My most memorable experience in Seoul was the spa.
Not just any spa – a hard-ass, Korean-style spa (called Dragon Hill, in case you were wondering).
The visit to the spa was mentioned by one of the journalists from Hong Kong and I cheekily made myself part of the plan. She said she only wanted to do the body scrub where ‘a ton of dirt is removed’. I wasn’t sure what she meant – the Korean PR asked her twice if she was sure – but I decided to go along when she said it wasn’t something you couldn’t do in HK.
That day we finished dinner at 10 pm and only got back to the hotel to drop our stuff at 11. Fortunately, the spa stays open all night and the Korean PRs kindly flagged us a cab and explained to the driver where we wanted to go.
We were dropped off in front of a building that looked more like a casino than a spa, dressed up in blinking lights as it was. We walked past a full car park and into the reception manned by one girl – who didn’t speak English – but was mechanically handing out a set of robes, towels and key chains.
It was left up to us to figure out what to do. Although nobody spoke English, we managed to get to the ‘women’s floor’. The first thing I noticed was a woman towelling off her kids. The second was that everyone was naked. The third was that the towels they had given us were small – very small.
It quickly dawned on us that we were expected to get naked, butt naked. This was a little awkward because the two of us didn’t know each other very well. On second thoughts, maybe this was a good thing. Even good friends in India aren’t used to cavorting naked with each other, so probably a good thing we weren’t going to be seeing each other after the trip. We stripped down, studiously avoiding looking at each other and holding the towels over our front as we walked to the showers.
Quite quickly, however, you dispense with the towel altogether. It leaves very little to the imagination anyway.
I sat around in two kinds of bubbling pools, which are filled with some kind of special salts and then went over for the scrub. This is basically exfoliation to the nth degree, performed by women who are either naked or in bras and panties. They are very businesslike, almost motherly about it, flopping you about at will. If you glance down at your body at any point during this process, you will be disgusted to see little rolls of dirt coming off. Ocassionally, they slurp a basin of water over you but not frequently enough for you to be not revolted by the stuff coming off. The women chatter away in Korean among themselves – you are lying on a line of bed with no privacy whatsoever – and I was convinced that they were talking about how dirty I was.
I opted to have an oil massage as well, which mainly consisted of the woman slapping away at me. I wouldn’t recommend it.
Anyway, after the scrub/massage you go off into a very public shower area and wash yourself. Many women bring their own soap etc, and some were even brushing their teeth (which I thought was fairly disgusting).
You can also get a facial etc done for a very reasonable price compared to HK.
I also tried the Korea-style steam room, which is basically a massive kiln. You have to wear your robe and go in and cover up with thick sacks as it’s so hot.
By the time we emerged it was 1.30 am but we were lucky enough to get a cab right away. I had a really good sleep that night.
* * *
The next day, I had some free time so I decided to for a swim in the hotel. I pulled on my suit but when I got there decided I might be too tired for a swim so opted to use the jacuzzi instead. The helpers at the spa were really really confused when I took off my robe and had a swimsuit under it. They kept trying to tell me the pool was the other way.
Apparently, even in the five star hotels, you go into the sauna au naturel.
This one was filled with older women – some of my grandmothers age- sitting around butt naked and watching TV. At regular intervals, a new woman would walk in, greet the others, remove her robe and get into the pool. I was not only the only foreigner, I was the only person who didn’t seem to know everyone else and was not using the time to gossip.
After a point, though, you begin to stop seeing yourself or the others as naked. It’s almost as if everyone is wearing clothes and when you look at them, you don’t even register, the erm ‘features’. Thankfully, it’s not one of those places where a Brazilian is mandatory.
Later, when I got more comfortable with the PRs, I confessed my surprise and we had a good laugh about it. They told me they had been quite surprised at our choice of spa, which is really for middle-class Koreans and quite ‘hard core’.
They also told me that Korean women are quite used to the practice of going buff in spas and in fact are unsure what to do abroad. I find this interesting. Asian women are traditionally modest, normally keeping the lower body covered even among themselves. The last place I expected this kind of comfort level was Korea, where they are known for the formality of their society. But having gone through the experience, I think it’s a healthy practice to acquire that kind of comfort level with your own and other people’s bodies. We’re all pretty much the same after all, even with all the, um, variations.
In case your horrified by the whole tale and will never step into a spa in Korea henceforth, rest easy. I was told by the PRs that there are two kinds of spas… and in the ‘other’ kind everyone is not walking about sans covering. So you can keep your shirt on!
*Apologies for the endless puns guys…I just can’t resist.