That Time I Went to a Korean Spa
Let’s just say it wasn’t what I expected. Todd and I headed to New Jersey so that he could take our fish crazy nephew Alex to an aquarium show. Because Alex isn’t old enough to drive yet, my mother in law, Tina, drove him down from Vermont. Tina and I weren’t completely interested in the aquarium show. Sure we like looking at pretty fish swimming around, but to spend an entire day walking around and talking to vendors about aquarium care, algae, maintenance, what to feed fish, blah blah blah. Not our cup of tea.
So Todd had the idea that we should go to the King Spa and Sauna near our hotel. It was a massive Korean spa where we could get the works… massage, facial, sauna, mani pedi, all of it. We were game and headed over after breakfast. It was a multi story building that had acres of massage, beauty, fitness, and Korean food.
Admission into the spa was $60. This would give us admission into the tubs and the saunas. They easily had a dozen saunas scattered through out the massive maze-like facility. Then we’d pay a la carte for any additional services we wanted—like massages, skin care, mani pedi, etc. We got the key to our locker, they handed us a towel, washcloth, shorts and a T shirt. We didn’t know where to go or what to do yet, so we just put on our shorts and T-shirt and headed over to the desk where we could book our massages.
We peeked around the corner from the desk and saw the doors that go into the spa area. Women were walking around in the nude, the men’s area was somewhere else, and I got a bit nervous for me and Tina. We aren’t a naked family. The wet massage and body scrub was intriguing, and I booked myself into it--she did the same. Again, we had no idea how it would go. But what could happen?
We were told to go back to our lockers and ditch the shorts and Tshirt. We wrapped ourselves in our towels and headed into the spa area. There were rows and rows of shower sprayers and jugs of shampoo, conditioner and body wash--we were told to shower before we did anything else. We grabbed showers right next to each other, and I looked down, pulled off my towel and quickly washed off. I kept my eyes down and then quickly wrapped myself in the towel and headed for the hot tub.
The first tub was ice cold. The second one was warmer. I put my towel aside and got into that one. Once I got settled into the tub one of the Korean women working at the spa was trying to find someone to get them to their massage. This is where it was confusing to me. We were told “We’ll come find you in the spa when we’re ready to take you to your massage.” They called out a number, it wasn’t mine. But they kept asking me what my number was, and then walked away when I said a number that didn’t interest them. To me, that was incredibly confusing. Did I say the right number or not? I am sitting here in front of you naked and you’re barking out numbers. Help! I need an adult that has clothes on!
Finally I got taken in for my wet massage and body scrub. A Korean woman called my number and I stood from the tub, that I’d only been soaking in for approximately 30 seconds. I followed her out of the tub/shower room, down a few hallways, left, right, left, up a ramp, hook around to the right.
She turned to face me once we got into another room that had showers along the walls, smaller than the tub room I’d been in, and she looked down at the towel I had wrapped around my torso and without a word she yanked it off of me and tossed it aside. She pointed to the steam room, “Two minutes.” I went in and found the room empty, I breathed in the slightly meaty scent of the steam and sat across from the door. There was a tray of stones on the floor, I put my feet into the tray and played with the stones with my toes. I closed my eyes and tried to get over the idea that I was sitting there completely naked.
Maybe I am a prudish American. I don’t know. I mean, I do walk around my house naked when it's just Todd and me at home. Not all the time, mind you, like I'm not kickin back on the couch binge watching old 90210 episodes in the nude. But if I need to go downstairs and get something and I’m not dressed? Like, if I need to go all the way to the basement to get something from the laundry, I’ll just dash down there to get it without throwing my robe on first. But if I am expecting someone to visit my house, I would never consider doing that. Todd and I observe a very firm closed door policy on the bathroom, while other couples might pee in front of the other who may be at the sink. Not us. And I am glad for that. So, no, I am not completely used to being naked around others. And to add a layer of complication to that… imagine being naked in front of your mother in law. Now, my mother in law is the coolest one around. But I am not about to kick it in the buff with her. Maybe when we go shopping we might try on in front of each other. But never completely naked until this day.
In the steam room I closed my eyes and said “Well, you are experiencing something different. And big fucking deal you’re naked. Go with it. Enjoy the experience for what it is, because everyone else doesn’t have anything on either.” And it was true. All the massage therapists had on black bras and underwear. All the other customers were naked. And it was an incredible celebration of the human form. While trying not to people watch I had to people watch because I am a compulsive people watcher and eavesdropper on strangers’ conversations. There were tall women, short women, slender women, not so slender women, black women, white women, Asian women… and they all let go of their hang ups just to enjoy some pampering. Some talked to each other, some kept to themselves. OK, so go with it. When in a slice of Korea in New Jersey, right?
My massage therapist opened the door to the steam room and gestured to me to follow her behind a half wall to a table with a durable pink vinyl top on it. She told me to lie down. And here’s the part where it got incredibly funny to me. I’ve had massages before. I have a membership at Massage Envy, I alternate my monthly visits with massage and facials. Todd and I will occasionally treat ourselves to couples’ massage (which is always hilarious because Todd cracks me up all the way through it.) In those settings it’s always a private room, lights dimmed, that weird spa music playing in the background that I always wonder who the hell composed it. I always envision those recording sessions as completely stressful: “More pan flute! Where’s the harpist?! What the fuck, guys? I need some breeze in those goddamned wind chimes not a fricking tornado.” OK, so there was no weird woo woo music. There wasn’t a private room either, behind that half wall there were 3 tables, and there was a woman on the first and third ones, and the one in the middle was to be mine. There was no "I'll hold up the sheet so you can turn over" business either. The lights were bright too, the floor was tiled with drains piped in, there was a shower sprayer on the wall, pails of assorted sizes, bottles of various oils and potions all over the place. OK, here I am, reporting for surgery.
