On Sunday, my sister surprised me with a trip to LA’s Koreatown. My face lit up! For me, this meant one thing only: seshin! A full body scrub Korean style!—twenty years had somehow flown by since my last scrub; twenty years that I had deprived myself of clean skin and barrels of laughter that were always part and parcel of this type of indulgence. This time, my daughter also joined us, and to think that the last time I was there she was only seven years old. There’s always something that triggers an uncomfortable thought or a feeling that you may be suppressing, and for me, it was the sudden realization that twenty years had gone by in the blink of an eye. I was young the last time I went, and now I would enter the premises as a middle aged woman, damn it.
After my initial screech and multiple yippees, I fell dramatically silent—my mind drifted to those good old days at the Korean Spa, when I’d parade around in the nude in front of loads of women and who knows who, but feeling unhampered by my surroundings and my body.
“Ilana, why’re you quiet—you don’t want to go?” asked Sharon.
“No, I want to go!”
She gave me one of those “then what’s your problem” looks.
“Nothing, just the last time I was there—I probably weighed ten pounds less so—“
“Who cares!” she snapped, “don’t tell me you’re intimidated all of a sudden?”
“Are you crazy!” chimed in Maya.
I shrugged, weight was not an issue for me; it was just a passing thought, a symbol of how much I’ve aged. It takes guts to go for a Korean body scrub. It could very well be that in my mid-fifties and especially on my 55th birthday as it were, my youthful confidence had dissolved into reticence, just so much more self-conscious about what was and what’s left of it.
“You know it’s the other way around usually.”
“Wait, how’d you know what I was thinking?”
“You’re not supposed to care at this stage what people think about you or your body, not at this age. And you’ve never cared anyway.”
“Right, I didn’t and I don’t even though my body has changed. But still, it used to be so easy, you know.”
The truth is that the older we get the more we care, otherwise how do you explain the multi-billion dollar beauty and cosmetics industries as well as rejuvenation treatments offered to women all over the globe, and especially sought after by women our own ages? And the spas for heaven’s sake, right there in Koreatown you see a tradition of skin care rituals that are as normal as brushing teeth in some parts of the world—people very much care about their skin! Possibly more than they care about their teeth . . .
And then we walked into this other world. We entered the building and the receptionist handed us our locker keys and told us to undress and put on the robes and slippers that were inside our lockers, and like compliant little schoolgirls we followed her instructions to the dressing room.
When I entered the main bathing area, also known as jjimjilbang, it felt as though I were thrust into another dimension, so strange, like a silent movie when there’s action all around you, but no sound at all. The room looked drab, lacking all the bells and whistles one is accustomed to seeing in high-end modern Western spas, but we didn’t care. We knew what awaited us around the corner. I watched the women, all of whom seemed indifferent to nudity, engage in toweling themselves dry; comb their hair; apply creams; get dressed, undressed. It’s a shock all right, especially if you’re not used to this type of thing. There was perpetual movement all around us and I did my best to keep to the spa’s etiquette of “act like you’re not noticing a thing while your mind catalogues every single image before you.”
I continued to scrutinize my surroundings until the receptionist peered through a little window and barked at me to undress already, because I needed to shower and prep my skin before my scrub. I knew what to do, but she thought I was a newcomer to this strange world of Asian-style holistic relaxation. My sister and daughter were already submerged in water, so I hurried to undress, wear my robe, and join them. Though honestly, why bother with that robe in the first place.
I found my sister and daughter in one of the soaking pools, there was one with regular water, another with tea, and a third with arctic cold-water. There were also a number of therapeutic rooms to choose from, such as dry and steam saunas, including a herbal sauna, a gem room, a salt room, and a red clay ball room. Along the walls there were low faucets where I watched women sitting in groups of three or four in a row, family members I assumed, busily scrubbing each other’s backs in a rhythmic motion.
Communal bathing is a centuries-old tradition, but for someone like me who’d been accustomed to bathing alone it felt like a vivid hallucination or a voyeuristic Peeping Tom show. I watched the women engage in an activity that for the rest of us has always been a private affair. The three of us decided to begin our cleansing steps inside the steam sauna.
Thankfully, there was no one inside, I guess it had something to do with COVID precautions, but in the old days I recall that weird sensation inside this particular woodsy-scented room when it was at full occupancy, and the women looked blankly into space, pretending that no one else was there, and from time to time you’d hear the thud of a bucket of water splashing on stones to generate more steam. This time we had the room all to ourselves so we included a few naked dances, and without a doubt, my sister won first prize for the oddest moves.
Next, we entered the red clay ball room; we watched Maya zip over the balls with the ease and elegance of a ballet dancer in a glissade (glide) across a dance floor. When it was our turn, gravity took over and we sank right in, and looked like two idiots trying to escape inevitable branding. Yes, Maya had a good laugh. Once we figured out how to drag our fatter asses to the center, without burning our bottoms, ta-da—we relaxed. I would have stayed longer but we wanted to try out every single room, so once again we attempted to drag our bodies off the clay without sinking. We managed to sauna hop and visit all of the amenities, even the freezing arctic water—the smiles on all our faces said it all.
On the other side of the room, several naked women were lying down on stone beds covered in vinyl. They looked placid as an army of underwear-clad women labored hard, scrubbing every part of their bodies. The process looked invasive and there was no shame, no modesty involved in the way they were positioned on the beds, and the treatment of their bodies seemed so crude—a smack here, a slap there prodding them to change positions, and buckets of water splashed all over them to rinse off their dead skin as though they were animals on a farm rather than dainty women who’ve come for a beauty treatment. The three of us avoided eye contact with each other because we knew that we would easily burst into fits of laughter.
