Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Boiled and Eaten Alive

My first experience at a public bathhouse was as a 13-year old exchange student in Japan. We were told that the private showers at our lodge would cost extra and that the immaculate, boiling hot tubs were not only traditional, but therapeutic as well. I went for it, feeling mature and cultured at the time, even if I could stand the hot water only briefly while turning a florid shade of pink.

Ten years later, and with a greater need for the therapeutic effects of such places, I have tried out two traditional Korean bathhouses. The first was Icheon, a little over an hour outside Seoul under ideal conditions (once you take the right subway to the right station and manage to board the right bus, that is). Famous for its hot springs, Icheon boasts of its healing waters, which bubble naturally from underground and are said to treat any ailment from neurosis to hiccups.

On the way there, I pictured 19th Century seaside retreats where the ill and infirm were taken to breathe curative airs and recover their strength. I imagined a serene mountaintop sanctuary where guests meditated, drank medicinal teas, and cultivated health while making progress towards enlightenment. Looking back on my hyperbolic expectations, I can now laugh, but at the moment I arrived at the Icheon Hot Springs Resort, its resemblance to a water park was an utter disappointment. Despite the family fun atmosphere, it was certainly unlike any U.S. water park; there were no tacky inner tubes or carts selling Dippin' Dots. Instead, there were pools of brightly colored mineral waters "flavored" with everything from lemon essence to ginseng to mugwort. Infants, the elderly, and everyone in between took part in a communal and sedative soak, as though liquid calm were seeping through our pores.

For the adventurous, there were other exotic features of the spa that took a little nerve but were worth it for the story if nothing else. The first was the traditional Korean sauna, which looked out of place in the ultra-modern facility, as it was formed of circular stacked stones with a chimney on top. I had to crouch down low to enter through a glass portal that looked frighteningly like the door that covers my grandmother's fireplace, and indeed, I was met by a pyretic blast of furnace-hot air. Inside, people moved slowly in the dim light and smothering heat, laying themselves on woven mats to sweat out impurities and breathe in the scent of cedarwood. Remaining even a few moments took a mind-over-matter resolve not to leap from the sauna like the gingerbread man escaping the oven.

Following this hot house with a shudderingly-cold shower, I was ready to try the main attraction at Icheon: the so-called "Doctor Fish" therapy, a pool inhabited by tiny fish whose raison d'etre is to feast on the dead skin of bathers in need of exfoliation. I'll admit I was squeamish and ill at ease with the idea of being gnawed at by piscine scavengers. The other bathers somehow remained still enough to let the little ones attack rough elbows and scaly knees, and as my friend Cory said, "They're doctors, I mean, they must know what they're doing, right?" Still, the moment I felt them swarming around my feet or hands, having an absolute field day with my callouses (the scars of circus work), I cut short my half-hour treatment and ran for the nearest shower.

I didn't let the fish scare me away from the Korean baths completely, though. Having suffered from an intense migraine during the work week, I chose to visit a second spa, this one in the heart of Myong-dong, a downtown shopping hub where street vendors sell one-size-fits-all-Koreans clothing for much cheaper than in the department stores. (Luckily, my own height is along the lines of the Korean norm, so shopping this way was surprisingly fruitful.) This time, the spa was ladies-only (i.e. naked), but offered all manner of beauty-enhancing treatments to turn one from homely to comely. There were the baths enfused with green tea and lavendar, the steam shower, and the mud mask. In hopes of relieving my migraine, I opted for the invigorating head massage - thirty minutes of scalp scrating, hair-pulling, and temple-rubbing that was surprisingly effective. Throughout the visit, I was shuttled around by countless female attendants eager to wrap me in towels, dry my hair, and clothe me in the silliest pink fuzzy robe and slippers. I left in a drowsy daze, high on pampering and relaxation.

So am I radiantly beautiful now after so much washing? Am I scrubbed clean and glowing with all my cares washed down the drain? One step into this polluted metropolis and I understand the Korean desire for a good bath.