Going to a Korean bathhouse was a high priority on our touristy agenda. After the phenomenon that was the hamam, I had high expectations for the super foreign awkwardness (and excellent ensuing stories) that public sanctioned nudity could bring.
We did our research, and everywhere pointed to the “foreigner friendly” Dragon Hills Spa. So Wednesday morning we checked out of our hotel, stored our luggage, and took the metro to the Yansang station to find the promised resort.
(Pausing at Paris Baguete for a quick breakfast, of course. Today’s featured fresh stawberry juice, a blueberry bagel (not pictured because I ate it), and another cibatta cheese roll.)
I spotted two golden dragons when we exited the station. The guidebooks had described this spa as Vegas-like, and those dragons definitely evoked that gaudy oasis.
To the right, a massive parking garage. To the left, a bamboo-lined walkway.
We were greeted upon entrance by a woman who first apologized for her lack of English. She walked us through the array of packages, all of which we declined largely in the interest of time. There is a basic fee for entering and for use of the baths and saunas. That fee gets you in for up to 12 hours (and I can see how you might spend that much tim here after the experience!). There are additional costs for massages, facials, nail art, and various other beauty treatments. We pointed to the basic package and assured the woman that it was all that we needed.
She directed us towards the check-in desk next. Actually, she grabbed me by the hand and led me to the check-in desk. There she pointed to a sign on the counter – “Women’s Spa is closed on Wednesday from 10-11:30 for maintenance.”
I checked my phone: 9:59. Crap.
“Too bad for you!” Jason said in a tone that I promise actually sounded sincere. I figured with all of the other things to do, I’d be okay. Besides, we’re not going to get another chance to do this.
We paid our entry fees and were each handed a wristband with a numbered key attached, a set of clothes, and two small towels. They then pointed us towards a set of lockers.
When they said that the spa is foreigner friendly, it seems to mean that 1) The workers are accustomed to working a bit harder to communitcae basic things and 2) There are signs posted in English occasionally. Granted, the English does not always make a lot of sense. “Removal of shoes into lockers. Your belongings for establishment are not here,” for example. The day became an exercise in guessing what we were supposed to do.
We figured out that we were to remove our shoes and store them in the lockers that matched our keys. Barefoot, we set off past the two artificial waterfalls and into a waiting room outside a set of elevators labeled “Women Only.”
We made a plan to meet up in a bit. Jason figured he would be able to do his bathing thing, I figured I could change into the given clothes and wander around the co-ed parts of the building.
And so I headed into the elevator and up to the third floor. There I found a snack bar a countertop with mirrors where women were drying their hair and doing makeup, and another series of lockers to my right. I headed towards the lockers, bent on findng the one that matched my key when a woman in a red shirt stopped me and adamantly told me something in Korean.
I looked blankly at her and shrugged my shoulders.
She repeated what she said, louder and a little slower.
I shrugged again and put on my best clueless foreigner face.
She waved down a passing yong woman. After a quick exchange, the younger woman said, “You notchange now. Men are here.” She gestured towards the two men working on a nearby electrical panel.
I held up my given clothes and raised my eyebrows in a questioning look. They both shook their heads. “Eleven,” said the younger woman.
“Eleven,” echoed the older one.
Huh. The lockers were set in corridors out of general sight, but if I’m not supposed to change I wasn’t quite sure how to proceed. Happily, I spotted a restroom. I ducked into a stall, changed into the provided shorts and t-shirt, and returned to the locker area to store my belongings.
A bit more wandering around with a clueless look and a few attempts at going into places that I was shoed away from led to a worker pointing me downstairs. I did so and found myself in a room that once again lived up the Vegas description. There was a fake throne (Korean-style) with a golden dragon emblem and prop fans, lines and lines of black leather massage chairs, a couple of small pyramids, five brick kilns, a glass-bricked doorway, and a nail art station. In the center of the room was a set of rectangles on the floor with some kind of heating element visible beneath them. The room had a couple dozen people in it – some laying on the heating spots, some sleeping on the massage chairs, several taking photos of each other, and many hanging out in their matching Dragon Hills Spas outfits like students playing hookey in middle school gym uniforms. I noticed two things in particular:
1) Everyone’s given clothing as grey. Mine was orange. Is that their way of announcing “Caution: Foreigner!”?
