I had a lot of pre-conceived ideas about what it would be like to spend time at a day spa. TV had me imagining myself in a bath robe, lying in a recliner chair, my skin coated in a cool green goop, cucumber slices over my eyelids all the while listening to “The Very Best of Enya.”
As fate would have it, that’s not quite how things are done at traditional Korean spas.
A few months ago, my friend Holly bought us a Groupon to a day spa called Naturaspa: an afternoon of soaking in a jacuzzi tub, drying off in a sauna and a relaxing massage and body scrub. Time got away from us, though, and this offer was scheduled to expire within days. We made the decision to head over late one Saturday afternoon.
I met Holly inside the lobby of the huge building and we followed a series of hallways and elevators to the area of the spa designated for women. (Fun Fact: There’s a separate spa for men.)
At the front desk, we struggled a bit with the language barrier as we checked in for our body scrub and massage appointments. After they found our names in their appointment book, we were each handed a key with a number on it (mine was #9) and a corresponding numbered plastic container that closely resembled the bins you put your carry-on luggage and shoes into when you go through airport security. These bins each contained two towels and a bathrobe.
Because we experienced some difficulty with even basic communication, other than a woman pointing her finger in the direction opposite of where we came in, we had no idea where to go.
We shuffled down a narrow hallway, just completely captivated by how brand new and immaculately clean everything looked. I remember mentioning aloud how I thought that this spa might be a nice place to take my mom and sister when they came to visit.
We found the locker room and numbered storage locker’s without issue, put robes on over bathing suits and started looking for the massage rooms. Right away, we both noticed that there were a lot of people wandering around the locker room stark naked, without a care in the world. I smiled to myself, thinking about how my Michigan upbringing included lockers room full of teenage girls going to great lengths to ensure that we fully covered ourselves up as we changed after gym class and swim practice. (Man, the Midwest is prude!)
While looking for these private rooms, we noticed that the sign on the door leading out to the spa mentioned that no clothing of any kind was allowed. It wasn’t until another we talked to another English-speaking white girl (an ethnic spa veteran, it turns out) that we really understood what Naturaspa was all about.
It boiled down to this: We were at a naked spa. If we wanted to use any of the spa’s amenities: Jacuzzi tubs, steam sauna, dry sauna or any of the number of “Jade” and “Clay” rooms, we would have to go in our birthday suits. Because we were signed up for massages and body scrubs, that meant that we would again have to be completely naked AND share a room with other naked people who would also be receiving massages. Those bathing suits and bathrobes were gonna have to come off.
At this point I realized that it’s a good thing that 1.) I’m open-minded, 2.) I’m secure with myself, and 3.) Holly and I are such good friends.
We ventured into the spa area, wearing nothing but our flip flops, passing other naked bodies as we walked, and pretended like this was the most natural thing in the world for us to be doing.
As we entered, we noticed the small enclosure, where there were at least two dozen people lying on massage tables. Each was being aggressively rubbed down and massaged by chubby Korean women, all of whom were wearing matching black bras and panties.
We presumed that we needed to wait our turn and stood nearby, trying not to make eye contact or awkwardly stare at anyone in the massage area. After a few moments, one woman in the standard issue black bra/panty uniform came over and pointed at the showers to convey that we would first have to rinse off.
So we wandered over, washed with soap and water, and a few minutes later were back in position one: waiting for our massages.
Another Korean spa employee came over to us and indicated that we weren’t getting it. We needed to back over to the showers and stay there until we were called. Embarrassed, we walked back over to the bathing area and each obediently took a hand-held shower head off the hook.
After several minutes, I was pretending to be cleaning myself (I had finished earlier!), when I heard someone yell “NUMBER 9!” with a heavy Korean accent. My locker number! So, it was… my turn? I stepped apprehensively in the direction of the massage area and stuttered something about how I might be the number 9 that they were looking for. A member of the spa’s staff, her soft stomach exploding over her black bottoms, grabbed my by the arm, lead me into the massage enclosure and then pointed to the table where I was supposed to lay down.
As soon as I got situated, she dumped a bucket of warm water on me and started forcefully scrubbing my body with a sharp sponge. I winced in pain. This was not the gentle body exfoliation I had imagined when I forked over my $40. I didn’t feel relaxed or warm and fuzzy inside. When fully analyzing my situation, I felt like this was what showering in prison might be like.
It took a little while for me to phase out my surroundings and to just try to enjoy the scrub and massage; to just completely let go. Who needs that top layer of skin, anyway?
When the scrub was over, some 25 minutes later, the massage began. It was overall much more comfortable and relaxing– I just had to adapt to the buckets of water being dumped across my body every few minutes (to get rid of excess oil) and the fact that the masseuse would slap my leg whenever she wanted me to turn over. She was really good at what she did as she managed to work out my muscle knots and every bit of tension in my body.
After about a half hour, she put a green cucumber mask on my face (this was very cold, as though it had just come out of the fridge), washed my hair and then said something in Korean to let me know that she was finished.
I sat up feeling light headed and a bit high. She was clearly used to this reaction and gave me her hand in order to help me pull myself to my feet. With a goofy smile on my face, I wobbled my way back over the showers. I liked the tingly feeling on my skin and how smooth my arms felt– It made any pain I felt earlier completely worth it. I felt like a new woman.
We spent another hour or so hitting the hot tubs, (avoiding the ice baths) socializing with other naked people, and exploring the spa’s dry and steam saunas (both of which I found to be way too hot to tolerate) before we grabbed our towels and hit the locker room.
Overall, I view my visit to Naturaspa (AKA: The Naked Spa) as a truly cultural experience and a unique way to relax and bond with my friend Holly. Aside from a pretty gnarly yeast infection (oils are always a risky business), I regret nothing.
Finally, from this experience I learned that when buying a daily deal spa day pass for a friend or family member, you should make sure you Google it first. Your best friend, Mom or grandma might not be into getting naked with a bunch of strangers.