Monday, August 3, 2009
Baring Body and Seoul
Up until yesterday, a trip to the spa, to me, was about big fluffy robes, soft music, dim lights, artfully draped sheets and a nasty dent in my credit card on the way out. But after spending the better part of the late morning and early afternoon at The Olympic Day spa in Koreatown, I learned that I'm more than okay with another type of spa experience altogether. One that requires a little bravery, a dose of open-mindedness and a definite sense of adventure.
Following my visit, I tried to a little research into the history of the Korean bath house experience. Though my Googling revealed that there are Korean day spas in almost every major city in the US, an obvious testament to their popularity, there was little in the way of historical information. What I did discover was that bath houses were first built in Korea around 1925 to cater to Japanese colonists, though they quickly became part of the Korean culture. Families would go to the public bath houses, which were segregated by sex, and scrub the life out of each other around tubs of scalding hot water.
As running water became a more common amenity within the home, bath houses transitioned into luxury destinations, where you could pay someone to the the scrubbing and washing for you. Recreational and communal areas were also added as well as specialty baths and steam rooms for soaking and purifying. The elements of the Korean bath house seem to be fairly uniform from what I could tell, after my cursory research attempt. From the types of soaks and saunas available, and to the overzealous scrubbing techniques, right down to the black bra and panties worn by the little Asian women who are armed with two brillo-like pads, ready to buff you till you shine like a newborn baby. I did say a sense of adventure, remember?
To be fair, I did know what I was getting into. Before I made the suggestion to a few girlfriends that we hit the spa for the day in honor of the birthdays of two of them, I read the reviews on Yelp and checked out the spa's website in detail. I was a little nervous about the descriptions of the scrubbing techniques, but I was prepared for the nudity and even for the ladies in their undies. And I was certainly ready for the Goddess treatment package, which promised an hour and forty five minutes of bliss at a third of the price it would have at Burke Williams.
The lobby of the spa was small, but nicely decorated and filled with high quality products for sale. The women at the desk checked us in, processed our credit cards and handed us robes and towels. The locker room was simple but clean and we undressed, robed up and headed into the actual spa. The Olympic Spa is for women only and once you go through the doors into the wet area, towels and robes become unnecessary, if not impractical altogether. It is customary to shower first so we all rinsed off and hit the pools. This was not all that different from a trip to good old BW as nudity in the saunas and hot tub is also common practice there. The difference here, is that very few women felt the need to robe back up in between pools.
There was a hot tub, a cold water plunge and a tub filled with something called Mugwort tea. It's supposed to have healing and detoxifying properties but all I noticed was that it was really really hot and I couldn't see my feet through it's murky depths. There was also a wet jade stone sauna and a dry sauna. I tried everything but the dry sauna, which has never been my thing, and then wrapped back up in my robe for a nap on the traditional heated stone floor in the dressing area.
I was back in the wet area in time for one more quick dip in the Mugwort tea before a little lady in a black bra and panties called out the number on my wrist band and led me to the treatment area, which consisted of a row of tables covered in vinyl that was inexplicably printed in Burberry plaid. As I lay face down in all my naked glory, I honestly found that I did not care that there were another women doing the same near me, or that I could hear the sound of the water splashing in the pools and the low hum of chatter. As my treatment began, it was both a bizarre and beautiful experience.
My acuma, Noh (acuma means Aunt in Korean) started off by scrubbing the life out of me, not once, but three times over. I'm fairly certain I'll be free of dead skin for a good long time after her attentiveness to practically every, yes every, part of my body. It honestly wasn't that painful, though the stomach was a little sensitive. She thoughtfully avoided my nipples, and each round was finished with buckets of warm water splashed gently across my body, which I found to be a new and lovely sensation. Next she poured so much oil over me that I felt like a baby seal in the Exxon-Valdez spill, and proceeded to knead every last knot out of my body. Between the relaxation and the overzealous oil application, it was a wonder I didn't slide right off the table. Then there was a scalp treatment with more oils and something cool and tingly, a facial with massage and a mask and a thorough hair shampoo and condition, done right there while I was still lying down. She toweled off all the excess oil and finished with one last massage, leaving me covered in a light lotion and something herbal and menthol across my back and shoulders. Ah, bliss. I drifted back into the locker room to change and face the real world.
Okay, yes, it was odd to be that naked during my treatment. It was odd to have my acuma smack me lightly on the butt every time she wanted me to turn over. It was definitely strange to have spa treatments performed by a lady wearing only black Jockey underwear. It all took a little getting used to. But I had such a sense of ritual during the experience, like I was part of a tradition and a community. It also seems like, in Western culture, we've become overly aware of our bodies and nudity. That to be naked is always either ostentatious or sexual in some way. Presumably, as women, we see a naked body at least once a day, maybe less if you have something against showering. So what's really all that strange about a room full of them? For me, nothing.
Don't get me wrong, I still like a trip to a spa that involves big, fluffy robes and water with cucumbers and orange slices. But seriously, if you're watching your nickels, have some dead skin that needs tending to, or just want to try something new, head to the nearest Korean day spa and leave your inhibitions at the door. I can't speak for anyone else, but I'm glad I did.