2) Almost everyone had a cell phone with them. I didn’t anticipate being able to use a cell phone in a spa (let alone taking pictures like the coiuple posing for selfies on the faux-throne as I watched). Hvaing finally figured out where I was supposed to be, though, I didn’t want to go back up to the locker room to fetch my phone.
Jason arrived about an hour later with his phone in hand. He’d been snapping pictures the whole while. I’ll direct you to his blog for the visuals of the experience.
Until we met up, I explored the area. There were vending machines, an arcade, two more snackbars, two restaurants, and a couple of massage rooms. Everything is paid for wiith the radio key on the given wristband. I decided to try out the massage chair (2000 won for 10 minutes), so I just tapped my wristband to the stand next to it and enjoyed getting my back and calves pummeled by mechanized forces. It was actually very soothing and rather thorough.
After I bought a bottle of water and scoped out all of the areas, I found Jason. We tried out the kilns together. The first one was ridiculously hot. Like, so hot that I had barely ducked inside when I turned fearful that my contacts were going to melt to my eyeballs. We immediately crawled back through the door to escape. The room next door had three more kilns labeled “Low Temp,” Medium Temp,” and High Temp.” Like Goldilocks, we went from one to the next, sticking them out for only a minute or so before moving on.
Next we went into my favorite of the place – the ice room. With a thermometer over the door reading 07 degrees Celcius and frost-covered pipes covering the walls, this was my kind of sauna. We lasted the longest in that room, but Jason eventually claimed that he was about to perish from frostbite long before I was uncomfortable. Onwards we went.
The pyramids turned out to be heavily-scented small rooms that, based on what the Koreans were doing inside, you are supposed to sleep in. The pyramid-shaped roof is supposed to be the most beneficial shape to your mind (from what I could glean from the semi-English description), and it was painted with fake hieroglyphics and temple images. We lay down under the triangle-shaped alcoves and tried to cleanse our minds. That didn’t last long either.
As we emerged, I realized that it was past 11:30. Time for me to experience the baths!
I headed back up the elevator, emerging into the same women’s area, except now it was full of stark naked ladies. I see now what they meant by closing up shop while the men were there.
I went back to my locker hoping fervently that a woman would come in at about the same time as me so I could surreptitiously follow her and figure out what I’m supposed to do. No such luck. So I did what I figured I was supposed to do – I stripped naked, tucked my clothing and my American prudence on the shelf, grabbed my little towels, and headed back into the snack bar area.
Can I just say here how strange it is to be completely naked in front of a snack bar?
I still wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to do with my naked self, but then I spotted the older woman from before. I took a tenative few steps towards her, and she nodded and gestured for me to head down the staircase next to her.
You know, it’s one thing to be naked in a Turkish bath when you only have a short Turkish woman in front of you and a wall at your back and the relative safety of a towel to wrap yourself in between treatments. It’s completely different to walk down an unknown staircase into uknown rooms totally starkers and jiggling for everyone to see.
But then at the bottom of the staircase I found a room full of pools and showers and other jiggling women. They were going about their business – washing hair, brushing teeth, soaping up and rinsing off. They were all just as naked as me, and no one cared. And I suddenly discovered, I didn’t care either. In fact, it felt rather nice to just be there, all being women together.
