By Diane Ako
I've had my first experience at a Korean day spa, and it was very interesting. I liked it, but it sure was different.
Having worked in Kalihi for 13 years, I passed Loess Day Spa just about every day on my way to and from the station. On the outside, it's not much to speak of, and frankly, I thought it was a hostess bar.
Recently, I read an article about how great Korean day spas are, and I was talking about it at my new job. I now work with a lot of Asians who have strong ties to Japan and Korea, and my coworkers reassured me it was fabulous, and they go, too.
They warned me about the nudity. The concept of communal (emphasis on communal) bathing is common in Asia, where cleansing is a social experience.
Here is my personal experience: Upon check in, I received a locker and a terrycloth robe, then was ushered into a large, open room where it all happens. I was shown the showers and instructed to bathe with soap then soak in a hot tub to prepare the body for a massage. I had hung my key on the hook with the robe, but the clerk was nervous about theft and told me to keep it around my wrist at all times.
There is a steam room, sauna, and cold plunge tub; I'm sure they are all nice, but I am not fond of any of those amenities, so I sat in the very large hot tub letting my pores open and my muscles relax. There were women of all ages and races (mostly Korean national, though) at the time I went, including a very old Korean woman who was showering with the help of an assistant, because she couldn't stand up well on her own.
After about 20 minutes, my masseuse called my name, and then told me to follow her. One area of this room has half a dozen plastic-covered massage tables on it, side by side, upon which you lie down while a Korean grandmother dressed in black bra and panties rubs and scrubs you down.
At first I did not understand why it had to be done in undergarments, but now I realize they sweat so much doing this, they scoop cold water onto their bodies to cool off. Black is just their uniform color. The undergarments should be viewed as more like a swim suit.
Next to the massage table is a grey plastic garbage can filled with hot water. She used a smaller bucket to scoop this water onto my back, then she used one of those Japanese scrubby cloths (the kind you get at Longs), a bar of soap, and she rubbed me down top to bottom, front and back and sides.
Because my skin was softened by the hot tub, it came peeling off in long, grey noodles. Like, seriously. I have never been exfoliated like this. I liked the idea of all that old and dead skin coming off but it was also a tad gross to see as it fell off by my face.
Don't take this as a complaint. It's just me marveling at the stuff happening to me. Periodically, she threw water on me to wash the surface clean.
Here are more differences between the efficiency of the Asian experience and the fru-fru, modest, American experience: 1) Draping - what draping? 2) She gets the washcloth right in there. Like, she is as thorough as possible while remaining maternally clinical.
After this, she had me shower off briefly and then return to the table, for the massage. She poured oil on me and went to town.
First she did my back, then she had me turn over. While she was rubbing this side, she also applied a cucumber mask to my face. Decadent!
To finish it, she shampooed and conditioned my hair. I was not expecting this. Aside from my hairdresser, nobody has done this to me since I was a kid, and I loved it.
The whole thing- the way she scrubbed me, the brief and familiar way she communicated with me, the way she washed my hair - reminded me of being coddled like a child, and I enjoyed it. It felt very assuring and comfortable.
I should clarify that I am part Asian, and I am used to being spoken to by my Chinese relatives in short, brusque, commanding tones. I think other cultures sometimes interpret it as rude, but to me, it's just the way it is. If this is not your orientation, you might not receive it as I did.
After it was over, she told me to shower again, and sit in the hot tub. I did not want to, but she insisted. I don't totally know why, because she only knew enough English to get by, but I'm guessing there is some theraputic reason.
When it was finished, I dried off and asked the front desk clerk, who did speak English, what else there was to do or see. She showed me the other rooms, which were heated and were made of certain elements believed to boost health - charcoal, jade, and mud rooms.
She suggested I lie down in a room, so I laid on the floor in the jade room. It was warm and pleasant, but I was soon bored, so I left.
There is a kitchen area where you can buy food to eat, but I didn't have time to try it.
I paid for my scrub+massage package and left, with the hopes of returning one day soon!
When I went to work the next week, I told my coworkers about the massage. They were happy I liked it - but we agreed to warn each other before our next visit so as to avoid awkward encounters!