Mind, Body, and Seoul

After several days of gluttony over Korean barbecue and the like, it was time to continue the soul searching by baring my Seoul on our last night.

Several weeks into the round-the-world trip, I was pretty much a very dirty girl, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Part of the Korean experience is to be pampered like one of the locals. They know best when it comes to maintaining their their flawless skin – both men and women alike. One of many ways they achieve this is by nurturing the body at a jimjilbang, which is a large public bath house with many spa amenities.

I’ve only had a few spa experiences in my life, usually in luxe places where the facilities are dimly lit and intimate. I can relax in the shadows of their strategically placed mood lighting and divine spa aromas. I seized this opportunity in Seoul to seek out a jimjilbang and experience Korea to the full monty. After a little bit of quick research on the spa options in Seoul, I settled on Siloam Spa.

My gleeful excitement upon arriving at the spa was short lived, for it quickly turned into confusion and fear after I entered the lady’s lockeroom. Everyone and their mom of all shapes, sizes, and ages were letting it all hang out like nobody’s business. This was to be expected of course, it was a spa after all. But where was the strategically placed dimly lit mood lighting and intimate spaces? Under the fluorescent lights in the huge room, I was fully exposed and there was no place to hide.

I changed into my spa uniform, which was an oversized tee shirt with baggy shorts to match. What was I supposed to do now?

I stared quizzically at my pamphlet and became queasy with the menu of choices for their five floor facility: baths and saunas, a restaurant, an entertainment room (karaoke), two floors of fomentation rooms (salt, wood charcoal, jade, oxygen, red clay, etc.), and a floor just for sleeping (men, women, snorers – take your pick!). Clearly I wasn’t going to do any napping here, but what was I supposed to do first? Foment? Bathe? Is there even a proper order in which these things are done?

I decided to go with the bath since it was just a few steps away from the locker room while the other services were on the upper floors. I went down the steps to survey the area through the glass as well as to figure out the proper bathing etiquette. I realized I needed to strip down before I wet down and sheepishly returned to my locker a second time to take off the clothes I had just put on minutes ago. Then, with a strategically held small hand towel to cover my front side, I boldly headed towards the baths.

Nothing could’ve prepared me for the sight in the baths. Dozens of wet naked bodies seated on low plastic stools were showering, dumping buckets of water, lathering, exfoliating, and scrubbing where the sun don’t shine. Mothers were scrubbing their young daughters, full grown daughters were scrubbing their elderly mothers. Friends were scrubbing friends. In short, everyone was scrubbing each other and then there was me, rub a dub dub, all alone in the tub.

I awkwardly pretended to scrub while seated on the low stool until I felt clean enough and more acclimated to everyone’s nakedness as well as my own nudity.

Then, the fun began.

Massage bath, jade bath, mugwort bath, charcoal bath – I tried them all! Each are designed to cure ailments, improve circulation, alleviate stress, and enhance general well being. I barely lasted more than five minutes in each bath, as they were excruciatingly hot at 40 degrees Celsius or above. It’s hard to relax and find your moment of zen when you feel like you’re getting boiled alive in a pot of human stew.

Before I gave up on the baths there was one last thing I wanted to do: get a scrub down by a Korean woman. They offered massage services and some VIP packages for up to 100,000 won, so I opted for the cheapest service of 20,000 won which was just a thorough scrub down. The concept was not new to me for I had heard of this service before – and after traveling for almost a month without the comforts of my usual bathing routine (loofah, long handled back scrub, favorite body wash), I felt quite dingy.

I shyly approached the scrubbing women, who were probably my mom’s age, donned in lacy bras with panties to match (why bother? and why not swimsuits?). One pushy lady tried to coax me into a pricey massage but I kept repeating 20,000 won. I laid down on the examination table, and let the scrubbing begin.

She started with my legs and slowly moved up my body meticulously with what felt like a brillo pad. This was by no means a pleasant experience – she was rough and somehow I flashed back to childhood memories. When I was a kid, my grandma would bathe me in same manner, scrubbing away at my five year old skin with a soapy wash cloth. I remember how I hated those baths, but as I laid on the wash table in the hands and mercy of a stranger in underwear, my grandma’s touch suddenly seemed gentle in comparison.

At first my eyes were open to pick up on visual cues as to what she was going to do next and what positions I had to lie (turn on my side or on my stomach?). I felt like we were in a dance, her and I, the scrubber leading the scrubbee. But eventually it got weird staring at my scrubber in the face. The scrubbees to my left and right appeared to be deep in beauty slumber whilst being scrubbed, so I followed suit. How they managed to achieve such serenity while being scrubbed raw by a stranger is a mystery to me.

Though the scrub was rough, it felt gratifyingly good, and I could feel myself shedding layers of dirt. She was doubly thorough, leaving not a single crevice untouched. When all was said and done, she motioned for me to sit up, then dumped a bucket of water over me to rinse off all the loose impurities still clinging to my body.

I did a quick rinse once again in the bath and looked in the mirror. I swear I became two shades lighter – I have never been this clean in my life! Taking full advantage of the amenities, I lotioned up my body and admired how soft my skin felt.

Except for some body parts that were scrubbed raw, my naked journey at the jimjilbang was quite enjoyable. If I had to do it again I would definitely allocate more time in my day to it so that I can leisurely enjoy each of the spa rooms for maximum benefit.

I highly recommend a scrub down to anyone visiting a Korean spa – if you have the thick skin to do so. I’m still nursing some raw skin as I type this blog post.

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