Once upon a time there were two white girls from the glam city of Tokyo who upon a visit to Seoul, found themselves being covered with burlap sacks and shoved into an oven, not unlike a twisted version of Hansel and Gretel but dubbed in bad Korean.
Perhaps I should back up a few steps. After hearing some rave reviews of Seoul from Japanese and foreigners alike in Tokyo ("just like Tokyo 20 years ago", "the same as Tokyo but dirty", "Tokyo in a mess"), Other Whitie and I just had to see it for ourselves. We popped over the river for a couple days and with an itinerary under which a visit to a Korean bathhouse was top priority.
After discovering that the subway exit we were supposed to use had mysteriously disappeared and possibly been kidnapped by North Korea, we found our way to a very local-looking bathhouse in the middle of Seoul's premier shopping district. After looking somewhat surprised that we didn't blink at the 6000 yen price for the "basic course", the woman at the front desk ushered us to a check-in area where we received locker keys and a numbered tag to wear on our wrists, presumably to distinguish us from all the other naked women.
We were then passed off to another woman, who essentially became our "handler" for the duration of our course. She instructed us in a concoction of Korean, Japanese and dictatorial English to strip ourselves of clothing and make-up and to don pink gowns with matching skull caps that when filled out with the bulk of hair, looked like sporty pink turbans. Come on, she instructed while clapping her hands at us, and led us into what looked like a service elevator that took us down to the deepest reaches of the building. As soon as we alighted from the elevator, our handler disappeared and two old Korean women were upon us, throwing burlap sacks over our heads and thrusting an extra into our arms. Before we could become oriented, we were being pushed by these little women towards a door that looked as if it led to a hobbit hole. All we could see from the outside was what looked like a dimly lit clay oven and perhaps reading the panic on our faces, one of the women told us to push the door from inside and come out whenever we were ready.
After crawling on all fours through the hobbit door, we found ourselves in a small circular room with a dome roof that indeed felt like an oven. Sweat immediately poured forth from my pores and we sat there detoxing, blinking at each other from beneath our burlap hoods, for as long as we could stand. After the Korean oven we were left to lie on the floor of a heated room with wooden pillows until summoned by the handler for our next assignment.
I was worried about making noise and so conversed with OW in hushed tones, which turned out to be unnecessary as a small group of Korean women were having what looked like a mutual ear grooming session in the corner. Just as I was nodding off to sleep the call came and we were whisked off to another floor of the building, finding ourselves at the entrance to a shower room, not unlike those in Japan. The handler stripped us of our gowns and wearing nothing but our numbered tags and pink turbans, we were ordered to shower and sit in the bath until called again. We smiled the smiles of pros, assuring the woman that we knew what we were doing when it came to the shower room and public baths. Our confidence waned as we hopped into one of the baths and discovered that we had an unobstructed view of the Scrub Room. One of the key features at any Korean bathhouse is what is called asukari in Japanese, and means exfoliation treatment. In plain English, it means an old woman scrubs your naked body until it shines. From where we sat in the bath, we could see a row of white vinyl covered tables, upon which naked women were lying in various degrees of immodesty, while old Korean women wearing nothing but black bras, black panties and stomach paunches were working them over with soap, oil, and exfoliation mitts. I'm not too sure about this exfoliation business, I whispered to OW.
Luckily, before I had too much time to marinate in my own worry about coming away with no skin or some kind of infection, one of the gangster-looking ajummas came out and beckoned us into the Scrub Room.
Let us take a short break here and examine the word ajumma:
A term used to address an adult female individual of married age and/or runs a business or restaurant. The stereotypical 'ajumma' image is that of a short, stocky, tough old woman who wears purple pants and permed hair, and has sharp elbows on the subway. The word ajumma is also used to call older women when in a restaurant or simply when getting a person's attention, but it is best to only call older women this as women of a somewhat younger age may not think of themselves as ajummas yet, especially if they are in their 30s and maybe even early 40s.
Back to the Scrub Room. My Ajumma pointed at a white plastic table and told me to hop on face down. I figured there was no point in arguing at this point and did as I was told. She immediately began furiously scrubbing me with her rough exfoliation mitt. At first it stung a little, but I eventually got used to the grating sensation and allowed my eyes to wander around the room. There were women in various stages of the scrub process, which allowed me to glimpse what I was in for next. The room was basically a car wash for humans by humans.
Ajumma finished my back and told me to lay on my side while prying open my legs after which she scrubbed closer to my cooch with that mitt than I was comfortable with. On to the other side and she finished up with me on my back. This woman was thorough, and didn't leave any bit of exposed skin unscrubbed, which translates to nowhere. When Ajumma deemed she had sufficiently stripped me of a layer of my dermis, she ordered me back to the shower room for a wash. I made the rookie mistake of glancing down at the table as I was getting up and was witness to all the bits of skin I had shed. Delish.
Back at the shower station I began washing with soap to the dismay of Ajumma who yelled at me that I was only to have a quick wash before getting my (now) pink ass back in the Scrub Room. I saluted her and ran back to my plastic table. Starting on my back again she applied a face mask from the freezer and then laid what I think was slices of cucumber all over my face. While that set I got an oil massage, which basically consisted of her rubbing oil into my skin without much oomph. Funnily enough she used the small towel I was allowed to carry with me to cover my cooch during the massage, which I frankly thought was too little too late after she had essentially come face to face with it during the Scrub. As with the exfoliation, she had me roll onto my side and then onto my back, where she proceeded to oil my breasts. Being as greased up as a seal pup or a newly birthed babe, both times I almost slid right off the damn table and onto the concrete floor, which caused Ajumma to cackle furiously.
When she had finished with my oil massage slash breast exam, Ajumma had me sit up while she rotated my legs to the opposite end of the table so that the rest of my body swivelled around on my ass. To finish up my Scrub Room procedure, Ajumma tore off my pink turban and shampooed my hair. She then hosed me down and ordered me out to the shower room and into the adjoining two saunas and three mineral baths, which I was to use before graduating from the basic course. I half expected her to slap me on the ass as I left the Scrub Room.
The rest of our time passed fairly uneventfully, but I guess Ajumma is a pretty tough act to follow. After drying off and getting dressed, we took our newly polished asses off to our first Korean fashion show.