Quite a while back, I recorded my experience visiting a Korean jjimjilbang, or sauna for the first time. I realized that I never followed that up with my visit to a German spa. It’s an interesting point of contrast, and no less awkward.
It was a few years back when I visited my dear study-abroad friend, Cat, in Hamburg. Hamburg has been one of my favorite cities to visit, by the way. I highly recommend it. I had a long and stressful couple of flights to get from Seoul to Hamburg, so Cat thought that heading to the spa to relax and get a massage was just what I needed.
This spa was part of a rather fancy health club Cat and her boyfriend belonged to called Aspria. So, we thought to make the best of our time, we should work out a little first, and then enjoy some pampering. I played on the elliptical, and then lifted some weights, killing about an hour. Then, we made our way to the spa and got undressed.
There were some key differences between the Korean spa and the German one. First, wearing a towel or robe is customary, so most of the guests were not totally nude. In Korea, while you do receive a tiny pair of shorts and a tee-shirt, you can’t wear them in most of the actual spa. The towels they give you are also more the size of western hand towels, so they are just for drying off, not wrapping up.
Second, the German spa was almost completely co-ed. Men and women were using most of the same facilities in similar states of undress. While most of us were wearing towels, there were a few particularly confident elderly men who saw no need to.
Before our massage, we visited some of the relaxation rooms, including one that had a wall of Himalayan pink salt. It was softly backlit, giving the whole room a warm glow. The color of the salt is meant to be relaxing and by warming it with lights, it’s supposed to help purify the air. Not sure how much it actually affects the air, but the room was warm and cozy. We skipped the sauna and mineral baths so we wouldn’t be all wet for our massage. There were outdoor facilities too, but unfortunately, it was January and Hamburg is pretty far north.
Cat and I split up into separate rooms for our massages. The rooms were quiet, with essential oil diffusers a nicely a nicely padded table with a female masseuse at hand. At the end of it, they poured us cups of orange rooibos tea in a reception room and left us to sip and slowly transition back to the real world.
I suppose the biggest difference between these spa experiences is the cultural attitude around them. In Korea, a jjimjilbang is almost a community center. There are co-ed areas with activities, sleeping rooms, and sometimes public pools. Many families will go as a group every week. It’s a social activity that’s meant to invigorate your health.
In Germany, it’s much more about solitude. Most people were there on their own or in pairs. The whole atmosphere was subdued and luxurious. No gossiping older ladies or children running around, but all conversations were almost whispered. It’s the kind of quiet reverence typically reserved for holy sites. It’s a cultivated, intentional environment, as opposed to the more organic, but chaotic Korean experience.
In Korea, many apartments don’t have bathtubs, just a shower head over a drain by their sink. Sitting in the steam room or having a hot mineral soak is viewed not as a luxury, but just a normal way of taking care of your health. Since most people can’t soak at home, it’s something they might go to the sauna to do every week, and therefore, basic entry is inexpensive and extra services are moderately priced. In Germany, like many other western countries, bathing at home is the norm and spas are a special treat. You send someone to the spa as a gift or before a special event to celebrate. Most people don’t have the time or money to go every week. It’s priced more like a luxury and taken very seriously.
What are some spa experiences you’ve had in other countries? Do you have a favorite relaxation spot?