photo: Seoul, South Korea
Being a flight attendant came with a certain degree of worldliness, whether imagined or real. I prided myself on having a strong sense of adventure that made me, in my own mind, a combination of Ernest Hemmingway lounging in a Cuban cafe and a valkyrie. That is, if Ernest Hemmingway wore heels and served coffee.
This overblown view of my own pioneering attitude did little to prepare me for the realities of a real Korean spa. I am the product of an American culture that is not exactly known for being comfortable with the human body in all its nude abundance. Or, for that matter, the bodies of total strangers. The American in me screams that I come from a land founded by Puritans. The Chinese in me remembers all those movies I have seen with my elderly grandmother where lovemaking consists of the woman laying her head on the man’s chest and sighing. Both are always fully clothed. As these two sides of me rebelled against the idea of being naked in front of a shower room full of other women, I decided to do as the Romans (and Koreans) do…
When another flight attendant suggested a visit to a local Korean spa (also called a jjimjilbang) on a Seoul layover, I eagerly agreed. After all, my only previous experience with a spa involved a gift certificate to the Mandalay Bay Spa in Las Vegas. I imagined the fragrant oils that would soon be mixed with French sea salt, the gentle murmurs of the masseuse as she rubbed the heavenly mixture over my modestly, and strategically, covered body. I would hear Enya playing in the background. After my salt scrub, the masseuse would leave me to emerge at my leisure from my cocoon of comfort. Chamomile tea would be offered to me, and I would accept it dressed in my fluffy white robe of Egyptian cotton. The lounge would be painted in tones of peach and taupe and my only companion would be a man-made waterfall engineered by a savvy interior designer.
While waiting in my hotel lobby for my flying partner, I was reassured by the concierge that the spa we had chosen was top notch (Central Spa) and she herself had had a scrub there the day before. As I set out with visions of pampering dancing in my head, I wondered why we were descending into the bowels of a busy bus station. Tucked in between the turnstiles and a noodle stand was a small, unassuming door. The other flight attendant had been here before and she entered without a backward glance in my direction. As I let the door close behind me, the sounds of the train station were muffled and then quiet.
The Korean woman working at the reception desk was small but looked like she could command a battalion as well as she could command a spa. She unceremoniously handed me a key and two facecloths and pointed at a door to her right. I scampered ahead, carrying my tiny towels and what turned out to be a locker key.
My bravado was wearing thin, especially because my coworker was nowhere in sight. As I turned a corner, I came face to face with my coworker’s breasts. I looked away, embarrassed and horrified at the same time. I only worked with this girl. Was it twisted that she was the only one, besides my husband and my doctor, who was going to see me naked? Could I play this off as not being the huge deal for me that it was? I had come too far to use the old stomachache excuse. Only my stubbornness kept me from running back to my hotel. That, and the fact that I had no idea which direction my hotel was in.
I stripped and put my clothes in my locker, wondering if I could leave my underwear on. I looked around and decided that since everyone was stark naked, I would be better off trying to blend into the sea of lady parts. I held one small square of towel against my lower half and the other, I tried to stretch across my chest. Not even close. Ironically, I was actually drawing more attention to myself by trying to preserve my modesty. No one else seemed to be concerned about being naked as they blow-dried their hair and chatted among themselves.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see various women of all ages strolling around the spa without a stitch of clothing on. A nude female body was answering a cell phone. Another nude body was painting its toenails a vivid red. Yet another was flat ironing its hair. Every time I swung my eyes away to avoid a view of anatomy, I encountered another image of what I was trying to avoid. Why was I making such a concerted effort to appear oblivious to people who were so clearly unaffected by their own nudity? An even more ridiculous question was, “Do I really think these two little facecloths are hiding anything?” The answer was a resounding “no.” My protectively raised arms probably attracted more attention than the sight of my boobs would have. I tried to walk through the locker room as casually as I could, although casual was the furthest thing from how I felt. I finally gave up on the facecloths.
I walked through double swinging doors to the main shower room. I then realized that the locker room was merely a warm-up for a whole new level of nudity. Low shower heads were attached along the perimeter of the massive shower room and plastic step stools were set in front of each one. The air was thick with steam. The wet floor made athlete’s foot alarm bells go off in my head as I raised my head to sniff for the whiff of chlorine I expected. My germaphobe sensibilities recoiled at the thought that I smelled none. I could hear my Mom’s voice in my head telling me that public water should always be chlorinated.
