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naked in a korean spa

When I was young, my mom would break out a little red mitt every few weeks and scrub my skin in the tub. The red mitt was like a sandpaper envelope that she stuck her hand into. She’d leave me soaking in the hot water, then pull out an arm, and then start scrubbing the shit out of it. And I’d watch as my dead skin would fall into the tub in gray rolls. Then I’d shower it all off, and feel reborn.

Ok, that’s a lie. When I was a kid, I didn’t feel reborn, I felt harassed—nay, tortured. But now, I crave that feeling. That feeling of being clean, stripped of all the dirt and grime and sweat that a body can accumulate, just from the business of being alive. There’s only one place you can get that feeling as an adult, and that’s at a Korean spa.

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I’ve been to Korean spas in Seoul, LA, and NYC, but I forgot about them until my friend Kathryn mentioned that she’d heard of one near Seattle. Around the same time, my mom and her friends started taking day trips up to Federal Way and would return with pink, glowy skin and bags full of Korean groceries. That’s when I really started paying attention. You know a Korean spa is legit if a bunch of Korean moms will drive two hours to get to it.

Kathryn and I started planning, and made the spa the first stop of a girls’ weekend up in Seattle with Linds. Linds was working on Friday and couldn’t go to the spa anyway because she’s preggers, but it was clearly for the best, because the first thing to know about a Korean spa is that you have to be nude in order to partake. There are numerous hot and cold pools and steam rooms and showers and everyone moves between these things buck naked. I’m not 100% clear on the reasons WHY you have to be naked all the time, but rules are rules. Anyway, Linds would rather pull out her fingernails than be naked in front of other people.

For some reason, I only remembered the nakedness on the day before the spa. I’d be naked all day with Kathryn, whose standards for personal grooming generally seem a lot higher than mine. I texted Linds in a panic.

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Too preoccupied with my own panic, I forgot to mention the nakedness to Kathryn until the drive up to Federal Way. Kathryn is pretty game, but she refused to believe that she would be required to spend a spa day naked with someone she’d have to see again. “Wait,” Kathryn said, shaking her head while navigating I-5. “I’ve been to a Korean spa in Santa Monica and they gave us these pajama things.”

Santa Monica? I didn’t have the heart to tell K that no self-respecting Korean would go for a scrub in Santa Monica. I highly doubted the spa had even been Korean. More importantly, my authority on the matter was being questioned. I couldn’t believe that K had the nads to believe that she knew more about Korean spas than me, a real Korean. It was as if she’d offered me a recipe for kimchee.

“No, you have to be naked the whole time,” I said. “That’s what my Mom said.” I felt proud of myself for leaving off the “So there.” K still wasn’t buying it. “No, but not the ENTIRE time, right?” I stopped being annoyed, and started to be concerned. Because she sounded nervous and unsure. And she was about to be naked in that mind state, for four hours.

Once inside Palace Spa, we were each handed a pink shorty pajama set. “See!” Kathryn said, the relief palpable in her voice. We received a tour of the facilities, and peeked into the wet area. “No clothing allowed in this section,” our guide announced.

Whatever. I was fully on-board with the nudity by this point. None of the women walking around were exactly hard-bodied. Plus I’d noted at check-in that the shorty pajama set had an elastic waistband and a high v-neck. I knew what I’d look like in that outfit, and what I’d look like, wouldn’t be female. I’d happily be naked all day if it meant I could avoid that outfit.

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you’re not entirely naked. you also wear this hat

Kathryn and I spent the next hour getting our skin nice and wet for our scrubs and trying to avoid one another. I steamed in the steam room, sliding around like a trained seal on the wet tile benches. Kathryn alternated between cold and hot plunge pools, where I overheard another woman asking K if she was a triathlete. I felt happy for my friend. Getting asked if you’re a triathlete while you’re naked has to be the equivalent of winning the damn lotto. I wouldn’t know. No one asked me if I was a triathlete.

At 2:00 pm, we met up in the communal scrub room, which consisted of a long row of massage tables. Kathryn was already face down on her table, being pummeled by a short Korean woman wearing nothing but a black bra and panties. I barely had a chance to absorb the indignity of it all before I was told to lay down on my table, by another Korean woman wearing surprisingly saucy lingerie. Don’t get excited. The women have to dress that way because for the next hour, they will be scrubbing your skin with wet mitts and sloshing hot water on you with buckets. Wearing clothes while doing that work would be pointless.

How to describe the scrubbing? Let me just say that at one point, when the lady was working on my shinbone, I imagined my leg gleaming like fine alabaster in the midday sun, to divert myself from shrieking in pain. Worse was when she unceremoniously threw my legs open and got her scrubbing mitt uncomfortably close to my lady parts. She flopped me over and scrubbed my back before shoving her elbows into my neck for some light reflexology. Face down, I wiggled my fingers and felt my fingers graze something. My eyes opened to see what I’d grazed. Little pieces of black stuff all over the table.

