Thursday, August 9, 2012

Scrub-a-Dub-Dub: A White Girl's Guide to Dallas' Korean Spa Scene

A couple months ago, my friend Beverly excitedly Gmail-chatted me with a conversation that went a little something like this:

Bev: OMG you have to buy today's Groupon!!! 
Me: What is it? 
Bev: Discounted entrance into King Spa. 
Me: ?????
Bev: It's a Korean Spa. They do these intense body scrubs where they scale you like a fish. Seriously, you've never seen so much dead skin, it's disgusting. Oh, and everyone's naked. 
Me: Wait, what?! A naked spa? Am I unwittingly signing up for a happy ending? Is this safe and legal? I'm scared! 
Bev: Just buy it, you'll like it. Your skin is like a baby's butt afterwards and you will want to make out with your own arm! 
Me: Fine, I'll buy it! Am I going to be the only white girl there? 
Bev: Yeah, probably. They will all stare at you. 
Me: Fantastic. 

So we went to King Spa, my first experience at what I can only describe as a mega-spa. It's huge. Huger than huge. There's a picture of it from their website below, and it doesn't even capture just how big this place is. Plus, you can't even see the awesome assortment statutes and decorations, like the bronze lions and random gargoyles. Or an entire The Simpsons-themed frosted glass wall in the jacuzzi room. More on that later. Can't make this stuff up!

In case you haven't gathered as much by now, this is not a "normal" spa.  Don't walk in expecting to sit down in a darkened waiting room, sipping a cup of cucumber water and listening to Enya.  No. Upon arriving at THIS spa, you'll be given a bracelet with a key on it and shown to the shoe room where you immediately ditch your kicks (yes, shoes get their own locker). You then round the corner into the main locker room and there are NAKED. PEOPLE. EVERYWHERE. Women only, of's freaky but not that freaky, y'all. An attendant issues you a spa uniform, which consists of a t-shirt and cotton drawstring shorts that you'll wear if you want to visit the co-ed group areas of the spa.  

More on that later. Back to the naked people. 

As a white-bread, fairly sheltered American girl, I've never seen anything quite like this. Naked women walk un-self-consciously through the locker room, pausing on their way to or from the jacuzzis to put on lotion, brush their teeth, or fix their hair. Nobody bothers to cover up with towels, and even if they did, it wouldn't do much good since the towels are about the size of a smallish dish rag. Bev and I made immediately for the booking table to sign up for our body scrub/massage combo - a 120 minute treatment for only $80. I'm sold already...nothing is EVER this cheap at a spa! So we signed up for our scrub time and they told us to go enjoy the jacuzzis before we are called for our treatments. The jacuzzi room is right off the locker room, and it is a fully nude room. No swimsuits, spa uniforms, or underwear allowed. A series of giant jacuzzis (think 20-person hot tubs) lines the walls; digital thermometers advertise the temperatures of each. There are really REALLY hot pools, warm pools, room temp pools, and absolutely frigid pools that make you squeal upon dipping in one toe. There are jets and bubbles and it's all very relaxing once you get past the fact that you just climbed nude into a giant hot tub with 5 other total strangers. Oh, and there's a constant reminder running through  your head "do NOT stare, DO NOT STARE" (or at least there was in mine). Because really it's not that hard to get over naked people wandering around in some hot tubs. But what IS a bit disconcerting is the rows of shower heads on the walls. No shower stalls, just a large open shower area where naked women stand ACTUALLY shower. Not like "hey I'm gonna rinse off before I jump in the jacuzzi" - more like "I'm going to sit on this weird plastic stool and shave my legs, wash my butt, and possibly brush my teeth right here in front of all you fools." Very strange indeed. But anyway. 

So we soaked and steamed and got our bodies nice and softened up for our scrub. It was while we were soaking in one of the jacuzzis that we noticed there were no private spa treatment rooms - behind a chest-high divider in the jacuzzi room, there's a row of plastic spa beds about 5 feet apart. Whatever treatment you're getting done, you just jump on up there (nude, of course...that's a given at this point) and get your scrub/massage/facial. A little odd, but for a penny, in for a pound or however the saying goes. The most bizarre discovery was not that there was only a small divider sectioning off the spa treatment area - it was the divider itself. Picture a wall of frosted glass, etched with scenes from the hit show The Simpsons. Bart riding his skateboard, Homer eating a donut, Marge with her beehive hair wrapped in a bath towel. We couldn't really fathom where you might purchase such a fantastic piece of glass - are there really glass shops out there that put out such random products? Beverly opined that it was the last thing on the clearance lot at a decorator glass shop, and they recognized it for the bargain buy that it undoubtedly was. Whatever the circumstances, it was effing hilarious! 

