Saturday, January 21, 2012

When in Seoul

You may not be aware of this, but ancient Rome and Korea actually have a few things in common. Perhaps it stems from their geographic location which has each peninsula strategically placed to entice warriors and explorers alike to invade and vanquish the land. Both cultures have a rich history that is intricately interwoven with other ancient civilizations to the extent that arguments arise over who invented what and when. Both groups have a deep sense of this culture and are keenly aware of any outside forces coming in to threaten that culture. Most importantly, both cultures share a tradition that allows their people to unite in a common experience. The bath house.

While Korea may not be world-renowned for their kimchi, they are celebrated among other Asian nations for their bath house experiences. Since our arrival to Seoul, friends had mentioned various such establishments around the peninsula and their preferences about which ones were the best. Never being one to shy away from a cultural experience, I was on board from day one and was looking for an opportunity to get to know the Korean people through this custom. The perfect opportunity for cultural discovery presented itself a few weeks ago as our Christmas break drew to a close and we had one last day work-free. Along with some friends, Chris and I scampered off to enjoy one of the most famous bath houses in all of Seoul: The Dragon Hill Spa.

Not really sure what to expect, I verified with my friend one more time before entering the spa, “You’re sure I don’t need a swimsuit, right?” I was reassured that no such attire was needed and we walked in. Immediately greeted by our spa host, he assigned us all lockers and gave us a brief rundown of each of the spa’s seven floors. We bid our husbands adieu as they went to the blue floors and my friend and I left for the pink floors. Elevators were carefully labeled for men or women and were wired only to stop on the assigned floors in order to prevent any uncomfortable situations caused by misguided button pushing. When we arrived at our floor we were met by a host of women of all shapes, sizes and ages wearing nothing but a smile. Suddenly feeling overdressed, we moved to our lockers and joined the other women au natural.

We then headed to the baths themselves. We were met with an array of giant baths varying in temperatures from 17˚C to 52˚C (in Fahrenheit that’s pretty cold to pretty hot, you can do the math). Each was equipped with seats and jets to make the bathing experience that much more pleasant. Around the walls were strings of low-sitting sinks and mirrors. At each station sat women in various stages of pampering. Some were waiting for a facial mask to dry, others were scrubbing down with scented soaps and oils. Many sat next to friends and gossiped about neighbors and coworkers as they helped each other exfoliate those hard-to-reach places on their backs. One corner of the room was sectioned off for massages and mud baths where mothers kept half an eye out for their daughters playing in a nearby lukewarm tub. For the extra brave, a door took you to an outside patio that had another group of pools to enjoy in the open air. When we gave these pools a whirl, I couldn’t help but notice that the only fools out there were us crazy foreigners. My guess is that they are a bit more popular among the locals in March than in January.

Exfoliated, moisturized and down-right pruney, my friend and I saw that it was time to meet back up with the guys. We headed back up the stairs and made ourselves decent once again. While I will admit that this experience is not for the overly modest, it was a very relaxing one for me. It was refreshing to see so many women lounging around, comfortable in their own skin. Who knows? Maybe between public bathing and blossoming kimchi fondness, I am becoming more Asian than I realize. Watch out, Southern friends, I may just make you drink hot tea one of these days…

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