I have been avoiding spas since I got here. It’s not that I don’t enjoy a good soak in hot water, but the spas here aren’t like those at home. In Korea, you don’t wear a bathing suit. You’re naked. Nude. Unclothed. Nekked. It’s not like I haven’t skinny-dipped before, but never in front of a crowd of also-naked Korean women. I’m a foreigner. I have a tattoo, which is highly frowned upon here. I wear a string of blue belly-beads around my waist. Clearly, I would stand out.
But after days sitting at my desk planning ESL lessons for the winter break and spending the Election Day holiday snowboarding and skiing with a few friends, my muscles were sore and achy. I knew it was time.
I researched spas online to find a nice one I could visit. Sure, there are bathhouses literally everywhere. I pass several bathhouses on my bus ride to work alone, all labelled with the familiar red symbol: three lines of steam rising out of what looks like a bowl. But I wanted one out of my neighbourhood and out of the city so that I wouldn’t run into any of my students. (Another teacher mentioned that it happened to him once, and upon hearing that I immediately decided that it was something I desperately wanted to avoid.)
I found one in Incheon: Miranda Spa. It looked nice and, from the pictures, it also looked like people might be allowed to wear bathing suits. So I packed my backpack with my iPod, a towel, and my bikini and set off for a day at the spa.
I realized once I got there that I actually had no idea what I was doing. I obviously wasn’t paying attention when I wore my shoes into the change room—always look for shoe storage when you enter a facility in Korea.
After some confusion about how I was to open my assigned locker, I asked a woman to help me. She looked at me. “Shoes—off,” she said. Oops. Then she lead me back out into the hall, over to the shoe lockers I bypassed. The key from that locker is also the key to open your change room locker. Of course.
Back in the change room, I was immediate aware of the fact that most people around me were naked. Those who weren’t naked were wearing a grey T-shirt and shorts with the spa’s logo on them. I wanted to find me some of those. I followed a stream of people to a desk with a stack of such outfits and requested one, and luckily I was handed one. I went back to my locker, undressed, and slipped into my comfy grey uniform. Again, I realized I had no idea what I was doing. Where do I go now? I kept asking myself.
I went back to the clothing counter lady and asked her where I was supposed to go. “Clothes—this way,” she said as she pointed back outside the change room.
“Showers?” I asked.
“No.” She shook her head and her hands. “Clothes—this way,” and she pointed outside again.
So that’s where I went. I followed the other grey-dressed people and walked upstairs. It was a madhouse. There were children running around, a live band, a nap area, a food area, and—finally—the massage room.
For the next hour and a half, I was beaten, slapped, and “massaged” by an old Korean woman. This was a massage like no other. She pressed her strong fingers into my muscles as hard as she could. Then he took her fists and hit me. Then she opened her palm and slapped me. And this was supposed to be relaxing? The sound of a slap isn’t relaxing, yet alone the feeling of one. I wanted to give her directions to keep to my sore back and neck muscles, but I was more curious to see where else this massage would go. Well, it would go into my ears, apparently. Yes—she took her fingers and massaged the inside of my ears. Awkward.
After that interesting activity, it was time to be brave and hit the water. At my locker, I took a deep breath and undressed. A little shy, I held my little blue Miranda Spa towel in front of me as I walked through the change room into the pool area. There were a few glances, a few looks, and a few long stares, but eventually I got comfortable enough to ditch the towel.
I went to the showers to clean and rinse myself first, then lowered myself into a tub of warm water. I soaked in an “herbal” pool with brown water for a bit, then hopped to another “herbal” pool, this time with neon green water. I noticed most women were sitting outside the pools with buckets full of steaming water, scrubbing themselves down. So I bought a scrub cloth, found myself a bucket, and did the same. I hopped from pool to pool for hours. There was even a mud bath outside—highly enjoyable when you’re surrounded by cold winter air.
I can’t say if it was the hot baths, the crazy Korean massage, or a combination of both, but my muscles were relaxed and comfortable when I woke up the next morning. Naked spa days just might become a regular thing.
From Icheon Bus Terminal, go south for 80 metres. Past the terminal building, turn left at the first intersection and walk straight for 200 metres. After crossing the street at the 4-way intersection, take your first right. In 100 metres, the hotel entrance will be on the left.