A whole new me!*

Ying and I had the loveliest spa afternoon today at the Olympic Spa in Koreatown. But it was also a very random spa day, not a spa day like fancy ladies all dolled up. For starters, we had lunch, not at an elegant restaurant, but at Yanusa Sushi, a teeny-tiny cash-only place crammed inside a supermarket. Then, after getting told off in Korean by the parking lot security guard for parking too long (we didn’t see the one-hour-limit sign), we continued down Olympic in search of the spa: we’d both forgotten to bring the address. Finally we saw the sign: the “OLYMPIC SPA” letters were so old the place looked like it had been there forever. The storefront was all painted black and the doorway was dark as well, and we didn’t see anyone going in or coming out. It looked like a place you would go to to find sex, furtively, at night. Or, which is probably what we were both thinking, it looked like a place where unsuspecting women are kidnapped and then forced to provide sex to the men who go there, furtively, at night. But then we turned the corner and drove into the parking lot, which was valet-staffed and full of many expensive cars, so we knew we were in the right place. (!)

We went in and paid our money. Then we had no idea what to do. The receptionist laughed at our bewildered expressions and showed us around. Behind a pair of swinging doors, we found three saunas (steam, dry, and “oxygen stone”), three baths (a hot tub, another hot tub with mugwort, and one cold tub), showers, and various other interesting things, all being used by naked Korean women in a broad variety of ages, shapes, and sizes (with a few non-Korean women — like us — thrown in for good measure). We stripped, showered, and got into the mugwort bath. It was pleasantly warm and smelled like Chinese herb tea, which is apparently more or less what the mugwort potion is. After the heat got too much for us, we walked across the floor and plunged into the cold bath, which felt like being stuck in a very large ice-cube tray and put in the freezer. After a couple of minutes of gasping and shivering in the cold bath, we escaped to the other hot tub for a few minutes, then returned to the cold tub again, and finally went back to the mugwort tub, where we were when they called us to our scrub treatments.

In the other spas I have been to, I’ve been given my treatments in calm, soothing private rooms, filled with scented candles and soft lighting. Here, I joined at least four other women in a completely non-private nook crowded with cots, where a middle-aged Korean woman named Noh (clad only in a black bra and panties, like all the other masseuses) instructed me to lie “face down!” and proceeded to scrub off all the skin from my body, several times. At least that’s what it felt like. Los Angeles magazine describes the experience well:

My handler was Yang, a middle-aged Korean woman. As a salutation, she threw a bucket of water on the vinyl-covered massage table and smacked it with her hand. Down I went. She slapped me. Over I went. She scrubbed me with something like a loofah, employing the intensity of a laundress presented with particularly stubborn stains.

Except for the names of the masseuses, this is exactly what happened to me. Noh scrubbed every inch of me (oh yes she did) from the back, front, left side, right side, and then again from the front and back. She gave me an incredibly kind smile every time she slapped me with the scrubber, a strange but reassuring incongruence. She scrubbed my ears. She sloughed off every bit of callus from my soles (I did not think this was possible!). She scrubbed my armpits, my belly, she raised my chin and scrubbed my neck. I remember thinking at one point that resistance was futile. I felt like a kitty getting bathed against her will. Noh then washed and conditioned my hair, slathered something creamy on my face, slapped me with the scrubber to get me to sit up, and then plopped a pink plastic basin of water between my knees. I washed my own face. Then I was done.

I wobbled out of the treatment area and found Ying, and we rinsed off again and then headed for the steam sauna. We spread our towels out on the stone and sat roasting for several minutes until the steam filled our lungs and we felt we would suffocate. We were both red-faced and dripping with sweat from every pore. After the sauna, the warm steamy air of the bathing area felt like cool breezes. We rinsed off again. Then we went back to the mugwort tub. Then we tried the oxygen stone sauna, which was, if possible, even hotter than the steam sauna. In fact, there were two wooden hourglasses inside the sauna, and a clock, so you could time how long you’d been in there. After only a few minutes I couldn’t bear it any longer and fled to the resting area, a large expanse of jade flooring (I know! what the heck?) where many women were napping, quietly chatting, or even reading the Korean newspaper. I grabbed a cup of hot, slightly bitter tea and a blanket and settled down to wait for Ying. Then we took our final shower of the day, lotioned ourselves, and left the spa.

Was all this so wonderful? Oddly enough, it was. I don’t know why it’s pleasant to subject one’s body to extremes of hot and cold, be constantly wet for more than an hour, be surrounded by a lot of naked strangers, and have all one’s skin sloughed off by a woman with more arm power than I’ll ever have, but it is. My skin is softer and smoother than it has ever been, and I feel gloriously clean, warm, rosy, lovely and at peace. In the bathroom of Olympic Spa someone had posted this poem by Mother Teresa:

Spread love everywhere you go:
first of all in your own house.
Give love to your children,
to your wife or husband,
to a next door neighbor . . .
Let no one ever come to you
without leaving better and happier.
Be the living expression of God’s kindness;
kindness in your face,
kindness in your eyes,
kindness in your smile,
kindness in your warm greeting.

I guess that’s their motto, and they do seem to live up to it. After we we got out Ying and I were such warm fuzzy bundles of happyness. I don’t know why silly women go to their fancy day spas, but I do know why we’re going back to this one.

*Well, my epidermis, anyway.

[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com.]