Returning to Seoul after our meeting-packed first day, we wanted to go to a spa, a can’t-miss activity said a Korean-American friend. We hadn’t shaken jet lag and needed pampering.
Lonely Planet‘s Seoul guidebook reported that Spa Lei operated 24/7, catered to a female-only clientele and offered an English-language menu. That last bit was incorrect. After a half-hour of earnest communication attempts, we dialed the free Korean-English translator hotline to order full spa access and body scrubs, mud body treatments and cucumber facials. I’d read in the LP guidebook that many women head straight to a spa after work or clubbing, spend the night relaxing, then drudge back to work/home in the morning. We can stay and luxuriate all night? Sounds amaze balls!
Down the soundless elevator, through a darkened corridor to the lockers, our anticipation of the indulgence built. Just then, we walked past an anteroom filled with Korean ladies without a stitch of clothing on – nary a bathing suit, robe or hand towel in sight – preening in vanities, drying hair and alighting scales. Oh?! It’s THAT KIND OF PARTY. “Spa” means something different here. Oh.
I sized up my two companions from my master’s program. I wasn’t sure they were ready to see my bare brown ass. Well, one of them was.
“I wasn’t expecting to shower with anyone on this ‘field trip,’” we whispered between schoolgirl giggles.
If you haven’t been to a nude beach or colony, being naked around other naked folk for longer than it takes to change your sports bra will be disconcerting at first. But you’ll have to let go of your self-consciousness to really enjoy the experience. You are supposed to RELAX.
And relax you will. Slowly your legs won’t cross as tightly, your arms will fall more to your sides and less in front of your lady parts, you won’t flutter as quickly from pool to sauna to pool. Because you’ll start to realize that everyone else is naked too. Boobs, booties and everything else come in different shades, shapes and sizes. Everyone has a different notion of hair-scaping. There’s no makeup, no Spanx, no illusions. Letting go of the anxiety and self-consciousness, for me, was liberating and critical to this unique, relaxing experience.
Spa Lei’s facilities are a playland of pampering. We tried pools with saltwater, freshwater, cold and heated; and Jacuzzis. Our tired muscles and blocked pores loosened in the saunas, one of which was a giant stone oven where a whole chicken egg was cooking in the middle. We found more veg time on the open-air rooftop deck and on the giant body pillows in the nap room. Other future detox spots include rooms for massages, a snack bar, tanning booths and something called a “hip bath.”
While most of Spa Lei was lowlit with soothing new age instrumentals, the tiled scrub room was a pupil-dilating space built for the sole purpose of inspecting every crevice, curve and pore. Our aestheticians appeared to be of my mom’s generation, clad in “uniforms” of black bras and panties. And around the room, their tools: gurneys covered in plastic, spray hoses and garbage-can-sized vats of water.
Once I laid gingerly on the slippery gurney, the loofah mittened aesthetician lathered and scoured my skin near-raw, my dead skin collected in disgusting grey-green masses, rinsed away with a quick ladle of water or a flip of the hose. No pain, no gain, right? After growing accustomed to the abrasiveness and letting go of the awkwardness of seeing ladies like my momma in skivvies, my mind accessed infantile subconsciousness and I felt strangely at peace as this older lady scrubbed me, then slathered me in cucumber and in mud. Ambien be damned, I tell you: my skin never felt so soft and I’d never felt as relaxed post-trans-Atlantic flight.
Spa Lei is at Leimong Town 8-22 Cresyn Building, Jamwon-dong, Seocho-gu, Seoul, Korea. During the day, it’s accessible by metro, nearest to the Shinsa station (exit 5). If you stay past midnight, it’s easy to catch a taxi home in the wee hours across the street at the Riverside Hotel.