Seoul is an lively, large city with many things to do and see. But I quickly realized that I had to shake things up a bit. I have only been on the road for two weeks but I can already feel myself slipping into a routine. Morning coffee, visting a national historical site or a lively local market, lunch, more sight seeing, check emails, take pictures, dinner, more emails…all things I am happy doing, but not exactly things beyond my comfort zone. So i decided to do something a bit outside of the norm while in Seoul. I decided to get naked in front of a bunch of strangers.
For most of my female readers living in LA, I’m sure you’ve had the chance to experience the joys, and the awkwardness of the Korean Spa. People you don’t know and customs your not used to all taking place while you’re buck naked. But for those who have never been, basically, the Korean Spas are open to both men and women (though the are separated by sex once you enter) where for a basic affordable price you can relax in pools of water that are differentiated by temperature (ice cold, boiling hot) and ingredients (regular water, salt water, tea infused) or sit in steam rooms or saunas. For an additional investment, you can get massaged, rubbed, and scrubbed. You can also dine, shop and sing karaoke to your hearts content depending on what the spa has on offer.
My first experience with something like this was actually in Japan when my host family took me to the Japanese version of this spa outside of Kyoto. My host mother asked if I wanted to get cleaned up after our long drive to the hotel. I said yes and headed to the hotel room’s shower, but she grabbed her stuff and headed out the door to the spa in the basement of the hotel. It all happend so quickly. Next thing I knew I was naked and wandering behind my 5 foot Japanese host mother (also naked) as she showed me where to bathe, what tubs I should steep in and basically how not to make an ass out of myself.
Since then I’ve visited the Korean spas once or twice in LA, but I’ve always been accompanied by someone who knows what they are doing. This time I was all on my own. After doing a little reading, I realized that the overall concept of the Korean Spa in LA was the same as the ones actually in Korea, but who knew if I was going to make some sort of major social faux pas. Plus was I going to be the local oddity – a tall black American in a sea of Korean ladies? Well, I was about to find out.
So I made up my mind – this was an experience I needed to indulge in. I was looking to do something outside of my normal routine and I was in desperate need of some TLC after carrying around my heavy bags for two weeks. I did some online research and asked a few locals as well and ended up choosing Spa Lei. This is a women’s only spa, which completely eliminated the major error of wandering into the mens side of a co-ed spa (which is a mistake I almost made in a spa in LA).
I found the closest subway station to the spa, followed the directions into the spa and promptly made my first mistake, I was so worried that the person at the front desk was going to be horrified at the idea of a foreigner entering the spa, that I forgot to take off my shoes before I approached the check in area. The woman quickly shouted what I’m sure was “What the hell are you doing, take off your shoes!” before my entire shoe even landed on the beautifully shined wooden floors. I quickly apologized, took off my shoes and then carried them to the front desk. I selected a locker, number 23, put my shoes inside, locked the door and then exchanged that key for a plastic wrist band with the same number 23. For the next few hours that was my ticket to all the beauty treatments and food I desired.
|My #23 wrist band at Spa Lei|
From there to the locker room and the moment of truth. Complete nudity in front of a bunch of strangers who did not speak my language. I am actually OK with the whole nude thing, but it was the shocked looks from little old ladies that made me feel uncomfortable. One lady just stared, open mouthed for 30 seconds before she backed away. Oh well…you just have to laugh.
Protocol is that you thoroughly shower before you enter any of the other areas of the spa. So I did that then took a dunk in as many of the pools as I could. First was the pool that I thought was the hot bath until I tried the next one that was the boiling hot bath. Follow that with the ice cold bath and the salt bath which actually stung a little bit and then I was ready for my treatments. I body scrub where a little old lady in black bra and panties (same as in the LA spas) takes a scrubber to you from head to toe and you lose about 2 pounds fo body weight in the process. Then a cucumber facial and a hair wash. The ladies seemed a little amused to see a foreigner in there, but they treated me the same as any of their other clients. Whew!
From there I didn’t know what else to do, so I donned the robe I was given at the front desk and ordered a blueberry smoothie then sat with a bunch of ladies who were just lounging about on mats on the floor, watching the latest episode of some Korean soap opera. Of course I didn’t understand a thing that was being said on the TV, but it still seemed to be about the same plot as every other American or Brazilian soap I’ve seen. Even though I didn’t have anyone to talk to, I have to admit I felt kind of like I was among sisters as we all sat there in our robes, with wet hair just relaxing.
|The Spa Lei Robes for lounging|
At this point I’d already been there a few hours and although the spas are open 24 hours a day, I knew I did eventually want to get back to the studio where I was staying so I could sleep in the bed I’d paid for. But 2 more things before I left. I badly needed a pedicure and I was also a bit famished. So headed back to my locker, got dressed and then headed off to the beauty salon and the restaurant which were on separate floors. Faux pas #2. I was the only person who got dressed to go to the other parts of the spa. Everyone else knew to keep their robes on.
Oh well, I was already sticking out like a sore thumb. This really didn’t make it much worse. I enjoyed a meal of rice, pickled veggies and a whole baked fish (thanks to the English-speaking Korean lady who helped me translate the menu) then had a much needed pedi.
At this point I’d had enough excitement for the day and had spent enough money so I decided to call it a night. All of the treatments, dinner and unlimited use of the spas came to just under $90.00. Not so bad considering this one was of the higher end spas in town. And in the end, its really about the the experience and for that, $90.00 was a bargain.