When it was at last time for our body scrubs, the scrub ladies came to get us. Let me just take a moment to note that the scrub ladies are tiny little Korean women (probably between the ages of 45-65) who speak absolutely no English and are clothed in see-through mesh bras and panties. It was very odd indeed to think about getting scrubbed down by this sweet-looking mostly-naked Asian grandma, but Bev assured me they are not as meek as they appear and would soon make my skin feel like butter. So we headed to our respective tables, which are basically plastic massage benches that resemble a cross between a gynecologist's exam table and a "normal" massage table. But don't worry, they throw buckets of water on them and wrap them in fresh saran-wrap before you lie it's totally sanitary. Then the little ladies get down to business. They put on these gloves that can only be described as steel-wool mittens and begin scrubbing the ever-loving heck out of your naked body with the surprising strength of an Olympic weight-lifter. Not gonna lie, those first few strokes were a bit alarming - I pictured myself walking out of the spa looking like Hannibal Lecter had just peeled the flesh off my body to make a skin suit. But after a few minutes, it wasn't so bad. Kind of relaxing, actually. And handfuls - LITERALLY - of dead skin roll off your body. It's icky but also fascinating. The scrub lady leaves no stone unturned, if you catch my drift. Every inch of your body is scrubbed and re-scrubbed and re-re-scrubbed for good measure. At one point my sensitive Caucasian skin actually broke out into somewhat disturbing purple hives...the scrub lady sort of freaked out and brought over a manager, who made me sign a waiver in which I undoubtedly signed away the right to sue them for any permanently lost skin. I wasn't that worried though since my skin often reacts poorly to harsh conditions - it wasn't hurting me, and I knew the hives would fade as soon as she stopped scrubbing me to death. After the scrub lady finished with the top side, she told me to turn over so we could get the back side. Side note: By "told me" I mean she uttered something totally unintelligible, I peeked open one eye to see if looking at her would help in the interpretation, and she made hand gestures and poked me in the side until I got the picture that she wanted me to flip over. So then she scrubbed my other side, threw a giant bucket of water over me, flipped me BACK over and commenced another round of scrubbing on front, back, and sides. Very, very thorough. At the end of the scrub, she administered the most painful massage I've ever fallen victim to. Was not a fan of that massage, actually. Loved the scrub...the massage, not so  much. At times (such as when she was standing on my back, twisting my arm behind me at an unnatural angle) I actually worried about the potential for broken ribs. Luckily the massage didn't last too long and was followed with a very refreshing cucumber facial and, strangely, a hair washing/conditioning session. 

Beverly and I regrouped after our scrub sessions were over, and she was dying to know how I felt about it. Did I feel sort of violated? Yes. But was my skin softer than a baby's butt, even the normally rough areas like elbows, ankles, and knees? YES! Was it worth it? Heck yes! 

We checked out the rest of the spa, which included a huge public area with a food court, movie theater, foot reflexology massage area, kids zone, lounging areas, and many different dry saunas that are HOTTER THAN HELL. If ever  you feel in need of detoxing and sweating it out a bit, this is the place to come. It really was a cleansing feeling, even if I could only stay in some of the saunas for less than a minute before freaking out about the hot, heavy air weighing down on me. 

I was in awe of the entire experience - Beverly was embarrassed that I seemed like a tourist even though we never left town. It would be a great place for an adventurous girls' night out or for an out-of-the box date. We saw a lot of couples hanging out together in the dry saunas, snacking on Korean fare, and lounging on straw mats playing on their iPads (they have free wireless internet). 

Recently we tried out Spa Castle to see how it compared to King Spa. I'd say it seems like a larger, more modern, more Americanized version of King Spa. You still get the same general experience - naked jacuzzi room, scale-you-like-a-fish body scrub, tons of dry saunas, and a giant mega-spa atmosphere. But you also get a giant outdoor pool with water massage chairs, swim up bar, and family-friendly slides (you wear swimsuits - not nude). And there's a napping room near the food court where you can curl up on a cushy recliner equipped with its own TV. And the body scrubs are given in private rooms - sure the technicians are still almost naked and the rooms don't have doors - but it's much more modesty-friendly, if you're so inclined. 

So there you  have it. The Korean mega-spa scene from a white girl's perspective. It may sound a bit intimidating, but I promise you it's a must-do in Dallas! I felt like I got an interesting cultural experience without ever leaving the city. Granted, it's not for everyone since you have to check your clothing - and your modesty - at the door. But if you can get past that, it's like nothing you've ever done before. Even if you CAN'T get past that, you should still go to experience the fully-clothed areas of the spa. I told Bev before we even left that I couldn't wait to come back and that I wanted to try out all the other similar spas in town. Now that I've checked out Spa Castle, the next stop is Russian Banya in Carrollton. I hear they smack you with a bunch of eucalyptus branches....sign me up! 

Behind these walls lie the secrets to baby-soft skin (and lots of naked people)

Photos courtesy of their respective websites. 


Team Shep said...

Love the review! I can't wait to try one out :).

Gena said...

I love this post Jill! :)
Koreans do this all the time but it must have been a wild experience for you the first time! It was kind of awkward and fun to see all these westerners enjoying the Korean culture the first time we went. Glad you liked it so much ;)