Friday, January 26, 2018

A South Korean Scrubdown

Teens at Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul
There's an amazing episode of Parts Unknown from a few years back in which Anthony Bourdain goes to South Korea. The whole episode is told in reverse, beginning with a punishing hangover, and then rewinding through the delirious consumption of gallons of soju and Korean lager as the viewer pieces together what could have led to us finding Bourdain, grey-faced and miserable, having every inch of his body intimately and punishingly scrubbed raw in a blue tiled bath house. I get a sympathy headache every time I watch it. So logically, I decided I MUST visit South Korea, and while there, that I must strip naked and allow a stranger to remove my top three layers of skin with a brillo pad.

We spent nine days in the country, reveling in its color, vivacity, and silliness. Especially after spending a few weeks in Japan, where everything is beautiful and subtle but also formal and often solemn, in South Korea, it felt like you could dance on the table and no one would scold you. In three days in the city of Gyeongju, we stumbled on two different outdoor music festivals, each boasting an army of backup dancers and an entire slate of different artists. This was in the 43rd most populous city in South Korea.

It's hard to explain the pervasiveness of South Korean spa culture to westerners, who generally prefer to bathe within the confines of their own home. For Koreans, visiting a spa is a weekly or even daily excursion--families take their children; young adults go together on first dates; salarymen go to nap off their hangovers. For around $10, you can buy a 24-hour pass to a jjimjilbang (helpfully shortened to j-bang colloquially), and spend as long as you like hopping between the myriad different wet and dry saunas. I have heard whispers of backpackers skipping hotels altogether and just staying at the j-bang. They must have very clear pores.

CommonGround, a mall made from 200 blue shipping containers and selfie center for Seoul teens
Every morning in Seoul, my husband and I would declare that THIS was the day we were going to a spa-- and then chicken out, deciding instead to shop for niche Korean leather goods or eat sulbing at an outpost of the Korean Dessert Café or investigate one of the many excellent microbreweries and tap rooms popping up all over the city.

The old Magpie Brewing in Hongdae, Seoul
The last city of our trip was Busan, South Korea's second largest. It's a big city, but it's on the beach and has a cool, laid-back vibe. By the time we got there, I couldn't really remember why I had added it to our itinerary--and allotted it as many nights as Tokyo, Kyoto, and Seoul--but it was FULL of galleries and incredible temples, and our time there also involved a cable car, which means I award it a special bonus of one million points. Busan ended up being our favorite place in either country. It is also where we went to Spaland.

Gamechon Culture Village in Busan, South Korea
SPALAND! It's a real place! It's in the biggest mall in the world, Centum City! It has 22 spas and 13 different themed saunas, and one is called the wave-dream room! In another room, I felt like a piece of flatbread in a clay oven! There is a TV room and also you can buy beer with the bracelet on your wrist!

When you arrive, you pay $12 and they give you a locker key and a cotton suit that looks like scrubs if you could get scrubs with knee-length shorts. Women get maroon and men get khaki, and no one has ever looked more glamorous. You head to your respective locker room, stow everything you own, and give yourself a pre-sauna hose down. Then, you don the spa scrubs and head back out into the co-ed section of this spa-tropolis. (Me-spa-polis? I'll work on it.) There is a giant moonscape of outdoor wading foot spas with little wooden booths, where teenaged Korean couples sit side-by-side playing games on their phones and taking selfies.

Further into the enormous complex, we tried all the saunas-- the ice room, the pyramid room, the "body-sound" room, the room built entirely of pink salt bricks. All of these rooms would be excellent places to take artsy Instagram photos, except you're sweating and wearing scrubs and no bra. Finally, our confidence bolstered after a couple hours of watching everyone to make sure we weren't committing any grievous cultural errors, we separated back to our gendered baths.

Here's where I have to make an admission. I like to pretend that I am someone who is spontaneous and confident and always up to try something new; that I am someone with no problem sashaying my way through a 5,000 square foot bath complex in the altogether, surrounded by dozens of Korean women of every age. That I am so secure and open-minded that saddling up next to a stranger whose skin has shriveled and wrinkled from soaking and sitting there, staring at the wall, feels freeing and natural. But guys, at first I was really intimidated. I switched on a mantra ticker in my head that kept repeating, "You will not be the oldest nor the youngest; the biggest nor the smallest; you are not notable in anyway; you will never see anyone here again." And it was true! I do not think I have ever seen anyone from the womens' baths at Spaland again, and also I wouldn't know if I did, because I did not make eye contact with anyone for the entire hour!

The number of people who were not staring at me in the j-bang
Finally, after marinating in all sorts of pools of varying temperatures, salted and freshwater, indoors and out, I sucked it up and walked (naked!) into what was essentially a completely tiled office to inquire about a scrub. I am laughing remembering this, because it was that dream where you're in a new school and you don't know anyone and you need to ask questions, but you're not wearing any clothes, but this was real life, and also everyone only spoke Korean and I am six feet tall.

Through pointing at a menu of services, helped by a very kind woman who understood there were not many reasons I would be wandering into an office asking questions in no clothes, I ended up on one of a row of massage tables staffed by women in black bras, underwear, and shower slides. I had opted for the scrub that included the facial treatment, so she blessedly lathered my whole face with a thick mask, and my eyes were closed for the rest of the experience. And then she scrubbed me within an inch of my life. She muscled me around like she was trussing a chicken, and when it was all done, a plucked chicken is what I felt like. Like, I used to have freckles, and then I got this scrub. I didn't have to shave for weeks because every hair anywhere on my person had been sloughed away. I think I lost three pounds of skin. Finally, she rinsed away my mask, hosed me and the table down, and sent me on my way. I was grinning, half from the surreality of it all, and half because I felt like I had been powerwashed. I also felt like a champ, because despite all of my dithering and insecurities, I was now the sort of traveler who gets a full body scrub at a Korean j-bang. Hear me roar! Just let me put my maroon short-set back on first.

Bonus cable car!