Korean Spa 찜질방 is not for Sissies
"Join us for a B#@tch Slapping Session!"
Perhaps I should have taken serious note of the title of this invitation because she wasn't far off. Turns out a bunch of girls signed up for a salt-scrub and massage at a local Korean health spa and I had no idea what I was in for.
I consider myself a fairly wordly traveler when it comes to massage - after all, I've had my feet legs, back, arms and hands expertly manipulated in several countries, including China, where my husband joined me once - his session included shaving and a (declined) offer to brush his teeth. The Chinese revere massage and consider their version, tui na, to be essential to overall health. Typically, massages in China are about the equivalent of $15.00 for an hour's worth of very pleasurable tweaking of the yin/yang meridians. These sessions take place while fully clothed, relaxing with feet in hot, scented water, while enjoying a hot cup of plain water (forget the tea, the Chinese believe hot water should be consumed daily for maximum health), and an assortment of chewy candies.
So when I was invited for a massage at a very reputable establishment, the Riviera Health Spa in nearby Lomita, I thought it would be a relaxing way of getting to bond with my new gal pals.
Riviera Spa (details below) is an upscale version of a full-service spa common in Korea called a Jjimjilbang - two squeaky clean floors of relaxing and healthful luxury, Asian style, including a juice bar and Korean-style cafe. When you enter and pay for your treatment the hostess hands over a spa outfit which you are cautioned to wear when entering the second floor mixed gender area. Other than that, women and their young daughters are free to roam about the pool and massage area in their birthday suits. I'm a veteran of Burke Williams so this isn't anything new except the women here don't bother with clothes even when chatting in the common areas, drying and styling their hair and putting on make up. A bit too free-thinking for my British sensibilities, especially since they were all size 2. Oh, well, I'd paid my money so there was no turning back.
After depositing my clothes and valuables in an assigned locker, saying hi to my friends who were off to their massages, I donned the cotton outfit that resembled a prison duo with orange pants and top, then took an elevator to the second floor where I explored the various saunas.
This is not Sweden. Koreans believe in the healing and rejuvenating powers of minerals, so there are three different dry kiln or Hanjeungso saunas (about 126 degrees). I ventured into the first, a room completely constructed from bricks of pink rock salt. The calcium, magnesium and iron in rock salt is supposed to be good for the respiratory system and general purification. The floor was thickly carpeted in loose salt chunks and an experimental toe step revealed they were just shy of the temperature of burning coals so I had to leap onto a thermal pad meant to lie on and then work my way across to one furthest away from a wicked looking heat unit stacked like coals behind a log fence. 10 minutes in this inferno staring up at the intricate design of salt bricks on the ceiling was enough and I hopped my way back to the door, but not before getting one last hotfoot at the stone threshold. Whew! I spied a cold sauna across the way and went for that, passing through a large open room with mats where men, women and children reclined on a bamboo floor. They were all Aisan and stared at me as I hurried past, perhaps because, unlike them, I wasn't wearing the traditional head covering fashioned from a small spa towel called a sheep-head. Apparently this is polite in a spa, but I had no idea what I was doing. I have provided instructions for this attire in case you decide to go and want to blend in.
My next visit was to the Clay Sauna, meant to stimulate the lymphatic system and detoxify the body from heavy metals. This room had a thick carpet of bamboo mats but there was a section that one could only describe as the ball box in a Gymboree - the idea being you nestled into this box of small clay balls and let them go to work. Also extremely hot so only someone with the skin of a bear paw could manage this so I stayed on the bamboo mat and settled for breathing in the clay walls and ceiling.
Ten minutes later I was back in the cold sauna, kept at about 65 degrees. A marble-encased wonder that felt amazingly wonderfully fabulously refreshing after a good roasting.
The last spa was the jade room, and more of the same breathing in of jade bricks surrounding me. Advertised as good for hormonal balance and especially appealing to the ladies. In all cases I lay on a bamboo mat with a wooden head rest that was surprisingly comfortable.
Then I was summoned for the salt rub and massage.
Once back down in the pool/massage area (these areas separated for men and women) I was greeted by a lady in black lace bra and panties. Confusion??
"You my next appointment," she said by way of introduction. Why, I wondered, do the massage ladies wear these outfits instead of something, say, more clinical like a cotton robe. I got my answer later....
She spoke very little English but pointed me toward an area next to the soaking pool behind a half wall where I discovered all my new friends, naked as the day they were born, covered in as much oil as it would take to roast a peanut. Thankfully they all had thick seaweed masks on so I couldn't tell who was who, but there was something serenely beautiful about all these glistening bodies, large and small.
Undressing (rather casually I was proud to say), I was directed to lie next to my friends, on a massage table covered in heavy clear plastic. I slid on rather like a porpoise onto a viewing platform and then she went to work.
My massage lady began to vigorously scrub every inch of my body, and I mean every inch. Nothing was spared and I'm sure she took the top two layers of my epidermis off. She wore two hand mitts generously covered with the same coarse rock salt I'd been breathing in earlier, combined with soap. She worked efficiently, lifting legs and arms this way and that as she scrubbed. I barely had control over my place on the table it was so slippery - and sliding around was the most inelegant thing I've ever been subjected too, never mind the nooks and crannies she found with those mitts. There were times when she covered bits of my exposed body with a warm wet towel but usually I was splayed out in every position that would have made a porn star envious. After flipping me around a few times and pouring buckets of hot water to rinse off the salt and soap she then got me off the table and indicated that I shower in the area next to the tables, then I returned for part two of this bizarre experience.
At this point I totally got the purpose of wearing bra and panties because this woman was up close and personal with every stage and she was covered in everything I was. I'm surprised they didn't go naked as well.
Back on the table, my skin was as squeaky clean as the taut surface of a balloon. I was told to lie on my stomach and then she poured an enormous quantity of unscented oil into the small of my back and began to give me the massage part of the treatment. This experience was somewhere in the grey area between relaxing and downright painful. Practitioners here give a deep-tissue accupressure massage, and she was all over me, often nimbly climbing on the table and using her knees and elbows to work hard on various muscles. Grunting and groaning was inevitable, and sometimes she pushed the breath right out of me. At some point she added a generous dose of peppermint oil to the gallons she continued to lather on and my skin tingled and nostrils opened up, which was good because it was getting hard to breathe. Flipped onto my back, she slid me up the table until she could get to my head and then she put some kind of soap in my hair and dragged a stiff bamboo comb through it with the same vigorous intensity with which she had gone after every other part of me. Then she put a warm towel over my eyes, and applied a thick, gooey mask of some kind of seaweed and then spent the next thirty minutes massaging the front side.
At some point my friends were finished - I heard them talking in the warm soaking pool next door, and then the massage lady took off my mask, bid me to stand up and then she doused me with buckets of warm, milky liquid.
I was done.
When I wrapped my towel around me and got back to the change room I wasn't sure if I'd ever come back, but my skin is the softest it has ever been, as close to a baby's bum it will ever be again, so I am re-thinking this option. I still prefer my weekly $20/hour tui na massage which includes a heavenly reflexology treatment, but I feel the allure of the soft skin and the new me that has emerged.
For your Korean Spa experience:
Riviera Health Spa
How to make a Sheep Head covering:
1. Fold the towel length ways 3 times
2. Fold the ends over themselves to secure
3. Turn over and find opening
4. Pull apart until the size of your head, and pull it on
You will have two knots on each end that, when placed on your head, will have the effect of a sheep's head with small horns.