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A look at Korea's culture from the bathhouse

A visit to a spa in South Korea is a trip full of wonder and beauty

By Jodi Kantor / New York Times

LAST UPDATED: 10:24 a.m. HST, Feb 9, 2014

My friend Arcadia Kim has three children and a Harvard business degree, but when she tried to negotiate on our behalf with the lady in charge of exfoliation at the Dragonhill Spa in Seoul, South Korea, she did not stand a chance.

We were standing in the heart of the "jimjilbang," or Korean bathhouse, in a steaming, all-female bathing room where scrubs are administered (as they are across the land) by strict middle-age women, more than a few of them with potbellies, who wear nothing but sexy black-lace bras and underwear. Arcadia had whispered to me that the women were "ajummas," which means "aunties" and connotes matronly, working-class women known for no-nonsense warmth and authority.

Our ajumma insisted we needed full-body scrub-downs. We only had so much time, Arcadia protested. The woman shook her head, unyielding. A moment later we were lying on the slippery plastic tables, being subjected to what felt less like a spa treatment than some sort of primal tough-love routine. Our ajummas scoured us with rough yellow washcloths, walked on top of us, pummeled and slapped us, the popping noises bouncing off the wet tiles. At one point my ajumma shook me to open my eyes and pointed with apparent pride to gray lumps, bigger than rice grains, clinging to my arms. They were clusters of my own dead skin cells. She finished by covering me in hot towels, leaving me feeling like a baby: I was completely and passively in the care of an older woman, my skin was soft and new, and I was surrounded by a world I was only beginning to understand.

As I discovered during a trip late last year, spas, bathhouses, saunas and cosmetics stores can be some of the best places to truly see South Korea, a country that is still figuring out how to share itself with foreigners.

Memo to lady travelers: A few days in Seoul will also give you a chance to girl out on a scale, and at a cost, that most of us never could in the United States. At home I barely pause over the creams and treatments in women's magazines: Who has the money or the earnest belief in their supposed magic? But in Korea I happily gave myself over to the ubiquitous, high-quality, low-cost beauty culture. You can buy hand cream that warms your skin when you apply it, little adhesive heating pads to ease menstrual cramps, "air cushion" compacts that apply foundation in the thinnest possible layers, and face masks that contain ingredients from snake venom to ground-up animal placenta.

As the ajummas released us, one offered us a swig from her own thermos of iced coffee; somehow we had earned her approval. We declined the coffee but bought slow-baked eggs, a traditional jimjilbang snack, and Arcadia produced two of the foil-sealed masks Korean women are crazy about.

Going to a jimjilbang can be like having a shvitz and a bath at a mall — in some cases, a mall on a cruise ship. The most elaborate jimjilbangs are multistory, self-contained universes with magic shows, Korean barbecue restaurants and corporate team retreats.

Based on my visits to bathhouses in three cities — just a few of the thousands of facilities spread across the country — this is what you'll find: Admission to a jimjilbang is almost always cheap, less than $10 for a locker, as much soaking and sauna-going as you can manage, and a cotton uniform that imposes Confucian conformity. Little is in English, so wandering around is bewildering fun: You are likely to see saunas inspired by Egyptian pyramids; little heating coils, the kind you see in toasters, built into the floor; and salt rock rooms said to draw toxins out of the body. The facilities are generally clean but rarely posh, and often filled with passed-out bodies — symbols of a country so overworked that it switched to a five-day workweek only a decade ago.

Jimjilbangs vary in their exact amenities: Dragonhill Spa in Seoul, where Arcadia and I were scrubbed, is kitschy and a little dingy but popular, especially with those who pass out there overnight after an evening of heavy drinking. In Busan the Shinsegae department store has a far sleeker jimjilbang, with gleaming wood surfaces and a "wave dream" room that simulates the feeling of being in deep water. Near Suncheon, also in the south, I visited a jimjilbang in a bamboo forest with a "groundhog sauna" that gently warms your body while leaving your head exposed to the sunshine and mountain mist.

Because I had only one girlfriend in the entire country, I borrowed two others: Yaeri Song, founder of the website Seoulist, and Violet Haeun Kim, a writer. Both had spent their lives zigzagging between Korea and the United States, and over dinner in Hongdae we talked about how Korea has changed the way they look at themselves and others.

"When I lived in New York, I had one lotion," Song said, laughing. Now, when she meets New Yorkers in their late 20s, she tends to think at first that they are a decade older.

As they talked, I realized tourists have an advantage over Koreans when it comes to their beauty culture: We can enjoy a few adventures and purchases and then fly home, away from the punishing standards that Korean women have to live with.

I had passed too many plastic surgery clinics to count in Seoul. Subway entrances are covered in before-and-after ads for the procedures; one shows a wedding ring in the "after" picture. Some women "just get plastic surgery, so they don't have to deal with the treatments," Kim said.

On my final day, I reunited with Arcadia for a trip to my favorite jimjilbang of the journey: Spa Lei, a women's-only facility with pretty robes instead of uniforms and even a little clothing shop, attended by a young woman who was taking selfies every time we passed, utterly lost in the way she looked. Signs offered herbal steam baths for women's private parts; we stuck to the jet baths. That afternoon, a colleague took me to the Dongdaemun market, where I spent an hour and an absurdly small amount of money on costume jewelry, as cheap and appealing as the beauty products.

My backpack was heavy with creams and potions for friends back home, most of them just for laughs. I had already been using the snail cream, which felt like a stickier version of regular face cream, and my skin really did seem softer. I bought one last ridiculous-sounding product at the airport — a bottle of skin-balancing water — and boarded a Korean Air jet, looking with new eyes at the flight attendants' pale, dewy faces.

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