1. When you arrive and pay your entry fee at the front desk, you’ll receive a locker key on a bracelet and a shorts-and-tee uniform that looks a bit like a set of surgical scrubs. In many spas, you will lock up only your shoes near the front desk, then walk barefoot (or sock-footed) to the changing room. If you want a scrub or massage, the front desk is where you order it — but for your first visit, I recommend going without one of these (pricier) extras. You’ll leave very relaxed even without it.
2. In the changing room, grab a small towel or two from the tall stack provided. If there’s a window that allows you to see into the single-sex bathing area, go ahead and take a peek. See all those naked folk? They aren’t nervous, and after two minutes, you won’t be either. If you’re worried about how you look in the buff, take note that women of all shapes, sizes, races, and ages are usually represented. Did you hear about comedian Margaret Cho getting trouble at a bathhouse for her tattoos? Well, you probably won’t. I have several tattoos and have never had a problem, and at my regular spa in Virginia, I have seen many women far more tattooed than I.
3. Find your numbered locker and strip down to your birthday suit. Feel free to use your towels as “middle school locker room style” camouflage. If you’re really nervous, you can get away with bringing a large towel and wearing it as a toga until you get into the pool area. Just don’t be one of those women who attempts to wear the spa-assigned uniform into the baths. In most places it’s not allowed, and it makes the rest of us feel uneasy. In an environment where half the point is that it’s fine to be nude, don’t send the message that you disagree.
4. Head into the pool area. Depending on the spa, here you’ll usually find a variety of heated (and cold) pools. Some spas include wonderful jetted tubs. Do you feel “skeevy” about naked people sharing a pool? I have some bad news for you: your pool at the gym, where the three-year-olds have their Mommy and Me classes, is not one bit cleaner. At least these pools are adults-only, and nobody gets in without a good scrub beforehand.
5. Take a shower or sit at an Asian-style scrubbing station to get clean before you hop in. Korean scrubbing mitts, as well as other toiletries, can often be purchased from the changing room attendants. You can pay for these items using your key, as you can with everything else in the spa– leave your wallet in your locker.
6. Enjoy the pools! Notice that by now you have discovered the delightful truth of Korean-style bathing: when everybody is naked, it’s like nobody is naked.
7. Once you’ve had your fill of the tubs and pool-room saunas, dry off and return to your locker to put on your uniform. Pick up a couple of fresh towels as you make your way out to the (often co-ed) sauna area. The beauty of the less-than-attractive uniforms will soon become clear: not only do they breathe well in the saunas, but they create a relaxing environment in which nobody is being judged by their clothes or figure.
8. Usually there are a variety of interesting saunas with different levels of heat. Spa World, in Centreville, VA, includes salt, gemstone, clay, wood charcoal, and other heated rooms, as well as a cold room with a frosty wall that reminds me of my parents’ old freezer from the 1970s. All of these are dry– no steam, and sadly, the “clay room” does not involve painting yourself with clay. Enjoy these for as long as you like, and be sure to stay hydrated. If you go with friends, remember that the saunas are supposed to be quiet rooms.
9. All Korean spas have large areas in which to simply relax. You can rest on a floor mat or lounge chair to nap, use the free wifi, watch a Korean drama on TV, or– in many spas– get a bubble tea, smoothie, or Korean popsicle from the juice bar. I love every one of these options. At King Spa in New Jersey, beautiful, glossy tables are also set up with traditional Asian board games for friends to play together. You may see some people wearing spooky white face masks. These disposable skin-moisturizing masks can be purchased from the changing room attendant, and can make your skin feel more nourished for days.
10. Larger spas have cafés that offer Korean specialties, dumplings, fried rice, and baked-in-the-shell “spa eggs.” This will be the most laid-back meal you ever eat. You can try something new and delicious, like hot-stone bibimbap or a refreshing red bean ice piled high with fruit and mochi pieces.
11. All done? Before I leave, I usually take one last spin in the pools and hot tubs, then reluctantly get dressed. Spa World provides shampoo and conditioner, blow dryers, and moisturizer, all at no charge. At the desk I hand over my key, pay my balance (bubble tea, lunch, and face mask!) and retrieve my shoes from the smaller locker.
12. In any twelve-step program, the twelfth step is to spread the message. Armed with your newfound knowledge of the heavenly delights of the Korean spa, go out into the world and enlighten others. And keep coming back!