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The WWF of Massages

As I was slipping about on the slick plastic surface of the massage
table last night, it occurred to me that I have never written about the
public bath houses before.  At least not properly.  This is surprising,
considering they are probably my favorite thing in Korea (how could you
not love a place entirely devoted to the hedonistic pleasures of heat,
water and being thoroughly clean?).  And long past due.

There are two kinds of public baths in Korea ? often found in the same
place.  Jimjilbang (pronounced Jim?Jill?Bong) are large communal saunas
? men and women put on sweat uniforms (a t-shirt and shorts) and pace
themselves through a number of different dry and wet rooms in succession
to relax and stimulate circulation.  Each room has a slightly different
temperature and purpose, so for example at the sauna closest to my house
there is a pine room to clear the breathing, an amethyst room to
stimulate thought, a clay room to make you sweat, a granite room to
ground you, an ice room to kick your circulation into high gear. 
Usually jimjilbang also have other amenities, like restaurants, dvd
rooms, computer stations, beauty parlors and sleeping rooms, which makes
them an excellent alternative to hotels when on the road.  All this fun
under one roof for about $10 Canadian dollars, and you can stay as long
as you like.

The bath part of the public bath is called the mogyuktang
(mo-gick-tong).  Sometimes these exist without jimjilbang, but
jimjilbang never exist without them.  This is where the real fun is. 
The mogyuktang is segregated ? and naked.  It typically looks like a
scene lifted off an ancient greek painting ? elaborate statues and
columns, round stone pools overflowing with clear water, beautiful women
(or men, presumably) reposing throughout.  No matter how many times I
go, I am struck anew each time I walk through the steamy glass doors and
into the cavernous oasis of cleanliness.  A sense that is amplified by
the echoing of splashes and girlish laughter throughout the room.

Now, the best part of the mogyuktang is the massage.  You have to pay a
little extra for this, but it is well worth the money.  Koreans have
elevated cleanliness to an art form, and the massage ladies are its
masters.  Designed to exfoliate you to the extreme, this is the WWF of
massages.  I had my first one just a few weeks after moving to this
country, and the sight of a 300 pound korean woman in lacy black
skivvies cracking her knuckles as she approached the table was enough to
terrify me.  Luckily I didn't flee the building however - at some point
in her acrobatic kneading of ALL my muscles with a variety of abrasive
objects I realized that it felt really, really good.  And I was hooked.

Every mogyuktang lady has her own style of scrubby massage.  None of
them are for the faint hearted.  A common thread is naturally the
variety of exfoliators used, but beyond that the sky's the limit.  They
will usually spread one or several home made moisturizing concoctions
liberally over you, but these range from herb-scented oils to pureed
fruit to yogurt to vegetables to who knows what.  Sometimes they wrap
you in warm towels or plastic sheets.  This last massage found me bound
in guaze like a mummy - even my face!  Sometimes the women will climb
right onto the table and use their feet to knead your muscles, while
standing and holding a metal rail built into the ceiling.  The more you
groan, the harder they dig their heels in (I'm told pain is a sign of
poison in the muscles, which needs to be exercized).  On one rare and
heavenly table, I had 2 ladies working on me at once - each in perfect
synch with the other.  Now THAT was something else!

When the massage is over, you feel like a jellified copy of yourself -
one that appears to be you from the outside but on the inside is lacking
any bone or other solid mass.  Your skin is rosy from so much scrubbing,
and is probably softer than it was the day you were born.  If there's
anything left of it!  You walk around in an extended state of nirvana,
unaware of anything in the world (including yourself), until you can
drop exhausted into bed.  Where you are guaranteed to have the best
sleep of your entire life.  Who couldn't love that?!