The Scrub

On Thursday night I went to the local jimjjilbang with Steph and Ric (Mike decided to go for a 2 hour run instead… to each his own ^^). Everything went pretty normally at first: the pebble sauna was relaxing and we chit-chatted away, semi-buried in the warm stones; the ice room was, well, cold; the well-worn massage chairs were effective in tiring us out as they kneaded out our Korean Memorial Day tension. At some point Ric ventured off to have a real sports massage (a step up from the chairs, I would say…), leaving Steph and I to our own devices. This meant mud masks and, uh, a [naked] body scrub and “massage.”

Jimjjilbang

Jimjjilbangin’ with Steph

OKAY. I know it might either sound sexual or intense (or both). But really it was only just intense. Terribly, terribly intense. But this is only because I’ve never been introduced to the ways of the Korean body scrub until now. Yes, I am a regular jimjjilbanger– I go practically every weekend. And being around naked women in various points of their bathing routines is something that seems quite natural to me– hell, I might even say that I find communal bathing somewhat comforting. But let me just say that the scrub aspect was much more than I had initially bargained for… it was actually quite “rough.”

I will describe the experience below. But first, a warning: A scrub is a somewhat common practice in Korea and while I might describe it with bold, embroidered language, I am only doing so because I have never experienced it before and having grown up in America, I am not necessarily accustomed to such things.

Here we go:

Before stripping down, Steph and I arranged to pay for the scrub/massage with the women’s bathhouse supervisor. She was an older woman with tightly curled hair, wearing only striped panties and red and gold bejeweled fingernails. She was wonderfully patient with me as I tried to communicate to her with my face covered in a mud mask that I didn’t have any cash on hand, only a debit card (bring cash to jimjjilbangs, people!!). After paying the 30,000 won price tag, Steph and I headed for the baths. The baths aren’t really that big of a deal, although a lot of westerners that I have met aren’t big fans of social bathing– especially with people they know. But Steph and I are special and we both happen to enjoy each other’s company, jimjjilbang or otherwise.

Anyway, inside the baths it’s business as usual. First you shower and lather in the stand up showers before going to soak in one (or all!) of the many baths. I have my own bath order preference: warm bath, hot bath, hot “blue” bath, cold pool, warm bath, hot “blue” bath. I spend anywhere from 2-10 minutes in each of the baths before a final shower and towel dry. Sometimes I will end my jimjjilbang visit using one of the seated showers, that are arranged in rows besides the baths. These are nice because a mirror is placed directly in front of you while you sit on a low plastic stool and scrub, razor, or shampoo yourself into godliness. I feel I should reiterate that this is all done naked… no bathing suits here. The women who are the *most* clothed in the jimjjilbang are those who happen to work there and if they aren’t naked themselves, they usually wear only a pair of underwear and/or a bra.

Okay. So on to the scrub… Steph and I had already showered and were hanging out in the baths, waiting for our scrub appointments. Finally, we were called over to a corner of the room where two plastic covered “massage” tables beckoned us. My charge was a middle-aged woman who was wearing only purple, lacy underwear and a matching bra. I think her name was either 새디스트 or 인조이스 힡팅. She asked me something, but because I don’t speak much Korean, I  didn’t understand it. When I told her that I didn’t understand and that I don’t really know Korean, she seemed to get agitated. I began to fear that she was going to take this agitation out on me… (!!). Anyway, she made me lie face down on the slippery, wet table and poured a bucket of warm water over me before she began to scrub me with what must have been a  1/2 strength brillo pad and some soap. The whole idea behind the scrub is to remove the layer of dead skin on the body… and remove it she did. She poured more water on me before having me flip over onto my back, and then she kept on scrubbing.

By the time this initial round of scrubbing was done, the table had my skin remnants all over it. She didn’t miss a spot on my body; she contorted me into strange positions with my arms behind my head and my legs criss-crossed so she could scrub all of the hard-to-reach spots. All the while I was thinking that it was funny how I felt fairly comfortable allowing this woman to see me in positions that I wouldn’t want ANYONE else to see me in. She eventually put a green face mask on me and massaged the product into my cheeks and forehead before going back to scrubbing… scrub… scrub… scrub. At one point, Steph and I ended up facing each other and we laughed and smiled awkwardly. Some time later, my charge started “massaging” me. This involved her roughly slapping my legs, buttocks, and back. She pulled my arms in terribly awkward angles and at one point she climbed up on the bed and hovered over me to knead and slap at my shoulders and neck. She would throw my arms and legs down onto the table when she was done “working” on them. She then poured a fair amount of lavender scented baby oil onto my body and really I ended up feeling like some overgrown child with an embittered mother.

When the massage was finally over (I survived, thank god), she shampooed and conditioned my hair and told me that we were “finishee.” She then signaled for me to go to the showers to wash off the remaining green face goop, baby oil, and dead skin. Steph’s scrub and massage finished up only a little while after mine and she joined me in the shower stalls to rinse off and reflect on the experience. While  I found the massage was a bit too “rough” for my liking, I didn’t quite mind the scrub aspect. This was Steph’s second time getting scrubbed, so she handled it like a professional jimjjilbanger. After we dried off and changed back into our clothes, the head bathhouse woman in the striped underwear with ornate nails asked us if we liked the scrub (좋아요?) and then handed Steph and I two cans of Pocari for free.

I definitely recommend trying out a scrub if you are ever feeling particular humorous or dirty from a weekend of hiking and camping. While it was a bit intense, it was still a fairly funny and enjoyable experience. And who knows, you might even get a free Japanese sports drink afterwards!

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