For an uptight white person like me, the idea of being naked in a room full of strangers is very uncomfortable. For most foreigners visiting Korea, a visit to the spa or jjimjilbang is both an important part of the traveling experience, but also something slightly dreaded. It took me almost a year of living in Korea to go for the first time. I went to Yongsan’s massive Dragon Hill spa.
I chose to go by myself so that I wouldn’t be concerned with seeing my close friends naked. When you enter the the spa you pay the flat rate, for me it was about $10 USD. They’ll give you a pair of shorts and a tee shirt and direct you toward the lockers to stow your things. Most spas will also put an elastic band with an electronic key and your actual locker key around your wrist. Every service or item you purchase is added to the electronic key on your wrist, you simply scan it as you go and pay for any extras at the end of your visit.
After your bag is stowed in the locker, you go to the gender segregated side of the spa. At Dragon Hill Spa, where I went, the women only section was upstairs. In the changing room, you dress in your shorts and tee shirt and store your street clothes in another locker.
For a terrifying moment, I thought I might be sentenced to stay in the nude only section of the spa all day. Or that I would just have to leave. As a pulled on the shorts they had carelessly tossed me over the counter, they stopped at the bottom of my butt. Being blessed with abundant booty has its hazards in a country where virtually none of the local women are. At least not naturally. So, these shorts stopped at the booty to my horror and dismay.
I found and ajhumma (older lady) who worked there and tried to explain my dilemma to her. When she didn’t seem to understand my plea in broken Korean that “These… too small…” A Korean woman who spoke fluent English saw my plight and tactfully explained the problem of the booty to her. The ajhumma quickly nodded and grabbed me a different pair of shorts- they did come in more than one size after all.
Now fully dressed, I went to enjoy the clothed part of the spa. I had a particularly ruthless back massage from a women around the age of 50. The only English word she seemed to know was “pain,” which she gleefully said when I stifled a moan of discomfort as she turned my upper arms into pulp. I never knew that a back massage also included destroying one’s upper arms. Then I had a facial from an equally brawny older woman whose hands moved so fast against my skin, it felt as though she had about 16 of them. It wasn’t quite the stock photo of relaxation I had pictured, but I did feel loosened up afterwards.
Then it was time to go to the naked area. There are a variety of naked activities one can experience at Dragon Hill spa. One can have their body exfoliated by an ajhumma who will remove layers of skin you didn’t know you had. I decided to forgo that treat on this occasion. There is also the sauna (the term jjimjilbang means steam room in Korean, but the name has become shorthand for the spa as a whole), it is recommended that you only stay in the extreme heat for 10 minute intervals.
I spent most of my times sampling the various medicinal baths. All at different temperatures with various mineral contents, some with jets providing a “water massage”. You have to shower off before you enter any of the baths, but then you are free to roam from the shallow massage pools just above body temperature to the extremely hot pools that emit a faint cloud of steam.
For the most part, even though I was one of the only foreigners at the spa, people mostly left me alone and didn’t openly stare. Though, I must say that the experience made me very aware of my extreme whiteness. Many Korean girls wear makeup a shade or two lighter than their natural skin tone, and the tone of their legs is often obscured by stockings. But comparing the skin on parts of their body that had never been exposed to the sun with skin of mine that had never been exposed- the difference was clear and significant. I had never felt my pasty, glow-in-the-dark quality more acutely. I am seriously white. After a few moments in the very hot baths though, I took on a shade of lobster red that perhaps made me even more conspicuous.
This experience gave me some interesting cultural insights. The innocent, but strangely intimate nature of same gendered friendships was epitomized in a setting like this, since many women were there as groups, comfortable with being naked in front of their friends. The common attitude toward personal grooming is very different from the West too. The spa isn’t a luxury here, but a part of a holistic view to health- something that should be done regularly and is affordable enough to do so. Things like the way body hair is viewed and groomed are quite different here too– it’s not taboo to have body hair as a woman in Korea.
These spas are also full entertainment centers. If you put on your shorts and tee shirt, you can mingle in the mixed gender areas. There is a cafe, a restaurant, am arcade, a movie theatre, a swimming pool. Most spas are open 24 hours and have sleeping rooms. Some even offer moderately priced private rooms that you can stay in for several days like a hotel. Some travelers find them to be a cheap and convenient alternative for short trips.
I spent just over two hours being painfully pampered at the spa before heading back out along the bamboo lined path to the busy main street. Dragon Hill is located right next to a giant mall and technology complex in Yongsan. I capped the afternoon by meeting a friend for bubble tea and a visit to the cinema.
So, overall, I recommend getting over your shyness and giving it a try. It allows one a truly Korean experience.