My homie Laura moved to South Korea over ten years ago to teach English, and once every few years, when I was depressed about whatever I was doing and where I was working, I would send her a Facebook message asking about what it was like to live abroad. This was before I even started teaching! Never in a million years did I ever think I would end up living in Asia, but here I am in Hong Kong and Laura has long since settled into South Korea, married, and made two beautiful babies. We’ve actually known each other since we were six or so, swimming for Pleasant Hill Dolfins (D- D-O D-O-L-F-I-N-S!) and softball or soccer or anything else our parents signed us up for, we’re not sure, but we can definitely agree on high school and all kinds of interesting and troublesome things we all did together.
When Amie and I were planning for Korea, we knew we wanted to get some sort of spa treatments, and decided a great way to spend the day with Laura would be at this place called Spa Lei, which is a traditional Jimjilbang, but female only. Jimjilbangs are traditional 24-hour gender segregated spas where there are a bunch of rooms for different kinds of treatments, hot and cold pools, saunas, massage, restaurants, entertainment rooms, and even communal nap rooms. If I had a layover in Seoul for 24 hours or less, this is exactly where I would go!
Having Laura there really helped, as she speaks Korean and could help us figure out the pricing options. I’m a big “when in Rome” kind of person, and was up for the “yeah let’s be naked all day under these robes and do the scrubs and stuff,” so I signed up for that. You get a waterproof electric bracelet to wear and you just tap it to pay for whatever you want, food, drinks, treatments, etc. Everything else goes in a locker, and then it’s just you, your robe, and some flip flops.
I remember the trauma of the group changing rooms for PE when we went up to middle school – I can still clearly remember sneaking looks around the room and comparing bras and underwear with my own, wondering what was “cool” and trying to act more secure than I was. We all got a little more comfortable by high school, and now as an adult, having been in and out of a million hostel and roommate and house sharing and gym situations, I just can’t be bothered with trying to cover up what God blessed me with when trying to change. But let me tell you – Koreans are taking this next level. It was inspiring to see all these women in all shapes and sizes walking around, squatting to soap each other, floating in and out of saunas and different pools, naked as. Being the only white people, Laura and I got more than our fair share of curious stares as we wandered about. Laughing or whispering in Californian the whole time probably did not help this. But after the initial “this is kinda weird,” I got used to it and just thought “bodies are all different, everyone is beautiful. You do you, ladies.”
We did masks and lay down on hot stones, sweat out the soju in saunas, did the different temperatures of pools, and then signed up for the “standard” scrub. We had a designated time, and then middle aged women in tiny red bikinis stretched us out on rubber beds. Then they dumped hot water on us and began the scrubbing with what I can only describe as Brillo pads. We watched the dead, grey skin fall off our bodies as the women flipped us over and moved body parts around for access like we were babies. Laura kindly translated a tiny warning about my toenail, which had just been ripped off by a minibus accident, and thank goodness, because this woman was working so hard I think she scrubbed off my moles. But we were soaped and splashed and scrubbed within an inch of our lives and it felt heavenly.
We caught up with Amie in the entertainment room, where you can stretch out on mats and fall asleep to Korean soap operas. We tried some massage chairs and some interesting Korean drinks, and then finally showered it all away and changed for a night out on the town.
After nonstop Korean barbecue, we were craving some Italian, and found a nice spot to split some pasta, red wine, and people watch. Then we wandered around and took instagram worthy photos in front of anything that looked cool, as you do. Thank you, Asia, for empowering me to take more strange photos and thinking I’m a model if I’m in front of a fun doorway. We also found ArtBox, which is a super fun store filled with all kinds of cute things, and I almost bought everything that had a shark on it, for some reason. Even men wear purses with emojis! Everyone gets on the cute train in Korea. No stops.
Our last few days in Korea were spent hanging out. We nearly missed the changing of the guards ceremony, because I accidentally took us to the wrong castle. It was a peasant mistake. I had assumed there could only be one castle in each city, but that is simply not true. Luckily, the wrong castle was full of amazing architecture and colors, so we walked around until it was time for the second changing of the guard (thank goodness there were two a day!) The correct castle was full of tourists and people dressed in traditional clothing, and we waited behind ropes to see the drumming, marching, and incredible traditional wear of the royal guard.
We also continued our quest to try many different snacks and drinks, got my fill of Soju, and did more people watching. I am so fascinated by how beautiful the Korean men are, so into skincare and makeup and fashion. The women were much more understated, and I think only dressed in shades of white, black, and beige. We also checked out the Gangnam district, which was a bit of a let down, but still pretty cool. Because it’s Coolrea. I just made that up. Was it okay?
I loved how easy the transportation was in Korea, and I also loved that we could walk just about anywhere we wanted to go and find things along the way. There were lots of good guides and blogs on the internet for things to do, and one of them led us to a beautiful traditional tea house, where we spent a pleasant afternoon. But it did make me realize I should have been more thoughtful about all the shoe removal we were doing, and brought more pairs of socks. So there’s a free tip for ya!
We also went to our first dog cafe! EEeee!!! You probably could have heard my high pitched squeals from around the globe. There were like twenty dogs, most of them super friendly, one of them looking like a loofah with legs, all with a ton of personality. It was a delight. We also tried out a cat cafe, which had a totally different vibe, but we loved it. Men and women of all ages came and just sat, pet cats, sipped drinks, and you could feel the collective blood pressure dropping. Amie has a student whose aunt owns a cafe with HEDGEHOGS in Hong Kong, so I will be going there ASAP.
I LOVED Korea. I know I will be back. Thank you for your food, your architecture, your shopping, your K-pop, your love of all things cute, sharing your history, and your delightful people. Insert peace sign emoji.