In an effort to submerge myself in Korean culture, and use my Lonely Planet Korea for more than just its subway map and "Where to Drink" guide I decided to plan a trip to a Korean spa. Now, if you know anything about the family I grew up in, or more appropriately the mother I grew up with, you can appreciate the fact that for me finding a spa in a far away town and planning a route to get there is just as adventurous as say...surviving a week in the mountains with only a chop stick, dental floss, and half a nature valley granola bar.
If you haven't had the privilege of meeting Julie Doyle just refer Shelly Long's dazzling performance as Phyllis in, "Troop Beverly Hills," where she takes her troop on a camping trip and ends up at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Phyllis: The recommendation for a campsite was totally unsuitable. There were no outlets. And there was dirt, and bugs, and....and it rains there.
Change Phyllis to Julie and the girl scout troop to the girls in my fifth grade class and well, you've got my 11th birthday party. Anyway, after much debate and internet research I decided on the Spa Plus in Icheon, about an hour south of Seoul, and convinced two of my girlfriends, Rachel and Che, to join me for a day of total relaxation.
We made it as far as the subway station in Seoul before hitting a navigational snag. Unsure of which subway took us to the bus station and which bus took us to Icheon we stood still and stared intently at the lonely planet guide as if through concentration alone we could make the answer appear. It worked (as if you doubted me) and the answer did appear in the form of a nice and extremely helpful Korean woman who not only told us which subway we had to connect with to reach the bus station, but actually changed her travel plans mid route and got on the subway with us to take us there. She also ended up being an Evangelical missionary and attempted to save our souls on the 3 stop ride between Gangnam station and the Nambu Bus Terminal. She gave it a valiant effort, but I'm pretty sure that saving a Catholic soul like mine has at least a five stop minimum.
On the connecting subway we found ourselves standing next to a college-aged Korean guy with a t-shirt advertising a production of, "The Vagina Monologues." Now I should probably mention the fact that while many Korean t-shirts have english words on them it is HIGHLY unlikely that the wearer knows what the shirt says. Case in point the eight year old girl I had for line dancing the other day who's pink, lace-collared blouse read, "Smack the Bitch," in purple calligraphy. So I thought it was pretty obvious that this guy had no idea what his shirt was advertising or that it even had the word "vagina" on it. I turned to my friends and started to make a smart comment about his unknowing advertisement of a play featuring the female anatomy when he says (in perfect..non-accented..'i lived in philly for 9 years' english) "Oh, have you seen the show?" Great. The one Korean guy on the subway who has a full understanding of his apparel and I'm caught making fun of him. However, there is a happy ending to this tale. Not only did HJ (that was his name) help us find the bus stop..buy our tickets..and get on the correct bus to Icheon he also went to college with a friend of Rachel's. It's a small world after all.
So with our navigational woes behind us we arrived at the Miranda Hotel in Icheon home to the Spa Plus ready for a day of hot tubs, cold plunges, herb baths, mud baths, liquid charcoal baths, saunas, steam rooms, and full body exfoliation all for a meer 12,000 won (or about 12 dollars). Leaving our clothes in our lockers we attempted to wrap the kleenex sized towels around our bodies and shimmy from the locker room into the spa itself, and with one push on the glass door we were officially transported from Land-of-the-Clothed to Nakedville.
Hundreds of naked Korean women were milling about, walking from one pool to another, relaxing, chatting, and getting rubbed down by two elderly masseuses wearing matching see through black bras and red undies. I should mention that at my current job the 'weekend' doesn't fall on Saturday and Sunday so we were visiting the spa on a Monday afternoon, excluding the average middle aged working woman or school student from taking part in the festivities and leaving our eyes to feast on the flesh of a slightly...older crowd. You haven't lived until you've spent the day surrounded by 200 naked Korean grandmas.
As usual the name of each bath was in English, while the directions and precautions were in Korean. I won't lie, the American germ-a-phobe in me was a little hesitant at first of sinking my tush into a bubbling bath of yellow mud along side thirty other foreign bottoms, but it has to be said that Korean women do have beautiful skin, so in the name of vanity I took the plunge. I was pleasantly surprised by all the baths except the liquid charcoal, which left me smelling like a piece of barbequed chicken. However, if the way to a man's heart is truly through his stomach then the Korean women might be onto something.
After about an hour of basking and plunging we decided to wander over to the massage tables and make an appointment to treat ourselves to a gentle rub down. I went first, climbing up onto the plastic covered massage table and laying face up in preparation for bliss. The masseuse started by covering my face in warm towels and then a mud mask, pretty normal, and very nice. Then the fun started. Putting on a pair of gloves which felt more like Brillow pads she started furiously rubbing my skin starting at my feet, moving upwards, and leaving no 'stone unturned' if you catch my drift. When she had reached my neck she doused me with warm water, spanked me on the hip, and instructed me (in forceful Korean) to turn onto my side.
With the addition of the warm water the plastic massage table had now turned into a veritable slip-and-slide. My knuckles turned white as I tried to grab onto the side of the table and hold myself up as she again started at my feet, this time throwing my top leg into the air so she could pumice all the way up to my inner thigh. I felt like a giant foot being pedicured. Another slap, this time on my bottom, and I rolled onto my back so the process could begin again. I rested my head down on the table, closed my eyes, and tried to relax and remember that I had chosen to have this done, had PAID to have this done. It was at this point that another Korean woman came over to chat. Trying to get my masseuse's attention she leaned against the table which, it has to be said, was level with her pelvic area. Suddenly the only thought running through my mind was, "Bush on my arm! Bush on my arm!" but before I could utter a sound, I was spanked a third time, rolled again, and pumiced anew.
When the "exfoliation" had ended she again doused me with warm water, covered me in soap suds, and with a final smack on the rear instructed me to, "Showah." I gladly slid from the plastic table and hurried as quickly as I could to the shower stalls eager to have a little privacy and wash the memory of foriegn bush off my arm. And as I stood beneath the cascading water I couldn't help but think that I had never felt so violated, and yet my skin had never felt so smooth.