There was an assortment of breasts on display: small, common C’s, sagging, enormous, tuberous, and stiff mounds that pointed to the ceiling, as well as bottoms of all shapes and sizes jiggling to and fro as they were subjected to vigorous cleansing and orders spouted by authoritative ajumas (aunties). The pruning and grooming of their nether regions was also on display—and my eyes naturally veered below my own navel area for a quick check, just to make sure . . . Could I really do this again? But I’m so dirty, layer upon layer of dead skin and only those scrub bullies would be able to restore my skin. I needed this!
Three ajumas emerged from the scrubbing area, one of them called out my number and without an introduction she grabbed my hand, and led me to my designated bed. I looked back at my daughter and sister—the three of us giggled.
Her name tag read Jenny; she looked older than me, something about her eyes and their deep gaze—but her skin was flawless. Her grip around my hand was tight, she let go to tie my hair up with the rubber wristband attached to my locker key, then she instructed me to lie face down on the bed, fully naked. That’s when my internal monologue kicked into high gear; I wondered whether they used anything to disinfect the beds, perhaps nothing more than a bucket of water to wash off any remains from the last occupant? I looked to my side and noticed how submissive and relaxed the rest of the ladies were, and whoosh came the first warm bucket of water without warning. I let out a combination shriek and giggle, now I knew firsthand what the floor must’ve felt every time it was mopped clean!
A forceful circular motion crept along my back; prickly tingles kept my eyes open–ahhh, I could almost relax despite the scratchy feel of it all, almost, if it weren’t for my overactive brain and intermittent popping sounds signaling the end of someone’s treatment. She leaned into my head and I couldn’t tell whether it was her belly? breasts? vagina? Oh who knows, and why were these women forced to work in their underwear instead of a bathing suit? Would that not be more dignified?
Jenny continued to buff and polish my skin as if she were a Roman tanner, circa 800 BCE, beating and scraping animal skin, then treating it with urine, even biting into it in order to masticate the hides until they turned softer. I was pinned under the pressure of her hands as she roamed the surface of my body until I could finally submit, at last drifting into nothingness. I wasn’t thinking or over-analyzing, not a care in the world—my body melted into the bed. Her hands continued to drift downwards, and I thought nothing of it other than don’t let this moment stop. The circular motion rotated round and round and round and round–and then nothing. She probably needed more soap. Once she resumed the treatment, I felt sandpaper on my butt and my eyes popped open, albeit there was a towel covering my face.
“Hahaha, pimple!” she blurted as though it were the highlight of her day. She made sure to scrub it and I thought I was going to die of shame. I could find this and it was a mosquito bite, damn it—couldn’t she tell that I had a few of those on my legs too, and why were there curtains around my bed, around everybody’s beds if no one bothered drawing them.
What? N-n-nooo, don’t go there, not inside, no no no, don’t let that glove vanish between my cheeks. What’re you doing Jenny?! Oh my goodness, there was not an inch of me that was off limits to Jenny’s slippery hands. She worked methodically on every part of my body, scraping between my toes, behind my ears, under my arm pits, my boobs were also exfoliated. I felt like a plank of wood in the hands of a carpenter handling a power tool to sand down and smooth out all the bumps and uneven parts. Layers of skin, which resembled bits of mud, were scrubbed loose and littered my bed then smeared under my body every time she ordered me to change position. I’m guessing that she must have scrubbed off at least a pound of dead skin and she too proudly pointed at it, in case I had somehow missed it. So gruesome, but such shameless enjoyment had taken over; I could feel the transformation through the shedding of my skin and nothing else mattered from this point on.
Feeling sedated, my muscles had turned into Jell-O and I didn’t care that my legs were split apart, and that she was now diligently smoothing every part of my inner thigh all the way up to my groin. After an hour-long scrub, Jenny tossed a few more buckets of water on top of me, this time with skin as sleek as a dolphin’s, I floundered helplessly like a fish on the pier. She kept me from slipping right off the bed. The next part comprised of cold mush she rubbed on my face and neck. I inhaled the fragrant scent of fresh cucumbers; their cool feel on my skin lulled me to sleep, even though I was completely exposed for all to see and judge—I didn’t give a damn and felt strangely comfortable. Especially after she began to shampoo my hair. I was out. I felt weightless. My body had erased its memory of tendons, muscle, and bone—my mind drifted into emptiness. I could feel the concoction slowly dripping to the sides like the gentle stroke of a hand. The best part was the scent, like a blast of salubrious air, as if I were on a beach somewhere, sitting by the water, enjoying the sea breeze and feasting on a fresh, crisp watermelon.
Once the cucumbers were washed off my face, it was time for the massage. This part was not enjoyable, more like a slapping and pummeling with oil. Oh, but the first part of the treatment was so out of this world that I was still spellbound and smiling. Then I received the dreaded finale pops, a series of them to indicate the end of the session. She didn’t have to shock my system, a gentle whisper would’ve sufficed. But I still felt so good, relaxed, uninhibited, and extremely clean. I looked radiant, the layers of dirt that washed away revealed polished, glistening, glowing, mango-colored, silky, shiny, smooth baby skin.
After showering off the oil, neither one of us bothered covering up with the towel or the robe, so we got the same bewildered stares from the newbies who arrived for their turn of out-of-this-world pampering.
“And to think that you were worried over a few extra pounds when you had a huge pimple on your ass,” said Sharon.
I laughed, even though it was really a mosquito bite. I swear! But who cares, right. Anyway, at this stage there was probably no evidence of it any longer. And that’s what a few hours at the Korean Spa will do for your mental and physical well-being.
Just Google to find the best Korean spa near you. What are you waiting for? Run.