King me: my inaugural visit to the Korean spa

April 18, 2013

No big deal. It’s 9:45 on a Tuesday night and I’m just laying, completely naked, on a massage table in a line of other massage tables also covered by other completely nude women, none of whom I know.

Still more nude women are enjoying the sauna and hot tubs nearby and some others are sitting on white plastic stools, showering. A Korean woman who I estimate to be about 55 or 60 years old, wearing a black bra and panties, is scrubbing my body vigorously with what feels like a brillo pad. She’s scrubbing behind my ears, she’s scrubbing my breasts, she’s scrubbing my belly and she’s got my butt, too.

I often hear a loud cupped slap as one of the nude women down the line from me gets popped with the hand of the underpantsed woman working her. Occasionally I am doused with a few buckets of hot water to wash away the threads of dead skin that have been exfoliated.

I’m covered with a towel but not in any sort of modest way: my breasts will be covered while my crotch lays bare, or just one thigh will be covered. The scrubbing feels raw and hurts but then the second the woman moves onto the next part of my body, I miss the scrubbing, in a strange way. The woman’s name, I can see from the sign hung near the table, is Linda. Linda is also the name of my old boss so it’s funny to imagine her doing this job. I think she’d be strangely good at it.

By the end of the event, after Linda had flipped me around like a seal and slathered me with baby oil and given me a satisfyingly intense shampoo and conditioner, I felt utterly defeated. But in a good way!

This was my first experience at King Spa, the mega Korean spa over in Niles, Illinois. I still can’t quite wrap my brain around it, because the spa reminds me of Las Vegas, except I’ve never been to Las Vegas. It’s also like a shopping mall, but one where you can walk around barefoot and sleep overnight. But I haven’t actually been to one of those, either. It was also a lot like the baths I’d been to in Hungary, only instead of feeling like I was in the 19th century, I felt like I was in the 22nd century. In a Korean version of Las Vegas. Do you get where I’m coming from?

At King Spa, where my friend Erica was my guide, we checked in and were given keys on wristbands that would serve as our de facto credit cards the entire experience. (It's sort of like the card you’re given at FoodLife: you ring everything up on it and then pay when you’re done.) We removed our shoes in the anteroom and then got naked in the ladies’, where little colorful things are for sale that I couldn’t adequately identify but some seemed to be massagers and some seemed to be little adorable slippers and hair ties.

It took me little while to get used to the full-on nudity. I’m not super shy, but I am not so used to walking around nude in front of a lot of strange women that it comes to me naturally. My bod is not as red-hot as it once, believe it or not, was so I was a smidge self-conscious. But once I got over that, we had fun trying out the various lovely hot tubs and sauna.

I was tempted to try the sitz bath, just for fun, as it has many “healing properties” that benefit new moms like me but the process really just looked like someone ties a garbage bag around you from the neck down and lights incense near your crotch.

The phrase “anal intake” and the reassurance that it’s “mentioned in many ancient medical references” didn’t tempt me that much (Didn’t ancient medical references also encourage tempting the uterus to leave the part of the body that it’s bothering?)

One of my complaints about ladies’ day spas is that you are starved as you are pampered: the most you can ever expect to eat is a tiny cup of trail mix and you suspect that that mix is merely a test to see whether you have any willpower or are a big fat hog who doesn’t deserve to get a massage. At King Spa, you actually get to eat. There’s a restaurant with a wonderful array of Korean food, juices, ice cream, you name it. I went for the Bibimbap which included a big bowl of meat, veggies and egg with rice, kimchi, pickled radishes and other yummy stuff on the side. Erica got some shrimp dumplings.

After we ate, Erica showed me around some of the various saunas.  I am not a big sauna person: sitting still in a very hot room doesn’t do it for me, so I failed to truly take into appreciation all you can get from the gold sauna or the salt sauna or the amethyst sauna (“They all have different healing properties,” Erica explained. I gave her a suspicious look and she shrugged.)

They’re basically like different theme rooms in a cheesy Wisconsin Dells hotel but in this case they’re all incredibly hot and you lay on the floor in your standard-issue shorts and top (women get pink, men gray, kids yellow, and theirs are the cutest.)

One room is a gold pyramid, one looks like a magical cave, one looks like a regular cave, one is super hot, another super cold. There’s something strangely exciting to me about the construct of a tiny house inside a larger, actual building, so even while I didn’t particularly adore the sauna, just the prospect of all these little rooms to go and try was enjoyable.

The part that’s most interesting, that I’m trying to wrap my brain around, are the parts of the spa that seemingly have nothing to do with a spa. There’s a meditation room, yes, but there’s also a movie theater with a bunch of La-Z-Boy recliners in it, plus another room with a bunch of similar chairs in it with some flatscreen TVs where you can spend the night.

Did I mention it costs $25 to get into King Spa and that it’s open 24 hours? Something doesn’t quite add up to me about the fact that there is basically a hotel that you can stay at for $25 a night as long as you agree to wear their clothes and sleep in a cushy chair and then go sit naked in a hot tub for as long as you please.

I was relaxed by the time we decided to leave, thanks to the yummy food, the hot bath and Linda's pummeling, but not all my questions were answered.

I think I’m going to have to go back a few more times to figure this all out. Maybe by then I will have gotten up the nerve to allow the wormwood steam sitz hip bath to let its water vapor “reach inside the vagina” and to try out a one-person jacuzzi that looks onto the main lounge of the spa. I just hope Linda is there to scrub me down again. I miss her already.

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