When I picture myself going to a spa, I typically don’t imagine myself parading around a room completely naked in front of a couple hundred, discerning middle-aged Korean women.
However, it seems that living in Korea has successfully managed to redefine what I consider “typical” behaviours and activities.
While in Busan visiting my best friend, one of the activities I was keen on trying was a visit to a Korean jjimjilbang. Though, I wasn’t keen on publicly bathing naked in front of my friend and a crowd of Korean women.
So, my friend and I chose to visit Shinsegae Centum City’s Spa Land. Being that Shinsegae Centum City is the largest department store in the world and pretty darn fancy to boot, I was led to believe that Spa Land provided a more contemporary take on the concept of a traditional jjimjilbang, especially because it’s a tourist destination and many foreigners visit the spa complex. So, my friend and I confidently packed our bikinis and headed over to the spa for a “fun and relaxing” girls night. Of course, being a foreigner there must be different rules, right?
I was right to assume that Spa Land was contemporary. In fact, it’s so incredibly enormous and fancy that I am still shocked it cost only 10,000 KRW ($10 USD) for an evening pass (in Toronto this would cost an arm and a leg, possibly a harvesting of a small, insignificant organ). I was however wrong to assume that I would be happily clothed and shielded in my bikini.
Welcome to South Korea, Alexa. Let’s get wild, naked and free.
Now, my friend and I have known each other since we were in diapers. Two, solid decades of friendship – diapered and clothed. Yet, not even two decades of friendship had prepared us for such a fearless unveiling.
We were the only two foreigners in the whole spa. Great. After leaving the (un)change rooms we proceeded over to the bathing area, where we attempted to blend in by copying the activities of the seasoned bathers.
First, we started with a seated shower. We pulled up our plastic stools to a row of full-length mirrored counters (again, great), alongside all of our new middle-aged Korean friends. Of course us being the unseasoned type, we forgot to bring our shampoos, conditioners, loofahs, oh yeah, and our toothbrushes from home. Yes, it’s a comprehensive shower that includes a washing of all bodily creases and even the pearly whites.
Next, we meandered over to the baths. These I will say without any hesitation are great. There’s a multitude of baths, all varying in temperature that are fun to try out. In some, you can even engage in some uncomfortable eye-locking and head nodding with the other nude bathers.
A bit of an unorthodox and awkward start to my “typical” Wednesday evening progressively turned into one that was in fact quite tolerable and liberating. Soon my friend and I were walking around the bathing area with a new boldness to us. So much so that we decided to take our Korean spa experience a step further.
Next, we chose the naked scrub down. What the hell, we were already naked. How could we possibly feel more exposed? My friend and I were in the same room while indulging in this procedure. The ladies motioned us on to different tables that were sheeted in thick plastic. At first, my body went into a minor shock when my aesthetician/torturer started throwing buckets of water on to me. She then proceeded to dig into my skin and began vigorously scraping away at all of my dead skin cells. Wonderful. Who knew 24 years of life would have accumulated so much expired flesh. I must admit, there’s nothing quite like having a middle-aged Korean woman clad in black lingerie taking sandpaper-like material to your body and lacerating every ounce of dead skin off your flesh. Truly gratifying.
Every once in awhile, the lady would bark at me to turn over. I of course obediently obliged, knowing that my still very much alive skin cells were in too close of a proximity to her hands. Every time I turned over on the plastic sheet pooled in water I thought I was going to slip like a fish right off the bed, naked on to the floor. That would’ve made for an even more relaxing spa experience. Right?
Considering a complete violation of my personal space, after about 10 minutes this whole experience started to become very normal. Was I borderline crazy? My raw skin started to numb and the persistent scrubbing started to become enjoyable.
There was one moment that snapped me right out of my newfound easeful, delusional state. The lady told me to unfold my legs and started scraping away at my upper, inner thighs. Great. I’ll spare you the details.
I left my scrub down (and my whole spa experience) with conflicting emotions. Was it good? Was it bad? I’m still not quite sure. But, I can say that I felt smooth like a baby dolphin upon re entering the baths and for about a week thereafter.
Now living with minor PTSD, I can barely watch this video of Conan O’Brien’s own experience at a Korean jjimjilbang.
Tips: Pack a toothbrush and a positive attitude.
How to get there: Take Line 2 on the Busan metro to Centum City Station. Shinsegae is connected directly to the subway.