Monday, July 02, 2007

Spa Pia: The Price of Beauty

The Cost:
~$5 entrance fee includes access to saunas and baths
~$30 massage/scrub including facial

The Experience:
Upon paying the entrance fee, Cathy and I got our numbered wristbands which included the key to our lockers. We put our shoes in the downstairs locker and follow a Korean woman onto the elevator. When the doors open we blindly follow her and are about to turn the corner into the locker room when we hear her squeal. She comes scurrying back to the elevator, hiding her face in her hands. We quickly realize the error and are relieved we didn't follow her completely into the men's locker area.

Safely on the women's floor, we undress and head into the main area. After reserving time for our massages, we go to the showers where women are seated on low plastic stools, busy washing and scrubbing themselves. We plunk ourselves down and ease into the public bath routine.

Feeling sufficiently clean, we walk to the other side of the room to survey the series of shallow pools of varying temperatures. We slide into the green tea pool which records a temperature of about 40 degree Celsius (104 Fahrenheit). I am fond of lukewarm bathwater and am more than ready to move to a cooler pool in a few minutes. The one outside pool was especially relaxing until I notice huge spiders dangling from the overhead trellis. Cathy is easily convinced to go back inside. She introduces me to one of the underwater exercise devices which rather lamely proclaims to be a "super fat burn" machine. I press the button, hold onto the handles and brace myself against the force of water that magically trims fat from my abdomen. If it were only so easy!

There are three saunas to choose from and I opt for the least hot, which is still almost 60 degree Celsius. I have only recently begun to use saunas- Korean air quality inspires me to sweat out the impurities- and don't want to pass out. I'm drenched in sweat after five minutes and can at least understand the impulse behind the Nordic tradition of jumping in snow or ice post-sauna.

My masseuse is a round 50 year old woman in a matching red lace bra and panty set. She is one of five similarly clad women in the massage room. They chatter amongst themselves as they scrub, knead and slap. I keep my eyes closed for most of the 45 minutes, lest I peer into the crotch of my masseuse or witness the jiggling of the elderly woman on the next table. I grimace sufficiently when she starts scrubbing my legs that she switches mitts. I have never been scrubbed so roughly or intimately by a stranger before. I quickly tell that this is a functional massage, there's no time or common language to encourage me to relax and leave my troubles behind. I'm too anxious about where she's going to put her exfoliating mitt next!

After throwing a couple of buckets of water on me, she quickly covers my face in some goop and wraps my head in a damp towel. She squirts me with oil and begins the massage. I feel more like a percussion instrument as she slaps my thighs and cups my arms. When she grabs my fingers I can feel how wrinkled she is from doing this all day long. I worry about sliding off the plastic covered table when I have to turn onto my back again. She steadies me by grabbing a breast and I'm struck by the simplicity of having my body treated as just a body. That's the satisfying thing about going to a public bath here. Perhaps there's some curiosity at my Western body, but I don't get a sense of being judged as a woman. Little girls walk hand in hand with their wrinkled grandmothers and everybody just goes about their naked business. Body politics are left to the clothed, when Korean women are unabashed at their eagerness to powder, primp and otherwise admire themselves in their hand mirrors.

The massage comes to an end and I'm squirted with another liquid. She makes me sit up for a moment and I quickly flash open my eyes. There's a small, opened carton of milk sitting at the end of the table. She washes my hair, carefully removes the cream from my face and sends me off to the shower without further ceremony.

Cathy and I soak for a bit longer after our massages before languidly making our way back to the locker area. We emerge from the spa smiling contentedly and make plans to go again soon.


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