Memories of a Korean bath house

(I wrote this piece about ten years ago about my trip to the Korean Bath House in Sydney’s Kings Cross, and never managed to find a home for it. Rather than let it die in the electronic shadows, I thought I’d publish it here).

I’m a big fan of nudity. In my bedroom, with the door closed and the bedside lamp on low, I’ll happily prance around in the buff. But put me in a big, well-lit room, with lots of unforgiving mirrors and a whole heap of other women in their birthday suits, and I get a little less brazen.

Such was the scene in front of me as I entered the Ginseng Bathhouse in Sydney’s Crest Hotel. Feeling a bit like Alice falling down some crazy Hugh Hefner bunny hole, I nervously tiptoed into the women’s bath house, bent into a complicate C-shape designed to conceal my more private bits with my less private bits but which only succeeded in making me look like a blushing pretzel.

The centerpiece, and main purpose of this visit, are the baths – three of them. One is the Ginseng bath – a large square pool filled with warm, murky water and dominated by a bubbling frothing geyser of water. Women line the sides of the pool, some in conversation, others alone with their private thoughts.There is also a very hot pool, a very cold pool, a wet sauna and a dry sauna. Having arrived nearly an hour before my appointment, I had plenty of time to splash and wallow. According to a poster on the wall, it is best to alternate between hot and cold water to improve circulation in the skin. That it might do, but I’m sure that sort of thing was ruled out under the Geneva Convention years ago, and for good reason. Usually when immersed in freezing water, one’s reaction is to whoop and yell and generally do things to distract your brain from the torment at skin level. But in these hallowed rooms, this would no doubt be frowned upon, so I had to resort to making tormented faces and huffing like a walrus.

Throughout this, women were being ushered back and forth from The Treatment Room, where rows of red plastic-covered tables played host to women being pummeled, bathed, scrubbed or covered with mysterious green sludge.

And finally, my number was called. Cowering slightly, I was led to the rack, determined to reveal nothing about my beauty routine (you can pelt me with cucumber and pumice my heels but I’ll never talk… NEVER!). Device number one – exfoliating mitts. On the strong and unflinching hands of my treatment expert, these removed at least one centimeter of skin from the entire surface of my body, rendering countless billions of skin mites homeless and leaving me gasping and glowing like Rudolph’s nose. Never mind the scab on my elbow, the huge bruise on my shin or the pimple on my chin – the whole lot got scrubbed at mercilessly. Even my delicate bosom got a serve, and not even over-enthusiastic young men are this vigorous with the female chest. I had visions of my breasts being torn from their comfy anchors and sailing off down to my knees.

Once I was stripped down to my last layer of epithelium, stage two began. Nurse – pass me the honey and cucumber – it’s time to make a Bianca Salad. Once the goop was firmly packed on my face (including an errant blob stuck partly up my right nostril which resisted all efforts to dislodged with snorting) I was rolled over like a gourmet whale, lathered in tubs of baby oil and massaged to within an inch of my life.

By this stage, my body was so well-lubricated I could have played the greased pig at a country fair. All well and good for the skin, but when you’re lying on a plastic sheet and someone is trying to massage your buttocks up into your shoulder blades, you have to hang on like grim death so as not to shoot off into the next room like bolt of pink, baby-oiled lightning.

When it was over, I wobbled gratefully away and sank back into the Ginseng pool to recover before my half-hour shiatsu massage.

This was more familiar territory – pressure applied to select points on the body to relieve stress and generally improve one’s wellbeing. But it’s always a little disconcerting when your masseur advises you he is giving you the special torture because you are so tense he can grate cheese on your shoulder muscles.

Perhaps I need to take it easy … perhaps I need to come back here again.

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