My dead skin. Nasty!

No longer part of me! Glorious.

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scrub glow. much easier to attain than pregnancy glow

That night in Seattle, K kept asking me and Linds to feel her elbows. “You guys! Feel my elbows!!” I understood her excitement. Every part of me felt immeasurably softer, cleaner, glowier. Not even Kathryn’s alarming discovery that her spa lady had scrubbed freckles off her chest could kill my buzz.

And all for $99!! We are hooked. And we’ll be back.

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21 Comments Post a comment
  1. Lori #

    Heading here in a couple of weeks for my 40th! Thanks for the recommendation.

    October 12, 2013
  2. Muffy #

    Yoona, I loved reading about the Korean spa experience, so much that I Googled Korean Spa in Houston…no such thing, which I find hard to believe because Houston has a fairly large Korean community…I want to be exfoliated so badly that I am going to drive to Dallas to visit the Korean spa…#Texasdeb, here is a link for the Dallas spa…http://www.kingspa.com/index.php

    September 28, 2013
    • “I want to be exfoliated so badly that I’m going to drive to Dallas”–so awesome. I really hope your scrub lives up to my palace spa experience. Now I’m all nervous for you. Please check the yelp reviews before you go!!!

      September 28, 2013
  3. Jen #

    Completely un-spa related, will you ask Kathryn where she bought her camo tank? I need it.

    September 20, 2013
    • it’s splendid (the brand) and she got it in Portland at golden on NE 15th

      September 20, 2013
  4. Sarah #

    Have you heard of the Beaverton Jade Sauna? I enjoyed a total Korean scrub down there a few years ago. It created an amazing glow. The ladies there don’t seem to speak much English, so the experience was a little confusing, but I am heading back soon.

    September 20, 2013
  5. loved this and totally checking this out in London

    September 19, 2013
  6. What to do with pubic hair is the greatest mystery of the aughts. I literally look down at myself every day and think, “What should I do with you? Should I do anything with you?” At some point the world decided it was better to look like you hadn’t gone through puberty yet and I never got the memo.

    Are these spas co-ed? Are there naked men-folk running around you all this whole time? If so, aren’t you worried about the scandal?!

    September 18, 2013
    • Men and women have different rooms but there’s a whole floor with co-ed treatment rooms. But you have to wear those shorty sets. Tom asked if the scrubbers on the male side are female but I would suspect not. With the pubes I just try not to stand out in any given situation but I agree it is all very confusing

      September 18, 2013
  7. eb #

    There is also a great Russian spa in Seattle where you could be beaten with branches if you’d like. you should try that place out as well (and you don’t have to be naked the entire time). Banya5

    September 18, 2013
    • I am intrigued about the branches. Circulation, I suspect

      September 18, 2013
  8. new reader here, hilarious and accurate description of the korean spa experience! 🙂 during the scrub, did you also wonder if you peed yourself when they poured hot water on you or if it was just the hot water, feeling hot?

    and why do they slap you so many times?

    September 18, 2013
    • Hey wait – they slap you? Yoona!? They SLAP you? Is that what you mean when you describe being pummeled? Hmmm. Second (and third) thoughts/doubts surfacing. I’m in for being scrubbed but the smacking stuff is not fueling my desire.

      September 18, 2013
    • oh man that hot water sloshing was the BEST. but yes now that you mention, it did feel a bit like when you wet your pants at night. not that i’ve done that.

      and i don’t remember smacking at palace spa. but i remember smacking at other korea spas. probably to boost circulation. it’s not painful

      September 18, 2013
  9. Once upon a time (long ago and far far away) somebody told me they could tell I was a runner. I most certainly am/was NOT. I basked in the glow of that error for years. It was nearly enough to get me to shell out a ridiculous amount of money for running shoes. You know, just to complete my “look”.

    The spa exfoliation sounds pretty comprehensive. You suppose there are any Koreans rash enough to have set up shop in unfortunately ultraconservative Texas? I’m guessing if I exfoliated thoroughly at this late point in my life it might be an easy way to drop a couple of pounds.

    But… waxing, really? I think I’d concentrate on a mani/pedi. Other than closely checking out the floor or critically assessing my cuticles, I’m pretty sure I’d be not so much looking as avoiding looking. Fortunately for me, once my glasses were off I’d be reassured by the astigmatic blur that everybody in my proximity was similarly lumpy.

    September 18, 2013
    • aren’t there a lot of koreans in texas? i mean, i would be shocked if washington had a korean spa and texas didn’t. the exfoliation was absolutely, uncompromisingly comprehensive

      September 18, 2013
      • Actually there are lots of Koreans in the Dallas and Houston areas – it’d be silly to think there aren’t any here in Austin. I was just taking the opp to slam the ridiculously repressive turn taken here over the past few years.

        September 19, 2013
  10. such a great story! thanks I’m gonna check out spas around my neck of the woods…..

    September 18, 2013

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