I claimed a shower head and rinsed off as the signs instructed, then walked back to the area labeled “Body Scrub”. A woman in a bra and panties came over to greet me and pointed out the list of scrubbing/massage options on the wall. I pointed to the basic package. She pointed to the most expensive packaege. I shook my head, and reiterated my choice. She gave me a skeptical look and pointed to the part of the expensive package’s description that promised “Uterine Health”. Wondering what air of Uterine Illness I may be giving off, I pointed again to the bottom choice and held my hands close together to communicate that I was short on time. She seemed to get it, nodded, and called for another worker from the back room.
This woman came out in a floral wrap. She smiled at me in greeting and stripped off her dress and pulled on a pair of panties before pouring a bucket of water over a plastic-wrapped massage table and patting for me to get up on it.
I did so, and she stripped off my wristband and indicated I should lay down. She then proceeded to scrub me down everywhere (EVERYWHERE) with those rough mitts I came to love in Turkey. She chatted at me in Korean, but I had no idea what she was saying. She communicated when and how I should rotate with a series of spanks and hand gestures. I tried to figure out where I should look while she worked and also tried not to notice the fact that since she wasn’t wearing a bra, every time she reached across me “the friends” (as Jason terms them) brushed across me as well. Then again, who am I to be squeamish about breasts while she’s vigorously rubbing and shaking my own friends about like they’re two lumps of pizza dough she’s getting ready to throw?
Really, it felt great. At one point she put my hand on my stomach to feel how much dead skin nubbins had acumulated there before she rinsed me off. She rubbed me down literally from head to toe, massaged oil onto my face, shampooed my hair, combed it out, pulled it into a ponytail on top of my head, tied it with a rubber band, and spanked me to say it was time to sit up. I did so and she thumped me twice on the upper back, once on the lower back, and said, “Okay, go now!” with a smile.
I slid off the table, she scanned my wristband and returned it to me, and I headed for the nearby herbal pools. I tested out each one with their varying degrees of hotness and different herbs (ginseng, “seasonal” and “Chinese medicine”), then followed the instructions to lay down on the nearby jade heating spots with my head propped up on a stone block.
Without clocks, I had no idea what time it was but figured it must time for me to meet up with Jason again. I rinsed off one last time in the showers, lingered just long enough to note the Roman-style baths, outdoor pools, and saunas that I had to skip, and went back up the stairs to the locker room.
Before changing, I thought of Jason’s attempts at documenting this experience and decided to add my own bit of proof. I checked to make sure no one was looking, then snuck my phone out of my bag long enough to snap this from inside the locker:
I then dried off, pulled on my normal clothes, and blew dry my hair (which took forever with their weak dryers and the humid air).
Jason was waiting downstairs, in fact, he had been waiting for quite a while. He didn’t seem too annoyed, but I felt guilty for missing our rendezvous time.
We gathered our shoes, turned in our wristbands, paid for the extra services, and headed back outside feeling relaxed and squeaky clean.
The metro station we came out of is attached to a mall, so we decided to get some lunch there before going on to our next stop. Before we found food, Jason found clothes. We’ve both been admiring the fashion of Seoul, and soon Jason had an armful of clothes to try on.
It was about twenty minutes into the men’s section that I stopped feeling guilty about taking a bit too long in the baths.
He did find some terrific outfits (wait until you see the white cropped pants with the navy button-down!), and we also found a food court. We grabbed a table at a Japanese restaurant and enjoyed the best meal so far on the trip. Our mutual preference for Japanese food over Korean speaks well for the meals to come.
Jason outside the mall with his purchases
A friend of Jason’s recommeneded checking out the Samsung showroom, so we hailed a cab from here and headed to Gangnam (which, yes, immediately firmly wedged the song into my brain).
There were a lot of cool-looking buildings in this posh area:
and we followed these pillars into the buiding to find “Samsung D’Light”
It was actually less impressive than we thought. In fact, Jason suspects that perhaps his friend was referring to the Samsung Art Museum instead.
In any case, we experienced this “Semiconductor Ride” (not a ride – just a series of cool screen projections in a small mirrored room):
I'm so glad to see you taking those first important steps to becoming a naturalist. Next step: naked in a park!