I’m not adverse to paying strangers to touch me. My limbs have been “polished” with lavender infused sea salt. My pores have been squeezed into oblivion. I’ve been subjected to the powerful knees and elbows of a deceptively tiny Thai woman. But none prepared me for the Imperial Day Spa.
Traditional Korean bath houses made news last year when Ellen DeGeneres talked about the awkwardness of getting recognized at one while completely naked. That’s what distinguishes jimjilbang from typical Western spas. Robes and towels are often thrown to the wayside, and it’s like Oh! Calcutta! with hot tubs.
In a somewhat sketchy outskirt of Japantown, the building was window-less, the neon sign more car dealership than spa. Across the parking lot, a KFC emanated its pungent cloud of chicken greasiness. Inside, however, we were greeted by a friendly young Asian woman and, a sure sign of cleanliness, the aroma of bleach.
My friend and I had signed up for the full body scrub and massage, ninety minutes of exfoliation, oil massage, hair washing, and facial. We were instructed to arrive thirty minutes early for a shower, soak, and sauna.
We knew we’d have to be naked. Full on, buck-wild naked. I don’t mind being topless – I have hardly any boobs to speak of – but the only times I go bottomless are at the gynecologist’s and while getting a Brazilian (which is a whole other story), neither a pleasant experience. The bathing area was already full of buck-wild naked women showering. What else could we do but disrobe and shower too.
There’s something about seeing a friend in the buff. Strangers, who cares. But nudity, like drinking glasses and toothbrushes, is not necessarily something you want to share with someone you’re not sleeping with. But after a while, we somehow forgot our clothes-less state.
(I have a friend who’s a stand up comedian. Correction: a stand up comedian who likes to be naked. It’s not enough for him to naked at home, he must be naked on stage too. More times than I care to admit, I’ve seen this friend, and other comedians, some funny, some bad, some awful, naked on stage. They claim to forget they’re naked. Now I believe them.)
There were a few spa-goers who seemed like regulars. They had a whole routine: shower first, then dry sauna, cold dip, wet sauna, and finally, a hot soak. Unlike me, they also seemed perfectly comfortable in their own and everyone else’s in-the-buffness. Unlike me, they didn’t stare.
While soaking in the hot tub (and staring), I noticed a few Asian woman walking around in their bra and underwear. I assumed they were shy (unlike the older Korean lady who had no qualms about arising steamy and au naturel from the sauna to plop her rathery jiggly bum on a stool and vigorously wash herself at one of the sit down showers) but I soon learned they worked there.
“Thirty-seven!” one lady called. “Forty-three!” yelled another. We were up.
Carefully treading up the slippery steps, we found a very wet room full of the aforementioned Asian women in matching burgundy bras and panties, wiping down what looked like doctor’s examination tables covered in plastic. No privacy here, that was for sure. There was water everywhere, big barrels, small barrels, dripping from faucets, running across the floor.
You’d think Asian ladies + bra and panties = sexy. It does not, at least not with short stocky women who could break you in two. I imagined them pulling babies from stubborn wombs, slamming the dirt out of laundry on a rock, and carrying their husbands, drunk and passed out, on their backs home to Richmond and Sunset.
My friend and I – did I mention we were naked? – were instructed to climb face-down onto our respective tables. Across the room, I saw a pale, red-haired woman lying perfectly peacefully, as though poolside at her own private estate.
Blind to my surroundings, I heard the splash of water and suddenly a tidal wave of hot water was thrown over me.
“Whoop!” I whooped involuntarily.
“Hot?” my lady, Julie, asked, amused.
“It’s okay,” I said.
Another splash of water – which began to feel pretty damned good – and Julie got to work.
Now: I think I take pretty good care of my skin. I slather on moisturizer every day, and give myself a full body buff every week. But apparently it wasn’t enough.
Using a towel, Julie rubbed. She rubbed and rubbed and rubbed, starting from one cracked heel, working her way up and across. She spent an inordinate amount of time polishing my ass (which indeed was soft as a baby’s bum afterward). The backs of my arms, my hands. At times I thought she’d rub me to the bone.
Then it was time to flip me over. Lying with your tush exposed is one thing – stretched out with your hoohah unveiled is quite another. Again, I thought of a Brazilian, and was grateful that Julie was not about to slap hot wax on me and RIP.
Once I was scoured within an inch of my life, she swabbed warm liquid on me – oil? milk? – then splashed me again with hot water, which was like a luscious liquid blanket. “Stand please,” she said, and splashed me again, from both sides. She handed me a towel, then rinsed and wiped the table clean of the nuclear fallout of my dead skin.
After a hurried massage (during which my friend opened her eyes and was alarmed to find that Julie had climbed onto my table and was straddling me as she pounded my back) and shampoo, and a cumcuber-y facial, I was rinsed once again with a hot liquid. I stood once more, and she gave me a final douse of hot water.
The result? Silky soft skin that lasted for weeks. Would I do it again? I just might. I imagine a whole routine, a night of beauty if you will, like the regulars. Deep condition the hair, exfoliate body and face, rinse, repeat.
But perhaps I’d rather go solo, no offense to friends. Like Ellen, I’d prefer not to be recognized while naked.