Entrance to the sweat room/sauna
My coworker was already sitting on a stool in front of a shower head and was washing herself with her facecloth. So, that’s what those were for. It explained why it was so utterly useless as a cover-up. Do I talk about work, or should I just keep eyes forward? I noticed that the stools were being used without a washing in between. I vowed to never set my Personal Situation on any of the stools. I resorted to kneeling in front of the low showerheads and contorting myself to fit underneath one. Again, that earned me some more weird looks from the other spa clients. Desperate, I lowered myself into one of the hot tubs to hide, once again noticing the absence of chlorine.
When it was finally my turn for a scrub, I heaved myself out of the hot tub and made my way to the back of the shower room where were two massage tables were set up with a large bucket of water between them. The two ladies dressed in bras and panties motioned for my coworker and I to lie down on the tables.
That’s when the scrubbing began. With a nubby glove, my masseuse vigorously scrubbed me from head to toe, dipping her hand in the bucket every few minutes. I noticed that the other masseuse was dipping her hand in the same bucket. Oh, well.
What was to follow would be one of the most embarrassing yet exhilarating hours of my life. Not a single inch of me was left unscrubbed. I looked down and noticed that my massage table was covered in grey pieces of skin, like eraser shavings. I couldn’t believe that that was all dead skin. Who knew there would be so much? My skin began to feel tender and baby soft. Finally, oil was squirted on me, and I was spun around on the table by my ankles until my head hung over the side. My masseuse attacked my head with shampoo and washed my hair with the same force that she used for my scrub down. At this point, I was essentially numb. Then, she slathered strawberry yoghurt on my face, and its fruity smell and cold on my face brought me back and out of the stupor that I had fallen into. Finally, she rinsed the yoghurt away with a glass of milk.
Inside the sauna
She motioned towards the door, and I left the shower room and stumbled back to the locker room. I got dressed, and realized that after all that, I wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as when I arrived. Still, I was thrown for a loop, so I got dressed and left without drying my hair or repairing my makeup.
Walking back to the hotel, we cut though a high-end department store. The beautiful and perfectly put together salesladies stared as I ambled though their store in a dazed zombie state. I must have been a strange sight as I meandered through with my wet hair, pink shiny skin, and dripping mascara. When I finally made it back to my hotel room and sat on the bed bedraggled and stunned, it dawned on me how really soft my skin felt. Years of dead skin had been forcefully sloughed away, revealing baby soft skin underneath. My face glowed from the yoghurt and I could still smell the strawberry flavoring. I then realized that the fancy lactic acid exfoliator that I used at home had essentially the same ingredients, minus the bits of strawberries. I had never been so silky smooth in my life, and my muscles were unbelievably relaxed. They felt like jelly!
They also serve refreshments, like this sweet rice drink
Since I’ve been home, I’ve been making myself yoghurt masks with honey added for its antibacterial qualities. It makes a great snack to boot. I like to think that I came out of this spa experience with a better understanding of my own hang-ups with nudity and that in other countries, it’s not that big a deal. I have seen a few Korean spas pop up around where I live in Hawaii, but I’m still too shy to try them. Would it be an even stranger experience to be naked in front of others who are just as self-conscious as I am? I am not quite ready to find out.
I have tried scrubbing myself down with the same nylon cloth that was used on me in Seoul, but I can never get myself to scrub that deeply. I definitely have never been able to get any skin off. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I may never achieve that level of baby butt softness again. Still, my one and only experience with a typical Korean spa opened my eyes to how different spas can be in different places.
In the U.S., a spa is where we go when we want to be pampered. It’s a special occasion for most of us and not something we partake of on a regular basis. But, in Korea, people have been going to spas and saunas together for centuries. It’s thought that bathing together brings about a sense of camaraderie and friendship. While a spa day here might be something we do with our girlfriends once in a blue moon, Koreans treat a trip to the spa as a part of routine maintenance and grooming. Of course, there are high-end spas in Korea that would have fit in with what I expect when I hear the word “spa”, complete with French sea salts and piped in New Age music. However, I count myself lucky that I was able to have a traditional experience. For a relatively small price, you can have multiple services done, from a milk facial to a vigorous scrub down. But it’s definitely not for the prudish or squeamish.
Photo credits: here