largest Buddhist monuments. Our guide leads us around the terraces, explaining that the intricate carvings on the walls basically serve as a huge open-air encyclopedia depicting the teachings of Buddha and offering a glimpse into Indonesia’s past. “This is why I fell in love with Indonesia—the spirituality, the focus on inner peace,” Henriksen says as we examine a panel featuring the famed bohdi tree where Buddha meditated.
As the sun sinks over the hills, I slip away to look for a carving I saw in a book about Indonesia on healing; it’s a panel, from a series called Karmawibhangga, that shows women pounding herbs and drinking jamu. Sadly, I can’t find it before the sun sets and Borobudur closes for the night. But, muscles relaxed from massage and face glowing after my turmeric drink and an application of the Transform serum, I’m leaving Java enlightened nonetheless.
This story appears in the February 2019 issue of Marie Claire.