She gestured to me to lay on my back. Then she tossed a washcloth over my eyes. Didn’t place it. Flung it at me. I knew right then that I would love this experience for the sheer comedic value—and I wasn’t wrong. She flung a pail of warm water on me. Sploosh, like I was a filthy Toyota Camry. Then she began to scrub. She had on gently abrasive mittens, and she scrubbed scrubbed scrubbed. Tina later described it as a child getting a bath from a very pissed off mother. She placed her hand on my jaw and shoved my face to the side to get at my neck and then the other side to get at the other side of my neck. Then she had me lay on my side and raise my leg so she could scrub my inner thigh, then the other side, then on my front to get my back. And this went on for easily an hour. I’ve never been so clean in my entire life. Occasionally she flung another pail full of water at me, shoved my limbs this way and that to get at whatever she was going to scrub next. No talking. No woo woo music. All business. This lady was NOT shy.
She told me to rinse off in the shower and get back into the steam room. I took the same spot as before, opposite the door so I could put my feet in the rocks again. But then another woman came in, and I said “the feet in the rock thing is pretty awesome. Here, sit here.” And I moved so she could stone her feet. “Oh yeah,” she smiled and dug her toes into the stones. Oh yeah, indeed. Then my therapist came back.
She gestured to the shower, and she had a vegetable grater in her hands. What in the hell was she going to do with a grater? It was one of those graters that had the bowl attached to it. She tipped the bowl into my hands and some green juice came out. She gestured for me to put it on. Like an idiot, I splashed it onto my neck and chest, you know, because this was a body massage.
“No!” her annoyed face told me I screwed up. “Face!” she poured more of the green juice into my hands and I splashed it on my face and was greeted with the smell of cucumber. The cucumber juice was ice cold too. I rubbed it in, and then rinsed off again and followed her back to our table.
She told me to lay on my back and just before she flung the washcloth onto my eyes again she dumped out the contents of the grater just beside my head. It looked like a lump of masticated leaves, I think she had grated a frozen cucumber, and she applied it to my face. The ice cold, the refreshing scent of cucumber, oh dear God. I was still wet, and then came the oil.
The massage lasted for about an hour. The wet, the oil, the vinyl table—she held me around the waist when she asked me to turn over so I wouldn’t go sliding off. It was a very real possibility. She washed the cucumber goo off my face, then told me to go face down. She shoved my arms up over my head, then shoved them so they’d hang off the sides of the table. If I put them back up she shoved them back down. Again, not shy. This was the best part, she grabbed my leg and bent my knee outward so she could massage the outside of my legs, the IT bands that are always so tight from all the running and working out. Because I was so oily, she effortlessly moved my limbs this way and that. No need for any instruction, she just went for it. The IT band massage… woooooow! Where was she after I ran the marathon?
She doused me with the pail a few times, she wiped me down with towels that she’d apparently heated in Hell they were so hot. Then she had me turn around so my head was closer to her supply of pails. She scrubbed my face, and then very gently washed and conditioned my hair (as she’d already streaked it with oil, and chewed up cucumber, and who knows what else).
“You go now,” she said. Or something like it. Do I go to the shower and steam room? Or am I done? My limbs felt loose and I felt a bit light headed. She handed me a wash cloth so I headed to the shower. I went back to the table to see if I was in fact done, and saw there was another woman on my table and that answered my question. I called out “Thank you” in Korean, and she nodded at me and turned her attention back to the next naked white lady on her table.
Tina didn’t end up in the same room as me, which actually would have made it a different experience if she was. I would have been more self conscious. And I also would have started busting up laughing at having pails of water poured on me. (Her therapist used the sprayer. Mine didn't eff around with no sprayer.) I went back to the room with the hot tubs, with my towel wrapped around me. My “I’m here and I’m naked” bravado faded a bit as I walked the hallways back to the room where we began. I didn’t see her. So I sat perched on the edge of the cold tub with my feet in it, hoping I’d catch her if she walked in the room. I sat there for a few minutes and headed back to our lockers, and she was there.
“That. Was. Awesome!” she gushed. I worried about her a bit wondering how she was handling all the naked man handling. “I was a little put off by being naked, but then I thought ‘nobody is judging me, and I’m not judging anyone either, so go for it.” We put on our pink tshirts and shorts, and tried to follow the signs to the beauty salon so we could get a mani pedi.
We went up the stairs and wandered through the common areas where both men and women visitors were hanging out. There were nap rooms, a different type of sauna every where I looked. Salt sauna, infrared sauna, cold sauna, dark sauna, light sauna, sauna sauna sauna. We found the cafeteria, a room where chess boards were set out and some people played. This apparently is a place where people come to just hang out. There were tables with laptop computers set out on them, in case we need to google something while we’re chillin. We wandered through the maze of turns and lost the trail for the beauty salon. So we asked and a woman took us there. Turns out it was only about 5 paces from where we began in the hot tub room.
We got our mani pedi, we ate Korean food for lunch. We people watched, we wandered into a nap room and got side by side recliners while the National Geographic channel was playing a special about sharks on a muted TV. I read, I napped. Then we decided to go.
In all, this little slice of Korea in New Jersey was an amazing experience. It reminded me to stop and slow down for a few hours as I watched the other visitors lounge on chairs eating lunch, slurping a smoothie, playing chess, napping on a recliner. And then we stepped outside into the late afternoon sun onto a New Jersey street, and back into the real world.
added on 10.18.19